Today I’d like to take you on a journey to Suwarrow, an island in the northern group of the Cook Islands in the south Pacific Ocean. We sailed there a few years ago and it is a particularly special place.
“We know they have been here, murdering. We witness the evidence of scorched bones washed up on the beach.” This is one of the countless stories divulged to sailors that drop anchor at Suwarrow Atoll; just 100-140 boats furl their sails here each year.
This story is about the illegal fishing that occurs when the caretaker’s six-month stint finishes and the island is left uninhabited. The unwanted fish is killed and thrown back; senseless cruelty even in paradise.
And that’s just what it is here, paradise. A word I try not to use often. Previously, we’ve visited a handful of islands without airports, cars, and supermarkets, but Suwarrow (pronounced sue-warh-row) has its own, unique, harmonic constant.
The north-facing entrance has a low reef extending east of the wide bar that does a fantastic job of fending off the deep rolling swells. These pulsing lumps of sea had grown into mountains during our five-day sail from Huahine in the Society Islands. The three o’clock sun was high enough to reveal the coral-fringed entrance; between the frothing white caps and scorched sand we puttered into a symphony of blues.
Tucked safely behind Anchorage Island, the waters smoothed and the dreamy scene of tranquillity was broken only by squealing birds, crying a welcome. The island’s coconut trees spill out onto the white beach and tilt at exotic angles, just like a holiday brochure. The pale blues of the shallow water captures the sunlight accentuating the contrasts of lush green leaves, bone-white sand, and soft blue water.
The allocated anchorage area is small if you want shallower depths of 10-15 metres. Tattoos of coral make finding a spot a challenge, by the third attempt we dug into sand. The chilled Panamanian beer from our stores onboard tasted especially delicious.
The next day we took our sea legs to land and expelled a train of contented sighs. Following the frond hemmed path with its shadowy light to a clearing, we found two buildings, old and new. The timber, two-story structure, is the Caretakers’ home during their stay. The ground floor is open, with a large banquet lunch taking place. Having declined an offer to join the group, James (a seasoned caretaker) suggested we walk around part of Anchorage Island and return after their lunch for formalities. The windward side was blustery, beautiful and confirms the island’s name of anchorage island, bringing relief from the strong trades, deflecting the wind to a good ten knots less in the lee.
There are four easy forms to fill out, rules to read, papers and passports to show and $US50 to pay, and then lots of history, wildlife and survival stories, leaving us with a thirst to hear more. The payment allows cruisers a two-week stay.
A chronicle of cruelty and greed is the atoll’s initial history. Originally named Suvorov after the Russian explorer Lazarov, who found the atoll in 1814, it was later renamed Suwarrow, in keeping with the Cook Islander’s language (they do not have words ending in ‘v’). Sadly the Russian admiralty took little notice of Lazarov’s discovery and many whalers were wrecked on the low reefs for some years after the finding. Discovering an island is a funny thing, as Caretakers say, “the Cook Islanders never lost it!”
The stories of shipwrecks, murder, buried treasure and evidence of a former population all stir into a big pot of recipes of disasters, with further ingredients of men lost when their ship struck the reef and pearl divers being left on the island for six months, with just a promise of payment if and when they were collected. Pearlers mixed with shipwrecked folk, fights and murder broke the Island’s peace. Later, the history calms and reveals leasing the atoll to various large companies to gather Pearl shells and plant coconuts. In 1914 a hurricane stopped all pearl shell operations.
Mr Tom Neale is probably the one most of us identify this island with. He wrote “An Island to Oneself” about the time he lived in solitude for a total of six years, on and off. At times he left the Island for a while, due to Rarotonga authorities deciding to evacuate him; To saved his pennies and simply returned. Unconfirmed knowledge is passed along in this island that at some point, while Tom was living on one end this “deserted” Island, the other end was inhabited by 60 Cook Islanders! The written word is a wonderful thing.
