Niki Schuck visits Aitutaki following Cyclone Pat to discover the locals are putting on a brave face and are in desperate need of the return of visitors.
Setting off for my run I realise it’s going to be a tough return if the wind keeps up but as I turn the corner from Popoara Ocean Breeze where I am staying, I mentally slap myself. The palm trees paralleling the airport runway are stripped of their coconuts and are bent permanently at right angles, almost as if they are praying. Cyclone Pat has left her mark alright and today is by no means a windy day.
The memories of Wednesday 10 February are still very raw for the people of Aitutaki. They say the noise resembled that of a “767 jet aeroplane parked outside your bedroom window.” Cyclone Pat’s persistence was unrelenting and unforgiving as winds of up to 180 kilometres an hour, had people fearing for their lives. One local tells of holding sliding doors in place for five hours as they bowed and bent against his shaking body. Another sung to her children from 1am until the sun rose, keeping them occupied and herself from crying through utter fear.
Day break brought relief from the cyclone but made residents’ hearts ache as reality set in. Locals speak of tears shed as they saw each other while surveying the damage. Their beautiful island was battered and bruised but as I quickly learn, the people of Aitutaki are not the sort to sit back in self pity. They wiped their tears away, thankful there was no loss of life, and began the massive clean-up.
Aitutaki is the second most visited island in the Cook Islands and completely reliant on tourism. What’s more, 75 percent of the visitors that go the Cook Islands come from what the locals fondly term a couple of their other islands – New Zealand.
The resorts are built to withstand storms ensuring the effects of the cyclone, in the majority of situations, was confined to minor structural damage and fallen trees. While the infrastructure supporting tourism rebounded quickly, as I scooter around the island it becomes hugely obvious with 70 percent of the houses damaged, that the locals desperately need our help. Weeks after Cyclone Pat there are still people living in a donated tent next to a toilet bowl and a basin on a concrete slab – all that remains of their home.
With our close association with the Cooks, it’s likely that you may have been asked to make a donation to help the people of Aitutaki rebuild their homes and more importantly their lives. What becomes clearly obvious to me is the very best way you can support them, is to go to Aitutaki for your next holiday. With winter starting to knock on our doors, the timing couldn’t be better.
Aitutaki’s picture postcard lagoon is unharmed by the cyclone and complete with every shade of blue that my high school art teacher only dreamed about. Local boy TeKing takes us out on his Lagoon Tour for an afternoon; he knows the reef intimately and just about all the fish in it personally. I dive off the boat into what appears to be the local pet shop tropical aquarium. I snorkel over giant clams, stunning patterned coral, blue starfish and a moray eel evens pokes his head out of a hole to check things out.
We land on Tapuaetai which translates to One Foot Island and images of Gilligan’s Island pop into my head. I decide being marooned here could be a blessing, particularly if there’s one of those Aitutaki warrior dancers from last night’s show to keep me company, catch me fish and make me ika mata.
During my time here I realise there is something special about the people of the Cook Islands but there is something extra special about the people of Aitutaki. It is hard to explain outside of saying there’s a soulfulness about them. Their smiles melt your heart, their laughter is infectious and their love of people, especially children, is a precious gift.
Their history is important to them and the recent excavation of the Paengariki Marae site at the southern end of the island lead by local man, Ngaa Pureariki is hugely exciting. Driven by the need to ensure young people are aware of their roots, Ngaa and a team of dedicated local volunteers have spent months unearthing the secrets of their people. Findings have confirmed stories passed down through the generations and scientific testing is assisting to establish accurate records of the connection between the people of Aitutaki and Tahiti. The skeletons of small animal skeletons offered to the Gods, basalt rocks formed to replicate adzes and weapons and a tattoo comb made from the jaw bone of a respected elder (once they had died) are amongst the treasure found.
The discovery of the marae is bringing confirmation of ancestral beliefs and practices with the location of a paepae tehe i te ure. This is where boys of rank would undergo removal of their prepuce on a special stone on the marae. This ancient practice, commonly termed circumcision in the western world, was seen as a highly important event in changing from a boy to a man. Fortunately whilst still important to the people of Aitutaki the operation is today performed by medical staff at the hospital.
Sunday is still very much reserved as a day for thanks, family and rest. In addition to being the oldest limestone building in the Cook Islands, it is worth taking an hour if you are here on a Sunday to attend church, regardless of your thoughts about religion. In addition to being welcomed you with open arms, the singing represents something of a Gospel choir with a South Pacific twist. Despite the 28 degree heat outside, my body is covered in goose bumps. I feel the vibrations in my chest as the men and women surrounding me harmonise with power and conviction. Their eyes closed, the words permanently etched in their memories, it comes from only one place – the heart.
The building is packed, women wear hats, everyone is in their Sunday best. The children sit together, the odd restless young one roams freely around the church. As a toddler gets too close to the organ during the minister’s sermon, a girl of seven or eight years of age gently guides her back in a nurturing way, beyond her years.
As I turn to start my run home, I reflect on my time here and realise that the head wind is nothing of the sort. The people of Aitutaki would classify this as a gentle breeze sent to cool me. I think of the challenges ahead of them as they rebuild their community and the soreness and heaviness in my legs disappears. By the time I finish my run and dive into the welcoming azure waters at Ootu Beach, I know by being here I am helping.
Visitors to the island keep the locals employed in the hotels and the restaurants. Our presence keeps the tour operators in their boats and jeeps, educating us proudly about their land and the sea that they love so much. Aid is definitely needed and appreciated immensely by the people of Aitutaki but the bottom line is they need us to keep travelling to visit this blissful retreat. It is this security of income that is the long-term sustainability of this exquisite island and its people. Best of all, the benefits most definitely go both ways. You will come away refreshed, enchanted and enriched by the experience of visiting Aitutaki.
- Aitutaki is a 40 minute flight serviced by Air Rarotonga from the capital of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga.
- A wide range of accommodation is offered on the island from back packers, self catering to five staff luxury accommodation.
- For superb island cuisine make a reservation at Cafe Tupuna (not open Sundays) by calling 31678. Reviewed and recommended by many magazines around the world.
- TeKing Lagoon Tours operate from Monday to Saturday www.teking.co.ck and Ngaa’s Discovery Safari Tours that include a visit to the ancient marae operate Sunday to Friday www.aitutakiinlandtour.com
- You shouldn’t leave Aitutaki without experiencing an ‘Island Night’ serving traditional food cooked in an underground oven (umu) and dancing, singing and drumming performed by local groups. Tamanu Beach Resort comes highly recommended www.tamanubeach.com
For more information about Aitutaki and the Cook Islands plus the latest travel deals please visit www.cookislandsexperience.com
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