Last day on Rarotonga, off into Avarua and few hours wait at the airport for our Air Rarotonga flight to Aitutaki at 4.30pm. The tiny Embraer Bandeirante is intimate after the big 777-200 that flew us here: you can watch the co-pilot do his crossword after takeoff. It is a milk run after all, but I do like pilots who keep an eye on what is going on outside the aircraft.
A short 50 minute run and we’re over Aitutaki and coming in on paradise; Aki our driver to Paradise Cove welcomes us with fragrant ‘ei (lei) of frangipani and gardenia, and then Jeanette’s friends, Ade and Chris repeat the honour. They’re Kiwi expats who spend the New Zealand winter here.
The van looks like a painter’s wagon from the 1980s with rear seating looted from a Humber or an old Railways bus. We rattle along under palms and pull up at the place well named after a biblical oasis. Our thatched, stilted whare on the beach is named Are Tiare Taina – Gardenia House.
Jeanette who has been battling a headache for the last 48 hours has to lie down, while I do a recce of the beach: fabulous site, the surf breaking way out on the reef and the water at the land’s edge, almost still. It proves a long night for her and we’re glad when morning dawns for the new day.
I head down for breakfast on the beach and afterwards, hire a bike to ride down to Maina and the local trading post to get her some fruit and ice blocks. It’s all very laidback with plenty of scooter traffic and few motor vehicles. The store has everything including plastic garlands for the discerning scooter rider to decorate their head. I might invest later.
On my return, after some sustenance, Jeanette feels up to a walk so we set off back down the same road in search of a café, that proves elusive. There is a dairy open and after some cool drinks, we head home, picked up separately by a nice young local woman on a flash new Honda 50: she takes Jeanette to the whare and comes back for me. Class. Not like the motor vehicles we thumbed that roared on by.
I thank her and deliver a mihi and a blessing in (NZ) Māori; when she looks bemused I ask her if she understood me. No, she knew it was Māori from back here but she didn’t get it all, so I translate. “Thank you for your hospitality to strangers, may the Lord bless and keep you always”.
As the sun goes down and the first stars emerge, we share a meal of tuna and mashed potato with salad under the open skies, giving the last few bites to Bitza, the beach cat who knows just how to rub tourists up the right way at the right time: perfect. Tomorrow, it’s off to hire scooters at Popoara Rentals, then swimming and paddle boarding into the lagoon.
Another morning dawns at Paradise Cove – which we will later learn has a less than paradisal e-Coli problem, so no swimming off the beach. Breakfast with a die-for view precedes our expedition to hire a pair of scooters from Popoara and explore the island. The two 125cc Velimoto auto scoots look a little like they have been imported from an Eastern bloc country before the fall of the Wall, but they point and shoot, which is the main thing.
Having independence means we can explore at our own pace, so off we buzz on a circuit of Aitutaki; not quite the Isle of Man TT, but close. The average speed is 30kph on a limit of 40: what’s the hurry anyway? We take it easy. It is strange to ride without a helmet, in shorts and jandals, but after a while it seems normal – everybody else does. Just don’t fall off, ok? There is a hospital.
Back for lunch after a windblown fun ride past waves of coconut palms, we find divine organic food at Tauono’s Cafe just down the road, probably the best meal I’ve tasted for years. Banana chicken with local delicacies, like apple breadfruit and coconut cake to follow. Sonja the chef is a German-Canadian import who married into the local culture years ago and is now a widow, after her beloved Tauono died in 2009. Now she carries on the torch for organic gardening and cooking. She should be world famous.
Time for a swim and we head up the lagoon, to meet a couple of local spearfishermen coming in from out beyond the reef with a load of small fish. The water is warm but shallow, so I float while Jeanette plays with her GoPro waterproof video camera. The real fish fun will come on Monday with the Teking Reef tour: here there are only starfish and a schools of sprats that skip along the shoreline, pounced on by herons at dawn and dusk.
