Like the rest of the Cook Islands, Pukapuka is beautiful, populated by abundant marine life and myriad coconut trees. This may be where the similarities end.
Pukapuka, located closer to Samoa than to Rarotonga, has its own dialect, culture, and customs. Women, not men, work the taro patches. Ancient conservation rules are strictly observed, and annually updated; there are village-wide laws to govern the collection of seafood, birds, fish, and plants.
The atoll comprises three separate islands, between which people rotate every six months to allow for the rebalancing of ecosystems. Chiefs, not judges, preside over disputes. The people live in harmony with one another, and with their environment. They work and live communally, coming together to cook, clean, play sport, and fish.
Pukapuka is the most westerly island in the Cooks group. Its name means “land of little hills”; other names which have been applied to Pukapuka include San Bernardo (a Spanish explorer’s idea) and Danger Island (a British explorer’s).
In the twenties, American writer Robert Dean Frisbie settled on Pukapuka, and in doing so found what he was looking for: an island where he wouldn’t be able to hear “the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world.” He took a Pukapukan wife, learned the language, and wrote extensively about his adopted island home.
“Without a thought for the white man’s code of ethics, I have been happy,” he wrote, “enjoying a felicity unknown in right-thinking realms.”
Tourists are few and far between, but like Frisbie, they all fall in love with the island’s natural beauty, its succulent fish, and the warmth of its people. They remember fondly the crystal-clear lagoon teeming with life, picnics on uninhabited islets, roasted seabird, and the feeling of total and boundless freedom.
Pukapuka has an airstrip, but air service is irregular. Boats head north from Rarotonga a few times a year. Private accommodation in local homes can be arranged.