Aloha Polynesia

South Pacific Paradise in Pukapuka

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Pukapuka is marked on our chart as ‘Danger Island’. The ominous name was given by a British ship in the 18th century due to the large, encompassing reef that extends far past the visible motus and frequent high surf and current. Picton Castle approached at midday, which is the only way to visibly navigate in the South Pacific. The reefs can be seen clearly in good light and giving the reef a respectfully wide berth, we made our way up to the small pass off the main island where two small aluminum barges were waiting with throngs of people. There is not even the resemblance of an anchorage at Pukapuka, as the reef drops off to 3,000 ft just a few feet seaward from being awash. So for the duration of our stay, the ship simply drifted several miles off the island and motored back to the pass for crew exchange.

We unloaded all of our cargo with the ship holding station about ½ mile off the reef, the captain on the bridge continuously, giving helm orders and engine commands from to keep her laying just so. The mates were running the cargo operations smooth as always and before long, our cargo hold was empty and the off watch was told to get ready to go ashore. Half the crew clambered down into the Pukapukan’s big aluminium barge and headed towards the pass into the huge triangular lagoon. Traversing the pass was mildly terrifying as the current rips through and there is very little room for maneuver between the unforgiving walls of coral. But the barge has a powerful outboard engine and the island boys running the barge clearly knew their stuff, so we arrived safely on the beach, stepped off the barge onto the coarse coral sand and found ourselves on our third tropical paradise island of two weeks.

And what an island! Pukapuka is incredible. For a low atoll it’s very lush with banana, papaya and taro growing in the interior and the usual multitude of palm trees fringing the coral sand beaches around the edge. There are free range piglets and chickens everywhere, and tiare and frangipani flowers growing by the side of the coral roads. The lagoon is huge, with two big motu as well as the main island called Wale (Pronounced wa-lay) or Home Island. There are about 400 people living here, and almost half the population are children. Laughing seems to be the island’s official sport and just a smile or a ‘hello’ from one of our crew seems to be enough to turn their natural shyness into laughter. English is spoken, but only as a second language, and at home everybody speaks Pukapukan – I am told it is quite similar to Cook Island Maori, but probably even closer to Samoan. I have read that Pukapuka is only part of the Cook Islands because it was discovered by European explorers at the same time as the other Cooks – geographically it is closer to Samoa, and probably culturally closer to Samoa too. Another fascinating glimpse into the path of the ancient Polynesian settlers.

Walking up the beach we were greeted by two or three groups of people waiting there with pick-up trucks and mopeds to welcome us, to collect their cargo and in the case of the small children to enjoy the spectacle of a large group of white people all coming to visit their island. There was a moment of mutual shyness and then crew and children started smiling and waving to each other and soon people were laughing and picking crew members to come and stay with them. Once the cargo was all accounted for and our crew all had a home for the night we were invited to the Catholic Church Hall in the village of Ngake for a welcoming feast. I think this was as much to welcome our passenger, visiting Priest Father Freddy as us, but our hosts were incredibly generous, and the spread was fantastic with chicken, fish, fried coconut cakes, taro and of course cold coconuts to drink.

After eating too much we headed over to a covered area by the main wharf for a small craft market and then a display of dancing, all put on by the youth group of Pukapuka. The dancing and drumming were spectacular! First the men danced an expressive and energetic warrior victory dance and then the men and girls dancing together in a colourful riot of knee-knocking, hip wiggling energy called a drum dance. The last dance was a ‘round the world’ and Picton Castle crew were invited to join the professionals dancing a few couples at a time in the middle of the circle. A-mazing!

After the dance the on watch went back to the ship to keep her safe for the night and the off watch dispersed into the three villages with their families for the night. Sunday is a strictly observed day of rest on Pukapuka, so church, snoozing, walking and visiting were the order of the day. Church as usual in the Cooks was characterised by incredible singing and ladies in fine hats. The highlight of my evening walk was meeting the island’s doctor, a delightful gentleman from Burma who was contentedly cracking open coconuts to feed to his flock of equally contented chickens.

Monday was another day, with the change of the watch at 10am, another market at noon and a big social mixer dance in the evening. For the market we brought out our second hand Frenchy’s clothes from Canada and sold sack loads of them to the local people cheap cheap. There was the usual trying on of ridiculous hats and dresses, and I think everyone had a good time and got some good bargains too.

The dance that evening was a riot, starting with another display of traditional dancing by the locals and moving on to a Polynesian party mash-up with Picton Castle crew and locals mixing it up in the old copra shed on the beach. The songs were eclectic in the extreme and the dance styles were just as crazy. Locals and crew alike had an awesome time, blowing off steam after the hard work of the last couple of weeks and enjoying real, modern Polynesia. It was just one of those magical South Seas nights you will never forget, with the full moon reflecting in the still lagoon, drum beats, dancing, flower necklaces, grass skirts and drinking coconuts.

Tuesday was our departure day, so we mustered on the beach early the next morning and after a leaving ceremony for the passengers who were to sail with us, we loaded back onto the barge to head back out to the ship. There was an hour or so of happy chaos saying goodbyes and sorting out cargo and passengers before the locals climbed back into their barge to go home and we got underway, our course back towards Rarotonga seven hundred miles to the southeast over the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean.