Aitutaki: Cannibal spirit lives on

By Nick Squires

Nick Squires finds that life on the island of Aitutaki is everything it's cooked up to be.

Aitutaki' Ziona Tapu Church. Photo / Richard Robinon
Aitutaki' Ziona Tapu Church. Photo / Richard Robinon

They're not shy talking about the C-word in the Cook Islands. In other parts of the South Pacific the merest mention of it is guaranteed to cause grave offence.

But Cook Islanders are a cheery lot and seem unfazed about something which the rest of the region considers taboo.

A T-shirt popular with visitors has a cartoon of a terrified-looking white man being dangled over a steaming cauldron. "Send more tourists," the caption reads. "The last lot were delicious."

Cannibalism was stamped out by missionaries when they arrived in the 19th century but Cook Islanders still love to make jokes about their sometimes bloodthirsty past.

"Our ancestors would cook people in a big pit filled with hot volcanic rocks," boat skipper Peter Nicholls told me.

"You know how Captain Cook got his name?" he chuckled, warming to the theme. "Because he ended up being cooked in Hawaii."

Their forefathers may have enjoyed tucking into a bit of long pig from time to time, but these days you couldn't meet a friendlier bunch of people than the Cook Islanders. Nor a more idyllic tropical holiday destination.

Nicholls captains a boat owned by Bishop's Cruises which takes tourists cruising on the warm waters of Aitutaki lagoon, nominated in a BBC travel book as the most beautiful in the world.

"I can hardly believe the colours," said an awestruck Dutch tourist standing next to me on the deck.

He was right. The triangular lagoon, which is 15km across at its widest point, is an ever changing palette of blues and greens, from turquoise to jade to indigo.

Aitutaki is the second most popular destination in the Cooks, a 45-minute flight from the main island of Rarotonga.

A lot of visitors come on day trips, but it's well worth staying at least a night or two to fully explore the island.

The lagoon is fringed by 14 sand cays, known in Cook Islands Maori as motu. Daily boat tours take visitors out to the islets, where the snorkelling and swimming is superb. After a couple of hours of activities, most boats head to palm-fringed One Foot Island for lunch.

A timber and thatch shelter contains a small bar, where you can buy a cold beer or a glass of chilled wine, and a post office - actually just an extension of the bar - where you can have your passport stamped with a unique One Foot Island visa.

In half an hour Nicholls and his crew have rustled up a delicious meal of barbecued yellow fin tuna accompanied by big bowls of taro, potato salad and coleslaw.

The second stop of the day is the island of Akaiami, which in the 1950s was a crucial part of the Coral Route operated by Tasman Empire Air Lines, the precursor to Air New Zealand.

Flying boats would land on the lagoon and putter up to a jetty. While the four-engine Solents were refuelled, the passengers had a couple of hours in which to swim and sunbathe - surely the finest transit experience in the history of air travel.

The Coral Route operated between Auckland and Tahiti and was popular with Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant.

Fifty years on, celebrity has again returned to Aitutaki. The island recently hosted the US reality TV series Survivor as well as a British show, Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands.

Hundreds of locals were hired by the production companies, including Enuake Tare, who worked as a security guard. He's now back to what he does best - captaining another one of Bishop's boats - and took me out on my second cruise around the lagoon.

The burly 50-year-old wears a baseball cap with "Captain Wonderful" stitched across it.

"Some American tourists gave me the name. Now all the boat skippers want to have a nickname. We've got Captain Perfect, Captain Ugly and Captain Awesome."

He points at a young man hurtling across the lagoon in an aluminium boat.

"That's Captain Useless. He's off fishing."

Dropped off on a spit of sand fringed by coral reef, we put on masks and snorkels. The visibility underwater is extraordinary. The area is known for its giant clams, their encrusted shells contrasting with soft, almost luminescent lips of blue, red and green.

Pipefish, delicate little creatures resembling stretched out seahorses, hovered shyly among the fan coral and goggled-eyed flounder skimmed across the seabed.

We waded over to Honeymoon Island, so-called because of its popularity with couples tying the knot in barefoot ceremonies.

Beneath the bushes are red-tailed tropic bird chicks. The sand, sea and sky make up a dazzling landscape.

There's not a soul around.

"You know what they say in the Cook Islands," Tare said.

"Visit heaven while you're still on Earth."

There's more to Aitutaki than its lagoon.

The island, shaped like a fish hook, consists of rolling hills, dense forest and villages clustered around dazzling coral and lime churches built by missionaries in the 19th century. One of the finest examples is in the main town of Arutanga, set against a backdrop of playing fields and a tiny harbour.

Ngaakitai Tuanie takes visitors on tours of Aitutaki in a bright yellow Land Rover. He was a consultant to Survivor, teaching competitors how to hunt, fish and live off the land.

As we explore a network of dirt tracks and narrow lanes, Nga, pronounced Nah, points out native trees and neat little plantations full of cassava, kumara, banana and pineapple.

Stopping beneath a grove of plum trees, he purses his lips and makes a high-pitched squeaking noise, attracting one of the rarest birds in the world: the blue lorikeet, a beautiful little bird with a red beak and blue facial markings.

The Land Rover wheezed its way up a track built by American troops in World War II to the top of Mt Maungapu, which at a modest 124m above sea level is the island's highest point.

"This is where our warriors used to keep watch for enemy canoes," Nga said.

"You can imagine them standing here with their spears."

The sentinels would have spotted HMS Bounty, which visited Aitutaki in 1789, just 17 days before Fletcher Christian's famous mutiny against Captain Bligh.

In a jungle clearing we come across a mysterious collection of upright volcanic stones. They mark the site of a marae, a sacred meeting place from the pre-missionary era, now enclosed by a tangle of tropical vegetation.

"It's intact and untouched, one of the best of its kind in the Cook Islands," Nga said proudly.

The next day I stumbled on Aitutaki's annual Gospel Day, which celebrates the arrival of Christianity in 1821.

On a village rugby pitch bordered by mango trees bowed down with ripening fruit, adults and children gathered for sermons and speeches in a mixture of English and Cook Islands Maori.

The women wore brightly coloured Mother Hubbard dresses, a voluminous design introduced by the missionaries, while the men were in white shirts, black trousers and red bow ties. Prayers were said and hymns were sung and there were lots of "amens" and "praise the lords".

Suddenly the sombre Christian tone was shattered with a burst of drums. The crowd broke into a frenzied, sexy dance in which the women thrust out their hips and the men gyrated like Elvis. They stamped their feet and made canoeing gestures with their arms.

Kids leapt up and launched into little jigs of their own. Everyone was smiling, clapping, laughing. Cannibalism may be long gone from the Cook Islands, but the spirit of the past lives on.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has eight direct flights a week from Auckland to Rarotonga, and one from Christchurch.

For flights from Rarotonga to Aitutaki, see Air Rarotonga.

Where to stay: Pacific Resort Aitutaki.

Places to eat: The Rapae Bay restaurant offers five star dining and stunning sunset views, while light lunches are available at the Black Rock Café and Bar. Tupuna is a gourmet restaurant in Tautu, recommended for its seafood.

Tours: Bishop's Cruises offer full-day lagoon tours including snorkelling and a buffet lunch. They also specialise in sunset cruises, honeymoon cruises, and weddings on One Foot Island.

Ngaakitai Tuanie from Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours will take you on tours of Aitutaki in a bright yellow Land Rover.

Further information: See cook-islands.com.

Nick Squires was a guest of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, Blue Holidays and Pacific Resort Aitutaki.

- NZ Herald

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