Atiu, Cook Islands

Toes in the tropical jungle of Atiu.

Atiu’s only airport terminal welcomes guests to the tiny island where jungles reach down to the water and community is found in its very center. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)












Polynesian sun shines down into a centuries-old water cave on the island of Atiu in the South Pacific, allowing just enough dim light for a refreshing afternoon dip. (Lesley Sauls)















I had just bushwhacked through a dense jungle on an ancient coral reef and crawled into a dimly lit cave behind a silent Polynesian guide named Paul Kura on the tiny island of Atiu in the southern Cook Islands. When he wordlessly gestured toward a shallow pool of water in the bottom of the cave, I was a bit confused as to what was on offer. But when he stripped off his clothes and dove down into that pool, I got the idea. The depth had been deceiving. This was no tiny cave-puddle, this was an underground oasis – a place to cool off after our sweaty trek. I admit to a moment’s hesitation after I had peeled down to my mud-smeared skivvies and was teetering on a cliff of damp limestone, but I’d come halfway around the planet to challenge my boundaries in honor of a significant birthday, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. I closed my eyes and jumped.

After splashing about for a while in the refreshing water, I found a little nook in the cave where I could rest on a submerged ledge with my upper body leaning against rough stone. The clear water stilled around me, and I could sense the explosive history that had created this volcanic island – how far it was from my busy city life. In the dark quiet, a long black shape slowly curled around my legs and then drifted away from me. No one else saw it, and I began to wonder if I had imagined some kind of mystic cave creature.

Four other brave explorers played with us in the water cave, which I learned was on Kura’s family’s land and rarely visited by outsiders. We were lucky to have been introduced to him by the owner of our resort, Roger Malcom. An atmospheric physicist and 31-year resident of the island, Malcom knew how to help his guests find the adventure of a lifetime. He even turned a minor emergency into an education when he whisked us down one of the island’s five roads to the local hospital, a small building next to a raised plot of land. While we waited for one of our group to be bandaged up after a fall on the jungle’s sharp coral floor, Roger pointed to what is now the doctor’s residence atop the elevated property.

“Medicine came with the missionaries,” he explained. “Before that time the locals put sick and dying people on that piece of land. When they died, the bodies were left there until only bones remained. Then their families would take the bones to a burial cave.”

Oddly enough, when the missionaries came, they built a hospital on that sacred spot. Locals were so conditioned to its purpose that they only brought dead and dying people to the hospital, not people who could be healed. Eventually, respect for local custom, the missionaries moved the hospital to a plot of land nearby and made the building on the raised area into doctors’ quarters.

Local custom is deeply rooted in Atiu. Once our injured member had been safely bandaged, Malcom invited his guests to participate in a centuries-old tradition called a tumunu. We ducked back into the edge of the jungle and approached a rustic shack on which was crudely painted “Rising Sun Boys.” From within wafted the smell of mosquito coils, sweat and fermented fruit. We respectfully slipped onto wooden benches within the small shed and waited quietly to be introduced to Daniel Tearaitoa, the boss of this tumunu. Malcom had already explained the expectation of tumunu guests to us, so we each knew to wait patiently for the barman in the middle of the room to dip a small coconut shell into a bucket between his knees. He slowly scooped out a local brew and handed it to each of us in turn so that we could take it with one hand, gulp it in one drink and then hand the shell back.

“Put your hand up if you want to pass on a round,” said Malcom. “I suggest you take 10 turns. That will give you a slight buzz and a feeling of joining in the ceremony, but your head and body will feel fine in the morning. Any more is up to you.”

While we ritually shared the communal coconut shell cup of jungle brew, Kura and Kau Henry sang, played guitar and talked to us. They told me that my mystic cave creature had been a vaiakaruru, a freshwater eel, come to honor me. After a few local songs, they struck up some tunes that their foreign guests might know. We loosened our inhibitions with every round of sweet fermented fruit juice – the recipe for which is not shared with outsiders. A South African visitor repeatedly raised his shell in toasts to peace, health, love, life, happiness and well-being. He said that he had learned this 8,000-year-old toastmastering, or tamada, tradition in Eurasian Georgia, and that at the end of the toast we should all join him in a Buddhist chant. So we did – all of us. And the cup kept passing. A few rounds later, we were people from seven countries with arms entwined singing “Que Sera, Sera” at the top of our lungs.

That was when the barmaster’s shell tapped his jug, and the group fell silent. Henry explained that this was the serious time in the evening when he would pray for us. Then we were each expected to introduce ourselves and share a few words. Some people simply said what country they had come from or what they did for work. Others shared what impact the Cook Islands were having on them. I found myself unable to speak for a moment when I tried to explain how welcomed I had been by everyone on this island of 400 people and that I had never so openly and intimately experienced a joining of so many cultures. When the Rising Sun Boys – including the boss’s wife, Vaine Tearaitoa – introduced themselves, they were equally solemn in their shared comments and gratitude for our congregation.

After the serious ritual, the singing and stories resumed. A young woman from Los Angeles grabbed a guitar and belted out the blues with her long brown hair swirling to the beat. Beside her, Polynesian men clapped, flower-adorned Tearaitoa pounded a drum, and our international summit continued long into the night.


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When You Go


Getting there: From the Midwest, the trick is to get the direct Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to the main island of Rarotonga that runs every Sunday night for a return the following Saturday night. These overnight flights allow for a refreshed arrival in either country, but the connection to Los Angeles can be hard to find online. Be creative; it’s worth the effort. The total cost of these flights will be less than $2,000. After a day or two in Raro, hop a flight on Air Rarotonga to Atiu. This round-trip flight over the tropical blue South Pacific will cost about $300.

Staying on Atiu: Roger and Kura Malcom offer air-conditioned jungle cottages that sleep up to five people for about $200/night. Their property boasts a pool and grass tennis court that is perfect for late-night star-gazing. Book online to find discounts at Other accommodations are available with Marshall Humphreys ( and with Auntie Nga and Papa Paiere at Taparere Lodge ( for less than $100/night.

Where to eat: Kura Malcom is a fantastic cook and welcoming hostess who serves dinner and drinks nightly. Do NOT leave Atiu without trying her delicious Pota, a taro leaf/coconut cream concoction that captures the sweet flavor of the island. In addition to Kura’s Kitchen, you can grab a burger and a snack at Super Brown Burgers, and all accommodations provide self-cooking areas.

Tours and activities: Your hosts will likely welcome you as family and help plan your activities, but to see what’s available, go to You won’t find your tumunu there, though. For that, you’ll have to live like a local and ask around when you arrive.