The old man, as bony as his bike, navigates the lie of the rutted path that leads further into the jungle valley. He pedals no faster than he needs to—slightly ahead of the point of imbalance, but no more.
Gravity threatens to overtake him at any moment. Across the handle-bars is a bush-knife. There is no rush. His plantation, somewhere up the valley, has been in the family a thousand years. It’s not going anywhere.
For all his economy of effort, he’s still cycling faster than I’m walking, and soon he draws level. By way of greeting, he tosses his eyebrows an inch up his forehead. I do the same. No word passes. A few more precarious wobbles, a twist in the track and he’s gone.
Far into the razorback mountains of Rarotonga there are surprising corners of cultivation, bringing a dimension not found in New Zealand bush. Beside the path, in jungle clearings, are man-made pools where swamp taro—its densely fibrous root a staple food—has always been grown. These pools, set in steps, connect one to the other by a succession of trickling waterways, ditches, spouts and aqueducts which, when the valley finally steepens, assume an almost Chinese complication. The earthworks are covered in meticulous lawn, the close-shaved grass revealing the architecture beneath.
Presently, I spy the bike, but see nothing of the rider. Beyond one pond and across the stream, through a window of coconut fronds and banana, a pure white hen bustles in the undergrowth. Two kid goats are playing in the cleft of a rock shelter. All around, the breadfruit that brought Bligh to the Pacific hangs not in the loaves of childhood imagination but in the shape of swollen baseballs, bright green. A horse stands dumb at its tether. Somewhere here the old man is working to feed the family. I climb over a dry-stone wall and lie full length in the smell of sun-baked grass.
I think of the old man, about the day when he’s beyond balancing the bike, and beyond that again, the day when he slips finally sideways. Then his grandchildren will be called to help bury him in the front garden of his house, chocolate soil in their bare hands. The village will bring food, sing his praises with speech and not depart until the last trowel-work on the tomb has been smoothed.
Upon his death he’d have been brought home, wrapped in comfortable cloth, to be kissed, sung to, cuddled, massaged. Death is no reason to shun a person. His family will not leave him alone, cold in the ground, but, to ease his way into death, will sleep next to the tomb for as long as they feel he might need the comfort.
As time passes, his grandchildren will come to play on the tomb as if it were his lap. They know this is how they will leave the life they’ve been born to—the life an outsider can but glimpse.
Twelve hours before, it was a wintry night at Auckland airport. There, unhurried amidst the fuss and tangle of departure, was a group of big men standing easily with one another, like farmers in town on a Friday.
They’re from an island where, for better or worse, everybody is a neighbour. Each has a rough idea of the others’ lives. “Ah, so you’re going home, John?… That’s not so long, kids, are they going home too? I don’t see them here… Ah, they’re back already?… Look who’s here!” Another joins the group.
The men wear sweaters emblazoned with “Dodgers”, “San Francisco 49ers”, “L.A. Tigers”. There is a marae clutter of bags and babies. One man cuddles a girl in a pink wedding-cake dress, iced with lace and bows. The special breed of airport hyperactivity flows on by. Prima donna hostesses tippy-tapping past; the glamour of flight.
One of the group is pakeha, a papa’a, so they talk in English, but the pace and cadence of the words adds up to a language as distinctly Cook Island—soft and rhythmic—as the Maori they would otherwise be speaking.
Already these men, in the time they’re talking to each other, are back in Raro. You get the feeling they never left. On board this flight is a freezing worker from Bluff, being carried home to the front garden.
The Cook Islands discovered New Zealand a thousand years ago. If New Zealand is part of the Pacific then, despite our isolation, we are most closely associated with the Cooks. The original Maori colonisers came by catamaran. There has followed a fresh wave of Maori settlement—by plane.
Now some 23,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand, while only 17,000 remain on the islands. There is a bit of stick between Cook Island Maori and New Zealand Maori. One group maintains they kicked the other out a thousand years ago because they were lazy and gutless. The voyagers claim those who stayed behind were the slack ones!
The two countries still share a common language, place names—even family names. The Paikea family from Mauke settled near East Cape, for example. Cook Island words for everyday things have been adapted to a New Zealand usage. The Cook Island word for giant clam is paua; chicken is moa.
At a stretch, New Zealand moa resemble nothing more than outsize pullets. A rough translation of some of the first Maori spoken in New Zealand might have read: ” Hey, guys, I’ve just seen moa like you wouldn’t believe!” It’s a line Billy T. James would have understood.
Falling in love with a country is about an accumulation of many things, and eavesdropping there in the airport I was glad to be returning to this place I first visited four years before.
In Rarotonga, I would join the Tauranga-based Mercy Ship Pacific Ruby, operated by an international Christian group, Youth With A Mission. She would be steaming to the northern coral atolls of the Cook Islands, taking medical and dental care to people who, in some cases, are as isolated from the busy hub of Raro as New Zealand was from Britain a hundred years ago.
Imagine the population of Levin sprinkled over a chunk of ocean almost the size of India (850,000 square miles) and you get some idea of the extraordinary difficulties of development. For some, the sea is still the sole physical link, with shipping that is irregular, if it calls at all.
The atolls of Pukapuka and Nassau had been six months without a ship. Nevertheless, the word, via radio telephone and Morse, was that the Pukapuka island council was not going to let us ashore. Why? History provides an answer. The first papa’a to reach the north were the Spanish in 1595, but the sporadic nature of the contact in the years since has not given the islanders the chance to build resistance to the kind of straight-forward diseases that most people’s immune systems brush aside. Measles remains devastating. Most ship visits leave sickness of some kind.
Our ship carried the particular risk of dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted virus (otherwise known as break-bone fever, for the type of pain it causes) which can be fatal. Although common elsewhere in the Pacific, it was for the first time sweeping through the Cook Islands. Isolation had thus far saved Pukapuka.
And so, with the emerald mountains of Rarotonga slipping astern, the Pacific Ruby is finally under way, nosing into the swell. The wake against the sharp blue sea is washing-powder white.
On deck there is a store of drinking coconuts and bunches of bananas. There is also a complement of Cook Islands medical people, government officials and ministers—and the president of the Cook Islands Christian Church, an offshoot of the London Missionary Society.
These dignitaries are kept busy instructing papa’a in the art of cutting coconuts. In expert island hands, lopping the husk away from the shell for a drinking hole is the work of three solid bush-knife blows. In tentative papa’a hands, a sad succession of grazes, nicks and wedged blades usually fails to yield a drinkable nut. Time and again they come to the rescue, demonstrating the knack anew, with flourish.
Compounding the embarrassment is the problem of the papa’a nose structure which, being rather more cantilevered than the Cook Islands snub, prevents a workable lip seal. This leads to spilling the milk like some clumsy infant.
Another Cook Islands skill often attempted by the visitor—but seldom mastered—is getting the knees to wiggle with a believable tamure dance rhythm. The Cook Island audiences at either side-show exchange the same kind of glances.
But there is no drink more refreshing than coconut milk. A green nut is full of faintly sweet water of such purity that during the war it was used as an emergency intravenous drip. The best milk is slightly fizzy. And then there is the pure white jelly to spoon from the shell. The cloudy, sometimes rank fluid New Zealand knows from mature nuts is not bothered with in the islands.
On an ocean voyage there is plenty of time to talk. I make friends with George Koteka, the Cook Islands principal medical officer. I’m curious about Pukapuka which, distinct in the Cook Islands, was settled from South-East Asia via the Tokelaus and Samoa. The other islands were colonised in a more roundabout route via Tahiti to the east.
“Ah… yes, Pukapuka,” says George. “I spent two years there. At first I thought, these are a silly people! To cut down a tree you have to meet with the village to say why you want to, even if it’s just a pandanus. But they say the tree will feed you, clothe you, shelter you—will produce until after you’re alive, for other people.
