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Exploring the Cook Islands

An old man on a moped pulled up alongside me as I sat on the wall outside our hostel waiting for the bus.

“You want a lift to town?” he asked. “Jump on the back”, he said, without waiting for a reply.

With complete disregard for everything I’d ever been told about strangers, I climbed on behind him and prepared myself for the 8km trip up the road.

The uneven surface was not the only cause of my discomfort. The man’s long, grey ponytail was poking out the back of his helmet and into my personal space. And where on earth was I supposed to hold on? Not wanting to put my arms around a pensioner I’d only just met, I hung on to the back of the seat for dear life as we weaved along the road, hooting almost everyone and everything that went past.

Welcome to Rarotonga, main island of the Cook Islands in the south Pacific ocean. Prior to the trip I’d read about making the most of your travels by integrating with the local people. As we whizzed along and I caught a whiff of the old man’s freshly shampooed hair, I though to myself, you can’t get much closer than this.

I was overwhelmed by the feeling of adventure, brought about, I imagine, by the fact that I was doing something ever so slightly risky and against all the principles of my own country.

The man dropped me off at the supermarket and sped off with a toot and a wave. The experience epitomised the contrasting attitudes of Cook Islanders. When arriving at the airport, we were greeted by singing, dancing men and women donning hula skirts and flowers.

But the friendliness I’d expected from all quarters was absent and at times I was taken aback by the hostility towards tourists. In the shops, sour-faced cashiers would slam coins down on the counter instead of putting them in my outstretched hand and bus drivers operated a zero tolerance policy for luggage, (“You will have to buy one ticket for you and one for your backpack”).

The New Zealand-born hostel owners of a hostel encountered a similar antipathy even though they had lived on the island for more than five years.

I would not, however, let this put you off visiting this incredible, paradisiacal group of islands. Rarotonga itself belies the attitude of many of its inhabitants. It rises up in the centre into a great, green mass of rainforest and lush vegetation and its circumference is fringed with stunning arrays of blue-green, reef strewn ocean lapping pristine sandy beaches.

The diving a kilometre or so off the coast is exquisite. Manta rays, reef sharks and turtles roam waters less renown for diving than neighbouring Fiji and Australia and the reef’s colours resemble a florist’s in full bloom.

After several days exploring Raro, I ventured to nearby Aitutaki, an incredible lagoon atoll in the middle of the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean. It was a 40 minute flight from Raro and its airport consisted of nothing more than a runway and a wooden shed.

The makeshift sign saying ‘welcome to Aitutaki International Airport’ seemed ironic until we were informed that soon there will be flights to and from New Zealand.

The day trip I’d booked with Air Rarotonga included a tour around the island and a lagoon cruise. The landscape inland was much like Raro except far less developed. Aitutaki is nowhere near the level of tourism on Raro and is poorer as a result. Houses appeared little more than shacks and goats and chickens roamed about the place.

Cook Islanders follow rigorously a tradition of burying their deceased relatives in their front garden and take great pride in adorning the tombstones with fabulous displays of vibrant flowers. It is a strange contrast: the rickety, tumble-down houses are the antithesis of the perfectly tended, elaborate memorials.

We soon boarded a small, wooden catamaran and set sail into the shimmering blue waves. The azure horizon was a brilliant turquoise and one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on.

The first stop was a small island in the lagoon where two men were selling coconuts, freshly discarded by a palm tree. Feeling increasingly Robinson Crusoe-esque, I clutched the coconut and drank its delicious juice from a hole in the top.

But as I was swallowing the final morsels, a voice in the background said: “I’d better not drink too much of this juice, it’s quite a powerful laxative.” More on that later…

We set sail again and I felt every bit in tropical paradise as we skimmed over the waves. We soon stopped to snorkel over some reef which was teeming with incandescent fish darting here, there and everywhere.

Lunch on the boat was barbecued fish that had been caught off the boat that morning and a feast of fresh salads and fruit. I was rather confused about where this produce had come from because on Raro, there seemed to be a severe lack of groceries available in the shops. What fresh food there was tended to be of poor quality or ridiculously expensive imports from New Zealand.

Appetites sated, we headed off to One Foot Island on the very edge of the lagoon. This was real picture postcard stuff: powdery white sandy beach and a view of blue so endless that it was indeterminable where the ocean ended and the sky began.

It was on this island that you can have your passport stamped at the smallest post office in the world. The population of five seemed elated to see us and their smiling faces were a juxtaposing image of some of their countrymen.

After a brief stop to frolic and snorkel in the shallow waters (plus a desperate dash to a toilet!) we headed back to the main island in the lagoon and returned to the airport.

The trip was pretty expensive but worth every penny. If you have come as far as Rarotonga it would be a travesty to miss out on the paradise of Aitutaki. The short hop across the Pacific is nothing and is an experience you’ll never forget.

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