As rainy Avatiu harbour slowly slipped out of view and the cargo ship Lady Moana began ploughing through the giant rollers of the Pacific, I felt a gnawing sense of foreboding about the two weeks that lay ahead.
Already the comforts of Rarotonga seemed like a distant memory as we headed north on the trip of a lifetime – bound for faraway islands of Manihiki and Penrhyn.
While Rarotonga and Aitutaki are well known tourist destinations, most people visiting the Cook Islands never get the chance to see the remote and romantic atolls of the Northern Group, so, for a city-dwelling Londoner at least, the opportunity to travel there was too good to pass up.
And having visited the Cooks many times over the years, the North had become an itch that needed to be scratched.
Air Rarotonga services the islands but flights can be expensive and availability is limited, so, with the luxury of time on my hands, I opted to take the more leisurely route and book a round trip on the cargo boat operated by Taio Shipping. But it was soon apparent that this would not be a voyage for the faint-hearted.
The Lady Moana, a former fishing boat that now provides the vital link to the distant specks of land in the north, is no cruise ship, and my quarters for the next fortnight would be a small bed in a six-foot square room tucked behind the wheelhouse, containing two bunks. The rest of the cabin comprised four similarly-sized rooms used by the crew of seven, a communal kitchen area and a tiny bathroom.
Along with the cargo of fuel, food and building materials the Lady Moana was carrying a dozen or so other paying customers – most heading for Manihiki and braving the journey on deck.
The conditions in the cabin may have been spartan, but it was cool and dry indoors, and we were well looked after by the crew. It all seemed rather more comfortable than life on deck, where the passengers sheltered from the rain and the sea spray beneath a canopy erected between the wood, steel, fridges and drums of oil, petrol and gas.
The first night of the voyage was an eye-opener as we motored towards Atiu through rain and rough seas.
After coming to terms with the conditions on board, the main challenge was overcoming sickness. That evening I lay propped up in bed and listened to the cabin creaking as the boat’s steel hull juddered and crashed through the waves.
The trip to Atiu, a mere 15 hours’ sail from Raro, was an unscheduled one, but the sight of land in the morning was welcome. The island was running low on fuel so the Lady Moana had loaded her tanks with spare petrol to be siphoned off once we reached our destination.
Before that operation got underway we disembarked onto the island’s flatbed barge sent to collect us - a somewhat daunting experience in the choppy seas outside the harbour. One by one we clambered down the side of the Lady Moana onto the barge a metre of two below. For the uninitiated it was a hair-raising experience as we rocked and rolled our way towards land.
The calm of the harbour was a welcome relief and we were soon on dry land. And once ashore we were the lucky recipients of some genuine Cook Islands hospitality as locals showed their gratitude for our impromptu visit by laying on a traditional island feast.
We were treated to heartwarming singing, prayers and the speeches of welcome at the island’s meeting house, and encouraged to eat heartily. The table before us was groaning with plates of local fare – maroro, pawpaw, doughnuts and coconut.
Unfortunately, the overnight crossing had taken its toll and some of us were feeling a little green around the gills. But after putting a decent dent in the vast amount of food we were then escorted around the island, and many of the passengers caught up with family members on the island.
Back at the wharf after our whistle-stop tour of the island, which included the site of Atiu’s new solar project, airport and quarry, we were gifted huge bunches of bananas, bags of drinking coconuts and fish and eventually, after the remaining fuel had been siphoned off, we clambered back onto the barge for another white-knuckle ride back to the Lady Moana, sitting just off the reef, where we were hauled back onto the deck.
After the warmest of farewells to Atiu it was time to head for Manihiki.
Now, with the wind behind us and a day’s sailing under our belts, the seas seemed a lot calmer and it felt as if we were flying across the open ocean. But everything is relative and it was still another 1,000km to our next destination.
Once Atiu had drifted out of sight on Wednesday afternoon we did not see land again until Saturday.
For the next two days we passed the time as best we could, adjusting to the movement of the boat, watching the endless waves rolling across the vast expanse of ocean and roaming the deck, switching from starboard to port over the course of the day to avoid the glaring sun. We were well fed by Fijian chef Sivo, and mealtimes punctuated the day. But once dark had fallen there was little to do except read, sleep or gaze up at the amazing array of stars looking down on us – a tiny speck in the mighty Pacific.
Then, late on Saturday morning spirits were raised as we saw the first sign of land – a dusty haze on the horizon indicating that we were approaching Manihiki.
One passenger, Ngere, was travelling back to Manihiki with his family for the unveiling of a family grave. It was, he said, his first sight of the islands since they were devastated by Cyclone Martin in 1997 – a catastrophic category five storm that claimed 19 lives.
The storm struck Manihiki on 1 November, bringing winds of 200kph and a huge storm surge that washed straight over the low-lying islands. Almost all the islands’ buildings were damaged or destroyed, and many victims were swept away into the raging ocean.
