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A sea of islands?

Friday May 04, 2012 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka

Visiting writer Amelia Borofsky reflects on the challenges of transportation affecting Pukapuka and other isolated islands of

the Cooks.

Polynesians voyage.

From vakas to boats to planes, travel runs in the blood. Using indigenous way finding methods, Polynesians navigated by stars and currents.

As Samoan poet Epeli Hau’ofa wrote, ‘the Pacific is a sea of islands’ which connects rather than divides Pacific peoples. Today, sadly, the Pacific seems to divide rather than unite Cook Islanders.

The Northern Group, and Pukapuka in particular, has to be one of the hardest places in the world to get to. No local transport option exists. The only option is the Kwai cargo-sailing vessel, which sails from Hawaii twice a year and often faces two-month delays.

The airplane only flies to Pukapuka on government charters for $1700 one-way. Even with such astronomical fares, a spare seat is hard to find. Nassau, only 80 km away, has no transport options at all.

Recently, hopes ran high in the Northern Group for a regular shipping link with Samoa. The ship, however, faced a disaster of delays, added cost, unfulfilled orders, and export coconuts left on the beach.

There is no sea of islands.

Lack of reliable regular transport affects all aspects of life in Pukapuka. On the one hand, it means that Pukapuka retains its customs, culture, community, peace and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, it means that families remain divided, people get stuck in Rarotonga with no money, health and education suffer, goods from toothbrushes to flour never arrive and exports never leave.

People learn to wait and wait and wait. Families get buried away from wale (home). The voyaging spirit is curtailed. It means that Pukapuka and Nassau, for better and for worse, remain one of the most isolated atolls in the world.

When I ask Pio Lavalau chairman of the Kau Wowolo (Aronga Mana) about the main problems facing Pukapuka, he replies “health, education and transportation. And transportation affects everything.”

Health supplies do not always arrive, blood samples and testing cannot be sent to Rarotonga, pregnant women wait for months for transport, and doctors are reluctant to serve in Pukapuka.

In terms of education, students must leave to complete high school in Rarotonga and don’t see their families again for years. Teachers cannot easily travel for refresher courses teachers and many supplies never reach the school.

In terms of maintaining population, many Pukapukans in New Zealand and Australia say that lack of regular transport keeps them from living again on the atoll.

I ask if regular transport would in some ways ruin the uniqueness of Pukapuka. “It just has to be carefully managed,” says Pio Lavalua, “some people would leave, but many would return. Families would be reunited.”

Iako Chico Timoti left Pukapuka when he was one. As a pilot for United Airlines he continues to voyage. “I would love to go back,” he says “but you can’t just go for a short time. And then you’ll be stuck.” Like many Pukapukans, Iako has not seen again the atoll of his birth.

Many Pukapukans have never seen the atoll at all.

When asked for solutions, people have them. One solution is for the Northern group to collectively pool resources and have their own boat. Another is to establish a regular private shipping link with Samoa. Another is for the government to save on the cost of chartering for Te Maeva Nui and buy a boat. If the government invested in subsidizing regular transportation for the Northern Group, it would allow for exports, greater self-sufficiency and connection.

The Cook Islands would again be a sea of islands.

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