Tag Archives: Cook Islands

Taha’a, Society Islands, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Taha’a, Society Islands

After sailing at sea again, this time from the Cook Islands, we reached Taha’a, a small island with only 4,470 inhabitants. Taha’a was a pawn in struggles for many years between fierce rulers of Bora Bora and Raiatea. It was known as the center for fire walking ceremonies. I didn’t see any sign of fire walking but I did enjoy learning the history and culture of the natives. In 1822 it came under French control and it is enclosed within the same barrier reef as the larger island of Raitea. Near the boat launch, the local mamas and papas sell their trinkets. It is a quiet place and a great place for snorkeling, with beaches on the beautiful motus along the northern reef edge.

For a lifetime, a person dreams of paradise on this earth: to be on Taha’a, on a private Mota Mahana, sunbathing, swimming, and relaxing. I took a kayak out around the lagoon: the water was so clear it was easy to see sand sharks, turtles, string rays, and many colorful fish. I tried out paddleboarding, being careful not to fall on top of the sharp coral everywhere. After water exercise, I walked along the beach, and under a grove of palm trees was a big basket of large coconuts, with a small machete lying on top. With one strong wack you could crack open a coconut and drink the juice. The coconuts were so big and the milk so sweet.

It was there on Mota Mahana that I noticed the physically fit young men covered with tattoos. The practice of tattooing existed here for hundreds of years. The word tatau means hitting repeatedly. Captain Cook wrote about it on his trip to the nearby Marquesas. Later, the tradition of tattooing became popular with sailors. Meanwhile, missionaries here on the Pacific Islands converted the locals to Christianity and tattooing was forbidden. There was no written language in the Polynesian culture so they used tattooing as a way of expressing their identity and culture such as sex, social status, rank, and family clan. It was used to protect against evil spirits, and it was a rite of passage for teenagers to adulthood. Tatooing came back in the 1980s, and I saw quite a few people who were heavily tattooed with symbols from their native culture.

It was fun to watch the natives dance and sing and then to try out their instruments. One day I had a parima dance class on slow Polynesian dance steps. The key to success is how to swivel the hips. Their lifetime family heritage and daily routine made it look so easy, but to a foreigner it was quite a laughable experience to try for the first time!

It was hot, humid, and sunny, so most of each day was spent staying cool. Water activities, especially swimming in the lagoon, were most pleasant. Taha’a is a beautiful place. It was a truly wonderful experience to go there, even for a short time.

(posted March 15, 2016)

Madelyn Given: What a treat to hike with Son of Pa in the Cook Islands!

Son of Pa: Rarotonga Island

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)

Snorkeling in the Cook Islands allows you to see beautifully colored coral. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Snorkeling in the Cook Islands

Snorkeling is a rare adventure for me, so I try to make the most of every opportunity. Coming from a cold region in the world, I never had much of an opportunity to travel to great places to snorkel, but the South Pacific is wonderful. There you have a warm climate, calm sea, and clear lagoons, teaming with colorful fish that are attracted to the coral reefs. I prepared myself by swimming daily laps in a cold college pool for years. It definitely helps and fins help you brace against the tides, too. The first day I made the mistake of wearing only a bathing suit and got sunburned, but I learned from my mistake and from then on, I wore a top that covered more. Each day I was out 3 to 4 hours; it was grand weather, and the water was so warm and inviting.

A motorboat picked up a small group of 4 to 6 of us, and off we went for a 15 minute ride to the reef. The local boat owner stayed in the boat, as the rest of us went overboard and began the underwater sea experience. Each time was different. At one place in a lagoon on Aitutaki, there were giant sea clams. Another place had a shallow sandbar and a giant fish stayed and circled the little motor boat the entire time we were underwater, quite nearby.

Once in the water, it doesn’t take long to get totally engrossed in the spectacular underwater world surrounding you. There are various types of coral: different kinds and shapes of many colors, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. I was careful not to let currents thrust me into the sharp, hard-as-rock, living coral. I swam round looking at the colorful fish and trying to identify a few of over 500 known varieties. There were the colorful fish: angelfish, butterfly fish, Moorish idol, clownfish, parrotfish, and rainbow wrasse. There were unusual fish: the spiny puffer, the long horned cowfish, and the spot fin lion fish. Some of the fish were small, some swam in schools, some were loners, and all darted about hunting for a source of food.

When I came upon a giant clam, it was amazing to see it there, attached to the bottom of the sea floor, and open for predators as they swam by. It is only the second time I have seen them: the first time was on the Great Barrier Reef, where there was an enormous one. At that time, the guide dropped a small pebble and the clam snapped shut. It was a frightening thought that reminded me to stay clear, so as not to be trapped with a foot or hand by such a monster of a clam. So when I saw them again in the South Pacific, I carefully swam around them and went on to more colorful coral and beautiful fish.

Another day, I was pleased to add sea turtles to my underwater experience. Several times I swam with small sharks and sting rays.

Each time I went out on a motor boat or speed boat, I saw people fishing in the lagoons. Some villages still set up a fish trap with a circle of stones and an opening on one side. When the tide goes out, the fish are trapped, and each family in the village shares the bounty. Locals walk out at low tide and pick up sea cucumbers, which are highly prized to eat, or put fresh in two-liter soda bottles and sold along the highway. The going price was 80 dollars a bottle for these sea creatures.

At the end of each day of snorkeling I could hardly wait to go again the next day. There was so much to see and it was such a fun experience.

(posted February 23, 2016)