When former Cook Islands News editor Jonathan Milne and his family visit Atiu Villas, the story-telling rambles late into the night, and beyond.
Dinner in the airy ‘are is finished. Ika mata, chicken, a
distinct Atiu take on rukau, green salads, papaya with coconut and bananas and
But still Roger Malcolm sits there at the table, a glass of
wine by his hand as he peers seriously through his glasses. The 75-year-old is
discussing rocket propulsion, modes of crossing the English Channel, and the
origins of the first vaccines with our oldest son, 10-year-old Monty, as the
younger boys play nearby in the dark, amid the luxuriant bushes and flowers.
It was in 1796 that Edward Jenner, a country doctor living
in Berkeley in England, took fluid from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand,
and successfully inoculated a village child against smallpox.
Nearly 225 years later, world scientists’ pursuit of a
Covid-19 vaccine is the subject of after-dinner conversation on a Pacific
island almost as far removed as can be from the pandemic circling the globe.
No place on earth is untouched by Covid. But the way it
affects Atiu is different from how the virus infects most of the world. It’s
different even from the economic impact on the tourism-based economies of
Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
Atiu Villas, built by Kura and Roger Malcolm on her family
land, is the only real tourist accommodation provider on Atiu. Then there are a
small number of tour operators: Birdman George Mateariki, Caveman Ben Isaia,
Mata Arai’s famous coffee tours, Joshua Jim and his partner Daisy Maui
Matakino’s cultural tour, and Lucy and April’s breakfast with the whales ...
For most of the islanders, though, tourism has never been
more than a side business. There is still the taro, the vegetables and the
fruit. There is still the fishing. There is still the building. In a community
of fewer than 400 where many working age adults have left for Rarotonga or New
Zealand, there are still the children to be nurtured and educated.
Kura and Roger’s children have long since grown up and left
the island. One is an accountant; the other a bio-engineer. But for their
parents at home on Atiu, there is much that continues unchanged and unspoiled.
This island, where the waves broach the reef and dash against
the makatea cliffs, is very different from the low-lying atolls of the north,
and even from sandy-beached Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Here the villages sit in a
tight cluster high atop the island, their roads radiating out from the church
at the centre of the island.
Teatukura Takaiti was born 76 years ago in the village of
Teenui. Although her mother was a Mokoroa, she was fostered by her aunt Rima
and uncle Takaiti and lived with her foster parents most of the time. She went
back and forth between the two households.
Atiu Villas manager Jackey Tanga and owner Roger Malcolm wait to welcome visitors to Atiu. JONATHAN MILNE/ 20123108
“I lost my mother when I was two years old,” Kura says. “I
continued going between the two households like she did. There were many other
children who lived the same way, time with the parents and time with the
When she started at Atiu Primary School, the new building
was still under construction. One day she was called to the headmaster’s
office. “I was absolutely frightened as I had no idea what I had done wrong,”
She was made to stand by a window sill – or where the sill
would be when the building was completed. The workers moved the sill up and
down till it sat just beneath her chin. Kura was the shortest pupil – they had
worked out that if she could reach the sill then every child in the school
should be able to reach it, to collect their daily cup of milk.
This was – and still is – an island where everybody
contributed in their different ways, to nurture and feed the whole community.
They kept beehives, and made honey taffy and coconut toffee. There were tomatoes,
oranges and copra – and this was very hard work indeed.
“At times serious work could be exhausting, especially in
the plantations in full sun,” Kura says. “When the boats were expected some
classes were let off for a couple of days to allow the children to help with
the picking of the fruit, packed and ready for export to Rarotonga and on to
“The children even helped carry tomato boxes from the market
house to the wharf, onto big lighters then to the ship. All exciting work, and
the children were paid for the work done.”
In 1956, Kura won a scholarship to Tereora College, and then
on to Whangarei Girls’ High School in New Zealand, four years later, then to
Ardmore Teachers’ Training College – where all Pacific Islanders attended for
primary school teacher training. Finally, she returned to Cook Islands to teach
at Nikao Side School on Rarotonga and it was there that she met Roger.
Roger Malcolm: Scientist, economist, politician, businessman
For those that listen to them speak, or correspond with them
now, it may seem difficult to believe that both Kura and Roger say they
struggled with English and writing at school.
“When I finally gained university entrance, I had a
ceremonial bonfire of all my notes, exercise books and textbooks,” Roger Malcolm
says. “The only book I saved was a dictionary given to me for coming school
runner-up to dux.”
