Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Cook Islands - Aitutaki

Aitutaki is 220km north of Rarotonga. It consists of the main island and a chain of low islands (motus) and atolls forming a hook shape that nestle into a triangular lagoon 12km across the base and 15km long. Fifteen of the motus are permanent enough to have names.

Captain Bligh was the first European to discover the island on his way to Tahiti on the "Bounty" in 1789. In fact the famous mutiny occurred 17 days later.
There is some aviation history to the place as well. The lagoon used to be a refuelling stop for the TEAL (now Air New Zealand) Solent flying boats during the 1950’s when they flew the Coral Route around the Pacific.

We flew there with Air Rarotonga. This is like flying used to be. No ID checks, no security inspection with a friendly staff member wandering over 5 minutes from departure time to waiting passengers to tell us " you can board now if you like".
Their turbo prop Saab 340’s are very comfortable and the flight took only 40 minutes.
Arrival over the lagoon with its turquoise colours and shining white sandy beaches and atolls is stunning!!!!!!!!

We were staying at Etu Moana and a representative was at the airport, one of the smallest I have been to, to pick us up.
We were presented with a huge neck ei (lei) of tropical flowers. which smelt terrific and driven to the resort to check in. Here we were given a fresh cold coconut with a straw to drink the milk.
I was already thinking……this is my sort of place!
I had read great things about this boutique resort on the web site and had to make a booking 10 months in advance it’s so popular. There are only 8 villas.

It had a great reputation to live up to but did it with flying colours. The room facilities were all you could ever ask for, the grounds were an immaculately kept lush tropical garden, the pool big enough for a decent swim and the staff bent over backwards to make their guests’ (mostly honeymooners) holidays perfect. And best of all, our villa was on the beachfront 15m from the lagoon at low tide and 10m at high.

The day always started with a nice breakfast around the pool with most people then heading out for daily activities. We chose to relax on the beach under a shady tree for a few days, swim in the lagoon, do a bit of snorkelling around the coral heads, find lunch a short wander up the beach and chill out on our balcony with a cold bottle of something from the honesty bar (much cheaper than a mini bar!) and watch the sunset. Then it was off to dinner.
Life was certainly tough!

The weather was pleasantly warm, 26° -28° C, with reasonable humidity. We had one afternoon of strong wind and one morning of rain which cleared to a stunning day. We did not turn on an air conditioning unit the whole of our stay. The locals were complaining about the cold mornings (18° C) and were wearing jackets more suitable for the Alps!

The highlight of our visit had to be the lagoon cruise on the yellow boat with Captain Puna and his charming daughter. His amusing banter and great local knowledge just added to the itinerary.

We opted out of the snorkelling phase of the trip in favour of being dropped off on Honeymoon Island where we spent over an hour alone either sitting under a palm tree contemplating the fuzz in our navels or swimming in crystal clear water.
All you could hear was the surf on the reef and the cry on the nesting red tail tropical terns which frequent the island in great numbers. Quite a number waddled up to visit with us while we sat there.

The boat came back to pick us up just at the same time as a tinnie arrived with a snack of fruit juice, all sorts of tropical fruit and yes (I couldn't believe my eyes), doughnuts! Captain Puna knew how to look after his passengers.

Then we headed across the lagoon to visit "Survivor Island" and eventually ate a late BBQ lunch of fish, sausages and all sorts of salads on One Foot Island. Before motoring back we had a chance for another swim.
Here K was introduced to some more new food. Taro which is a starchy root vegetable and a staple in the Islands (uuummmm…I don’t think so) and breadfruit which had been made into something like a potato salad (yum!)
It was a MAGIC day!
Now I am NOT a "Survivor" or "Shipwrecked" fan and can honestly say I have never watched an episode of either one. But for all you "Survivor" tragics out there, here is some goss!
We know all of this is true because Captain Puna’s father owns about a third of Survivor Island.
"Survivor" has been made once there, "Shipwrecked" four times.
"Survivor" took over the whole place for three months paying out all accommodations that their crew didn’t take up as compensation for loss of tourist revenue.

