A buggy tour is a brilliant way to explore Rarotonga, writes Shandelle Battersby.

I've discovered one of the upsides of being on a beautiful Pacific Island when it's been raining for a couple of days: going into the hinterland in a grunty little buggy with no doors or floor is a hell of a lot of fun when you can roar through a few puddles and splatter yourself and your co-driver from head to toe in mud.

One of the activities I'd most been looking forward to during a visit to the Cook Islands was a three-and-a-half hour Raro Buggy Tour on the island's main road and a few back streets, taking in a little of the local culture and sights and finishing with a yummy lunch at a local eatery.

We'd been instructed to meet at the Muri Beach Club Hotel in clothes we didn't mind getting dirty for a pre-tour rundown in the carpark by Jay, our hilarious host for the day.

After jumping into the little yellow diesel buggies we got a quick lesson on how to operate them (pretty simple, with a few automatic vehicles on offer) before slowly rolling out through Muri Beach Village in a yellow snake-like configuration, behind Jay on his scooter.

The writer before she lost a jandal en route. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
The writer before she lost a jandal en route. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

This is not a trip for the hesitant driver: part of the fun is planting your foot to the floor and going for it, and off-roading means exactly that - bumps, jumps, and those muddy splashes through big deep puddles (and the odd cowpat). There's little suspension in the 400cc vehicles, so your body takes the brunt of the jarring and lurching about, and there are roll cages and seatbelts in each. It's brilliant fun, and you'll find yourself laughing like a drain at the sheer exhilaration of it all. Mechanic Alex follows in a flatbed truck toting an extra buggy in case someone gets a flat tyre or breaks down, and also doubles as a roadblock when the yellow snake needs to negotiate an intersection - the turning circle on those bad boys is not as tight as you're used to.

The rain that had been hanging around earlier in the week was taking a break but it had left us a couple of presents - notably those puddles and the sight of Wigmore's Waterfall in full flow, with the waterhole below satisfyingly full. Thoughts of a quick dip quickly took a backseat when an eel wiggled out of the waterhole on to land and disappeared into the vegetation. Gulp.

Other highlights included a stop at Rito Cook Islands to learn about its top-of-the line cold-pressed virgin coconut oil, which is used for cooking and in premium beauty products.

Run by expat New Zealanders Robert and Susan Wyllie, Rito's products are paraben-free, and all made in Rarotonga.

We fanged it along the island's back roads, getting up to speeds of around 50km/h (the island's limit), past crops and farmland, scores of rogue chooks, some nice houses and some barely inhabitable shacks, elaborate graveyards, and through and around the island's lush subtropical vegetation.

The tour takes you through the remains of what was supposed to be a Sheraton hotel but which was abandoned before completion when the money ran out. The enormous structure was eventually stripped of its fittings by local people and these days is a concrete shell used as a battlefield by a paintball company. Its only guests these days are a few cattle and goats, and its decor consists of overgrown vines and crude graffiti.

You'll see plenty of the island's rogue chickens. Photo / Cook Islands Tourism
You'll see plenty of the island's rogue chickens. Photo / Cook Islands Tourism

We also made a stop at the local driving range for a blat with the golf clubs, and at a beautiful rocky part of the coastline to have a look at the Avarua Passage, the spot where traditional vaka once sailed from. While we were there the sun came out and lit up the lagoon to a glowing aquamarine blue.

Our final stop was a local institution, The Mooring Fish Cafe, where we chose a delicious sandwich each (I can recommend the FOB: crumbed mahi mahi with lime mayo, $13) and sat around in our muddy get-up for a debrief. One guy's brakes had failed. I'd lost, then found, a jandal. One woman's co-driver had obviously aimed for every puddle on route. Getting dirty has never been so much fun.



Raro Buggy Tours depart the Muri Beach Club Hotel twice daily at 9am and 1pm. Bookings essential. You need a driver's licence and to be over 18 if driving, or over 4 if a passenger. $125pp or $150 share.