AHEAD OF my shift to Cook Islands, I caught up with a grizzled older journalist whose wisdom and advice I respect enormously. We sipped our coffees in the autumn sun, and gazed out over the sweeping green lawns of Auckland’s Monte Cecilia Park.
“Stick with four wheels, not two,” he advised me. “Trust me on this one.”
I remember a friend crashing and injuring himself while holidaying in Raro. I remember when All Black Zac Guildford crashed a scooter, then walked into Trader Jack’s bar with blood dripping from his head.
The New York Times once said Eskimos have 100 different words for snow. And in India, the poohbahs of the British Raj had almost as many different terms for a bout of gastro. Well, in the Cook Islands, the gravel graze left by a scooter crash seems to have opened its own lexicon-venience store (with obligatory petrol pump and fried chicken outlet like all the other roadside stores).
There’s ‘Rarotonga rash’, ‘Aitutaki tattoo’, the ‘Cooks caress’. Pop star Tim Finn sung of ‘kissing the road of Rarotonga’.
“The best thing was, the barefoot nurse in the hospital scolded me in a sort of teasing way,” Tim recalled. “And she said, you kissed the road of Rarotonga.”
So you can well imagine, on arriving in Raro, the first thing I did.
I wandered down past Trader Jack’s to the police station, a two storey-concrete bunker in downtown Avarua. “I’d like to do the test for a scooter licence,” I told the woman behind the downstairs counter.
I LIKE the idea of riding a scooter in the islands. We’ve shipped over our Honda people-mover from Onehunga. But to me, a scooter says small island. It says sunny days. It says frangipani in the air.
In 2005, before we had kids, my wife Georgie and I rode a yellow scooter around the little Mexican-Caribbean island of Isla Mujeres; down to the lighthouse and back. Then in August 2008 we hired quad bikes and rode the length of the Greek island of Santorini – all 16km of it.
Now in 2019, we’ve tossed in the city jobs and moved to Rarotonga, but with our youngest still at preschool, we’re not quite ready for full-blown mid-life crises. No Harley Davidsons for us – perhaps just a 125cc automatic scooter.
Of course, if there’s one thing that’s more world-famous than the Cooks’ gravel rash, it’s the country’s scooter licence. Some dismiss it derisively as nothing more than a revenue grab: tourists may be here for just a week, but they must pay $20 to do a basic riding test before they can be let loose on the roads.
Because of the numbers of crashes, police have actually tightened up lately: one must now do a 25-question written test, before returning the following day for the practical.
They didn’t say I couldn’t refer to resource materials, so I brazenly got out my mobile phone and started researching the answers. I tried to cheat – but I failed even at that.
What distance visibility should you have before you must turn on your headlights? 10m, 25m, 50m, 80m?
(According to the Cook Islands Transport Act 1966, darkness is defined as 30 mins after dusk, or “any other time when there is not sufficient daylight to render clearly visible a person or vehicle at a distance of 150fts”. So that’s about 46 metres.)
Because Parliament doesn’t often sit, the pertinent parts of the Transport Act haven’t been much updated since 1966.
So it’s probably safe to assume that yes, you may text message on your mobile phone with your left hand while operating your scooter’s accelerator with your right, so long as it doesn’t compromise your ability to turn the indicator on and off.
(We all know that indicating is another problem entirely, for visiting Aucklanders…)
I BORROW a scooter from a friend. I turn up at the police station for my 1pm practical test and shelter from intermittent tropical downpours in the doorway of the police station, waiting for the testing officer to turn up.
Slowly, as the sun comes out, more and more people emerged from beneath the eaves of neighbouring black pearl retailers and rental companies. Young tourists, all of them, pushing scooters from Polynesian Rentals, clutching standard issue helmets. Some had been waiting since midday, when the testing officer had arbitrarily cancelled his scheduled tests.
I’m up first, but I don’t have a helmet. I don’t need one, I tell the testing officer, I’m not a tourist. I live here, I work here, I’m not covered by the clause in the Transport Act that requires tourists and riders under 25 to wear helmets.
