Discover the unspoilt beauty of the Cook Islands

Craig Tansley takes us back to his idyllic childhood in this Pacific paradise, where time seems to stand still.

 A man sitting on a crooked trunk of a coconut tree on the beach.
  • Craig Tansley
  • October 2018

I didn’t get my first pair of shoes until I was six years old. The unforgiving pieces of scratchy canvas, which appeared at the end of my bed one day, were to be worn for my very occasional visits to Sunday school and felt like a needless, aggravating extravagance. I didn’t need them at home and I definitely didn’t need them for school – no-one wore shoes to Avatea Primary School, least of all the teachers.

I lived on the west coast of Rarotonga in Arorangi. Every morning, I’d squeeze barefoot and cheek-to-cheek with my classmates on a wooden bench in the back of an old converted truck to ride to school, passing the lagoon at Black Rock. Every morning, I’d wish to God I could skip class and go swimming instead.

My school was at Nikao – barely five kilometres away – but I felt every bump of the road right through my sandy toes and up my vertebrae. At recess and lunchtime, we’d play life-and-death games of marbles on the dirt we flattened out under yellow and white tipana (frangipani) trees. The flowers smelled so sweet I could practically taste them, especially in summer, when the humidity grew so heavy my school shirt stuck to my back.

A boy pouring water from a hose.
Children run barefoot and free in the Cook islands.

We were one of the 30 or so papa’s (foreign) families on the island. My Sydney-born-and-bred mother met my dad when she was scarcely out of her teens, backpacking around New Zealand. My father worked for the courts in Dunedin and when he was offered a post in the Cook Islands, he jumped at the opportunity. They bid farewell to their families and took a supply ship to Rarotonga, overstaying their posting by four years before moving to New Zealand, where I was born. But they never could wash Raro out of their skin. We all shipped ourselves 3200 kilometres north-east when I was still in nappies, back to an island with no TV, no phone lines and no international airport.

Our house was so close to the lagoon that every big storm required us to save Dee Dee, our pet duck, from his enclosure on the sand beneath the coconut trees. Once, the water washed right up through our back door and into my brother’s bedroom. The water never rose higher – there wasn’t ever much real danger on our island. The angriest waves the Pacific Ocean could produce couldn’t do us harm. We had a barrier reef and our lagoon, which was like a crystal-clear moat, around the whole island to save us.

Two pigs walking on the shallow part of the sea.
Getting close to nature was never this beautiful.

Those protected blue waters were where I learnt to swim, first by dog paddling between coral heads and then swimming freestyle out to the reef. That’s how all the kids in Raro learnt to swim. Even today, no-one has bothered building a public pool.

When my parents were satisfied I could stay afloat, they wouldn’t see me for entire weekends. Gangs of kids would take off to the four tiny uninhabited motus (islets) in Muri Lagoon, on the island’s eastern coastline. We’d camp on beaches and pretend we were castaways, casting out dodgy fishing lines for our dinner. I don’t remember ever catching a single fish – we’d eat noodles on the sand instead.

Two little kids curious while their feet dip on the shallow part of the beach.
Aitutaki lagoon is a picture-perfect paradise.

Nearly 40 years later, that same lagoon is about the only place you’re likely to witness a congregation of tourists – though it is hardly what you’d call a crowd. Over 350,000 Australian tourists will visit Fiji this year, and around 63,000 will travel to Vanuatu, but only 25,000 will make it that little bit further east to Rarotonga. Why? It beats me. But I’m happy to keep things the way they’ve always been – the Cook Islands epitomise everything that’s perfect about the South Pacific.

There’s no traffic – even at peak hour. With the island’s leisurely 50 kilometres per hour speed limit, there are more pigs and dogs on Rarotonga’s main coastal road than cars. There are no big high-rises, either – no building can be taller than the highest coconut tree. And there’s no crime, except the theft of taro (a starchy root vegetable that’s the staple of the Polynesian diet), which still gets top billing in the Cook Islands News.

This country, built from coconut and pandanus trees, is made up of 15 islands spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean about twice the size of Western Europe (two million square kilometres) and the population is just over 17,000. There are islands about 40 minutes flying time from Rarotonga – like Mangaia and Mitiaro – which receive less than 100 tourists a year. Lonely Planet dubbed the Cook Islands “a castaway’s dream come true”. And locals warn if you see someone else on a beach, move on – no-one likes a crowd in the Cooks.

A boat on sea shore at twilight dusk.
Not many tourists come to Cook islands, which is part of its unspoilt charm.

If I ever grew tired of the lagoon, I’d walk a few hundred metres from my home, past Ara Tapu, the coastal road that encircles the island, and onto the Pacific’s oldest road, Ara Metua. Today, few people venture up here. Back then, it was a window into a world as exciting as any I saw at the island’s one and only cinema. Fierce mountains rose up behind plantations but thick jungle blocked anyone getting to them. We heard there were football field-sized maraes (traditional meeting grounds) with skulls from human sacrifices up there. Even today, few have ventured far enough to really know.

The maraes, lagoons and islands filled my dreams as a child but it’s the locals I remember most in my waking hours. The people were jovial and loved everyone else’s families as much as they loved their own. When I was a kid, we had a babysitter called Nono. She smelled of coconut oil and had a tiare maori (the sweet-smelling national flower of the Cook Islands) wedged permanently behind her ear. My brother’s head of white curls had her besotted. Cook Islanders share child-raising duties, and some families give up their babies to siblings who can’t have children. I wonder if my mum ever worried she wouldn’t get my brother back.

Traditional dance in cook island.
Traditional dances brings the Cook Islands' Polynesian heritage to life.

My family moved to Byron Bay on the NSW North Coast for my high school years. I’m glad, I guess, that I left the island before my folks could ship me to a New Zealand boarding school as most expats did back then. But a big part of me stayed in the Cooks. Just like Dad did – he’s still there. He reckons they’ll only get him out in a wooden box, though that’s unlikely, considering he’s reserved a burial at sea. I visit him at least once a year. My uncle is Polynesian so I’ve got more cousins in the Cooks than there are coconuts in trees. These islands shaped my life.

Travel writer, Paul Theroux, says a person who lives on an island “craves simplicity and glories in a world that is still incomplete and, therefore, full of possibilities”. I think he’s over-complicated it. To me, it’s about that first smell of frangipanis as the plane doors open when I return home. In a world that’s gone mad, that’s too frenetic, that has too many possibilities, I find myself clinging to the idea that change doesn’t have to be inevitable. Life can still be as perfect and simple as the childhood I had on Rarotonga.