We haven’t read Tom’s book yet and are keen to do so, especially now we have stood in his house, which was leftover from the military occupation in WWII.
When in the Tuamotos (Huahine) a black-tipped shark, 1.5 metres in length circled us for 15 minutes. After coming nose to nose with this shark, I found out that I could scream underwater with a snorkel on, walk on water and Velcro myself to Noel, without the use of Velcro itself! Here in Suwarrow, Black Tips circle the boat on anchor. A cruising highlight for me is swimming in pristine water at my whim. Apparently Black Tips are curious about humans but not dangerous. When we decided to take the plunge I couldn’t quite believe I was jumping into a shark-infested pool!
In Suwarrow, drifting with the dinghy tethered to our waists and a knife strapped to our thighs, we coasted along a reef for two hours. Feeling safe with the dinghy so close and the fact that I was armed (knife = blood = massive sharks frenzy = stupid, but made me feel better). Vivid fish didn’t flick away in a flash, but swam just out of reach. Colourful coral stole our attention and helped forget about sharky and his buddies. I was so ready to ‘play it cool’ I actually became disappointed when there were no sharks in sight. Later, three small black tips swam past with just a brief glance our way.
That night at the pot luck, the scraps of fish were fed to the sharks on the opposite side of the island, the entrance in a bid to keep the swimming area safe.
As James whistled, twenty Blacktips came charging into the shallows. Amid the frenzy of fins two Greys followed at a speed I simply could not comprehend. One black tip became very intimate with James’ feet, where he stood in just inches of water. I felt very low in the food chain – unsafely perched on a little rock. I now know that it is just a waste of time having an escape plan for sharks, if there is a feeding frenzy there is no hope. I’m not sure if I will relax on the next dive or not.
Take care pot lucking with the Caretakers
James and John spend May to November on Anchorage Island to check cruisers in and out; they present and protect the wildlife and beauty. For non-obligatory donations of food and/or money they take you diving (“the best diving in the entire Pacific”), introduce you to other islands within the atoll, and arrange coconut crab and lobster hunting and excursions to bird breeding areas.
But their expertise really lies in entertaining. Within the setting of a mostly deserted island, it feels private. As though James and John own the land and we all have an exclusive invitation to spend some time there. At the Potluck the international flags flap a myriad of colours lazily in the breeze that spirals through the coconut trees, enough to keep cool, not too much to bluster.
Haphazard international bodies recline in the makeshift benches. The food supplied by all has exclusive flavours and flare that cruisers are famous for. The atmosphere brings several elements together which creates an environment free of politics, judgement and opposing opinions. We were all just children on the planet, no country of origin better or worse, all marvelling at this tiny corner of the world that is ours for the briefest blink in history. Kindred spirits that are content and that is the key ingredient.
This is the second season here for James Mataa (aka ‘Big John’) as Park Ranger. Leaving a large family behind in Rarotonga, he enjoys the solitude of the island, but equally he enjoys hosting all the cruisers. James loves the whole job and is passionate about everything he does. When pushed for a downside of his responsibilities he said that occasionally he has to ask a cruiser to leave. Embarrassingly so, most recently an Australian cruiser got a little high on rum and lost his friendliness, James had the responsibility to ensure he left promptly. “We want cruises here” he explained, “but the right type of cruisers, those who will respect the island and our rules.” James has a neat affinity with Tom Neale, born in Wellington, New Zealand, travelling the Pacific in his youth and living on Suwarrow. As a delightful touch, from the Yacht Club, every evening, James would escort each cruiser to the dinghy dock via torchlight and bid us all ‘good night’.
John Rouruina Gerald Trego is the assistant Park Ranger, on his first season here; leaving behind a wife, Rose-Lee and three children, Jonelle, Elijah and Silas in Rarotonga. John (aka Boo Boo) He is enjoying his time here, his background of agriculture, marine and cooking in the army, amongst a myriad of other skills, hold him in good stead for his responsibilities. He misses his family, but that is the only downside. One job John has taken on himself is to ensure everyone returns back to their boats with a smile on their face. He is making real success of this responsibility too.