He smiles. Everyone wears a helmet for the test, he says. If I pass the test, I need never wear one again. (So I borrow a helmet off a colleague who’s come with me to watch and laugh).
The test seems straight-forward. There’s a driveway along the side of the police station, about four metres wide. Ride the scooter down the left hand side, pause at the give way sign, do a u-turn, then return up the driveway weaving between the road-cones. Stop when you get back to the stop sign, by the testing officer. If you put a foot down before then, you fail.
But I’m starting to get nervous. I’m by no means a confident rider. Those little cones look awfully close together. I wish I wasn’t up first, with all these bright young things waiting behind me, gunning their 50cc engines.
I’ve read the testing criteria. I know to check with the testing officer that he’s ready. I know to do some safety checks, so I make a big deal of adjusting my wing mirrors. Then I pull on the left hand brake, push the ignition button – and nothing happens. It doesn’t start.
The crowd falls silent behind me. The testing officer walks over. “You might need to put up the kick stand,” he explains, eyes twinkling.
And off I go.
As it turns out, the cones don’t seem so close together once you’re in among them. I weave my way back up the driveway, stop at the sign, and the officer walks over.
“Turn off your engine please,” he says. “Push your bike back out to the courtyard.
“Oh, and here’s your form. You’ve passed.”
Riding back along the Avarua waterfront, the waves crashing on the reef, I can feel the fresh breeze in my face and blowing through my hair. It’s invigorating.
I return the scooter to my friend, and he’s laughing. “I didn’t tell you,” he says. “It doesn’t have a rego.”
AT THE WEEKEND, I buy the only helmet in stock at Cook Islands Motor Company. I get the feeling they don’t sell a lot.
But fresh in my mind is the conversation I’ve just had with a visiting firefighter from New Zealand, helping train the crews here. He’d been one of the first on the scene the previous day, when two men on a scooter pulled out and tried to overtake a small white truck by the seawall near the airport.
Matt Alphors said the men were lying in the middle of the road. “They were unconscious and unresponsive, but breathing with a slight pulse,” he said. “Both had large lacerations to their heads.”
They were surrounded by tourists, milling around helplessly.
Alphors, a certified paramedic, gave the men initial treatment and put them in recovery position, while waiting for the ambulance. “They were very lucky they didn’t go underneath the truck,” he told me. “The driver did really well to take evasive action.”
Fifty people died on Cook Islands roads in the 10 years from 2008 to last year – that’s a death rate 40 times higher than New Zealand, and 133 times worse than safety-conscious Norway.
Almost all the crashes involved alcohol, most involved young men. Cook Islands News archives suggest most were riding scooters or motorbikes without helmets.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, with my nine-year-old son Monty, I pay a visit to Teina Tearii, an intermediate school teacher and mechanic who runs a tyre shop in Tupapa.
I’ve already checked out and test-driven a battered old Chinese-made Pantera scooter being sold by Engily at the theological college compound; a red-and-white fuel-injected Piaggio Fly 150cc owned by Kiwi Karl who is selling up everything before returning home; and cafe worker Napa’s newish orange Yamaha 125 with tiny wheels, that I test-drive outside the Aitutaki workers’ hostel near my office.
Teina is advertising two bikes for sale: a “clutch” motorbike and an automatic scooter. I take the 125cc red Honda scooter for a spin up the road and back, then ask him about the motorbike. Could he show me how to ride one?
He looks dubious, and chooses his words carefully. “I would feel happier selling you the scooter.”
Like that journalist I spoke with before leaving Auckland, he doesn’t want to be the one sending me out to break my neck on the roads of Raro ...
This morning, riding to work on my newly-acquired Honda, I come down a side road and indicate to turn left onto the main road into Avarua. As I turn, the front wheel starts sliding out on the gravel.
I put my foot down, and it’s fine. But it’s a reminder: I’m in no hurry to kiss the road of Rarotonga.