The Cook Islands – Outer Islands
The Southern Group
There are few places left in the world like Atiu, an island with just over 500 people and acres and acres of untouched rainforest and coastal bush.There are no western bars (apart from the small one at Atiu Villas), bright neon lights or busy roads. For travellers searching for an island paradise, Atiu is it.
Most overseas visitors to Atiu lament on departure that they wish they’d organised a longer stay on this unspoiled island gem, full of captivating history, scenery and friendly people.
The Anatakitaki Cave walk is the perfect offering for visitors who want an unforgettable nature experience. Reasonable fitness and covered shoes are needed for the trek through tropical forest that resembles a fantastically overgrown garden. Regarded by environmentalists
as a national treasure, Anatakitaki Cave is home to the Kopeka bird, a swallow unique to Atiu, which like a bat, navigates its way in the pitch black caverns using sonar.
The towering limestone caverns contain cauliflower coral, proving that the caves were once beneath the sea, as these coral formations only occur underwater. There are huge stalactites reaching to the cavern floor and massive stalagmites sparkling as though they are embedded with millions of diamonds. The magnificence of the caverns is breathtaking.
Another tour takes you to Rimarau Burial Cave that includes visits to age old marae and “walking the dramatic route taken by hundreds as they went to meet their death in ancient times.” If beaches, historic sights and panoramic scenery also appeal, opt for an island tour. It offers contrasting scenery, drives through shady roads and forest thick with ancient trees to coastal tracks and points of interest including the coral garden, sinkholes and fabulous little beaches ideal for shell collecting or leisurely lolling in the warm, pristine sea.
A fun experience is a visit to one of the legendary Atiu tumunu – ‘clubs’, where local men gather to drink homebrew and chat about island affairs, with clear rules about conduct. Often there’s a string- band for added entertainment. Visitors are always welcome to stop in, partake of a cup of the local brew and meet the locals.
“There’s money in the land,” says Mata Arai, pointing to her coffee bushes laden with ripe berries. Mata is an industrious Atiuan woman who produces the 100 percent Atiu Island Coffee using a technique she learnt from her grandmother as a child. It’s a process all done by hand. Atiu Island Coffee can be purchased from Mata’s home, in Atiu stores, or supermarkets on Rarotonga.
Atiu is a 45 minute flight north-east from Rarotonga and there are regular scheduled flights. Alternatively, why not consider an Air Rarotonga ‘Two Island Adventure’ which includes two night’s accommodation at Tamanu Beach Resort in Aitutaki and two night’s accommodation at Atiu Villas on amazing Atiu. Local tours are optional and extra. Available from April to October, flights depart Rarotonga on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Just a few miles off the coast of Atiu lies the uninhabited island of Takutea. Numerous seabirds thrive on this pristine island that has been declared a bird sanctuary by the Atiu Island Council. Only they can give permission for visitors to land there.
The garden island of the Cook group, Mauke is 18 kilometres around. It is surrounded by makatea (fossilised coral) with a volcanic plateau in the centre. Parts of the foreshore are dotted with isolated white sandy coves and caves that one can swim in. Inland there are fresh water caves and the famous Motuanga Cave that has galleries reaching beneath the reef. The reef is so close to the foreshore that crashing white breakers are visible from most of the unsealed coral road that runs around the island.
Do visit the “divided church” built where the villages of Ngatiarua and Areora meet. Shared by the two villages, it has two separate entrances and sitting areas. There are clean and comfortable places to stay in Mauke – try Ri’s Retreat or Tiare Holiday Cottages. They can also organise cave, reef and forest tours. Be sure to obtain a garland of the fragrant maire, a creeper that grows along the makatea. Mauke is picturesque, unhurried and tranquil – a wonderful tonic for frayed nerves.
Of the cluster of islands in the southern group called Nga Pu Toru, Mitiaro would be the least visited by tourists. Not because it is any less beautiful than sister islands Atiu and Mauke, but simply that it is the least known. In the centre of Mitiaro are two lakes full of itiki, freshwater eels. Mitiaro itiki are considered a delicacy in the Cook Islands. Tilapia (bream) are also abundant in the lakes. The lakes are from time to time protected by a traditional raui, a prohibition on all fishing to preserve stocks. At its widest point, the island is 6.4 km across and private gardens in the village are beautifully kept and neat. Community activities include fishing, sports, handicrafts and uapou, or village singsongs. Pretty and unspoiled, life on Mitiaro is refreshingly uncomplicated.
Imagine visiting a fairly large island where you and maybe a handful of others are the only tourists. Mangaia is an island of incredible, serene beauty – from its rugged coastline to the lush, green interior. It is peaceful beyond belief for those accustomed to the constant rush and haste of the outside world. This is a place where one can trek for miles along the coast or in the interior and not meet another soul or hear a vehicle. Nor see any dwellings; just lots of well-tended lantations of pineapples, vegetables, taro, kumara and other crops.
