59. Rarotonga

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Oceania » Cook Islands » Rarotonga
August 12th 2009
Published: February 28th 2010
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 Video Playlist:

1: Local dancing! Rarotonga 10 secs
2: Local dancing! Rarotonga 6 secs
3: Beach scene in Rarotonga 22 secs

August got off to a great start for us; my team at work won a competition that took us on holiday for a week to the Pacific island of Rarotonga! It’s probably the best prize I ever won. The brochures describe Rarotonga as “a perfect circle of rock, whose centre is a volcanic peak draped in dense green jungle, which runs down to a beach of white sand lapped by blue sea”.

Such is the position of the international dateline that when we left New Zealand, it was Sunday evening and we were 11 hours ahead of the UK; but when we arrived in Rarotonga, we were 11 hours behind, in the early hours of Sunday morning. This took us a bit of time to figure out.

Even though it is just 32km in circumference, Rarotonga is the largest of the 15 Cook Islands, and the total population is around 13,000, but the geographical area (2 million square km of Pacific Ocean) is about the same size as Western Europe. The airport was as small as expected, and a musician was singing and strumming Polynesian tunes on a guitar when we arrived; the Duty Free was literally just a bamboo shack! We got to our accommodation shortly after, owned by the very friendly Mere (pronounced similar to ‘Mary’).

We were often struck by the friendliness of the people as we travelled around during the week; when I got a flat tyre on my bicycle, we got a lift with an old guy and his truck to the repair shop - Paula rode in the cab, while I sat in the back with the bikes - and when we parted, he wouldn’t take any money for the ride, but instead insisted on giving us a papaya fruit. Also the normal everyday greeting on the island is “Kia orana”, which means ‘May you live long’. There are lots of quirks about the place - there are only two principal roads on the island, one running along the coast and another (much older) runs parallel but a short distance more inland. You can travel by bus non-stop around the island in 50 minutes - one bus travels in each direction each hour; one called “Clockwise” and the other, well, you can guess…

The island itself is very dramatic. Not only is there a stunning shallow lagoon, home to many types of exotic fish, but the deep green mountains quickly rise steeply to form a couple of tall peaks in the centre, the main one being called The Needle. Coconut trees grow abundantly, and their fallen husks lie everywhere, along the roadside and on the beach. Bright flowers too are common, and we saw plenty of hibiscus and strong-smelling gardenias.

The church is very important in Cook Islands life, and on the Sunday of our arrival we went to a morning service at the beautiful white-washed church at Titikaveka, about 2km from where we were staying. The singing in Maori was as charismatic and enthusiastic as we had been told about, and afterwards there were tea, coffee sandwiches and donuts. Plus some local specialities like arrowroot cake, a mix of arrowroot and coconut. During this tea we were informed of the 100-year history of the church, including how it was hand-built from slabs of rock from the beach, passed from hand to hand down a human chain to the building site.

We had lunch at Mere’s place that afternoon, of delicious coconut chicken, vegetables including a mixture of the local replacements for potato, including taro/tapioca/cassava…

Our first foray into the sea (the South Pacific Ocean to be exact) was like swimming in a giant tropical fish tank. We went to a spot that was well-known for good snorkelling, with my former work colleague Kate and her family who had been on the island for almost a week. Palm trees (the really glamorous variety: outrageously tall and thin, with coconuts at the top) were unevenly spaced out along the sand, some of them bolt upright and others bending at 45 degrees towards the water, which itself was crystal clear and the kind of blue that features on luxurious brochure covers. The sea that lapped the beach was part of a pale blue lagoon that stretched several hundred yards to the horizon, where it became a reef - dark blue colour sloping into deep water. The movement from light to dark blue was sudden and looked dramatic. This place we went to snorkel was designated raui by the authorities, which meant that fishing and the gathering of seafood was prohibited, which in turn meant that the sealife was abundant.

Underwater, the fish were hanging around the giant lumps of rock and coral that sat below the surface. The intensity of colour was striking, but my vocabulary and knowledge of aquatic life is too poor to convey what we saw, which varied from shy tiny royal blue fish to long thin cornetfish with their elongated snouts, to a star fish, a sea anemone and the comic-looking “convict fish”, with their thin black vertical lines running down their sides.

