Among the Cook Islands, Rarotonga has the largest and highest mountains. I was excited to be headed there. It would be fun hiking in the steep valleys, with the jagged peaks in the middle of a rain forest. The valleys are surrounded by a flat plain, then swamps, and the coast with the white sandy beaches. The beautiful, aqua clear lagoons lead to the reefs about a quarter of a mile from shore. The only road is along the coast, completely circumventing the island.
Years ago, before 1823, the natives lived on raised ground, inland from the swampy flats, and there grew taro and other wetland root crops. Before contact with the Europeans that virtually wiped out the population, the island supported about 8,000 people. Now there are 18,000 people on the 15 islands, with the largest percent on Rarotongo. There are about 37,000 Cook Islanders presently living in New Zealand or Australia, subsidized by the British Government. The islanders are of the Maori race linked to New Zealand and Easter Island, and the Maohi of French Polynesia, and the Kanaka Maori of Hawaii. Around 1350 AD, a small group with 7 canoes departed from New Zealand and became the first people to live on Rarotongo.
I came to swim, snorkel, learn the history and culture, and visit, but first I was to hike with the Son of Pa. At the landing point at Avatiu Harbor of Avarua Town, I was warmly greeted by a tall, athletic older man with long bushy dreadlocks. He was bare chested and wore only shorts and a pair of sneakers. With a firm handshake and a clear distinguished voice saying “Kia Orana”(Hello or may you live long) I met Son of Pa.
We set out for the interior of the island for a walk in the rain forest. First I learned there are no snakes, no spiders, and nothing poisonous or dangerous. Actually, there is little crime here, so no dangerous criminals either. What a place to be. We walked though several neighbors’ gardens as Pa, a traditional healer and eco-naturalist, pointed out plants he uses for herbal medicines. We saw banana, mango, guava, kava ,and vanilla plants in people’s yards.
We followed a narrow ancient path used by his ancestors, before the time of the missionaries, to go higher into the tropical forest. Most of the natives on this island are distantly related, and some still hold titles, such as several cousins that are Maori Princesses. We listened for birds and looked for the Kakerori: the flycatcher bird that is found only on this island and is an endangered species.
We crossed a stream and sat by a small waterfall. He asked if I wanted to go swimming in the small water hole. I declined, and instead we walked, and I listened to Pa tell of the history and culture of Rarotongo. Occasionally he would point out a taro, tarua, uru(breadfruit), umara(sweet potato), or pia plant—used for food along with coconuts, wild bananas, and a diet of fish.
When the island was created, and for thousands of years afterwards, there was no life here, until coconuts washed up to the shores and trees took root. Other species, such as pine trees, also helped prevent erosion. There are ferns, ground-covering plants, and tall trees such as mape, from Indo-Malaysia.
After a while, we retraced our steps and returned to the outskirts of the village, walking thorough yards, as there were no driveways or sidewalks from one place to the other. We ended up at the home of Son of Pa and he invited us in for something to eat. His home is surrounded by herbal and medicinal plants.
He is a local television star, author, and celebrity. Many world-famous celebrities have come to him for treatment. One story was of an American astronaut, who was in physical pain after returning from space. After finding no relief, he came here and was treated by Son of Pa. For two weeks, he slept each night under a tree that Pa pointed out to me as we stood under it in his yard.
After a while, it was time to leave, but Son of Pa insisted on giving us a tour of the island. His vehicle was broken down, so he called a friend and borrowed a car. His wife, an Italian Princess, opera singer, and artist, drove us. As we drove along the shore, Son of Pa said he would be swimming out in the lagoon later, as he swims every day and was once a champion swimmer.
We reached the landing point in Avarua Town and he bid us Aer era (good-by). I managed to say meitakei (thank you)—I felt so grateful for an opportunity to be with a man of such wisdom. A rare purist, wise and honest, is so rare on this earth today. Son of Pa knew I appreciated him. He gave me a big farewell hug, and soon I was headed out to the boat anchored in the lagoon for the night. The hike was good, but the Son of Pa made my day a day to remember.
(posted March 1, 2016)