Spending time at a tumunu is a great way to meet Atiu locals, writes Jim Eagles.

Titiama, who was sitting in the centre of our semi-circle, dipped a small coconut shell cup into the white plastic drum between his knees, cast a judicious eye on the contents and tipped some back, then held it out to me.

"Is this a good size for you?" he asked. "It is only a small cup."

I was at one of the unique tumunu, a sort of men's drinking club on the island of Atiu, and as it was my first taste of the special home brew consumed there I agreed a small cup would be a sensible way to start.

As instructed beforehand, I took the cup in one hand, sniffed the sweetish bouquet, and drank the contents in a single swallow. There was a murmur of approval from the club members.


"What do you think it tastes like?" asked Akerauara, a female schoolteacher who I suspect had been allowed to attend because - owing to the presence of my wife and our female guide from Cook Islands Tourism - it had been declared an unofficial ladies' night. "Dry white wine?"

I thought perhaps I needed to taste a bit more before making up my mind. That earned another murmur of approval. But first, Titiama had to offer the cup to the others in the circle, including Tuaine, the local police chief, Natua, the leader of the Tumunu, and, of course, himself.

With my second cup I paid more attention to the taste. White wine? Not really. There was a little sweetness and a slight orange taste. The sort of hops and malt flavours you might expect in a light beer. Quite pleasant. And not particularly alcoholic. A sort of summer ale?

Before coming I had read a bit about the history of the tumunu. Apparently the people of Atiu, like most Polynesians, used to drink kava. But when the London Missionary Society became established on the island in the 1820s it banned kava along with free love, nudity, and the old gods.

By way of compensation, the missionaries introduced oranges, and someone - either whalers or Tahitians, depending upon which story you listen to - taught the Atiuans to make beer with fruit, yeast malt, and hops.

Of course, the missionaries tried to ban beer drinking as well, but this time the Atiuans didn't go along. Instead they moved their drinking places into the thick forest which still covers most of the island. These days there are five or six of them scattered round the island, open-sided corrugated iron shelters with a small lockable room for the beer, mostly meeting on Fridays and Saturdays.

As the cup reached me for the third time I asked Natua whether it was true that this tumunu - "Tamariki te po nui" or "the big night boys" - was the finest on the island.

"Oh, yes," he smiled proudly. "When they had the tumunu competition we won it for nine years."

That may have been a slight exaggeration - the competition didn't run that long - but everyone on Atiu seemed to agree this was indeed the best tumunu, famed for having a telephone, digital sound system, electric lighting, comfortable seats and even a flushing toilet (though Natua added with a grin that the next project was to put up a tank so there would be water for the cistern).

By the fourth or fifth cup - and by the way you can skip a round at any time just by putting your hand up - Tuaine the policeman was explaining that contrary to what the church still thought, the tumunu were a force for good on Atiu.

"We have strict rules," he said.

"Anyone who drinks at the tumunu has to behave and mustn't cause trouble at home afterwards or they'll be banned from coming. It has a very good effect on behaviour."

I got a small demonstration of that when I went back the next night and one of the members gave me an amiably profane greeting. There was general outrage and the poor fellow had to offer a humble apology.

It's certainly a great way to meet locals. Among others, I shared a cup with island identities like George Mateariki - also known as Birdman George - who had earlier shown me the island's amazing bird life, and the government secretary for the island, Ina Mokoroa, who took me to some of the ancient marae he's having cleared.

It's a tumunu custom that visitors should give a little speech introducing themselves - it's worth it for the appreciative round of applause that follows - and on leaving should hand the chief a donation of about $5 to go towards the next week's brew.

As Roger Malcolm, the New Zealander who owns Atiu Villas, said, "The $5 covers you for a week so it's pretty good value... a lot easier on family finances than getting drunk on imported beer at $10 a bottle."

As it happens I enjoyed the tumunu so much I gave them $20 which still seemed like a cheap couple of nights out.

"Wow," said Roger when I told him this.

"That'll cover you for ages. You can come back any time."

I might take up that offer. I'd like to visit Atiu again. It's a delightful place. And the beer is great.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to the Cook Islands six times a week. Air Rarotonga flies from Rarotonga to Atiu every day except Sundays.

Where to stay: Atiu Villas has self-contained villas, plus a central restaurant and bar, and is happy to organise visits to local tumunu.

Further information: cookislands.travel.

Jim Eagles visited Atiu with help from Cook Islands Tourism, Air Rarotonga and Air New Zealand.