Two months of staring through a porthole at Antarctic ice floes hardly seems a useful preparation for a story on tropical atolls. Yet it was his exploration of this great white wilderness while on assignment for New Zealand Geographic at the beginning of the year (see Issue 9) that gave Mark Scott a vital clue to a nagging question.

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Why is it, queried Scott, that New Zealand still imagines itself to be a suburb of Europe, when we are so very far away?

“So many of us act like misplaced Angolophiles, thinking only within a European tradition, when our logical context is the Pacific,” he says. “Antarctica made me realise how isolated New Zealand really is. You ask yourself: who’s closest to this place—this desert of ice at the end of the world? And you realise that, apart from Tierra del Fuego, it’s us. So, going north to the Cooks was, in a strange way, a journey towards our centre, not away from it.”

That seemingly gravitational pull towards the Pacific has been with Scott for more than a decade. In that time he has reported on topics ranging from the independence struggle in New Caledonia to emerg­ing democracy in the feudal king­dom of Tonga; from medical care in the Fijian highlands to the banking system in the Cooks.

He has also written about the impact of Polynesian cultures in New Zealand, and believes that if this country is to find its post-colonial identity, then it will be by learning from and about our Pacific neighbours.

For Scott, part of the attraction of the Cook Islands assignment was being able to travel to the remote northern atolls by ship. “It was like stepping back in time, to the days of the old tramp steamers, of skippers like the legendary Andy Thompson who sailed these waters 50 years ago. By the same twist of fate that brought me face to face with Tom Neale’s son on Suwarrow, the captain of the Pacific Ruby turned out to be Andy Thompson’s son. There was a sense of history being remade.”

At the Geographic office, it certainly felt as if history was being made with this issue. The Cook Islands report is our first feature on the Pacific, and reflects a growing awareness of the opportunity and obligation we have to bring this region to the attention of the New Zealand public. We had not anticipated extending the report into two parts, but it seems that there is so much to tell, and so much to learn about the lives of these people. We’re glad to be making a start . .

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