Fair warning has been given. The trail, I’m told, is tough. In this moment, though, I’m doubtful. There are no mountains on the island. Just how hard can it be?
“You have to walk across the top of it,” Ben Isaia tells me as we set out. The ‘it’ he is referring to is makatea, razor-sharp fossilised coral that has turned this particular trail into a pathway of booby traps. It’s everywhere on Atiu, a tiny outpost in the Cook Islands 190 kilometres from Rarotonga. The makatea forms a ring around most of the island, rising in places to six metres. Elsewhere, like here, it’s exposed at ground level. A single wrong step can spell disaster.
Ben and I are heading out on his tour of Anatakitaki Cave. When we arrive we’ll be looking for the rare kopeka bird, a type of swiftlet that is only found on Atiu and nests in the darkness of the caverns.
Despite being armed with a walking stick, crossing the makatea is far from easy. Ben is telling me an ancient story about Inutoto, who hid in the caves from her husband Pararo, and Tangaroa who eventually found her again, but sweat is dripping into my eyes, and I begin to unconsciously search out spots where I can ease my feet onto solid ground.
Seeing what are essentially blades of stone rushing up to meet you is a none-too-pleasant experience. Neither is the aftermath. I pick myself up, but there are cuts on my left knee and right hand. Ben inspects my hairline because he’s had the unfortunate experience of watching my head meet rock. Luckily there’s no damage, apart from the start of a shiner.
“Do you want to turn back?” he asks, crushing up leaves from a nearby bush and popping them on the cut on my knee. I like to think I’m made of tougher stuff, so we continue on, only this time I’m completely focused on averting another disaster.
Finally we arrive at the ladder that descends into the cave. Tree roots growing through the rock above create an entry tunnel. Soon the full magnificence of the system is revealed. There are grottos of greenery where the light pours in. Stalactites and stalagmites create impressive columns in the towering cavern. Some sparkle when hit by torchlight.
As we delve further into the darkness, the air cools.
In the quiet, there’s clicking and fluttering. Above us one of our rare feathered friends flits off a ledge. “You know they never land when they’re out in the rainforest,” Ben tells me, explaining the birds use those clicks as a type of sonar to find their way in the dark when they’re here in the cave.
We explore a bit more – I pass on the option of a swim by candlelight – and head back. “You put something on that,” Ben says, pointing at the dried blood on my knee as he drops me back at Atiu Villas.
There’s no one around, but manager Jackey Tanga has already told me to check the office if I need anything. The first-aid kit is easy to find and I slather antiseptic cream across the cuts.
This relaxed attitude to security is one of Atiu’s charming idiosyncrasies. It starts at the airport – really just an open-sided shed at the edge of the runway – where a sign reads: “Would passengers please hand their AK47s, bazookas, grenades, explosives and nukes to the pilot on boarding the aircraft.” There are jeeps and scooters parked out the front of the hotel, all with the keys in the ignition ready to go. Want to borrow one?
It’s yours, just let someone know so you can pay for the fuel. There is no key at all to my villa. There’s really no point since the best way to cool off at night is to leave both the front and balcony doors wide open. Plus, if I locked them how could cats Frazzle and Ginger drop by for a visit?
There’s another reason locks are the last thing on my mind: I am the only one here.
Atiu has a population of just 400, and when I get off the plane I am the only passenger not related to someone on the island.
It makes me easy to find, and Jackey strides across the tarmac with eagle-eyed focus and a garland of tropical flowers.
“Now don’t freak out,” she says when we jump in the car.
“You’re the only tourist on the island. That’s right, isn’t it?”
she asks, consulting her nephew Tutapu who’s in the back.
“OK, so there’s one other tourist on the island.” Turns out an American guy has been living in someone’s cottage for a few weeks.
We do a whistlestop tour, Jackey explaining Atiu is unlike the two big crowd-pleasers in the Cooks – Rarotonga and Aitutaki – because there’s no postcard-perfect lagoon just off the shore. Here, too, most of the locals live in the island’s interior rather than by the sea.
“I’m not sure why,” she says. “When the Christians came they pushed us all up here. Someone once told me they thought it was to get us out of our old ways.”
We stop by the harbour, built in 1975 using funds provided by the New Zealand Government. It allows fishermen to launch their boats without having to navigate the fringing reef. It’s also where the cargo boat docks and offloads the island’s supplies – air freight is far too expensive.
“We used to call it the checkout pool because we’d come here to check out who was hot,” says Jackey. “Do they still do that?” she asks Tutapu, who laughs and replies: “Just about everyone.”
We pass through the five villages, all linked by one main road, with Jackey pointing out the main points of interest: the church, the Super Brown store, a few government offices.
