The unforgettable serenity of the north

Saturday 26 December 2020 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, Weekend


The unforgettable serenity of the north
A woman preparing paua on a kaoa in Manihiki. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122420

During a trip to the Northern Cook Islands, journalist Emmanuel Samoglou saw places of incredible beauty but facing isolation, a lack of resources, and economic hardship. Yet at the same time, he met residents who often described a freedom that comes from choosing to live life on modest terms. In this second of a two-part series, he moves on from Pukapuka to visit Manihiki and Penrhyn atolls of the Northern Cook Islands.

People tell me certain things about places that I never, ever forget.

These quaint anecdotes will go on to define these places for me, entering my subconscious, and become part of a legend that fuels a desire to visit and experience them first-hand.

Having grown up in Istanbul, my mother would often tell me stories about the former Byzantine Church of Hagia Sophia with its awe-inspiring dome, widely regarded as one of humanity’s greatest architectural feats.

Years later, with those words echoing through my head, I visited the 6th century structure. I sat against a pillar, looked up at that dome and the fresco of the Virgin and Child, and lost myself for hours.

In a similar vein, I had a similar experience with my recent trip to Manihiki – the second stop on our trip to the northern atolls of the Cook Islands.

“I’ll never forget those colours,” a former journalism colleague told me years ago, reminiscing on her visit and describing what she felt after laying her eyes on its infamous lagoon.

I was thinking about that conversation as our plane left Pukapuka towards ‘the island of pearls’.

As we began our decent, our pilots signalled the island was visible on the right-hand side of the plane. I looked out the window and there they were – those colours, as vivid as the ones I had conjured up in my imagination.

Upon exiting the plane though, I was immediately reminded that this island, brilliant in beauty, had a recent history fraught with devastation – both natural and human-induced.

The stunning colours of Manihiki’s lagoon. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122416

On the 1st of November in 1997, the island was struck by Cyclone Martin, described as the worst natural disaster in the nation’s recorded history.

Only a few metres above sea level like the other atolls of the north, the cyclone generated waves taller than coconut trees, flattening the villages of Tauhunu and Tukao and taking 19 lives. Hundreds were evacuated in the aftermath, never to return.

Here I was, on this remote paradise on a humid Tuesday, looking up at the carcass of what was once a beautiful home, but now in disrepair after being pounded relentlessly by the elements and the hostile, salty, environment of an atoll. Even in its current condition, I saw potential.

“How much could I rent a place like this for?” I asked our guide, Kora Kora, after peeking through a break in the coconut trees and catching a glimpse of the lagoon.

He would know. He is a native of the island, a Cyclone Martin survivor, a former mayor, pearl farmer, and for the next two days, he would be showing us the marvels of this place.

“This?” he asked me to gauge my seriousness. “Let me show you around.”

We walked to a small harbour on the lagoon side, loaded our belongings onto a small boat, and headed towards our homestay in Tauhunu, taking notice of the schools of fish in the crystal-clear water.

After a lunch of fried fish, kuru chips, and ripe pawpaw prepared by our friendly neighbour Haumata, we descended to the beach for a long-awaited swim, but a sudden downpour changed our minds.

Instead, we opted to explore Tauhunu village and conserve our energy for an exciting evening beyond the reef catching maroro (flying fish).

On this moonless night, we walked to the wharf and took our seats in the middle of the small aluminium boat. The designated fisherman, positioned on the bow, then put on a motorcycle helmet rigged with a large lamp on top and connected to a large battery.

The outboard was powered and we set off, flicking on the lamp on the fisherman’s helmet, with the lights of the harbour off in the distance.

And so it began.

The maroro began taking flight, whipped into a frenzy at the sight of the lamp’s light. I closed my fists and held them close to my chest in a fighter pose, ready to guard my head from getting smacked by one of the fish.

My travel companion wasn’t so lucky, he got bopped in the side of the head, but it could have been worse – we were told of a traveller who got a black eye from one of the soaring fish.

“Whatever you do, don’t put your hands in the water,” we were warned.

With the fish skimming on the water’s surface and flying about, I looked over the gunwale and saw the beautiful figure of a black tip reef shark, followed by another one. And then another one.

As I looked up and watched the lead fisherman using his net to scoop the fish into the boat, I couldn’t think of a better way to pass the time on a humid summer evening.

