The best things in life are often right under our noses

Saturday 28 November 2020 | Written by Katrina Lintonbon | Published in Features, Weekend

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The best things in life are often right under our noses
George Mateariki aka Birdman George is a flora and fauna expert. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20112711

The internet has brought the world closer together. If you want to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York, Google will show you the way in a matter of seconds. However, nothing compares to going to a place for the very first time and feeling, smelling, hearing and tasting everything around you as Katrina Tanirau found out in Nga Pu Toru (Atiu, Mitiaro and Mauke) and Mangaia.

At a time when Covid-19 has severely limited people’s ability to travel, having the opportunity to be one of the first group of passengers to travel to Nga Pu Toru (Atiu, Mitiaro and Mauke) and Mangaia, as part of a plan to boost domestic travel in the Cook Islands, was a dream come true.

Arriving at Rarotonga Airport to check in, the first person I bumped into was Minister of Health and Agriculture and Atiu Enuamanu MP Rose Brown who is waiting in the departure area.

She likes to head back to her home island most weekends, it’s a priority. Her husband Taoro is already in Atiu and will host our group later that evening at a tumunu session.

Due to a medivac from Aitutaki, we are told that we will be leaving a little later than expected so we kick back on the seats with makeshift pillows, while listening to some sweet sounds booming out of the Rowe family’s portable speaker.

Time seems to fly and before we know it, we’re walking across the tarmac and boarding our Air Rarotonga flight.

It has been nearly a year since I’ve been in a plane and even though it’s a cruisy 40-minute flight from Rarotonga to Atiu, being up in the air again, flying over Te Moana Nui a Kiva made my heart happy.

Touching down in Atiu we are greeted by the beautiful smiling faces of our island hosts who place eis around our necks that smell amazing and send my senses into overdrive.

After loading our bags and ourselves onto the back of the electric trucks, we’re off to Atiu Villas.

There really is no better way to travel around than on the back of a ute, wind blowing in your face with the warm sun shining down on you, while taking in all the sights and sounds.

I couldn’t help but wave at everyone we passed mostly because I felt like I was going to explode with excitement.

I’m paired up with French national and all-round cool chick Pauline Belliard.

We step into our little place and marvel at the beauty of the villas Roger and Kura Malcolm have created. 

Before we head off on our cave tour, Caveman Ben offers everyone a walking stick and warns us that we will probably need them.

But with Ben and Papa John from Tahiti both doing this hike in jandals, I think to myself: “how hard can this be?”.

That was a massive misjudgement.

For a start, lugging a camera around that weighed what felt like a million kilograms, proved how unfit I had become.

Every step and heart pounding moment when you reach for the nearest thing to save you from the peril of the makatea below was worth it when we arrive at Anatakitaki Caves – a sacred place where Aituans honour their loved ones who have passed on.

The difficulty in getting there is testament to the fact that this place is special.

This walk through the beautiful bush and makatea of Atiu bonded our group from the get go.

Knowing there was always going to be someone there to encourage you to keep going, to grab your hand or your camera in my case and share their water with you - in a matter of hours, we had become a family.  

“Are we there yet?” almost became our catch phrase, but rising to the challenge I think even impressed our guide Caveman Ben.


Atiu Harbour aka the swimming pool. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20112708

A quick dip in the pool at Atiu Villas is a welcomed relief, as we prepare for our next adventure - a visit to one of Atiu’s tumunu huts.

Tumunu or bush beer gatherings are an intricate part of life on Atiu and have been for centuries.

It’s a time for people to come together, sing and talk, share a brew and kaikai.

We hear the music before we arrive at the hut and are greeted by Taoro Brown and a band of merry men playing catchy tunes as the cup is handed around by the master brewer.

I gave up drinking alcohol six years ago, quite frankly I’d drunk enough in 20 years to last me a lifetime but I didn’t want people to think I was being rude by not partaking in this important tradition, so I made myself look busy by taking photos. 

One thing I couldn’t get out of though was introducing myself. There is a great sense of pride when you can stand up and speak in your native tongue. For me that’s New Zealand Maori.

Just seeing everyone having fun with an awesome bunch of people an hour rolls by in what seems like a second and we are heading back to Atiu Villas for dinner.

On Sunday and with the rain turning from light to heavy, we are hoping that our eco tour with George Mateariki aka Birdman George will go ahead.

You simply can’t go to the land of the birds without seeing and hearing some.

Birdman George lives up to his name and is an Atiu celebrity. He’s won awards for his conservation work on the island and is an expert when it comes to flora and fauna knowledge.