“So once a year they mark all the trees, all the useful trees, and they share those trees out so somebody doesn’t go to another’s tree. You still must have a good reason to chop the tree—to get a canoe to go fishing, or something like that. Later, I realised they weren’t silly. This was amazing conservation!”
On these tiny islands with stretched resources, conservation isn’t a luxury. Until outside interference, there was strict land management even on the larger southern islands. Jim Allenson, a visiting FAO soil expert I’d met back in Raro, uncovered such a scheme in Mangaia when he investigated the destruction of essential taro swamp by silt. It seems the chiefs had traditionally forbidden cultivation of the steep hillsides surrounding the swamp basin, but this prohibition had been overruled by New Zealand administrators who established pineapples there—for which there is now no market. This example of well-intentioned papa’a interference is far from being an isolated one.
George didn’t think Pukapuka would be too fussed about missing our visit. “They don’t worry about ships. Other islands run out of flour and they’re out of food. If there’s no boat, they scream! They want supplies. In Pukapuka, you never just drink the nut and throw it away… you must eat the flesh. They know how to make do. I don’t think they’ll change their minds about us!”
Our ship is slow, so it’s five days before we sight Penrhyn atoll, just short of the Equator. In the Cook Islands there are none of the dinky little land-locked lagoons of popular record. In many, one end of the lagoon is scarcely visible from the other. The lagoons are ringed by underwater reef, on which the chance of tide and wind has built only a scattering of islands.
The 15 islands and atolls of the Cooks can be divided three ways. On the six northern atolls, where coral grows in a ring around the sunken rim of submarine volcanoes, 2000 people live. About 6000 live on six southern islands, most of which are large pancakes of fossilised coral that has been pushed from the sea. Two more of the southern group are uninhabited. And then there is Rarotonga, with high volcanic mountains and a fringing reef. Raro, with 9000—most of the workforce is in the tourism industry— is a world away from its quieter and relatively impoverished neighbours.
From the sea, the islands of Penrhyn show on the horizon as a series of Morse-code dots and dashes—grey-green, like chunks of some improbable pine plantation set adrift in a fine mist of surf spray. It’s only from a plane that the oval of turquoise—the archetype of an atoll—becomes apparent. From that vantage there is room for romance.
The blackbirders came by sea. In 1862 they stole in on an unsuspecting people in their slave ships from Peru—part of a 30-strong fleet that, without interference from the British, swept the Pacific for its human cargo.
At Penrhyn, the ships called again and again, until no one of saleable age was left. From a population of 570, in six months 472 were spirited away. The blackbirds—that was the code-name—were told they would be working for wages in nearby islands. Instead, they were transported across thousands of miles of ocean, to be sold in Lima for between $100 and $200 each.
From Pukapuka they took 145 men, women and children—a quarter of the population. From Rakahanga, 115 went—a third. Within months, most had died, either of ill-treatment, disease or heartbreak.
London Missionary Society teachers, seemingly unaware of the real nature of the voyages, received $5 a head for their part in organising volunteers, the proceeds going toward building a church. Eventually, Josia, a Rarotongan missionary who had travelled with the slavers as an interpreter, appealed for help to the British consul, who refused to intervene on the grounds that his instructions were to do no more than maintain “a watching and reporting brief.”
A year into the trade it was the Peruvian government which called a halt—embarrassed by reports from a crusading local paper of mass death and brutal treatment.
Two ships, festering with smallpox and dysentery, carried out the repatriation of the survivors. If the original seizure had been inhuman, the liberation was diabolical. Of the 470 crammed aboard the 170-berth Barbara Gomez, 439 were thrown overboard. Some of the remainder—including Penrhyn Islanders and Rakahangans—were dropped ashore on Rapa, a remote southern island of the French Austral group to which they introduced disease that killed two-thirds of that island’s population of 360.
The largest group to survive Peru-111 Micronesian Gilbert Islanders—were dropped on Penrhyn, outnumbering the remaining infants and elderly, with whom they had not the slightest prior connection.
Altogether, 6156 Polynesians perished in slavery. Of the 743 taken from the Cook Islands, not more than 15 ever returned. In the north the word paniora (Spaniard) still means something like fiend. The word Kalio (Callao) is an approximation of hell.
It is dusk before the tide allows the Pacific Rubythrough the narrow passage into Penrhyn’s lagoon. Frigate birds on their way ashore do a spin around us. From time to time, flying-fish explode from the water like submarine-launched missiles. This is clearly more than knee-jerk escape from an undersea menace, for they glide hundreds of metres, flaunting perfect control.
Beneath the thicket of palms the gables of a church become apparent, and along the lagoon shore a straggling settlement that resembles a collection of New Zealand holiday baches. This is Omoka village. Te Tautua village is at the other end of the lagoon. Together, about 600 live here. At dockside, the people are singing hymns.
There, in the heat of the night, with great huffing, honking exhalations of air pumped from the gullet, bull-throated men roar their song. Others work their sinuses like band-saws. And through these male sounds that shunt and slam into each other float the women’s voices, so shrill they seem to hover at the very limit of human hearing.
The women squeeze air through their nasal chambers with such sharply defined compression that the sound has an electronic purity. Somewhere there is the feel of bagpipes being tuned. Together, men and women lever off each other’s rhythms with not so much as a teaspoon of air out of place. They build to a pitch, and then comes abrupt silence. This is not so much singing as the sound of an orchestra of obscure wind instruments. There is the clearing of throats.
Finding a sensible way to convey in writing the impact and substance of Cook Islands singing is a task that, over the next two months, will defeat me. A new song begins and several of the women appear to be in thrall to some deep upset. They gnaw at their palms between choruses, faces contorted with expectant pain, something like childbirth. They dab at the eyes with hankies, but there are no tears.
We move to the first feast, a table of delicacies conjured from this strip of coral rock and the surrounding sea—pork, chicken, yam, taro, turtle meat, paua, dozens of tiny fish and cross-sections of tuna. On the floor is a patch of pale blue lino, cool underfoot, that covers weathered floorboards. Small girls peep at us from behind frilly curtainry that fills in the breeze. They’re waiting for a cue to bring cut-glass jugs of lurid cordials to our table. Corned beef mixed with taro leaves and coconut cream is rich and delicious.
Later that night, when I walk through the village, there is the glow of cigarette ends showing where, under the palms, people are taking in the cool. Some have their sleeping mats down at the beach. There is the murmur of talk. One house invites me in for a video of blurred lunging Ninjas. The box sparkles in the darkness, the volume wound to distortion. An accumulation of children watch on in a stupor of fatigue.
While the church keeps guard for dubious religious content—Last Temptation was banned—when it comes to video decadence they show a lax hand. Grandmothers sit unblinking through the most appalling violence and rapine, grandchildren on their knee.
One of the best things about the arrival of broadcast television in Rarotonga is the way it has diluted the video diet. On the rest of the islands, videos seem to run 24 hours a day. Save for the Bible, few houses have reading material.
Back on the beach, I ask one group why some of the choir seemed to be crying. I learn this is the way some choose to show ritual devotion to the Lord—a devotion not shared by everybody.
“There is a lot of church,” my informant tells me. “On Sunday you can go three times. It depends on who’s going to preach. Sometimes you know it’s going to take an hour, and you have to sit there and listen. The times are 6.15am, 9.45am and then 3.15… if you arrive after those times you are not allowed in. Nobody is allowed to come in after the minister. It’s a law.” The early missionaries on Penrhyn were sticklers for time.
