Look­ing be­hind the pic­ture- per­fect la­goons and blue skies of the Cook Is­lands

THE HI­BIS­CUS HAD IT COM­ING. Our ma­chetewield­ing guide Mata Ge­orge (a man of few words but with plenty of swing) takes no pris­on­ers hack­ing back the wild trop­i­cal weed that has en­gulfed the steep slopes of Maun­garoa Moun­tain, Raro­tonga. But our Raro­ton­gan Rambo has a right to take re­venge – the hi­bis­cus has been keep­ing se­crets.

Be­neath the canopy is proof that giants once roamed the Cook Is­lands. The ev­i­dence? Two sets of foot­prints the size of boat oars worn into the stone look­out post of an an­cient for­ti­fied marae. The big toe in one of the im­prints, the size of a de­cent potato, marks the po­si­tion where sentries once guarded the tino­mana ariki (chief) of th­ese hills. Al­though few have laid eyes on this marae in more than a cen­tury, signs of tribal life are ev­ery­where: shell mid­dens, pineap­ple plants and gi­ant slabs of stone in a tri­an­gu­lar for­ma­tion.

“Th­ese are not rocks that are from here,” says Teuira Pi­rangi, the de­scen­dant of the high chief Tino­mana Enuaru­tini Ariki and a mod­ern-day guardian of this area. “Our an­ces­tors must have been mas­sive to lug th­ese here. We don’t know how they did it.”

Teuira (or Tutu for short) is guid­ing me, my part­ner An­drew and four other vis­i­tors to one of 11 marae sites hid­den in 82 hectares of dense bush be­long­ing to the Puaikura tribe on the western side of the is­land. The land has been largely un­touched since Tino­mana Enuaru­tini Ariki – af­ter meet­ing the mis­sion­ary John Williams – per­suaded the tribe to aban­don its war­fare with the neigh­bour­ing Tak­i­tumu vaka (tribe) and move down from th­ese hills to the coast more than 175 years ago.

“I’ve never been here and I’m a lo­cal. This is spe­cial,” says fel­low trekker Alice, gen­tly dig­ging up a wild or­chid with a piece of banyan tree she is us­ing as a walk­ing pole. She will plant the flower in her gar­den, she says.

It is our last day in the Cook Is­lands, and this is not the path we ex­pected our hol­i­day to take. We’d en­vis­aged sun, sand, snor­kel­ing, azure wa­ter and re­lax­ation. And we got that. But we also dis­cov­ered an­other form of par­adise when we turned our backs on the ocean and looked to the land within.

The Cook Is­lands are easy trav­el­ing for New Zealan­ders: three air­lines fly to the is­lands, the cur­rency is New Zealand dol­lars and vis­i­tors can bring food into the coun­try eas­ily. It takes only an hour for the lo­cal bus – driven by a man the Raro­ton­gans call “Mr Hope­less” (for his lack of punc­tu­al­ity, al­though we didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence that) – to

travel the is­land’s 32-kilo­me­tre cir­cum­fer­ence.

The outer ring road around the Cook Is­lands’ cap­i­tal of Raro­tonga is well worn by the scooter wheels and jan­dals of the New Zealand and Aus­tralian tourists who flocked to the Cook Is­lands in record num­bers in 2016. But there are in­land roads to ex­plore and more colours to the Cooks than just the blue sea: the deep green of the moun­tains, rich orange-brown of the vol­canic earth, the black of a spindly pineap­ple patch and the grey smoke of back­yard umu earth ovens.

When we’d vis­ited the clifftop High­land Par­adise Cul­tural Cen­tre for its award-win­ning cul­tural show a week ago, we’d begged Tutu to take us back to the off-lim­its-to-vis­i­tors marae sites at the edge of the cen­tre. The fa­cil­ity has re­ceived UNESCO fund­ing to help clear the over­grown fo­liage around the maraes, which are un­der re­view to be­come a World Her­itage site. At present, the cen­tre’s is­land feast and the im­pres­sive show bring in the crowds, but the marae sites are Tutu’s pas­sion.

“I want High­land Par­adise to be a univer­sity and a cul­tural cen­tre for our peo­ple and vis­i­tors. Study­ing out­doors is a deeper form of learn­ing. You re­mem­ber more when you touch, smell and taste and when you are closer to the land.”