What makes this tour even better is his sense of humour. He’s a hardcase who has us in fits of laughter, not a good thing when you’re trying to find birds renowned for being elusive. 

First stop is the Atiu information centre and library where Birdman George shows us some treasured artefacts including a pair of reef shoes worn by his ancestors.

History tells the stories of Aituans as warriors who won many battles in years gone by.

We go in search of kakaia, kukupa and kopeka and kakerori and at every stop we are asked if we want to try some bush delicacies - what Birdman George calls “famine food”.

He has a special relationship with his “girlfriends”. With his machete in hand, he heads off to do “shopping” for our umu kai.

“If you can’t make your own plate, you can’t eat,” he says. It’s hard to work out whether he’s joking or not.

Of course, the latter is true and we arrive at Atiu Harbour.

While Birdman George and Mareta Atetu make our plates, Aunty Lucy Moody, one of our hosts, takes me for a walk and shows me where the boats used to arrive and depart, before the New Zealand Army helped construct the new port which is also referred to as the Atiu swimming pool.

It was a matter of timing, Aunty Lucy says, if the boats didn’t get that right there was a high possibility that all cargo would be lost.

A beautiful feast awaits us, umu kai (pork and chicken) platters of pawpaw, bananas with shredded coconut and a dash of lime juice to top off a fantastic combo.


On a Sunday afternoon, youngsters head to Atiu Harbour to swim, hang out and listen to great music. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20111614

With awesome music blaring from the speaker of a group of young fullas enjoying their Sunday afternoon, it wraps up what has been a perfect day.

Standing on the verandah of our villa with our bags packed and ready, Pauline and I agree we are sad to be leaving so soon.

But the tour must go on, and after hugs and a group photo at the airport, we’re back in the air on our way to Mitiaro/Nukuroa.

There are mamas at Nukuroa Airport singing to family members who are heading back to Rarotonga.

Cindy and Junior Abraham along with Katreena Smith and Mama Rangi are there to pick us up and take us to our home for the night, named by Cindy on the spot as Divine Retreat.

From the time we arrive at the Abrahams, we are told that we are to treat their place like our own.

I decide to claim one of the spots on the verandah as my bed for the night. Sleeping under the stars with a nice cool breeze is my idea of a good time.  

Mitiaro is an island filled with hidden gems.

Beautiful fresh water caves that from the surface you wouldn’t even know exist.


Vainepoto Tangaroa and Sandee Cook enjoying a dip at Vai Nauri in Mitiaro. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20112736

After some apprehension, a bit of encouragement and a demo on how it’s done by Rangi Kimiora, one by one our group leap off the cliff into the crystal clear water below at Vai Nauri.

Cindy delivers a quick bite to eat and we head to Vai Marere, otherwise known as the Healing Waters. It is said that a dip in these waters can heal any ailment.

Upon our return to Divine Retreat, we are served a beautiful banquet of Mitiaro pork, fish and all the trimmings, lovingly prepared by Cindy with help from Poloa Rowe.

As we sit around the table, one thing is for certain – we are getting to know each other and can freely express ourselves, with bursts of laughter in between.


Hayley Smith is one young entrepreneur in Mitiaro who sells her bread and other products at th3e local market. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20112735

The next morning, we head to Mitiaro School, where we are welcomed with open arms by the children and staff.

Students fill the air with their beautiful melodies and most of us are so overwhelmed by this display of love and talent that we can’t control the tears from running down our faces.

Our hearts are touched by this amazing gesture.

We are privileged to experience a number of “firsts” during our short stay in Mitiaro.

Cindy rounded up some mamas who with a few hours’ notice set up a market. I’m lucky to get my hands on one of Mama Matatu Tetava’s handmade bags that would give any designer handbag a run for its money.

And just like that we are off to Nukuroa Airport, ready for the next leg of our trip.  

Waving goodbye to our hosts and the people of Mitiaro, I take a moment to remind myself of how much I have to be grateful for and how blessed I am to be on this trip with my new family.


Mitiaro mamas bid farewell to loved ones with a song and a wave at Nukuroa Airport. (PHOTO: KATRINA TANIRAU) 20112710

The simplicity of life is often overshadowed by our own selfish desires, but being with people who love with all their hearts and take you in like you’re one of theirs, taught me that the best things in life are often right under our noses.

We just have to activate each one of our senses to feel them.

Check out next Saturday’s Cook Islands News for part two of ‘A trip of a lifetime’.

The writer’s trip to the southern Pa Enua 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.