Time was the least of it. Before 1901—when New Zealand took its turn to colonise, and removed some of the church’s power—mission law directed Cook Islands life down to the most obsessive detail. Acts that were punishable by fine or imprisonment included card-playing, placing one’s arm around a woman at night when not carrying a torch in the other hand, tattooing or being tattooed, going from one village to another on the Sabbath, taking an unmarried woman inland, crying at the funeral of an unrelated woman.
It is not difficult to find cynicism about the church, but in a country where fishing or swimming on Sunday is mostly forbidden, this is seldom publicly expressed.
Robert Dean Frisbie, an American trader on Pukapuka, wrote in 1928: “Clothes clothes clothes! The missionaries are obsessed by the thought of clothes… Longer skirts, longer sleeves, higher necks for the women’s dresses. ‘Cover up the sinful body’ is the text of most of their sermons. A south sea trader should not complain, I suppose, for the more clothing the more copra [the islanders must exchange]… nevertheless I’d rather do less trading and see my neighbours return to more healthful habits of life.”
(Frisbie, who achieved fame as a south seas writer, is not lionised locally. By pretending to call the London copra market—on a mock radio—he fooled Pukapukans into selling copra for a fraction of the already derisory price.)
On one stifling Sunday I catch a friend trussing himself in a suit. He catches my look. “Don’t you think I know it’s hot in here, in these clothes? You papa’a can’t make up your minds. First you tell us to put clothes on, then you want us to take them off!”
The morning after our arrival, the ship’s American dentist, Charlie Roberts, begins dealing with people whose teeth have been eaten away by years of neglect. To soothe his patients he’s brought a Walkman; there’s mint mouth-wash, infrared technology—a standard of care few New Zealanders get to see.
Some of these gaping black holes can be blamed. on modern diet. Certainly, too much sugar, fat and salt has increased diabetes and heart problems, but the cherished myth of pre-European utopian good health has always foundered on the teeth. Japanese archeological studies on Pukapuka found the teeth of 1500-year-old skulls to be riddled with holes, the jawbones shot through with rot.
I start to notice teeth. With some of the people I speak to—those with broken rotting stumps—I presume to suggest a visit to the dentist. There is not a lot of interest in this. Toothache, when it gets unbearable, remains the only reason for a visit. Dental nurses, resident on each island, concentrate on educating school children, but the drive for better dental hygiene has met with patchy results.
The standard of medical care is patchy, too. In the plainly inadequate clinic at Omoka, a young woman has lain for days with a septic uterus. There is a queue of elderly wanting their eyes tested. The ship’s eye doctor finds many with treatable diseases that have gone too far. In one patient, the early stages of leprosy are detected. Specialists seldom make it to Raro, let alone to these outlying islands. George Koteka is busy taking notes of needed improvements.
The health service does its best, but isolation and meagre funding are persistent obstacles. It has come a long way since the post-war years when elephantiasis, hookworm (intestinal parasite), tuberculosis and yaws (open ulcers on the feet)—were widespread.
Dr Tom Davis, a Cook Islander, reported then, after his first northern visit, that cartons of a drug that could cure yaws lay unopened “while the natives walked on the outside of their feet to keep the open sores off the sharp coral.”
Lydia quoted the wife of one New Zealand resident agent: “‘These Puka Pukans don’t deserve medicine, the heathens.'” Both Tom and Lydia were appalled by the neglect. “Many of the women complained of repeated miscarriage. Working endlessly at the backbreaking job of weaving mats in punishment for making love is not healthy for pregnant women.” This punishment was imposed by a New Zealand agent just 50 years ago. Tom reported his findings to the New Zealand Resident Commissioner and recorded the exchange between them.
Tom: “I went to these atolls to inspect the medical set-up. All I’ve found in the dispensaries are rows of bottles, labelled in Latin. Bottles from which the corks haven’t been pulled.”
Commissioner: “Nobody can deny they’re a hefty looking bunch of natives… plenty to eat, plenty of energy for their games and dancing, too.”
Tom: “Hefty are they? Did you roll up the trouser legs of the men and take a closer look at this heftiness? Let you try a native dance when your legs are three times their normal size because aspirin won’t cure filaria (the condition that leads to elephantiasis.)
Commissioner: “So you’ve set yourself up as an expert over others who’ve spent years studying the adminstration of the people. Young as you are, you consider you know best.”
Tom Davis was passed over three times before being appointed medical officer. He later became Prime Minister, but, in all matters, the northern group remains a neglected corner.
Of the six atolls, two have airstrips. The Penrhyn runway, built during the war, is a vast affair. On either side, in the war-comic undergrowth, the wreckage of the bombers that crashed here is still visible.
Out here lives Penrhyn’s sole papa’a, Warwick Latham, who runs the meteorological station. A veteran of other isolated postings, he’s become a convert to island life and is married to a local woman. He captures New Zealand television news by satellite, but this simply confirms his decision to stay. “I take my little boy out to the reef to watch the moonrise, and we sit there listening to the waves, the water… New Zealand seems very far away.”
The airstrip’s last military use was to assist with the British nuclear tests on Christmas Island in the late 1950s. Later, I ask the CICC president, Tekere Pereeti, about the war. “When people see the Japanese warships they run crying, but then the two New Zealand warships come…” Here the president is interrupted by a small boy who’s been interminably butting in.
Tekere, a gentle, slightly-built man, gives him a gruff burst of Maori. I ask for a translation. “I tell him to shut his mouth or I’ll slap him on that mouth!” The boy, snuggled in the president’s lap, knows a joke when he hears one.
“…and yes, then the two New Zealand warships come… planes surrounded the skies of Pukapuka, we can hear the sound of the guns defeating them, we could hear the sound of the guns defeating the Japanese.” Although the reverend doesn’t mention it, this account conflicts with official history, which records that the war never came to the Cooks. In these islands such discrepancies abound.
In the first world war, Cook Islanders saw action. Some 500 volunteered to fight in the trenches, and earned a reputation for gallantry. Proportionate to the population, more Cook Islanders joined up than did New Zealanders, and more died—some 23 per cent.
Despite their contribution, the returned soldiers were treated shabbily. New Zealand docked their pay to cover the cost of their uniforms. The Seamen’s Union expelled those islanders who had manned merchant ships during the war.
But, having stepped outside their tight-closed fiefdom, these men saw conditions at home for what they were. Missionary and administrator alike complained of their new pride—pride that demanded higher pay and better treatment. A chink of light called justice was beginning to appear. Rioting broke out.
On the last day in Penrhyn I arrange to go diving with Tangi Taine, a 27-year-old who spent 14 years in Mangere before returning to dive pearl-shell, for which islanders get about nine dollars a kilo, enough for only a modest living. Penrhyn does not yet farm pearl.
Aluminium dinghies have replaced canoes in the north, but they’re only as good as their outboards. As we speed across the lagoon to a remote channel, I note neither life-jackets nor oars. Seabirds swoop angrily at us from a nearby rookery. We’re here to fish, not dive pearl.
Tangi breaks into earnest and unexpected prayer. He’s one of the few on the atoll who refuses to attend church, so I pay close attention. The most I can make out is the word mango—shark—repeated a dozen times. When belief here has it that sharks will get you for your sins, a bit of protection is not a bad idea. Sharks are not open to theological discussion when you’re in the water.
Dipping into the luke-warm water is to enter a world of tourist brochure eulogy. Floating here, hearing the ping of spears kebabing fish coloured a mad neon, I’m thinking only of sharks—the dorsal fins I’d already seen. It was a brave man indeed who first jumped into this lagoon. I stick like glue to Tangi.
Beneath us, formations of fish turn and wheel this way and that, their pin-brains guided by the very herding instinct that’s guiding mine. It’s a submarine Serengeti, the choreography all about survival.
When the sharks begin to circle, there is an overpowering urge to leap back on the boat—the Land Rover, as it were. A dozen or more have been attracted by the messages of distress from the speared fish, the smell of their blood. I can feel the regard of their frozen blank eyes as they twist and snicker, working closer.