‘ We’re the guardians of this land. It doesn’t be­long to us, we be­long to the land’

Our change of fo­cus from the land to the sea be­gins when sleep­ing un­der the stars in sa­fari tents. We’re stay­ing at Iku­rangi Eco Re­treat on the North East­ern side of Raro­tonga; it’s the only re­sort on Raro­tonga fac­ing the moun­tains and the only glamp­ing re­sort of its kind in the Cook Is­lands. We wake to the sun ris­ing over the side of the moun­tain, but the sea is not far from mind. Cool ocean air fil­ters through the tent net­ting and cuts through the hu­mid­ity. We can hear the surge of the ocean and sounds of the land: gecko squeaks, in­sect and birds chirps and roost­ers cock-a-doo­dle-doo-ing.

“You see the beau­ti­ful post­cards from Tahiti show­ing the ma­jes­tic moun­tains of Bora Bora but in Raro we al­ways pho­to­graph look­ing out­wards at the sea,” says Luana Scowcroft, who founded Iku­rangi with her hus­band Matt in 2015. “I think when peo­ple think of Raro­tonga they imag­ine the la­goon but we have some­thing very spe­cial here, our moun­tains are spec­tac­u­lar.”

The Scowcrofts are cham­pi­ons of eco­tourism in Raro­tonga. Iku­rangi means “the tail of the sky” and is the name of the moun­tain that watches over the vil­lage of Matavera. The re­sort has an em­pha­sis on the en­vi­ron­ment – there are lux­ury com­post­ing toi­lets, gar­dens are ir­ri­gated with waste­water and the cou­ple are care­ful not to use ex­cess pack­ag­ing – think re­fill­able bot­tles and no mini sham­poos.

Luana grew up in Raro work­ing in a ho­tel that her grand­par­ents and par­ents owned and have since sold, and she has seen tourism grow. Raro­tonga is at a cross­roads, she says, as in­creas­ing tourism puts pres­sure on the Cook Is­lands’ in­fra­struc­ture. The gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to us­ing 100 per cent re­new­able en­ergy by 2020 is an op­por­tu­nity to lead the way in the Pa­cific, she says.

“Grow­ing up here you re­al­ize the idea of con­ser­va­tion is a Western one,” says Luana, who went to univer­sity in Welling­ton be­fore she had enough of the cap­i­tal’s windy chill and re­turned home. “In the is­lands, you don’t sep­a­rate the en­vi­ron­ment from the rest of life. Con­ser­va­tion be­comes about pro­tect­ing re­sources. Ev­ery­thing is liv­ing and breath­ing.”

When Dave Fur­nell and his wife vis­ited the Cook Is­lands for a wed­ding a few years ago, he couldn’t get

the is­land out of his mind. The Syd­ney cou­ple packed in their cor­po­rate jobs and re­turned in a mat­ter of months. “I’m not say­ing there’s any­thing wrong with cor­po­rate life, it’s just this life is bet­ter,” he says. Dave is also spin­ning the wheels of eco­tourism on the is­land with his bike tour busi­ness, Sto­ry­tellers.

We put the pedal to the metal road as a lo­cal called Jimmy guides us through the back streets be­neath Maun­garoa Moun­tain, telling us of the an­cient bat­tles be­tween Puaikura and Tak­i­tumu. Th­ese days the only war­fare be­tween the tribes is on the rugby field, and this land is now a plan­ta­tion area used for grow­ing pineap­ple, taro, man­iota (ar­row­root) and noni – a green knob­bly fruit that is turned into a fermented tonic. There’s no po­lite way of de­scrib­ing the taste of noni juice – a blend of old socks, prunes and cheese – but the Cook Is­lan­ders be­lieve it has many health ben­e­fits, and the drink is ex­ported to Asia where it fetches a pre­mium.

A young girl in our group starts to feel queasy, not from noni but from “too many man­iota fries last night”, says her mum shak­ing her head. Jimmy dis­ap­pears and comes back hold­ing some crushed “mile-a-minute” weed which he says will set­tle her tummy. He crushes it into a lit­tle ball, which the girl re­luc­tantly con­sumes. “This is my first-aid kit,” he says, point­ing to his ma­chete. The ju­nior rider is back on the road in a jiffy.

