I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about coming to the Cook Islands. I had heard that it was full of honeymooning couples, and assumed that they would be so engrossed in each others company that I’d be a little lonely. I’d enjoyed the camaraderie of hanging out with other travellers and I was nervous that everyone else on the Cook Islands would be too busy engrossed in each other to spend time with me.
And to compound all that, what if the islands themselves and the locals were boring, or worse: unfriendly? I had booked a week here, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Had I marooned myself? What if I got bored?
Well, those feelings quickly dissipated when I landed and was treated to spectacle of a gentleman sitting in the middle of the luggage carousel, serenading the tourists as we filed through immigration and went to collect our bags.
The airport was small, and I was outside in no time. I was expecting to be met by a cab or bus to take me to my guest house on the other side of the island, but no-one was there holding up a sign for me. Meanwhile, couples were greeted warmly and given flower necklaces. I leafed through my notes and found a shuttle bus stand that corresponded to a name I’d been given by the hostel. They didn’t have me on tonight’s list, they said, but there was a bus going within a few minutes and I could hop onto that for 15 bucks.
I got chatting to a couple on the bus from New Zealand, on one of their regular visits to Rarotonga. The Cook Islands are to the Kiwis as the Canaries are to the Brits. They’re about 4 to 5 hours away, and perfect for sunshine all year round, so they make a good winter sun destination. The couple explained that they had packed light – not many clothes or other kit, but lots of tinned food. They explained that food was very expensive in Rarotonga, so they brought their own and stayed in self-catered accomodation.
I was heading for the Aremango Guesthouse. I’d picked this place because it was on Muri Beach (the best area to stay on Rarotonga it seemed), and offered a lovely private room with its own garden, outdoor shower, and hammock at a very good price. Kelly, the manager, was really helpful as well, putting up with my changing plans as I booked my trip around the world, so that was another plus.
After twenty minutes or so, I arrived at Aremango, and found a note on the door as expected. The unexpected part was that it wasn’t addressed to me, but to a chap called “Jose”. I thought maybe they’d mixed my name up, so I took the note off the door and made my was to “Jose’s Room”. It was pretty apparent that I was in the wrong room: there was no garden or outdoor shower. I put the note back on the front door after noticing that some rooms had keys in the door. I tried several until I found one that looked like my room and got some sleep.
In the morning, I had a look around the guest house. The important thing to check was where the beach was. That didn’t take long – the beach was at the end of the garden. Inside the guest house was a TV room, with lots of DVDs and books, a huge communal kitchen and a lovely terrace outside looking onto a lush lawn and a couple of hammocks. Bliss!
I introduced myself to Kelly and Brendan, the owners of Aremango the next morning. I realised pretty quickly that the mix-up was my fault because I hadn’t planned in the date change as part of crossing the International Date Line. They were very relaxed about the whole thing, apparently this is a very common mistake.
It was Saturday, again. Kelly and Brendan suggested that I go and visit the weekly market. I could get there by taking a bus. I’d already done my research, so I didn’t ask “which bus?”. There are only two buses in Rarotonga: clockwise and anti-clockwise. It is very difficult to get lost here. There are also very few bus stops: you can flag them down like a taxi, and hop on. So I went outside to wait for the bus and met another guest from the Aremango. It was Jose, the chap whose room I nearly took. He was also going to the market and he was also travelling alone, so we buddied up for the day.
If you think about Rarotonga as a big clock face, I was living at about 5 o’clock. We were headed to the market at 11 o’clock, maybe 11:30. The road is about 20 miles long, so we had about a 25 minute ride to get to the market, passing some lovely island scenery, with clear views to the mountain in the middle of the island. The weather can be somewhat variable here, but it’s said that if it’s raining on one side of the island, you can nip over to the other side and it’ll be sunny and dry. It seems the mountain can block weather fronts.
The market was packed. Christianity came to the islands in 1821, and the people here are quite observant, so most shops are closed on Sundays, so the Saturday market is an opportunity to stock up and socialise.
Items for sale included ukuleles, coconut bras, fruit and veg, cooked food, coffee from Atiu (one of the islands, famed for its coffee), and various other nik-naks.
There was also a stall staffed by a mental health charity on the Cook Islands, selling trinkets and t-shirts. Called, Te Kainga o Pa Taunga, the Psychosocial Wellbeing and Rehabilitation Centre, it was staffed by volunteers and set up by Mrs Mereana Taikoko. Having been involved in similar stuff through my Samaritans work, I was interested in the sorts of issues that might trouble people living in, what appeared to me to be paradise. It turns out that stress is a big problem here, and Mereana described the paradise conundrum with reference to scripture, citing the precedent of Fall in Paradise.
There was some very percussive music coming from the other end of the market, so we made our way over there, stopping briefly at a clothes stall that was also selling star fruit, which I love, so I bought a bag for pennies. We got chatting to the owner of the stall, and Jose remarked that he hadn’t seen star fruit before, so he got a free sample.
We finally made it over to the source of the music: a big stage featuring island dancers showing off their stuff as a preview of some of the evening shows available on the island, this chap did a pretty impressive dance:
But then these ladies came on stage and things really got going!
We had travelled anti-clockwise round the island, so we walked out and took the anti-clockwise bus again, to travel from 11 o’clock to 5 o’clock. We had prioritised seeing the market, but hadn’t had a look at our neighbourhood, so we planned to have a wander up and down Muri beach before soaking up a bit of sun.
We were well rewarded. Muri beach is on a lagoon, so you can hear the waves crashing against the reefs in the distance, but the water at the beach itself is shallow, warm and crystal clear. At low tide, you can walk out to one of the islands in the lagoon and set up over there, or just rent a canoe and paddle around the lagoon.
I was starting to realise that I wasn’t going to get bored here. Quite the opposite, I was starting to get a little anxious about all there was to do here: canoeing, diving, hiking through the jungle, visiting a Sunday church service (amazing singing, apparently) visiting the other islands etc. etc.
How was I going to cram all of that into seven days? As I sat and thought about this on the beach, I looked up at a signpost reminding me how remote this place was, but somehow I felt at home.