Speaking of distress messages, interfacing with a shark is rather like trying to humour a growling Rottweiler—a matter of camouflaging your raw emanations of fear in the hope of denying any cue or pretext for attack. There is a real frisson of panic when one leers closer than the rest, but the drama is mainly bogus. Only a few divers get bitten each year.
The really worrying moment comes when the outboard refuses to fire—that is, after we’ve pulled the anchor and are being steadily spirited out of the lagoon towards a several-months-adrift-in-an-open-boat scenario that is still a daily risk here.
But it blurts into life, and soon we’re on a beach, a fire crackling on the coral gravel. Some of the fish have already been eaten out on the boat, the divers—like bear with salmon—gripping them still flapping in their mouths. Eating these fish raw is like tackling exotic tropical fruit—all sweet juice and gaudy skin. Tangi spits out the bones like pips.
The island we’re on has not always been uninhabited. As elsewhere in the Cook Islands, the missionaries insisted people change their pattern of scattered settlement to cluster in concentrated villages, within range of the incessant bell. Tangi drops me off at Penrhyn’s other village.
The Pacific Ruby team is already there. The medical people are hard at work, and next to the clinic is the ship’s puppet show, where professional muppet-style characters lip-synch to a ghetto blaster the size of a juke-box.
Not a hundred metres away, on this island that seldom sees a visitor, a game of marbles continues uninterrupted in the dust. A small girl amongst the men, her pockets rattling triumphantly, is flicking the glass with unbeatable accuracy. The wind carries words from the ghetto-blaster: “Noah! Noah! Who built the ark? Brother Noah built the ark.” They’ve heard it all before. They know about arks. They live on one.
Nearby squats an old man, his skin burned to an aboriginal blackness—and with an aboriginal economy of flesh. His rangy, flexible body, balancing there, is under no strain. He’s 76 and can still climb for coconut.
Although it’s hot, his hand is cool and leathery. Cook Islanders don’t go in for the firm-of-hand-and-eyeball greeting that papa’a boys are drilled to perfect. Instead, it’s a quiet shuffle of the palms and a looking away of the eyes.
In the heat of the sun there is torpor. People walk with an eye to available shade and wind. In summer, the trade winds die away and the heat becomes still more oppressive. Away from the puppet chatter there is only the whisper of coconut fronds in the breeze.
Marbles is fine for the young and old, but on the other island I’d already seen groups of gangling adolescents mooching around with little to do. Now I was seeing further why so many must leave. Set down the population of an average suburban street on a rock…
The concentration of settlement with the blank of the ocean beyond only makes the claustrophobia worse. These enclaves may be isolated, but there is no isolation in them. Video Ninjas at nine in the morning is no substitute for adventure, for a taste of a different something, anything.
But atoll dwellers are a special breed. One who tasted life elsewhere but came back with her four daughters and husband is Api Singapu: “I’ve seen the good and the bad in New Zealand. I’ve seen the kids sniffing glue, and I don’t want my kids to grow up like that. Even in Raro, with the piu piu, it’s not so good. Here, there’s no traffic. The kids can do just what they want to do.” Piu piu is Maori onomatopoeia for video games.
It takes a good hour to get back across the lagoon, and all of us papa’a are starting to turn lobster. We shelter under towels, splashes of lukewarm seawater bringing no relief. I wonder at the endurance of the early voyagers.
It was the urge for adventure, the need to move on, that first settled these rocks, but it hasn’t died out. In 1920, four Cook Islanders stole a whaleboat from Omoka and snuck out through the passage where we dived, intending to head for Suwarrow, 200 miles to the south. When two of the number changed their minds and swam ashore, the remaining two—Jimmy Musters and Tepou, who were embarked on elopement—lost heart, but simply couldn’t work the boat back to land.
With Penrhyn lost to sight, they sailed on for a month, kept alive by coconuts. Eventually they reached Hull, one of the Phoenix group, 700 miles north. There, while they waited for a ship to take them back, the whaleboat was again stolen—this time by six Tokelau youths who sailed off on their own adventure.
The Pacific ruby’s next ports of call are Rakahanga and its neighbour Manihiki, now famous for black pearls. The two atolls share kinship: islanders on each have certain rights to the other atoll, and there is much travel across the 25-mile passage that separates them. Commuting carries its risks, though. The current and wind that run between the islands have spun countless small boats off into enforced ocean odyssey.
Shortly after my visit, two Rakahangans spent a week adrift in a dinghy when their outboard died. In 1953, a man and his two daughters washed up alive on Pukapuka. But the story of the man who refused to die is the most famous, rivalling any tale of survival at sea.
In 1963, a 13-foot cutter with seven crew was pushed by storm only three miles short of Manihiki into a 64-day drift that ended two thousand miles away in Vanuatu.
After four weeks with very little food and water, some of the men, with great sores on their bodies, were barely conscious. In this weakened condition they could not resist a fresh storm that marched across the ocean directly at them and capsized the boat. It was the efforts of one man, Teehu Makimare, that pulled the boat through.
For a full day and into the night, he worked among the white-horses and wind: diving to pull a friend free from the upturned boat, swimming out into the waves to rescue a water-bottle, building a raft from the wreckage to support two of the fast-fading crew, manhandling back to the surface those who slipped beneath the waves.
All the while, he was diving endlessly to free the sail, biting at the knots with his teeth, so that he, and the crew with any strength, could right the boat.
They succeeded, but the boat again turned turtle. Again they righted it, and managed, using a suitcase lid, to bail enough water for freeboard. By then, the raft with two draped across it had disappeared into the murk. The two doomed men called from their bier for Teehu to save them, but in the wind and darkness there was no way of telling where their cries were coming from. These cries have haunted Teehu.
For the next month the survivors, now without food and water, depended on what the ocean provided: the odd floating coconut, a few flying fish that bounced into the boat. Two more died, one shortly after the capsize, the other in a Vanuatu hospital.
Teehu now lives in Rarotonga, where I went to interview him. He gives me a warm smile and a gentle handshake, and ushers me to a chair. But I can’t bring myself to rake over the ordeal, the details of which I have gleaned elsewhere.
I say I’ve heard a lot about him, that it is an honour to meet him—we talk about nothing in particular—and then I take my leave. Around the walls are hung framed photographs of Teehu’s visit to England, the investiture at York House with the Royal Humane Society’s gold medal, the meeting with the Queen.
That night in Rarotonga I come to experience in a small way the horror of the capsize. I learn that a plane from Avaiki Air, a newly established local airline, with 10 on board has crashed into the sea some miles short of the runway. I join the search.
On the horizon there is the sweep of searchlights from the boats already there. Four survivors have been found. For eight hours we take turns following the narrow beam of our searchlight through the darkness, the driving rain and spray—trying to pick up any irregularity in the heavy white-topped swell that rolls north.
We look for any clue, any sign. There are false alarms when surface fish reflect the beam. We cup our ears against the wind. We cross and re-cross the scattered search area. No task is more miserable or hopeless.
Come the morning we learn two bodies have been recovered, but four are missing. We learn that the pilot, Teina George, showed great bravery, diving into the wreckage to save his passengers, then supporting them in the water for the hours it took for help to come. The Cooks know shipwreck, but this was the first ever air crash in decades of safe flying.
At Rakahanga, the Pacific Ruby finds an overpowering welcome. The boom-bang of Boys’ Brigade drums paces the twirl of semaphore flags that, at reef edge, spell out their greeting. To the accompaniment of a brass band we walk along a parade-line of islanders flanking the route to the courthouse. Toddlers stretch to ramshackle attention. Oiled women dance around cabin-bread tins. There is the parrata-tat-tat of drumming, which quietens when the women sit on the tins and do a radio-call action song: “This-is-Rak’hanga-youth-calling, welcome-to‑Rak’hanga, ladies-and-gentlemen!” Parrata-tat-tat! “Welcome-to-Rak’hanga-we-hope-you-will‑enjoy-your-visit. This-is‑Rak’hanga-radio. Please-come-in, overrr!”
