August 18, 2013 By Lesley Sauls
Step over step, step over step. I focused on the sinewy brown calves ahead of me as they carefully climbed over twisted roots and jagged rocks higher and higher through the tropical jungle of Rarotonga to its highest point, an enormous rock called Te Rua Manga (The Needle). The medicine man I followed, Pa Teuruaa, said our reward would be a silent meditation at an intensely spiritual place.
A visit with him hadn’t been the reason for my trip to this tiny island nestled just south of the Equator and east of the International Date Line, the capital of the Cook Islands. He was an unexpected surprise. I had come with friends to explore the islands for a week and was delighted when our guide suggested a hike across Rarotonga with an experienced medicine man. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take my tropical holiday into a more spiritual realm.
Before we had met with him, though, my group spent a couple of days exploring. After picking up drivers licenses and a couple of mopeds, we scootered the circumference of the island capital on an 18-mile coral road, Ara Metua, that had been laid by native Rarotongans in the 11th century – long before Captain Cook happened upon the island chain. In this country there are no stoplights, and buildings are limited in size by the height of the island’s tallest palm tree. We stopped at a small hotel for a tropical cocktail and lounged in hammocks strung from palm trees by the lapping lagoon’s edge.
A petanque championship at another resort lured us to roll tiny metal balls across a grassy poolside lawn with the resort’s staff and owners and splashed between plays in the warm, clear pool. Strict Cook Islands law prevents property from being owned by foreigners or sold in any way. Instead, land is owned by the six tribes who originally inhabited the island and is handed out to family members as they marry or have need, so hotels and resorts are family-run and small – from the most spare to the most elegant – and at any restaurant or hotel, patrons are the owner’s guests and treated as friends.
We dined al fresco at a large restaurant where dancers on floating stages twirled fire and twisted their hips in provocative grass skirts to tell the Cook Islands history through music and dance. After the show, the restaurant’s owner, a tribal chief, generously greeted all of her guests. We felt like family in this island nation where everyone freely shares and helps one another. Without the barriers of land ownership, people pluck fruit from each other’s trees and flowers to tuck behind their ears – right side for married people and left for people who are looking.
We hired snorkel gear from The Big Fish Dive Centre, a property expats rent from an islander, to explore the reef around Rarotonga. The company runs regular dive trips to deeper water, but we were there on a day when the ocean was churning and visibility was low. Our decision to snorkel in the protected lagoon paid off. We were rewarded by discovering octopus, parrot fish and a variety of corals and sea life that were brightly colored, interestingly shaped and completely unfamiliar.
By the time we went to the island’s weekly open-air market, we were comfortable in the easy way of the island. We wandered along to the drumming sounds of local musicians and followed our noses to a variety of culinary treats. Rainbows of scarves adorned small tents in which polished wood salad tongs were displayed beside intricately carved statues representative of the island nation’s long history. Children darted among stands where I found local Nomi fruit juice, known internationally for its restorative properties. At one booth, a young man talked me into buying two bracelets made from the taro seeds he had gathered with his sister, and at another stand I found the South Pacific’s legendary opalescent black pearls.
We had only just settled into the crowded atmosphere when it was time to join up with Pa, our medicine man. In the market full of colorfully dressed men and women, most with flowers behind their ears, Pa stood out in his black shorts and naked chest. He had a vine tied around each calf and old shoes on his feet. His wide smile was warm and welcoming below his dreadlocked hair, and he greeted each of us with a hug that said he knew us before we’d even met.
Together we drove to the trailhead that would lead us to The Needle. We were a happy group of carefree travelers until our driver flung us out on a dead-end road and zoomed away with a toot and a wave.
Then we were alone with Pa, our man of the jungle. He draped his shoulders with long, wide leaves to keep himself cool and pulled out a jar of fermented Noni fruit to spread liberally on our shoulders and arms as a natural insect repellant. The pungent smell was eye-watering. Then he stood our small group in a ring and asked for silence as he blessed us in his native tongue, in a Buddhist chant and in a Christian prayer. The tone was set as we began a meditative walk to the heart of the island, and we silently copied Pa’s example of mindful foot placement on a rugged trail.
