Mangaia might not have as much tourism experience as Rarotonga or Aitutaki, but last weekend no one could tell the difference. The Mangaian community banded together to feed, shelter and entertain over 400 eclipse-chasers nearly 2/3 of the island’s population and ended up providing much more food than the tourist appetite could handle, and loads more crafts than tourists cared to buy. For three years, locals were busy preparing for last weekend. They re-painted buildings, upped production of pupu shell necklaces and hand-woven bags and delegated cooking responsibilities among themselves. Class prefects volunteered to monitor tourist quarters into the wee hours Mangaia has a zero crime rate, but the orange vest-clad students were there to deter curious wanderers from the temptation of a $10,000 camera. Young students danced for a crowded hall at Saturday’s island night, while others served and prepared food. Local tour guides worked extra hours to accommodate those tourists with an appetite for adventure, and other locals gave up their private vehicles to be used for transporting tour groups to and from the airport and post-eclipse church services.
People found ways to work around limited resources – from 3 in the morning of the eclipse, the island’s two buses started shuttling guests in shifts to the runway so as to ensure that everyone made it in time. The weekend went smoothly, and everyone walked away content, even if the eclipse for which they had come never fully materialized. Tourists said they had expected “a mat on a dirt floor” but instead arrived to neatly made-up bunks, hot showers, sunshine and a warm island welcome. That being said, tourism is not a particularly welcome venture on Mangaia, whose unique beauty most locals would prefer to preserve and protect. And they have a point Mangaia is special. Ringed by jagged cliffs, carpeted by vegetation and pockmarked with caves, the island exudes a rugged beauty. A red dirt road winds through its hilly interior, which descends into a sprawling valley populated by taro patches. Rimming high ridges are pine trees, an introduced species that has drawn a bit of flak for pilfering water meant to be irrigating taro swamps. It’s a vision of what life on Rarotonga probably once was. Passing motorists take the time to grin and wave to others, people in rusty pick-ups trundle along a white coral road at 20 km/hr and its goats not people that cause traffic jams. Touted as the oldest island in the South Pacific, Mangaia has had years to grow into its skin, and its people have developed a distinct culture, language and land tenure system. Last weekend, I stayed with friends’ family, who welcomed me with open arms and were forever feeding me freshly-caught fish, goat, pork and taro. Even when I dropped by the school, a raurau was thrust before me.
I spent three days on the back of a motorbike, moving from landscapes of coconut palms and taro into shadowy groves of dark green ferns and alpine-like forest. I went inside dark caves studded with big, sparkling stalagmites and slow-dripping stalactites, shrouded in legend and still full of old bones. And for those of us non-astronomers, the eclipse itself was really just an excuse for an early-morning social gathering. Locals flocked to the airstrip just to see what all the fuss was about and I, the reporter, was out of my element, with zero knowledge of constellations and lunar behaviour and a camera that paled in comparison to the expensive contraptions tourists toted around. But the whole thing was exciting, a rare occasion for an island whose biggest groups of visitors are rugby and netball teams and the odd tere party from Australia or New Zealand.
A local businesswoman told me that she believes this weekend was important for the Mangaian community, as it was proof that tourism can in fact be responsible.
“They came, they went and the island is still the same,” she said. And though no one can predict whether the recent tourist rush will have a long-term impact on the island, I can tell you this much: the experience will be with me for the long-term.