Island time in Rarotonga

By STUART LLOYD

Is anyone on this jeep in a hurry? Coz if you are, you're on the wrong island," says Dennis "Black Magic" Heather, a bull of a man wearing a sunhat of woven leaves, garish blue flowery shorts, a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and yellow rubber sandals.

His Land Rover is equally unmistakable in green and yellow zebra camouflage, starry Cook Island flag fluttering at the front. This is our transport for the Raro Mountain Safari Tour which will take us for the next three-and-a-half hours on an "inland expedition" of this, the largest island of the Cook Islands group.

With a mixture of Aussies, Swedes and Americans on the tour, he breaks the ice by getting us all to shout out the local greeting, Kia Orana. "Good, now you sound like real Coconuts," he says.

The tiny 67 sq km island has only two main roads, the 32km circular perimeter road and the inner circle, the Ara Metua, built from volcanic slabs and coral stones in AD1050 by Chief Toi. Eighty per cent of the tour is on this back road, the rest off-road or using the continuous main road to link up segments.

As he heads off anti-clockwise down the flame-tree-lined main road, he tells us his Land Rover is equipped with "Cook Islands seat belts: you hang on to each other".

We will be doing plenty of that over the course of the tour, even though the maximum speed limit is 60km/h.

Other "Cook Island features" of his vehicle are the air conditioning (it's open air), and windscreen wipers (palm fronds hanging across the roads).

His colourful lexicon also takes in the Cook Islands massage (bumpy roads which throw you against your fellow passengers), God's vacuum cleaner (the cyclones which occasionally ravage the island), heavy duty movers (cows), and mini mowers (goats).

Tourists cop good-natured banter from this proud islander: all the men he calls "bro", all the women "sweetheart". Tourists on scooters he calls "Hell's Angels", tourists riding bicycles "Charlie's Angels".

Soon, we are turning on to the back road, where most of Raro's 10,000 population live in clapboard houses painted in deep blue, shocking pink, vibrant yellow and pea-green. The island's signature, fast-paced ukulele music blares from every second house.

Heather comes into his own with his exhaustive knowledge of the land and how his people live ingeniously with it, or off it. Kapok trees were used as stuffing for mattresses and pillows. These days, they are used for lifejackets. Beach hibiscus bark was used for building houses, its leaves for hula skirts and toilet paper. "Just double it over and use the smooth side," says Heather, giving a graphic demonstration.

Basil leaves are crushed and smeared on the skin as mosquito repellent. Passing through a coconut plantation, he proudly claims to have run his diesel Land Rover on pure coconut oil during a conservation summit, extracting one litre of oil from four coconuts. He is now cultivating an organic coconut plantation.

Plantations abound inland, nestled beneath the dramatic volcanic mountains that rise like a giant tidal wave in the centre of the island, the distinctive grey rock plug called the Needle (Te Rua) rising out of the rainforested Avatiu Valley and dominating the island's skyline.

The highest point is Te Manga, at 653m. Papaya, guava, and passionfruit trees over-laden like an unmilked cow vouch for the lushness and fertility of the humid tropical climate.

Tapioca and taro are the staple of their diet, but many farmers are switching to noni (pronounced noo-nee) plants, Rarotonga's largest export which sells for up to $70 a bottle overseas.

Noni juice, which is rich in vitamin C, has been used for its healing purposes by Polynesians for around 2000 years.

Heather calls it "Cook Islands Viagra. Don't drink a whole bottle at a time, you'll get a stiff neck." Its flavour has been described rather unfairly as "a cross between blue vein cheese and corked wine".

Everywhere, flowers bloom in glorious yellow, orange, red and blue explosions. All the women wear flowers in their hair; some flower arrangements are elaborate, others a single stem. Behind the right ear means they're married, left ear means single.

So passionate are they about their floral crowns, that when compulsory helmet laws for motorbikes were drafted, women marched on parliament wearing church hats and flowers in their hair and the law was rescinded.

The heat of the day builds up, the cloying humidity thankfully abated by the breeze passing through the cabin. We stop at the island's largest waterfall, Wigmore's, named for the family who initially rented the land. The locals call it Papua Falls, and treat it like a public pool. Kids swim at the base of the cascading water, and the more adventurous dive off high rocks into it.

Cultural highlights include the traditional Maori sacred site Te Arai-Te-Tonga Marae, where old stones are laid out in a meaningful array as seats, tables, and lecterns for religious and tribal forums. Today, three tribal chiefs nominally lord over this independent nation.

