Tua Pittman rides the tiller with stern command. Steering the Marumaru Atua northwards into the night, he scopes the greying horizon like it’s a familiar friend. As one of the few contemporary Master Navigators trained in the ancient ways of sailing by stars, moon, ocean currents and migrating birds, on this short voyage from Rarotonga towards Aitutaki, Pittman is recreating a past almost forgot to modern travellers.

I’m on a maiden voyage to check out how the Marumaru Atua would function on a longer voyage with paying passengers. As a guinea pig writer, my job is to confirm whether or not a trip on a historic ’vaka’ (ocean going Polynesian canoe) will appeal to intrepid travellers.

Tua Pittman, Master Navigator aboard the Marumaru Atua

Tua Pittman, Master Navigator aboard the Marumaru Atua

The Marumaru Atua is a double-hulled catamaran of about fifteen metres length. It sports three russet coloured lateen sails decorated with ancient Polynesian motifs. There is no keel. By riding the four metres long wooden tiller, the ’vaka’ steers easily enough. A small rattan roofed galley with enough space for two adults sits amidships. A single toilet with door is positioned in front of the galley facing the bow. A bucket with rope attached is the flushing mechanism. The remainder of the deck is open to the elements with two storage compartments that also serve as bench seats. Each hull has enough space for eight bunk beds, sixteen altogether for both crew and passengers. There’s not enough space below to swing a cat, had one been aboard, creating a cosy arrangement that could make or break friendships.

Marumaru Atua Vaka sails up

Marumaru Atua vaka sails up

A thousand or so years ago, early Polynesians ventured across the planet’s largest ocean in search of new lands. They navigated mostly by the stars, a permanent planetarium seemingly embedded in their brains. These ingenious explorers migrated across huge expanses of uncharted waters without printed maps to guide them.

A few years ago, in commemoration of his ancestors’ remarkable explorations Pittman helped build this ’vaka’, at once recreating a vessel that the earliest Polynesians used to circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean well before European pioneers ’discovered’ the unknown world. In building the ’vaka’ Pittman and his friends simultaneously reconnected with their heritage.

Marumaru main sail catches the breeze

Marumaru main sail catches the breeze

That recreated canoe, the ’vaka’ Marumaru Atua (meaning ’Under the Protection of God’) sailed with six other canoes across the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate of San Francisco, proving that it was possible to sail vast distances without the benefit of modern navigation equipment.

Since that voyage in 2011/2012, the Marumaru Atua has been based in the Cook Islands at Rarotonga. Tua Pittman, his crew and benefactors have given the ’vaka’ to the people of Rarotonga as a reminder of their intrepid past. Managed by Pittman and company, it now runs regular three hour evening trips beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef, allowing passengers to witness southern stars far away from city lights as the big canoe sails beyond the island’s encircling reef on a short bout of sky tripping.

If a voyage on a ’vaka’ doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, there’s plenty else to discover on a visit to the Cook Islands.

Best known for its ’newlywed and nearlydead’ customer base, a recent  expansion of Cook Islands’ tourism choices should appeal to visitors not celebrating a marriage or spending days welded to a banana lounge by a pool next to a white sand beach, though both those options remain very popular for a majority of visitors.

Rarotonga is basically Cook Islands central. The country’s only international airport is on Rarotonga and it’s the biggest island in the archipelago. Cook Islands’ total population is fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Approximately 12,000 people live on Rarotonga while approximately 1,800 more call Aitutaki home.

Sunday morning at Arorangi Church

Sunday morning at Arorangi Church

Rarotonga is a large volcanic island with peaks rising to over 600 metres in its densely forested centre. A double lane road of thirty-two kilometres circles the island. There is no cross-island road as the interior is too steep and rugged. A public bus runs two services, clockwise and anti-clockwise each thirty minutes. Passengers are picked up and dropped off wherever they choose to stop, sometimes only ten metres from one stop to the next. The night bus service runs clockwise only but not on Sundays. Hire car companies operate reliable services, renting small vehicles (Daihatsu mini convertibles are popular) and scooters to qualified drivers. A visitor’s driver’s licence is compulsory and can be purchased at the police station or through the rental agency. Bicycles are very popular transport options as well.

