Undiscovered paradise The Cook Islands
Dotted about the South Pacific in an area the size of Western Europe, the 15 Cook Islands offer much more than tropical beaches and colourful sunset cocktails, as Cox & Kings’ Australasia & Pacific Product Manager Aaron Jennings discovered.
In December 2013, I visited the Cook Islands for the second time. The first time, back in 2010, I was there for less than 48 hours en route to New Zealand. During that visit I made a brief foray to the beautiful lagoon island of Aitutaki but the only thing I really discovered was that more days were needed to even scratch the surface of these extraordinary islands.
On my second visit, I travelled with the Cook Islands Tourist Board and was lucky enough to stay for 5 days. This time I got to see more of the gateway island of Rarotonga, as well as making day trips to the equally beautiful but very different islands of Atiu (pronounced ‘achoo’) and Mangaia, and discovering a day is not long enough anywhere in the Cook Islands.
The youngest and largest island in the archipelago, Rarotonga is dominated by a once almighty volcanic pyramid, now worn down by time to sawtooth peaks and razorback ridges covered in lush green vegetation.
Rarotonga may be the largest of the islands but it still only takes 45 minutes to drive all the way around the 32km coast road back to your starting point and, with only 2 main roads on the island, getting lost is impossible and hiring a car is highly recommended for exploring.
During my time here I met up with Pa, a dreadlocked island guide, herbalist, local celebrity and star of an illustrated children’s book, who offers guided walks into and across the rugged interior of the island. During our walk, Pa stopped from time to time to explain the importance and uses of the plants along the pathway and how they were traditionally used to cure various ailments. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to join Pa for the full-cross island walk, but if I ever make it back to the islands it’ll be at the top of my to-do list.
On my last evening on Rarotonga before catching the midnight flight back towards London, I visited Te Vara Nui cultural village for an evening over-water cultural show of dance and storytelling. Admittedly I was a little sceptical, having seen rather cheesy ‘cultural shows’ in other destinations before, but they put on an enthralling performance, matched with an excellent buffet dinner.
Normally day trips to Atiu are not available, so I flew on specially chartered flights for a chance to experience some of the island within my limited timeframe. After flying 45 minutes across the empty Pacific with Air Rarotonga in their 15-seater Embraer Bandeirante light aircraft, the island came into view and it was immediately obvious that this was a very different destination to Rarotonga or Aitutaki. Surrounded by a tropical reef, shallow lagoon and raised coral limestone cliffs, even from the air it was evident this was not a beach destination.
More than 8 million years old, Atiu is the third largest island in the Cook Islands. The population of 500 live pretty much the same way they did 25 years ago, which means visitors can get a fascinating genuine insight into island living. It is estimated that the Polynesians arrived to the island around 1500BC at which time it was only inhabited by birds and insects. As a result of the isolation, the island’s birds flourished in the forests with 11 native species, the rarest of which is the endemic kopeka. Found nowhere else in the world except in just one of the island’s limestone caves, the kopeka is a tiny swiftlet that navigates its flight in the pitch black cave using bat-like sonar power.
During my day on the island I joined local specialist and guide Marshal, a British ex-pat with an Atiuan wife, for a trek through the rock strewn jungle and into the cave to search for the kopeka. At the mouth of the cave we saw the tiny birds flying out into the bright daylight in search of food, tweeting as they flew. Before venturing into the cave Marshal explained that the birds only tweeted outside of the caves, but as soon as they flew in their sonar kicked-in and the tweets were replaced with rapid clicks. He also told us that extraordinarily, nobody had ever seen a kopeka land outside of the cave. This is possibly, he reasoned, because of their wing structure, which experts think may not be suited to taking flight from the ground, but is perfectly tailored for dropping from their nests on the cave ceiling straight into flight.
Armed with headlamps, we then moved into the cave, listening to the birds returning to their nests, replacing tweets with clicks and eyesight with sonar. Deeper into the cave we turned off our lamps and were thrown into absolute darkness, yet still the rapid clicks rang overhead. Shining a torch on the jagged limestone coral roof, we could see the birds flying in and out of their tiny nests in the ceiling. Deeper into the cave and there were even more birds. One flash of the torch on the wall revealed a large red claw crab, which Marshall explained was a kopeka predator.
Out of the cave we then travelled into the island’s interior, where the villages are situated, to Atiu Villas, the main accommodation on the island. A comfortable 3-star property, Atiu Villas is the best on the island, and what it lacks in luxury touches, it makes up for in the friendliness and service of its staff.
After an incredible platter of island cuisine and a brilliant show of traditional Polynesian music and dance at Atiu Villas, I explored more of the island, including a brief stop at one of the island’s six tumunus. The Cook Islands’ closest thing to a pub, the tumunus are small wooden shacks and the only drink on offer is traditional bush beer, an alcoholic beverage made from oranges, which was outlawed and forced into secrecy during the strict days of the missionaries. Inside the tumunus, there is little resemblance to a pub though, patrons sit around the outside and are periodically served a coconut shell cup of bush beer by the barman before the forum for discussing the village and island matters is opened. I didn’t have long to experience the tumunus, but whether you wish to drink the local brew or not, it’s clearly a good place to go for visitors wanting to meet local people on a personal basis and listen to their stories, traditional songs and music.
Another chartered flight and another day trip to an island. This time it was Mangaia, the oldest island in the Pacific and the most southerly of the Cook Islands. At this point I’d experienced the lagoon-based paradise of Aitutaki, the green peaks and white sands of Rarotonga and the rugged jungle of Atiu, and I was wondering what else this island could possibly have to offer.
The answer was evident as we stepped off the plane only to be greeted by a traditional warrior, along with the island’s mayor and several tourism students, who were to act as our tour guides for the day.
The first stop was the 4-star luxury Mangaia Villas, a stunning self-catering property of standalone villas overlooking the Pacific Ocean with private access down steps to the beach. If the idea of self-catering doesn't appeal, then it’s really not an issue – despite the island lacking a single restaurant or café, catering can easily be arranged and the island cuisine is fantastic and plentiful.
From the villas we then travelled into one of the local villages before continuing into the rugged interior, travelling through a man-made gorge carved into the rocky limestone landscape by explosives to allow ease of access between the island’s villages and plantations. As we drove around we stopped to visit the island’s oldest church, a white-walled relic of the missionary days, before climbing to a breathtaking lookout across the island for lunch. Later, we ventured into the mouth of one of the island’s biggest caves, which we were told would take around 8 hours of exploring to reach the end.
As the day continued it became apparent that exploring the island of Mangaia was like going even further back in time from my trip to 8-million-year-old Atiu the day before. Without a single sealed road, the island features amazing mountainous landscapes rising more than 15,000 feet from sea level, as well as swamps, unexplored jungles and a massive and intricate maze of caves. There were similarities to the other islands: like Atiu, for example, it has caves, a coral limestone landscape of rock and jungle, and extremely rare endemic birds such as the Mangaian kingfisher, which oddly for a kingfisher never eats fish but preys on insects and lizards instead. The locals practise unique island-specific traditions and a legacy from the colonial days means islanders do not recognise the jurisdiction of the Cook Islands’ land court, and continue to consider the island an independent and ‘British’ entity.
Of all the islands I visited, it was Mangaia that sees the fewest number of tourists, at only 10 a month on average, and has the fewest visits from travel writers, at one every three years on average. And it was also on Mangaia where I really wished for more time to explore the incredibly beautiful and rugged land, to learn more about the island’s unique cultures, and to taste more of the delicious home-cooked food of the friendly and welcoming locals.
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