Manihiki - enchanted atoll of the north

Party Johnson wraps a baited hook in a fanu leaf. He says a prayer, ties the little parcel loosely to a rock with nylon line, and drops it into the sea.

Here, outside the reef, the water is calm and electric blue. Wisps of cloud hang in a bright sky. The sun beats on our fiberglass boat. We are anchored near to a row of motu, in view of their white-sand shores, coconut trees, and aquamarine inlets. Party jerks the line to free the rock, then turns to me with the sunburnt eyes of a fisherman and the contented smile of a person who enjoys being alive.

“The life is good here. I have been outside,” he says, referring to the world out there, across the sea, “but I always want to come back.”

Then he makes a joke about my snack-sized fish – the only one I caught in the seven hours we have been at sea, and he helped me – and he laughs a happy laugh.

‘Here’ is Manihiki, the second-to-northernmost island in the Cook Islands - 1160 kilometres from Rarotonga, four hours by plane. Manihiki is actually a ring of islets wrapped around a large lagoon, 11 by 12 kilometres wide. Two of its islets, Tauhunu and Ngake, are inhabited. To travel between their villages, Tauhunu and Tukao, takes 15 minutes in a motored boat. Both villages are visions of paradise.

In its bays and along its shorelines, Manihiki’s lagoon is teal and translucent. Coconut trees sprout from every inch of unoccupied land. Pigs and chickens dawdle across roads of white sand and coral; pora homes, with thatched roofs and no walls, sit atop lawns planted with the green of the tropics. Birds glide through blue skies.

The people are quintessential Polynesians, kind and generous and lovely to their core. Possessing as they do the hospitable spirit all island people seem to inherit, they spoil visitors. People I have yet to meet offer me gifts – sacks of husked nimata, uto, bananas, homemade bread, bags bulging with pawpaw, plates piled high with fresh fish.

“Apii told us they made chicken last night and you just ate the fish,” Party tells me one afternoon. “So now we know you like fish, so when we smoke it we will bring some for our little sister. Any time you want to have some fish, you let us know.”

In Tauhunu I stay in a self-contained, over-water bungalow that belongs to Kora and Nancy Kora, who extend disarming hospitality. One of them drops by every day to check on me, make sure I have enough cornflakes, and deliver a home-cooked dinner.

In the village of Tukao, the hosts are different but the hospitality is the same. Tamuera and Nitika Karaponga welcome me into their home, feed me, invite me to join them at parties and functions. Their gorgeous daughter Bella obligingly walks with me through the village, pointing out the school, the shop, and which families live in which homes. This, incidentally, does not take long. Just over 100 people live permanently in Tukao. About 130 live in Tauhunu.

In 1996, the combined population of both villages was nearly 670 and appeared to be increasing. At the time, Manihiki was riding a wave of recent success. The cultured black pearl industry was born in the early 80s, and before long Manihiki was producing 90 per cent of the country’s most profitable export: Cook Islands black pearls. By 2000, Manihiki pearls were earning up to $18 million a year. People were moving back to their ancestors’ island to start pearl farms.

But in 1997, Cyclone Martin hit, destroying 85 per cent of habitable homes, claiming 19 lives and interrupting hundreds more. It was the most tragic weather event in recorded Cook Islands history.

More than two-thirds of Manihiki’s people were evacuated. For varied reasons, many never returned home. Some people chose to rebuild their homes and farms. Then, three years later, they were again devastated, this time by a nasty outbreak of Vibro Harvey, a bacterial disease that destroyed 70 percent of the island’s oyster stocks. By the time they had recovered, the economy was in recession and pearl prices had plummeted.

People gave up and left in search of opportunity. Today, about 240 remain.

On Manihiki, people know each other (or, more accurately, are related to each other). There are none of the arbitrary boundaries that exist amongst city folk, who cross paths on the road, each pretending not to notice the other. All passersby acknowledge one other. Children I have never seen before call my name, wave, grin. I’m invited to play on a netball team and in a volleyball tournament, to be part of a fishing competition, to go to Rakahanga – an island of 90 people, two hours by boat across the open sea. I’m invited to the former Member of Parliament’s home for lunches, dinners, and an umukai after church. I’m invited into homes for meals. I’m invited to birthday parties.

Eyebrows rose when I told people on Rarotonga I’d be going to Manihiki for five weeks. There was concern that I wouldn’t have enough food – it had been more than four months since a cargo ship called into the atoll – and that I would be insufferably bored. I wondered about this unfounded concern, offered mostly by people who had never been to Manihiki. Still, I packed a chilly bin full of tinned and dried food and loaded my hard drive with movies. It was unnecessary: when I left Manihiki, I had plenty of leftover food and I had watched only one movie.

I had everything I needed, and more: fresh fish; copious coconuts; a waterfront bungalow for reading, writing, waking to the light of the sunrise, and nodding off to the metronomic sound of the lagoon lapping at the shore below the deck.

