There is an island called Mauke in paradise

For over 100 years the Ziona Church bell has rung at ten o’ clock every Sunday morning over the quiet villages of Oiretumu and Ngatiarua, calling the faithful to worship – and dressed in their best, the villagers have gathered in one of the world’s most unique Christian churches.

The bell is said to have been brought back from Peru by Davida, the son of Numangatini the high chief of Mangaia, who was abducted with five others by slave traders on the barque Empresa in the early1860s. According to local historians, Davida befriended Teveta, a Maukean while in Peru and when slavery was abolished the men exchanged gifts before parting ways. Teveta gave Davida a gold ring – Davida’s gift was the bell. Teveta returned to Mauke and gave the bell to Ziona Church on completion of construction in 1882.

The church is a remarkable structure; its massive beams, wooden pillars and pews were hand-hewn from native tamanu, (Pacific mahoghany). These were the original trees that were used by Maukean warriors as lookouts for ocean voyaging canoes that in pre-European times sailed between Nga-Pu-Toru (Mauke, Mitiaro and Atiu). The early Maukeans were ever watchful of raiding war canoes from Atiu which laid repeated attacks on their vulnerable island. The arrival of Christianity ended the raids and the people Mauke were able to settle into a much welcomed and peaceful existence that is very evident today in this small island community of around 300 people.

Ziona church is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding architectural structures in the country. It is a testament of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Mauke people. The metre thick coral limestone walls were handbuilt with coral rocks collected from the central makatea (coral outcrops) which forms much of the island. The locals call it “the divided church”, as two carpenters, one from each village, had very different visions on the design of the church. One carpenter wanted a gabled ceiling with open beams, the other an elongated dome-shaped ceiling. The villages subsequently became divided, each group supporting the vision of one of the carpenters, until a compromise was reached: the church would be built with each side reflecting the plans of a carpenter and with two entrances, one for each village group. And to dispel any criticism of favouritism by the early London Missionary Society missionaries, the elaborate pulpit was placed in the centre of the church.

Nine Chilean pesos are embedded in the wooden railings enclosing the pulpit. It is not clear who may have given the coins to the church, but Chilean pesos were used as a form currency during the mid-1800’s. The design rivalry is also evident in the elaborate hand-carved trellises that adorn each side of the ceiling and in brilliant colour schemes that were used over a century ago. The construction of the church was a mammoth task for the village, especially since there was no machinery or transportation at the time. But with around 800 people living in each of the villages then, free labour would have been quite plentiful.

Numerous artists, architects, writers and photographers have agreed that Ziona is one of the most beautiful, unique churches in the world and should be formally declared a cultural heritage site to prevent it from being altered ever again. This is in response to the unilateral decision made in the mid 90’s by the then reverend of Ziona Church to entirely paint over the original rainbow colours with blue and white. It was not a decision that was popular or fully supported by the community; but decisions by reverends are respected and so the church interior was painted over. A movement ensued to restore the church to its original colours, which was completed in 2008. The local tumu korero (oral historian) at the time, Mapu Taia likened the completion of the restoration to “the return of the rainbow.” Many agree.

One often reads about Mauke being described as a “garden island.” This is true. Exotic flowers and plants grow wild everywhere, including deep red and yellow daisies all along either side of the island’s airstrip. Ornamental purple dwarf lilies grow in profusion over the makatea rocks and fragrant tiare maori (Tahitian gardenia) are found everywhere. Mauke is just 18 kilometres in circumference, about half the size of Rarotonga. The island’s coast and centre consists of makatea covered with thick tropical vegetation.

Getting to Mauke takes 40 minutes on Air Rarotonga – on the way Mitiaro and her two lakes are visible. On arrival, visitors are always greeted with an ei; fragrant, colourful garlands – the first indication that Maukeans are warm, hospitable people. Maukeans pride themselves in the ei’s they make, using sweet smelling pandanus pods and poro’iti cherries entwined with ornamental basil. The heady scent of these special ei’s fills a room for days.

We spent six happy days at Tiare Cottages in Kimiangatau. Tangata and Teata Aretiano run the comfortable family-owned accommodation property that’s spread over two acres on the west coast. The jewel of Tiare Cottages is O Kiva, an A’ frame, self-contained unit on the makatea cliff. The special look-out point has a spectacular view of the island’s coastline and sunsets are amazing. The reef that encircles Mauke is closer than nearly any other island in the Cook group. This allows some of the best whale watching from shore in the Cook Islands during July to November when migrating whales swim past. Tangata tells us that from their home next to the Cottages, passing whales can often be heard blowing, breaching and cavorting. He said watching these majestic creatures pass by at low tide from the reef, or from O Kiva lookout point is memorable – “they are so close you feel you can touch them.” Its late June and we’re a bit early for whale season, but on several occasions we toasted beautiful sunsets and the end of another wonderful day in this garden paradise, from the lookout point.

