Susan Buckland: Island's gentle strongman

By Susan Buckland

COMMENT

Ten years ago in Rarotonga a friend with whom I was travelling booked into a mountain hike with a man called Pa. We had met Pa the previous day, noticing his sun-bleached, shoulder-length dreadlocks and his fine physique. My friend didn't hesitate when he suggested a hike into the hilly interior of the island.

Early next morning she laced up her boots and headed for the hills, confident her gym-honed body would have her up among the serrated peaks in no time.

Six hours later she stumbled back through the door she had so cheerfully exited that morning, bent with exhaustion. The nimble Pa apparently had set a pace too cracking for my friend Lynley and the other hikers who had embarked with him that day. A human version of a mountain goat is how she described him.

The pack on his back heaved with water bottles and lunch for eight but he treated it as if it were just another muscle to be flexed. And, every now and then, he would call down to his puffing, perspiring party to pause and admire the view of the blue lagoon shimmering out to the reef.

Pa was in his 50s then. Ten years later I arrived in Rarotonga with the reasonable expectation that advancing age would have had some impact on him.

But, be it genes or great outdoorsmanship, or a mixture of both, Pa, a decade older, looked little different from the 50s version.

Sun-blonded hair framed his brown face and wide smile. An island-style shirt was tied at the waist. His strong legs were tuned by years of more hikes.

It is what he loves. B&B cabins, which he and his wife Gillian manage on their property overlooking the ocean, and the guided walks are business and pleasure for Pa. A herbalist and conservationist, he loves showing the less obvious parts of the island to people who visit. He is most at home on the bush-covered land that rises behind the coral sand beaches and palm trees.

He offered to take me into Rarotonga's mountainous interior but memories of the apres-Pa affect on my friend Lynley had me hastily suggesting an excursion on more level ground.

Pinned to his dreadlocks was a badge Miss Canada 2001 had given him when she made it up the mountain path. He makes friends of most of the visitors he takes on his walks.

As we strolled along, Pa explained he was only a few years old when his grandmother sent him into the bush to collect herbs to cure ailments of one kind or another. And those childhood forays encouraged a lifelong interest in herbal remedies.

The fruit of the noni tree, for instance, is rejuvenating and is now believed to help to alleviate arthritis. So the orange trees that once proliferated in Rarotonga have largely been replaced with plantations of noni. "Our million-dollar tree," said Pa.

His body, which could belong to a man half his 60-something years, is regularly replenished with noni juice. He also recommends the wonder fruit for healthy hair.

Anita Roddick of Body Shop fame once sent a couple of model friends with thinning hair to Rarotonga for Pa's noni treatment.

They rubbed the hair with the juice for several weeks and with positive results, according to Pa. They also put up with the powerful smell of the noni fruit, which is not unlike rotten eggs.

Pa said noni juice is doing a brisk trade at the colourful Punanganui markets in the town of Avarua every Saturday morning, along with freshly woven crowns of flowers, black pearls from $8 each, pawpaw salad dressing, chicken curry, candy floss and boxes of tropical produce.

In the colourful scene locals enjoy shopping and having breakfast. It was here among the laden stalls that Pa stood out those 10 years ago and my acquaintance with the gentle strongman of Rarotonga began.

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