Cook Islands: paddling the traditional way

By Pat Kinsella 11 November 2014
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Diving and canoeing are the obvious attractions of the Pacific’s Cook Islands. But delve a little deeper and you’ll also find subterranean wonders, such as stalactites and skeletons.

HAVING BEEN LUCKY enough to wash up on a remote scattering of idyllic tropical islands with beautiful beaches and turquoise, reef-protected lagoons, I didn’t think I’d be spending most of my time scrambling around in dark caves with dead people. But then I never really knew what to expect from the Cook Islands – that’s what made them so appealing.

Before arriving, I’d entertained grand plans of kayaking around at least one of the Cooks. Unsurprisingly, given their location as punctuation marks in the vast Pacific Ocean, these islands are steeped in paddling tradition; canoes were everything to the Cook Islanders.

They fished from them and travelled between islands in them, occasionally going war with each other and taking wives to ensure the gene pool stayed healthy.

Circa 1315, seven vaka (canoes) set out from Rarotonga, the main island of the group of 15, and travelled to Aotearoa (“the land of the long white cloud”), where they populated the country we now know as New Zealand.

The Cook Island Maori word for aeroplane roughly translates as “canoe that flies”, an expression that originated from a time before runways, when visitors used to arrive by floatplane.

That era has long gone, sadly, but a flight to the Cooks retains a romantic feel, even if you’re not among the honeymooning couples heading to the love shacks on the Aitutaki lagoon, where a maudlin Paul Theroux once kayaked around while researching his Pacific paddling odyssey The Happy Isles Of Oceania.

Poor Paul was anything but happy, his wife having recently left him, but perhaps he should have set his sights on somewhere less lovey-dovey. Maybe he should have forgone Aitutaki and instead explored the outer islands of Atiu or Mangaia, the latter being so unhoneymooney it has a cave called the Hidden Vagina right next to the airport. That’s where I was heading. In search of adventure, I might add, not the Hidden… anyway, more of that later.

“They’re all window seats, sir.” The lady behind the Air Rarotonga desk grins at me as though I’m an idiot. She might be right, too. In a panic about missing the view during my inter-island flight to Atiu, I’ve failed to notice that our plane is about as wide as my car. Of course I’ll have a window seat.

Relaxing in the Cook Islands

The Cooks is a pretty relaxed place, and as we fly the pilot kicks back and reads The Cook Island News. I know this because the door to the cockpit is open, which means I have a great view of the approaching storm cloud as we fly right into it and get bounced around like popcorn in a pot. It must be serious – the pilot even puts down his paper and starts holding onto the controls at one point.

But the cloud lets us go, a seed in the ocean grows into an island as I watch it, and suddenly we’re landing on an unsealed runway on an island that sounds like a sneeze. Atiu (bless it) is the third-largest and the third-most-visited island of the group, after Rarotonga and Aitutaki. As our pilot walks down the grass runway and stamps down a divot we kicked up on landing, I meet my host, Roger.

Atiu, he tells me, is also known as Enuamanu, which means “land of the birds”. I’m not much of twitcher, but there is one bird here I’m itching to see and, after dropping my bags off at Roger’s cabins, one of his neighbours takes me on a hike to the cave where it lives. Marshall Humphreys, a displaced Englishman who swapped hotel management for a new life as a tropical tour guide and B&B owner, is an interesting character.

En route to the bird cave he tells me that he used to know the Monty Python crowd, and later I hear a rumour citing him as the inspiration for Basil Fawlty. I’m not sure about that, but what I do know is he’s married to the daughter of Tom Neale, itinerant author of the rip-roaring autobiographical adventure yarn An Island to Oneself.

It is thanks to his in-laws that Marshall can conduct these tours, because only members of the family who owns the land are permitted to take people into Cook Island caves. Much of Atiu’s terrain is makatea, an unforgiving surface that was once a coral reef before volcanic eruptions on Rarotonga, 187 kilometres away, pushed the island further out of the sea. After an hour of stumbling over this stuff, Marshall stops and cups his ear.

“Hear that?” he says. I’m waiting for a Pythonesque fart joke here, but he is actually talking about the cries of the kopeka. Every time I see something living on the Cooks, I struggle to comprehend how the original member of its species crossed all those unfathomable ocean miles to get here and how it managed to adapt once it had landed.

