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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.