August 5th was the National Day of the Cook Islands (Constitution Day), which was celebrated with a morning of speeches and entertainment in the auditorium of the Cook Islands’ main (only) town, and capital, Avarua. Never mind that the total population of the Cook Islands has a population of no more than a good crowd at Tranmere Rovers, it was an event that was worth celebrating and one for which there was a public holiday. We thought it would be interesting to attend, although we ended up having to hitch the 20km to the auditorium because the bus was so infrequent (once per hour, and clockwise only today!) that we would have been late. We ended up getting a ride with a lady who was a local dignitary from the Red Cross, wearing a formal but colourful Rarotongan dress, a suitably festive hat and a flower behind her ear.

The auditorium turned out to be a large gymnasium with a stage at one end, over which hung the official flags of the Cook Islands, and under which sat the Ceremonial Chief of Rarotonga, whose name was an interesting blend of Polynesian and mundane English: Mr Tou Travel Ariki - but disappointingly he was wearing a suit, and not some exotic outfit as he may have done in more intimate gatherings in times past. Also on the stage were the deputy Prime Minister and the Queen’s Representative with their wives, a Pastor, and some hangers-on. There were a couple of hundred people in attendance, for the most part dressed smartly, especially the women many of whom wore home-made flower tiaras. After the flag-raising ceremony by the Boys Brigade, we were treated to several speeches firstly by the pastor who, oddly, focused not on the Cook Islands’ 44 years of self-government, but on the importance of working hard over the next 6 years to the jubilee year in 2015 - and in that year, he said, everyone should have a big long rest. He also addressed the Minister of Finance, seriously, to consider making that year a tax-free year for all citizens, much to the delight of those assembled and to the discomfort of the minister himself, who was also on stage but who didn’t smile, just shifted a little in his seat.

The next speaker, the Acting Prime Minister Sir Terepai Maoate (KBE), confessed at the start of his speech that the pastor and the preceding speaker (the Chief) had used about 40% of his material, but that did not stop him droning for a full hour on the current state of the economy, upcoming construction projects, the challenges of being a politician these days, all interspersed with regular greetings to several different groups, “including those civil servants sitting there who I don’t like!” Except for some reason he didn’t appear to be joking.

It was a relief when the Queen’s Representative spoke for just 5 tactful minutes, and the highlight of the proceedings was a cultural performance by a primary school, full of music and dancing. There was a buffet lunch afterwards, into which everyone was pleased to delve into as if they hadn’t eaten in days.

We spent the afternoon wandering around this ‘capital’,
Muri Beach and LagoonMuri Beach and LagoonMuri Beach and Lagoon

See baby coconut trees growing in the foreground!
seeing a whitewashed coral church where most of the island’s most notable dead people were buried; the decaying wooden bungalow that was once the palace where the Queen of Rarotonga signed the treaty accepting the Cook Islands’ acceptance of becoming a British Protectorate in 1888 (at the request of Rarotonga itself, to avoid an attack by the French); and the 7-in-1 coconut tree - legend has it that 7 trunks belong to the same tree but we could only see 6, and they all appeared pretty separate…

It was too much to resist the temptation to cycle around the 32km of the island, which we did one day. We had quickly moved on to the relaxed approach to life known as “island time” and didn’t set off as early as we should have done, but the day was still eventful. When we did eventually leave our apartment, after about 15 minutes we realised that Paula’s sun hat had sometime previously blown surreptitiously out of the bicycle basket but we couldn’t find it when we retraced our steps.

I called into the Cook Islands FA headquarters (CIFA) and learnt first-hand about the challenges of professional football in this part of the world.

We visited a historical site called Arai Te Tonga, where there had been chiefly ceremonies long ago, but now just the ruins remained. Shortly afterwards, I got the puncture that I mentioned at the start of the blog, and we had to flag down a lift to Avarua where it took an hour to be mended. This did give us time to go to the philatelic bureau and pick up some iconic “3 dollar” Cook Island banknotes. The NZ dollar can be used interchangeably with the Cook Islands dollar on the island, but the local currency will be phased out over time. These will make good souvenirs. What other country has a three-dollar note? Anyway, by the time the bike was fixed, we were considerably later than planned. Nevertheless, over the day, we got a really good impression of the island and its scenery, its people and their colourful low-slung houses, often with family graves out front. We took some of the small back roads and cycled between people’s vegetable and fruit gardens, their banana groves and small plantations. "A walk anywhere here", coos the guidebook, "is to see nature brazenly displaying her fertility: fruit is literally falling off the trees with pawpaw, mangoes, coconuts and bananas growing alongside the dusty tracks".

We arrived at another principal snorkel site in the late afternoon and saw more mesmerising fish, and took some pictures with our recently acquired underwater camera. Back on the road, we came across the ghostly site of an abandoned Hilton Hotel, of which just the shell is standing, and which is at the centre of a long-running financial dispute.