They used seven lagoon islands for the program. There were eight cameramen; 4 Mexican, 2 Aussies and 2 Brits. They leased an Australian helicopter that had been stationed on the Great Barrier Reef for the duration of the show. They employed almost all the islanders in some way or other eg. catering, transport etc. They taught the islanders all sorts of new skills as the production team consisted of many trades eg. builders, plumbers, electricians etc.
The crew ate, played and socialised with the locals for the duration. They helped with building projects on the main island eg. schools.

Every child on the island got to sit in a helicopter. Some islanders had the chance for the first time to see their home from the air. They set up a huge outdoor screen so the crew and the population could watch the soccer world cup via a satellite link (there is no TV on the island).
The producer, Mark Burnett, brought the children of his three marriages to the island for a holiday all at the one time.
The islands were returned to their original condition after the show wrapped up, no environmental damage at all.
There is talk they are coming back next year.
The general consensus is the people of Aitutaki will welcome them with open arms.
We hired a car, an ultra mini convertible, for a day and, after getting my Cook Islands driver’s licence at the local police station ($2.50 for a year), covered just about every road on the island (some twice!) all the time dodging huge land crabs as they scuttled across in front of us. We opted to drive up to the Piraki Lookout rather than the climb up to the highest point, Maungapu, and the view over the lagoon from there was just fine.

The "interior" is very interesting with all sorts of plantations, dense jungle and friendly people who were somewhat surprised to have unexpected visitors when we made wrong turns into their driveways. Well, those and some of the back roads were hard to differentiate.
There is just one tourist shop, a market, the game fishing club and a few food places to visit in Aruntanga, the very small township, and the oldest CICC church in the Cooks is also an interesting coral limestone building.

We saw some other interesting sights on our travels reflecting the layback attitude of the locals. Many times we saw motorbike riders with the arms hooked around the window pillar of a car getting a free ride and having a chat. One guy was even sitting on his bike on the back of a pick up. Well, petrol is $7 a gallon and the island does sometimes run out. And there were lots of tiny children perched precariously on the back of bikes driven by their mothers. The government had tried to introduce safety helmet laws but there was such protest that these were partially withdrawn. You can only get fined now if you drive a bike helmetless over 20km/hr. And on Aitutaki that just ain’t gonna happen.
Total distance covered for the day was 65km.
Most tourists hire motor scooters to get around. We had been warned it was dangerous if you were not an experienced rider. We saw confirmation of this when a severely jet lagged young mid west honeymoon couple staying at Etu Moana came to grief in the first hour of their stay. Split heads, terrible cuts and grazing and daily visits to hospital is not a great way to begin life together.

If there was a downside to our visit, it was eating out. Some of the 11 restaurants on the island were pretty ordinary. These included a couple of well-known resorts. It’s not culinary rocket science to simply grill a piece of fish, chicken or meat to the correct tenderness and deliver it to the table hot.
It was our experience that this sometimes just didn’t happen.
Maybe the Aitutaki Tourist Board could invite Gordon Ramsay over for a week of kitchen butt kicking to improve things.
But there is a light at the end of any tunnel. The Boat Shed produced acceptable meals and then there was Café Tupuna. This restaurant, despite its restricted menu, could hold its own in any capital city in the world. And it showed what could be done with the limited raw material available on the island. The fish and chicken were sensational and the chilli mud crab looked great too. No warm white wine, over cooked fish or a salad of limp lettuce, grated carrot and canned pineapple here!
We returned a few nights later for more of the same.

