It’s been quiet here on ducks of the world – that’d be due to the ski season I just worked! Not having a car, and living in a remote location makes for a very routine existence – whether its a work day or not: go up mountain, go back down mountain, eat, sleep, repeat. That’s probably why the feet get itchy after a few months (and a few months after that you get the opportunity to scratch!).
Living somewhere remote, we naturally opted to go…somewhere even remoter! How does the Cook Islands grab ya? A mere 3000km from Auckland, and nearly over 1000km from its “nearest neighbour” (Niue) – it’s a long way from anywhere. Hardly surprising then that it took 4 hours to fly there from Auckland. Jetstar flights arrive in Rarotonga in the middle of the night, so you’re in need of somewhere to stay for the remainder of that night, as well as it being worthwhile to arrange or at least research some transportation – the buses are finished by then. Given the advantages to owners of both hotels and taxis in Rarotonga of this situation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jetstar have been encouraged to do it this way, but it’s probably just the price of the landing times at the airport. Maybe the local taxis and hotels encouraged the airport…whatever.
At this point, a confession: it didn’t occur to me that the Rarotonga was on the other side of the international date line. It had always been my impression that there was enough room on the western side of the international date line for all the Pacific Islands except Hawaii and Easter Island. And maybe Tahiti. Going to Fiji and travelling west for 18 hours on a ferry to where the international date line “used to be” didn’t seem to cause me to question this. Neither did Jetstar saying their flight departed at 7:30PM and arrived at 1:30AM the same day. I just thought they were helpfully extending their operating day until their operations had completed. Makes sense doesn’t it? Maybe not. Eventually though, I did realise my error, though not until I had already booked the accommodation. As there was no availability for the extra day (the day of arrival), we had to look elsewhere, and given that it was only for one night, proximity to the airport became even more important as we’d be leaving the next morning and heading to our actual accommodation. This led me to an establishment on the north coast of the island, which had a mixed set of reviews, including a number of hilariously relateable ones, along the lines of “we only stayed here due to a mixup with the dates”. Hmm, wonder what happened to those people.
It was somewhere between a guesthouse and a motel, and they had kindly arranged an airport pickup (the only airport pickup I’ve ever had that got cheaper when the time to pay came), saving us from the most polite, low key, well dressed pack of hotel touts I’ve ever come across. I would have gone anywhere with them – though I do do that…
When we got to the place, and looked wistfully at the pool we wouldn’t be swimming in (it wasn’t that big anyway), we started to remember the reviews. Accommodation is pretty expensive on the Cook Islands – and this one was no exception. Presumably some people expected their $110 to buy them the same as in other places, which it doesn’t. The room was clean, but the place was ageing a bit. It had a friendly staff, a lovely view, and the room was big and essentially a studio. Some unkind reviews have been written about it – if you go to the Cook Islands, try to remember that everything from the cleaning products used to clean the room you stay in, to the ink in the pen that you sign the bill with, had to be imported from New Zealand. And New Zealand isn’t exactly the manufacturing center of the world either – or known for being particularly cheap.
After a reasonable nights sleep (it was hot), we checked out and headed round the coast to Muri beach. This was our first encounter with the Rarotonga bus service – on which you can buy a ride for $5 (doesn’t matter where you’re going), or a ten ride ticket for $30. They’re so accommodating that you can even share the ten ride ticket (at least we did), and the driver didn’t charge us for our bags to come along too (though they say the do). The bus has “natural airconditioning”, ie the windows are open, and stops a lot to remind you how much better it is than not having it. It doesn’t take long to get to Muri Beach from the north coast, and we hopped out and went in search of our home for the next week or so.
