Pukapuka and Nassau: The long voyage home

Thursday May 21, 2020 Written by Jonathan Milne and Rashneel Kumar Published in Outer Islands
Rapu Williams embarked yesterday for Pukapuka with his partner Elaine, and four children including Sanpenado, pictured. Rapu Williams embarked yesterday for Pukapuka with his partner Elaine, and four children including Sanpenado, pictured. JONATHAN MILNE 20052024

For the 12 passengers and nine crew embarking last night on the 1300km voyage north to Nassau and Pukapuka, this day had been a long time coming. 

It’s been a long and emotional wait to return home for travellers on the first passenger voyage north since the Covid-19 travel bans.

Pukapuka bank worker Rapu Williams, school teacher Elaine and their four young children had just come to Rarotonga for a holiday; they ended up stranded on the island for six months.

Last night, they crammed into one cabin for the five-day trip north on Taio Shipping’s inter-island vessel, the Grinna. “It will depend on the weather how the kids handle it,” Williams said, “but the Grinna is safe for the kids.”

For Keke Tinga, the return is more emotional than most. He left Pukapuka when he was just four or five years old; now he’s 19. He spent all his teen years in New Zealand, getting an education and then working on building sites.

Leroy Mangere, left, dropped off his nephew Keke Tinga, 19, with his health certificate clearing him to travel. 20052014
Now he’s paid $700 for a cabin on the Grinna, to return home. He's got a medical certificate showing he's clear of Covid-19. It will be the first time he’s seen his parents and seven brothers and sisters since 2012; it’s the first time he’s seen his home island since 2006.

After planning his return, he instead found himself stuck in Rarotonga when the ban on travel to the Pa Enua was set in place.

“I have lost touch of the island life but my stay in Rarotonga has brought those memories back,” he said. “I think Pukapuka is pretty similar to Rarotonga – it’s just that Raro has more buildings and more shops.

“I’m excited to see my family again, and I’m excited at seeing my home island again.”

Captain Jioje Fimone is responsible for getting this previous cargo of men, women, children (not to mention the odd light truck and nearly a dozen motorbikes) 1300km north to Nassau and Pukapuka.

Grinna captain Jioje Fimone with ship’s cook Kim Ona. 20052023

But there’s another very important person on the crew: the ship’s cook Kim Ona. Captain Fimone advised her it’s better to stock up with too much food, than not enough – so she’s taken him at his word.

There’s 10 cartons of chicken, and large quantities of lamb neck chops, mince, sausage and of course the obligatory corned beef and tinned fish.

She buys her taro, maniota and other fresh produce for the trip from the supermarkets, but also from local growers, “to share the love”.

And she’s planning a few treats for the kids. “We’ve got plenty of ice cream. The boys on the crew like ice cream as well!”

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