Atiu upgrades its tourist appeal with a revival of the island's historic sites, writes Jim Eagles.
A row of pillars - stalagmites from the many caves on Atiu - barred our way to the Moko Ero Marae.
"What do you think those were used for?" asked Ina Mokoroa, the Cook Islands Government secretary on Atiu.
I didn't know.
"They were execution stones. Captured warriors were brought here, their heads were placed on top of the pillar, then - boom - they were crushed with a rock."
There were about a dozen of these pillars, which seemed to represent a lot of executions.
Before I could ask, Ina was pointing to a nearby pile of stones lying amid a lot of black charcoal.
"Umu stones," he said.
"They were brought from Rarotonga because there is no stone like that here."
Oh. So did that mean the prisoners were executed and then cooked?
"We don't like to think about it," he answered. "But probably."
Further into the marae was another possible explanation. There was a raised area, framed by slabs of coral, that Ina said we should not go on to because it was tapu. Pointing to a stone about half a metre high in the middle of the raised area, he said: "That is the head of their god."
Then Ina drew my attention to an enormous stalagmite that must have been 5m long and at least 1m in circumference at its base.
"That was the body of the god."
Good grief. It was massive. How did the ancient Atiu people carry a monster like that from a cave? And how did they manage to stand it upright?
"We don't know," he said.
"A few years ago they tried to lift it back up into place with a 12-tonne digger but it didn't budge. Our ancestors must have been very strong."
In other areas of the marae, more stalactite columns and slabs of coral marked off areas that, Ina said, were probably used as "courts of judgment and meeting places where the chiefs would gather to make important decisions".
Ina showed me around Moko Ero and two more of Atiu's ancient marae that have just been cleared as part of a Government drive to boost tourism.
The campaign has also seen the island's airport terminal upgraded, an information office opened and a full-time tourism officer appointed.
Later stages will involve erecting story boards on marae to tell their history, restoring old tracks that once linked the villages to the sea, and building or renovating beach shelters.
There is also talk that Pacific Resorts, which already has excellent hotels on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, might build a boutique hotel on Atiu to add to the existing villas and guesthouses.
There is much to see on the island including spectacular caves, marvellous birdlife, rich rainforest, fascinating culture and white-sand beaches, but currently only a handful of the tourists who flock to Rarotonga carry on to Atiu.
"We hope if we can attract a few more tourists we will be able to create jobs for our young people to keep them here," said Ina. "Just a few years ago there were 2000 people on Atiu. Today there are less than 500."
Of course, Ina isn't normally available to show tourists round the island - "tours only for Jim," he joked later over a bush beer at one of the island's tumunu, or drinking clubs - but you can do a tour with island storyteller Papa Paiere Mokoroa that embraces the whole sweep of its history.
The tale begins at a small, sandy cove where, 1100 to 1200 years ago, the first canoe landed from Manua in French Polynesia, bringing the chief Mariri and a small group of followers who on nearby flat land established a village they called Orongo-i-Tai.
Papa Paiere said there was little trace of that settlement today - and since it was pouring with rain I took his word for it - but the site of the village is marked with a plaque erected by visiting archaeologists to acknowledge its significance. And the spot where the canoe landed is marked rather more distinctively with the iron bow of the two-masted Dutch sailing ship Edna, wrecked there in 1990.
Later, canoes brought more settlers, mostly from French Polynesia. They established villages around the coast, planted taro plantations in the swampy areas and the population grew steadily, possibly reaching as many as 5000 people.
Europeans reached the island in 1777, when Captain James Cook arrived offshore with his ships Resolution and Discovery.
The great navigator didn't land himself but Papa Paiere was able to show me the beach where three boatloads of his men came ashore, bringing as gifts a pregnant dog and some red cloth, and receiving a hospitable welcome from the locals.
Cook's visit didn't have much impact, he said, but island life was transformed in 1823 by the arrival of Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society.
Told of the power of the Christian god, the island's leading chief Rongomatane challenged his visitors to eat sugar cane from a sacred grove, and when they were able to do so without being struck dead they were converted on the spot.
The missionaries must have ruled with an iron fist because they not only banned free love, nakedness and kava, but they also ordered the Atiuans to move their coastal villages to the centre of the island, where the first church was built.
This, Papa Paiere said, made life much more difficult for locals because they had to walk long distances in order to fish or harvest taro. To illustrate the point, he took me to what was once the site of Rongomatane's marae, only a short walk from the coast and right next to what is still a huge, flourishing taro plantation.
There, the recent marae clearing work has revealed a broad, flat area fenced with 47 massive slabs of coral, once the chief's formal meeting place. Apart from the taro, the only real indication of the village's former importance is the presence of two bathing pools, one for the chief and another for his 12 wives, complete with stone seats around the edge.
From there it was quite a trek up the steep hill to where five villages still cluster round the church, and the villa of the current Rongomatane sits on one side of the road with the even more impressive house of another major chief on the other.
Behind the house is, apparently, a memorial of two stone plaques and a stalagmite marks the spot where the first Christian service was preached, but Papa Paiere asked me not to approach it.
"It is still a sacred place today and must be treated with respect."
Later, as I chatted to Ina at the tumunu, I asked him whether there was still sensitivity about the change to Christianity.
"Oh, yes," he said.
"Many people did not want us to clear the old maraes. They want the old places and the old gods to stay buried."
But, he added, clearing the marae was not the same as reviving the old ways.
"We are just acknowledging that this is a part of our history and it is something we want to acknowledge and share with visitors - like you."
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to the Cook Islands six times a week, with airfares from $265 each one-way. Air Rarotonga flies from Rarotonga to Atiu every day except Sundays.
Accommodation: Atiu Villas has self-contained villas, plus a central restaurant and bar.
What to do: Papa Paiere's historical tour.
Further information: See cookislands.travel.
Jim Eagles visited Atiu with help from Cook Islands Tourism, Air Rarotonga and Air New Zealand.