A kaoa used for farming Manihiki’s famous black pearls. (PHOTO: COOK ISLANDS TOURISM) 21041618
Those who’ve had a chance to visit Manihiki begin dreaming about returning as soon as they leave. But for Manihikians who leave their island home for opportunities abroad, returning is sometimes an obligation.
Trainee Samson was undeterred by the devastating
cyclone that wiped out his village of Tukao in Manihiki.
Shortly after Cyclone Martin – a catastrophic storm
that killed 19 people in 1997 and flattened much of the island with waves
higher than coconut trees – he had a dream where he was conversing with God.
In his dream, he was told by the Almighty that
destruction can and will strike anywhere. There was no reason to fear his
island any more than the other corners of the earth.
So despite the carnage and trauma caused by the storm,
And over the course of about 25 years, Samson has become a prominent community leader in many aspects of Manihikian life, as well as a host to some of the few travellers who have the chance to visit this remote and beautiful outpost of human civilisation
Trainee Samson, born and bred in Manihiki. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 21041614
In 2021, Manihiki remains a remote and isolated atoll
in the South Pacific. Getting there from Rarotonga requires about four hours of
flight time aboard a small turboprop aircraft – but less than that if you’re
lucky to travel on Air Rarotonga’s 8-seat jet.
The flight schedule is patchy at best, even without a
pandemic raging in the outside world.
For travellers looking for isolation and beauty,
Manihiki – informally known as the Islands of Pearls – should rank at the top
of any travel bucket list.
And beginning late last year in a push to promote domestic travel, local company Turama Pacific Travel began offering a guided five-day tour to the islands of Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Penrhyn. On one of those tours, Cook Islands News was offered a seat, giving this writer the opportunity of a lifetime.
Just over 1200 kilometres away from Rarotonga, Manihiki
lies at the far north of the Cook Islands. Most of its land is only several
metres above sea level and land is scarce for agriculture, but fish and marine
life are abundant.
It is the island’s lagoon that often leaves visitors
in awe. Dotted with 25 small coral heads, many of them have been used to erect
small structures known as kaoa, which are used to cultivate the renowned black
pearls Manihiki is famous for.
I sat for a chat with 60-year-old Samson at his small
pearl cultivating laboratory on an overcast morning, and the absence of
sunshine failed to dim the glow of the lagoon.
Sitting on two plastic chairs a few metres from the
water, he told me his story.
He was born in 1960 in the village of Tukao, and in
his late teens he had landed a job as an officer with Cook Islands Police in
Rarotonga before heading to the bright lights of Aotearoa.
“I liked the life in New Zealand. I was single at the
time, staying with my girlfriend. Our life was good. I was young, I was fit,”
“But the reason I came back was because of my father.
He was about to pass away and he asked me to come back. He rung me up, and he
wanted me to come up to show us our land, and what was here for us.”
So after eight years in New Zealand, working day and
night, he packed his bags and headed home. But it was meant to be a temporary
visit before heading back south.
Upon arriving, his ailing father had a message. “My
father told me ‘You have to bury me before you leave, but part of your
responsibility is to look after the land, the family’.”
“After arriving, I changed my mind. I said, I’d rather stay here.
As visitors easily lured by the charms of a tropical
paradise, Samson’s decision was an obvious one.
Our small group of travellers had two days and two
nights to marvel in what Manihiki has to offer.
In between bouts of eating fresh fish, kuru
(breadfruit) chips, poke, paua curry, and seafood cooked on a wood fire, we
spent much of our time exploring the land, swimming, and snorkelling in warm
It’s a slow rhythm of life that caters to a particular
type of traveller who doesn’t need hype, and it’s easy to get lured in.
By 1988, Samson had started farming black pearls. The
industry was booming, bringing in millions to a small island in a region where
economic development is a perpetual challenge.
Less than a decade later, disaster struck with Cyclone
“I thought my house was going to fall down, but in the
morning it was still standing. All the houses next door had fallen down,” he
says. “It was a big wave.”
Luckily, his father by this time was in New Zealand on
a medical referral, but with much of Manihiki in ruins, Samson and his family
fled to Rarotonga. That was when he had his dream.
“I rang my Mrs, I changed my mind, I told her we’ll all
be going back to Manihiki,” he says.
With the help of a bank loan, Samson began to rebuild.
He bought a generator, some petrol, a boat motor, material to rebuild his pearl
farm, and headed back north.
Since having that dream and making the fateful decision
to return, he has thrived in the land of his birth.
In 2002, he was ordained as a pastor with the Cook
Islands Christian Church, followed by his investiture as an Ariki of Tukao in
In 2019, he received a Justice of the Peace warrant,
and last year he was voted in as a member of the island council for his
“These were the four things that God awarded me with. It was part of my calling to come back,” he says.
During our stay, members of our travel group took a
motorboat to a kaoa to spend a sunny afternoon eating and swimming.
I struck up a conversation with Haumata Tepania, a
resident of Tauhunu village, as she was preparing paua for our lunch. As the
mother of three daughters, she told me her eldest was currently in Rarotonga
Curious, I asked her what her long-term career plans
“I explained to her, go to school, study hard, get a
good career,” she said. “Then come back and serve the people. That’s all I want
from her. Think about the future.”
Haumata Tepania and her youngest daughter, Hina Pae. (PHOTO: COOK ISLANDS TOURISM) 21041616
Later that day, I checked into a small guesthouse in
Tukao that Samson operates with his wife. It consists of two humble rooms above
his black pearl cultivating laboratory, with a million dollar view overlooking
beautiful Tukao bay.
Because of its isolation, tourism in Manihiki is
largely underdeveloped and accommodation is scarce.
But there are plans to seal the airport’s crushed
coral runway, which would allow larger aircraft to land and potentially
And there are also plans to turn underused kaoa into
mini-holiday home escapes. If that vision comes to fruition, it will be hard to
find a more unique and exclusive homestay experience anywhere in the world.
But whatever may happen in the future, the people of Manihiki – devoted and committed to their atoll – will be ready to welcome visitors to their majestic island.
JournalistEmmanuel Samoglou's trip to Manihiki was sponsored by Cook Islands Tourism Corporation and Island Hopper Vacations as part of an initiative to promote domestic travel experiences in the outer islands.