Riding our motor scooter through a canyon of fossilised limestone coral on a narrow road, dramatically blasted by locals some years back using leftover munitions and little detonating experience, (would you like one finger or two with that blast?), we’re almost at our destination when two barking mad dogs careen out of a nearby garden. Before I can raise my legs, beat them off with a stick or throw gravel in their faces, evasive tactics that I only become acquainted with after the incident, one unceremoniously sinks his teeth into my left calf. I yelp, he lets go and the next moment a woman appears wearing a t.shirt with a Red Cross emblem on the front.
No amount of apologising can disguise the fact that, t.shirt notwithstanding, she isn’t in possession of a tetanus shot and the dog’s days are numbered (well I’m having a dog’s day afternoon so why not share the love….) and so we head down a steep, stony track for the hospital.
There’s much interest in my purple, punctured leg as comely nurses clad in starched white jackets and Bermuda shorts confirm that yes, it is indeed a dog bite. Of more interest is who owns the dog and when this is established, much tut-tutting ensues over the fact that it was a serial biter. As stories of his other victims whirl conversationally overhead, the wound is cleaned, dressed and tetanus shot administered, all done at a leisurely island pace. It’s with some trepidation that I mount-up to take an alternative route home armed with antibiotics, instructions to ‘keep it dry’ and a big stick.
Now one of the reasons you come to the Cook Islands is to float in its beautiful lagoons while the Pacific Ocean pounds on coral reefs. The ‘keep it dry’ rule was to be sorely tested but I resolved to immerse myself in authentic island life with some of Mangaia’s remaining 500 residents.
With visitor numbers hovering around just 150 for the year, this tiny speck in the South Pacific a 40 minute flight from Cook Islands capital Rarotonga, definitely flies under the tourism radar. Before dropping lightly onto the short coral runway, we skim over towering ramparts of rock, the jagged, impenetrable makatea that protects the island’s fertile heartland and central volcanic cone like a giant coil of razor wire. The second largest and oldest in the Cook Islands’ group, Mangaia’s colourful history of inter-tribal fighting battling to control its verdant valleys and willful women recount the days when the spear ruled. Just like today’s corporate culture, Mangaia operated on a winner-takes-all system. Following Christian conversion in the early 19th century, symbols of the old gods were destroyed including the Orongo Marae where chiefs were invested. Poking around the site, we uncover human bone fragments, grisly reminders of human sacrifices made to the god Rongo.
Today, faith may be the glue that binds Mangaian society but the missionaries received some rough treatment at the hands of these fiercely independent islanders during their first conversion attempt in 1823. Their task was made easier in 1824 following a plague of biblical proportions which swept through the island and this, coupled with a local prophecy, made the London Missionary Society’s timing heaven-sent. Some Mangaians resisted the ‘bible eaters’. Retaining their animist beliefs they became known as ‘stubborn fish’. The final battle for hearts and minds was waged in 1828 with the missionaries watching from the sidelines and the deal was sealed with the rival chiefs by settling on a commendable system of land ownership that was fair for all.
Despite its warrior past, Mangaia is a serene place and we trek for kilometres along its coastal coral track passing well-tended taro patches, pineapple and vegetable plantations without meeting a soul. With the brooding makatea forest to one side and lagoon glimpses to the other, narrow cuttings through the original reef lead to coral sandy coves and secluded bathing spots like Tuaati Rock Pools where I watch enviously as Robert floats in the crystal water. Huge orange pandanus fruit hangs from spiky green palms that punctuate a cerulean sky and imprints of former times can be seen in fosillised coral branches and shells embedded in the sharp rock. A family arrives at a neighbouring cove and children abandon clothes plunging into bath-warm water while father and son pick their way across the blue pool to reef fish the Pacific as it plumes and cascades into the lagoon.
Armed with a little local knowledge, we rent a scooter bike and head down to Avarua Landing to await the fishermen’s return. An orange wooden outrigger steadies just beyond the reef readying for the run up the channel where emerald water swirls and surges around the opening. Lean kids in surf shorts splash about waiting to help haul the wooden vakas up the concrete ramp where women gather to buy from a pile of gleaming red snapper or portions of a 7 kilo wahoo. Big jovial people, they talk readily about Australian family connections. One lady, sad that all her children have married and live in Australia, laments the lack of opportunity to see her grandchildren while other Mangaian grandparents are relishing a second lease of life bringing up one or several grandchildren in traditional island style while their sons and daughters work in Rarotonga or overseas.
As the day slides to a close, men gather at the wharf to fish. One holds a net loosely in his hand reading the water’s ebb and flow before fluidly casting and hauling in a slithering pile of mackerel. I strike up a conversation with Rima and Mary who are sitting under a tree overlooking the scene while threading strands of pupu shells. Gently spoken Mary recounts her family history while Rima is a powerhouse of energy who, in between making the highly prized ei pupu necklaces, bakes scrumptious pineapple and banana cakes, roasts coffee beans picked in the wild and looks after assorted livestock.
It takes around 400 pupu and a lot of patience to make one strand from tiny ground snails that only emerge when it rains. Mamas and their grandchildren sit by the roadside waiting for them to pop up, gathering them into plastic buckets to take home and boil in caustic soda. Others fry them as white as the coral found in Mangaia’s secret coves. A dozen golden chains of yellow ei pupu (Orobaphano flavescens) sell for around $80 and are a traditional Mangaian gift for departing friends and relatives. With its rapidly dwindling population, demand must be high yet locals cling to the belief that skills need to be valued so that people can earn money from what’s around them rather than leave. The potential loss of island identity weighs heavily on older Mangaians.
We’re leaving the following day and Rima promises to call by in the morning with a jar of her home-roasted coffee. True to her word, she arrives not only with coffee but a pineapple and banana cake, four strands of ei pupu shells and warm wishes for our return. As a remote travel experience, it turns out that Mangaia is a place I could really sink my teeth into, it’s just a shame that one of the locals got in first!
What to Pack
Mangaia is the southernmost of the Cook Islands and is cooler during the winter months so take a warm top for evenings and rainproof jacket. At other times, the weather is mild to hot and tropical. Pack sturdy walking shoes for the makatea, reef shoes for the lagoon, sunscreen, insect repellent and sun-protective clothing.
What to Do
– The makatea is honeycombed with sinkholes, tunnels and caves, a labyrinth which Mangaians have used as tombs for centuries. Guided tours particularly to Teruarere Cave, a series of interconnected chambers dripping with huge stalactites can be arranged.
– There are guided reef/lagoon walks, bush walks and some opportunities for deep sea fishing.
– Attend a Sunday morning service at one of the Cook Islands Christian Churches for some spine-tingling singing and fire and brimstone preaching..
– Take a picnic lunch to Nukino Lookout with fantastic views across the valley to the ocean.
– The Friday morning market in the tiny settlement of Oneroa is the best place to shop for fresh food, ei pupu necklaces, pandanus bags and pareus, tropical tie dye sarongs that depict Mangaia’s fish and flora.
– Take a front row seat for the annual whale migration just beyond the reef throughout July and August.
Links: Cook Island Tourism Air New Zealand Air Rarotonga
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