Cook Islands: A drop in the ocean
Blue water meets bluer sky on South Seas outpost the Cook Islands, where one traveller achieved total disconnection from the outside world.
“Not connected.” Two words to send a chill through so many device-dependent millennials, Gen X and Y types – and all the rest of us so happily entangled in the world wide web.
But look on the bright side. If you’re going to be suddenly disconnected, where better than on an island paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
On the morning we touch down in Rarotonga, capital and largest of the 15 Cook Islands, a fire engulfs the nation’s core mobile phone exchange at Aroa. What equipment is left untouched by the flames is fried by the firefighters’ water. There is no back-up.
A reefcrest parrotfish.
Suddenly there is no mobile service and next to no landline coverage on the two main islands. Satellite connectivity and international calling facilities disappear, wifi goes dead, there is no internet. And at restaurants, hotels and other businesses, credit card and eftpos facilities are unresponsive. Hand-printed signs go up everywhere: “Cash only”.
But do we care? Why would we?
To set foot on the Cooks is to step back to a kinder, gentler, unhurried world of island tourism. The main road that circles Rarotonga runs for just 32 kilometres with a laid-back top speed of 50kmh, though in “built-up” stretches you’re restricted to 40 or 30kmh.
To set foot on the Cooks is to step back to a kinder, gentler, unhurried world.
In no bigger hurry, lean, lazy dogs and scrawny chooks amble across the bitumen or flop on the verges. There are no traffic lights and it seems half the locals, in their little cars or motorbikes, take the time to smile or wave as they pass.
That’s likely because we are with one of the islands’ official Kia Orana Ambassadors, Aunty Lydia Nga, who wears a perpetual grin as bright as the floral ’ei katu circlet of gardenias on her head and greets almost everyone with a call of “Kia orana, daaarling!”
Palms meet sand and sea.
Basically, in Cook Islands Maori, that means hello. But on a deeper level kia orana is a wish that you have a long, happy life. And disconnected from the hurly burly of modern life, it’s easy to imagine having one out here in the Big Blue.
The Cook Islands – a self-governing nation tied to New Zealand through what is known as a free association agreement – encompasses more than two million square kilometres of the Pacific. But its 15 small atolls and islands have a total land area comparable to a medium-sized city – the other 99.9 per cent is ocean.
At Muri, the main tourist hub on Raro’s south-east corner, people criss-cross the lagoon on kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, kite-surfers, small yachts or wearing snorkels and propelled by flippers. The more adventurous scuba-dive or swim with turtles outside the reef.
The singing, in Maori, is – there’s no other word for it – heavenly.
We, though, slip into the eternity pool at our luxurious Te Vakaroa Villas to the sound of drumming, ukuleles and singing from next door. Another party-hardy group is heading out with our neighbours, the comical crew from Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruizes. Lunch is local Matutu lager and a fried, fresh-caught mahi mahi fish sandwich the size of a shovel blade, at Charlie’s Cafe.
At night there are clubs, bars and restaurants or the buffet dinner and show at Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, where musicians and dancers tell a beautiful folklore story, ‘The Legend of Tongaiti’, by torchlight on floating stages in a water garden, lovingly repurposed from a taro swamp.
For the audience there’s an added frisson of excitement during the show as mobile coverage momentarily flickers to life before fading to black again. And that’s fine by us.
A little way up the road from our villa are two iconic spots in Cook Islands history and culture. At Avana, at the top of Muri Lagoon, is the site from where, in 1350AD, Maori legend has it that seven vaka – ocean-going double-hulled canoes – began the migration that settled New Zealand. (Which is why Kiwis here are often greeted with “Welcome home”.)
Across the road is the Ngatangiia Cook Islands Christian Church. John Williams of the London Missionary Society arrived here in the 1820s to spread Christianity. Islanders took to the gospel with enthusiasm and most are still devout – though Williams was less successful on Vanuatu where, in 1839, he was killed and eaten by cannibals.
Even for the non-religious, the 10am service at a CICC church should not be missed. The singing, in Maori, is – there’s no other word for it – heavenly.
We hunker down and wait for rainless intervals to paddle kayaks inside the reef.
As the fervour rises, it takes on wonderful call-and-response patterns, mixed with the traditional island vocal style known as imene tuki, loosely translated as “singing with beat”. The women, most wearing gorgeous, intricately woven rito hats, take one part, in soprano, and are answered by the deep, rafter-shaking tenor and bass of their menfolk. At times teenage girls add a third element, in alto. It is spine-chillingly moving.
Another surprisingly immersive – and perhaps old-fashioned – experience is a progressive dinner where guests are bussed between three courses – and conversations – at different homes.
So at John and Nona Henry’s place we talk of the Cook Islanders diaspora – around 70,000 now live in New Zealand and Australia – and eat entrees of pawpaw salad, taro, kumara and arrowroot, and ika mata, the delicious and addictive lemon-cured raw tuna in coconut cream.
A costumed dancer.
Mahi mahi fresh from the ocean.
Te Vara Nui Cultural Village.
At Kafo Tuteru’s home, we eat chicken, banana poke, chop sui and native spinach while serenaded by her “houseboy”, husband Pae – actually a judge in the Rarotonga courts. And at Terai and Archer Moana’s, we learn of the countless uses of Nu, the coconut palm or “tree of life”, and as proof eat a sweet-as marshmallow baked pudding made with the spongy innards of an old, sprouted coconut.
In Cook Islands Maori, this has been ’aka’o’o, the showing of hospitality and friendship, and to receive it is a tourist’s rare privilege.
Another is to fly into hook-shaped Aitutaki, 220 kilometres to the north. Rightly considered one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world, with a necklace of small uninhabited islands inside its surrounding reef, it appears out of the deep blue ocean as a sparkling patch of turquoise. That is it would, if fat, unmoving clouds weren’t dumping rain.
What to do? We hunker down in our villa at Aitutaki Escape, wait for rainless intervals to paddle kayaks inside the reef, slip into our own small pool or head to Tupuna’s Restaurant for more ika mata.
And even in the intermittent downpours next day, a Vaka lagoon cruise, with a barbecue lunch on a Polynesian-style catamaran, music, swimming and snorkelling – where we’re greeted by Gina the giant trevally and her mates, torpedoing between us – is irresistible.