Flower images. Lucia Appleby
Rarotonga, Cook Islands. A long way across the Pacific from the Los Angeles Airport, I enter a different world. A cock crows in the distance and myna birds strut around the airport lounge as if they own the place. Nobody is in a hurry.
As the tourists blink themselves awake from their flight, model-like Rarotongan women undulate around them – beaming, wearing bright tropical print dresses (a flash of orange here, a flash of purple there) and orchids in their hair. “Where are you staying?” they ask, then, “This way please.” Rarotonga is so small that everybody knows everybody, pre-booked accommodation is essential, and free vans are waiting to usher us all to our destinations.
Bob – a rasta with blonde dreadlocks – drives our van past the police station, a local gourmet restaurant called The Flame Tree, the internet café, budget scooter and car rental, a few beach-side bars and a café which says “mostly open”, a dive shop, some expensive resorts, one “boutique” hotel, and a small 7-11. “And that’s town,” he says. Five minutes later we’re at our destination. It’s not difficult to guess that the journey around the island’s perimeter can be accomplished with ease.
When Air New Zealand told me I could have extra stop-offs (at US$50 a piece) in the Cook Islands, including Rarotonga, on my flight from Britain to Los Angeles to Australia, I said, “Where?” Curiosity prompted me to request a touchdown there.
Sensitive beaches and reefs need to be protected. Lucia Appleby
The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. Most are coral atolls, while Rarotonga consists of a high volcanic base. They lie in the center of the Polynesian Triangle, flanked to the west by the Kingdom of Tonga and the Samoas and to the east by Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia. Map courtesy of www.mapsouthpacific.com
Unpacked, I ask the bar manager at Sails Restaurant, what’s going on at the moment. “Nothing much,” he replies, “Although you could write something about tourism taking over the island. We’re getting really fed up with it.” “Hmmm, so what’s the major economy without tourism?” I ask. He shrugs. “There isn’t one”.
Somebody suggests I go on Pa’s Nature Tour www.pastreks.com, run by a local herbalist who sporadically heals the sick for free, to learn more about the flora and tourism’s impact on it. It quickly becomes clear that Rarotonga is a spectacularly beautiful island: not only surrounded by a protective coral reef and soft white-sand beaches perfect for diving and snorkelling, but also rich in sharp-peaked mountains and dense jungle. As we climb 400 meters to Te Rua Manga (The Needle), Pa tells us that the noni plant is good for cuts and stings, that myna birds were introduced to the island from Tahiti in 1906 to control coconut stick insects, and that the night jasmine flower only produces scent from 6 pm to midnight.
Pa leads educational nature walks through challenging terrain. Lucia Appleby
Pa is a grassroots guy, “Nature is nature, you have to work with it,” he says. “Plants talk to us all the time; we just have to listen. They say ‘use me for healing’, and ‘use me for eating’.”
The Cook Islands’ respect for nature’s rhythms has traditionally fostered a system of conservation called ra`ui. In a nutshell, the island’s traditional leaders call a ra`ui when a particular area is in need of rest and replenishment. During a period of ra`ui, nothing can be taken from the designated area, and everything grows without human interference.
Despite its geographical remoteness, Rarotonga is expanding as a holiday destination. If it doesn’t regulate development, there could be problems particularly with energy demands and environmental impact. A UN-affiliated environment journalist who visited the island was quoted recently in the local newspaper, “Tourism is a huge economic force, but once unleashed, it’s very difficult to control. It takes a lot of community involvement to get the balance right, and it must be done now. The first signs of deterioration are plastic bags blowing around.”
Volcanic ridges overlook a taro plantation. Cook Islands Tourism Corp
To date, plastic bags are a minimal distraction on this island of laid-back charm and natural beauty. For most global travelers [though less so for New Zealanders and Australians], Rarotonga will remain an unlikely destination on the vast seascape of Oceania. For those who step into this rare world for a brief stopover or longer, treading lightly and respectfully will ensure that future generations of visitors may encounter Rarotonga in a similar manner.
Follow Up FactsFor complete travel planning tools, see Cook Islands Tourism, https://www.tourismcookislands.com/.
The Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project is a program of the Cook Islands Government: a) to collect and integrate scientific and traditional information about local plants and animals; and b) to preserve such information, and make it available to the general public.
Interested in other South Pacific feature articles on this website? Read Lucia Appleby’s observations about rare birds on Raratonga. And check out our richly-illustrated and educational story about the Black Pearls of French Polynesia.
Based in Australia, Lucia Appleby is a freelance editor and journalist whose work has appeared in a wide range of newspapers and magazines. She also operates a public relations and media consultancy.