Cook Islands - 2 to 30 July 2011

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Oceania » Cook Islands
July 29th 2011
Published: July 30th 2011
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Where in the world would you hear someone say ‘may you live long’ upon meeting you for the first time, but in the Cook Islands - the Cook Island greeting Kia Orana, means exactly that. It is a unique first gesture of friendship from a special Polynesian people, renown for their hospitality and warmth. This we experienced as soon as we set foot in this island paradise being greeted at Rarotonga Airport with smiles and song even at the late hour of midnight, which was the time we finally arrived.

The Cook Islanders have their own Maori language and a population of about 13,000 scattered over 15 islands. They are believed to be related to New Zealand Maori and it is thought that they arrived in the Cooks about 500AD. Later the land was divided among six tribes each one headed by a tribal high chief (Ariki) and today every member of cook island society belongs to one of the six family clans. The islanders have kept alive aspects of their heritage and culture with traditional arts and crafts are in regular use, from woven pandanus mats, fans and baskets as well as the finely woven rito hats. They are self-governing with free association with New Zealand since 1965 and by virtue of that relationship all Cook Islanders hold New Zealand passports. The country is governed by a 25 member Parliament modelled on the Westminster system with the Queens Representative being Head of State. His residence was just down the road from our accommodation in the Vaimaanga area.

We swiftly got through the check in procedures and as our luggage arrived we were being serenaded by a local man singing Polynesian songs from a small platform. We were then presented with flowering leis and the lovely aroma wafting up from around our necks as we boarded the transport to our accommodation. Within twenty minutes we arrived at our villa bungalow and the driver help carry our bags into the villa in the pitch black. With the lights on the villa was warm and inviting and we soon settled in but were so tired we just crawled into bed and slept soundly well into the morning to the sound of the ocean just feet away from our front door. It was strange because we had gained a day somewhere as we had crossed the ‘date line’ en route, so although we had already experienced the 2nd July 2011 in Brisbane we were also experienced the same day again on Rarotonga - surreal two Saturdays together!

As it turned out we soon forgot the journey to the islands which had been quite stressful with turbulence so bad that even the cabin crew were kept in their seats by the Pilot for much of the flight. It was soon after takeoff and we had just been served drinks when the aircraft started to shake, rattle and roll and our drinks flew across the tables - which was such a shame as it was a really nice NZ white wine!!

We had booked a week on Rarotonga staying at Muaura Beachfront Bungalows, a group of three self contained units facing an idyllic beach with the reef a short distance off shore. Rarotonga the main island of the Cooks is a place of great natural beauty, the mountainous jungle interior, the beaches, the lagoon and the reef merging with the Pacific Ocean all around the island. Later in the morning we wandered around the grounds and a few steps across the lawn bordered by coconut trees we were on the white sandy beach with the ocean lapping at our feet – true paradise. We were in the middle of the three bungalows and both the others were empty so we had the gardens to ourselves. They were planted with flowering shrubs, banana, paw paw, coconut and lots of yellow and pink passion fruits. What was strange though was that in the grounds was the grave of a local man who died in 1984 which seemed a bit odd. The grave with a photograph embedded in the stone was covered in trellis with flowers and passion fruits trailing all around We found out later that many of the islanders were buried on ‘family land’ with most being buried quickly with a small ceremony and a few months later, when the grave stones were placed another bigger ceremony. All the properties on the Cook Islands were owned by families so there was no ‘buying or selling’ of property and only leasehold available. Properties were handed down to families and some times sub divided particularly in the case of land around the coastline. Also in the grounds of our bungalow was another burial with a little cross by the footpath to the sea of with the word ‘Kelly’ marked on the wooden cross.

