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Caving in the Cooks


Dark and enclosed spaces don’t thrill me. Neither do claustrophobic swimming pools. So, as I gingerly inch my way into the chilly, candle-lit waters of Anatakitaki Cave on the Cook Island of Atiu, it doesn’t surprise me that my heart skips a beat—and then another!
 
 “Don’t worry,” says Marshall Humphreys, our New Zealand-born guide, who is calm and comfortable in this spooky cavern. “You won’t be attacked by any creepy crawlers.” The aquamarine blue water is clearer than polished crystal, and there’s no sign of any living creatures in the ancient subterranean pond. Although I’m the only apprehensive water baby in our tour group of six, I quickly put my fears aside and submerge into the tropical pool.

The fifteen exotic Cook Islands lie halfway between Tahiti and Fiji and are scattered over two million square kilometres of the South Pacific Ocean. Air New Zealand provides exemplary service from Los Angeles to Rarotonga, making it a doable destination for North Americans; then Air Rarotonga offers puddle jump flights from the Cook Islands capital to the outer atolls. 

Atiu is just one of these precious jewels. Like the other isles, it’s known for its rugged beauty and warm Polynesian hospitality. Because it was formed during pre-glacial periods when the sea levels were much higher, the entire mass is encompassed by sixty metre cliffs. These mile-wide impenetrable rings comprised of makatea, (a fossilized coral) circumvent the island and are riddled with caves.

Stalactites and stalagmites glitter like diamonds in the rough, and after I emerge from my refreshing dip, they guide us throughout the cavern. Anatakitaki is also known as the ‘Cave of the Kopekas,’ named after the thousands of resident swifts or swallow-like birds. They nest in the clammy depths, using a form of echolocation, similar to that of a bat, to detect their way. As we fumble along the pathway by torchlight, we can hear the eerie chatter and clicks of their cries.

Rima Rau Burial Cave is another of Atiu’s daunting dens that we warily venture into. “In the native language, the name ‘Rima Rau’, equates to five hundred deaths,” Humphreys says casually, as if reporting something like the weather. Based on the visual remains, we gather he’s telling the truth. Flanking our narrow route is a primordial grave site, displaying an array of bones and human skulls, some still bearing teeth! As we slither through this subterranean tomb, I stare into empty eyes and literally rub elbows with long gone souls. Legend reveals that some died in battle, others from revenge and a few due to cannibalism. Amazingly, this phenomenon has never been analyzed by anthropologists. By the end of this spooky experience I feel chilled—yes, you’ve got it—to the bone.

Fortunately, we are able to warm up from head to toe upon visiting the Tumunu bar. Although far from the likes of any North American pub, this outdoor tavern serves up a mighty potent home brew that leaves everybody happy. It’s been a favourite on Atiu since the missionary days when alcohol was banned. The mulled wine-like concoction is prepared in the stump of a hollowed out coconut tree and dished out by the leaders of the pack—shot by shot till you drop (if so desired). The people are welcoming and invite anyone and everyone to join in for a bit of cheer! Yes, this watering hole is a lot stronger than anything I’ve been swimming in so far today.

Mangaia, a forty minute flight from Rarotonga, is home to the most dramatic makatea of any Cook Island.  Here, we meet with a new guide, Tere, who is native to this atoll and an expert when it comes to caves and sharing tales of the past. “There are way more caves on this island than we know about,” he states in his strong Maori accent. “Some contain forgotten weapons and sacred artefacts.” We discover there is even a fabled cavern that contains bones from giant warriors.

Delighted with the tales of the unknown, the Mangaia caves have once again captured my imagination and leave me wanting more. Mystery, fascination, intrigue. It’s all part of the adventure, when caving in the Cooks. 

FACTS

How to get there:
Air New Zealand
http://www.airnewzealand.com/

Where to Stay:
Babe’s Place: http://www.cook.pacific-resorts.com/outer-islands/babes-place/index.html
Atiu Villas http://www.atiuvillas.com/?gclid=CJzRjPqw75MCFRZZiAodvRnPVg

What to Do:

Atiu Tours http://www.atiutoursaccommodation.com/
Cook Islands Tourism Corporation http://www.cookislands.travel/

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