The ancestors of the Cook Island Maori arrived here around AD800 as part of the great Polynesian migration. From an eastern hilltop vantage point behind sparkling Muri Beach we look down to see the departure point for the Maori canoes that left for New Zealand all those years ago. Four protective mutu (islets) are visible in the shallow lagoon which encircles the island.

The island has plenty of goats, pigs, and cows but Raro - or "the rock" as the locals call it - is bereft of wild animals. No poisonous snakes, no predators, no poisonous insects.

Fruit bats are found in the volcano crater, and just one monkey exists after being allowed in on a special educational dispensation. Many of the dogs have legs too short for their bodies. Heather explains that when the Queen visited in 1973 she brought some corgis, hence the proliferation of short-legged dogs. "A little bit of royalty in 'em," he says, smugly.

Not long after, we are passed by a big black car with crowns on its number plate. It is the Queen's Representative on the island. "I'm working towards that job," says Heather. "He comes here a couple of times a year, cuts a few ribbons, and so on. I'll fire the chauffeur. I'll have a 1340cc Fat Boy Harley, put the two crowns on it, wear my flowery shirt and my baggy shorts, and wave to my people."

During a refreshment break at the Raro Safari office in downtown Avarua (tallest building, three storeys), Heather dispenses further islander wisdom. "There are four things you need in life," he says. "Good women, beer, a stereo and satellite TV."

His cousin is building a house out of beer bottles. "So the more we drink, the faster he finishes his house." If his beer belly is anything to go by, his cousin will be moving in shortly.

Stress doesn't seem to feature highly in his life. "Rome wasn't built in a day, bro, that's why there's no stress here - there's always next year."

On matters of culture, you never know when he's joking. "On Saturday arvo, the men go play rugby and the women mow the lawns - that's what we call equality."

He is a fervently proud and patriotic islander who, despite rugby, Harley-Davidsons and Land Rovers, believes the white man did "nothing" for the island since Captain Philip Goodenough set foot on it looking for sandalwood in 1814.

Goodenough didn't find any, but instead took some noni fruit home as they made a good yellow dye. As for the worst thing foreigners introduced? "Fertilisers and chemicals," he says.

Soon we are on the road again, past the Port wharves. He tells of 10m waves and coconut trees bent double touching the road when Cyclone Sally struck on Christmas eve, 1986. Bottles of whisky and BMX bikes from overturned containers floated through the streets. "So Christmas day didn't turn out so bad."

Passing the airport - home of the world's second-shortest international runway - he confesses to late-night drag meetings of motorbike riders on the runway.

These days, the national sport is jet-blasting - where the local kids hang on for dear life to the wire fence at the end of the runway and "take off" when the departing plane's jets are fully throttled.

Next up is Hospital Hill. When Raro suffered a major TB outbreak decades ago, victims were quarantined here. The breathtaking views over the northwest of the island are enough to aid recovery and impart a sense of wellbeing.

Gravestones line the road in residential parts of the island. People are buried on their family land, which is never sold, but divided among family members on a leasehold basis.

The cost of the elaborate tombs and headstones can run up to $14,000 because granite and other materials are all imported. In the days pre-Christianity (introduced in 1823), bodies were simply put on outriggers and pushed out to sea.

From Hospital Hill, we engage low gear for the roughest portion of the safari. The red soil track is in deplorable condition as we hit the "rock and roll" section, the Land Rover shaking like a mechanical bull from side to side, jolting our kidneys violently.

"Elvis is alive in Rarotonga," whoops Heather. We then move on to the "Bumpity Bump" section, rumbling over old pineapple plantation ruts.

The air is cooler and enervating up here. We draw big breaths, and take in the 360-degree, picture-postcard Pacific Ocean and mountain views. Clambering back into the Land Rover for the short ride back to the hotel, Heather stops the jeep on the edge of the sandy slope facing downwards at a 45-degree angle. "Any complaints? Best wait till I get to the bottom of the hill."

There are none. And you're left thinking that the only way to improve this enchanting island would be to install Heather in the Queen's Representative office. Somehow that would be perfect, bro.

* The writer travelled at his own expense.

About Raro Mountain Safari Tours

When: Monday to Friday, 9am and 1:30pm; Saturday, group charters (min. five people); Sunday, noon.

Cost: $60 adults, $30 children 6-11, under 6 years free. Refreshments and transfers included.

Bookings: 23-629 or 23-627 or email

Cook Islands website

Raro Safari Tours website

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