First day in Raro on Island Time. Landed yesterday washed out from lack of sleep to our first “small world” discovery: Te Uira our taxi driver to the Edgewater Resort was in my Māori language class at Canterbury in1998-99 and was taught by Te Rita Papesch. He’s happy to be back home now but wishes there could be more to the economy, now that tourism has taken over.
Roads here (correction, “the road“) are busy with scooters: no helmets, shorts and skirts and jandals on a 50kph limit, so maybe they don’t have too many crashes requiring skin grafts. Little kids hang on to mama, shop girls buzz around with flowered garlands and along the roadside under the coconut palms framing the near vertical mountains, chickens graze. Relaxomatic mode ensues.
Had an early night to get up fresh for our first full day, with a trip on the bus to Avarua. The island is certainly ringed with tourist traps, beach hotels and cafes, dive shops, car and scooter rentals, but it looks pretty relaxed with almost nobody passing us all the way. We arrive in the main town after first circling the island’s main traffic feature: a roundabout. Not a red, green or amber light in sight.
After some brunch – coconut pancakes, yum – we head for the old palace where Eruera (Ted) Nia was laid to rest in June. We search for Ettie Rout’s grave in the nearby church but no luck there. Ted’s grave site is unmarked but fresh concrete reveals his resting place. Aere ra, e te rangatira! I say a poroporoaki and we leave him in peace.
On the return bus trip, a different driver who cracks jokes and sings songs entertains us. I guess this will be the only time I ever get to hear a bus driver sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Time for a swim: these new Warehouse reef shoes feel like moon boots and with my glasses off, the few reef fish seen through goggles look a trifle impressionistic. Off to the market tomorrow.
Wake to discover the All Blacks have thrashed Australia 42-8, so that’s a good start to the day; might be a replay later on the down-home-hardcase local sports channel that feels like its been produced by people who have just walked into a studio. Nice. This morning after breakfast early, we head for the town market at Avarua and catch some real local colour: not a beige anything in sight. Even my compatriot baby boomer tourists with their bad veins and white flabby bodies have come prepared, in colour – kind of.
We cruise the many local stalls selling everything from taro to paua jewelery; grizzled elders kōrero in the local Māori reo as they sit behind the tables stacked with fruit and vegetables, keeping alive a vanishing world. The local paper speaks of a reo endangered as fewer and fewer children are growing up speaking the language. English – swamping the culture with tourists like us – is as usual, the enemy of indigenous identity.
After a shirt and jandal shopping foray, we head back for a coffee at Salsa, where they will feed you on the finest coconut pancakes west of Tahiti. Bacon and banana sweetened with maple syrup: why are our fellow tourists eating scrambled eggs, like you can buy in any cafe in New Zealand?
I have spotted a poster on the window outside Vonnia’s, advertising an exhibition at the National Museum: conch shell carvings by Michel Tuffery and local artists that memorialise the 500 Cook Island soldiers who served with the Māori Pioneer Battalion in the Great War. We walk to the site and find it is closed on Saturdays, followed by a three-legged dog we have picked up in our perambulations. The Cook Island kuri is a ubiquitous, homeless kind of beast that wanders at will, like the chickens.
We head back to Cook’s Corner via the Library and University of the South Pacific: this is where higher education happens after high school. The bus we need to catch – clockwise this time – departs from this famous corner every 30 minutes, servicing the tourist accomodations that ring the island. There is no public transport apart from these rattly buses; few locals use them, preferring their scooters. I find a nice honu (turtle) pendant as a souvenir and compare tatau with the shop assistant: she loves my Pule art work and her whānau design abstracts are superb.
The bus is packed, the window is jammed so no blasts of cool air this trip; we rattle and roar from stop to stop, passengers alight at the well-appointed resorts and spas, sandwiched by the dilapidated homes of the locals, their whanau graves and the dazzling array of churches: SDA, Mormons, Catholic, Pentecostals and Baha’i. Paradise is definitely run by the godly.
Sunday dawns and it’s time for our visit to the CICC church at Arorangi nearby. This was founded initially by LMS missionaries in the 1800s and today, is one of the largest Christian denominations. We board a bus with a dozen other interested parties off for a cultural experience; for us, it’s a normal Sunday in a Māori church.
In this one of course, the dominant language in the local culture – among mature adults at least – is not English. We’re used to a liturgy in Māori back home, but here, with a few genuflections to “our overseas visitors”, they run it their way. We’re ushered to the upstairs seating by a deacon who says cameras are ok, which is great as the colour and the fabrics, the hats and and faces of the people shout life in all its glory.
There follow prayers, notices, singing, sermons, everything you would expect, but here, it is full of a communal passion I have never experienced before, either in full blast Pentecostalism, or Moravian communities where the whole group can at times seem like one organism, effacing individuals. You literally feel in the singing as if you have entered the throne room of grace.
