The Magic of Mauke
Words: Rachel Smith Images: Rachel Smith & Supplied
The wind blew and the kotaa, the storm birds, came. Pterodactyl-like, they winged in along the coast, riding the wind currents that rose as the storm approached O’Kiva Point. It was not the weather you would choose for a Pacific Island retreat, but it was much needed rain for the island of Mauke at the end of a dry winter season.
Mauke is a small place and, to many, a name unknown. It has a population of around 300, and it takes under an hour to drive the 17km coastal road that rings the island. Along with five other islands, it makes up the Southern group of the Cook Islands - a group which includes the popular holiday destination of Rarotonga.
A trip to Mauke, or any of the outer islands of the Cook Islands, is a journey to another world. Here the isolation of being a dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean affects every part of daily living. It is no big drama when stocks in the shop run low, simply because it has happened many times before, and the island staples of taro, coconut and fish can always be relied upon.
Any news is big news in a little place. Half the island is at the airport to greet new arrivals and welcome back visiting family when our plane sets down on the coral runway. Local policeman, Tangata Ateriano, asks for our passports with a grin as we step off the runway, then loads us into his ute for a ride to the accommodation that he runs with his wife Teata.
Tiare Cottages are set amongst a lush garden on their property, and were originally owned by Teata’s parents. From the doorstep of our cottage we watch shy red and black piglets poke their noses out of the bush, and then run for cover whenthey spot us. Like most here Teata and Ta have more than one form of employment, as simply a matter of survival. Teata teaches at Mauke School, while Ta has recently taken up the role of the only policeman on the island.
They share their dinner with us – freshly caught fish, taro and breadfruit chips and pawpaw salad, before dashing off to fill their segment on the local television channel. Two of a small group of Seventh Day Adventists on the island, they take their turn at sharing their faith on a regular evening television slot.
They return to tell stories of living on Mauke – of leaving the island and returning to make their life here as many others have done. It is not an easy life but one which they would not change. There are tales of life as the lone policeman, made up more of common sense and a strong sense of fairness than regulations, such as how do you arrest two men when you have only one set of handcuffs. Rain comes down in the night, hard tropical rain that has the whole world dripping when we awake.
It is still falling from trees in soft drops as we make our way carefully through the makatea.Mauke, like many other islands in the Southern group, iscovered in fossilized coral or makatea.
Winding through the sharp rocks are trails that lead to hidden caves. Some caves are small, others with many, many rooms, and most have pools of cool water waiting in their depths.
Vai Tango, in the village of Ngatiarua, is the local swimming pool. Children, or tamariki as they are known locally, climb down into the basin-like cave for a refreshing swim during the summer months, especially when the water rises during the wet season.
Other tracks from the coastal road lead in the opposite direction, down to the sea. Most of the beaches are tucked away out of sight, and all have cool white sand and crystal clear water. The reef is close to the shore here and surf rolls in when the swell is large, turning the tranquil beach suddenly into foaming water. Fish dart in the shallows, as the waves retreat and my son races to collect the crab shells that it has delivered.
The barge arrives at the port as we order burgers at the main shop on the island, and the only takeaways in town. More vehicles than we have seen all week pass us by on the drive down to the wharf.
The ship brings food and supplies of all sorts – freezers, motorbikes, new bicycles for the tamariki, and news of family
and friends in Rarotonga. It also brings fuel for the generators
that hum away twenty-four hours a day to provide power to the island.
The island reaches a new level of quiet on Sundays. Religious
faith is an important part of the fabric of Cook Islands culture,
making Sunday a true day of family and celebration and rest.
The two villages of Areora and Ngatiarua are brought together for their morning service at the island’s Divided Church. Mamas in their best church clothes and woven rito hats, take their seats
beside the younger generation wearing Bob Marley T-shirts and pink sequined shoes. All raise their voices, one village singing a challenge to which the other replies, with male and female voices soaring in harmony.
The history of the church is well known – two villages share the church, with each having their own entrance and side to sit in. The church is also divided in colour, with each village choosing to decorate their side differently. Colours of mint green, teal, yellow, rose-red and peacock-blue sit side by side among the hand hewn tamanu pillars.
When we leave, the plane is filled with more eis (known in Hawaii as leis) than people – wrapped around necks and heads with a fragrance both delicious and overwhelming. Mauke is known for its eis – for the mamas who climb the makatea to harvest the maire leaf to make their famous maire eis.
Mine are made with flowers: tiare maori, the fragrant tiare taina, and the sweet aniseed smell of local basil. The smell wings me on my way home – onto the plane, down the runway and off into the blue of the sky and the Pacific.