‘Hey, guys! Check this out. A coral fragment in the rainforest! How cool is that?!’ My fellow hikers, my friends, seem moderately interested. I crouch down and run my fingers across the crevices where polyps once gave life to this now defunct calcium carbonate skeleton. ‘Just think, this was reef in another era. Now it’s rainforest. We are literally hiking on an ancient coral reef’.
The peculiarity of the situation has me stopped. I’m in the jungle, engulfed in the verdure of thousands of trees, the air is thick and hot, and at my feet is coral. A few thousand years ago, two or maybe ten, right here was life of other kinds. This landscape has transformed in the most extreme way, yet its history remains tangible.
I try to make sense of the situation, but it’s the start of our hike and the group, myself included, is keen to make headway. I leave my camera where it is (slung over my shoulder in a decidedly ‘off’ position, knowing I'll later regret that decision), and continue.
Our destination is Te Rua Manga, otherwise known as The Needle, the rocky protrusion that penetrates Rarotonga’s skyline. The largest of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is the sharp and hilly remnant of an extinct volcano, its lush interior jagged from millennia of erosion. Fresh, cool waterways are carried through deep gullies, finding their end in ‘the lagoon’ that wraps the island.
The ‘track’ we’re following is little more than an ill-defined clearing through the thick jungle vegetation, and from where I’m standing it seems near vertical. Composed almost entirely of densely interwoven roots, it’s like we’re climbing the matrix that holds fast the entire island.
But it's all part of the adventure that is the cross-island trek...
A recurring must-do across all varieties of travel blog and tourist website, the cross-island trek is one of Rarotonga’s major attractions. People travel the world over to hike this mountainous terrain by the guide of an old and wise Cook Islander named Pa. Even the Dalai Lama himself is said to have hiked here with Pa, at which time he claimed Te Rua Manga one of the world’s last remaining energy centres, its ancient Polynesian significance notwithstanding.
A bit of bad timing means that our trek is without Pa, and I’m certain our experience is less rich as a result (the biologist in me is dying to know all about the biota around us). But nonetheless, it’s magnificent, and I’m so glad we persisted despite missing Pa and despite the recent heavy rains. Certainly at times the climb is testing, the lack of a clearly delineated path confusing, but it’s refreshing to hike in a place that still feels a bit wild. With a bit of imagination, I almost feel like an early adventurer discovering a new land.
Te Rua Manga, when we eventually reach it, is in every way beautiful. It stands in a semi-clearing - no doubt thanks to an endless foray of visitors – which furthers its needle-like appearance. So massive and unique looking, a dominating centrepiece of the island, it’s easy to see why the rock became so deeply ingrained in the Polynesians’ culture. I feel privileged that a relatively short climb has brought me to its base.
After a short while we hit the descent, but not before viewing Te Rua Manga from a more distant vantage point and I notice, interestingly, that the rock's face is distinctly human-like, and I wonder about all it has seen.
A tiny nation with a whole lot of soul, the Cook Islands won me over and left me wanting more. A smattering of islands strewn across 2.2 million km2 of Pacific Ocean, the nation is historically, culturally and ecologically diverse.
In its northern reaches, the nation consists almost entirely of near-pristine coral atolls; low-lying rings of reef and sandy islands encasing warm, clear lagoons (paradise: found). Despite their interesting histories of settlement and exploration, most of the northern islands are today sparsely populated and see very few, if any, visitors. They are some of the most remote and untouched places in the Pacific. This has me endlessly intrigued, but my intrigue will have to wait for another trip because the northern islands were not part of our itinerary.
The southern group is geographically different. Although a number of atolls occur here, its standout features are the dramatic, eroded volcanic islands, home to rich jungles and inland caves. Rarotonga, where I was lucky enough to spend 11 days of summer, is the nation’s capital. With a national population of just 15,000 people, even Rarotonga, the most populous island, feels remarkably uncrowded.
Despite its beauty, the nation sees much fewer visitors than some of its more famous neighbours – which is just fine by me. Holidays here are less hurried and less structured. The place is clean and safe. The people are joyful and welcoming. Traffic lights are nonexistent and no building is taller than the palm trees. Tacky touristy trimmings are distinctly lacking. This is your tropical island escape sans the bells and whistles. Don’t get me wrong – all the comforts you might want on your holiday are there; they’re just Cook Islands’ style. What you’re left with is a more basic and honest experience of island life.
