I am writing this in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, sitting on the veranda of our thatched hut, sipping a homemade cocktail (Tahitian rum, coconut water and fruit punch) looking out to sea and listening to the sound of the waves breaking on the reef, close to shore. We are nearing the end of our visit to Oceania and I am gathering my thoughts about these incredibly remote islands.
Charts in the New Zealand museums that we visited showed the gradual settlement of the Pacific. 3000 years ago – Tonga, Samoa, Fiji. 1500-1200 The Cook Islands, Society Islands, Tuamotu. Only 800 years ago brave Polynesians set off South West to discover Aotearoa, New Zealand. At the top of Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga is a monument to the departure point of the migration vaka to Aotearoa together with a replica of an ocean going canoe.
We have found common occurrences of the Polynesian culture in all the places we have visited – the Pa – a family stronghold, Marae – a meeting place, Tiki – stone or wooden statues, as well as spears, ceremonial staffs, and mother of pearl necklaces displayed in the museums.
Albert Wendt’s excellent novel “Leaves of the Banyan Tree” describes the gradual modernisation of life in Samoa in the 1950s and 60s. In the same way that the villagers there embraced modern NZ and European lifestyles, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands are now thoroughly modern unlike the remote village islands that we visited in the Solomons. The only vestiges of local customs are to be found in well curated museums and entertainment put on by the big hotels. What is visible is the evidence of consumerism – American sized portions in the restaurants, lots of highly processed food and quite a few very large people. Also evidence of a lot of missionaries – churches everywhere including lots of Mormons. Touring Rarotonga on a Sunday we were amazed by the number of services taking place as we circled the island. Another visible reminder of Polynesian culture are the tattoos. Now very trendy in the West but the long decorations on arms and legs are a reminder of traditions going back hundreds of years.
The topography of the volcanic islands is amazing. Jagged volcanic peaks with steep slopes covered in dense vegetation. The lookout on Moorea provided particularly good views. Habitation confined to the gentler lower slopes and the flat narrow strip around the edge of the islands. Reefs surrounding the island create lagoons that protect the shores from the ocean waves. These can be between 50-500m from the coast. Pandanus and coconut palms along with many non-indigenous tropical trees and shrubs introduced by Western visitors over the past 150 years. Some of these fit in very well while others have become pests, strangling the local vegetation just as the introduced rats have wiped out some of the rarer local bird species.
Flying from Tahiti to Fakarava in the Tuamotu islands we see for the first time the low-lying atolls dotted across thousands of square kilometres. These are all that remain of older volcanic islands. As the tectonic plates on which the islands sit have moved away from the "hot spots" where they were formed the weather has eroded away the peaks and the ocean floor has sunk so that all that has remained are the surrounding reefs which continue to grow outwards. The Fakarava and Rangiroa atolls are huge. The land is only a few metres above sea level and is split into islands (motu) with gaps of water (hoa) which have bridges over them on Rangiroa.
Pearls are a significant part of the tourist economy on some of the islands. Fakarava is famous for its pearl farms and on Rangiroa a small, enthusiastic Frenchman explained to us how to choose your pearls. Graded by shape – round, semi-round, baroque, quality – A, B, C reflecting both how free from imperfections the pearl is and also the lustre, and size – 9mm, 10mm etc., he encouraged us to take a tray outside the shop so that we could see the true colours. Polynesia is famous for its black pearls but in fact they come in multiple colours and shades. A grade B 10mm pearl might cost €125 so if you are thinking of buying a big string it will not be cheap!
I have never been a great fan of beach holidays. Relaxing on the sand or under a palm tree is great for a day or two but after that I get bored. Of course you can swim and snorkel, go kayaking in the lagoons or diving. There is also great surfing on many of the islands. Other activities like glass bottomed boats or quad-biking are not really our scene. In French Polynesia we found the restaurants and bars outside of the hotels/resorts to be pretty basic – charming of course but limiting too with the same raw fish, sashimi, and part cooked tuna available everywhere.
The real draw is the beauty and remoteness. If you turn your back on the shacks and corner shops and look along gorgeous beaches with stunning blue and green sea it is magical. This is particularly true on Aitutaki - smaller and less built up. Also extraordinary that you are on a tiny bit of land surrounded by huge amounts of ocean. An amazing place to escape to as Gauguin discovered and many people have done so since. We also found it extremely friendly. From older Frenchmen who have settled in the islands coming over to chat to local workmen greeting you as you pass. As the sign said at the excellent shack where we bought fish sandwiches in Rarotonga "smiles are free".
Back to Round the World here