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The day ‘the Don’ and ‘Phar Lap’ visited Rarotonga

Saturday 12 December 2020 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Memory Lane


The day ‘the Don’ and ‘Phar Lap’ visited Rarotonga
Phar Lap is one of Australia's most loved race horses (AP)

Zane Grey “the father of the American cowboy novel’ was one of the many celebrities who visited Rarotonga on the Union Steamship Company’s trans-Pacific liner service. Others included the English novelist D.H. Lawrence, the composer Percy Grainger, several All Blacks squads, the Australian cricket legend Don Bradman, the actor Peter Lawford, the 1932 New Zealand Olympic Team, and the great New Zealand-born Australian racehorse Phar Lap.

In October 1910, the Union shipping company commenced a monthly direct passenger and Royal Mail service from Wellington to San Francisco via Rarotonga and Tahiti.  In December, 1911, Sydney was added to the schedule. And so from 1910 Rarotonga became a trans-Pacific port of call, with a north and south bound ocean liner visiting Avarua every 28 days.

As one liner headed north for San Francisco, another headed south for Wellington and Sydney with both liners passing each other somewhere between Rarotonga and Papeete.

“A day out from Papeete, we saw steamship smoke on the horizon. It grew into the funnel of a ship, then the hull, and at last the bulk of the sister ship of the Makura, the Tahiti. She passed us perhaps five miles away, a noble sight, as especially fascinating because she was the only travelling craft on our horizon, throughout the voyage.”

These words were written by the American author Zane Grey (1872-1939), the father of the American Western novel, en route to Rarotonga and Wellington in 1926. Rarotongan movie-goers of the era would have known Zane Grey for more than a hundred cowboy movies including The Lone Star Ranger, made from his novels and screenplays.  

Typically, passengers on the Union liners disembarked at Avarua for a stopover while lighters and crews handled incoming and outgoing cargo and mails. The stop-over might last between half a day and several days if bad weather interrupted loading. 

On disembarking, passengers could wander through the streets of Avarua, seek refreshment at the “Whare Manuiri” (today’s “Banana Court”) or take a tour of the island by car.

“We drove around the island,” wrote Zane Grey, “a matter of twenty miles more or less. ….” As his car passed – “Children ran from every quarter to meet us, decorated with wreaths and crowns of flowers and waving great bunches of the glorious bloom. They were bright-eyed merry children, sincere in their welcome to the visitors ... The air was warm, fragrant, languorous. It seemed to come from eternal summer. Everywhere sounded the wash of the surf on the reef.”

Not all writers were so enthusiastic. The famous English novelist David Herbert Lawrence, best known for his novels Sons and LoversThe RainbowWomen in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover, arrived in Rarotonga on August 20, 1922 on board RMS Tahiti having briefly visited Wellington - that “cold, snobbish, lower middle-class colony of pretentious nobodies.”  

From the Avarua post office, Lawrence despatched postcards to highly placed friends in England including a postcard of Takuvaine to Lady Cynthia Asquith, wife of the former British Prime Minister and a card depicting Arorangi to his sister Ada Clarke– “Such a lovely island … it’s really almost as lovely  as one expects these South Seas Islands to be ….”

But by the time Lawrence reached Tahiti, he’d decided paradise was better lost than found.

In a letter to Mary Cannan (former wife of the creator of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie)  he wrote – “We were a day at Rarotonga and two days at Tahiti; very pretty to look at but I didn’t want to stay, not one bit…. I never want to stay in the tropics. There is a sickliness about them, smell of cocoanut-oil and sort of palm tree, reptile nausea. But lovely flowers, especially Rarotonga. They are supposed to be earthly paradises: these South Seas Isles. You can have ‘em.”

In May 1924, the down steamer brought the pianist and composer Percy Grainger. Grainger had come in hopes of hearing Cook Islands singing that he’d first encountered on a phonograph record in 1907. He described Cook Islands music as “The most beautiful music I have even, heard, either complex or simple ... I am a great admirer of Bach, Wagner, Delius, Scriabin, and several others responsible for the complex music of the world, and yet I say that the singing of the Rarotonga natives appealed to me, and to several other composers more than anything we had ever heard.”

“Hoping against hope that I might hear some of the native music …  I went to a dance in which the natives danced with themselves and with the sailors and stewards from our boat. No native music but quite jolly playing of accordions, guitars and ukuleles … vey musical and rhythmic. I live in hopes of later trips to Rarotonga and of completing my study of its unique music.” He never returned but remained an enthusiast of Cook Islands music for the rest of his life.

As well as novelists and musicians, the passenger liners brought sportsmen. On September 17, 1913, the Willochra brought the All Blacks rugby squad en route to San Francisco for a North American tour. At the time, rugby was of equal popularity in the USA to American football. The squad, to their distress, were unable to land because of an outbreak of smallpox in New Zealand. “How tantalising it was to have the island, with its wealth of tropical vegetation, spread out before us, and yet be unable to set foot on its shores. …. (W)hen one sees its luxuriance of vegetation, extending from the seashore to the topmost point of its highest peak, one cannot but wonder if there is anything in the Southern seas to compare with it.” (Dominion, 10 October, 1913).

In 1925 another All Blacks team arrived, this time the famous Invincibles led by Cliff Porter and including the legendary fullback George Nepia, “New Zealand first rugby superstar”.