We had breakfast from the ‘welcome pack’ which had been provided and headed off to the main town of Avarua the main town to get some supplied and organise transport for our week’s stay. We walked down the track to catch a bus into town as there are buses that travel around the perimeter of Rarotonga about every 30 minutes in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. Just as we walked out of our drive we were greeted by our neighbours in a bungalow nearby who offered us a lift into town. Jenny and Ray lived in New Zealand but just as Ray had retired he was offered a two year contract on the Cook Islands. They had come to love the island and when the contract was extended by a few months they remained but will be returning to New Zealand in a few months time. They lived in Christchurch and had some damage to their house but luckily nothing major. They had visited some friends who lived in Basingstoke recently, where we had both worked in our other life! On the journey into town they gave us an overview of Rarotonga the main island which proved so very useful during our stay. They told us that where we were staying was owned by a local family and the grave was their father. His seven children had each been left a plot of land and they owned either one of the bungalows or one of the small houses on the adjoining plots which were leased out to tourists and visitors. They told us that the grave by the beach was the family dog called Kelly and its owner was currently living in Tahiti so they had looked after him along with Shrek the cat whilst they rented the property. Kelly had died a few months ago and they had buried him in the garden and a local chap had made the little wooden cross, free of charge. Kelly had ruled this section of the beach for many years and kept other dogs in check. We had noticed lots of friendly dogs on the beach and it seemed that many ruled their own section of beach. When travellers walked past these ‘friendly’ dogs would attach themselves and walk along the beach ‘to heel’ until you got to the end of their section and then they would walk back with the next traveller going the other way! It springs to mind who was taking whom for a walk………..We heard later that a few years ago that there were too many dogs on the island but this was now being brought under control. Ray dropped us off in town at the local Police Station - you might wonder why we were going here; well you have to register to be able to drive a car or scooter on the islands. Thirty minutes later with formalities over and $NZ20 dollars poorer Paul was issued with a Cook Island Driving Licence complete with ‘photo id’ which enabled him to drive during our stay on the islands. We walked a short distance down the main street to a car company and hired a small extremely well-worn out car, which did in the end get us around the island. We called in at the local telecoms shop to see about accessing the internet for emails etc. There was no mobile broadband as such on the Cook Islands but we were able to purchase a pass code to enable us to access the internet via several WiFi Hot Spot areas which were dotted around the island.

We parked a little further down the street at the busy local Punanganui Culture Market which is ‘a not to be missed’ market every Saturday and where there were plenty of bargains from arts and crafts, local black pearls and clothing to cooked meals and fruit and vegetables. Cook Island Black Pearls are named after the famous shell from which they originate – Pinctada Margaritifera - the black-lipped mother of pearl shell. Rare and exquisite they are treasured for their lustrous beauty and highly sort after. We purchased some fresh vegetables as well as a couple of small gifts for Maisie (we had promised to bring her home a few presents….). We were tempted to buy her a little colourful grass skirt and floral head dress but thought it would probably look out of place in Southampton…..- so declined the bargain. The atmosphere and friendly greetings throughout the market was great and a local even came up to Paul and wanted to buy his tee-shirt as it had his initials on it (RJR). Paul explained that it was a UK store shop purchase and was a design by Rocha John Rocha which he had bought ages ago. It was however far too small for this huge young chap who wanted it, but we gave him the name of the designer and told him to search on Google.

After a few hours at the market we decided to drive around the rest of the island reasoning that we should arrive back at our accommodation at some point; our villa being about half way from the main town so we could not get lost! The main coastal road is about 32km and there is also an inner road that has several links to the outer road. The roads are in quite good condition but recent king tides had brought beach debris on to the road which you had to watch out for. We had noticed that the reef which circled the island a little way off shore was being plummeted with really high waves and thought this was normal. However Bob and Jenny told us that the island was having unusual weather at the moment and these were the highest tides they had seen since arriving on the island a few years ago. As we drove back to our accommodation the roads were quite busy not with cars but with a multitude of scooters being driven by locals and tourists alike. The speed limit on the island was 50km for cars and scooters however if you did not wear a helmet on a scooter then the limit was 40km! Having said we could not get lost on the island - well we did miss our turning and it took a while to find the track to the villa which was set back from the road behind a coconut grove (well there are a lot of coconut trees and they all look the same!).

We checked out a couple of accommodation options to see if we could find a good location for our return to Rarotonga at the end of the month. Our plan was to move to the smaller island of Aitutaki for a couple of weeks and then return to Rarotonga for our last week. We slept late in the morning – we still could not get over the fact that we had lived through two 2nd of July’s this year and had been to bed twice but were still very tired………….

Back in the bungalow we read through the literature supplied which stated that we should freeze all our food scraps and then take them to the first pigs we spotted in the area!!!!!!!!! Sure enough there were plenty of pigs around the island. As well as pigs the whole island was a ‘free range area’ for the local chickens which kept us awake quite a bit at night and in the early hours of the morning. We were visited daily by these chickens and when we left a paw paw to ripen on the decking we returned later to find it have been eaten by the chickens!