I swam daily, and from the bath-warm lagoon I watched birds dip, prowling in pairs for fish. Through my windows, I saw the coconut trees craned over the lagoon as if straining to take a drink. From the bungalow’s deck I watched both a lunar eclipse and a full moon, bright white, casting a shimmering stripe onto the silky lagoon below. I was supremely content.

Still, living there is quite a different story.

A plane goes to Manihiki twice a month. Five months can pass between visits from a cargo ship carrying goods like diesel and sugar. When the boat does arrive, the whole village heads to the harbour. There is no doctor of western medicine, and chartering a plane to airlift a sick or injured person to Rarotonga can take a day or more. There is a shop in each village, selling basic foodstuffs like rice and tins of corned beef, but most of the time their shelves are sparse because shipping is irregular and agriculture is largely absent. Still, there is no hunger.

“If you not working [for money] you can survive,” Maine Teitinga told me. “The fish here, the pa’ua, the uto, the local food here is free. When you stay in Raro… if you got no money that’s it, you got no food to eat. That’s why I like here.”

“We can eat any food here without no money,” echoed Tangi Toka, the government representative. “You can eat uto, you can eat pa’ua, fish, no money spent. You can drink coconut… To me it’s better to stay here… If you gonna stay in New Zealand, money, money [for] everything… It’s good to stay back on the island… uto, fish, pa’ua, just free.” Fish and seafood are indeed in plentiful supply.

I ate succulent Napoleon wrasse, tuna sashimi, ika mata with real coconut cream, fried wahoo, raw pa’ua, cooked pa’ua, oyster meat, bony milkfish, trevally coated in brown sugar and smoked in a halved 44 gallon petrol drum. The coconut is also a staple. Locals make breads and pancakes using uto, and poke using mangaro. Hydration comes from nimata, the young drinking coconut.

The people of Manihiki are remarkably resourceful. These days they have several pieces of heavy machinery, but they know from years of experience how to unload ships and barges using just manpower. If there is a problem, they find a solution. They transport dive tanks, suitcases, chilly bins, and pigs on motorbikes.

“When I came, there’s no power, we have no water, no luxury,” said Jane Kaina, the island’s executive officer, who was brought up on Rarotonga but moved to her family’s island in the late eighties. “You cook outside, you learn the hard way. That’s the old Manihiki. But it’s the best life of all.”

The world operates according to forces more natural than clocks and calendars, forces like weather and hunger. “In Raro if you working you follow the time,” Maine said. “Get up in the morning and it’s raining, you can’t stay home until the rain stop. You have to follow the time. Over here – no! It’s raining you stop your work, you come in the house.”

There is punctuality, however, in the matter of church. Saturday is spent preparing for Sunday, a day on which most people attend three services. Work is strictly forbidden on Sunday – a practice that is eroding on Rarotonga, as it blends into the commercial world. On Manihiki, Sunday is for donning your best – suits and jandals for men, dresses and rito hats inlaid with pearl shell for women – and doing little else than worshipping and eating. The Cook Islands Christian Church is beautiful, white and tidy with bold floral patterns in the ceiling. The a capella voices that waft from inside its walls are powerful enough to give you chills.

Church starts promptly, but in all other matters, time is not the essence. The rising and setting of the moon and the sun, the changing of the tides and weather – these, not diaries and iPhones, are the things that dictate the pace of life.

Some travellers like to make dinner reservations and take organised tours on air-conditioned buses, insulated against people and place. Manihiki is not for these travellers. Manihiki is for those who are contented to enjoy the most beautiful and fulfilling parts of the world – land, sea, sky, bounty, and kind people.

On Manihiki you feel, somehow, more human. There are none of the gaps technology wedges between people elsewhere. There is no excess, no clutter. Life revolves around the fundamentals – food, family, and faith.

Mine felt like a truncated trip. I approached my departure date with something like dread. Rarotonga loomed in my mind like a metropolis, a busy world that operates according to time and appointments and traffic – this is Rarotonga, an island of 10,000 people with two nightclubs and a 40 km speed limit.

I will remember the people I have met. I’ve spent hours interrogating them about atoll life, pearl farming, Manihiki’s lore, fishing, natural disaster, free-diving, aquaculture, and they have graciously and patiently answered my bothersome questions. I’ll remember sitting under the shade of a kuru tree, eating fresh fish with my fingers, laughing. I’ll remember catching ava with other ladies, my feet mired in sucking mud. I’ll remember the people who went out of their way to make me feel at home, the women who wove hats for me, the friends I made who came to the airport at 7am when I left, just to say goodbye.

This is paradise found. To this, my mind will return often.

Motu Hakamaru
Lagoon side accommodation
Cyclone damaged homes
A barge ferrying people between islands
Tauhunu waterfront
Tauhunu CICC Church
A black pearl farm