Island of birds and subterranean gems

The small island of Atiu in the Cook Islands group is a haven of birds, caves, coffee and world-renowned art, as KATHY OMBLER finds.


It's just breaking daylight as we huddle on the bush edge. George, our guide, holds his hands over his mouth and emits a peculiar, high-pitched sound. Within seconds the sound echoes back from the tangled rainforest.

George looks high into the trees, grins and points as the kakerori, one of the world's rarest birds, flies into view.

We are on Atiu, also known as Enuanamu, Island of the Birds, in the southern group of the Cook Islands. More bird species live here than on any other island in the Cooks, just one of many features that have tempted me to visit.

From the first aerial view, it is obvious Atiu is different from the lagoon-fringed and more heavily populated Rarotonga. The tiny island is formed from raised and fossilised coral reefs, or makatea.

It rears from the sea, its coastline a shelf of jagged coral and the rest hidden by a green cluster of rainforest beneath which, we are to discover, is a mass of caves.

Tiny Atiu Airport bustles with locals and each disembarking passenger is greeted with a spectacular flower lei.

My travelling mates, Rarotongans Keren and Kelly, are greeted like the long-lost cousins they are.

We clamber aboard the deck of our host's truck, obviously standard island travel, and drive to Are Manuiri, our homely guesthouse.

Keren, ever hungry, immediately acquires a cousin's motorbike and fetches lunch from the island's outdoor bakery, bread so fresh it is still steaming.

We climb aboard another truck bound for our first Atiu adventure, the Anatakitaki Cave Tour guided by brother and sister team, James and Sarah Humphreys. A half-hour walk leads us over the makatea. It's a harsh and broken surface underfoot but the rainforest around us is lush and pretty.

When the makatea stops abruptly, a dramatic ladder descent brings us to the entrance of the cave system. We don headlamps and stumble into a strange land of limestone shapes and forms.

As we enter one vast, dark cavern a mysterious clicking tells us we have company. This is the cave of the rare kopeka, swift-like birds that live only on Atiu.

They nest in the caves and use sonar-like clicks for navigation. We watch them flying back and forth, furiously clicking, until James announces another surprise.

With blind faith we follow his descent through a black, narrow and twisted chute to discover, by candlelight, a sizeable swimming pool, deep in the bowels of the earth. The water is refreshing.

We trudge back through the steamy hot rainforest, refreshed but with a growing thirst. It's a good time to join the Tumunu, a meeting place for socialising and drinking the locally brewed bush beer that's apparently a 200-year-old Atiu tradition.

For a $5 koha we can drink all we like, chew the fat and join a sing-along. We don't get too carried away though, as we are warned the potent fruit beer will still be fermenting long after we have drunk it.

We are three tired little cavers, so for dinner join our new caving friends at Kura's Kitchen, Atiu's only restaurant. Fresh marlin and island vegetables, then fresh fruit give the bush beer no fermenting chance. It's no fancy resort meal, and it's great.


Next dawn, the village roosters crow to tell us it's time to board the truck of Birdman George and seek out the kakerori, otherwise known as the Rarotongan flycatcher.

George says he used to eat native pigeon and laugh at the greenies. Now he's "grown up", he is entrusted with the charge of Atiu's kakerori recovery programme.

Atiu is rat-free so 20 kakerori pairs, from Rarotonga's Takitimu Conservation Area, have been relocated to the island.

Under George's watchful eye they have settled well and many are breeding, in between making appearances on command for guests.

After we hit gold with the kakerori, George takes us on a two-hour rainforest exploration, calling up birds at will. He follows a bush path of makatea slabs built hundreds of years ago yet still intact, showing us food and medicinal plants and gathering fruit and coconuts as we go.

We stop at Tongaroro Beach, one of the island's few sandy coves where a huge surf rages. It's too much for Kelly and Keren, who leap into the water and shriek and laugh as they are tossed at the mercy of the currents.

"You can tell who the locals are," calls Kelly, as I rescue their discarded sunglasses and jewellery from the surf.

George calls us to the back of the cove, where he has set out a magnificent tropical breakfast plucked from the forest: star fruit, bananas, paw paws, limes, shredded coconut and coconut milk, of course. If it wasn't before, the fermenting bush beer is now thoroughly defeated.

On to yet another truck, this one belonging to expatriate German coffee maker, Juergen Manske-Eimke, and we're about to experience Atiu's world-famous coffee industry and fibre-art crafts.

Atiu coffee is 100 per cent Arabic, handpicked, sun dried, organic and apparently one of the best in the world. By the time we have visited the plantation and processing factory, under the tutelage of Manske-Eimke, we are convinced.

We move into the fibre-art studio to taste the undeniably superb coffee and explore the studio and shop. Internationally known artist Andrea Eimke works here with Atiu women, creating textile art that combines traditional Cook Island techniques with contemporary designs.

Bold, colourful tivaevae, quilts, textile collages and wearable art are big wallet temptations. Atiu coffee is also for sale.

There is also time to call at the Atiu Women's Craft Centre, and we return "home" to Rarotonga laden with Atiu crafts and produce, generously pressed on us by our new Atiu friends.

Back in Avarua, Rarotonga's main town, the traffic noise seems deafening.


GETTING THERE

Air Rarotonga flies to Atiu every day except Wednesdays and Sundays. The flight is 40 minutes.

TOURS

Anatakitaki caves $25, George's nature tour $25, Atiu coffee and fibre arts studio tour $15, fishing $100 (three hours, barbecue your catch on board or keep it to eat later), Island tour by sea $50.

ACCOMMODATION

Several small, self-catering friendly family guest houses. Basic but comfortable.

GETTING AROUND

Motor and mountain bikes are available for hire. Exploring the island's few roads is easy, and visitors are welcome to help themselves to local fruit trees.

Atiu Tourism

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