The next day we drove a few kilometres down the road to the historic Titikaveka Church one of the many Cook Islands Christian Churches. CICC coral limestone churches were hand built by the forefathers of the current Cook Islanders and are located in every village. We were visiting the island on the first Sunday of the month when the ‘Mamas’ all dressed in white to attend churches and they looked splendid in their dresses and straw hats adorned with flowers. The square shaped church was built in 1841 of coral slabs hewn by hand from the reef at Tikioki and chain handled to Titikaveka. It was very simplistic with the interior painted white and blue with huge palm tree pillars supporting the roof. The altar area was covered in colourful flowers and the stained glass arched windows had views out over the mountainside - a lovely green natural backdrop. The minister and his assistant welcomed everyone to the church in English and Maori and made a special welcome to us visiting tourist. The service was very spiritual and the choir singing was something that we will remember for a very long time. During the service the local children wandered silently up and down the aisles as well as outside climbing over the tombstones but always smiling and well behaved. After the service you were welcome to join the locals in the hall opposite the church where refreshments were served. Over the next few days we lazed around the bungalow going for a snorkel or swim and then lazed some more and more……soon getting into the island life. We drove into the lush green interior to see Papua (Wigmore’s) Waterfall and this is where the road ended and you could not get any further. From here there was just a track which led to the other side of the island through the mountains peaks which dominated the skyline. We did not continue though as the area was full of mosquitoes and the rainforest thickened with a sign saying if you want to cross the island it is far better to do so from the other side!

We selected Moana (which means Ocean) Sands for our return visit and would stay in a villa for two days and five in the beachside rooms a little further along the lagoon. The beachside rooms were located right by one of the best beaches for snorkelling and this really made the decision for us. The best place for snorkelling is the south coast with the beaches along side The Rarotonga Hotel and also opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga café. There is plenty of choice of accommodation on the main island as it has a couple of small hotels as well as lots of self contained units which are dotted all around the island, most within a few feet of the beach.

As we were preparing supper one evening we had a visit from the nephew of the owner of the bungalows to check out our fridge which had been leaking but appeared to be OK now. He stayed for a while and told us that the family had traced their ancestors back to Cornish pirates and some day he wanted to visit the county in the UK.

The next day we noticed that the sea was a lot quieter and the huge waves on the reef had abated. Outside the bungalow the tide had gone back nearly to the reef which we though was strange and Paul said ‘hope we are not going to get a Tsunami’, we had seen various evacuation sites around the island heading up into the mountains. Believe it or not that morning on talking to a couple walking along the beach past our bungalow they said it was good to hear that the Tsunami warning had just been lifted following an earthquake in the Pacific. We had not had any communications with the outside world for a while so were totally unaware of what was happening. We decided we would put the local radio on in future - just in case…………

That evening we were being picked up to go to the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre. Whilst waiting for the transport we were looking at several chickens wandering through the coconut plantation when a couple of them actually took off - flying through the air half way up the tall coconut trees – didn’t know chickens could fly that high! The transport arrived and the bus was full so we ended up sitting on the board by the driver (no health and safety here). We held on tightly as the bus climbed into the interior of the island up into the mountains passing through plantations of banana, paw paw as well as tapioca and taro plants. On arrival at the village we were greeted with by the locals with Kia Orana to the Drums of our Forefathers (Te kaara a to tatou Ui Tupuna). The sunset feast and show was quite delightful and very professionally performed by all. We were also rewarded with wonderful views down through the mountains and rainforest out to the reef and into the open sea. You could see why their ancestors had lived in this area surrounded by water, plentiful food supplies and with clear views of any invading tribes coming on to their lands. Our guide George Williams told us about his ancestors who had arrived in the islands many years ago. We were entertained by culture demonstrations and shown by some local women how to prepare medicines and cures for ailments. We were given an insight on how their ancestors lived in these rainforests before the missionaries arrived and brought them down from the mountains. It took fifteen years to convert the islanders to Christianity which even today was still a mixture of both Christianity and ancient customs. Far back in the past Rarotonga was a place of cannibalism and other heathen practices, they believed that if they ‘ate’ their enemy then they would be invested with their powers as well as their own. The site of the culture performance was actually where the ancestors once lived in the Maungaroa Mountain Village. Some of the performers were descendants of the High Chief Tinomana and they were now the custodians of this sacred place. Archaeologists have recently uncovered many artefacts from the past and also a large Marae (ancient ritual platform) which they believe dates back to 500AD. Most of the Maraes were destroyed along with the ancient gods when Christianity was brought to the islands. We had an informative evening learning about the history, practices and customs of the Cook Islanders. There were quite a few tourists attending this special event and out of about a hundred people we were the only UK residents with most coming from NZ and the remainder from Oz. The evening journeyed through 400 years of history experiencing the changes through their tribal songs, drums and stories from the pre-missionary era, performed with pride and skill by the proud descendants of those who lived there. The buffet was also superb and we tasted many local foods but particularly enjoyed the meat and fish cooked in the traditional way in underground ovens (umu).

