Bob Williams of the Cook Islands Christian Church, says the trip was three years in the making and came out of a youth convention held in Atiu on 2014.
The group included seven people from Rarotonga, two from Atiu and one from Palmerston North in New Zealand.
“The whole purpose of the tour was to experience the Holy Land, and it was self-funded.”
Before going, Williams knew of the all the relevant places in Israel through studying the Bible, but was excited to see the locations in person.
The eight-day tour travelled the area between Israel and Jerusalem, where much of the events described in the New Testament took place.
“We spent the first three days in Tel-Aviv and then started our tour, Williams said.
“We spent two nights in Tiberias, and while we were there we visited where Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding and the area where Jesus fed 5,000 with fish and loaves of bread.”
The group also visited the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus recruited four of his disciples, as well as Jesus’s village of Nazareth and the Golan Heights.
In the lead up to the trip, group members had some concerns about violence and war in the surrounding areas.
“But I enquired from the tour coordinators, and they assured safety,” Williams said.
One thing stood out to Williams was how many of the historical locations had changed over the centuries.
The place where Jesus was born had been built over with a cross, and the birthplace was in a cave underneath the church.
“If they had left it as it was, I think I would have felt differently. They did confirm that was the exact place. But I didn’t really get the feeling I thought I would.
“And at the 14 stations of the cross, basically (the whole area was) full of shops. For me, that kind of changed the experience, because it felt like a tourist attraction.”
However, there were still some sites that were untouched by time.
Visiting the Dead Sea, Williams found that the legendary buoyancy and healing powers of the ancient salt lake were true.
“I got a muffler burn just before I left. So I went in the Dead Sea, and I put some mud on it, and it just healed – it was amazing. It also makes your skin smooth.
“And I can assure you that you can in fact float, irrespective of your size,” he said with a smile.
“We also went to the Wailing Wall. If you want to pray you can make a note and put it in the wall. But it’s very hard to find a gap, as there are a lot of notes there.”
To get entry to the Wailing Wall, and Old Jerusalem
the group had to go through four security checkpoints. Women also needed to be fully covered to approach the wall and men were required to wear long trousers.
While the trip was short, Israel has not seen the last of the Cook Islands just yet, with a group from Australia planning a visit, as well as a group from Takamoa theological college.
“The photos that I posted on Facebook, influenced a lot of people to go. But I can understand people being worried about the expenses.
“It cost me $2000 for the 10 days, and to me that is absolutely worth it.
I can relate to the whole experience now when I read the New Testament.”