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Saturday 6 August 2022 | Written by Caleb Fotheringham | Published in Features, Weekend


Blue lagoons for the Middle East
Australian High Commissioner to Cook Islands, Dr Chris Watkins and his partner Penny Witt with staff and students of Manihiki’s Ruamanu School in 2020. Photo: SUPPLIED/20121427

Cook Islands’ first Australian High Commissioner is trading blue lagoons and warm weather for the extreme temperatures of the Middle East.

Dr Christopher Watkins landed in the Cook Islands at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. Borders were shutting globally and his first challenge was to get hundreds of Australian tourists back home.

Watkins says he and his wife Penelope Witt felt lucky to have made it into the Cook Islands then.

“We had colleagues who were sent to other new diplomatic posts in the Pacific and were meant to leave two weeks later (than us) and did not get to those posts for eight months,” shares the departing High Commissioner.

“We felt very lucky that we got to Rarotonga in time, to be here through the hard times, and that’s important for a friendship between countries – that we’re on the ground listening and talking not just when things are good but when times are tough.”

Now Watkins’ time in the Cook Islands is coming to an end as he prepares to become the deputy Ambassador to Iran. He flies back to Australia on Sunday and will spend the rest of the year learning Iran’s native language Farsi (Persian).

“You couldn’t ask for a greater contrast than the Cook Islands, it’s (Iran) a country of tens of millions of people, we will be in an inland city that has snow in the winter.

“We’re very excited but I think we’re getting our heads around what a huge contrast that will be.

“When we take off on Sunday and look out at the lagoon for the last time and possibly see whales because I know they’ve been out and about, we’re going to be very sad to be leaving.”

Watkins says his family had an “extraordinary adventure” while living in the Cook Islands.

“We’ve travelled the Pa Enua, we’ve met many hundreds of really interesting people. We’ve learnt about Polynesian culture, it’s been an extraordinary privilege.

“We didn’t know much about the Cook Islands before we came, we had a quick look at Google and decided it was a good idea to apply for this job and we were right.”

Being the first Australian High Commissioner to the Cook Islands was a privilege, he says.

“Any Australian diplomat sent to the Pacific feels the responsibility to do a really good job because it is our neighbourhood.

“What happens here matters enormously to Australia and we’ve discovered as we’ve explored the country the links to Australia were already there.”

Watkins says people from all the islands had connections to Australia.

For personal highlights, Watkins says it was all about the people he met. He has fond memories of conversations after church in the Pa Enua, bumping into people at the markets and waiting in line for croissants on Sunday morning.

Cook Islands is also the place where departing Australian High Commissioner Dr Chris Watkins and his wife Penelope (Penny) Witt had their first child. Photo: AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION/22080551

“It’s a really warm culture here and a very welcoming culture.”

Cook Islands is also the place where Watkins and his wife had their first child.

“It’s a lovely community to have a kid in because there’s always a pair of hands ready to pick her up.

“Everyone we meet asks after her, she thinks she’s a Cook Islander. Of course, she will be very upset to learn she’s from Canberra which is much colder and she doesn’t get to swim in the lagoon every weekend. She thinks she has land rights somewhere.”

As for professional highlights, Watkins says his job was to set the foundation and a lot of what was being worked on would come to fruition in the future.

But a notable event was the arrival of Te Kukupa II from Australia last month.

“The arrival of the patrol boat was great fun and that’s down to the work of many other people over many years of course, it’s not me. I was lucky enough to be here when it was handed over in Perth and when it arrived here in Rarotonga.

“We have learnt the Te Kukupa is not just a functional vessel but an emotional symbol. Everyone has got a story about Te Kukupa, the old one and now the new, and policing is only one part of what it does.

“I loved that it was involved in the rollout of the vaccines to the outer islands and that the new boat was to deliver ballots to the outer islands.”

Watkins says his family is going to be emotional to leave the Cook Islands but that they’re ready.

“We’re packed, we’re proud of what we’ve done and at some point you’ve got to drop the mic and head off the stage.”

Australian High Commissioner Dr Chris Watkins enjoys local delicacy during one of his Pa Enua visits. Photo: AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION/22080553