But the kopeka takes out the Darwin award for innovation. Entirely unique – not just to this island, but exclusively to this very cave – the little bird has developed quite a party trick. Out in the open, it tweets like a normal bird. As it approaches the cave, however, it does three laps to allow its eyes to adjust to the dimming light and then, plunging into the darkness of the limestone cavern, it switches to a clicking noise and uses echolocation to navigate.

It’s hard to believe that something with a head the size of a plum tomato and a gene pool limited to one hole in the ground can have developed a sophisticated and ingenious system. But I’m looking at it. And listening to it. The darker the cave gets, the more technical the terrain gets, the faster the kopeka’s clicks become.

Even shining a torch on one as it flies past produces a noticeable slowing in the click rate. Only one other species of bird in the world does anything like this, the Venezuelan oilbird.

“And they’re bloody ugly-looking buggers,” says Marshall, proudly.

Exploring the caves of the Cook Islands

If you’re not into sound-shifting swiftlets, Marshall also offers a hiking tour of the darkest corners of a nearby burial cave. No one truly knows where the skeletons in this cave came from, but judging from the holes in some of their skulls, they didn’t die of old age or boredom.

Atiu is impressive, but nowhere on the Cooks does the whole bones-in-caves thing quite like my next destination, Mangaia. Until recently, only a couple of people a month ever visited this island and Taoi Nooroa, the part-time tourism officer who greets us, had an annual marketing budget of $86. These days Mangaia might see as many as two people a week, but the island’s mayor still comes to meet us at the airport and the local policeman deems our visit important enough to take the next day off to show us how good the fishing is.

First though, we have an appointment with a guy called Maui Perau who, when he’s not driving the local school bus, takes people into the depths of a burial cave on his family’s land. Maui has a crazy grin and a mischievous glint in his eye from the minute we meet him. His tour has a unique twist, in that he offers you the very real chance to become one of the dead bodies that reside in the cave. This is a point-to-point underground expedition through the very crust of the makatea that’s not for the faint of heart.

First comes an introduction to Maui’s ancestors at the mouth of the cave – “Hello bro!” he shouts, grabbing a skull and patting the top of its cranium. “Haven’t seen you for a while!” Back on Atiu, Marshall had stressed the importance of treating the human remains with extreme respect. He’d related cautionary tales of a terrible curse that afflicted people who’d messed around with the bones, so Maui’s comical routine alarms me a bit. Still, they’re his family.

As we begin the journey, which involves several hours of squeezing and climbing through twisted tunnels, past shimmering wet walls and armies of stalactite sentries, I start to dwell on Marshall’s words. In a world increasingly ruled by nannies, Maui’s approach to health and safety is impressively hands-off, and there are plenty of opportunities for curse-induced calamity here.

My luck holds, though, right until the very end when, as I climb up a 10-metre banyan root back into daylight, my camera tumbles down into the jaws of the cave and explodes. It’s one of the best, most exciting and maddest tours I’ve ever done, but maybe the cave doesn’t want word to get out.

That evening, I’m taken on yet another cave tour by Clarke Mautairi, a local mechanic and heir to the chiefdom of his clan. He hasn’t brought anyone else here for months. The terrain is more forgiving, but the cave is one of the most impressive I’ve seen – partly because, as far as anyone knows, it’s infinite.

Last year, Clarke and an American cave specialist walked into this cave in one direction for four hours – only turning around when their torches began to die.  At the furthest point, he says, “the air was thin and the water dripping from the ceiling was salty, from the ocean”. To this day, no one has been right to the end. “Maybe it doesn’t end,” says Clarke.

Perhaps, but unfortunately my time on this fascinating island does: I fly back to Rarotonga the next day. At the airport, Taoi Nooroa and our driver go searching for something that they talk about in hushed Maori and then start to giggle. After much encouragement they divulge what they’re looking for – the entrance to a small cave with a Maori name meaning “hidden vagina”.

The plane arrives and it remains hidden. Perhaps it’s for the best – given my history of losing cameras to caves, explaining any gear loss in this one would make an interesting insurance letter.

