In the outer reaches of the Cook Islands, Pat Kinsella discovers that there’s more to this part of the world than basking on the beach.
In a destination that has a reputation as a honeymoon hot spot, it came as quite a surprise to learn there was a cave called the Hidden Vagina right next to the little runway that our twin-prop bug basher had bounced down upon earlier that afternoon.
But the Cook Islands are full of surprises, particularly the outer isles. They’re full of caves too as it turns out, many of which are, in turn, full of dead bodies. Again, not what I’d expected from a love-by-the-lagoon-style luxury location. But I haven’t come here with a new wife – or any wife for that matter – and I like surprises.
Gilt-edged by beaches and fringed with coconut trees, Rarotonga – the main island of the scattered group of 15 that make up the Cooks – is ringed by a coral reef that provokes breakers on one side and protects a placid lagoon on the other. It’s the epitome of a tropical island.
Aitutaki, the second-most-visited island in the group, is arguably even more breathtaking, with its ridiculously idyllic lagoon. Tony Wheeler – founding father of Lonely Planet – recently spruiked it as “the world’s most beautiful island”.
But if you’re looking for an experience that goes beyond beaches and doesn’t involve hanging with honeymooners, the outer islands offer a taste of the Cooks which, like a bowl of ika mata (fish salad), is all the better for being raw.
So little-visited is the island of Mangaia, that the island’s mayor turns up to welcome us at the airport, and later I’m told the chief of police has taken the next morning off to accompany me fishing.
Actually, I get it from good authority (everyone else I meet from the island’s 700-strong population) that Aerenga Matapo – the more senior of Mangaia’s two policemen – spends most of his mornings fishing. But then, what else would he do?
“We did have a prisoner here for a while,” recalls Aerenga, proudly. “We haven’t got a jail though, so we got him to do hard labour, cutting roads through the makatea.”
Mangaia is shaped like an orange juicer. The high point in the centre of the island is circled by fertile lowland, where pigs and goats graze and the ubiquitous taro plant grows. This, in turn, is looped by a raised doughnut of makatea, fossilised coral that once formed a submerged reef around Mangaia, until volcanic eruptions in Rarotonga, 177 kilometres away, raised the height of the atoll.
Like a medieval city wall, the ring of makatea stands protectively between the ocean and the three village settlements that lie in the middle of the island. Jagged makatea also defines Mangaia’s coastline, creating a surreal lunar-like landscape in parts. There are no golden beaches here, but when the tide retreats you can snorkel in natural swimming pools that are alive with trapped tropical fish.
In a culture where writing is a relatively new concept, stories are everything, and one local tale tells of how a Mangaian tradition was saved by a young man who lived among the makatea.
Rori, the hermit, fled to the coast and set up camp amid the coral after being routed in a battle. Shortly afterwards the missionaries arrived and, in the process of stamping out cannibalism, tribal war and pagan worship, also squashed many cultural traditions in the Cooks. Years later, when Rori finally rejoined society, he alone retained the island’s traditional woodcarving skills, which survive to this day.
It’s possible to visit the remains of Rori’s camp. I’m keen to go, but the island’s other policeman is the only person who can guide me there – and he’s out fishing.
Instead I tour the island in a 4WD, meeting happy gangs of local kids playing with homemade kites in the church field, listening to local legends and then, finally, exploring Mangaia’s underbelly.
The island’s makatea wall is catacombed with caves and tunnels, many of which can be explored if you know the right people. You can visit burial caves elsewhere in the Cooks – most notably on Atiu – but none of these experiences are quite like Maui Perau’s cave tour.
At times during this three-hour point-to-point scramble through the crust of the island, I feel like I’m going to end up as a pile of bones, just like the ones we pass at the entrance.
Only family members are allowed to show people caves on their property, and the human remains within them need to be treated with respect. Unfortunately, however, no one has told Maui this last bit.
“Hello bro!” he shouts, grabbing a skull and patting the top of its cranium. “Haven’t seen you for a while!”
In a burial cave on Atiu, I’d been told cautionary tales about terrible curses that had afflicted people who’d messed around with the bones, so Maui’s comical routine alarms me a bit. Still, they’re his ancestors.
During the journey we squeeze and climb though tortured and twisted tunnels, past shimmering walls and armies of stalactite sentries. In a nanny world, Maui’s approach to health and safety is impressively hands-off, and there are plenty of opportunities for curse-induced calamity here.
My luck holds, though, right until the very end, when, as I climb up a 10-metre banyan root to emerge back into daylight, my camera tumbles back into the jaws of the cave and explodes. Ah well. As curses go, that’s not too bad. I’m still alive.
“The sea is not happy today,” observes Aerenga when we meet on the harbour wall the next morning as arranged. He has a point. A sizeable swell agitates the harbour’s water and sets of ever-angrier waves are charging up the boat ramp with increasingly cruel intent. Maybe the curse hasn’t finished with me yet.
