Large hands, scarred, move gently over intricate patterns carved into mahogany, the handle of a Mangaia adze.
Papa Tuaiva Moutairi speaks in lilting dialect of a home island, explaining to visiting Mangaia expatriate Tanara Maarametua Buchanan meanings of a traditional motif he’s etched into wood – the maro itiki portrays the back to back fighting stance their forebears take when outnumbered during battle. And fights there were, a plenty, during pre-missionary times, with other islands, particularly Atiu, sending marauding parties to Mangaia.
Mangaians themselves are maru – a gentle, peaceful people by nature. A raised volcanic island, Mangaia has a symbolic “adze of peace” like no other island in the Cook Islands, a little known fact that intrigues Tanara. The carver explains that when the Mangaian tribes would battle, the village facing inevitable defeat and many losses of life would declare a truce, during which a youth would be chosen for sacrifice. The special adze would be used to dismember the youth and the body parts shared around the islands’ settlements. Mangaia people saw sacrificing one life to spare many as a logical way of avoiding greater bloodshed and achieving harmony amongst warring tribes, hence declaring this type of adze to be one bringing peace to the island.
Reflecting on that story, Tanara saw how one sacrifice prevents a full blown bloodbath; “one really appreciates the degree my forebears went to, preserving many in the form of one barbaric act – which to me, makes sense.”
Three weeks for Papa Tuaiva to complete an adze is not unusual. Starting with the right river stone that will become the adze head, Tuaiva commissions its carving, shapes the mahogany handle, prepares the design, weaves sennit rope, and finally, lashes the adze head to the handle.
Tranquil, the island of Mangaia is renown throughout the Pacific, particularly by those involved in the arts, for traditionally bold motifs which can portray in a minimalist way, complex themes such as the tikitiki Tangata, which symbolizes family and community unity.
Papa Tuaiva is one of several Mangaia artists remaining on this 52 square kilometre island of just 560 people. For some years the elderly carver has given weekly carving classes at the Mangaia College, passing on knowledge of traditional symbolism and motifs to youngsters. He confesses to being saddened that many of those youngsters have left the rugged shore of Mangaia. Most never return. But Papa Tuaiva says he draws comfort from a few of his former students now using traditional motifs as tattooists in New Zealand and Australia.
Second biggest in the Cook Islands group, Mangaia faces the same dilemma as her sister islands – a shrinking population – the younger generation choosing to leave for education and jobs; their destination usually Rarotonga, New Zealand or Australia.
One of the exceptions is Papa Tuaiva. Now 73, he left Mangaia only once for any length and that was for a year, back in the sixties. He remains on an island steeped in natural beauty.
Intriguing landscapes, natural features and sheer mysteriousness stem from an estimated 18 million years, an ancient volcano recognised as one of the oldest in the Pacific. Age, geological structure, legends, motifs, subterranean caves and the manufacture of artifacts by early discoverers of Mangaia, such as the adze, have informed generations of geological, anthropological and speleological teams.
Of Mangaian descent thanks to his late mum Rai’iti, Tanara has been Auckland-based for over three decades. But no stranger to this island. Back after an absence of four years, he’s here in the land of his forbearers to absorb more things that make Mangaia home. Like other visitors too, he can slow down for a few days. Recharge the battery. We look at the island through his eyes.
Those things make Mangaia appealing to travelers looking for something more than just blond beaches and wild nightlife. It’s about having impromptu adventures and wanting to experience a history that remains intact in an environment unspoiled.
Bumping along the unsealed coral coastal road in a rented four-wheel drive, to a seaside cave in Ivirua, we meet some locals next to a huge mound of coral rocks. Our guide Taoi Nooroa, a tourism and cultural development officer, suggests we stay a while, so that we can witness a rare event: the lighting of iron wood logs placed all through a mass of coral rocks, filling a deep pit.
Taoi explains that the coral rocks in the umu punga will eventually disintegrate into a fine white powder which, when mixed with water, creates a dazzling white paste used to paint walls of the church.
