WHEN INDY-BASED travel journalist Brandon Presser arrived on Pitcairn Island in 2018, the subtropical humidity warped his notebook within minutes of arrival. Nevertheless, he came away with an experience worthy of his first literary work to add to a crowded bookshelf of bylines, including some 40 Lonely Planet guidebooks and countless magazine articles.
The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania and Mutiny in the South Pacific is about the infamous Pitcairn Island, where the Mutiny on the Bounty saga wound up some 200 years ago. It came out earlier this month—with a big, juicy endorsement from Tom Hanks on the back cover.
A Harvard grad who has hosted a travel show on Bravo, Presser is a sought-after travel writer with an agent at Creative Artists Agency and more than 130 passport stamps. He specializes in emerging travel destinations and adventure, the kind of trips that involve paddling a dugout canoe across a fjord to meet his host in Papua New Guinea, or spending a month in the “Stan” countries of Asia. He received an exclusive invitation to Pitcairn four years ago, inspiring The Far Land. A contact of Presser’s put an advanced copy of the book in Hanks’s hands.
Presser didn’t find out until that person passed along a message from America’s Dad himself: He loved the book and wanted to help promote it. Hanks isn’t on social media, so he offered a jacket blurb, saying the story “swells with the cause and effect of actions of passion … You can’t make this stuff up!”
In his personal message to Presser, Hanks compared the book to a delicious cake in the refrigerator that beckons throughout the night.
(By now you’re dying to know why Presser lives in Indianapolis. Not about the many parts unknown he has visited, but this place. Sure, OK. He landed here for love. Back to the story.)
The Far Land is part Presser’s travelogue and part nonfiction that adds to the legend of the Bounty. Refresher: In the late 1700s, Lieutenant William Bligh was kicked off the HMS Bounty in Tahiti by a handful of mutineers, who then hid on Pitcairn Island for 20 years before being found. A lot of crazy stuff had gone down on Pitcairn in that time, inspiring many books and films, most famously the 1962 movie starring Marlon Brando.
That’s as much as most people know. But for the world’s thirstiest travelers, those who venture past the edges of civilization, Pitcairn Island has lived on as a Holy Grail. It’s nearly impossible to reach—there’s no airport, and getting there requires a three-day journey on a 1960s cargo ship from the nearest port of call. The island is the size of Central Park, and the population is 48, all descendants of the original mutineers. It is undeveloped and wild, the spiders are huge, and the jungle is eating what little infrastructure there is.
As wonderful as it sounds, Pitcairn needs some help attracting tourists. Home stays are popular among travelers now, and lucrative, and that’s what Pitcairn can offer—an authentic cultural experience in one of the world’s most unusual places, plus some excellent scuba diving. Presser got the only media invitation to come check it out.
He stayed with the two frenemy clans that inhabit the island, the seventh generation of the original mutineers, and discovered “a wicked world rich in present-day and historical characters.” Despite the tiny population, the island is engulfed in mystery and scandal. In Hanks’s words, “the relentless consequences of the Bounty mutineers” persist today. Presser’s agent talked him into writing a book. The New York Times would call it “a bizarre mashup of an 18th-century adventure novel and the darkest episode of Law & Order.” (Presser also wrote an article for Travel & Leisure titled “That Time I Had Dinner With an Entire Country.”)
The Far Land adds chapters long missing from the famous saga of the Bounty—including the women’s point of view. Of the original settlers, the men were English and the women were Tahitian. The men wrote their stories down, providing a record for future historians, but per Tahitian tradition, the women’s lives survived only though oral history. So Presser hit the road to visit Pitcairn descendants—many live in Australia—and hear those stories and bring them to life for the first time, as well as look at captains’ logs to flesh out the historical part of the story with new, rich detail.
The book unfolds like a thriller while alternating between 18th- and 21st-century timelines, providing a fuller understanding of the secretive settlement and equally disturbing modern life. It’s fast-paced—“I wrote it for an ADD brain like mine,” Presser says. “Every page counts. It’s like the TV thing, where every scene has to build into the story.” His telling brings forth the nuance missing from the traditional tale of the Bounty, which, as it turns out, is more Game of Thrones than Pirates of the Caribbean.
Indianapolis is ordinary by comparison—and that’s one thing Presser likes about it. He wants a real home, not the anonymity of a big city. He didn’t grow up in one, and though he has lived in Paris, Tokyo, and New York, he’s not a city guy.
“I love that I run into someone I know at the grocery store or walking down the street,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking for when I’m not on the road. When I’m working, I’m awake at 6 a.m. and back to my hotel at midnight. I need a place to refuel. And I think Indy is a city geared toward its locals. It’s like America’s biggest inexpensive city. I have the walkability I love, and I’m 15 minutes from anything I need. It’s all catering to me.”
The location doesn’t hamper Presser’s globetrotting. He can fly to one of several hubs within an hour and change.
And when it comes to exploring his backyard, it’s much easier here, he says, than somewhere like the northeast, where traffic makes roadtripping a headache. Here, he likes Bloomington and the cities just across state lines for an easy weekend getaway. As an art history major, he is impressed with Columbus, which he has written about. His favorite thing about Indy is the variety of historic homes still standing.
Someone should tell him about the Greensburg courthouse, the one with a tree growing through the roof. It might remind him of Pitcairn.
Indy Reads will host Presser for a reading and signing of The Far Land on April 9 at 12:30 p.m.