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Raratonga Dreaming

The last thing I remember was a last-minute decision to buy a cheap digital camera from electronics store “The Good Guys” in LA, and then a frantic taxi ride to the airport through intense rush hour traffic in time to meet the ridiculously early three hour check-in deadline for connecting flights to Rarotonga. 

I must have fallen asleep for the entire duration of the flight, because I’m now most definitely in the Cook Islands, in tropical temperatures, being serenaded by a man playing a ukalele.  Accompanied by a beat machine, he jovially sings, “All three of us will be waiting for you – me, my shadows, and echoes.”  It’s feet-tapping stuff, and everybody is smiling and humming along, despite the fact that they’ve never heard the song before or know any of the words. 

The LA traffic has gone. The American girls with Gucci leather handbags, designer trousers, long blonde hair and Californian tans have gone.  The endless stream of resting actors, gaudy signs for jack-in-a-box burgers and shops called “retail whore” have disappeared.  Instead, a cock crows in the distance and myna birds strut around the airport lounge as if they own the place (and they do).  Nobody is in a hurry.

The idyllic Muri Beach, Raratonga

As the tourists blink themselves awake, model-like Raratongan women undulate around them like Gaugin angels – beaming, wearing bright tropical print dresses (a flash of orange here, a flash of purple there) and orchids in their hair.  “Where are you staying?,” they ask, then, “this way please…”.  Rarotonga is so small, we all discover, that everybody knows everybody else, pre-booked accommodation is essential, and free vans are waiting to usher us to our destination. 

Bob – a rasta with blonde dreadlocks – drives our van past the police station (where we need to register if we hire a scooter), “the flame tree” – a local gourmet restaurant, the internet café, budget scooter and car hire, a few beach-side bars and a café which says “mostly open”, a dive shop, some expensive resorts, one “boutique” hotel, and a small 7-11.  “And that’s town,” he says.  Five minutes later we’re at our destination. It’s not difficult to guess that the journey around the island perimeter isn’t long either.

When Air New Zealand told me I could have some extra stop-offs through the Cook Islands on my flight to Australia (at $50 a piece) including Rarotonga, I said, “where?”.  What I thought was a fairly good general knowledge of world Geography didn’t stretch to the cluster of islands around it – including Aitutaki, Takutea, Mitiaro or Manuae – either.  French Polynesia I was farmiliar with, and the Solomon Islands, but the Cooks was hitherto mentally unexplored territory. It was soon explained to me that if  Raratonga was the Tahiti of the Cooks, Aitutaki was its Bora Bora.

Bora Bora is a name that had always conjured up images for me of the rich and elite flicking through pages of Conde Naste’s Traveller magazine looking for honeymoon holidays in this year’s 10 ten top “places to go”.  But the Cook Islands had always fascinated me (something to do with the fact that they’re bang smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), and as Rarotongo is about as far from the UK as you can get, climatically the complete reserve of Europe in winter, and astronomically expensive to visit direct, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

I ask the bar manager at Sails restaurant, hub of the sailing community, what’s going on at the moment.  “Nothing much,” he replies, “Although you could write something about tourism taking over the island. We’re getting really fed up with it.” “What’s the major economy without tourism?” I ask. He shrugs. “There isn’t one”. 

The Cook Islands News Daily, lying on a nearby table, tells me that a decision to decline a visa extension for two environment awareness workers who objected to aspects of the Environment bill (a decision passed by the Minister for the Environment when the Prime Minister was out of the country) has been reversed.  Somebody suggests I go on Pa’s nature tour, run by a local herbalist who sporadically heals the sick for free, to learn more about the local flora (there’s no fauna to really speak of) and the effect of tourism on it.
On the tour it becomes clear that Rarotonga is a spectacularly beautiful island: not only is it surrounded by a protective coral reef and soft white-sand beaches that are perfect for diving and snorkelling, but it’s mountainous and cloaked in dense jungle.  As we climb 400m to Te Rua Manga (The Needle) – a piece of rock jutting up out of the hillside, Pa tells us that the noni plant is good for cuts and stings, that myna birds were introduced to the island from Taihiti in 1906 to control coconut stick insects (a job they did so well that you’ll be lucky to see one today) and that night jasmine only produces scent from 6pm to midnight. 

Somebody asks why. Pa sighs in frustration, “No scientists know, but a more intelligent person doesn’t question why.  Nature is nature.  You can’t work against nature, you have to work with nature.  Plants talk to us all the time, we just have to listen.  They say ‘use me for healing’, and ‘use me for eating’.”

The Cook Islands’ respect for nature’s natural rhythms has lead to a system of conservation, called ra’ui, that was in place long before most of the rest of the world became familiar with the concept. In a nutshell, the island’s traditional leaders call a ra’ui when a particular area of resource is in need of replenishment (the famous Muri lagoon is one of those areas). During the period of the rau’ui, nothing can be taken from the designated area, and everything can continue to grow without human interference.

Raratonga is a good example of a popular holiday destination that’s on the brink of falling into a downward spiral as far energy conservation is concerned, if it doesn’t check its development. A UN-affiliated environment journalist, who visited the island a few weeks ago, was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “Tourism is a huge economic force, but once unleashed, it’s very difficult to control. It takes a lot of community involvement to get the balance right, and it must be done now. The first signs of deterioration are plastic bags blowing around.”

While the island is blessed with numerous natural resources, and there are relatively few plastic bags blowing around (although a particularly conspicuous red and white striped one landed on my foot while boarding the local bus), the general consensus is that there’s an urgent need to ensure those resources are being properly used. Manipulative farming of the now world-famous black pearl that grows around the islands, for example, has brought its own aqua-culture and marine life issues.
The Director of Energy, Mata Nooroa, believes that local and renewable energy sources offer the best solution to the country’s environmental issues. She believes that copra fuel, wind power and solar energy offer great potential for future electricity generation (there’s an abundant supply of copra in the outer islands, and average wind speeds are suitable at various sites).   It occurs to me that the circular clockwise & anti-clockwise road route around the island perimeter would be perfect for electric buses and cars.

Pa picks up a kava plant and explains that the missionaries banned the use of the narcotic plant kava in 1820, because they saw that people were out of control. He suggests that people using the plants to communicate with the gods because the world is out of control can’t be doing a bad thing.  “Do you use it yourself?” I ask.  “Oh yes, every week, for joy. But it’s relaxing…so when you have it, don’t drive anywhere…stay at home. Take it easy.”


Air New Zealand offers stop-offs at many of the Cook Islands on long-haul flights from Europe en route to New Zealand and Australia. Air Raratonga also offers an island-hopping flight pass that’s easy to arrange on arrival, for around NZ$350-500 (depending on the number of islands you visit).  Pa’s nature walk can be arranged through the “Internet café” on Muri beach, or by calling t: 21079 and costs NZ$55 at the time of writing.
Ó Copy & photos, Lucia Appleby, 2002

About the author:  Lucia Appleby is a freelance photojournalist and editor and her work has appeared in a wide range of newspapers and magazines.

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