Overlooking the ocean by Rarotonga’s harbour, Trader Jacks is the kind of joint where many things can be arranged over a beer as the sun goes down. Here, I talk paddling with my travel buddy Craig, whose dad lives on the island, right at the point where the seven vaka left on that voyage some 700 years ago. It transpires that Craig’s brother has a couple of kayaks.

Paddling the traditional way in the Cook Islands

Watching the locals paddle past in their sleek outrigger canoes, I feel buoyant and decide to float the idea of a circumnavigation of Raro by kayak. Craig’s dad laughs, then tells me a yarn about a local legend, Pa, who once swam around the island. Surely if this guy can swim it, we can paddle it?

I never get to meet Pa, a character who has achieved a level of fame among visitors by pioneering a cross-island hike that he leads several times a week. He isn’t running his tour the day I have free, though, so Craig and I set off to walk it independently, heartened by the bike-shop guy’s assurances that we “can’t go wrong”.

A couple of hours later, with the sun dipping towards the ocean and precipitous drops yawning either side of an increasingly indistinct path, we realise that we’ve risen to the challenge and gone very wrong.

Retracing our steps, we locate the real track. Craig’s had enough and bails back to the bikes, but I’m keen to get to the top of this island and check out the Needle rock formation that sticks out from the roof of the forest. It’s a rough enough trail, with plenty of climbing, but my hike turns into a trail run as evening approaches.

The route is pretty clear, but I don’t have a torch and would rather not spend the night alone in the jungle. With less than an hour before sunset, I pull myself up the Needle’s stony flanks using the ropes and chains set there to assist climbers. How safe these ropes are I’m not sure, but I’ve come this far and I’m going to look at the damn view, no matter what.

It doesn’t disappoint, and all I’m lacking is company. Right on cue, a rooster appears next to me. What he’s doing here is anyone’s guess, but we enjoy the vista together for a few minutes, before I bid him adieu and run down the other side of the volcano, reaching the car park just before dark.

Any thoughts of paddling around Raro are confounded the next morning when I set eyes on our kayaks. I’d been encouraged on the deck of Trader Jacks by the sight of locals paddling outrigger canoes, but the heavy plastic barges we haul from Craig’s brother’s garden are only really suitable for larking about in the lagoon on.

No matter – the lagoon looks idyllic, and there’s plenty to explore. However, perhaps having absorbed some bravado by osmosis when we carried the kayaks past the memorial to the seven canoes that sailed to NZ from this very spot, we decide to have a look outside the reef.

Paddling through the narrow gap in the coral, we leave the placid water behind and take on a few breakers. Raro has earned a rep among surfers, but they like to keep it quiet. It’s not a place for the meek, with waves that have rolled across thousands of kilometres of Pacific Ocean arriving amped up and capable of throwing unsuspecting surfers (or paddlers) onto the jagged reef.

Diving in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

It doesn’t have the subterranean catacombs of its sister islands, but Raro does have several dive operators who offer a glimpse of another side of the islands’ underbelly. With its calm lagoon, Raro is one of the very few places you can do your entire Open Water diving course in the ocean.

Scuba diving off the Cooks is like slow-motion BASE-jumping. About 300 metres off the beach, just beyond the reef, the continental drop-off plunges down to a depth of about three kilometres. Five minutes into our first dive, we spot a 2.5-metre reef shark. But as good as the wildlife is, it’s the drop-off that pulls at me.

Hovering over the edge is dangerously mesmerising and after achieving neutral buoyancy I find myself floating between abject terror and fearless infatuation. I can’t stop staring into the abyss and the dive master has to swim around me a few times to remind me not to go too far – it’s not so much what lies beneath, it’s the fact that you can blow your depth limit when you start sliding down the wall.

Our last dive is right by the harbour, which is the scene of frenetic activity after the arrival of a cruise ship. Down below, however, all is peaceful. Until my wedding ring slips off. I have already left behind a pregnant wife to deal with a five-year-old and morning sickness so I can visit a place that names geological features after secret lady bits and is famed for dancing so sensual it land-wrecked many a sailor of old – so returning home sans wedding ring won’t be a good idea.

Besides, I don’t want to have to explain to my mates that I lost my ring in the Harbour Master’s Crack, as this dive site is colloquially known. Fortunately, however, I catch the ring before it disappears into the depths and narrowly avoid having to stay here forever. At least, I think fortunately is the word I’m looking for.