November 7, 2001, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Yes, we arrived in the Cook Islands early Thursday morning Nov 1, 2001, safe and sound. The bad news is that it was a long trip, 25 ½ hours from the time we left Ottawa airport at 9 AM. The good news is that was an uneventful 3 flights, plus one stop over in Papeete, Tahiti and the lineups for security checks were never a problem. Consequently we got to know the airports in Ottawa, Toronto and LA far too well.
We are staying on Rarotonga, the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands, for one week. We will be sad to leave tomorrow, Thursday. Rarotonga is a lovely, laid back Polynesian island, probably like the Caribbean was 30 years ago. The people wave and wish you Kia Orana (hello and literally we wish you a long life) without trying to sell you anything. What a refreshing change from SE Asia and India! Rarotonga itself is only 32 K around and ringed most of the way around by a coral reef about 100 meters off shore that acts as a breakwater and creates a relatively shallow lagoon. The sands are somewhat coarse white coral, but the water is clear and warm. The lagoons are strewn with coral rocks, but some areas are clear enough to allow great swimming. After borrowing a mask and snorkel and seeing all the tropical fish in the lagoon, we went out and bought our own. Since then we have been exploring all the best areas for snorkeling.
All the population is on the coast since the interior of the island is covered in densely forested dormant volcanic peaks. The weather has been quite windy since we arrived, apparently the tail end of weather that hits New Zealand, and it has rained at least each night, but the daytime temperatures are lovely and we have not been stopped on any of our activities. Our first day here was Nov 1, All Saints Day. All the Rarotongans decorate their family graves with fresh and plastic flowers. Most of the graves are in the front yards of their homes, not in central graveyards. The large, aboveground graves are constructed of concrete and some are protected from the elements by a roof. It was quite a colourful sight.
We are staying at the Backpackers International Hostel near the southwest corner. It is very simple, but clean and the bed is comfortable and we have settled in very well. Most of the other guests, with whom we share bathroom and kitchen facilities, are 20-somethings, with the occasional middle-aged person. As we noted in SE Asia, there are quite a few girls traveling alone, linking up with other women and doing very well seeing the world on their own.
The first thing we did after checking in was to rent a motorbike (more of a scooter) for the week. We were informed that we needed to go to the Police station in the main town of Avarua to obtain a local drivers license, so we decided to make a tour of the island on the way. It is a good thing we did as Ray was informed that since he did not have a motorcycle drivers license he needed to take a drivers test. He was not the only one in the same situation, but taking tests is always scary and especially when you are not really an expert on your vehicle. Ray completed the test but surprise, surprise, the policeman had never heard of a Quebec Stop. The policeman thought you should put your foot down at a stop sign! Thank goodness he decided that a lecture was enough and Ray was granted a local license.
We tried out one of the local restaurants the first night. The food was very good, but relatively expensive, so we are cooking our own meals most nights. Our simple efforts are hardly gourmet, but with a bottle of wine or a few beers they are not bad. One of the best food bargains is the Friday market. We bought our dinner for $7 NZ ($5 CAD) from one of the family booths and ate it while listening to a local group playing traditional music.
There are quite a few hiking trails to several of the peaks on the island, so Friday we set out to climb Raemaru, a sawed off 350 meter mountain, close to our place. There are no signs pointing out the trailhead, but we found the trailhead, thanks to the directions from several of the locals. We were told there were two ways up, one steeper than the other, so of course we took the steeper one. Most of the way the path was well traveled and easy to follow but when we reached the base of Raemaru itself, the route up looked a little scary. It consisted of knotted ropes for handholds and ended in steel staples pounded into the sheer rock face for steps. We went up anyway and made it safely to the plateau about 20 meters above. The rest of the way to the top was easy and the photo-ops of the coastline and the interior of the island were great. Ray wasnt keen to descend via the ropes, so we found the alternate path down the other side. I dont know if it was any easier, as it was a rather steep path with no trees to hold on to. Eventually the path leveled off and the rest of the way down was through a jungle. Not as scenic as the other route, but it was interesting walking in the jungle.
On Monday we tackled the Cross Island Trek, the most popular walk. You can join a guided tour but of course we did it ourselves. You hike from North to South, so we left our bike at the end and took the local bus to the start. You walk for about one hour; straight up a hill through the jungle, using the tree roots as steps, to the Needle, a bare 20-meter high outcropping overlooking the valley. Again there were two choices to get to the end of the trail and we took the steeper option. We had met a few other hikers on the way to the Needle, but none of them were continuing on, so we had the trail to ourselves. We climbed another ridge to see the view, then followed a pleasant stream through the jungle, stopping to have a picnic lunch on the way. The only disappointment was the end of the trail. The promised Wigmore Falls were dry. I guess they only look like the postcard pictures in the rainy season.
Everyone told us we must go to an Island Night, and our host told us the show at the Edgewater Resort was the best. Saturday night we got a reservation for the dinner and show and we were not disappointed. The dinner was a buffet of local and North American food. Of course we ate too much. Before the main show the MC asked for a show of hands of all the people who had been married more than two hours but less than one year. There must have been 20 couples in the audience who qualified. The MC invited several couples up on the stage for a dance and one young lady still had her wedding dress on. The Cook Islands are a popular spot to get married or spend your honeymoon. One afternoon we even witnessed a wedding ceremony taking place on the beach by the Rarotongan Beach Resort near us.
Finally the main show began. Ten young women and men, dressed in grass skirts, and accompanied by six drummers, bounded on the stage to perform their very enthusiastic dance. The women do a very fast version of the Hula and the men shake their knees and stamp their feet to the rhythm of the drums. They have the reputation for the best dancers in the Pacific and they certainly were good. The Cook Islands take their traditional dances seriously and it is very popular amongst the young people. The youngest children also got their chance to show us what they had learned. They all did very well.
Music is very important to the Rarotongans, so Sunday morning found us at the local church to hear the choirs sing. There were two choirs; one to sing the traditional hymns and the other to sing the Rarotongan hymns. They were both good but the Rarotongan version was my favourite. They use a call and answer style with the mens voices being answered by the women. I couldnt understand the Rarotongan, but the music echoed to the rafters. The minister, who preached in both English and Rarotongan, welcomed all the guests and told a little of their traditions and history. His sermon was a bit long for us but we did enjoy the music.
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