Titikaveka Beach

Titikaveka Beach

Rarotonga’s best beaches are at Muri and Titikaveka on the southern side. At Nikao and Arorangi on the northwest side more lovely beaches stretch along the lagoon. They’re not quite as gleaming smooth sandy white as those on the southern side but the sunset views are better. Little Avarua is the main town where the government meets and the country’s largest market, Punanga Nui, is held each Saturday morning.  Rarotonga’s surprisingly active nightlife is centred in Avarua. Check out Trader Jack’s and Whatever! bars on Thursday or Friday nights to see how Rarotongans socialise when they’re not at church or work. Saturday night revelries are a tad quiet, church going starts at 9am and it’s considered socially bad form to turn up nursing a hangover.

Aitutaki Lagoon

Aitutaki Lagoon

Aitutaki is much smaller, approximately seven kilometres long by three wide. A remnant of an extinct volcano, Maungapu, is the highest point at 124 metres. Aitutaki’s lagoon is huge, dotted with over a dozen motu that conjure images of tropical heaven: eye-popping white sand, water comprising every shade of blue, fringing coconut palms and coral gardens enticingly peppered with giant clams, black pearl oysters and an encyclopaedia’s worth of Indo-Pacific fish and crustacean species. I’ve seen quite a few tropical lagoons during my travels but few lagoons rival Aitutaki in terms of sheer blissful perfection.

Eleven churches operate on Aitutaki. Considering the population is fewer than 1,800 people, an impressive per capita ratio of proselytising opportunities abound.

My job while on this trip to the Cook Islands was to explore what else there is to do other than get married, honeymoon or lash out on an expensive retirement trip.

Here’s a list of ’Must Do’ activities on Rarotonga. I list them in no particular order of importance.

A ’Navigating Pacific Skies’ progressive dinner with Tua Pittman should be a number one priority for all visitors keen on Polynesian history. As a precursor either to the three hour excursion beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef or the four day trip to Aitutaki, this dinner in Tua’s excellent company starts at the Waterline restaurant and ends at a private home for dessert and is highly recommended as an introduction to a trip on the Marumaru Atua. Tua chauffeurs guests around the island while pointing out important stars, explaining navigation skills and relating Polynesian history. Inquiries and bookings can be made at [email protected]

Sunday’s 10am church service at Arorongi’s Cooks Islands Christian church. It’s free and better still, allows a glimpse into local culture in the truest sense. The service I attended was led by the new pastor recently returned to Rarotonga after living and preaching to a congregation in Sydney’s western suburbs. Replete with song and laughter, fire and brimstone, this was old time religion Cook Islands style.

A Raro Safari 4WD tour of the island’s back roads and mountainous interior is terrific fun. Owned and operated by local environmentally minded enthusiasts of Rarotonga’s soft wilderness areas, this half day trip in an extravagantly decorated open 4WD is a lot of fun as well as insightful. We enjoyed the company of our guide, Mr Useless (many Cook Islanders are best known by their nicknames). Mr Useless was anything but useless though he was occasionally a bit grumpy and difficult to understand, not because of a lack of English but because an absence of teeth often turned his words into unintelligible mumbles. A Raro Safari tour is a fun day out following a somewhat random itinerary. Ask a lot of questions, show keen interest and the tour will certainly evolve into a very educational experience. See www.rarosafaritours.co.ck