Back at the villas as I’m recovering from my makatea gutser, I meet owner Roger Malcolm. “Have you been to a tumunu yet?” he asks, before we set out to see if one is open. Tumunus – there are about six on the island – are the Atiu equivalent of a bar. Traditionally men’s places, they’re now less strict on who can drink there. They all operate different hours but bear other similarities. They’re places to talk it out over a drink or two. The drink in question is a homebrew that came into fashion about two centuries ago when European whalers stopped here and, none too keen on kava, showed the locals how to ferment local fruit into something that is drinkable if not altogether refined.
“There’s only one cup so you can’t take too long,” Roger tells me as we get out of the car. Consider my interest piqued.
Introductions are made and we take a seat in the semicircle. One man is in charge of drinks. He has a barrel of ‘beer’ between his knees. He fills the cup and hands it over to the first person who drinks it in one hit. The cup is handed back, refilled and passed to the next person. In between, there’s chat about what’s going on, people’s families and, not on this occasion but quite often, island business. You are simply one of the group and handed the cup until you bow out. We end up having about six cups. I wouldn’t say I was drunk – perhaps buzzed is the correct term.
The next day I get up early and, despite atheistic leanings, decide to spend Sunday morning at the Cook Islands Christian Church.
As I wait outside, a man comes over to welcome me, going straight in for a hug rather than a handshake. His name is Mu and he’s an assistant minister, a high honour for a layperson.
“Sit anywhere you like,” he tells me as we walk inside. This advice isn’t quite accurate. The women and children sit at the front of the church, the men at the back. I find a spot somewhere between the two.
The minister has a handsome, expressive face and commanding cadence and enunciation. If he hadn’t answered a higher calling he’d have made an excellent character actor in Hollywood. The entire service is carried out in the local language, but that I don’t understand doesn’t matter because the singing is sublime. The rich voices harmonise and resonate through the building. This is the imene tuki, a traditional hymn. Time stands still as the women, dressed in splendid white dresses and immaculate flowered hats, lead the congregation.
Still energised from the morning’s service, I meet up with George Mateariki or, as most people call him, Birdman George. Those cave-dwelling kopekas aren’t Atiu’s only avian attractions. This is a paradise for birdwatchers, and George is the man who can spot them from afar.
He works for the Takitumu Conservation Area, and was initially employed to protect 30 Rarotonga flycatchers that were released here between 2001 and 2003. Due to predation by rats (a pest not found on Atiu), they’d almost been wiped out. Now there are 750. Then there is the Rimatara lorikeet, almost extinct when 27 of them were introduced. The last time they were counted, in 2016, there were about 400 of them.
I stand in the back of George’s ute as he drives through forest and farmland, stopping in different places to look into the branches. We see plump Pacific pigeons and a chattering kingfisher that, despite its name, feeds only on insects.
“All the birds are now abundant,” George tells me, during one of our stops. “We eradicated myna birds [they take over nests and kill other birds’ chicks] between 2009 and 2015 by trading dead birds for money.”
George spots a golden plover on the school oval: “It should have flown off to Alaska by now, but the cyclone has kept it here.”
The cyclone in question is Timo, which has hit Fiji and Tonga hard, but hasn’t threatened Atiu. Until now, when black clouds fill the sky over the ocean. To avoid the weather, we set off towards the harbour. George has prepared a traditional umu (earth oven) meal – chicken, pork, taro, creamed spinach – and we take shelter in one of the quarantine sheds while the rain pelts down.
When it clears, we head off to where huge waves crash over the breakwater. George looks out to the horizon, searching for great frigatebirds. “Normally they are far out to sea, but the weather can make them come closer to shore,” he says. Unfortunately we can’t spot any.
On my final morning, I decide to walk down the hill to Matai Beach. One of the guys from the tumunu passes by on his scooter, but there’s no one else around.
Crossing a narrow ridge of makatea, I hit the white sand and look east, spying a couple of people fishing with nets in the distance. Then I turn in the other direction and there they are – about 20 great frigatebirds swooping and diving towards the sea. As I watch them they come closer and closer, until they are soaring around me, just metres above my head. I’ve never been so glad to be of larger stature. These birds are imposing, and it feels as though they are sizing me up as their next meal.
Deciding I am of no interest, they continue on their way, circling over the people with their nets, who’ve already discovered the motherlode of small fish. I could watch them all day, but the plane is taking off in a few hours. I silently wish the birds good fishing and turn back towards the villas, thankful for this final moment of island magic.
Kura and Roger Malcolm’s Atiu Villas was the first tourist accommodation on the island. It has a number of traditional-style, comfortable bungalows set in jungle gardens. There’s a beautiful pool surrounded by tropical flowers, as well as Kura’s Kitchen, open for dinner each night. Otherwise the fridge in your room is stocked with staples at the same price as the local shop. A standard villa costs about AU$210 a night.