Cannibal ancestors, unexplored caverns and the kindest people on earth: Rarotonga is the world’s best stopover

By Brian Schofield

As a widely accepted rule of thumb, if you can see a sparkling array of tropical fish through the bottom half of your snorkel mask and an open beach bar through the top, you’re having a good day.

Flapping around the surface of the Muri aquatic reserve, a loudly hailed drinks order away from the coast of Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, I certainly couldn’t improve on my first impressions of this tiny Polynesian nation.

An increasingly popular flop stop for Brits on their way to or from Australasia, the disparate gathering of 15 Pacific islands and atolls that make up the Cooks seemed, at first dip, to have the whole “tropical paradise” thing licked.

Yet being paradise, it turns out, is the easy part. A few visionary Cook Islanders have set the bar much higher — they want tourists who pass through here in search of parrotfish and piña coladas to leave with a genuine understanding of the unique Maori culture of the place, its fragile ritual and environmental heritage, and its often fearsome history.

Realising that too many tropical idylls have accepted tourists, but lost their identity in the process, these smart souls are trying to make sure that the Cooks trouser the cash without forgetting their grass skirts, if you get my drift. This seemed like a mission worth leaving the lagoon to investigate.

At the vanguard of this endeavour stands the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre. Rarotonga screeches upwards out of the ocean like a firework and the centre peers down at the coast’s hotels from atop a narrow, precipitous jungle ridge. Its location was chosen because boulders rolled satisfyingly down the valley below, scattering and splattering invading armies. Such precautions were necessitated by the first landlord, the Maori king Tinomani.

A loathsome tyrant, he was exiled to this side of the island for cruelty beyond the call of duty. He hastily repopulated a tribe of his own (with help from three wives) and ruled over them with ceaseless malevolence, protected by a terrifying Praetorian Guard of seven heavily armed warrior-priests. Today, his village has been excavated by his direct des­cen­dants, creating a living exhibition of pre-colonial life that has garnered international acclaim for its un­com­promising stance against the Hawaii-style Disneyfication of Pacific culture.

Our guide, Chem, took obvious pleasure in undermining any preconceptions about cute, hip-swaying Poly­nesians, pointing out the cannibalism oven and the slab where prisoners of war were disembowelled. By the time the tour ended at the execution rock (a less efficient, crunchier version of Madame la Guillotine), we weren’t completely ready for our traditional lunch of indigenous roots and raw fish, but the Cooks felt a lot less like a simple, sunny stopover and a lot more like a complex, fascinating traveller’s target.

I spent a few days exploring further, trekking into the hinterland with Pa Teuraa, Rarotonga’s revered herbalist, conservationist and hiking guide, and cycling through the farmland and past the family homes of the “old road country” — Raro’ is ringed by a new coast road, where almost all of the hotels sit, and a crumbly inner track, where your push-bike can match the placid pace of real island life. But to get to the truth behind paradise, everyone I met told me, you had to hop to one of the outer islands.

A 45-minute flight northeast, Atiu has a population of roughly 600, about a quarter of whom were waiting for our tiny plane to bump down. Considering there were 12 passengers on board, this seemed an excessive welcoming party, but the daily flight was a lifeline of frozen chicken and corned beef, and I’d learnt by now that Cook Islanders take their food both seriously and copiously. Once the provisions had been offloaded, Mama Nga Mokoroa threw a garland around my neck, gave me a kiss and chucked my bags into her pick-up truck.

Atiu, along with several of the smaller outer islands close to Rarotonga, has recently acquired a handful of “hotel homestays”, simple accommodation that gives you a chance to encounter local life. As we passed through the five tiny villages of the island, children playing touch rugby, mothers tending gardens and farmers slopping through boggy root fields waved and smiled — I was, after all, one of only three tourists there.

Two natural phenomena define this lush volcanic plateau, all 27 square miles of it. The first is the precious community of kopeka that lives in the giant cave at the island’s heart. The freakish bat-birds are a magical sight, fiercely protected by the Atiuans. The second is what happens when you leave mashed oranges, sugar and yeast in a bucket for long enough.

Tumunus, barely legal home-brew drinking societies, have been part of Cook Islands culture for centuries, and tourists are welcome at Papa Sam’s tumunu on Atiu, provided they observe the sombre etiquette of drinking from a single coco­nut shell in turn, and prepare themselves for a friendly but frank assessment of the hectic, materialistic oddity that is papa’a life from a Cook Islands Maori perspective. (Papa’a: noun, meaning “white folks”.

Etymology — literally, “four layers”, referring to the bemusing petticoats worn by the first missionaries’ wives. Example of use — Papa Sam’s bush bar, about closing time: “You papa’a, you’re all just so busy, you’re always in such a rush to get somewhere, to see everything. Why not just relax? Slow down, bro!”)

Atiu was a joy, but I felt cramped, crowded in. Seriously — two other tourists? Intolerable. Perhaps I could get some peace on Ma’uke.

They had to clear the goats off the airstrip before we could land. Just 18 square miles, with about 300 inhabitants, the island is starting to welcome visitors to its one hotel homestay and a handful of little villas, hoping that the revenue will help to secure the population. I can think of no population more deser­ving of a helping hand.

My efforts at self-catering during my stay consisted of struggling to cope with the mountains of produce that locals handed over, just to be neighbourly: bags of today’s mackerel catch or a giant bunch of finger bananas, all constantly washed down with the milk of freshly sliced coconuts. One old lady, after a brief garden-gate chat, gave me a tuna. Not some tuna, a tuna.

There wasn’t, admittedly, a huge amount to do on this tiny, forested landmass, but chatting, relaxing and eating were national pastimes enough for me for a couple of days — and there was “the cave of 100 rooms”.

Shod in flip-flops, Clem, a part-time tourist guide and full-time mechanic (charged with endlessly fixing Ma’uke’s power station, a rattling diesel gene­rator in a tin shed), hopped confidently over the knife edges of the makatea, the rugged, razor-sharp jungle terrain of volcanic rock that dominates the drier parts of many of Polynesia’s islands. I tottered behind and, eventually, we reached a shadow beneath a palm tree — the cave’s entrance.

According to local martial lore, an army of Ma’ukeans had hidden here for months when the notoriously belligerent Atiuans had come a-plundering. We wriggled ourselves down into the dark­ness, to find a natural chapel of stalactites, columns and domes, with shallow pools of water trailing around shady corners. At least they seemed shallow until we dived in, took a breath, then swam, action-movie style, through a tunnel and into the next chamber.

When you can see the pristine sculptures of a volcanic cavern through the top of your snorkel mask, and through the bottom the beam of your torch disappearing into the seemingly bottomless gloom of a jagged under­water ravine, leading to a place no man has ever seen, you know you’ve started to scratch the surface of a remarkable, powerfully strange country.

Brian Schofield travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.

Getting there:

the best way to reach the Cook Islands from the UK or Ireland is with Air New Zealand, which flies from Heathrow to Rarotonga via Los Angeles.

For more information about the Cook Islands click on this link below or call Turquoise Holidays on 01494 678400and ask to speak to one of our South Pacific Specialists.


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