Next we visit Ade and Chris in their expat bach and get a bit of local history, arranging to meet at the Night Market for a meal after 5pm. They have plenty of inside goss after four years coming and going; now they spend most of their time on the island. It could grow on me. I think you would need to feel that a certain part of your creative life was behind you; that you were prepared to disappear out of your old New Zealand identity, shed that skin and reinvent yourself as a local, like these two happy Kiwis.
The Night Market is fun: a few stalls selling local kai, goat curry, chicken and beef; plenty of tourists like us have turned up to feast. After gorging on the delicious spicy chicken, we spend some time at the Fishing Club where a party is starting after the day’s fishing contest. This is a big deal, with a team over from Raro to compete.
There’s a local culture group in the park with drums and fire dancing to top off the evening; their amazing party trick is to do the Olympic Rings, two dancers on top of three and twirling fire. After this display, we scoot in the dark down to The Boat Shed bar for the Bledisloe Cup game, where the All Blacks inflict a 29-9 fire dance on the Wallabies and we head home replete.
Today is the second leg of the island exploration: breakfasted, we mount the scooters and head south to Maina and some tourist shopping first at the trading post. After a coffee and a chat to the cook and barista at the store cafe – “I tell my friends to come here and not Rarotonga – that’s like Auckland, or Sydney!” – we head off onto the sandy coastal tracks and the red dirt volcanic trails of the inner island.
Our first strike of gold is to see a local fisherman out on the reef, coming back in across the lagoon, poling his yellow boat: gold on turquoise, it is like a jewelled icon in a vast blue cathedral vaulted by the sky, established on the waters. We are looking for the ancient marae site – Te Pokai o Rae – but no success so far. Passing local cultivations of taro, cassava and banana, we remember Timi our guide on Rarotonga and feel at least a little well informed.
The usual scattering of chickens punctuates our noisy passage past goats tethered and loose, pigs tied up and crunching coconuts, which lie sprouting on the roadside. Easy to forget they are giant seeds: warning, do not stand under a tree for too long! Death can occur when the nuts fall like cannonballs.
We find the marae with its mysterious groups of stone witnesses and wonder what went on here back in time, before the Papa’a arrived to break the sky open and change the order of this world with the book and the gun. The silence is piercing.
Back at the Maina Store, we order burgers and chat with Klaus and his son, whose German I heard at the park last night. He is a former pearl trader from Munich, now living off the share market: his mother a Tahitian who met his German father in Paris. We swap addresses and spend a nice time speaking German, mine a trifle rusty but he is polite and helpful with corrections. The son proudly shows us his sheath knife made with a Sollingen blade and bought in Bangkok.
The afternoon is swimming time: we find a good spot near where our friends recommended, passing Ade’s Threads and asking permission. She is fine and gives directions, so we won’t blunder into the pricey, exclusive Pacific Resort where the well heeled go to escape the less well provided for.
The beach is the same and the water is a democracy, once we plunge in and look back at their expensive loungers and warning signs that the sand there is a private place. It ain’t: the locals pass by as always, doing what they do. The lagoon is warm and healing, it’s a pleasure just to float around like driftwood and chat idly. I feel for a moment like my world has disappeared, the one back home with its octopus arms of stress and concerns. That’s why we’re here.
The day ends with a superb meal at Tupuna’s Cafe with the promise of church tomorrow and more divine singing from the heart of Aitutaki. Back at the whare, it’s Island Night and we lie in bed listening to the pounding drums.
Sunday dawns like Saturday, with a trifle more cloud but the same atmosphere as usual: relaxed and easy. We head for church before 10am and arrive to the sound of joyful harmonies within the white vision that is Ziona Tapu – Holy Zion, the heavenly mountain of the Lord.
Within her walls, the white clad choir, the women with their decorated woven hats, the men with blinding white shirts and thin black ties proceed to call up heaven on earth with powerful acapella singing in Aituaki Māori and English. The visitors – us – are welcomed and the service swings into action.