On our last day in Rarotonga we returned the hire car and nearly ran over five little pigs running across the road by a restaurant - think they must have been escaping from the chef! We decided to walk back to our accommodation along the beach as it was only a few kilometres and we stopped every now and then to snorkel or swim in the clear lagoon. As we walked along a stray dog swam out to sea chasing a bird and got stuck behind a concrete sea defence wall. It started barking and to our astonishment another stray went out to him and they both managed to get back to shore together– it seemed like the other dog went out to save his friend – quit amazing. Later we caught up with our washing and ironing but the iron was located in the little shed behind the villa which was quite small. So I though I would iron in the garden as the lead was just long enough. It was a very strange experience though because as I stood there ironing the grave of the original owner of the land was just a few feet away.

In the evening Ray and Jenny drove us out to a local restaurant on the other side of the island. We took around some of our luggage which they were going to look after whilst we were on Aitutaki as the weight limit on the small aircraft was only 16 kg per person. We travelled with them around the island and all along the road were locals out with a little barbecue at the end of their land selling cooked food. Apparently locals pull up with their plates, load it with food then drive off to eat with many actually eating as they drive around on their scooters! We arrived at the Fisherman’s Restaurant which also had an open decked bar overlooking the ocean and right on the beach was a boat converted into a Fish and Chip venue. We sat and watched the sun set and saw the blow holes of a couple of humpback whales passing through on the other side of the reef. We had the best fish and chips ‘ever’ sitting and chatting and looking out over the ocean as the sun set. On our way back to our accommodation we stopped at Palm Cove where a local band was playing. Jenny and Ray knew them and as we chatted to them afterwards we found at that the father of the chap originally came to the Cook Islands from Lymington in Hampshire.

Early the next morning the local airport transport picked us and took us 15 minutes down the road to the airfield for our flight to the smaller island of Aitutaki. We boarded the small Air Rarotonga plane and 40 minutes later were flying over the islands considered to be one of the most magnificent lagoons in the world. Our flight stewardess was Tevai Howard who was born and bred on the islands as are all the crew who work with the Airline. Aitutaki is made up of a triangular-shaped reef encompassing an aqua lagoon in which three volcanic and twelve small coral islands nestle, some say the most beautiful lagoon in the world from the air. A small island is known as a Mutu and the view of these in the clear lagoon was awesome, a place of beauty and simple tranquillity. We walked across the runway to the arrival lounge and were greeted on the edge of the runway by Nane who presented us with flowering white and green leis and also a kiss - the most amazing welcome we have had anywhere in the world arriving in a country. She then took us outside the entrance of the small airport to collect our luggage which was now waiting. Not many people were staying on the island, most only come for a day trip which is a shame as it turned out to be the most lovely island of all. We climbed into Nane’s transport and she drove us along the narrow road pointing out the house where she lived along the way. Her house was set back from the road and in the front garden was a large boat and in the back the remains of a plane. She said that it had been used for a children’s film by a production company in the late 80s and they had left it for her children to play in. In fact one of her children used to pretend that he was a pilot and now 20 years later he actually was a Captain with Air Rarotonga. We carried on and soon arrived at our accommodation, Aitutaki Beach Villas which were just four villas set beside the white sands and blue lagoon in a colourful garden setting. Each side of the villa were local homes and the villas had also been built on family land and were owned by local people. We were met at the villa by Paka a delightful lady who could not stop smiling and who owned the properties with her parents. Nane and Paka were aunt and niece and had grown up on the islands. They could not do enough for us and even though the villa contained a huge basket of local fruits Nane insisted on getting us to try some ripe Spondia Fruit which she had growing in her garden.. So they both drove off and came back a while later with a bag full of fruit. We had never tried these fruits before so Nane came in and showed us how to prepare them and then we all stood around eating these exotic fruits which were also called ‘sour sour mango’ and tasted like a cross between an apple and a lime. We never did need to buy any fruit whilst we were on the island because Paka would bring us freshly picked bananas and pawpaws from her garden whenever we got low.

