Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Aitutaki: Where the wild things grow

A retired Swiss accountant found Aitutaki grew on him, writes Winston Aldworth.

Bill Tschan hosts tours of his tropical garden on Aitutaki. Photo / Louise Taylor
Bill Tschan hosts tours of his tropical garden on Aitutaki. Photo / Louise Taylor

When archaeologists set about the fiddly business of tracking the great waves of Polynesian migration across the Pacific, fruit and veges proved handy. When crops grown in one part of the Pacific would pop up in another area a few decades later, the paths rowed by the great twin-hulled canoes could be mapped out.

Centuries from now, archaeologists won't know what to make of Bill Tschan's secret garden. They probably wouldn't know what to make of Bill, either - the retired Swiss accountant gathers fruit and seeds from around the world and will have a go at growing seemingly anything in his Aitutaki garden. Handily, he also hosts tours for visitors to the island.

Bill first visited the Cook Islands in 1968 to run an orange juice cannery; he's lived on Aitutaki since 2002. When he married a local woman, Teetu, his new father-in-law gifted the pair a plot of land. While others might have fancied a spot on Aitutaki's legendary coastline, Bill was delighted to get his green thumbs on a hectare of good growing soil inland.

"For me, this was the perfect piece of land."

He's been busy in the garden ever since. Bill collects fruit seeds in his travels and has a bunch sent to him from exotic fruit societies around the world. Fruits of New Zealand, the Middle East, South America and Asia clamour for space in his ramshackle hectare. Today, he has more than 110 varieties of rare, tropical fruits.

On a tour, Bill talks his guests around the garden, cutting pieces of the fruit to try along the way; the longan and the loquat, the dates and the durian; the sapodillas and the santol, the abiu and the ackee, and more custard apples than you can shake a stick at.

There's a disordered harmony to the garden's layout with different plants getting tried alongside ones from other parts of the globe.

We chew the "miracle berry", from west Africa. After chomping the miracle berry we bite pieces of lemon and - as if by some garden miracle - the bitter citrus is rendered sweet. Bill claims it will make beer taste like shandy - though why you'd want to do that I can't imagine.

Bill's a big believer in the medicinal powers of his produce. He will use different fruit to relieve everything from back pain to sunburn.

"This is how people used to live - before we came to rely on modern medicines."

Tours of Bill's garden are a nice counterpoint to the waterbound glories of Aitutaki's lagoon. After a spell at one of the island's luxurious resorts, his "Secret Garden" makes for a down-to-earth change.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies six days a week to Rarotonga. In partnership with Air Rarotonga, they have several connections daily flying out to Aitutaki.

Further information: To book a tour of Bill Tschan's 'Secret Garden', email him on tarai@aitutaki.net.ck.

The writer travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

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