Monday, November 20, 2006


We awoke to a grey day, or rather I just got out of bed, having been up staring at the walls all night. I’d just read a rather academic book which had gotten my mind going, exactly the wrong thing for bed-time. We were up earlier than usual to get our things together and check out, although at that point we didn’t have anywhere to move on to. We tried ringing the backpackers on Muri beach, but they only had an expensive unit left, not so much of a problem, but we thought that we would try something else. Our fact finding mission of the previous day had been finding out how much we could get out to the other islands of the Cook Islands for. Air fares on Air Rarotonga are quite expensive, and it works out cheaper to buy a package of flight and accommodation. We gave the travel agent a ring and asked if we could go that day. Thankfully the answer was yes, so we jumped on a bus into town to sort it out. Not long afterwards we were holding some vouchers for flights to Aitutaki, the second most visited of the Cook Islands, as well as accommodation at Paradise Cove. The deal was really quite good, especially compared against the rack rates of the hotel and flights, although slightly over our rough budget.

The flight was a short 45 minute hop across the ocean, although I couldn’t see it because of cloud. As we began descent at Aitutaki the cloud got darker and the pilot announced the dreaded words, ‘Heavy Rain.’ He wasn’t lying. Just running from the plane to the minibus managed to soak us. Gemma got a look of utter dread on her face and started mumbling incoherently. I could pick the odd word and phrase out of the stream, ‘...bloody...rain...better not be like this...snorkelling...’ A short ride from the airport and we were checked in to our rather cute beach-front bungalow. From the balcony with a coconut tree growing through the middle we could see that the lagoon looked lovely despite the downpour and grey skies. ‘If it is this blue now,’ I thought, ‘imagine what it will be like in the sunshine.’

During a break in the rain we foolishly tried to walk down the road to a café,which according to the map looked just round the corner. It wasn’t just round the corner and of course the heavens opened even further giving us a proper soaking. We turned and trudged back down the road, getting wetter by the second and went to the fish & chip place, Puffy’s, next door to our accommodation. Fish & chips and a beer were extremely satisfying.

The rain continued throughout the night. Occasionally it would lessen, almost to nothing, only to become a furious torrent again. It finally sputtered out at about 05:00 to be replaced by a wind which whipped the coconut fronds back and forward. Breakfast was a tray of tropical fruit slices, shaved coconut and toast and jam. I had to race a mynah bird to the tray on the doorstep. After breakfast we waited at reception for our round the island tour, including in our package. This consisted of an hour and a half slow drive around the island, with various spots of interest pointed out. Aitutaki is where ‘Survivor: Cook Islands’, yet another dumb ‘reality’ show, was filmed. We caught an episode of it in New Zealand, drawn by Cook Islands in the title. Like most programmes of it’s genre it was hideous. Our guide pointed out the motu (small islands on the reef) that were used by the programme. By this point breaks in the cloud had appeared and we were able to see the beautiful turquoise colours of the lagoon. In town we stopped at the ‘superstore’, which was the equivalent in size and range of products as a small corner shop in the UK. On arriving back at Paradise Cove little spits of rain were beginning again.

After lunch we had a short walk down the beach, before rain stopped play again. We didn’t get too far because I kept wading into the water to look at things. Right up to the waters edge were a phenomenal number of sea cucumbers laying on the sand. Schooling fish kept right to the shallows, sometimes leaping from the water when spooked by something. About a metre into the water were isolated corals, I could walk right up to them and still only be shin deep. Around these congregated several small colourful fish, as well as a couple of larger butterflyfish. Visibility was excellent, apart from the wind blowing the surface water about.

Our package came with a days free hire of a moped, so the next morning we grabbed one. Gemma had sorted out a Cook Islands drivers license a few days earlier in Rarotonga, so she was fully legal to ride it, despite them spelling her surname LOMGMAN. It was a little bit shaky to begin with while Gemma got used to it and I clung on for dear life. In a short time though, we were motoring along happily, criss crossing the island and roaming across all of it’s roads. The weather was mostly kind to us, a little bit of cloud, which was appreciated as it held the sun in check, and then a bit of a shower in the late afternoon. We’d had quite a full day exploring so were ready to hand the bike back by that point.

Our dinner consisted of half a coconut cake each because we weren’t too hungry after a big lunch. We’d noticed a bar near to our accommodation, called Crusher Bar. The Lonely Planet said it was a good spot so we thought we’d wander down for a drink. It seems that the bar has undergone two changes of ownership since the glowing review in our guidebook. One had run the bar into the ground until it was taken over two weeks prior to our visit by the current owners who had plans to get it back on its feet as a raging local hangout. It wasn’t exactly raging when we turned up. The owners were sitting round a table with some mates and invited us to join them. Since we were the only other people in the bar it would have been rude not to. At first it was a little bit uncomfortable and I’m sure, had the bar had any doors, that they would have been swinging in the wind when we first turned up (a la western saloons). One of the aforementioned mates of the owners was a Cook Islands legend, Don Silk. Along with his business partner he was sailing to Canada from New Zealand, but missed and ended up in the Cook Islands. He has been there since the 1950’s. He regaled us with tales from his life, and chatted to us for a while being specially amused that I had read about him in the tourist newspaper. He has a biography out, Kauri Trees to Shining Seas, which we didn’t buy and instantly regretted.

