Island overview

 

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Cook Islands

 


 

In the Cook Islands, David Whitley prepares for the burn in the thighs, and takes on Rarotonga’s cross-island trek.

 

There are few things more humiliating than panting your way up a heart-attack inducing mountain, only to be passed by a bare-footed man in his late sixties. But that’s Pa for you. A local legend on Rarotonga, he has been leading cross-island treks for decades and absolutely nothing seems to faze him. Except, perhaps, the Dutch.

 

 

Learning that one of our group has come from the Netherlands, Pa ponders and twirls his ridiculously wild white dreadlocks. “Many times I carry people from Holland,�? he says with a little grin. “You alright with mountains?�?

 

Pa is endearingly eccentric/ raving mad (depending on quite how you take to his frequent proclamations on the joys of organic food and the perils of just about everything else). If things get too tough, he’ll tell the struggling party to have a mini-sleep on the trail, apparently in all seriousness. He also encourages people to do the half day trek spiritually, not physically, as that’s the way to not get hurt.

 

Following a traditional Polynesian prayer, we march from the clearing at the foot of the rainforest, and then look up. And up. And up. Make no mistake about it, this may be a relatively short trek, but it’s not a leisurely stroll. The paths are narrow, snake through thick canopies and can be treacherous if there has been recent rain. But the most intimidating thing is the way that you’ll get to what seems like the top of the track, then turn a corner to discover the next one reaches for the sky at an even steeper gradient.

 

While the rest of us are wheezing and taking frequent breaks to sit on rocks and logs, Pa presses on at a steady pace, seemingly impervious. There’s no-one in the world that knows Rarotonga as well as him, and he attempts to alleviate everyone else’s hard work by telling stories. He tells of people that he’s led up the mountain – including a 93-year-old English woman and Hollywood star Liv Tyler. “She sent me a big photo for the living room, but my wife made me take it down.�?

 

He also tells stories of the island, many of which should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certain flowers contain certain spirits, trees are over 4,000 years old and seemingly everyone is related to the original islanders that disappeared and found New Zealand. The hard slog is worth it at the top, though. A large (and dangerous to climb) rock called The Needle sticks out, while it’s possible to look out on the whole island. The green-to-yellow-to-blue of the jungle, beaches and ocean is quite remarkable.

 

The way down is much easier, and it’s possible to take in much more of the scenery without worrying about cardiac arrest. There are phenomenal giant ferns, coconut trees and flowers that can be found hardly anywhere else on earth. Pa, of course, has a story for each of them, and plenty more besides when we all sit down by the stream for lunch.

 

It’s all gorgeous fresh fruit and intensely juicy tuna sandwiches, and at this point Pa reveals his second career as an alternative medicine practitioner. He claims to have a cure for dengue fever, has invented his own mosquito repellent (organic, naturally) and advises people to avoid eating tomatoes, as they can lead to a build-up of crystals in the body. It’s hard to know what to take seriously, but it’s all tremendously entertaining.

 

When we finally get down, it’s time for a dip. After all that walking in the heat, the perfect antidote is a kayak, a snorkel and the Muri Lagoon. Enclosed by four little islets, the lagoon is a little spot of South Seas heaven. The kayaks and snorkels can be hired from the shore, and from then on, a perfect afternoon can be had with minimal paddling and the odd face-down float amongst the coral and the sea cucumbers. And it’s certainly easier going than following up a barefooted pensioner up a murderous hill...

  

Trader Jack's

 

 

David Whitley finds that it’s the rain, not the sun, that sets the slow pace of life in the Cook Islands.

They never tell you about the rain. It’s all about the beaches, the lagoons and the coconut palms. But the rain is the secret part of the package that makes the tropical islands of the South Pacific so green. And it’s not the feeble drizzly rain that we grumble about in Britain. It’s proper rain, the sky’s powerful toilet flush, that comes down in walls and turns streets into streams within seconds.


From under the corrugated iron roof of Trader Jack’s on Avarua’s waterfront, the cacophony sounds like a thousand drum kits being simultaneously thrashed and trashed. To venture outside is to be sucked into the squall. To be out on the water is somewhere on the extreme bravery/ stupidity axis. Bravo, therefore, to the girls we’re watching on the TV screen.

Every November, Trader Jack’s becomes the hub for the Vaka Eiva festival. It’s when outrigger canoe junkies from all over the world get together for a series of races. It’s partly serious, partly piss-up. Once the racing is done, the beer is attacked with a frenzied relish more closely associated with starving bears in a butcher’s shop.