Staying on Aitutaki was pretty good and the only downside of our island life was the mosquitoes which were quite a pest even with insect repellent and coils on the balcony as they always seemed to find you even when you fully clothed! Even Paul was getting constantly bitten by these horrid insects where as they usually only feed off me!! A lady in the local store said that they used to be only on one part of the island but now seemed to be all over since they had stopped spraying. At one time they did consider moving everyone off the island and then spraying the whole area but I think the logistics of this was out of the question. The other pest was the chickens that roamed around the island freely as on Rarotonga and we seemed to have five very loud cockerels who did not seem to know night from day……………Aitutaki also had quite a few goats as well as cats but no dogs as these were not allowed on the island.

A local lady would arrive every morning and clean the area sweeping the beach and taking down any dead leaves and flowers around the grounds. She would often bring her four year old granddaughter with her. She had been born in Melbourne but her daughter kept calling her mother to say the baby was in hospital and very sick. Her mother made the long journey to Melbourne which she found really difficult having never left the island and she was afraid to go out into streets. However she brought her nine month old granddaughter back with her to Aitutaki where she was treated with Maori medicine and recovered. Four years later she was still with her grandmother and was now never sick and enjoying the island life.

With the villa we had the free use of a scooter to get around the island as well as a bottle of champagne (wine for me and scooter for Paul). Paul has never driven a scooter before so Paka’s father gave him a quick demonstration and within minutes he was riding around the gardens quite confident. It was another story though when I got on the back and we headed out to find the shops to get some supplies. We ‘wobbled’ down the road but luckily there was hardly any other traffic. Aitutaki is only about 18km by 19km and does not have many vehicles apart from scooters so we made it safely to the shops. The main village of Arutanga consists of a couple of shops scattered along the road and up the little side tracks. Many of the houses still had damage from a recent cyclone but were gradually being re-built whilst the residents lived in tents in the grounds. Choice of food supplies was extremely limited on the island with everything having to be shipped in so you just had to buy what was available at the time. Local fruits were plentiful though with a multitude of banana, coconut and pawpaw. Although it was no good buying too much as we had to carry it back to the accommodation on the scooter. The drive back was quite funny as the front basket was laden with beer and wine and my backpack full of general supplies – quite a lot more weight for a small scooter!! The locals seem to be able to balance anything on theirs so we would have to behave like the locals. It was just as well Paul did not have to take a test to drive the scooter which you have to do on the main island as he would have failed miserably!!

We later walked (much safer) along the beach where the local children were playing in the lagoon having a wonderful time. We stopped at Tamaru Villas which had a small bar and restaurant and chatted to a couple from New Zealand who said there was also a small take away further down the beach (Puffys) and an organic café/shop which sold fresh fruit and vegetables. We later snorkelled off the beach which had huge coral beds as well as colourful fish and hundreds of small black sea cucumbers. Later we sat on the decking outside our villa listening to the locals each side of us laughing and singing enjoying island life. The local cat arrived and attached itself to us; we seem to attract animals wherever we go! A truck pulled up in the garden next door with about ten people sat on plastic seats on the back. They all proceeded to dance, sing and play before driving off again a couple of hours later. The people of this island seem so happy and friendly and we could see why as it was in such a beautiful place.

The next day we decided to try out the scooter again to go to the main Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) at Arutanga. We headed into the town centre which only had a bank, post office and a couple of stores as well as a small information centre. A small road led from here to the local market and wharf. Reverend John Williams of The London Missionary Society introduced Christianity to the Cook Islands at this wharf. He left two Tahitians converts, Papeiha and Vahapata on the islands to spread the gospel and when he returned two years later he found that they made a great deal of progress and the impact of their work still shines through in the devotion to the church today. The main centre for Christianity on the island is the huge coral block church which was completed seven years after Papeiha and Vahapata’s arrival in 1828, and is the first church to be constructed in the Cook Islands. After weathering many Pacific storms as well as five cyclones the church was in need of repair and to raise funds for restoration thirty-two members of the congregation saved their own money for airfares and took themselves off to Australia and New Zealand. They took their distinctive way of singing in harmony to people in towns and cities across the two countries raising the roof and giving people goose bumps with the power and beauty of their voices. After many months away they returned to the island with $283,000 to repair and restore the church. The church bell which was built over 180 years ago has long since fallen to pieces. The Reverend himself used his skills as a welder to piece it back together. Work continued until Cyclone Pat struck in 2010. With more than 300 homes completely destroyed many of the builders on the reconstruction team went to work on the islands recovery. With a devoted team of seven and with volunteers helping out the project to restore the church was still completed on schedule and today is a fine example of the devotion of these islanders.