Between September 1924 and February 1925, the Invincibles played 32 games in Europe including four test matches, against Ireland, England, Wales, and France - winning all 32 games.

On their return voyage, they called in at Rarotonga on March 9, 1925.  Thirty-six of the team came ashore for a welcome programme that included dinner and a dance in the evening and a tour of the island next morning, stopping for lunch and a swim in Titikeveka before attending an exhibition of island dancing at Taputapuatea. Sudden squally weather forced their ship, RMS Tahiti to put to sea with the squad remaining ashore a second night.

Next day, with the weather still bad, and the Tahiti standing off Ngatangiia ready to receive them, “a lifeboat belonging to the Cook Islands Department was transported by lorry to the eastern end of the island, and with the marooned passengers aboard, set out from the lagoon through the only practicable opening in the surf in that locality, thus reaching the ship safely”. (Poverty Bay Herald, 14 March 1925).

On June 18, 1932, the Monowai brought the New Zealand Olympic team en route to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Ten, flower bedecked, motor cars took the team off to swim in Titikaveka, then to a reception hosted by Makea Ariki at Taputapuatea, with around 1000 Rarotongans joining the visitors for lunch. This was followed by an Olympic boxing exhibition at the Royal Hall with some local lads as ring opponents. The local boys were defeated in quick succession “to the immense delight of the spectators. During the matches it was impossible to hear oneself speak owing to the excited cheering.” Later, New Zealand’s first Olympic cyclist Ron Foubister, gave an exhibition of pedalling on rollers. The young locals were “so impressed that next morning, although their bicycles were equipped with high handle bars, they all rode (around town) bending down like professional racing cyclists” (Evening Star, 28 June 1932).

On September 12, 1932 the Monowai arrived with the legendary Australian cricketer Don Bradman and his players returning from a tour of Canada and the USA. The former New Zealand Prime Minister Gordon Coates was also on board, returning from the Ottawa Economic Conference, as were the New Zealand Olympians returning from Los Angeles.

With so many visitors, Rarotonga was ready to party. Lunch was provided at Taputapuatea, after which a large crowd adjourned to the lawns of Takamoa where Chuck Fleetwood-Smith – the “wayward genius” of Australian cricket - demonstrated the techniques of ball spinning. Chuck was famous as a slow bowler who could spin a ball harder and further than any of his contemporaries.  Chuck bowled to Don Bradman, modestly described by the cricketer’s ‘bible’ - Wisden’s Almanack - as “without any question, the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all ball games.” Bradman did not disappoint, hitting several balls out of the park at Takamoa to great ovation from the locals. Later, the Right Honourable Mr. Coates kicked off a football match between the New Zealand Olympic team and barefoot locals. The New Zealanders won 9 to 5.

In November, 1932 the Hollywood actor Peter Lawford, then a juvenile star, visited Rarotonga on the Monowai. He and his family had spent six weeks in Tahiti but considered it “morally unsuitable” to stay any longer. In contrast, “We enjoyed our short stay at Rarotonga,” said his mother Lady Lawford. “It was a Tahiti cleaned-up” (Waikato Times, 18 November 1932). Peter Lawford subsequently became brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy and a member of the morally dubious “Rat Pack” with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. His time in Tahiti was perhaps not wasted.

One of Rarotonga’s most distinguished visitors was the great New Zealand racehorse, Phar Lap, who captured the hearts of Australians during the Great Depression. Phar Lap stopped at Rarotonga on board the Monowai en route to race meetings in North America on January 2, 1932. The horse was famous for having won 37 races from 51 starts including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, usually by several lengths at a spectacular half-paced speed. He had survived an assassination attempt intended to prevent him racing in the Melbourne Cup when gunshots were fired from a nearby car. Sadly, this voyage via Rarotonga would be his last. Four months later, on April 5, 1932, Phar Lap collapsed and died in San Francisco from a single large dose of arsenic, fueling the belief he had been killed by gangsters from a betting-syndicate.

There is confusion over whether Phar Lap actually came ashore at Rarotonga. Some newspapers claimed he remained on board the Monowai while others including the Sydney Morning Herald reported (6 January, 1932) the horse “had been taken off the ship for a work-out.” In any case, we have the word of the horse’s companion Tom Woodcock - “The stay at Raratongo I'll never forget. The (locals) soon heard that there was a big horse aboard. They are used to seeing only small Shetland types, (in fact, Chilean ponies) and Phar Lap caused great excitement among them. In droves they were climbing up all round the box to get a look at the horse, who became excited at the attention being paid him. I did not know the ‘lingo’ that would make the natives desist, so I got a stick and rapped all their fingers as they pulled themselves up to get a look. The passengers thought it fine fun, but I took a more serious view of a high-priced thoroughbred going cranky in a limited space.” (Daily Telegraph, 9 October, 1936).

Phar Lap’s death gripped the world. Apparently affection for the horse, known locally as Pārāpu, had gone “very deeply into the hearts of the people of Rarotonga” not least prisoners at Rarotonga jail who decorated their cells with photos of the famous racehorse (PIM 19 May, 1932; Evening Star, 3 June, 1932). And for a while, in Rarotonga, the nick-name ‘Pārāpu’ became synonymous with those who loved an occasional flutter on the horses.