When they get in, the girls will deserve a drink. The downpour has struck just after the start, and they’ve got to battle through the most atrocious conditions to get to the finish line. On the TV screens, we watch the safety boats head out towards the plucky paddlers in case the canoes turn into sinking bathtubs under the deluge.

In a funny way, you properly get to understand island outposts such as Rarotonga when it’s like this. The pace of life is slow – often excruciatingly so – and that’s often attributed to the heat. But it’s not the sweating under the sun’s glare that slows things down. It’s the realisation that a day or two can effectively spent underwater. If it’s tipping down, you’re only going to walk from A to B in the direst emergency. It’s easier just to take shelter and wait. We’re on island time, after all.

Places like Trader Jack’s give an essential insight into island life too. Virtually every small island nation has one – a bar/ restaurant in the capital where far more gets done than in the Parliament building. It’s where you’re equally likely to bump into a taxi driver, tourist or high-ranking government official. Gentlemen’s agreements are made, expats cling to it as a surrogate of the real world. 

It’s run by a retired harbourmaster from New Zealand, and has been knocked down by cyclones on four occasions. Hence the current incarnation is made of wood and corrugated iron, and valuables can be taken off-site in a hurry.

Ask why he keeps rebuilding it, and Jack will just say: “Because I’m bloody MAD.” His eyes will bulge, and then he’ll go back to his drink.


He’s in good company too. While a dog splashes in the water by the boat ramp, proving singularly unhelpful to anyone trying to get their canoe out of the water, the crowd is getting louder. One particularly rotund chap makes a pudgily flamboyant entrance, and the cry of “Athlete! Athlete!” goes up.  

We watch the screens as the ladies battle their way home. The local girl is getting the most raucous support, although she’s lagging behind. The rain still pours. It’s just the way it is here. It may downchuck for another day, but life goes on. Just slowly.

 

Cooks fishing

 

 

David Whitley forgoes the soft option of cruising on Aitutaki’s lagoon, and heads out to the reef for a spot of properly-armed fishing.

 

Mike takes one look at the afternoon’s current forlorn haul, and turns towards the cabin. “If the fish aren’t going to come to us,” he says with a maniacal grin. “We’re just going to have to go to them.” He emerges with weapons that are far more fearsome-looking than a rod, line and bait. In fact, they look precisely like what Bond villain henchmen would use to chase 007 around with in a lavish underwater sequence.

 

Mike, a big, burly New Zealander whose entire being screams “ex-military”, throws me a snorkel and masks, and then gives instructions on how to operate the spear gun. “Pull the trigger to fire it, try and keep it away from the reef. Oh yeah, and don’t point it at me.” The reef in question fringes the island of Aitutaki, which is as close to the romantic vision of a Pacific Island paradise as you could ever wish to find. Channel 4’s reality series Shipwrecked was filmed here, and it is absolutely dominated by a giant blue lagoon. It is the sort of place that even the greatest photographer can’t quite do justice, and invites hours and hours of clichés about stunning turquoise waters.

 

However, while most of Aitutaki’s cruises involve a day on the lagoon, snorkelling around in the shallows and pulling up on tiny islets for lunch, we’re doing Black Pearl Fishing Cruises’ hardcore version. Mike usually takes novices out on the lagoon when they want to play with the spear guns, but I’m being thrown in (quite literally) at the deep end.

 

After splashing down into the maze of coral, it’s time to go hunting. Mike goes first, in order to demonstrate just how easy it is. He takes a deep breath and then plunges towards the reef. Ominously gliding across a flat section of coral, he identifies his target and follows it for a good thirty seconds with a nerveless hunter’s prowl. And then, WHAM! The spear flies out, smack back into the middle of a big, ugly wrasse.

 

He surfaces with the flapping sea monster in his hands, carefully shepherding it back to the boat. That’ll be dinner later, but before then, I’ve got to catch something myself. He re-loads the gun and hands it to me. Fighting off haunting visions of manslaughter through sheer ineptitude, I start looking amongst the swirling shoals for a suitable target. There’s one huge difference with spear fishing as opposed to the more conventional method – the bigger fish are easier to get than the little ones, as they represent a bigger target.