On our visit there was a special parade with a local children’s band joining in the church service together with the Boys Brigade, Girls Brigade, Guides and Brownies. We had enjoyed the choir on Rarotonga but here they were outstanding and literally were raising the roof. As the service was going on an elderly local man translated and explained to us what was happening. The Minister welcomed all the visitors to his church and wished us safe journeys home and told us to pass on the islanders best wishes to everyone’s family wherever they me. After the service the elderly man whose name was Piri Maao told us about the history of the church and also his history on the islands. He said he was once a chief of a local tribe as well as a principal at the local school and had many stories about the island and islanders. He was keen to show us around and asked us to follow him on his scooter. He was 76 years old and still driving around on a scooter - us two in our 60s just managed to keep up with him as he drove up the hill out of town to the school where he used to teach. He then showed us a huge area of land that he had cleared and planted with local fruit trees and flowers, he was hoping that his daughter who lived in Australia would return to set up a small business in the future. The sad fact is that lots of the islanders were leaving to find work in other countries and not many did return. We followed him to his home where he introduced us to his delightful granddaughter. He then showed us his wife’s grave that was in the front garden and told us about her and how much he missed her. Later we walked around his garden and he picked some bananas for us to take home. As we were leaving he stood in the garden and said a prayer for us thanking us for visiting his homeland and asking God to give us a safe journey home and on future travels and to keep our families safe. We took some photographs of him standing by his wife’s grave and promised to send them on to him when we returned to the UK.

We spent the next few days snorkelling off the beach and going for little scooter safaris to stock up our supplies. One day we decided to try the market on the wharf which opens from 6.30am until noon. We were there about 0930am and all they had was bananas and coconuts. We asked one of the local ladies whether there were any vegetables and she said that we would have to be here at 0630 for these! We found a little shop in the centre of the island that usually sold fresh fish and frozen meat so we drove up there along this dirt track. It was like a small warehouse in the middle of a field but did have quite a good selection of supplies although no fresh fish as the boat was being repaired! On the way we nearly drove over a chicken which was crossing the road, they have free reign of the island and wander around looking for food. The island also has a number of goats and also some pigs but we did not see many other animals, whereas on Rarotonga they do have a couple of cows and horses. Many of the Cook Islanders have several jobs to make ends meet as the minimum wage is only NZ$5 per hour (about £2.50) and the food costs are very similar to the UK, so it’s quite a struggle for some.

We joined an organised lagoon tour with TeKing and waited for our transport with Trish and Keith from Auckland who were staying in one of the other villas. We got quite a surprise when the transport turned up as it was a very ‘old’ truck out of the 50s and we all climbed on to the back where a wooden bench was our seat! On arrival at the wharf we were met by TeKing himself and his small boat. TeKing was a local chap who ran group tours around the lagoon and shared his knowledge of the island, his history and the culture that is Aitutaki. The trip was a snorkellers dream and we visited Akaiami, Moturakau, One Foot, Honeymoon and Maina Islands. We enjoyed a barbeque lunch cooked by a local lady of marinated tuna and island salads which were served in huge Giant Clam shells. After lunch we all collected a hermit crab each and had a crab race – its amazing what can amuse you without any ‘mod cons’. Two of the small islands were the nesting site of the Red Tailed Tropicbird and we saw several young hidden in the bush under trees as well as some White Tailed. We snorkelled over the famous Karoro shipwreck of the Alexandra which sunk on the reef, you could make out the skeleton of the boat in the clear visibility which was now gradually being taken over by the reef itself. We snorkelled back to the boat and were quite surprised when we came across this huge spiky creature on the coral which we thought might be a ‘Crown of Thorns’. When we got back to the boat TeKing had actually speared the creature and said it was a Crown of Thorns which literally eats the coral. We later jumped of the boat and snorkelled in the clear waters where the seabed was covered with Giant Clams and we had never seen anything as big as these. They ranged in colours from blue, green, purple, brown and pink. It was such a shame that our water camera we had purchased to replace the other one was having the same problems as the original – these water cameras are certainly not worth the money and we will have to take this up with the manufacturer on our return. We will however have vivid memories of the marine life in this stunning turquoise lagoon particularly of the giant clams. We visited several islands including One Foot Island which boasts the smallest Post Office in the world and we were able to get our Passports stamped at the only building on the island. The walk around this idyllic island only took about half an hour but the views were great. We also stopped near Akaiami Island where the vast lagoon was once a stopover for the TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Limited) Short Solent flying boats travelling the renowned ‘Coral Route’ through the South Pacific. We could see the remains of the original jetty but the base was now a small hotel. It was here that the well-to-do of the fifties including movie stars like John Wayne and Cary Grant, stopped for a few hours whilst planes were refuelled or waiting for clear weather to continue their journey. Passengers would swim in the clear warm waters of the bay eating crispy cut sandwiches and local pawpaw before flying on……………. This tour was very relaxed and we had the most amazing snorkelling experience; we even saw two giant moray eels with mouths gaping as they fought for territory in the coral on the ocean floor way below. Back on shore we boarded the rickety truck back to our accommodation everyone agreed it was well worth the bumpy ride….

