Former CINews journalist Jonathan Harwood continues his account of a recent two-week voyage aboard the Taio Shipping Services cargo vessel Lady Moana, with visits to Atiu, Penryhn and Manihiki. He takes up the story as the Lady Moana set off from Manihiki to Penrhyn.
We finally motored away from the glittering islands of Manihiki and set a course for Penrhyn, the most northerly of the Cooks, still a 24-hour sail away.
Heading north-west the seas became rougher as we battled the south-easterly wind and once again settled into the rhythm of life on the ocean wave – supper, sunset, stars and sleep.
By the time we reached Penrhyn the following day, darkness had fallen, but as we approached the islands lights were visible on shore. However, it was too late to negotiate the narrow passage into the vast lagoon and we spent the night drifting in the lee of the largest atoll in the Cooks, and one of the biggest in the entire Pacific.
Like Manihiki, Penrhyn sits atop a huge underwater mountain, with a narrow band of islands circling the massive 233 square kilometre lagoon. Despite the size of the lagoon the land mass of the islands that circle it is less than 10 square kilometres.
Here the bright blue lagoon is big enough for cargo ships to enter, and unlike at our previous destinations, the Lady Moana could moor at the harbour in Omoka. Despite having spent more than a week en route to Penrhyn, and having almost made it to the equator, we only stayed for a few hours, but that was enough time to investigate the island.
As befits an island so remote, Penrhyn has a reputation for doing things its own way and remains a fiercely independent community.
While Mary delivered her precious cargo of composting worms – supplied by Te Ipukarea Society – to the local school I ventured out along the coral road out of town. It didn’t take long to make acquaintances with the locals, including mayor Rio Teika. On an island of just a few hundred souls served irregularly by aircraft and cargo boat, newcomers are easily spotted.
As in Manihiki, pearls are farmed in the huge lagoon, which is also famed for its population of sharks. And after inquiring after a good snorkelling spot it didn’t take long to meet some of them. Once out of the shallows I saw first one and then another glistening flash of a black tip reef shark cruising below me.
Although they are usually docile, I swiftly convinced myself that it was probably a good idea to head back to the boat to check when we were due to leave.
Back on board skipper Jioje Fimone gave an illustration of quite how many sharks live in the water by tossing some fish overboard. Within seconds around a dozen black tips were on the scene with a pair of menacing-looking sand sharks for company.
By mid-afternoon the unloading of the cargo had been completed and it was time to head for home, and we slowly motored out of the lagoon and back into the open ocean, accompanied by an escort of noddies and frigate birds who soared gracefully above the boat long after the islands disappeared from view.
After 10 days at sea visiting some of the most remote islands in the world, Rarotonga seemed like a different world - an impossibly busy place with its cars, cash points, shops and bars. But it was still at least four days and well over 1,300km away.
Ploughing south into the wind the boat began to move differently, rolling with the waves coming from the east, and the deck, now bare of cargo and with the canopy for the deck passengers long taken down, was encrusted with salt.
There were fewer people on board now too, just three passengers and the crew. As before we settled into the rhythm of the voyage - reading, watching movies in the kitchen area and gazing out at the vast expanse of the South Pacific, with its endless succession of waves.
There was also a sense of achievement after having made it to what felt like the ends of the earth.
Eventually, on Sunday, ahead of schedule and after 13 days away Rarotonga began to rise up in the distance. Its jagged peaks and plumes of smoke in stark contrast to the flat tranquil islands on the north.
Landing at Avatiu, four days after quitting Penrhyn, felt like the end of an epic adventure, although standing on solid ground rather than a rolling cargo boat presented its own challenges.
I bid a fond farewell to the crew as they prepared to unload the modest cargo of fish from the north and other sundries destined for Raro. For me the trip of a lifetime was complete, and the memories of the vast ocean and the lagoons and tiny islands of Manihiki and Penrhyn will last forever.
But for the Lady Moana, Rarotonga was just a brief stop before her return to a different world, where the few souls who live at the ends of the earth depend on her.