 

With one snapper looking rather tasty, I decide to try and emulate Mike’s approach. About 20 seconds later, it has escaped, and I’m scrambling to the surface to spit the salt water out of the snorkel. It’s hard to hit moving targets when you’re trying not to drown. Try again. Struggling down towards a deep, narrow channel, fish scarper at all angles. But one big boy is just dawdling along, waiting for a spike to be shot through it. Splashing breathlessly above it, I aim, fire and the spear flies like a lightning bolt. Unfortunately it misses the fish by a considerable distance and flies straight into the reef. Oops.

 

Mike, possibly holding in some severe tutting, dives down to wrench it out. Then, in an act of cruel revenge, he hands it back for reloading. It soon becomes apparent that this is way tougher than using it in the first place. Near superhuman strength is required to pull the spear and firing mechanism back in line – especially when you’re still flailing about in the water.

 

After the reef gets impaled a couple more times - and an unfortunate wrasse gets ‘winged’ by its bumbling, drowning predator - it’s time to watch the master in action. Floating in the sea, watching the hunt is thoroughly addictive – top drawer snorkelling with added entertainment. And predictably enough, Mike gets a big enough haul in about an hour to feed half the island.

 

Canoe carvers

 

David Whitley meets the men trying to keep an ancient culture alive in the Cook Islands

 

The country’s main ceremonial building looks rather like a cross between a school assembly hall and a small capacity basketball stadium, but we’re all invited in. A group sits cross-legged on the floor with sashes draped across them, while the rest of us perch on chairs to watch. After the pastor finishes his chanting (and, boy, does he like chanting), the chap on the chair in front gets up. It turns out that he’s the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.

 

This is one of the joys of being on Rarotonga – it’s so small. The island has a population of approximately 9,000, it takes less than an hour to drive around and even a national festival has the feel of a tight knit community giving up the time and mucking in. The chaps with the sashes are all wood workers, some experienced pros and some apprentices, just beginning to learn the ropes. They all take a drink of kava from a wooden bowl. Then after the PM’s speech and more chanting from the pastor, Te Mire Tarai Vaka is officially underway.

 

For those not fully conversant in Cook Islands Maori, this is a festival that is designed to bring back the almost extinct craft of canoe carving on the islands. Over a period of two weeks, on the foreshore of Avarua Harbour, teams from ten of the fifteen islands will create a canoe – or vaka - from a big tree trunk. Each will be made according to the traditional style of the individual island. Sadly, on most of the islands, the traditional methods and designs have died out. The last Manihiki vaka went to a museum in New Zealand in 1906, while Penrhyn hasn’t made one for 150 years. The festival is about reviving them, and the smaller islands are being assisted by master-carvers from Rarotonga that still have the knowledge and techniques.

 

It’s difficult to overstate the importance the vaka to the Cook Islanders (and, indeed to the rest of Polynesia). It was what got them to the islands in the first place and for a very long time was the only mode of transport between the islands. It is also thought that it was a party from Rarotonga that took off (in their canoes, of course) and found New Zealand. The canoes were also a creative outlet, as Ngametua Papatua explains. Ngametua is a pastor on the Southern island of Mangaia, but learned to carve canoes when he was 20. He’s found himself designated as the island’s master carver.

 

“We want to keep the culture alive,” he says whilst working on the repe, or tailpiece. “There’s a big difference between the designs for each island. Everything has a different meaning. “People in the old days would see something they liked and carve it – pig’s teeth, shark’s teeth, a taro plant. And this,” he says, referring to the work in progress, “feels unique to Mangaia.” There’s also the difference in usage. Some islands have reefs and surf, some have gentle seas. Some have big natural harbours, others have narrow channels. What works for one could be disastrous in another.

 

At the harbour, the teams are sweating away in the sun, with the buzz of chainsaws creating an inescapable racket. It could easily be done in workshops, but there is a point to constructing the canoes in public – tourists can view the works in progress, while locals have their attention drawn to the ancient craft. Hopefully some will be inspired to take it up. It’s all being overseen by Mike Tavioni, who is an absolute giant of a man, coated liberally in sweat and sawdust. He’s Rarotonga’s master carver, and realistically the only man who possesses the knowledge to help some of the amateurs from the outer islands through the process.

 

He’s a little unhappy that some of the participants are more interested in island pride than education, however. “If they keep going at that pace, they’ll be finished two days into a two week festival,” he grunts in the direction of an ever-swelling team of enthusiasts. “It’s not a competition; not a race.”

 

He’s right. It’s neither. It’s an attempt to keep culture alive.

 

More photos here