As we assess the situation, another fisherman appears on the ocean. He’s in a heavy wooden outrigger equipped with an outboard motor that’s the boat of choice around here – a modern variation on a theme that’s been in fashion on these islands since the vakas first brought people here. The fisherman counts the waves, picks his moment carefully and shoots into the mouth of the harbour with impeccable timing.
Aerenga chats to his mate as he helps him drag his boat to safety. The two of them shoot me a look. He’s done this a thousand times on his own, but I’m not sensing much faith in the abilities of his new crewmate. His copper’s nose can smell a non-fisherman a mile off.
Still, he’s a man of his word and we’re soon punching our way through the waves. Before leaving the safety of the reef, however, Aerenga clasps his hands together and murmurs a prayer, asking for our safe return and adding a side request for some luck with the hook and line while we’re out there.
Heading out to open ocean, I suffer a sudden pang of unexpected agoraphobia. These islands really are just peaks of submerged mountains, whose steep sides plunge to unimaginable depths just a few hundred metres from the shore. Below lies the abyss, and all around us nothing but a blanket of blue water stretching to the horizon on all sides, with the little island of Mangaia offering a solitary punctuation mark in the immensity of the Pacific.
I feel a little like Jann Martel’s protagonist in The Life of Pi, but fortunately I am not adrift on the ocean with a huge angry allegorical tiger. No, Aerenga is more like a big bear. As he tells me how he once landed a 235-kilogram marlin on a handline, I notice that his toenail has been smashed to bloody bits during our launch and he’s bleeding all over the bottom of the boat. He doesn’t appear to feel it though, and gets on with the business of spearing a flying fish with a hook as big as my hand.
“What are we actually trying to catch here?” I ask, as Aerenga passes me the rod and sends the bait overboard on its last ever flight. “I heard reports in Raro that the whales are back in town, we’re not after one of them are we?” Before he has a chance to answer, my line goes tight and all hell breaks loose.
Aerenga is shouting at me from the other side of the boat and waving his arms around. Obviously he wants me to do something urgently, so I flick the first thing I see on the reel, which stops it turning instantly and snaps the heavy gauge line as though it was a piece of cotton. What can I say? I am to deep-sea fishing what Rex Hunt is to rhyming slang.
I learn fast, though, and the next time my line goes taut I correctly interpret my instructor’s excited instructions to mean: ‘Do absolutely nothing’. I reel it in and Aerenga demonstrates some truncheon-swinging skills on the unfortunate wahoo, which reveals why there is no crime problem on Mangaia during his shift.
My trophy catch is a fraction of the size of one that got away, apparently, but it’s still the biggest beast I’ve ever hauled from the ocean and I’m quietly proud of it. And at least we’ll have something to eat tonight, which is good because the mayor is coming over for dinner.
Despite the grins that welcome us back into the harbour with our fish, my relief at having provided something to put on the table for tonight soon multiplies by a million as Taoi Nooroa, Mangaia’s tourism officer, meets the boat and takes me to one of the oldest settlements on the island.
At Tangata-Tau rock shelter, Taoi shows me walls blackened from ancient cooking fires and explains how anthropologists have discovered many artefacts here, like fishhooks and the remains of 36 human beings. “It seems they were killed in this sacred place,” says Taoi. “And then cooked and eaten.”
Before our wahoo feast, I explore another cave, this time led by Clarke Mautairi, a local mechanic who is next in line to become chief of his clan. Clarke hasn’t taken anyone else here for three or four months, but he knows the honeycomb lair like the back of his oily hand. Which is lucky because, as far as anyone knows, it’s an infinite hole in the ground.
Last year Clarke and an American cave specialist walked into this cave in one direction for four hours – only turning around when their torches began to die.
At the furthest point, Clarke says, “the air was thin and the water dripping from the ceiling was salty, from the ocean.”
To this day, no one has ever been right to the end. “Maybe it doesn’t end?” says Clarke. Perhaps, but unfortunately my time on the island does.
As my plane clears Mangaia’s mud runway, I realise that I never got to explore the cave whose name provoked my schoolboy smirks when I first learnt of it. Oh well, you can only tempt a curse so far. And I’m sure my wife wouldn’t be impressed if I went and got lost in the Hidden Vagina.
Fly Air New Zealand on its direct service from Sydney to Rarotonga. Then take a flight with Air Rarotonga to Mangaia. airnewzealand.com airraro.com
Stay in basic, but perfectly good rooms at Babe’s Place. It’s home to Mangaia’s one and only bar (open weekends only). Double rooms cost US$95 and all three meals are included. rarotongaaccommodation.co
Alternatively, pay US$208 per night for a luxury, newly built villa with a sea view, right next to the harbour at Mangaia Villas. mangaiavillas.com
Cave tours cost around US$20. There’s talk of commercial sport fishing trips being started, but at the moment you’ll need to talk nicely to the local fishermen and/or police officers at the harbour if you want to dangle a line. (If you lose their fish or favourite hook, buy them a beer at Babe’s.)