That night I hear more percussion. A soft tok-tok, tok-tok that comes from a thatched but down by the lagoon. By the yellow light of a Tilley lamp, with her children cast in sleep about her, a young woman is making a hat—pounding the weave on a millener’s form to soften the fibre. This thumping also tightens the weave by flattening the cross-section of the strips that have been prepared from coconut fronds.
Outside, the moon floods the coral gravel white. Some nameless night insect chirps. The woman, with a sweet fluid voice, tells me about hats. There is the hiss of the lamp, the smell of kerosene. In almost every house I see women busy with their fingers.
Rakahanga makes hats. The men gather the raw material, the women do the rest. It’s five years since the island (population 300) has had any other income—beyond government wages. Copra used to be the mainstay of those atolls with lagoons too shallow for pearl, but the price has fallen below a worthwhile return. Copra is dried coconut kernel. The oil still has many uses, but the volume available in these atolls makes it uneconomic.
There is huge work in making a hat that sells for $40 in Rarotonga. Once the rito—the stiff spine of a coconut frond—has been soaked and bleached, it must be made still more pliable. This the women do by repeatedly teasing the rito strand between forefinger and thumb, drawing it through a rolling right angle which breaks the tension of the fibre.
Laying down the initial lattice so that two days later emerges a hat of just the right size and shape—with the planned special patterns and flourishes—is the work of fine judgement.
The careful plumping, adjusting and stretching of the growing structure is interspersed with bouts of speed. Then the womens’ hands scuttle like spiders through the warp, springing backwards and forwards—the fingers scrabbling at the weave in advance of the inserted rito strand, which, later, they press into final place with a roll of the top joint of the finger. The repetition has a mechanical consistency.
Island women have remarkable hands. Even with everyday things—doing hair, pegging clothes, placing food on a table—the fingers twist and splay with casual Balinese articulation and grace. My own little girls, learning from their Niuean nana, have already begun quite deliberate experiments of the art—a crook of the finger, a lazy pirouette of the hand from the wrist… the Asian origins survive.
The day after we arrive is time for more welcome. The New Zealand representative is due by frigate. Before he arrives I get some time in at the school, situated in a dream location, the playground leading down to the white sand of an ocean beach. Here the children take their cut-off Janola bottles and toothbrushes to daily scrub their teeth. The school can’t afford toothpaste, so the bleach bottles are used to scoop seawater, the association of whiteness helping to educate.
With the same straightforward approach to motivation, the school is divided into two teams whose names are chosen each year to emphasise a spirit of competition. This year the names are America and Iraq, and from the school flagpole fly the team flags—carefully sewn in the applique style. America was doing better the week I was there, so the Stars and Stripes flew at the top.
The principal, with a flower behind his ear, tells me the teams are adjusted to make sure neither has an unfair advantage. He is proud of the discipline and good cheer of his children who, when they’re not dancing, marching and singing, keep the grounds scrupulously swept. Teachers in flowery pareu (lava lava) sit with the children for a play-lunch of coconut and oranges.
The good spirit doesn’t quite compensate for the dismally equipped classrooms where, in one, a chain of Coke cans is strung from the ceiling for colour. Faded cut-out pictures of reef fish are pasted to the lids of cabin-bread tins as a mobile. In common with the rest of the outer islands, the school lacks even single copies of some of the most basic textbooks.
Later, in more prosperous Mauke to the south, I get the chance to look through a threadbare school library. a portion of its roof torn off by hurricane. The books, donated by New Zealand, rejoice in resoundingly tedious titles.
No Boats on Bannermere was one cracker, a random passage confirming the cover: “It seemed there was a grammar school I could go to, and a country secondary school for Susan. Father had said…” The Rotorua Public Library had that one gathering dust on its shelves since 1949 before, somehow, it was kindly passed on.
But in one 1961 school bulletin there is a piece from James K. Baxter.
It begins, “A high white moon rides in a clear sky. It shines on the streets, the whole glittering evening town.” A lovely story about a trawler, it has probably disappeared off the face of the earth—except for Mauke.
Rakahanga is readying itself for the frigate. In the band rotunda the Boys’ Brigade awaits a signal from the children who’ve been posted as look-outs further up the reef. A “Welcome to Rakahanga” banner Ei is stretched between palms across the path, whose edges are decorated with coconut fronds. I notice the principal dressed in the uniform of some senior brigade rank.
Where Penrhyn and Suwarrow have passages safe for ships, most islands make do with landings blasted in the reef, suitable only for small open boats. Close by the landing, ready for the admiral’s barge, is a couch. When, eventually, the frigate’s chopper leap-frogs ashore to a different place, the principal is quick with his orders.
The band strikes a martial tune and the couch-bearing detail doubles to the new location, ready for the load. The couch is lashed to a carrying-frame. Once the New Zealand rep, his lady wife and the Cook Islands deputy Prime Minister are comfortably settled, they are borne aloft, for triumphal entry. Toddlers stand to attention. Oompha! Oompha!
Just 30 years ago, New Zealand administrators, in order to keep their starched bobby-socks dry, insisted upon being piggy-backed across the reefs.
Kiwi Dick Chapman recalls: “Talk about the brown man’s burden! I’d already been told off by the resident commissioner for mixing with the natives, but there was no way I was going to be carried, so I used to take my shoes off. `We’d rather like you to be carried,’ they said. It was all starched white socks and shorts.” Dick stayed on after independence in 1965. He now heads economic planning.
It’s clear that Rakahanga contrived the couch on its own initiative, but New Zealand has not always enjoyed this kind of welcome here. In 1908, islanders refused to sell copra for less than thrupence ha’penny a pound, imposing a trade boycott to press their claim.
The then New Zealand rep travelled by warship to settle their hash, but, in response, Rakahangans pulled down the British flag, set up an independent council and appointed their own judge. Rakahanga’s sister atoll, Manihiki, was the one island to reject annexation.
At the courthouse the subject of copra resurfaces, heading the list of requested assistance. “Firstly, we need our copra production to be back again, so the men will have work.” Islanders know the French subsidise copra in their surprisingly vast territories to the east—some 300 islands.
The deputy PM talks about solar power; the New Zealand rep promises the visit will leave him “better armed to go back to Rarotonga and ultimately deal with not all but perhaps some of your requests.”
New Zealand gives around $14 million in aid each year, but this is being throttled back in favour of direct assistance to private business. These islands will not get their copra back. The world price is much the same as it was 80 years ago.
With independence in 1965, the era that gave the Cooks its magnificent colonial architecture passed, but there is still enough to send aficionados of such things into transports of delight. The rusty-roofed bungalows, with Cape Cod chairs on drooping verandahs hedged with hibiscus, are fine enough, but the buildings made from coral are the most spectacular.
To a New Zealander, aged masonry is always exotic. Here the masonry is relieved by gingerbread fretwork set in yard-thick whitewashed coral-block walls whose irregular plasterwork reminds of Mexico. Woodwork is painted with the lurid colour combinations of the Caribbean, that unerringly, and unexpectedly, work.
Details engross: the bare branches of a frangipani tree shedding shade in sharp fingers across a deeply recessed arch-way. Stained glass spilling rude blues and reds on to flagstones. Adzed roof timbers that resemble the ribs of an upturned boat are painted cobalt blue. Heavy weathered doors, with hand-beaten hinges and latches, through which women pass in their finest hats. Multicoloured pews built without the aid of a nail. And always wedding-cake pulpits rising in tiers.