The final site to visit was a waterfall, somewhat further round the island. However, by the time we got to the turn-off it was dark and Paula firmly stated that she had no intention of a 2km detour to see a waterfall in darkness. I thought I would go anyway, so left Paula more than happy in a bar with a glass of wine. It was a dark, muddy uphill road to get there, and Niagara it was not; Paula had made the right choice! And it still took us a final further hour to get home.

Most of the rest of the time we were on Rarotonga, though, we were not so active. We enjoyed having breakfast on the terrace and looking at the palm trees swaying in the breeze; and wandering down to the beach near us, Muri Beach, (“to find it, just walk down between the banana tree and the coconut tree”) to read or snorkel, or wander along the shore and take photos of the beach, the palm trees and the husks on the sand, and of the fish in the clear shallow water.

One day we swam out across the lagoon to the reef, a couple of hundred yards, which took us from the light blue water to the dark blue water, with its waves and its promise to take you to Tahiti if you just kept going.

As we swam nearer the reef, the variety of tropical fish was again amazing, such as the rainbow-like Parrotfish, and the Moorish Idol with a trail of what I can only describe as something like an antenna, coming out from behind its head. Perhaps our favourite was the aptly-named Picasso Triggerfish, with streaks of colour across its body, but even the less striking ones were so unusual, for example one that was muddy brown in colour with turquoise spots all over it, or the large oval fish that was almost completely royal blue, with thick gold rings around its eyes. We found a shallow sunken anchor covered in sea slime that was home to several of these plus plenty others (see photo).

Even the coral itself was often other-worldly; huge pieces mushroomed up from the seabed, sometimes they looked just like giant brains, and at other times they looked like relations of tables that you might find on the Millennium Falcon, but all as hard as rock (as coral is).

As we reached the reef itself, the depth of the water went very shallow, and very sharp underfoot. More huge lumps of coral, orange in colour, were everywhere. The variety of fish kept on growing, normal shaped; rectangular-cubed shape; flashing different colours as they darted left to right and the light danced off them differently. Then there were the bright blue starfish, the yellow boxfish, and a moray eel that hissed as we got near it.

Over the week, we snorkelled several times, as it was not something that lost its appeal, swimming just below the surface of the water and waiting till a fish swam up to us till we were nearly eyeball to eyeball; or just lazily choosing a fish and then swimming after it; the large ones were not concerned; they would be happy for you to shadow them, watch them eat something from the sandy seabed, and then flush out the surplus sand through their gills. But the smaller ones soon got a bit spooked if we followed them, and went to hide in a crevice.

One evening we went to a cultural show. Everyone who visits the island recommends visiting one but we were worried that it would be a performance for white man by “natives”. This was unfounded, though, as the place we went to was very informal, in a café-restaurant setting. We were treated to lots of different dances in colourful, over-the-top costumes by young guys and girls who seemed to be enjoying it as much as the audience. The dancers were accompanied by musicians all on different types of drums, from log shaped to huge round one. Not for the first time on our travels, Paula was called up to the front and learnt one of the dances.

Our first view of the island is what we still remember most: sand, bright blue sea, colourful flowers and a different pace of life.


We had a couple of days left in Auckland before our return home, and we stayed with Paula's work friend Sharelle & fiance Pete. We went on a trip to the weekend French market, and had a leaving dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Our last night was in a flash hotel, which was a fantastic leaving present from Paula's work. We topped it off with a delicious meal at O'Connells Bistro, a place we had walked past many times on the way home but not been to before. On our last afternoon itself, we took the ferry for 10 mins to the Auckland suburb of Devonport for a wander round this bohemian village and a stroll on Cheltenham Beach, finishing with a tasty lunch in a recommended cafe and a pint in the historic Masonic Hotel (1866) that is scheduled to be pulled down for trendy flats. That's what they call progress, even in New Zealand.


Additional photos below
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26th April 2010

We WANT to go it looks amazing !
17th April 2011
Arai Te Tonga chief site

where is the marae ?
kia orana , i have lived in rarotonga for 14 years but never got to visit the marae , i am now living in new zealand and would like to know where the marae is situated ? thank you .
27th March 2013
Arai Te Tonga chief site

Response to your question
I am very sorry for the delay! Please see this link for good information. Best regards Nick. http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_12_1903/Volume_12,_No.4,_December_1903/Arai-te-tonga,_the_ancient_marae_at_Rarotonga,_by_S._Percy_Smith,_p_218-220/p1

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