COOK IS­LANDS: CONSERVATION IN THE COOKS

Plonked in the mid­dle of the South Pa­cific Ocean, roughly half­way be­tween Auck­land and Hawaii, you’ll find the Cook Is­lands, brim­ming with colour, cul­ture and a sur­pris­ingly con­tem­po­rary out­look on conservation.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY CHRISTINE RETSCHLAG

The Cook Is­lands are brim­ming with colour, cul­ture and have a sur­pris­ingly con­tem­po­rary out­look on conservation.

Arather ro­tund Slo­vakian tourist is wear­ing a too-tight t-shirt which states “Never un­der­es­ti­mate a man with a boat” which is apt, as I’m sail­ing through one of the South Pa­cific’s most iconic la­goons. Thank­fully it’s not the chubby Czech behind the wheel of Titi Ai Tonga but Cap­tain “Casanova” who si­mul­ta­ne­ously plays the bon­gos while steer­ing the 21-me­tre vaka or con­tem­po­rary ca­noe. To his left, sits the colour­ful crew croon­ing “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”, pay­ing homage to the pre­vi­ous day’s typ­i­cal, tropical weather. Ahead of him, lays the Ai­tu­taki la­goon, one of the most pho­tographed la­goons in the world.

There are no clouds to­day as we skim the cocktail blue ocean and it’s im­pos­si­ble to judge where this la­goon ends and the sky be­gins. On this jour­ney you’ll sail to three is­lands, wan­der white sandy beaches, and snorkel with gi­ant trevally be­fore be­ing en­ticed back on board by the trum­pet of a gi­ant conch shell.

This is a South Pa­cific story of some­thing old and some­thing new. Where an­cient tra­di­tions meet con­tem­po­rary ways. Emerg­ing as one of the most pro­gres­sive coun­tries in the South Pa­cific, these days you’ll find the Cook Is­lands is home to eco-ef­fi­cient tourism prod­ucts and fe­male-friendly poli­cies. This is a dar­ing des­ti­na­tion of un­ex­pected beach bars where you can en­joy a fine New Zealand wine while wit­ness­ing a tiramisu sunset.

But there’s so much more to the Cook Is­lands than its lus­cious la­goons and its spec­tac­u­lar sky.

On Raro­tonga, nes­tled in the vil­lage of Matavera and over­look­ing Iku­rangi moun­tain, rests the Cook Is­land’s first pur­pose-built eco re­treat. Matt and Luana Scowcroft added four glamp­ing tents to the two ex­ist­ing cabins on the prop­erty two years ago, em­brac­ing a range of eco ini­tia­tives along the way. Com­post­ing, sus­tain­ably sourced ma­te­ri­als, nat­u­ral and biodegrad­able toi­letries and clean­ing prod­ucts, and free bi­cy­cles and or­ganic break­fasts for guests are all part of life here. Five per cent of prof­its are also do­nated to local conservation projects.

“Ev­ery­one faces the ocean in the Cook Is­lands. We wanted to face the moun­tains,” Luana says.

“Tra­di­tion­ally, that’s where ev­ery­one lived. The idea of conservation is a traditional one. We chose the tents be­cause they are com­pletely out of the box but fit in with our traditional concept of build­ings.”

Also think­ing out­side the box, but em­brac­ing traditional cul­ture, is the new Te Ara Mu­seum, which opened in March this year. Man­ager Stan Wolf­gramm de­scribes the space as a “business in­cu­ba­tor” in which a class­room up­stairs teaches Cook Is­lan­ders about business while down­stairs, a mar­ket­place sells lo­cally made art, craft and food. There

is also a mu­seum, which tells the chrono­log­i­cal story of the Cook Is­lands.

“We found a lot of the so­lu­tions in the South Pa­cific are piece­meal. This is all about eco­nomic self de­ter­mi­na­tion for Cook Is­lan­der peo­ple,” Stan says.

“This is the is­land’s tech hub. It is all about a plat­form for in­for­ma­tion and knowl­edge shar­ing. We devel­oped it as a tool for de­vel­op­ing na­tions that can be mod­elled for the rest of the region.

“The Cook Is­lands are more than just beach and palm trees. It is all about the sto­ry­telling for us. We tell the story about the la­goon and conservation and are build­ing an un­der­wa­ter marae or “meet­ing place” where tourists will be in­vited to help plant coral as part of our conservation ef­forts.”

Not only has conservation ar­rived in the Cook Is­lands, but fem­i­nism has, too.

For a wo­man’s take on tra­di­tion, meet with one of the few fe­male tribal chiefs in the Cook Is­lands, Ti­noma Tok­erau Ariki, the Queen of Puaikura, on Raro­tonga.

Aun­tie Ti­noma, who turns 80 this year, says she never dreamed that she would pre­side over a tribe of more than 500 peo­ple.

