And the people of Omoka and Te Tautua villages in Penrhyn pulled out all the stops in true Tongavera fashion when official delegates visited their home to inspect the New Zealand Defence Force’s Exercise Tropic Twilight this week.
The warmth which greeted delegates who arrived aboard a French military aircraft on Wednesday matched the temperature of the country’s largest atoll, located just nine degrees below the equator.
In the space of 24 hours, the people of Tongareva had Deputy Prime Minister Teariki Heather, New Zealand High Commissioner Nick Hurley, their wives, high-level army officials, and special guests involved in the project mesmerised by the island and its people.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) led the annual humanitarian assistance exercise, which saw a 60-strong military task force including the UK, the US, the People’s Liberation Army of China work side by side for over five weeks.
New Zealand invested just shy of $1 million to the project, which has seen Penrhyn’s fuel depot rebuilt to strengthen Te Kukupa’s maritime surveillance capacity and a range of community buildings on both Penrhyn and Manihiki improved.
And despite the logistical challenges which came with working in tropical heat in remote conditions, delegates were impressed by achievements of the task force.
Military workers have dedicated their time and energy to build the critical new fuel depot in Omoka, strengthen and improve the Island Government’s Administration building, Tongavera Hospital, preschool and Te Tautua’s local clinic and classrooms.
Previously, children sometimes experienced electric shocks when they switched on a light in their classrooms, but thanks to Exercise Tropic Twilight, eroded electrical wiring was replaced in many buildings.
And in Tongareva hospital, simple additions such as ceiling fans will provide comfort to patients.
Captain Andy Blackburn, Senior National Officer for the New Zealand contingent led the taskforce on the ground in Penrhyn.
“I think this has been a big success… the ability to conduct joint operations across governments, working with American, Chinese and British forces… we’ve achieved all our tasks and we can leave here knowing we’ve left a product which is useful and will add value to the island,” he said.
Captain Blackburn admitted there had been a few hurdles along the way.
“The biggest challenges we’ve seen have been working in the heat as this exercise has gone on and people have begun to get tired, and also the language barrier with the Chinese in the opening piece was something we had to overcome.
“We knew they had limited English speaking ability – but it was less than that for some of their guys.”
This is the first time China and US have worked so closely on a military operation and it may open the door for future partnerships between the world’s two most powerful nations.
A highlight for Captain Blackburn and most of his contingent was being able to walk a mere 70 metres from base camp to the pristine lagoon after a hard day’s work and swim with Penrhyn’s famous sharks.
At the final function for the contingent and delegates on Wednesday evening, Captain Blackburn made a special mention of Tongareva Island Government executive officer Vaine Wichman for her tireless contribution to the project.
The New Zealand Defence force then wowed delegates and locals with a performance of the official army haka.
But while the official delegates have returned to Rarotonga and military personnel are packing up their camps, Penrhyn’s leaders believe more work is needed in the isolated north.
Cook Islands Party Member of Parliament for Penrhyn Willie John believes there is more that the Cook Islands and New Zealand government could do to enhance Tongareva.
“The time for talking is over, the time for work is now,” John said during the opening of the fuel depot.
John took the opportunity to shed light on the crumbling Omoka wharf, sparking the demolition of the old fuel tanks.
He also drew attention to Penrhyn’s potholed airstrip which was built by the US during WWII.
These projects have not been seen as national priorities by successive Cook Islands’ governments for decades.
Wichman told CI News these projects were vital to Tongareva if their goal to open the island to the economic benefits of tourism were going to be achieved.