The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook who first sighted Manuae (Hervey Island) in 1773. The first settlers of the islands were Polynesians who arrived about 1200 years ago from the Society Islands. Our first stop was an island called Atiu and right away I liked the feeling of these islands with their Polynesian heritage and British and New Zealand modern political connections.
As we drove our zodiacs into the small harbor inside the coral reef, two young women in traditional long, bright colored dresses stood high above us up on either side of the harbor wall blowing conch shells in welcome. At the jetty, musicians were beating hollowed-out drums called pate and a Cook Island warrior challenged each group of visitors we landed ashore. This custom can be an intimidating experience thanks to the warrior’s menacing frame, traditional red and black-feathered headdress and tall spear, but in today’s world, it’s thankfully nothing more than a tradition.
There are no buses on Atiu, so we all rode in the back of 4×4 pick-up trucks fitted with wooden plank benches for seating. As our vehicles roamed the island we passed lush green jungle growing on this raised coral platform, and areas planted with coffee, taro, and the usual bananas and coconuts.
We got to taste some of the local fruits and baked goods later when the islanders presented us with a feast they had clearly taken much time and care to prepare. We each received a fresh coconut with a straw in it to quench our thirst and after traditional dancing and a prayer of thanks we were each given a basket woven from coconut palms and lined with banana leaves to use as plates as heaping platters of food were uncovered. We enjoyed fresh, sweet pineapple, juicy watermelon, ripe papayas, crisp starfruit, Malayan apples, baked breadfruit, and chunks of freshly cut coconut. There were also rolled crêpes, tiny sweet pancakes with jam, fried plantains and bananas, and homemade coconut cakes.
After leaving Atiu and it’s friendly people, we tried to land on the uninhabited island of Takutea, but after patrolling up and down the edge of the reef in our zodiacs it was clear that the swell was too big for us to find a safe passage to shore. The Captain turned our ship back and we steamed on to Aitutaki for our next stop in the Cook Islands.
Aitutaki has one of the most beautiful shallow, blue lagoons I’ve ever seen and we had a chance to snorkel in its crystal clear waters. I found two octopus, which is unusual in the middle of the day and I was thrilled to find a couple of tables underwater covered in chicken wire that were being used to grow fragments of coral for reef replanting and restoration. The lagoon itself is 12 by 15 kilometers with scattered sand bars, coral ridges and small coconut covered islands. We visited a small island called Tapuaetai, which translates to ‘One Foot Island.’ The lagoon water gently lapped at the shores of a fine white sand beach lined with tall coconut palms. It looked just like a photo postcard. Gorgeous.
Later in the day, our Captain steered in a northwesterly direction away from Aitutaki for our third and final Cook Island destination. Overnight we covered 203 nautical miles to the remote atoll of Palmerston. The atoll has an intriguing history associated with the arrival of William Marsters and his first wife in 1863. He later took two more wives and together they all lived on the island married to the same man. Each wife lived in a separate part of the atoll with her children. Today, those three areas of the island have become three small settlements inhabited by the descendants of Marsters’ 23 children. Over the years there have been several family feuds and the islanders eventually wrote their own set of rules to establish harmony and discipline on the island. Today, roughly 45 people from the Marsters clan live on the atoll with a nurse and teachers who are employed from New Zealand.
Palmerston is a flat island surrounded by a reef that has been heavily fished over the years, so unfortunately there were not many reef fish to be found. We arrived on the island’s white sand beach, covered in tiny hermit crabs, and were welcomed by the Deputy Mayor, Bill Marsters. The villagers then sang a prayer of worship and welcome. It was a sedate religious situation compared to the bright, colorful, dance-filled welcomes we’d become used to throughout the voyage. After this greeting we were shown around the island by some of the school children. The paths through the atoll are well cared for and lined with logs and greenery. For an atoll, there was also a dense woodland created by tightly packed coconut palms and breadfruit trees. I picked limes, drank coconuts with a straw and chewed on sugar cane that some of the kids collected for me. It’s hard to imagine living on an island with only 40 other people, all of whom are vaguely related to you, but the kids seemed really happy and excited to talk with us so it was a good visit.
Given a chance, I would definitely make my way back to the Cook Islands to spend more time here and explore more of the islands.