The historic marae’s hilltop location, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is shrouded in history. Buses become vaka after they have picked up guests from their motels, and a chief or Rangitira is chosen from among the passengers to lead his “people” through the tour, finishing in a traditional dance-off rather than the tribal warfare that might have taken place in ancient times.
Guests are greeted with a drum welcome on arrival and then ushered through the gates for an authentic village tour where real descendants of the original inhabitants work, in the same way their ancestors would have, preparing plants for medicine and weaving items out of coconut leaf.
Guide Ui Mataiapo Danny Mataroa weaves a colourful account of village history.
“We used and still do use all the plants, trees and herbs around us; they are all given to us for healing. The fragrance of the flowers is used to heal you emotionally,” he says.
“She is grinding Roti, used for small cuts, bruises, burns and dislocations,” he says of Kallybrema Poila.
Mataroa explains that only three plants were taken on the long vaka voyages that took Polynesians vast distances across the Pacific.
“The noni, whose enzymes are close to the human body and are good for the immune system, the coconut which is the tree of life and the koru or breadfruit, for sustenance.”
He says that at one time every household on Rarotonga had their own breadfruit tree: “It will last through a drought, and we all need to get back growing them for ourselves.”
Conversion to Christianity saw the people of this village leave for the lowlands of Rarotonga and their mountain home, once a natural fortress, became desolate and overgrown.
Around 100 years later the land was cleared, revealing proof of ancient legends that continue to be passed down through the generations.
Mataroa explained the significance of an ancient marae, still in original condition, along with artefacts that were uncovered during a recent archaeological excavation, confirming what was already known of the villagers’ culture and traditions. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
All Highland Paradise staff are from the original Tinomana tribe and are related to the Pirangi family, adding a warm and homely friendliness to the tour.
A traditional umu feast, with a variety of delicious food including fish and traditional vegetables was not too far removed from what would have been eaten originally. The more recent arrivals were represented in dishes such as “mayonnaise”, now a Cook Islands favourite.
Dinner was accompanied by traditional song and a striking sunset, followed by the evening show. The show brought together guests in an interactive, fun and captivating account of Cook Islands culture, dress and song over the years to today.
Transformed back into buses, the “vaka” lined up outside to return guests to their accommodation, but not before a friendly and personal farewell from the family at Highland Paradise.