Iron wood burns with intensity; it breaks down the coral rocks and the gathered locals say the limestone pit needs to burn for about a week. Away for 40 years in New Zealand, 65 year-old Tangi Vaipo, who is helping with the fire, has witnessed the making of limestone only four times in his life. First as a boy of nine years old, one of many children who lifted rocks from the beach.
With tractors and four-wheel drives things are easier these days, but Tanara is moved to see that limestone is still being made the traditional way. The fire is lit and as huge, wafting billows of smoke flood the air we depart for the coast. The track to Taipiro’s cave wasn’t signposted. Taoi says even he had some difficulty finding it in the overgrowth. We clamber down crevices in the makatea, coral pillars which give Mangaia’s coastline an almost alien beauty, not tampered by time. There was also a short climb down a cliff face before wading through the clear, shallow lagoon, to arrive at Ana Nui, the Big Cave, or Te Ana o Taipiro, the Cave of Taipiro, as it became known - the site of the legend of Taipiro.
According to Mangaia lore, Taipiro was taken by his friend to accompany him on a fishing trip with his tribe. As was customary then, with a large group of fishermen netting, after bringing in their catch each would place a pebble on a pile – this indicated how many equal shares needed to be distributed.
Despite this, Taipiro was not given any of the catch when the fish was shared. Only his friend remembered him and gave Taipiro some from his own pile. Incensed that a basic principle of honour had been broken by the fishermen, Taipiro stole away at night when all the fishermen, full from their catch, were asleep in the cave.
Returning to his own tribe, Taipiro related how he had been treated. Taipiro’s tribe felt that the insult to their own warranted revenge and arming themselves went to the cave, blocked off all exits and killed all the fishermen. The lagoon is said to have run red with the blood of the slain fishermen. Only Taipiro’s friend was spared. This says Taoi, is why Mangaians believe that everything should be shared equally amongst the tribe.
Says Taoi: “Some people think it’s about sharing food, it’s not. It’s about everyone being equal.”
Today when ature, the mackerel are in season, groups of men will net for the delicacy. When the catch is hauled in everyone there gets an equal share, even children playing on the beach. Children are taught to share and are reminded “auraka e akangaropoina ia Taipiro” - do not forget Taipiro.
Tanara hears this for the first time. The bloodbath that resulted from a selfish act, seemingly menial today, shows how strong values were held, even to death, to preserve integrity and tradition. “It makes me appreciate that certain character traits in my fellow Mangaians are the same as depicted in this story, where we hold strong to our values and traditions.”
It could also be how the people of Mangaia, to this day, resist introduction of national land laws and a land court system to their island, having seen unending problems and family squabbles in the capital island of Rarotonga. Mangaia tribes have their own traditional way of how land is shared amongst family. Sharing seems to work.
It’s at the mouth of Taipiro cave that Tanara notices small shiny black pebbles in the sand and is told the small stones are actually bits of coal from the Saragossa, a vessel which ran aground on the reef in Tamarua in 1904. The Saragossa was carrying coal from Newcastle, Australia and heading for San Francisco when she met her unfortunate fate. After being told that the Saragossa anchor is embedded in coral and visible, with pieces of the ship’s metal scattered over the makatea, we are keen to get to Tamarua.
Huge majestic waves crest over and smash onto the reef at the point where the Saragossa reefed – here the breakers are the most powerful and biggest, the sheer unending and mesmerizing might and sound of an unyielding ocean. As the sign tells us, with seas so rough it took the tenacity of the Mangaian people to rescue 27 crew members with only one fatality. A feat that would have been extraordinarily difficult over 100 years ago, when no one had footwear to protect themselves from the sharp coral reef. But Mangaians are brave and known for their determination.
Finding the coal and learning yet more about his home island leaves Tanara with “the sense that the island is holding more secrets that have yet to present themselves.”
Just beyond this site is Raei Kere, which was home to Mangaian forefather Rori, a gifted craftsman who is credited with carving the 13 pre-Christian gods of the island. The carvings are now housed in the London Museum, said to have been taken by early missionaries of the London Missionary Society. At least these 13 carvings were saved. As with other islands in the Cook groups, the LMS missionaries regarded the carvings as heathen idols, rather than as works of art by an indigenous people and ordered all sculptures and carvings destroyed.