We should also add that Kuku’s for a lunch of a hamburger with the lot, breadfruit chips and a fresh fruit slushy was terrific too. Bring your appetite with you if you visit this place! And grab a table under the huge breadfruit tree.
Also one evening a villa neighbour who had been out game fishing brought us slices of tuna he had just caught together with some soy and wasabi. Two hour old sashimi is one great taste sensation!
One thing I should also mention was a 2 hour afternoon activity organised by Etu Moana with a practical talk about the "tree of life", the coconut palm, by a very knowledgeable local. He showed us how to climb a palm to collect the fruit, how to dehusk it with a sharp stick, how to crack open the nut perfectly in half without spilling much of the liquid contents, and how to use all the edible and drinkable parts not only of the nut in its various stages of development but the palm itself. So now if we are ever stranded on a desert island we could survive…..maybe. It was a bit disconcerting but the guy also showed us how he could dehusk a coconut with his teeth!!!
One of the local staff members gave the ladies and some of the men a head ei making lesson.
By this time my camera battery had died (this is a long story related to oldheimers!) so no pics of K’s creation, folks!

Many visitors had commented on TA about the wildlife that frequented the island and its waters. Number one complaint was the mozzies. They were not as bad as made out. Well, not in comparison to living in rural Australia that is. Sure they attacked at dusk or in dark moist places (like anywhere) but nothing unusual for us. We had taken a selection of repellents collected from all over, including Minnesota, for a bit of an experiment. The winner (as expected) was good old Aussie Aerogard tropical strength! With this applied and a coil burning under our table we could watch the sunset from our balcony with a cold bottle of NZ Sauv Blanc completely bite free. And we never had any problems at any of the restaurants either.

Number two complaint was the sea cucumbers in the lagoon. They had about the same population density as in any other shallow lagoon I have visited in the Pacific. Definitely not wall to wall or in plague proportions. Can’t understand the "eeeewww" factor. They are not slimy, they are hard and leathery. And when walking in the lagoon you have your reef shoes on anyway so treading on them wasn’t a problem. I guess their defence mechanism of shooting a sticky mass of goo out of their, ummm, bottoms, can put people off. Despite all this, they are a source of food for islanders of the Pacific.
Number three was the geckos. Like in any tropical environment, they are there keeping the biting insect population down and clicking about it to let you know. I have never heard during 4 decades of travel in the Asia/Pacific region of one falling onto a sleeping person and eating their face off.
Number four were the Chooks. Yes, there are lots of them and yes, the roosters (nature’s alarm clocks) do tend to go off early and the hens do squabble a lot. But, again, for rural Australians not a problem. We particularly liked one fine fellow who all gold and dark blue with a strut full of attitude. He obviously had a small health problem. Between his "cockadoodle" and "doooo" he sometimes had a rasping smoker’s cough fit. Very amusing for us but maybe not for the predominantly honeymoon population of the resort at 4am.
Number five were cats. There are lots of them. They are companions at most restaurants you visit, some more aggressively begging than others. A good "shoooo" (although a shoe or maybe a boot would have been better) got rid of them.

The major controversy on the island was the introduction of Sunday flights. Two were planned for the day after we left. Extra police and security staff were flown in the days before to control the expected protests from members of the church. Apparently there was an orderly protest at the airport but thankfully no violence or damage to airport property. No one I spoke to was in favour of Sunday flights so I guess commercial interests had held sway. But it’s a pity to see another tradition of island life slowly being eroded.
All too soon our holiday was almost over and we were back at Aitutaki Airport. With a last look at the lagoon after we took off, we headed south towards Rarotonga.
Once again at Moana Sands (see Cook Islands-Rarotonga entry) we prepared for another quiet Sunday, another BBQ at the Pawpaw Patch and a 4am wake up call on Monday to get us to the airport for our 7am departure. We spent some of the morning outside a church listening to the congregation singing hymns in their lilting multi harmony Polynesian way (my going inside may have caused some serious roof structure damage) and then spent the rest of the day in the sun. During dinner that night we were told that the flight back home had been delayed by 12 hours due to aircrew sickness in LAX. That gave us a bonus day in Rarotonga so next morning we took the local bus into Avarua where we spent most of the day window shopping, drinking cappos and enjoying lunch at Trader Jack’s which sits out on the lagoon.