The Mauke pulpit has an inlay of Chilean silver dollars, the Cooks currency before New Zealand took over. A newer Mauke church has half-crowns, but pride of place on the Rakahanga pulpit is given to a carved tern. Around the church itself these white terns, like tissue-paper fighting kites, flit and swirl in twittering aerobatics.
On the short steam to Manihiki, the conversation turns to ghosts—the pre-Christian tini that for many are as powerful as ever. Tony Thompson the skipper has experienced tini.
“First time I hear demons and ghosts was in 1978—it sound like a rattlesnake or thunder. It was the tini. I could hear a whole village crying, the women were wailing, the kids crying. It was lam, the sound coming in over the coconut trees. It occurred to me it was the old ghosts having a bit of a do, a jamboree.”
William Powell, another Cook Islander, weighs in: “Even in Raro there are places—Black Rock, the stream at Pure. You’re riding through, and you feel something on your back—funny how it hits you—and then there’s a foul smell.”
Tony: “That stream at Pure where the pregnant woman died. At times the woman cries from the top of the stream, although I’ve never heard that myself. Everybody gets up speed for that part.”
Complex traditional rules govern dealing with spirits. For some, birth names are still chosen or later discarded according to the need for appeasement. But, with its many variations, traditional belief is a field that traps casual scholarship.
The Rakahanga cemetery had sparked the ghost talk. I was trying to find out more; find why the lanterns were lit at night.
It is commonplace in the Cook Islands for loved ones, lying in their tombs, to be further sheltered from the rain by a roof. In Rakahanga they build miniature houses for the purpose, the newest sheathed in fibrolite with curtained Cooper-louvre windows. This gives the cemetery the appearance of a Lilliputian village, at night dotted with the glow of hurricane lanterns hanging from the eaves.
In cramped atoll villages there is no room to have your dead near vou, so for years after a death the lanterns are fired every night—to let the departed know they’re still loved and missed. Some buildings are wired for electric lights.
David Greig, a Manihikian lawyer living in Rarotonga, tells me more: “You see, we never used to bury the dead—before the missionaries they’d pop the bodies in the rafters—and, in a way, they still don’t bury the dead, not really.” In the south, burial caves were common. The house is the compromise.
“The hole is lined with concrete and roofed with concrete, and then the house on top. People are left with their possessions. A 20-year-old died and they bought him a stereo cassette to keep him company. A little girl had her toys, a Pink Panther.
“Death in New Zealand is a lonely thing. You know, the pastor referring to his notes, ‘Frederick… Fred was known to love life. His wife and children have asked me to say on their behalf that he will be sorely missed.’ The press of a button and off to the furnace. I’d much rather die here. The person who built my coffin, the person who’s nailing it shut will be my next door neighbour, my uncle, my cousin…”
After a late night in Manihiki I stumble into the church hall billet in darkness—after the island generator has shut down. I wake the following morning to discover my pillow is a work of art. Embroidered in iridescent thread are the cascading plumes of a rooster. Stitched into 30 other frilly-edged pillows are a host of botanically accurate flowers, messages of fidelity, angels blowing horns.
There is the Sunlight-soap smell of fresh linen washed by hand. The floor of this coral building is a faded pink, the woodwork turquoise. The women here, as they do everywhere on this voyage, have provided their best bedclothes for us. Across the whitewashed courtyard I hear the sound of their voices singing.
The cool of the morning, the yellow-green light filtered through the palms, is the best time, providing a respite between flies and mosquitoes. Another day of island life begins: the Coronation Street fascination at the inner workings of everybody’s life, including your own, unfolding in the public gaze.
New Zealand knows Manihiki as treasure islands, where black gold—not bubbling crude, but black pearl—has turned the 300 who live here into overnight millionaires. Even in the Cooks there is a gold rush mentality at work.
One Manihikian explains: “In Raro they used to call us Manihikians `coconuts’, simple people, you know. That’s all changed now. They all want to be Manihikians—all busy searching through genealogies for blood connections to a slice of the lagoon.”
But for most there is no fortune in Manihiki. Quite apart from the longterm grind of farming oysters, the politics of pearls have seen to that. Among the locals, only Tekake Williams has grown truly rich (see page 42).
One pearl farmer is Puna Gempton, whose husband Randall is a New Zealander. Together with three children, they live in a thatched but some miles from the village. They don’t intend to shift from the openwalled hut, which keeps its occupants beautifully cool.
The dappled coconut grove they live under is a welcome change from the cheek-by-jowl crush of the village, where there is less shade. The grove is a delight—the umbrella heads shield the sun, but the bare trunks allow the wind to blow from ocean through to lagoon, without impediment.
Like most on the outer islands, the Gemptons’ sole transport is a clapped-out motorscooter on which four of them, like a troup of Chinese acrobats, can travel at a pinch. These scooters are flogged like mules, but still they plod on, chains rattling asthmatically. Some islands have a truck or a tractor—on Tautua the split tyres of a tractor were filled with concrete—but the roads are more like paths. They crawl with crabs which scuttle to safety with the last-minute judgment of mynahs.
Randall hasn’t come here solely for the money. He’s long been diving around the Cooks. From him I learn about the business of diving 20 fathoms on one breath of air. Manihiki lagoon is now reserved for farming, but diving remains the mainstay at Penrhyn.
There is simply no way to understand diving 20 fathoms or more on one breath, but try an experiment—take a good breath and read on. You have a mask, a bag for the shell and a weight of some kind tied to a line that you hold in your hand. This weight has been tuned to your requirements. You’re about to descend 120 feet, so you have to be sure you haven’t misjudged the intake of air into your lungs. Take another breath if you’re not sure.
Your lungs have all the air they can usefully hold—over-inflation is a problem—and now the weight is drawing you down to the sea-bed you can’t see, not so fast that you can’t equalise the pressure in your mask or swallow for your ears, but fast enough that you’ll have a full minute on the bottom, in the crushing, distorting pressure, going for shell.
Soon, it’s only the pull of the weight that tells you which way is up. You can see neither surface nor sea-bed. Once the bottom becomes clearer you must steer your descent to what you judge to be the most likely gathering place. When a diver gets too greedy for shell and burns all his oxygen, it’s usually at this point on his return trip that they find him—drifting lifeless in the void, neither rising nor falling.
On the sea-bed you must not hasten after the shell, but must move with economy to conserve breath. You’re now reading the signals from your lungs with enormous concentration—these are the seconds that will decide if your dive will pay dollars or send you up with a light bag.
If you get it wrong and you’re starting to suffocate, swallowing helps by stirring the oxygen in your gullet—but you still must kick your way to the surface. You’ve kept a reserve of air in your mouth and there is a little in your mask. It’s when divers eat into this supply on the bottom that they go into spasm and die.
Sipping air from the mask is an emergency tonic, and can make all the difference on the haul back up to the sunshine and your partner.
Okay, take a breath. Reading the above takes about a minute—some can stay down for three. Tekake Williams holds a world record of 30 fathoms.
On Manihiki I am faced with a test of stamina of another kind: mastering the toilets islanders call post-boxes. These are built out over the lagoon on small jetties, which location provides a pleasant sea-breeze for the nethers. But this breeze, persistent as it is, springs an off-colour Candid Camera trap on the unwary.
For the non-lateral thinker, there is simply no way to lose the toilet paper. No matter how hard I try, every effort is answered with “return to sender”—the paper fluttering around the confines of the room like some unwholesome butterfly. I was reduced to waiting in puzzlement for a lull in the wind. It was only later, when recounting the experience on board ship, that I learned what the pile of rocks had been for. Paperweights.
