Sailing the world and the magic of Aitutaki
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Noel’s briny brain has forgotten that goats smell. “Can you kill the goat a few days earlier?” Noel asks while I can’t help but search the sun-dappled garden hoping the goat is not in earshot while we discuss its demise.
For $25 (New Zealand) Noel can have a fresh skin (goat – that is). He will then dry it and replace the split skin that is currently on his homemade drum. The fact that our 10 metre boat will stink like a fetid abattoir and that goat hair will plague us for eternity is nothing compared to the pink fit customs will have when we sail back into Australia.
Location of death discussions
Aitutaki is described as one of the most heavenly places on earth and considered one of the most magnificent lagoons in the world. It comprises a triangular-shaped reef encircling a vivid clear lagoon where three volcanic islands rest within twelve coral atolls. Located directly 140 nautical miles north of Rarotonga (220 kilometres) Aitutaki is one of the southern Cook Islands, that is little visited by sailors. Captain Bligh was the first European to discover Aitutaki in 1789 and locals hold him responsible for introducing the sweet pawpaw fruit that now grows in abundance.
The tiny bay is as calm as being moored on concrete and as beautiful as a perfect pearl. However, puttering into the bay is not for the faint-hearted. A narrow channel, buoyed with sticks on one side only, is shallow and windy. Where the sticks are leaning at an angle you have to decide whether they have been knocked over, or more usually, it indicates to give the twig a wider berth in the slender channel! With a draft over 1.5 metres you will carve your way through the sand. Certainly, over 1.8 metres would mean a probable grounding. Mercifully, the water is clear and a ‘bow person’ is imperative to keep the heart rate in check.
Enchanting chants, soulful song and drunken ditties
The angel voice tickles my ears before my eyes peel open. The soft baritone carries along with the gentle breeze meeting and partnering with my intrigue to give reason to rise from my cosy pit, a challenging feat most days. With a dishevelled sarong quickly wrapped around my matching body, I peer out from our cluttered cockpit. The angel stands on a deserted concrete peer, apparently working his smooth lungs just for us. Sadly, he spots his mesmerised audience and my wing-less cherub strolls away and leaves the silent air still and my ears empty, yearning for more.
Song enters our lives daily whilst in Aitutaki. Donning our finest wear the usual grotty yachties smarten up for the church service. Bursting lungs, boisterous harmony and energised eurhythmics leave us breathless and wanting to applaud the show-like performance.
Returning home one star-spangled evening, six lightly intoxicated boaties huddle in a dinghy and inspired by the welcoming locals we exercise our own vocal cords. We sing a peculiar ditty, replacing Nagasaki with Aitutaki, “Back in Aitutaki where the fellas chew tobbacy and the women whicky whacky woo. . . . ”
After our church attendance, the locals provide lunch. A little embarrassed to be guests of honour, we linger outside the awaiting hall of food, pretending to simply enjoy the view. “Did you retrieve my dinghy?” a gruff voice questions one of our neighbouring friends and they are perplexed. “That was me, sir,” Noel jumps in, approaching the unsmiling local, not sure what to expect. The man thrusts out his hand and Noel does all he can not to duck or jump back. “Let me shake your hand sir,” our new friends says, “my dinghy is my income, thank you so much, my son” (said scathingly), “did not tie the dinghy properly, I have something for you, which is your dinghy?, I will leave you a gift.” Seeking us out and shaking Noel’s hand was enough thanks for us and we dug into a picnic type lunch with the locals who ensure that all visitors (all four couples on boats) are fed at least twice over before they indulge. About an hour later as we return to our dinghy, it is brimming with pumpkins, several kinds of potatoes, enormous bunches of bananas and healthy pawpaws. The booty is enjoyed by us all.
Hot bodies, flushes and feet
“What do you reckon they wear under their skirts?” I whisper to my buddy, Ann from SV Novia. “I dunno” she giggles, “but it had better be good support!”
As the guys strut their aggressive stuff and the girls glide gracefully to the thud of hypnotising drums I recall our hosts welcoming speech before the local dancing starts. “Kia Orana – may you live long”, she adds, “enjoy the show and help yourselves”, comes the offer. “Only polite to do what the hosts ask,” I state, grinning mischievously. The two olive skin, strapping lads, ignore the trickling sweat that courses down their corrugated abdomens and I try to suppress an urge to wipe it away – at least while Noel is looking. They plant soggy kisses on my cheeks and I try to act demure, not my age, which is too close to twice theirs. “Thank you, you were great!” they laugh. Partaking in the “get the blobby tourists dancing after the professional show” I paired up with a lad and copied his moves, totally forgetting that the ladies should be hip-swinging with vigour. So, I am not sure if they find me hysterical because I dance like a man or that I can’t dance – maybe both. Still, the workout, fun and the laughter is well worth the comical show I gave the audience. Post performances of the professionals and the unrefined, the beautiful women and handsome men change from their vivid dress into western shorts and t-shirts. The clothes morph them from men to boys, their western dress, common, drab and a startling come-down from their woven headdresses, skirts and vastly rich costumes.