“It is up to the tribe to choose who they want as chief. It was com­mon to have men be­fore,” she says.

“It is a great hon­our to be cho­sen by the fam­ily. You name it, any­thing in the com­mu­nity and I am there whether it’s for women, men, church or sports.

“It is a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity. You have to be hum­ble to be a good chief.”

Dig a lit­tle deeper and ex­plore the is­land in­te­rior with Tik-E Tours, which op­er­ate eco-friendly elec­tric tuk tuks. Join former prison of­fi­cer Un­cle Mata who will ex­plain how the is­land is di­vided into three sec­tions, named after three ca­noes. Cook Is­lan­ders have al­ways been great sea­far­ers, with seven ca­noes sail­ing for New Zealand in 1350 and bring­ing their cul­ture to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

On this tour you’ll scoot past rows of is­land chest­nut trees used as land­marks for tribes and en­counter chooks, goats and birds along the way. There’s ruby red gin­ger plants and burnt orange bird of par­adise flow­ers, av­o­ca­does the size of small foot­balls, sweet ba­nanas, and drag­on­fruit all flour­ish­ing from this rich vol­canic soil.

“There is money on this is­land. My fa­ther al­ways says, ‘if you don’t get your hands dirty, you go hun­gry’. The back­yard is our su­per­mar­ket,” Un­cle Mata says.

“It is a very spir­i­tual place here. We are con­nected to the earth and the ocean. We are con­nected to ev­ery­thing that is around us.

“Even though I lived in New Zealand for many years, if I saw a palm tree my heart just pounded. You can never take the is­land out of an is­lan­der.”

Over on Ati­tu­taki, Punarei Cul­tural Tour guide Aun­tie

Mii agrees, de­scrib­ing Cook Is­lan­ders like “par­rot­fish”.

“They will go out into the world and then come back to their reef,” she says.

It’s a sim­i­lar story over the re­mote is­land of Atiu, where Bird­man Ge­orge has been run­ning bird tours of the is­land on which he was born and bred since 1999. So suc­cess­ful are his conservation ef­forts, he has managed to save two species of in­dige­nous birds that were considered en­dan­gered.

At Atiu Vil­las, Roger and Kura Mal­colm built this tourism ac­com­mo­da­tion on a former pineap­ple field with ev­ery­thing made of local wood and vil­las fea­tur­ing the grains of the mango, Pa­cific ma­hogany, co­conut, Christ­mas nut, co­conut, cedar and aca­cia.

Vis­i­tors to Atiu are even in­vited to join a traditional bush beer gath­er­ing or tu­munu where a $5 do­na­tion con­trib­utes to mak­ing to­mor­row’s brew. The gath­er­ing it­self stems from a kava cer­e­mony and vis­its from the English whalers 200 years ago. The whalers didn’t par­tic­u­larly like kava and taught the is­land war­riors how to brew ale from or­anges.

The church, the po­lice and the women of Atiu have been trying to stop the tu­munu but it be­came le­gal to brew your own beer in 1987. Beer, which was for­merly kept in the barrel

of an old co­conut tree, is now made in plas­tic con­tain­ers of malt, hops, su­gar, yeast and or­anges, with an al­co­hol con­tent of around 9 to 11 per cent.

In a lime green shack, which looks a lit­tle like a bus stop, and un­der a bleat­ing fan that sounds like the pro­pel­ler of the 16-seater plane, which brings guests to the is­land, Roger ex­plains the tu­munu eti­quette.

“A good bar­man makes sure ev­ery­one gets drunk to­gether and reg­u­lates the ses­sion. It is a pub but ev­ery­one is in­cluded all around the one barrel,” he says.

“If ev­ery­one is get­ting to a talk­a­tive stage the bar­man will tap on the barrel and calls ev­ery­one to or­der. A prayer will be said.

“When I came to this is­land 38 years ago there was a tu­munu for women called “Mama Home­brew”. There were all these women sit­ting around a teapot and cup on the side of the road and it looked like they were just hav­ing cups of tea as it was il­le­gal to drink back then.”

Wrap your head around the tu­munu and your tongue around the lan­guage of the Cook Is­lands. While this cul­ture has the same five vow­els as English, is­lan­ders mouth the words in the most evoca­tive, elon­gated way, like they’re singing rather than sim­ply speak­ing.

And in the Cook Is­lands, there is just so much to sing about. •

Open­ing im­age: Sunset in the Cook Is­lands, © Sean Scott.

Clock­wise from above: Vaka Cruise Boat, Ai­tu­taki La­goon;

Chil­dren of the Cook Is­lands; Irukangi Eco Re­treat.

Op­po­site page: A colour­ful local fes­ti­val, © Rawhitiroa Pho­tog­ra­phy.

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