Our days on Rarotonga were filled to the brim with exploring the island, from the sea to the mountains and everything in between. There is so much to do on this little island!
Clearly, we spent a lot of our time in and on the water (what else is a tropical island holiday about, really?), and what I really loved: there are no motorized water sports! Just peaceful, low impact activities. Bliss!
We also did a fantastic bicycle tour of the island (highly recommended. Learn more here), which had us riding through creek beds, swimming in waterfalls, and tasting all sorts of fruits and nuts straights off the trees. The tour also took us to the abandoned Sheraton resort – bizarre is all I can say about that. What remains of that failure is a sprawling mess of dilapidated buildings, their glamour sufficiently buried beneath dust and graffiti and a purported hex. At least it made for an interesting story.
But for all its natural beauty, it was clear to me that Rarotonga has suffered ecologically.
The lagoon has some amazing spots of coral, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring those for hours on end. But there were also extensive tracts of algae. Speaking to the locals, it seems that algae has overtaken areas that previously held coral reefs, and they’re not sure why. One guy said to me that slowly, almost unnoticeably, the coral has disappeared under a blanket of algae. Unfortunately, returning to a coral state once algae has taken hold is almost impossible, especially where human pressures are constant and storms, even cyclones, are common.
Beyond the lagoon, in the deeper waters, the coral reefs are extensive and beautiful, with incredible cover and complexity. Combined with warm, clear water, it made for fantastic scuba diving. But, sadly, the large and predatory fishes you would normally find around coral reefs were noticeably scarce. My unsubstantiated opinion is that the area and its surroundings are severely overfished. Not only is seafood a massive part of the people’s diet and trophy fishing a large part of their tourism industry, illegal fishing ships are known to be active in the wider areas. It seems that large fishes are extensively targeted, probably both legally and illegally, and I’m sure that’s having a major effect.
Concerned by what I saw, I spent a while chatting to the guy in the Marine Parks office (who unbeknownst to me was Kevin Iro, a well known New Zealand rugby player turned marine conservationist). He told me all about the new Cook Islands Marine Park, which at 1.1 million km2 is the second largest marine protected area in the world. I was glad to hear that the park’s development and management is supported by Conservation International, a highly respected global NGO (read more here), and I’m hopeful that this will be a big step in the right direction.
On the land, the most striking issue to me was the pervasiveness of the Indian Myna. These birds were everywhere. It’s a big concern. When people think of pests, birds don’t often come to mind, but let’s be clear here: the Indian Myna is a major pest. In fact, it’s declared as one of the world’s 100 worst pests by the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group. Indian Mynas are highly invasive and fiercely compete with native species for nesting areas, even killing their eggs and chicks. Rarotonga has a number of threatened bird species, and the Myna has undoubtedly contributed to their demise.
But all hope is not lost. Mynas were equally pervasive on the nearby island of Atui (‘Island of the Birds’), but thanks to massive targeted eradication efforts the island is now Myna-free (or at least very close to it). Fronted by Birdman George, the program was initiated to protect a newly re-introduced population of 27 endangered Rimatara Lorikeets. The program employed all the tricks of the trade, from trapping and poisoning to shooting and even bounties. The enormity of this task can’t be underestimated, but with the lorikeet numbers still increasing, it shows that persistence and collective community dedication can achieve amazing things. Let’s hope other islands can follow suit.
My eleven days on Rarotonga was enough to cement in my mind that the Cook Islands is a nation I want to get to know well.
I was so taken with the beauty of the place, the friendliness of the people, the divine food (no word of exaggeration, the best fruit I’ve ever eaten), and of course the amazing nature experiences. The relaxed pace of life was infectious. For a country that I’d practically heard nothing of until about 18 months ago, I’m longing to go back already.
There are so many more islands to visit, each with their own unique beauty and ecology – just imagine all the things yet to be explored.
And I won't be returning without a photo of that coral in the rainforest.
Till next time!