On the painted and decorated ceiling, I spy an anchor facing the painting of the ark of the tabernacle on the other wall, the Holy of Holies, with inscription “Ebera 6:19”. I release it’s a famous verse in Hebrews, about hope being an anchor for the soul, “which enters the Presence behind the veil…where Jesus has entered for us”. They know their bible here and the iconography tells a story. Every time they sing, I feel uplifted by the raw power of their worship and carried to that place of which the anchor speaks.
After the service we head out to Koru Cafe for lunch, past the airport on its finger of sand, compacted coral laid down by US Seabees in 1942 as part of staging post run to Australia, away from the danger of the Solomons. The first aircraft to land here were B-24 Liberator bombers and in the 1950s, Globemasters on their way to Antartica, via New Zealand. Harewood, Christchurch in fact, where I saw them as a boy of eight or nine, droning overhead with their orange dayglo tails.
On our way back from the cafe, we call in at the airport, where I glean the above information from a display in the tiny terminal; heading out, we stop to talk to the No Sunday Flight protestors with their banners at the entrance, an eight year long fight to silence the skies and keep the Sabbath holy.
The afternoon passes reading and then dinner at the flash Pacific Resort down the road. As we enter the dining room, two moko (geckos) fall from the rafters at our feet, and I recall how when we entered the church this morning, one fell on my head – or so it seemed. The only other explanation was that it had crawled into my new Aitutaki cap overnight, lodged between the cardboard lining I’d neglected to remove on buying it, and the material itself. Were these showers of lizards a sign?
Monday is the big lagoon adventure: snorkelling with Teking Tours. We assemble at the wharf for instructions and head out with our pilot and guide Opu and Captain Cook his offsider who we drop off in the shallows near Maina Island; he wades ashore towing an Esky with the food he will prepare for our lunch.
Then it’s off to the first pool to feed the fish and begin snorkelling. I take a while to get used to the facemask and the breathing tube but by the next stop, I’m flippering face down into fish wonderland like a human torpedo. The fish hug the coral as we pass over, just like in a David Attenborough TV series; they are a child’s crazy crayon series of hues, variations of red, yellow, green and blue you could not invent – but someone did.
We head hungry for that meal on the island and feast on a sumptuous range of fish, chicken, steak and local fruits, along with coleslaw and freshly grated coconut, all displayed in giant clam shells. I have never tasted anything and good as this before nor felt the urge to devour it all like a wolf. Unforgettable morning.
Red-tailed Tropic Birds wheel all around us as we eat and their fearless young sit under the trees as we pass, as if this is Eden morning and the creatures do not yet flee at man’s approach. Above them float a squadron of Frigate Birds, soaring and riding the tropic airs with no effort at all, masters of the winds. They cannot land on water, of course, having no oil in their feathers, so they must stay aloft over the seas.
We end the day with a sprint across the lagoon in bucking waters to One Foot Island where you can get your passport stamped – if you bring it. We walk the sandbar to the place where the story goes, a father gave his life for his son by fooling an enemy war party that there was only one person on the island, walking in the boy’s footprints, then hiding him up a tree knowing he would die but his son would live.
Teking Lagoon tours finish with a trip to Akiami where in the 1950s, TEAL Solent flying boats used to land and moor while refuelling for the next leg of the Coral Route. Fabulous sights and tales, the perfect way to crown our penultimate day in Aitutaki.
Our final day was just chilling out, postcards, lunch with our dear new friends Ade and Chris, the ideal expatriates: living simply locally, involved in the small but tightly knitted community, “the benevolent prison” that is Aitutaki.
You cannot go far, and you find yourself very soon back where you started; it is hard for the young, Chris says, they really have to go if they want more: Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia or further. This is the old island story about the outward flow of the locals and the inward tide of tourists like us.
It has had the interesting effect of teaching me I am really a Pacific person and that New Zealand is not a southern outpost of European culture, but of the Pacific. I knew this in my mind of course, but being here in the flesh, in these latitudes and longitudes, I could feel it.
I feel that if we in New Zealand want to have a sense of belonging, it needs to be outward looking, not backward: out to the ocean, out to the sea of islands and the island people, that same map of the world Epeli Hau’ofa wrote of years ago. Meitaki ma’ata e au motu Kuki, kia manuia!