Our flight out eventually left at 6pm and by the time we got to Auckland, we had missed the last connecting flight to Sydney. But Air NZ was well organised with a bus ready to take us for an overnighter at an airport hotel soon after landing. Dinner, breakfast and return shuttles to the airport the next morning for our rebooked flights were also organised. Can’t ask for more than that.
We were soon back in Sydney, picking up our car and heading home.
I have been searching for my very own Pacific Paradise for 45 years now since landing in Tonga off a P&O cruise way back in the 1960’s. Was this the place? Probably not. I really believe now my fantasy island only exists in books and in Hollywood movies.
But one thing is for sure, Aitutaki will be the closest I ever get to finding it.
Kia Orana!

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Cook Islands - Rarotonga

It was a cold winter's morning in Sydney when we headed to the airport for our 3 hour flight across the Tasman to Auckland. Then, after a one hour wait in transit, it was another four and half hours to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We arrived to balmy 26C at 10:30pm on the night before we left! Sometimes the international dateline thing can be very confusing. Immigration and customs formalities were quickly and smilingly dealt with at the small international airport and we were soon on our shuttle and heading for our hotel.
The 15 islands of the Cooks fall into two distinct groups scattered over two million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean, roughly half way between Fiji and Tahiti.
Rarotonga is the capital and lies in the southern group as did our ultimate destination, Aitutaki.
Total population of the group is around 13,000 and declining. Some islands only have a very small number of inhabitants. I noticed in the phone book that Palmerston Island, population 60, only had two phones, both public. Tourism is the main industry with 80,000 visitors annually.

The country is uniquely Polynesian with an independant government in free association with New Zealand. This means that all Cook Islanders carry New Zealand passports and that country takes responsibilities of foreign affairs and defence.
Maori is the official langauge but English is commonly used.
The southern group consists of the volcanic Rarotonga and a number of raised reef, atoll and sand-cay islands. Rarotonga is about 32 km around and is fringed by an amazing lagoon which is protected from the huge Pacific swell by a coral reef. Within the lagoon are small unihabited islands called motus.

The island interior is very rugged with thick jungle and craggy volcanic mountains. It can be accessed only by walking tracks and to a limited extent by four wheel drive. There is quite an adventure tourism niche being developed for that area. The island has one main road which circles the narrow coastal plain. The main township is Avarua which is a thriving little place with lots of restuarants, cafes, jewellery stores (black pearl culture is a major industry) and tourist clothing shops and of course commercial and government buildings.

We arrived at our hotel, the Moana Sands, which sat right on the beach, around midnight. We could just see the waves breaking on the reef in the moonlight and it was great to hit the sack with the roar of the surf in our ears. We were anxious to see what daylight would bring us.
And below is the view from our balcony!

After breakfast we attempted a beach walk but strong winds thwarted our efforts so we headed back to the room for some reading and possibly some TV viewing on the nation's one channel.
The Cooks are a devoutly Christian community and Sunday is basically a closed day. Very few shops and restaurants are open and public transport runs on an extremely limited timetable early in the morning and late afternoon.
Luckily for us our hotel had one of the few restaurants open, the Pawpaw Patch, and they run a Sunday night BBQ which is very popular with residents and visitors. They offered grilled steak, sausages and fish with a huge range of salads as well as some good old fashioned desserts I have not seen since I was a kid. All this was washed down with a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Entertainment was an island string band who played some great stuff. It was also the first restaurant I had ever been to where they say grace before serving the meal. And it was here that K was introduced to Ika Mata. This is chunks of raw fish, usually tuna (but can be other) which is is marinated in lime juice, has onion, chilli (and sometimes cucumber and tomato) added and is served cold with coconut cream. This was to become one of her favourite starters during the trip.
We sat at a table with a young Californian couple on their honeymoon. He was a computer nerd (in the nicest way) and she was a nurse of Korean origin who had gone to the USA to study and never returned home. They had an interesting story to tell about conflict of cultures and the reaction of her family to her total change of life. Reminded us in a small way of another couple we were well acquainted with.
Next morning we were up bright and early and, after brekkie, we were on our way back to the airport to catch our flight to Aitutaki.