After completing his undergraduate science studies, Roger
travelled to Rarotonga to study upper atmospheric night glow for his PhD. He
met Kura, “and she was a life changer”. It is only now, sitting in the home and
business they have built on her family land in Atiu, that he can even begin to
realise just the extent of that change.
Atiu Villas. 20123104
They married, and he describes their return to New Zealand
prosaically. “The usual job, car, children, house, mortgage and then a stable
public servant job in Wellington followed.”
But that was not the life either of them wanted. “I was
bottled up in a well-paid head office job and when the airport on Kura's home
island Atiu opened, we were off to holiday on her island.”
Before then, he laughs, a holiday on Atiu was either five
hours or five weeks, depending on which boat you caught. The island had no
electricity, no running water, no telephone and 1500 people.
“It triggered my pioneering ancestry,” he says. “I was
‘Cold beer and ice blocks’
Visiting Atiu, they worked with Iaveta Short to get work
underway on a landing strip – a project Kura’s father had started around 1940
but was forced to give up, because of World War II. The government showed
interest in the project, and took over building the new Atiu airport.
Kura was not fond of sailing, and she was determined that
when she returned home, it would be by air.
And finally, Ewan Smith had launched Air Rarotonga and was flying
to Atiu. On the Malcolms’ first flight to Atiu, Teenui Mapumai MP Papa
Vainerere Tangatapoto asked them when they would move home and build
accommodation for the anticipated arrival of tourists when the airport opened.
Kura’s family agreed to lease the couple some family land, to build chalets.
And so, in July 1979, they returned with a sawmill to build
Atiu Villas – on the top of the island, not far from that first airport
project. They planned to build six villas, a restaurant and their own home over
the course of five years, but the project expanded.
Atiu Villas, built by Kura and Roger Malcolm on her family land, is the only real tourist accommodation provider on Atiu. 20123105
Kura worked as a teacher at Atiu College, while Roger put in
a well and a water pump, built a tank, installed a generator and began work on
the first of the villas. “We had an old, old pick-up with holes in the floor so
on rainy days going through puddles meant a jet of water coming up through the
floorboards,” Kura says.
Roger worked with two young men – milling, treating, planing
timber and building the first villa from native timber. Each villa is made from
the polished woods of mango, coconut, red peanut, acacia, cedar, Java plum and
other tropical trees. Next was a two-bedroom house for the couple to live in.
At one time, the young men went on strike because they were being charged
Kura recalls those early days. “I dreaded the thought of
washing motel sheets by hand so made him promise to get me a washing machine
So did he? “The first thing he scrounged around for himself
was a fridge for his beer. He got one that was not working. It had no lid to
the freezer compartment for ice blocks. He fixed the fridge, and made a wooden
door for the ice compartment – and he had his cold beer and ice blocks!”
Kura resigned from teaching, started Round the Island Tours,
resumed keeping bees for honey, and opened a kitchen to serve meals for their
As they built their lives and brought up their two children,
they ran a sawmill company, a general store, a shipping company, exported
gladioli flowers, and Roger even did a stint as mayor. And their grand project,
Atiu Villas, continued.
“And 41 years later,” says Roger, “maybe it is finally
Jonathan Milne and his family tuck into their dinner at Atiu Villas. 20123102
Now they have a manager, Jackey Tanga, whose dedication to
the business may yet, they joke, allow them to retire.
Jackey returned from Australia in 2011, to accompany her
grandmother’s body home. She stayed to look after her aging grandfather and
took a job at Atiu Villas, at first mowing the lawns, then picking up guests
from the airport – and it grew from there.
Sitting in the dining room, where Jackey has cooked
tonight’s dinner, Roger quizzes Monty on the flags that line the rafters. Some
depict the nationalities of the many international visitors who have dined at
these tables; some are the flags of countries that Kura and Roger have visited.
Atiu Villas manager Jackey Tanga: “I love that my children can run around the island happy. and I don't have to worry where they are because when you go looking, you just need to scream out and one of the mamas will reply back that they have them.” DANIEL FISHER / COOK ISLANDS TOURISM/ 20123106
At dinner, after dinner, and over subsequent exchanges by
email, we too have quizzed them – but one evening, one article, can’t come
close to doing their story justice.
Roger sums up his narrative, drily. “You try and fit your
life into a paragraph.”
Jonathan Milne’s family trip to Atiu was sponsored by Cook Islands Tourism and supported by Atiu Villas and other local businesses, to encourage domestic travel experiences in the outer islands.