The atoll’s pearl industry was almost ruined but the real cost was a human one, as many broken-hearted survivors chose to relocate and rebuild their lives in Rarotonga or further afield. Manihiki is now home to fewer than 300 people, having had a population of almost 700 before Martin struck.
Ngere recalled how he weathered the night of the storm in a dinghy inside the lagoon, which was saved from the open sea after becoming entangled with pearl lines.
His last sight of home had come from a Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules, sent to aid the evacuation of Manihiki in the wake of the cyclone. Now those islands, rejuvenated in the two decades since the storm, were growing ever larger on the horizon with the string of bright green motu visible above the waves.
Soon palm trees were distinguishable and buildings came into view as we bore down on the village of Tauhunu to the west of the atoll.
In the lee of the island the calm sea glistened in the afternoon sun as the Lady Moana drifted offshore, and boarding the motorboat sent to collect us was a lot easier than it had seemed in Atiu.
We glided into the harbour, where half the village appeared to be waiting for us. And amid a flurry of helping hands our bags, bananas and various other effects were soon unloaded onto the wharf as long-lost families and friends greeted each other.
With our boat not due to leave until Monday we had two days to look forward to on Manihiki and with no accommodation booked fellow passenger Lawrencia William, a regular traveller between Raro and her home island, showed great island hospitality and generosity in offering me and Mary McDonald of Te Ipukarea Society a place to stay.
The William family were among the pioneers of the pearl farming industry on Manihiki and the spacious Numahanga Homestead Lawrencia and her relatives have been building is just a few hundred yards from the wharf.
We were ferried there on a trailer and after the initial unloading of personal cargo was complete we enjoyed a fine feed of fresh local fish with Lawrencia’s family. Then there was time to explore Tauhunu – a tidy, well laid-out village of coral roads, a few dozen homes, rebuilt since Martin, and lit by solar street lights.
The islands of Manihiki are just metres wide and it is only a short walk from the ocean to the lagoon, where jetties and motorboats line the shore. Looking out across its deep blue waters it is easy to understand how Manihiki has earned its reputation as arguably the most beautiful of the Cook Islands.
The narrow ribbon of islands that fringe the nine kilometre-wide lagoon are the tip of an underwater mountain that rises 4,000m from the seabed. Inside the lagoon there are other small islands – most now used as bases for the pearl-farming industry that has made this remote atoll famous.
From shore I swam out to the end of one of the jetties, where huge shoals of fish gathered around coral heads. Farther out the lagoon plunges to 40m in depth and is home to all manner of marine life, including sharks, turtles, and of course the ubiquitous pearl oysters.
Signs of pearl farming are everywhere, from the shells that litter the beach to the gardens full of floats and lines. Elsewhere is the evidence of other traditional practices – in the shallows between many of the motu are traditional fish traps, where locals could be seen hard at work catching their dinners.
After swimming I struck out along the coral road out of the town, past endless palm groves with the sea and lagoon almost always visible through the foliage. Soon I reached the end of the island, where a shallow passage separated it from the next, uninhabited, motu in the chain.
The smallness of the islands means there is no need for cars on the island, a boat is far more useful. And the local mode of land transport is motorbike or scooter – many fitted with trailers to carry cargoes ranging from coconuts to children.
As darkness fell the solar lights guided me home to the Numahanga Homestead. That night we slept on mattresses on the verandah, with the milky way twinkling above us in the pristine sky.
On Sunday morning we donned our best clothes and headed for church. After the service in Tauhunu Mary McDonald and I grabbed a lift across the lagoon with the local Catholic catechist, Augustine Kaina.
After conducting Mass at Tauhunu he packed up his robes and headed off across the lagoon by motorboat to the other village – Tukao – for the service there.
After church in Tukao we explored the village and were invited to lunch with Bernadino Boaza and Jane Kimi Kaina. Their home lies at the end of the airport runway. It’s strategically placed to make the most of the cooling sea breeze, and the airport, with one scheduled flight a week, causes little disruption.
Drinking nu in the shade of a tree in the garden, dining on korori parau – oyster meat in coconut sauce – and hearing their tales of life on the island, from the arrival of the pearl industry in the 1980s to the impact of Cyclone Martin, was a very special treat.
After more exploring in the afternoon we headed back across the dazzling lagoon to Tauhunu by Augustine and in the evening, after another fine meal of steak, raw fish and mayonnaise with Lawrencia and friends from the village we once again slept outside in the cool breeze.
On Monday the work of unloading the main cargo from the Lady Moana, anchored just off shore got underway. Once the goods bound for Tauhunu were offloaded it was time for us to bid a grateful farewell to Lawrencia and her family, who had done so much for us on the island, and clamber back aboard.
Our first port of call was not far away, as we pulled up outside Tukao on the other side of the atoll, where most of the remaining cargo was offloaded.
It was not until that evening that 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.
- Next Saturday: Onwardto Penrhyn