My fingers burn up image after image on the tiny Lumix LX70 with its massive zoom lens; any other camera would be intrusive, but this classic device is not much bigger than a pack of Rothmans. I can’t wait to share to power and the glory of this church and this people with others. Three hours later, we are still there.
This is because today is a celebration of Cook Island youth and four groups have assembled to recite scripture verses by heart, sing himene, perform skits and generally give it their all, to show the elders they are ready to take on the mantle of evangelism for the next generation. It is encouraging to see they are all Māori speakers.
The marathon ends with some of our party having ducked out halfway; expecting an 11.30am finish, we were still in the church at one o’clock. Pity for them that they missed the feast afterwards, as this was a special day and so it was more than a cup of tea. The table was spread with all the best the island could provide and we climbed into the bus for the return journey full to bursting, body soul and spirit.
Monday morning we’re booked on an Eco Cycle tour with Storytellers: Timi our driver and guide is a local man who never wants to live in New Zealand with his parents. His grandparents brought him up and he loves it here where “the loudest noise is the sound of the chickens”.
We pick up Bob, a retired printer from Wanganui, a game retiree with a few tasty views on “the Maoris” back home (he seems unaware that Timi is a relative, since the waka left from here around 1350). We get fitted out for our mountain bikes and head inland on the Ara Metua, into the cultivations of the locals you can’t see easily from the tourism-dominated ring road that hugs the coast and the beaches.
Timi takes us on a guided tour of taro, banana, arrowroot and many other local crops, giving us the benefit of his encylopaedic hands-on local knowledge. We discover that the government does not own the land, the people do; there are no fences and title is with ancestral family links; unused land, or that left behind by those who have gone to NZ, is tilled by somebody else.
He’s a warm and generous host and unhurried; we get to the picnic area on the beach a few minutes after noon, to a spread of rice, chicken, prawns and taro chips. Just the best way learn some local history, geography and share time with a Cook Island man who is happy to stay right here. His kids will go to Auckland for high school, where their grandparents live, thirty years after leaving. Not Timi: “the noise drives me crazy, I only stay one week”. We can see why now.
Tuesday the plan is to hire scooters and do some exploration on the back road and some other sites. Problem is, the rain has set in and it means get wet and scoot, or hire a car. Both being slightly mad, we opt to scoot and so get two Honda Lead 100cc autos from Tipani Hire, $20 a day, magic. Heading through Arorangi to Rutaki, southeast, the tropical rain sets in and along the coast, exposed to the sea, it feels like we might get blown off.
No way back now, we stop sopping at Te Maire Nui Gardens and with hot coffee, regroup. We cut our garden tour short and head back on the main road for Muri where the rich cats are sleeping still, and stop at the departure point of the waka that sailed to Aotearoa. Too wet and cold to tarry, time for a brief mihi to those hero migrants who are the ancestors of our many friends back home.
We dogleg west to the inner road and all seems well until Jeanette is struck down by headache from nowhere that proves disabling. It’s all she can do to stay upright and slowly, we head for the National Museum in Avarua where we planned to visit the Michel Tuffery exhibition of carved mother of pearl shells that are a memorial to the Kuki Airani soldiers of WW1.
The kind museum worker sees our problem immediately and provides water and paracetamol to get us to a point where I can take Jeanette on pillion back to the resort and come back for her scooter later. I do a quick recce of the exhibition while she recovers: the backlit carved shells with the faces of the soldiers are stunning, archetypes, demi-gods, each with their own special feature.
Many have a flower behind their ear and a lemon squeezer hat; some have shovels (for trenching and tunneling); others rifles with bayonets, gas masks and all the accoutrements of modern war. They look Homeric in their eternally fixed gazes, men who left a paradise of sorts to visit hells of slaughter, fighting for a King whose principal contribution to their lives was to conquer them first.
We manage to get ourselves back to base two-up so the patient can rest in the dark, managing the pain as best she knows, until later in the day, it lifts enough for us to continue. We visit the wonderful work at Pacific Weave where an artist from Penrhyn has opened up a new store. Amazing shell and fibre work that calls out for a home, the kind of skill and beauty you can take with you that is a level above the regulation tourist tat.
We end the day with a tuna feast at the legendary Tamarind House, navigating there and back two up on the wee Honda in the rain and the dark. This would have to be the best restaurant so far, with Oceans a close second. Chunks of yellowfin in curry for me, while Jeanette goes for a tuna steak, finished off with a shared coconut ice cream.
Writing about what one has eaten – unless you are a restaurant critic – is not ideal, it seems somehow unkind, as if inviting friends to a feast and refusing them food. Last night here finished off with a marathon dream which carried on in my head as it woke me. I was giving an off the cuff presentation about Tutakangahau and Elsdon Best. It almost felt like the two of them came into the room.