With a basket full of fish and the smell of the sea all around us, we headed back to the harbour to watch a scene of island life unfold before us: the unloading of cargo from the long-awaited ship, and her disembarking passengers, greeted on the wharf by loved ones with eis and affections.

Under darkness, we watched all kinds of cargo being unloaded from the cargo ship via crane onto a smaller aluminium vessel just outside the reef, then raised with a digger from the smaller boat onto the wharf. Boxes and parcels of all sizes were being loaded onto waiting trucks and watermelons were piled on the wharf.

Exhausted from a busy day, we walked to our accommodation with our host, Lawrencia William, who had just arrived on the boat from Rarotonga and despite the multi-day journey, was full of energy.

“Let’s go for a swim,” she suggested to our little group. I politely declined, as my bed on the veranda was beckoning. But after some more persuasion, I couldn’t refuse the opportunity.

Lit up by a nearby street lamp, the lagoon still glowed, the water was warm, and the company was lovely. I floated in the water listening to my new friends exchange stories about the recent Cook Islands Games, and the role they played in boosting people’s morale during the pandemic.

I went to sleep with a deep fatigue that comes with invigorating travel and a satisfying late-night swim.

The following morning, we woke to a warm sun breaking periodically through the clouds, making the lagoon glow with the same colours I first saw as the plane was landing and making the water as inviting as ever.

A boat filled with my fellow travellers, Kora, a few friendly Manihikians, and a stock of provisions, picked us up from the harbour before setting off to explore the Kaoas, or pearl farms, of Manihiki.

Built atop patches of coral scattered throughout the lagoon, these little houses and pearl cultivation laboratories are monuments to a once-thriving, million dollar industry, but had fallen victim to mismanagement and international competition. 

We arrived at our first Kaoa, and at first glance, it appeared as if it was in the process of being expropriated by seabirds. But on closer inspection, there were signs that the place was indeed a centre of industry – pearl farming equipment stacked about, a stock of food, and a double burner with a silver kettle on top.

Thomas Kora, son of guide Kora Kora, giving a lesson in pearl cultivation. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122419

Moving along, we approached another raised patch of coral. A few of us put on our snorkel gear and set off to explore.

Paua everywhere. Lunch, sorted.

Back in the boat, we headed off to our main destination; the William family Kaoa, for an immersive experience of life on a pearl farm.

Established by the late Tekake William and one of the pioneers of the Manihikian pearl industry – the Kaoa sits on a large patch of coral, providing space for several buildings and a number of palm trees. Walking alongside piles of mother of pearl shell, it was surrounded by shallow water where one can see all kind of fish, including sharks.

After we settled in, each of us travellers were given an opportunity to extract black pearls from the shell – a process I likened to open heart surgery, requiring a delicate touch and steady hands. We snacked on raw paua as we watched each other take turns.

An outdoor wood-fired barbeque was lit to get lunch ready: more paua, the previous day’s maroro catch, wahoo steaks, coconut crabs caught by Haumata and her daughters Nga and Hina Pae, tuna sashimi, and all kinds of poke.

We passed the day swimming and eating, dazzled by the colours of the water and sky. With no concept of time, thinking we had only just arrived, the time had come to head to our accommodation for our second and final night in Tukao village.

We were dropped off on the jetty at Trainee Samson’s guest house late afternoon. We carried our bags up a flight of stairs to two bedrooms above a pearl cultivating laboratory, only a few metres away from the clear turquoise waters of the lagoon.

The writer’s accommodation in Tukao village. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122421

And the moment finally came. These were the colours that, like my colleague, I also will never forget.

We dove into the warm water immediately, watching a group of children leap joyfully from a pier, and later participating in swimming races together. It was some of the most calm, inviting, water I have ever swam in. The legend of Tukau bay, realised and seen first-hand, was now firmly implanted in my head forever.

On cue, three friendly gentlemen showed up and offered me a can of cold beer, which I indulged in as I soaked in that serene setting, which seemed to me, as a traveller who’s ignorant of any day-to-day hardship, a most perfect setting.

If Manihiki is an island that has made and lost its riches amidst disasters, Tongareva and her people appeared to me to be in the process of laying the foundations for a prosperous future, confident in the island’s endowments and her people.

What stands out from my visit to this island, also known is Penrhyn, is feeding sharks by hand, and hunting for varo.