We continued chatting with everyone and having a few beers, promising to tell everyone we knew that Crusher Bar is a really nice place where you can have a good old yarn and a drink with the locals. So there you go, I’ve said it now.

We were up early and at reception waiting to be picked up for a lagoon cruise with Bishops Cruises. We needn’t have bothered being early as Bishops work on island time like most other people in the Cooks. The weather was a little cloudy and windy, but happily devoid of rain. The cruise was lovely. Auitutaki is famous for it’s huge triangular lagoon dotted with motu. The blue sea rushed past as we cruised through the lagoon to our first stop, a set of coral heads where we could get some snorkelling done. Although the wind was causing some choppiness and a fairly strong current was running the snorkelling was excellent. The coral wasn’t brilliant, but it managed to support a large array of fish both small and large as well as housing a couple of giant clams. Jumping off the platform at the back of the boat I found myself right in the middle of a large school of butterflyfish. Gemma didn’t have her customary mask problems so we were able to get right on with swimming past the coral heads and letting the current push us back on the other side.

Back on the boat we made for our lunch stop, Tapuaetai or One Footprint Island (or One Foot Island). While the crew got lunch together Gemma and I walked round the tiny island, marvelling at the colour of the lagoon. Lunch was great, salads and fish barbecue, I couldn’t resist seconds. The island is in the middle of a pattern of sandbars and so it is possible to walk way out into the lagoon and still only be ankle deep. So that is what we did before returning to get a One Footprint Island stamp in our passports (cheesy, I know) and send some postcards to get the special postmark (which I suspect is the same stamp as in the passports.)

At our final stop, Aikaiami island, the captain pointed out the islands used in the filming of Survivor: Cook Islands. The island we were on was used to house the contestants that had been voted out of the show. Since they got free accommodation, food and unlimited activities it wasn’t a bad deal at all. We didn’t have very long on the island so Gemma and I just sat on a bench and played with a hermit crab.

The package we were on also included an ‘island night’. Island nights are big in the Cook Islands and many of the resorts and restaurants have one on during the week. The nights are a big buffet dinner followed by traditional music and dancing. You may think it is strictly for the tourists but that isn’t the case. The nights are popular with the locals as a way to keep their culture alive. So music and dancing have survived the changes imposed by the missionaries whereas some traditions have been lost. Like eating your defeated enemies. Not something I would have particularly wanted to see. We went along to Puffy’s next door to us along with an English and an Austrian couple also staying at Paradise Cove. There was masses of food, some of which was unidentifiable. There was a banana pudding which looked like chunks of raw liver. Needless to say I didn’t try that one. What I did eat was excellent. After the meal drumming started up that was almost samba-like and the dancers came out. All ages were represented, with some of the younger ones looking like they were being forced to do it against their wishes. Most seemed to be enjoying it though. I can only think that in times gone by, and maybe even now, the dances must have had some kind of sexual partner picking function. It surprised me that the missionaries didn’t ban the ladies from dancing, the sinuous and sensual twisting of the hips being positively erotic. It wasn’t so nice when a group of the men came out dressed as girls and dancing the ladies dance to much hilarity. If my eyes had been popping out on stalks at the girls, they went firmly back in their sockets when they came on. I did get a kiss from one of them when he danced up to me though! A selection of locals and tourists were grabbed by the dancers, including the Austrian girl we were sitting with, for the final dance. The tourists gave a good effort, but were no match for the locals.

The night before the guys at Crusher Bar had told us that Friday night was the jumping local party night, with a DJ and really kicking off at 10:30. Shortly after that time the six of us walked up to the bar, noticing with approval the amount of cars and mopeds parked outside. The DJ was indeed playing, although very much in the R&B style, and most people in the bar were hanging about in clusters looking moody. Given the amount of vehicles outside and the lack of people inside, each person must have driven three vehicles to get there. We got beers and stood in a circle. The Austrians and the English couple began jigging although I couldn’t really motivate myself to do more than sup at my lager. The jigging worked some magic however, and soon the dancefloor was full of twisting and turning locals. About a minute before midnight the DJ made an incomprehensible announcement and then promptly on the stroke of midnight turned everything off and packed up. The shutters on the bar went down at that precise moment. I gather licensing laws on the island are very strict. The Austrians were stunned, they couldn’t believe that the locals once a week party lasts for, basically, an hour.

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