We found our guesthouse – but no staff or indication of being expected – not too surprising that early (this one we’d booked for the day of our actual arrival, just for a change). Not for the first time (Mui Ne, Gokarna, Mirissa…) we hit the beach as a temporary home. Later on, a note appeared on the front door of the guesthouse, and we were in. Now we could fully enjoy our first day on the Cook Islands. The temperature was in the mid 20s and the sun was strong in a clear blue sky. Snorkelling revealed big fish and bigger starfish beneath the surface of the turquoise lagoon. A short swim out to a little island brought large orange crabs and small grey birds. Just so we could get the most out of the whole situation – it was market night and we feasted on seafood curry, a raw fish in coconut milk dish called Ika Mata, and drank cold(ish – they don’t want to turn the fridges down too low in Raro) beers in our little private back garden. Perfect first day.
We didn’t come to Raro to rush around (at least not much), so we started the next day with a leisurely breakfast (in the private garden) and then wandered by the back roads to the beach in front of Fruits of Rarotonga. This is a recommended snorkelling spot and was even better than the previous day – schools of fish, clumps of coral, and more starfish. We’ve had better snorkelling out of sea of course (Komodo, Great Barrier Reef, Taveuni– aren’t we spoiled?), and some onshore too (Ningaloo, Moalboal, Apo, Gili Meno) but what it lacked in variety, it made up for in clarity (better than Ningaloo) – it’s still worth a look. I was using the same snorkel I’d had in Indonesia a year before, and the Philippines six months before that – clarity was not an issue. At some tropical snorkel spots we’ve been to (shallower water in Indonesia) the water has been so warm that it’s actually caused an issue with snorkel masks – that wasn’t a problem here either. Sunburn (probable) and stonefish/coral (possible) are the things to contend with – we had rashies and reef boots to cope with these. We’d never had reef boots before, but we borrowed them in Indonesia and found them useful, so we picked some up in Auckland ($40 in the dive shops at Wynyard) on the way and they were great. By lunchtime we’d worked up a decent appetite from all that swimming and were ready for Fruits of Rarotonga’s famous $7 burgers – try the fish one, it was generous and delicious. That night we took a walk on the beach in the dark – at least as far as we could before it turns into a mangrove (don’t worry, no crocs out here). In the dim light we saw what (being raised in suburban England) we took for a sudden swarm or rats run out of the water and into the bushes. They were crabs.
The cross-island walk had been calling out to us since we’d decided to go to Raro in the first place. It may be a mere 10km (with a climb from sea level to 413km, whatever) but the authorities recommend a guide and various websites and blogs suggested it would take 4 hours and could be very slippery and overgrown, involve climbing roots and ropes, and we might get lost (though that was more if we walked from the south). Sounded great. Naturally we prepared by wandering the market in Avarua in the baking sun, and innocently eating something so rich and stodgy that the natural instinct was to fall asleep on the toilet straight away. After managing to remain conscious on the toilet, we set off up the road to where the cross-island track began. As expected, it went off into the bush, and suddenly became very steep. It hadn’t rained much lately, so the climb wasn’t too difficult, and we were taking our panos of the island within about 90 minutes. Raro’s rooster population, as well as a highly disturbed circadian rhythm, feels it necessary to infiltrate every corner of the island, inhabited or not – and announce its presence frequently. The needles is no exception. The track climbs a bit more (but nothing major) from here, before heading down toward the south coast. This section is the longer of the two, with a number of stream crossings and slidy banks to climb. Nevertheless, we met a man in a pair of slip on leather sandles headed in the opposite direction, not too far from the top. He turned back at about that point, but he’d made it that far. We’d stopped for a while to admire the view at the top, and some more for lunch at the bottom of the track, so by the time we hit the coast, it had been 5 hours. The road from the track to the coast doubles as the access to the abandoned Sheraton Hotel. An enterprising local has set up a roadblock and charges for entry to the area – but doesn’t care about hikers coming down off the track. As we were in the area, we checked out the supermarket (not really much different to the shops in Muri Beach) and Turoa beach and bakery (closed). But still, it was Turoa. Sadly we’d missed the last bus home (though we hadn’t realised that yet) and after waiting a while with an American missionary, we decided to walk home – just to make sure we worked off that pawpaw poke.