We ride past a grove of man­darin trees more than six-me­tres high, planted in the 1960s and once in­tended for ex­port to New Zealand, and a kuru tree (bread­fruit) that Jimmy tells us is a lo­cal barom­e­ter. Nor­mally the tree has two fruit at the end of each branch but if a cy­clone is on the way the trees start bear­ing three or four fruit per branch help­ing the vil­lage pre­pare for famine af­ter the storm. By the end of our jour­ney, we don’t feel tired but know we’ve done just enough ex­er­cise to jus­tify an ice cream.

Famed for its blue skies and la­goon, Ai­tu­taki is a 50-minute flight from Raro­tonga but when we ar­rive on the atoll the clouds are black and it’s buck­et­ing with rain. It hasn’t rained in months a lo­cal tells us. Dusty um­brel­las are pro­duced, peo­ple look stunned. It’s 28 de­grees, but pump­kin soup is on the menu at Ta­manu Beach Re­sort’s bar­be­cue night. Pump­kins grow wild on the is­land and when he was young Ta­manu’s owner Nick Henry (grand­son of Al­bert Henry, the prime min­is­ter who brought in­de­pen­dence to the Cooks in 1965) says soup was a spe­cial rainy-day treat.

As the rain pounds, we re­turn to sto­ry­telling. Nick tells us of his twoyear voy­age, trav­el­ing more than 32,000 kilo­me­tres of the Pa­cific in a tra­di­tional Poly­ne­sian vaka (waka). The jour­ney, with seven other ca­noes from Poly­ne­sian and Me­lane­sian na­tions, raised aware­ness for ocean con­ser­va­tion. “We had an ex­pres­sion dur­ing the jour­ney: the vaka is an is­land, the is­land is a vaka,” says Nick.

“It’s about how land, sea and peo­ple are con­nected. We sailed past huge piles of rub­bish and flot­sam and jet­sam in the sea near North Amer­ica. I now have this con­stant feel­ing that we need to pro­tect what’s out there,” ges­tur­ing at the hills and sea.

Trav­el­ing around Ai­tu­taki, you can un­der­stand Nick’s pas­sion. From the win­dow of a 4WD, parts of the main is­land are pris­tine and un­touched, and we see stones of a marae site and aban­doned houses where lo­cals have packed up their lives to find work in Raro­tonga or New Zealand.

Ex­plor­ing the la­goon from a cata­ma­ran the wa­ter, nor­mally cyan, has be­come a deep turquoise in the rain. When we pad­dle­board from our boat to One Foot Is­land, one of the many mo­tus (is­lands) scat­tered in the la­goon, it’s pour­ing and the rain­drops pound the sea giv­ing the clear wa­ter a jelly-like ap­pear­ance. “This is sur­real,” says Kathy, one of my fel­low pad­dle­board­ers. “I don’t even mind that it’s rain­ing, it’s just so beau­ti­ful.” We re­turn to shore to find the earth is steam­ing and the air smelling of new life.

It is our fi­nal day in the Cooks and we are in back in Raro­tonga but we forgo a morn­ing on the wa­ter to re­turn to the hills with Tutu. “We don’t want this place to be flashy and touristy, it needs to be au­then­tic. Some­one said to me I should put fairy lights up the drive­way, but I don’t think my an­ces­tors would like that,” she says. “We’re the guardians of this land. It doesn’t be­long to us, we be­long to the land.”

THIS PAGE: Cadet drum­mers ( be­low) about to prac­tise their rhythms at High­land Par­adise; a stone at Maun­garoa Moun­tain points di­rectly to Aotearoa and was a nav­i­ga­tion tool for jour­neys to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

The cloud re­flec­tions on the still wa­ters at Ai­tu­taki make for dreamy end- of- day swim­ming, the out­go­ing tide ex­pos­ing the top of the coral.

Glamp­ing tents at Iku­rangi Eco Re­treat.

Teuira Pi­rangi. Jimmy from Eco Cy­cle Tours. CLOCK­WISE FROM FAR RIGHT: High­land Par­adise’s mas­ter of cer­e­monies Danny Mataroa tells sto­ries of tribal life on an ex­ca­vated marae site; the noni fruit is foul to drink but famed for its health ben­e­fits; a...

CLOCK­WISE: Shortly af­ter open­ing Iku­rangi, Matt and Luana Snowcroft’s daugh­ter Evie was born; a sun­rise pad­dle­board on the still wa­ters of Ai­tu­taki La­goon; sun­set at Manuia Beach Re­sort.

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