One day we drove the scooter to look around the Marine Research Station and a local chap showed up around the area where they are reintroducing clams back into the ocean as well as other coral species. The seas around Aitutaki used to have abundant clams but they were now in short supply due to over fishing by the locals and marine predators. Huge tanks contained clams of varying ages and they were only visible from about 3 months old but were like tiny dots. Other tanks had fully grown clams ready to be put back into the ocean and the colours of these were as vivid as we had seen out in the ocean. They are taken out to the lagoon on the tiles they are attached to and placed on underwater tables fixed to the ocean floor to develop further.

We snorkelled most days out on the lagoon by our villa and were quite shocked when we spotted a huge bright red Crown of Thorns on the coral. Paul went back the next day to find it but it was really difficult to locate where it was and we could not find it. However the next day we located it again and noticed that it had indeed bleached the coral that it had been on and was travelling down this huge coral formation. Paul swam back to the shore to get a kayak so that we could lift it off the coral. However as he snorkelled back Keith had noticed that we had found something and was coming out with one of the kayaks but Paul with his head down did not see him so continued to shore. Keith reached me and handed me one of the oars to try and hook off the Crown of Thorns but it was stuck fast to the coral. I turned the oar around to the handle and managed to prise it off the coral and then turned the oar around to try and scoop it on. It was quite difficult trying to keep afloat and lift this creature whilst avoiding the spines but after a while managed to get it off only to find it falling back again. However on the next attempt I managed to lift it to the surface but Keith in the kayak was drifting over the top of me. Keith then turned the kayak and I finally managed to hoist the creature on to the front of the avoiding touching Keith with the spines! Just as I did Paul arrived back exhausted from his double swim. In the end though we all got back to shore safely and had been successful in catching this marine disaster – we had done our bit for conservation and hopefully saved a little bit of the reef on this island paradise!

We decided one day to drive the scooter along the unsealed road at the top of the island only to end up on a dirt track that turned into a path then just a field but finally managed to get back on to a small track on the other side of the island. If you keep going you usually end up somewhere that you recognise after a while! We continued up to the Piraki Lookout which had glorious views of the circulating turquoise lagoon and the darker ocean outside the reef. We soon became accustomed to living on the island and spent most days enjoying the sea, sand and countryside. Each morning we would awake to the cockerels crowing and this usually went on for most of the day but became just a background noise against the gentle waves and rustling of the coconut palm trees. We would snorkel most days and then relax and read on our balcony overlooking the lagoon. We had no electric equipment in our villa apart from a small radio, no TV or hairdryer. To dry my hair I just used to walk along the edge of the lagoon and the sun and wind did the rest - Paul traded the TV for his IPOD. . One day Paka our host invited us to a local Health Conference in the village hall which only happened once a year and people would fly over from Rarotonga for the event. Many of the islanders attended and even took their children and had feasting afterwards. Life is lived at such a relaxed pace here and the locals all made us feel so very welcome and we easily adapted to their island customs.

One day whilst we were snorkelling in the bay we spotted another Crown of Thorns. This time Paul located a fishing spear and snorkelled off to catch it managing to spear it off the coral and bring it back to shore quite swiftly. We showed Paka and she said she must talk to the local media and tell them about her English guests who had saved the coral outside her villas! Apparently there was a ‘bounty’ for removing them from the corals, but we were just happy that we may have saved a little bit of coral on this lovely lagoon.

