Some had not seen their home island in over thirty years and the younger generation experienced atoll life for the first time.
Metela Phillip says he left in 1971, a time of great migration for all Cook Islanders. Bringing his four children here for the first time he now realises how much has been lost.
“They can’t understand when their own aunts and uncles speak to them. We spoke to them in English because we wanted them to speak proper English but now they can’t speak Pukapukan. Very few people can speak the old language.”
A mix of Pukapukan, Rarotongan and English pervades although some of the younger children manage to pick up Pukapukan during the six-week holiday.
Millie Luliua left in 1962 at the age of thirteen, but has come back five times. “The first time I came back,” she says, “I couldn’t even find the house I grew up in. All the kikau houses are gone.”
“Still,” as she fans herself, “this is my kind of life.”
While the tele party was on Pukapuka, the island bustled with active village life. The atoll easily supports a population of about a thousand.
“It was a test for the island,” says Pio Lavalua, chairman of the Kau Wo Wolo. “To see how our resources would do and it was fine. They ate tons of kaveau, kotawa, fish and there’s still plenty.”
In the mornings, the himene from the churches sounds stronger. More children can be heard screaming from the lagoon. The motorbikes zoom regularly along the sandy roads.
Numerous feasts are held in the tele party’s honor.
Songs, speeches and money are exchanged. The tele party provides each village with generous funds and new sports equipment.
Some, especially the younger generation, have a hard time adjusting.
“I love it here,” says Annette of her first time to the atoll, “more than I thought I would. But I can’t deal without working toilets and with mosquitoes. Plus, I would miss my job.”
While taking in the breeze, some of the teenagers spend hours lamenting the lack of Kentucky Fried Chicken and dreaming of McDonalds. A small divide emerges between the city kids and the bush kids. However by the end of the six weeks it’s hard to tell who is who.
The majority of the tele party want to return to live in Pukapuka, especially those who spent their childhoods here.
“What a waste to have spent so many years away,” says Kawa Elisaia, a church minister in Brisbane.
“I miss the freedom,” says Kupa Loumanu – a view shared by most of the men who spend their holiday fishing.
Kanute Ritawa left at age thirteen and brought his Australian wife and two children back for the first time to see if they might all move back.
“I love it here,” says Stephanie Ritawa, “I used to go camping a lot as a kid. Plus, he talks about it all the time so I had an idea of what to expect. I knew we wouldn’t have a fridge and lucky our kids’ favorite food is fish, rice and coconut cream. We loved spending five days on Motu Kotawa and on Motu Ko and my kids loved swimming everyday and now they love marbles.”
When asked if the family will move back, they all pause.
“Well he wants to move back,” says Stephanie pointing at her husband. “Be a king, plant an orange orchard, go fishing everyday, and work with the kids on sports.”
Her husband grins.
“The problem is the transportation,” she goes on. “If there were an affordable means of regular transportation, then yes, we would stay.”
It remains to be seen how many will return to the freedom, food and family that they miss and use their experiences on the “outside” to give back to their island home. “The last tele party from New Zealand in 2010 all said they were coming back,” says Ted Taunga. “None of them have come back yet.”
Pio Lavalua says that when he asks those from overseas -- “they all say they can’t come because of their jobs.
“I tell them ‘quit your job.’ There you’re just working to pay bills. Here, you can eat off the land, work on the roads and save.”
Most of the tele agree but want to save enough money to rebuild their family homes -- or return to their family overseas.
Around 2000 Pukapukans live in Brisbane, Australia -- the largest expatriate community outside of Auckland.
Neamata Langiuila, the leader of the tele party, says they spent two years fundraising for their return. They sold food at Cook Islands sporting events and held music and dance fundraisers.
“Everyone wanted to come,” he says “but some couldn’t afford the fare and others couldn’t get off work.”
Unlike others who miss the kikau houses, Nemata does not lament the changes in Pukapuka saying, “I’m impressed with the new church, the new Sunday school, the new houses, the new tin roofing, the new water tanks. And it is clean and beautiful.”
While he misses Pukapuka, he and his family feel their work is with the expatriate Pukapukan community in Brisbane. “We keep our traditions,” he says “we have our sports, our Pukapukan days and we continue as a community. We never forget our culture.”
Anita Urutapu Makea had not been back to Pukapuka since she left in 1956 as a sixteen year old.
“Fifty-six years away,” she says, “that’s a long time.”
Anita was the first Pukapukan, and one of the first Cook Islanders, to settle in Australia.
“I didn’t want to leave Wale,” she says, “but I had this idea that it wasn’t good, that I needed to go.” In Australia she worked hard settling with her English husband in Wollongong. “I was one of the first Cook Islanders there,” she said, “they all thought I was Turkish.” She worked hard and bought a home.
“I would work from nine to six at the hotel and then from eight to two in the morning packing grapes,” she says, “I love working, my kids just made me retire.” Now, she wants to be buried next to her grandfather who raised her.
“My ashes will return here,” she says.
When the six-week holiday comes to a close, families long separated shed tears for an emotional departure. “I am not ready to go,” said Linga Loumanu, summing up the feelings of most of the tele party.
“Are you Australian or are you Pukapukan?” someone asks one of the sixteen year-old in the tele party. “I’m both!” he confidently replies.
“Goodbye Wale,” screams Blackie Vigo as he teeters into the aluminum boat taking him out to the Lady Naomi and back, for now, to Australia.