A smiling grandmother patiently waits for Takitumu primary school to end its day. Not at the school, but across the busy main road at the Holy Spirit Revival church in Matavera.
“It has been disruptive now that the kids have been relocated to several locations in the community,” she says.
She drives her older grandchild to the Revival Hall in Matavera where the junior students are based; the youngest has to be taken to Titikaveka preschool which is a fair way away.
It’s costing more on her fuel bill each week.
“But, the kids’ safety is important and we have to do what we have to do, the teachers are great and we are trying to work out an easier way to transport the little ones to Titikaveka and make it easier for the parents,” she says.
“I hope our government asked the New Zealand deputy prime minister Winston Peters for help to send the New Zealand Army here and take the mast down – it’s been done before.”
She’s right. The eye-catching 350 foot (107 metre) landmark has been kept erect by the intervention of Army engineers – but this time, there’s little more they can do.
The Cook Islands Investment Corporation has confirmed to Cook Islands News that after decades of service, the Matavera AM Radio Mast has reached the end of its life.
The government-owned mast was erected as an AM radio transmitter, with $43,000 of New Zealand aid money – a lot in those days. It was first built in 1965, then rebuilt almost from scratch by a local team of engineers in 1989. It was intended to transmit news of national importance and interest, locally and to the outer islands.
Bob Walker, one of the few active ham radio operators in the Cook Islands, arrived in Rarotonga in 1970 to work as the government telecommunications technician. His job was to maintain radio contact with the other 15 islands using two-circuit transmitters and a 50 bd telegraph.
Back then, the Cook Islands Post office looked after the transmitter and the antenna.
In the late 1970’s the original frequency was 600 kilohertz, Walker changed the frequency himself to 630 kilohertz using a ‘crystal’ sent from New Zealand. “It was easy enough to do, it was only a tiny wee change, we put in the new crystal that determines the frequency, that was it,” he says.
Now, Walker is retired, spending a couple of hours every day on his ham radio, communicating with operators around the world – not necessarily talking to people, but exchanging messages.
His ham radio set up of tuners, monitors and amplifiers is tidy and well-organised. Low-volume screeching FT8 tones emanate from his speakers – like when you’re trying to tune in to a radio station. His own antenna outside his home is impressive, standing at 40 feet high.
But he’s concerned the loss of the Matavera radio mast might affect the people of the Pa Enua, as they will have no AM radio transmissions.
There is a standby transmitter at Blackrock where government could put up an antenna, and Walker believes it’s worth doing to keep the AM transmissions going. “With the AM transmitter if something goes wrong, we can fix it, it’s here.”
Alternatively, Bluesky could pick up Radio Cook Islands from the internet into a small FM transmitter – but if there were internet interruptions, then communications with the outer islands could be in danger.
The alternative – a change to an FM frequency – would affect those in the Northern and Southern group islands beyond the reach of FM radio.
The Northern Cook Islands is a separate radio country to us, he says, and that’s why many ham radio enthusiasts from overseas travel to the island of Manihiki, spending weeks at a time there.
Authorities say with the rollout of FM transmitters and the ability to live stream events like Parliament and the international dance contest, the mast is no longer needed – and when one gets up close, it becomes apparent that the once proud edifice has fallen into disrepair. There is rust up and down the length of it; the guy ropes are so frayed that one is holding on barely by a thread.
Education Secretary Danielle Cochrane has ordered Takitumu school’s temporary relocation while the mast’s owners talk with affected stakeholders like Bluesky Cook Islands and Infrastructure Cook Islands.
They must ensure that when the mast comes down, the outer islands are still served with the public information and communications needed to keep them safe.
The Corporation has been working with external engineering companies and local agencies to assess the condition of the mast and, says general manager Tamarii Tutangata, to determine the most appropriate process to dismantle it.
Wear and tear has resulted in corrosion in the mid-section, he admits. “Corrosion is normal as a result of the effects of sea spray around 20 meters above sea level. The top and bottom sections of the mast are in good condition.”
Their priority will be to dismantle it safely, and causing minimal danger and disruption to those in the surrounding area.
Of course, it’s already a bit late for that. Just ask the children of Apii Takitimu. Ask their teachers, their parents, the local churches and childcare centres that have turned over their facilities to the school.
Apii Takitumu Primary students were relocated to premises in the village of Matavera and Titikaveka a few weeks ago due to concerns for their safety.
With the kids having to be in the same hall, it can get pretty noisy. However when we visit, the children are trying their best to behave, listen and learn without the distraction of the other classes lessons.
The school’s senior students have relocated to the Matavera Cook Island Christian Church, the juniors are accommodated at the Holy Spirit Revival Church, and the pre-schoolers have merged with the Titikaveka early childhood education centre.
A few students say they missed their school; others look at the experience like an adventure, saying “it’s exciting and fun”.
Principal Carly Ave insists it’s only a temporary relocation, and the teachers are working hard to ensure learning is as normal, and that they communicate well between their three makeshift campuses.
“The children are enjoying their new surroundings and the teachers are working very hard to make use of the space we have.”
Story by Melina Etches; drone photography by Chris Rowe.