Varo is the elusive mantis shrimp - a large carnivorous crustacean the size of a toddler’s forearm that spends much of its life burrowed in holes in the sandy shallows of the lagoon. Not much is known about these creatures, which have powerful appendages that are used to spear, stun, and dismember their prey.

The day before, we had landed on this unique atoll with a lagoon so large one can barely see land on the other side. With an area of 233 square kilometres, it is said that the entire island of Rarotonga can fit inside Penrhyn’s lagoon.

Exiting the airport, the wind was blowing and the sun was radiating an arresting heat, lending an austere feeling to this island with such unique geography.

We arrived at our guesthouse, owned by David and Hina Tonitara, and immediately dug into a massive platter of sliced raw tuna.

David and Hina Tonitara of Penrhyn. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122418

Hindered by the windy weather, our afternoon was spent touring the village of Omoka and visiting the sites of some upcoming large-scale infrastructure projects.

To boost the local economy, Island government officials are looking at tar sealing the airport runway, which will allow planes that can carry a greater number of passengers to land and decrease the current prohibitively-priced airfares. 

There are also plans to extend Omoka’s wharf, which will allow larger boats to dock within the safety of the massive lagoon, as well as a currently underway cyclone shelter construction project that’s expected to generate jobs for locals.

While those projects are part of a longer-term plan for economic development, we moved on to see one of the island’s current industries: the hand-weaving of hats and other crafts using rito, which are the inner leaves of the coconut palm.

To produce these products, the leaves are first torn and boiled to soften them and make them more workable, and are also sometimes dyed bright colours.

A hand woven hat – considered by many to be a work of art - can take a few days to make and each one fetches a couple hundred dollars, injecting valuable money into the local economy.

One of Penrhyn’s famed hand-woven hats, designed by Sakirere Tonitara. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122422

Our day wound down with a visit to see the remnants of a crashed American B-17 bomber – a relic from the island’s past when it’s large and deep lagoon was used by the US navy during the second world war.

The following day, our final of our memorable Northern Group tour, was spent feeding and observing sharks in Omoka’s harbour before kicking back at our guest house.

It was a relaxed way to conclude an eventful trip to this remote corner of the Cook Islands, processing our thoughts, and wading in the glowing lagoon, lit brilliantly by the intense sunshine.

With time to spare before flying back to Raro, Kora began building a device we hoped would lure a varo from its hole.

Using Kikau, string, fish hooks, and goatfish as bait, we searched for holes where we hoped to find one. Upon finding one, I lowered the bait. No bites, but no worries. The enjoyment was in the task and not in the potential reward.

Kora knew it was there though, and taking a turn, he felt it prodding the bait. Still, no takers.

“Kora told me he’s never seen a hole that big,” our host Hina Tonitara told me. “He’s marked it, so when he comes back next week, he can get it. He can feel it down there.”

Feeding tawny nurse and blacktip reef sharks in Omoka harbor. Sharks are abundant in the island’s massive lagoon. (PHOTO: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU) 20122417

Like other residents I met during the trip, Tonitara easily expressed a forbearance that life up north demands. Ships don’t sail with regularity and are often delayed. Airfares are expensive, and that’s on the rare occasion a plane is chartered to make a trip.

I asked her why Penrhyn people were so highly regarded for their weaving skills, believing I already had the answer.

“We have different ways of making things here. It takes a lot patience.”

With our departure imminent, we set off by foot for the airport, freshly adorned with lustrous shell necklaces given to us as gifts by our hosts in the north.

Like so many others, I had wanted to visit this unique part of the world from the moment I had learned about it. I listened intently to the stories of the people who were born and had lived up there. People who had survived devastating Cyclone Martin, and others who had the opportunity to visit for work purposes.

Somehow this opportunity arose for me in the midst of a global pandemic, and that thought kept repeating itself in my head during this trip.

This week, Kora sent me a photo. With a grin as bright as the sun, in the photo he’s holding a large varo that he pulled out of that same hole.

As 2020 comes to a close, I wonder, what does the future hold for the northern atolls of the Cook Islands?

Kora Kora, with the elusive varo. (PHOTO: KORA KORA) 20122423

  • Next month, CI News will continue its coverage of the Pa Enua, beginning with journalist Emmanuel Samoglou’s in-depth look at the Northern Group, and what makes the islands of Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Penrhyn unique. His travels were sponsored by Cook Islands Tourism Corporation and Island Hopper Vacations as part of an initiative to promote domestic travel experiences in the outer islands.