At the top of the mountain, Pa pulled out sweet, succulent star fruit that bore no resemblance to the anemic, hard buffet-line garnishes I had known. With fruit juice dripping from our chins, we had time to ask him our questions. One man asked what direction Pa would give a divorcee, and Pa laughingly said that no one could predict the future. I asked how a person could find balance and inner peace, and he became more serious.
“You can climb the holiest mountain with the holiest man, and you will only find peace in yourself,” he said gently.
Pa told us to walk or swim for meditation in silence – and for support with friends. In a world of many boundaries, he advised us to move forward in clear moments and to pause for introspection when things seemed less clear. He challenged us to look into the mirror once each day and really like ourselves – a difficult but rewarding task – and he told us to think about ourselves first before helping others.
“How can you help others when you are not healed yourself?” he asked.
From the top of Rarotonga all things seemed possible. The jungle was a lush green carpet around us, and the most daring of our group climbed to the top of the actual giant stone that was The Needle – prompting 141 prayers from Pa for his eventual safety. We all felt alive and spiritually renewed, and there was a sense among us that we were ready to begin the rest of our lives.
We leaped down the trail on the back side of the mountain like gazelles. We hopped over giant boulders, danced across clear running streams and clambered over fallen trees. Our feet padded on the mossy path, slipped on leafy inclines and gripped sandstone ledges with a refreshed energy that made us giddy. At the bottom of the trail, we peeled off our clothes and dove into the refreshing pool of a gushing waterfall to complete our symbolic baptism. Pa joined us and squeezed a tropical ginger flower’s pulp into our open hands so that we could use it as a natural shampoo. We scrambled up the Papua Falls and jumped from the top with squealing abandon.
“This is our defining moment,” one woman called out from the mossy cliff before leaping out into the warm air.
And so it was.
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When you go:
Several airlines partner connecting flights through Auckland to Rarotonga, but the only direct flight from the United States is on Air New Zealand out of Los Angeles. It leaves on Sunday night to arrive in the islands at sunrise on Monday morning and returns the following Saturday night to arrive in Los Angeles midday on Sunday. This round-trip flight lasts about 10 hours and costs around $1,000.
Where to stay:
There are no high-rise hotels on Rarotonga or anywhere in the Cook Islands; travelers delight in the luxury of smaller resorts. Pacific Resort (www.pacificresort.com) on Muri Beach is one of the largest with about 40 guest suites. At Royale Takitumu (www.royaletakitumu.com), accommodations are more intimate with 10 private villas. The Little Polynesian Resort’s 14 suites are secluded on the southern tip of the island (www.littlepolynesian.com), and the Crown Beach Resort offers spectacular sunsets on the west side of the island. All resorts enjoy white sand beaches, and most offer dining, pools and petanque courts – the islanders’ version of lawn bowling.
Ara Tapu is the only road around the island, although some smaller roads reach toward its jungled center. City buses travel clockwise and counterclockwise around the 20-mile circumference at regular intervals and can be flagged down from anywhere along the road. To travel more independently, a visitor can obtain a Cook Islands drivers license, good for a year, which is required for moped rentals. To see the jungle depths of the island, Coconut Tours offers an exciting way to drive Ara Metua – the ancient road- learn about jungle plants and take in ocean views from the highest points reachable by road. Hiking trails to The Needle are well marked on maps, and any resort will be able to arrange a guide – perhaps even with Pa.
Where to eat:
Many restaurants beckon to passers-by, and almost all offer fresh produce, savory seafood and a waterfront hammock. A casual lunch at Sails Restaurant and Bar can include local Matutu beer and traditional ika mata – fresh tuna with lemon and coconut cream. For dramatic dining, cultural entertainment is available at several locations. Te Vara Nui Village provides afternoon education and experiences in the legends, costumes, medicines and history of the Cook Islands. When night falls, the village comes to life on an overwater island where dancers bring the history to life after guests enjoy a generous Umu Buffet dinner: www.tevaranui.co.ck
The Dive Centre Ltd is owned by Sabine Janneck and Sascha Schmitt, expats who are eager to share the beauty of Rarotonga’s underwater paradise: www.thidivecentre-rarotonga.com
For more detailed information about the Cook Islands and all that is available there, visit www.cookislands.travel.