Both caretakers have all the skills required to maintain this slice of heaven. But they have more, a warm welcome and passion for their land. The knowledge they have of flower, fauna, wildlife and history is exceptional and passed on with immense enthusiasm; they are true ambassadors for their country. Apparently, next year the criteria may change for the caretaking jobs. I can speak for all the cruisers, we hope it doesn’t. These guys work 24/7, helping, guiding and hosting all cruisers at all different times of the day, while carrying out their other tasks. Tasks which include report writing. The National Government Services require them to map out what fish are where, marine resources; details on growing vegetables, cruisers’ questions and many other responsibilities. As for the family atmosphere which Suwarrow fosters, James and John truly are a pleasure to meet and create an overall charm that’s hard to describe. To change the current set up at Suwarrow will mean the end of some very special magic.
Heroic Coconut Crab Hunters
Lobsters and crabs are abundant, if you can catch them. The first attempt, now known as the ‘reconnaissance’, netted us only the knowledge of when not to go lobster hunting. Walking along a low reef in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is quite something. Crashing barrels of white foam one side, calm pools of trapped flickering fish the other. That same night though, we did catch three Coconut Crabs, letting one go as it was too small. James educated us on hunting etiquette; under their tail if they have eggs, or a sac, they are female and should be returned. Males are okay to catch. Coconut crabs walk forward and run backward, so with a large bucket and a little scare at their heads, they run back into the bucket. Sounds easy, except their mighty bone-crunching claws cling on the edge of the bucket, or grab your stick, crushing it to splinters. Their beautiful blue-tinged shell turns vivid red once cooked. With two males, we were happy,.
In company of comrades
We have our favourite places that we’ve sailed to over the years, Aitutaki, Moorea and other far-flung places of great memories, for lots of different reasons. Suwarrow is now one of our lead destinations, this is the most unique, beautiful, welcoming place we have ever been. As I write we are preparing to go ashore to swap books, thank our hosts for last night and re-connect with new arrivals. The thought that this moment in time will end makes my eyes sting.
So what does make this place different? . . no airport, no cars, no town (no shopping!), no tourists, no loud music on the beach, no phones no internet, just nature and beauty and friends and that’s just it, there are no strangers here.
I hope you enjoyed our adventure in Suwarrow. The memories of our sailing trip and especially this island, I hold very dear.
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I wish you safe sailing.
Where is your favourite place? And why?
When cruising there is always something to learn: Here at Suwarrow, I’ve learnt two lessons in harvesting cynicism in the written word. The revelation (and maybe only gossip) that Tom was not on a deserted island leaves me miffed. But the advice for fending off sharks leaves me mystified.
In one of our, ‘identify sea creatures’ books, I read that if you slap the water with your hand Blacktipped Sharks will be scared off. Not so, a 1.5 metre shark came to investigate us as usual and Noel slapped the water as the shark seemed very intent on its purpose. On hearing the slap the shark instantly went into torpedo mode straight for us, I am sure I saw an extra glint in his eye! We stood our water and the shark veered off. The stunned silence was broken with a rather London-esque twang “nice one Noel!”
Checking in is informal, however there are rules to follow that all cruisers are required to read as they check in.
It costs $US50 for a two week stay (2011)
Absolutely no pets are allowed on shore and no picnicking around the island, except at the Yacht Club. (There are further rules to adhere to).
James and John gratefully receive donations that supplement their diet. If sailing to Suwarrow, tune into the Pacific Cruiser’s Net at 16:30 (02:30 Zulu) on 6Alpha (6224 MHz) for up to the minute details of Suwarrow.
James and John are growing a plethora of vegetables and appreciate any live matter from the cruisers that they can use for compost.