Moped granny inspiration
The welcome into Aitutaki surpasses any we have received anywhere in the world. The elegant locals are eloquent, embracing their culture with a proud vigour. The tiny island is protected from the ugly glutton of wealth, land can only be handed on to family. The “good mornings” from a grinning Gran, as she hurtles past in her fine flowery dress inspires us to hire a moped and explore. Most of the transport on the island is via small scooters, keeping pollution, noise and traffic to a soothing minimum. Acquiring a Cook Island bike licence for $10, $20 dollars for the hire and just your first name you are free to rampage around the eight square kilometres island, which houses a population of just 1600. There really isn’t much to see, the beauty of Maunga Pu, the highest point of the island, offers a fantastic 360-degree view where you can look out over the entire landscape. However, tenacious mosquitoes quickly mar the experience. Inland, small patches of houses are dotted here and there, the inhabitants are delighted when we stop to say hello and offer candy to the shy kids. Visits are short, the battle with the fearsome mozzies is painfully lost.
The heart of the island
“Heelllooo” the grubby, five year old girl waves as we approach after our 30-minute hike back from the expensive, inordinately slow internet. The “Main Street” is anything but; a couple of tiny supermarkets, a few basic cafes and bars. Locals sedately speed past on their thrumming two-wheelers, not one person fails to wave or nod in greeting. Our mud smudged friend stops practising wiggling her tiny hips to investigate us, comparatively large, white folk. As we reach the group of kids I raise my arms and wiggle my hips trying to mimic her dance, the girls fall over, gasping and giggling at my efforts. We keep walking but they are not prepared to let us go just yet. Spotting the new wooden drum Noel carries that we’ve just purchased for a family gift, the sniggering group command the drum and demand us to dance. Noel tries the warrior dance we witnessed the previous night, their crashing knees with straw skirts made a formidable sight, unfortunately, Noel just looks like he’s a chicken with two left legs. My wiggling is not much better and the kids bang the drum and nearly expire in fits of laughter.
To top the restful, welcoming, peaceful, fun stay at Atituaki, even chores become far less arduous. The tap where I have permission to hand wash our clothes at, is situated right next to a brick wall that is at the perfect height to relieve my back. The string of pine trees behind the neighbouring police station, next to the playing field, is perfect for drying. Noel fills Mariah II with water, while I scrub our clothes. We hang the washing humming summer tunes in the warm, gentle breeze; the ambience of the island dilutes normally laborious tasks. As our laundry flaps in the breeze, Noel returns with a small picnic. We sit on the soft, green grass, within the stillness of a Sunday. Our home, boat and faithful travel companion, Mariah II sits, in sight, at the end of the playing field, cooling in the breeze; we share a quiet lunch, a calm contemplation and maybe a short snooze.
Our arrival back to Australia is almost put on hold. Our travel bug-infested bodies have come across the one place in seven years of circling the planet that we are seriously thinking of stopping at (for six months anyway). Earnest consideration to taking a break, living the Aitutakian way and enjoying a rest, resonates through our salty minds. Already my body starts to unwind. To add foundations to the idea Noel has the offer of work. His carpentry and building skills attain him job offers all around the globe. Sense prevails and we decide that talking to the harbour master about hurricanes is our first step. “We have had three hurricanes already this year and the water levels always rise up to our desks in this office.” ‘This office’ is over three metres above the usual water line. Noel and I back out of the office and out of our dream. Faced with organising the boat for departure, rolling tummies in time with rolling seas and a collectively agreed “bad year” for the Pacific trades, we bid farewell to Aitutaki.
And the goat?
As we sadly make our farewells to the locals, the goat still breathes the flowery scent that carries over its flower-strewn garden. The skin we bought is from the island’s drum maker, a second hand, clean, odourless skin, will leave Mariah before we arrive in Australia. The goat’s time, though, is short; a feast is planned . . . Kia manuia (may good fortune shine on you).
Sailing the world and the magic of Aitutaki.
The information below is correct at the time of travel:
- Population of around 1,500.
- An excellent buffet meal, bar, music, dance dancing, can be had for around $40 (New Zealand) each (plus drinks)
- No visa required (providing you have valid passport and onward ticket/means)
- Limit to 31 day stay (visa application thereafter)
- You can buy the best meat pies since Australia! (it’s been a long time).
- You can only own land if you are family and then it is gifted to you. They only pay water and telephone rates – no house tax, purchase price, electricity etc . .
- The southern Cooks are made up of the capital Rorotaonga and Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Manuaw, Palmerston and Takutea.
- Maori language is the indigenous voice of the people. Each of the populated islands have a distinct dialect.
- The Cooks are self governing in free association with New Zealand
- All Islanders hold New Zealand passports
- The Cook island’s parliamentary system is modelled on the Westminster system in Britain
- Their currency is New Zealand Dollars