The Ruby and her crew plough west to Pukapuka, to real isolation. True to form, the Pukapukans don’t trust the clean bill of health the doctors have given the ship. We must content ourselves with far-off glimpses of thatched huts under coconut palm, the shipwrecks on the reef, heavy surf pounding into sand cays. Later, two of the ship’s company come down with dengue.
Our next whistle stop on the run south to Raro is the islands of Suwarrow, where no one save a caretaker and his family lives. We find a ship, an island trader, anchored in the lagoon—the passengers are ashore, doing their washing, taking the chance to spear some fresh fish for the steam north.
Suwarrow gets its name from a Russian ship which called at the atoll in 1814. Suwarrow is Suvarov worn smooth by the local tongue. Russians voyaged far and wide in the Pacific, but eventually claimed only one small rock. Had the Russians been freer with planting their flag, the Pacific geopolitical map would now look far different. It was a classic oversight of “let’s sell Alaska” proportions.
The motu (islands) of Suwarrow are the original treasure islands. Here lay buried chests crammed with pieces of eight from Spanish galleons. There are other Suwarrow stories—of castaways, hermits, murder, man-eating sharks, hurricanes, treachery, forts under siege—all of them true. New Zealand had a hand in this history.
In 1875, an Auckland company, Henderson and Macfarlane, took possession of the unclaimed atoll, aiming to exploit pearl. To keep rival swashbucklers at bay, they built a fort, equipped with cannon, cutlass and rifle. Handley Sterndale was in charge, and in short order was forced to fire on a Chinese cutter that, too, had come for the pearl.
Manihikians had been hired to dive and to plant coconut, but within 18 months a difference of opinion arose between Sterndale and his Auckland employers. They wanted him off. Sterndale and his wife refused to budge, turning company guns on the company ship that came to shift them. For two weeks the ship laid siege, until it was joined by another company ship.
On board was Henry Mair, a friend of Sterndale’s. One night, as the stand-off continued, Mair slipped over the side and swam ashore to join his mate. Lying exhausted on the sand, he heard a clink of metal next to his ear. It was a turtle scraping sand for a nest from which protuded the corner of a rusted metal box. Large silver coins and gold rings lay scattered among the turtle eggs.
In the circumstances—commotion had broken loose on the ship—he decided against trying to shift the lot. Instead, he stuffed what he could into his money belt, and carefully reburied the box, away from the beach.
For three more days the siege continued, until, after further gunfire, the defenders were smoked out. Mair’s coins proved to be pieces of eight, from the days when the Spanish ruled the Pacific waves. They are now on display in the Auckland Museum. Some of the rings are still held by the Mair family. Henry Mair died before he could return to reclaim the remaining booty.
It was not the first treasure find. In 1855, John Lavington Evans arrived as part of a crew that came to salvage a wreck. He led his captain to a giant banyan tree where, at a depth of six feet, the diggers found yet another large iron chest—full of gold and silver coin worth $30,000. Evans never revealed the source of his knowledge.
An old beachcomber talking loose in a Papeete grog-shop led to yet another trove—”… on Anchorage Island, under an ironwood tree leaning to the east, there you will find the chest.” Listening on was Donaldson, an Apia trader, who took him at his word, sailed to Suwarrow and in 20 minutes of digging uncovered Mexican dollars worth $5000.
Exactly how and why treasure came to be stashed on Suwarrow is shrouded in mystery. If any chests have survived human predation—many came looking—they will now be buried under tons of coral, or lost in the lagoon. At least two monster hurricanes have since washed some islands into the sea, and transformed others beyond recognition.
The second of these two hurricanes is immortalised in south seas romantic literature by American Robert Frisbie who, with his four young children, was visiting Suwarrow in 1942 when it struck. Also on the atoll was a Ministry of Works survey team and two from a passing yacht.
The first night of the gathering storm they took shelter in a shack, but this was soon destroyed by a giant comber that swept across the island. They were forced to climb a tree in the terrific howling wind, the children tied by rope to the trunk, but still they were in danger. The island was slowly being torn to pieces; the seas had driven a channel right across the island.
All around them, trees, underbrush, coral were being stripped by the waves, which began to undermine their roost. Fearing the wind would send the tree crashing into the tide, Ngahora Williams, brother of Tekake, took an axe to the top half to reduce the windage. Their tree was one of the few to survive.
Ngahora was one of the MOW party and, by a stroke of luck, is among the passengers I meet at Suwarrow. “When that water came in and sweep everybody outside the but… that was bad enough. But the worse thing was we didn’t have enough water after the hurricane. Ron Powell rigged up some machine from the rubbish that made a bottle a day from salt water. We dug three feet deep into the rubble for food and coconuts. A few nuts washed back ashore. It was a hard time.” No rain fell for a month. (It is the damage to crops, land and water supply that makes most hurricanes so destructive.)
And what of Frisbie, the resourceful hero? “Ah, Frisbie. You know, he was supposed to get some food, but he came back soon after with one small tin of biscuits and two bottles of rum, back into the tree. He was drunk. When I came to get him down (to help out) he said, ‘No, I stay up here.’ Wouldn’t get down.”
For all his faults, it was Frisbie’s tales of the Pacific that brought to this atoll its best known resident: New Zealander Tom Neale. Tom was an old Pacific hand who longed to try the test of living alone. He found the harsh commercialism of postwar Raro too hectic. In 1952, he was finally allowed to settle at Suwarrow, where he laboriously established himself—scouring the islands for remnants of soil for a garden, planting coconut and learning to spear fish for his supper.
For 15 of the next 25 years he lived there with only the occasional visiting yacht and teams of pearl divers for company. He returned to Raro in 1977, where he died a year later.
Another who tried the life was Micheal Swift, who was put ashore illegally in 1965 by the Glennie brothers of Blenheim. (John Glennie was to add to the annals of survival at sea with the wreck of the Rose-Noelle).
Swift, a London art student, had a hard time of it, living mainly on uto—the spongy flesh of a sprouting coconut. Initially, he’d speared fish on the reef, but became unnerved after a close call with a shark. He returned to Raro a year later, where he became a resident.
Suwarrow sharks are especially vicious, and will surge out of the depths to attack in thigh-depth water. Ngahora remembers them savaging his canoe.
Now some 200 yachts call each year, to gain a taste of the Crusoe dream. There’s a statue of Tom, and it’s there I meet his son Arthur, who, like Ngahora Williams, just happened to be heading north.
“Yeah, not many know he had children. For most it’s a surprise, but then, he was a private person. I’ve got two sisters.” Arthur is weary of dewy-eyed strangers enthusing about the father he hardly saw. “I tell them my dream is to do my own thing too!”
Arthur used to work at Foreign Affairs in Raro, but is going north to farm Manihiki pearl. He’s made a special point of taking his daughter with him. There at Suwarrow, in the gaze of his father’s statue, he is showing her the ropes of atoll life—how to husk a nut.
With Suwarrow well astern it’s time to prepare for Palmerston. Although we shoot the reef in a modern aluminium dinghy—tucked in behind a breaking wave—we are about to gain a quirky glimpse of the nineteenth century.
Sixty live on Palmerston, on an island that is no more than a heap of dazzling white sand. Every Saturday the islanders sweep this sand, arranging Japanese landscape swirls that flow through the weave of coconut-frond shade and on down to the edge of the lagoon where, in waters an impossible hotel-pool turquoise, dance glittering fish.
Our helmsman wears a bushy walrus moustache, and ashore there is further abundance of facial growth—beards, sideburns, longish hair of such theatricality that they remind of some provincial drama company going all-out on a period piece.
The villagers welcome us with prayer among the silver-grey trunks of the palms. Maori is their second language, and to their English there is an indefinable lilt. The policeman, with an Abe Lincoln beard, is Bob Marsters. The Chief Administration Officer is John Marsters. The man with the cleverly sewn artificial-flower epaulettes is Ned Marsters. Everyone on the island is a Marsters.