Captains Awesome and Amazing from the Koka Muri Lagoon cruise

Captains Awesome and Amazing from the Koka Muri Lagoon cruise

Definitely more fun than any of us anticipated was the Koka Lagoon Cruise on Muri’s fabulously picturesque lagoon. Billed as a ’Glass Bottom Boat Adventure’, I had my doubts about authenticity as a driving force. I was dead wrong about that assumption. The four crew members, Captain Awesome, Captain Amazing, Captain Jack Spry and Captain Cook (Captain Cook was the head cook for the afternoon lunch included in the cruise) proved that a day out in a small boat doing very touristy things like snorkelling around a coral renovation project, or snorkelling among large fish looking for a handout or having a picnic lunch on a motu just offshore from Muri’s beach while being entertained by an outstandingly energetic crew is an excellent way to spend an afternoon on Rarotonga. The captains taught us how to climb a coconut palm, how to husk a coconut, how to differentiate coconuts according to maturity, usefulness and flavour, how to plait palm fronds to make a hat or plate and how to play a ukulele. These guys could show a seasoned Vegas troupe a thing or three about how to maintain performance enthusiasm. I couldn’t have loved it more. See www.kokalagooncruises.com

Captain Jack Sparrow

Captain Jack Spry

The Saturday market, Punanga Nui in Avarua’s downtown area is where everyone comes to shop or just hang out. Like mixed crafts and produce markets the world over, a visit to this lively site is obligatory for all curious visitors who are intent on gaining insight into what makes the Cook Islands tick. Top stalls are: Farm Direct Pearls for some of the best and most reputable deals on locally raised black pearls, Rito Cold Pressed Coconut Oil Products for edible flavoured oils, health and beauty products, Tokerau Jim for hand-crafted art objects and jewellery and KMD Ukuleles for its range of expertly made ukuleles from native woods. Of course numerous stalls selling fresh juices, fruit smoothies, icy frappes andhealthy (or not) small meals and snacks are everywhere. Take your pick and lash out on the simple fare.

Minar Purotu Henderson outside her Island Living shop

Minar Purotu Henderson outside her Island Living shop

A visit to Island Living store is highly recommended. Owned and run by Minar Purotu Henderson, this little shop is a gem which sells locally made and designed fabrics and crafts. The noni juice produced from the trees at Island Living’s garden plantation is on sale here. As a cure-all for everything from gout to cancer, the benefits of noni juice are highly regarded by all Cook Islanders. Henderson also runs the adjoining Plantation House restaurant which serves a set menu dinner for about twelve guests once a week, usually on Wednesday evenings. She’s a wonderful cook and uses her huge garden to great effect in the preparation of her special feasts. See www.islandlivingshop.com for reservations.

A Nature Walk with Pa is a unique treat. He’s a local hero and the recent winner of a prestigious tourism award. Pa is over seventy years old, walks barefoot dressed in a loincloth and takes limited numbers of guests on a hike around the Needle, a sharp spire carved by wind and rain from an ancient volcanic plug and into the island’s jungle interior. Pa also explains the benefits of indigenous plants as curatives and life preservers during his trek. He’s living proof of how a good diet and exercise leads to a long healthy life. See www.pastreks.com

Danny at Highland Paradise

Danny at Highland Paradise Cultural Centre

The sunset cultural tour and show at the Highland Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre held two or three times per week is a mixed bag of treats. The marae on the mountain is clearly an important historical site and the talk about it and its significance to Rarotongan culture is really interesting. While emcee Danny, dressed in full Cook Islands chiefly regalia, instructed guests not to cross the boundary to the marae unless invited, a woman accidentally crossed the line into the marae. Within seconds, a very large coconut nearly conked the man standing next to her on his head. Had it struck, he would surely have died. A marae can be a powerfully spooky place. The show and dinner that follows the visit to the adjoining marae is full of great music and dancing but Danny the emcee’s patter and act is hammier than a Porky the Pig cartoon. See www.highlandparadise.co.ck

Recommended Reading:

’My Island Home’ by Helen Henry an ex-Kiwi and island resident, widow of the nation’s first prime minister’s son. Her story is a fascinating one.

’The Book of PukaPuka’ and ’Island of Desire’ by American travel writer Robert Dean Frisbie who came to PukaPuka in 1924, married a local woman and stayed to open a general store.

Tom Neal Tacker visited the Cook Islands as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism. You can read more of Tom’s travels on his site at www.nakedhungrytraveller.com.au