By Kate “Bob” Addison
Aitutaki was the Picton Castle’s first call of this voyage in the fabulous Cook Islands. The second most populated of the Cooks, Aitutaki is to Rarotonga what Bora Bora is to Tahiti – similar in style but smaller, sleepier and even more heartbreakingly beautiful. We anchored off the pass at about 1000 last Tuesday and customs and immigration officials sorted us quickly. It is amazing to see the surf pounding on the reef so close with a beautiful blue lagoon and green island not too far off after a week at sea.
Aitutaki is an atoll with a central proper island, less than 10km long and maybe a quarter as wide. The top of the island is a sharp, straight hook, the narrow peninsula being almost entirely taken up with an impressively long runway, built by the American military in WWII.
From this hook the reef continues in a more or less straight line, turning corners at the famous One Foot Island and Maina Motu, to make a distinctive triangular shaped lagoon. The lagoon colour varies from bright blue through crystal clear turquoise to a darkish green, and the temperature changes too, from refreshingly cool in the clear water, to soup-warm in the greenish parts where there is almost no flow of fresh salt water from the dark blue ocean.
There are amazing sandbars so you can splash way out into the lagoon ankle deep, and then dive off the sandbar into deep clear water. The snorkelling is amazing too; there are coral heads dotted everywhere attracting colourful fishes and I saw the biggest giant clam I have ever seen, at least a meter across and rather startling when it suddenly snapped its shell shut inches from my toes. We are told that you DO NOT want to get your foot stuck in one of these.
An island of incredible natural beauty, Aitutaki is much lower than Bora Bora or Rarotonga with just one small mountain, Maungapu, at the northern end of the island. The mountain itself is said to have been stolen from Rarotonga by the warriors of Aitutaki. According to the story, the warriors decided that they needed a mountain for their island – at that time just a sandy atoll – and so they took their canoes and went on a marauding expedition to steal the mountain of Raemaru from Rarotonga. When they got up close they realized the mountain was a bit too big for Aitutaki so they just took the top part back with them, carried aloft between them on their spears, and fighting off the Rarotongan warriors with their spare hands. Back on Rarotonga the mountain of Raemaru is still distinctly flat-topped today, a reminder of where Maungapu was sliced off in the days of legend. All makes perfect sense to me…
The first European discoverer of Aitutaki was Captain Bligh, arriving on the Bounty in April 1789 – just 17 days before the famous mutiny. It is said that he dropped off the first papaya, now growing everywhere. European missionaries followed soon after in the 1820s and 30s, and their influence is still strongly felt in the Cook Islands today as faith is a large part of life here. As it is described here; “they brought the Gospel”. There are many churches on Aitutaki, the oldest dates from 1828 and is very lovely with simple arched stained glass windows and painted wood carvings decorating the high arched roof and round pillars. Sunday is recognized as a holy day; most shops and cafes are closed and more or less the only traffic on a Sunday morning are bikes, cars and trucks carrying the faithful to church, dressed in their Sunday best. The ladies almost all wear elaborate straw hats, some decorated with fresh flowers, some with white or coloured straw flowers, the men mostly suits and ties despite the heat.
The singing in Cook Islands churches is justifiably famous. Something magical happens when the strong and joyful Polynesian voices join together in song. The men and women sing different parts and the harmonies ring out, powerful and true, easily filling the church.
There is also evidence of the island’s strong faith outside of church – almost every house has a sign posted in the garden with slogans like: “Say no to Sunday flights, the Sabbath is more important than the dollar!”. Religious views aside, I found it rather nice to spend time in a place that so openly recognises value other than the financial.
Aitutaki’s cafés and shops are more spread out than on Huahine or Bora Bora, and transport is helpful. Luckily the main road around the island is very flat so a bicycle is perfect, or for the less energetic, mopeds and cars are pretty cheap to hire and good fun to buzz around the island. Most of our gang hired mopeds for a day or two – Signe formed a 50cc biker gang on her off-watch, known as “Skou’s Angels”. The local people mostly ride on mopeds – even very tiny children, still in diapers, clinging tight to mummy or daddy’s back and the very littlest held on to the grown up with a pareau tied round their middle. The older children fly around on bicycles, dodging the chickens that wander in the road, tiny fluffy chicks in tow.
Transport was nice to have, but walking was a delight too. Strolling along the main road just outside of the town of Arutanga at sunset the sounds are terribly evocative and tropical – birds warbling in the trees, cocks crowing, crickets chirping and the sea breeze making the palm fronds swish a little. The scents of frangipani and tiare mingle with the clean salty smell of the seashore and the stars are bright overhead. So walking was a delight but surprisingly hard to do – I found it impossible to walk more than 100 meters without being offered a lift in a car, pick-up truck or on the back of a moped. And if they didn’t stop then the moped riders would all give a wave or a smile. It really does feel as though we are genuinely welcome here, and not just for our tourist dollars (though of course the “Picton Castle economic stimulus package” does bring in a few dollars to hotels, car hire, ice cream and souvenir shops).
The sense of wellbeing we found at Aitutaki was increased by the glorious weather – it’s the first settled weather we’ve had for a while, and the bright sunshine makes everyone cheerful. It helps that the sails finally got properly dry, so the on-watch are spared the daily duty of loosing all sail, flashing them out, or setting the sails briefly to spill any water out and then bunting them back up immediately, and stowing again at the end of the day. The accommodation is all nicely dried and aired too, which makes everything smell better below. It’s hot when the sun beats down, but there’s almost 50% cloud cover most days, white and fluffy scudding sedately across the bright blue skies bringing welcome shade and cool. It’s like the weather is joining the people to welcome us to the Cook Islands.