They are all descended from William Marsters, a bearded Gloucestershire sailor who settled this then-deserted atoll in 1864 with, eventually, four Cook Island wives, and sired a dynasty—a micro-nation.
The Marsters move with lithe maritime purpose, a twinkle to their coal-black eyes. Their sea shanties are legends, but I wasn’t on the atoll long enough to hear them. Out in the lagoon a coral head wears the name Scratch My Arse Rock.
Strolling up a hibiscus- and frangipani-cloaked lane to the main street, I pass lovingly preserved longboats in boatsheds. On the mission house verandah dangles a ship’s bell, S.S. Thistle inscribed in the bronze.
Across the wide white-sand avenue from the mission, the original church—walls propped by staves—still stands next to William’s first house. The timbers of both are weathered to the gnarled grey finish of driftwood. The church rests on mushrooms of raw coral. There is the cry of cockerel, the boom of surf.
I notice chandlery bound by rust into this timber, and learn that the houses were built from shipwreck salvage. Some nine ships have been lost on the atoll. Skippers complained they’d miss the atoll when they were aiming for it and hit it when they weren’t.
It wasn’t until 1969 that a New Zealand navy survey ship found the atoll was out by nine miles on the charts, which even at that time relied on fixes taken by Cook in 1774. (There has been little study of other aspects of the Cooks. In 1969, a scientific survey of the Cooks reported that “few observations on its vegetation have appeared since Bligh’s notes in 1789”.)
Palmerston is the only place where Cook stepped ashore in the island group that took his name, and his charting error was all to the good for William. He was a skilled carpenter, but lacked any means to mill board from the ship’s timbers, so was forced to put his house together the way a child might build with blocks—huge baulks of wood 18-inch by 18-inch form the studs and rafters. Given the competing claims to his atoll by both hurricane and swashbuckler, this blockhouse construction was no bad idea.
“Oh, yaas,” Bob tells me, “deese howses, de are made wid lumbers from de wraacks.” Bob is speaking in a modified nineteenth century Gloucester brogue which, with its music and poetry, is quite unlike any other English I’ve ever heard. A living fossil of language.
Lydia Davis gives another example: “Mrs Taam, wouldst lake to coom oop maownt’n. Ba goom, s’not a reel maownt’n I grant, but we scoop oot t’e swamp for t’e taro then pile the scoopin’s high in t’ bush ere. T’e maownt’n is not but six feet `igh but ’tis a graand place when t’e winds blow.” These days the brogue is less pronounced.
Later, in Raro, I join a family fishing the reef with a net. One explains: “I am making a half-moon across the channel where the fish come.” His accent is completely neutral, but the words tell me he has to be a Marsters—”make a half-moon… where the fish come”.
Sure enough: Alfred is one of the thousand or more Marsters who’ve had to leave the atoll. For my notebook, I ask whether he uses Alfred or Fred-some at interview give formal names no one knows them by. “I am known as Alfred. Yes. For that’s my name.”
Cook Island children commonly misspell the word “master”. On one school wall I see a pupil’s poster: “Come see the marster Ninjas!”
The Marsters are well known in the Cooks. At last year’s 25th anniversary of independence in Raro, the Palmerston contingent came in beef-eater-style gold-trimmed red coats, black hats and white breeches—everybody else wore pareu.
Old William counted himself as a cousin to the Queen, and this connection has grown from strength to strength. Now, virtually every house is plastered with royal portraiture: King George and Queen Mary, Arthur Porritt, Queen Elizabeth.
The Duke of Edinburgh, together with Lord Louis Mountbatten, has visited Palmerston, their path through the palms carpeted with cloth. The Duke invited the whole island to tea on board the Britannia. There, Lord Louis confided that there was a Marsters in his family. The Duke allowed a probable connection.
Through shrewd division of the gene pool into three clans, William managed to avoid that great problem of royalty elsewhere. Intermarriage within these clans was prohibited. A not unexpected side-effect was the development of a certain clannish rivalry, and there has been the odd problem ever since—from division of land down to the ownership of individual coconut trees. The way hurricanes swallow parts of islands and spew them up behind another clan’s boundary hasn’t helped.
Palmerston now makes a good living by supplying fish for the tourist trade in Raro, but efforts to run a communal freezer haven’t worked. Each household sports half a dozen domestic freezers, and for that matter, a generator, despite there being reticulation.
These disputes in the main are no more or less severe than what families living in New Zealand anonymously suffer; it’s just that on an island there’s no getting away from them, so they assume centre stage.
Even in Raro, with the diversion of the tourist merry-go-round, the enclave mentality can persist. The island is divided into pockets of family land that, for some, are as imprisoning as any atoll.
Drive around the island in other than a rental car and you can feel it: after the wave and the smile comes the narrowing of eyes at this car pottering past—the details of the driver, the passenger, the time, the direction—all fed into the island data bank for cross-referencing.
Land is the biggest source of dispute. As one tells me, “Kick any single piece of dirt and it’s got 130 owners.” Sorting out who can plant what land involves delicate negotiation in family meetings attended by lawyers—”Why should the cousin get the chance to grow crops when everybody knows that’s what I’ve been planning to do? His brother’s already got . . .” And so it goes.
This process sometimes leaves the land uncultivated or leased to outsiders who don’t trigger so much jealousy.
It would be wrong to overstate internecine difficulties in land but, along with the fishbowl existence, they’re one reason so many migrate to the emancipation of anonymity in big-city New Zealand.
Returning to Raro from the north is to re-enter the 20th century. There is the reassurance of traffic noise, a relative throng of folk, and, above all, the topography: mountains, hills—something the eye can focus on at a distance, something to climb.
After a month of flat atolls, it’s good to be scrambling over the serrations of the razor backs, whose soil is bound by a net of roots. Slender-stemmed ferns sprout from ground-level crowns like trolley bus poles. I gather passionfruit. Chestnuts lie scattered about the buttressed roots of the parent tree.
From one bluff I look out across the island. Bulwarks of rock shoulder from jungle cloaked with creeper like old man’s beard. The floppy jaffa blossom of the sycamore tree is everywhere.
Eating into this jungle are the plantations that lead off the Ara Metua road which takes the inland route around the island. It was built by the famous ariki, Toi, in the 11th Century. It’s where many still live, on a meandering pathway bordered by blood-red hibiscus. The tourist resorts of the coastal perimeter seem far away.
Sweeping past at eye level, swivelling its head in stern look-out, is a red-tailed kotake, tropic bird. Nested below my eyrie, on a tuft of grass, is its helplessly fat speckled chick.
Soon I’m down on the flat land among the rituals of a quiet day. A family is sweeping, raking—picking up scattered strips of leaf and other plant debris. A child is shifting the pig. A man arranges fresh flowers for the church altar. Another is scissoring grass. There are deep, cool verandahs with embroidered cushions plumped on chairs. A child fingers a lace curtain, and like me, watches on in silence.
Walking over to the nearby reef, I join a family whose members flay the water with switches to corral fish into a net. The men wear freezing-works gumboots, to prevent dangerous coral gashes.
A boy no more than six years old is gently unpicking a fish from the mesh. He stoops to bite its head, to stop the tangling.
Around him, his solidly built brothers are doing handstands in the chest-deep water as they spear fish who’ve shied off the net. The gumboots poise proud of the mirror surface in a kind of teetering ballet. The men wear NY Dodgers sweatshirts. Alfred shows me how to spread the net in a half-moon.
Later, in the shade of the shore, a well-muscled brother picks a frangipani and pops it behind his ear. In him there is a sense of unshakeable repose—a certainty that however far from home he may travel, this place will never leave him.
To be continued in next issue …