Mangaian’s are skilled craftspeople. Women are extremely proficient at weaving bags made from leaves collected from pandanus trees, which grow abundantly all over the island and are especially concentrated in the coastal areas. These are stripped and sundried for up to two weeks. We decide to visit local weaver Nancy Taomia who has innovative contemporary designs and is also Tanara’s first cousin.
Nancy weaves attractive, functional backpacks and laptop cases which she covers with tapa, a natural fabric made from the bark of trees or shrubs. She chooses to make tapa from the bark of ava or banyan trees giving the fabric an attractive reddish tinge.
When we leave, Nancy gives her cousin fresh fish, clams and cooked arrowroot, a local staple, so we come away very happy, with our first dinner on Mangaia so generously taken care of.
Back at Mangaia Villas, a golden sunset which we watch from our verandah is filling the big evening sky. As stars emerge we stay outside and enjoy our meal under a twinkling sky. Mangaia has fascinating caves, each with its own intriguing legend. Visitors need to be accompanied by a guide, as some of the caves are extremely challenging for the uninitiated and all are sacred to specific tribes. Mangaia’s cave systems, many subterranean, are reportedly the most complex of all islands and Taoi tells us that locals believe many remain undiscovered.
One of the easiest to access is Te Puta where a local recluse, Tuna, is said to have lived for over 30 years before dying in the main chamber in 1964. From this main chamber one overlooks the centre of the island ringed by the sombre makatea cliffs. Mangaians plant taro in this central area and have done so for over a 1000 years – the view is spectacular, lush and peaceful. The planting area is kept lush and fertile by underground streams which also feed the island’s Lake Tiriara in Veitatei. At the mouth of Tiriara is the entrance to the cave of Tangiia, a seafarer and warrior whose exploits and conquests feature in many Cook Islands legends. Mangaia’s caves were refuges for the defeated during times of battle, or used to bury the slain.
Our second day on Mangaia is for caving and Taoi has arranged for landowner and guide Clark Moutairi to take us to Tuatini cave. Tuatini is a fascinating series of seemingly endless chambers with astonishingly high ceilings. To our untrained eyes, the variety and size of stalactites and stalagmites is incredible, some resemble honeycombs, others molten wax and all seem imbedded with tiny diamonds that twinkle in the torchlight. The sheer majesty of many stalagmites and stalactites, formed by endless single drops of moisture, are testament to the age of the cave which was also used as a burial ground.
Tuatini is like a labyrinth leading from one chamber, with its own special features, to another – it’s a bit like entering a series of magical, quiet rooms. Clark recalls taking enthusiastic cavers through Tuatini and after they had travelled for four hours, the crash of surf above could be heard. Tanara remembers exploring Tuatini as a small boy and being told to hold a skull by an older cousin – “I was so scared I ran all the way home.”
Tuatini is an awesome caving experience and not difficult – but not for the faint hearted if one wishes to explore for several hours, as there is the feeling of going deep into the unknown. And when the torches go out to give a sense of the darkness, the blackness seems thick and impenetrable.
We exit Tuatini knowing we have experienced an amazing natural wonder of this intriguing island; and feeling that we’ve been privileged to have shared some of its history, as early Mangaians frequented this cave and the remains of some of their forefathers rest there.
Last visit of the day is to Ngametua Toko, known locally as the “stone man.”
Ngametua fashions jewellery from calcite and pounders from travertine, two special types of rock found in fissures in the makatea. The pendants and earrings are distinct Mangaian contemporary artifacts. The shades of calcite range from translucent white to dark brown, fragile and like glass. They are a great souvenir of this special place. If you don’t make it to Mangaia, try the Mangaia Hut at Punanga Nui Market on Rarotonga. Mine is a constant reminder of a time spent in a timeless place with charming, gifted people.
As we drive back to Mangaia Villas the sun is setting, the sky filled with brilliant lilac, mauve and gold, heavenly scars before the gentle hand of night.