Deep-sea fishing excursions are available – just ask your host, who can also steer you in the right direction for guided tours that include caving, reef/lagoon walks, bush walks and bird watching. Check out the market on Friday mornings in the ‘town’ centre and the craftwork by the skilled Mangaian women. The shell necklaces and woven pandanus bags are labour intensive and sold for very reasonable prices. Mangaia is the destination for those who love the outdoors, appreciate peace and quiet and want to experience a friendly island that’s not in the least “touristy.”
Made famous by Englishman William Marsters, who settled there in 1863 with three wives. He later married and raised a large family. Marsters’ modern day descendents are scattered all over the world. About 60 still remain in Palmerston, which has six motu or islets in a big blue lagoon about 11 km across. The family exports fish, supplying in particular, parrot fish to Rarotonga restaurants. Palmerston hosts the occasional cruise ship and yachts frequently call in. The island also boasts one of the world’s most isolated bars, where thirsty yachties can enjoy a “cold one” and hear tales being regaled by the islanders. It is 500 km NW of Rarotonga.
Manuae is an uninhabited nature reserve and an important seabird and turtle breeding ground. Its two islets in a large shallow lagoon make-up this incredibly beautiful island, situated about 100 km SE of Aitutaki. Many Aitutakians can claim traditional land rights to parts of Manuae. Once inhabited by work gangs of Cook Islands men who produced copra, it is now only occasionally visited by Aitutaki fisherman for its rich fishing grounds outside and within the lagoon. It is possible to view Manuae from the air, on a flight from Atiu to Aitutaki.
The Northern Group
Suwarrow is one of the few “untouched” sanctuaries left in the world where existing endangered species can survive. The Suwarrow National Park is the first National Park in the Cook Islands
– international environmental groups recognise the group of tiny atolls as an untouched haven and breeding area for turtles, sea birds and crabs. Because of the lack of human intervention, Suwarrow is acknowledged as one of the most important sea bird breeding areas in the Pacific. A caretaker and his family live on Suwarrow during the cyclone off-season, between April and November each year. Yachts often visit the island during these months. Suwarrow was made famous by New Zealand hermit Tom Neale, who lived there during the early 1950’s and again in the early 1960’s. He wrote about his experiences in his book “An Island to Oneself.”
Lying northwest 1150 km from Rarotonga, Pukapuka is one of the most isolated islands of the Cook group. One inter- island flight from Rarotonga about every six weeks and irregular shipping has kept Pukapuka one of the most untouched and secluded places in the Pacific. Its remoteness has also kept the traditions and culture of Pukapuka largely unchanged for centuries. Islanders speak the distinct Pukapukan language as well as Cook Islands Maori.
According to legend, almost 500 years ago the Pukapuka population was almost entirely wiped out during a catastrophic storm that struck the island. Fourteen people survived, from whom Pukapukan’s today are said to descend. The late American writer Robert Dean Frisbie settled there in 1924 and immortalised Pukapuka in the books he wrote about life on the island. The now uninhabited area where he lived with his Pukapuka wife and children is one of the most beautiful – an untouched white sandy beach with palm trees reaching out to tease the clear blue lagoon.
Access to this tiny island of about 80 Pukapukans can only be gained by inter- island boat. Regarded as the sister island of Pukapuka, a voyage from Rarotonga takes about three days. The islanders are adept at surviving an isolated lifestyle that remains unchanged year after year.
Nassau was hooked up to the country’s telephone system only in 2001 and many of the people had never used a telephone before. Just 1.2 sq. km in size, where families live in kikau thatched cottages.
The cultured black pearl capital of the Cook Islands. Quality black pearls become centrepieces for fine jewellery that are worn by women and men all over the world. In 1997, the island survived one of the worst cyclones in Cook Islands history. It claimed 19 lives after a tidal wave swept men, women and children out into the huge, raging lagoon. Pearl farms dot this remarkable lagoon. Villagers use small outboard boats to travel between Tukao and Tauhunu – two villages on separate islets – or to their pearl farms set up on coral outcrops.
Some of the pearl farms are sophisticated operations jutting out of the deep blue lagoon, complete with small gardens and poultry farms that help support workers who live in modern quarters. Manihiki women have made history for entering what was once a male dominated vocation. A number of women own and manage their own pearl farms, diving, seeding and cleaning the oyster shells all year around. The women are also renowned for their finely woven craftwork. Manihiki is astonishingly beautiful and those who have been fortunate enough to visit the island, have never been disappointed.
Sister island of Manihiki and 42km north-west. Visits to Rakahanga are only possible by boat from Manihiki or inter- island vessel. There are two main islands and seven islets in the Rakahanga lagoon. The island is picturesque and unspoiled.
Penrhyn (or Tongareva) is the most remote of the Cook group, lying 1365 km NNE of Rarotonga. It has a remarkable blue water lagoon measuring 233 sq km. A 77-km coral reef encircles the islets in the extraordinary lagoon. The villages of Tetautua and Omoka are on different islets that are barely visible to each other. Penrhyn island women make the finest rito craftwork in the Cook Islands. Hats, bags, fans and mats made in Penrhyn are amongst the best to be found anywhere in the world.