We thoroughly enjoyed our two weeks on Aitutaki and it was so sad to leave but we were heading back to Rarotonga for our last week in the Cook Islands. We said goodbye to Paka who presented us each with a pareu (sarongs) and told Paul to wear his as it would keep him cool. Paka, her family and staff had been excellent hosts treating us as family members. Nane drove us to the airfield and we were the first to arrive although a chicken with eight little chicks was wandering around the airport. After a while a member of staff arrived and a few other travellers. We said goodbye to Nane and boarded the aircraft which was not full. The plane travelled down the runway and then turned around and headed back to the terminal which we thought was a little strange. The pilot said that there was a conflict with some of the instruments but soon got it right and we took off back to Rarotonga. The skies were clear and we had excellent views of the island and the lagoon as we flew over; it truly was the most beautiful one we had ever seen.

We arrived in Rarotonga and picked up a car and drove to Moana Sands where we were staying for a couple of days in a beach villa before moving to their beachside rooms a few kilometres down the road for our last five days. We met up again with Jenny and Ray who had their friends from Perth, Arab and Andrea staying with them. We went out for a couple of meals with them and also one day they invited us to a barbecue at their home. We walked along the beach to their villa which was a good 20 minute walk so when we returned later in the dark we thought it would be best to walk along the roadside. As we walked along the main road looking at the Milky Way which was so pronounced we came across a small pig that crossed the road in front of us (no we did not have too much to drink!) Apparently later on it visited Ray and Jenny in their gardens and even went into their home before it disappeared – probably now on someone’s lunch menu!

We spent another day going round the outer road and called in at the Library and Museum which was small but had excellent displays and lots of historical details of the different Cook Islands life and customs. Just down the road was the CICC Church (Ngatanglia) which was built of coral and lime and in the grounds were the tombs of the first Premier Albert Royale Henry and also the grave of the Reverend John Williams who had brought Christianity to these islands and was later massacred along side his friend by natives. One day I went with Ray on his weekly Hash, a run/walk at various locations throughout the island. Locals and visitors meet every week to take part in the Hash and you get to see some places that you probably would not be able to find on your own. Paul and I used to run with a Hash in Berlin in the early 80s and we had such fun and this was roughly the same format. We ran through fields with lots of goats and pigs and the odd bull and it was good fun although parts were very overgrown and I ended up with lots of seeds stuck to my socks. We also went back to the local church where the choir were again amazing and we had a lovely welcome from the locals in their village hall. All the ladies had on new dresses specially made for celebrations that were taking place over the next week when all the outer islands visited Rarotonga to celebrate Independence Day (Te Maeva Nui). Outside Paul spoke to the Minister who invited us to attend their Gospel Day Celebrations commemorating the arrival of Christianity to Rarotonga the next day. We arrived to the sound of music and listened to songs of joy and praise which literally lifted the roof of the National Auditorium as six Cook Island Churches gave it their all. Each of the churches took to the stage in their colourful dress for the choir and imene tuki competition and there was plenty of light hearted competition between the Ekalesia who were equally passionate in their choir singing and entertaining in their imene tuki. We were lucky to be able to join them in these celebrations which had the audience up on their feet – again more memories to treasure.

We had a meal one evening with Ray, Jenny, Arab and Andrea at a restaurant on the beach where the owner’s son entertained the diners with his guitar and we all danced the night away and had an excellent time. Chris the owner also joined his son singing and playing the harmonica, he was the chap from Lymington who had come to these islands 40 years ago and married a local lady and stayed.

Well our long journey is nearly at its end as we leave the Cook Islands at about midnight on Saturday homeward bound. Before that though we are going to spend our last few days relaxing as well as join in the celebrations at the start of the islanders Te Maeva Nui with events taking place all over the island including a large float parade along the main street on Friday morning which should be spectacular. Dance teams are also arriving today on the Samoan ship MV Lady Naormi at Avatiu Harbour with peoples from the Northern Group of islands, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Pukapuka and Penryyn. Air Rarotonga will be bringing in teams from the Southern Group of Islands, Mangaia, Aitu, Mauke and Aitutaki (where we were last week) to join in a week of celebrations. The islanders will be opening stalls at the Pananganui Culture Market to promote their traditional crafts and we are planning to spend Saturday morning at the market before spending our last few hours with Ray and Jenny until our late flight. We are sure that our last couple of days on these stunning pacific islands will stay with us for a long time which will be a really memorable end to oceanic journey and the end of our travels (for now that is!).

So this is our very last blog entry and we do hope that you have enjoyed reading of our adventures. It has been rather detailed in places but as well as keeping everyone updated we also wanted it to be a complete journal of our travels for us so to keep, look back, treasure and remember. We leave the islands on Saturday 30th July arriving back in the UK on Tuesday 2nd August and hope to catch up with all our family and friends then – see you there.


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