On a couple of hired scooters we cruised around the unsealed roads at a leisurely pace…no one goes fast. People smile and give the Maori wave, a friendly upward tilt of the head. Tourism is not big and visitors to this lovely island are still a novelty. Like young Michael from Sweden who was on his big OE and one of the few adventurous enough to include the Mauke experience. Michael goes out exploring on his scooter everyday of his three-day stay and is fascinated by the caves and beauty of the island. Before he leaves for the New Zealand winter, Teata and Tangata host us all one balmy evening to dinner – fresh tuna baked in coconut cream, marinated raw fish, taro and a dish of especially prepared rukau viti (Spinach Hibiscus), which is rich and delicious like the rest of the meal. Fish is plentiful on this island and always fresh – the surrounding waters are full of reef and ocean fish.

We go exploring with Tangata as our guide. Further down the road from Tiare Cottages is Anaio; here many artifacts were unearthed during an excavation carried out by Professor Richard Walters in 1988 for a thesis in anthropology. The artifacts, ranging from tools to ornaments were found in the area which is believed to have been a pre-European settlement. Tangata says early Maukeans would have settled this area because of nearby water sources, good soil and two reef passages providing easy access for fishermen.

The traditional name for Mauke is Akatokomanava meaning “where my heart rests.” That name expresses well the feeling of the first Polynesians who colonised this island. They arrived, discovered its abundance and beauty and it captured their hearts. It’s also something that happens to all visitors.

From Anaio we mosey along on our bikes to see Mauke’s famous banyan tree in Araro. Said to be one of the biggest in the Pacific, if not the biggest, its sheer size is staggering – spreading over an area about the size of a soccer field. Locals don’t know exactly where the original tree started, but it continues to expand each year, usurping all other vegetation unfortunate enough to get in its way. Thick vines that will eventually root and grow new trees hang everywhere and are strong enough for a grown man to swing on. Which of course we did.

In the centre of Mauke growing wild over the makatea, is the maire vine. Stripped and plaited into long garlands, maire is much sought after for special occasions and ceremonies. The islands of Nga-Pu-Toru (Mauke included) and Mangaia have exported maire garlands to Hawaii for over two decades. It is certain that maire from the Cook Islands will always be in demand for its superior quality and aromatic fragrance.

The other product that we made sure to purchase is the locally made coconut oil or akari pi, infused with special medicinal plants. Known as “Mauke miracle oil” the genuine product made on the island is known to have healing properties – good for dry skin, cuts, sores and as a massage oil. Mamas say a teaspoon-full is also good for constipation in children. Again, the job of making Mauke oil is laborious and time consuming and the price one pays on the island for a bottle is unbeatable for a wonderful, 100% natural product.

Visiting Mauke’s numerous caves is a definite thing to do. Motuenga cave is said to have over 100 separate chambers. From the entrance, one is lead through a system of underground freshwater pools to the reef – but no one in recent memory has made that journey, so the claim that there are 100 rooms is according to local folklore. It was Vai Tango cave that impressed us most. Reached after a short walk through tropical bush, the stillness is only disturbed by the chattering of native blue kingfishers. The large sunken area which leads to the cave resembles a natural amphitheatre full of exotic ferns, creepers and shade loving plants. A clear, freshwater pool is drinkable and we all take a dip, a refreshing relief from our bush walk in the tropical heat.

Contrary to legends of bloody battles (usually in defence of their island and people), Maukeans today are a gentle, fun-loving hospitable people – and said to be the best looking in the Cook Islands! Those traits were very evident when we dropped in at Tura’s Bar on Friday night. Owned and managed by Tai and Rouru Tura, the bar is the meeting place on a Friday night in Mauke. We are invited by Tai and Rouru to join them with about a dozen locals. The dance floor is an open air concrete pad – one is literally dancing under the stars, strings of coloured lights and local music combined with lots of laughter and story-telling make a great night out on Mauke. We were invited to return on Tuesday for the weekly darts game – very serious stuff amongst the local teams. They were also kind enough to let us play; and being very dismal novices from Rarotonga, all bad shots were taken with much Maukean grace and encouragement. Toi’anga Sports Bar is the place to be on a Saturday night – where again, the revelry is repeated Mauke style.

Although Mauke has no lagoon, there are some lovely swimming pools embedded in the coral floor near the shore. Driving along the picturesque coastal road, with massive Barringtonia and Ironwood trees on either side, small tracks alert us of tiny accessible coves. The locals rarely go to any of the coves, so it was just a matter of choosing a different one each day to enjoy privacy, sun, brilliant white sand and the crashing breakers on the nearby reef. At high tide the waves swell remarkably in size, pounding with incredible intensity and unsurpassed vivid colours. Another point of interest is the cliff above Araiti cove, where a small plaque commemorates Kea, who legend says waited in vain at this spot for her husband Paikea, who had gone fishing in his canoe over the reef. Paikea was caught in a storm and swept away. Refusing to move or take nourishment, Kea remained on top of the cliff waiting for Paikea to return, until she died. In recent years, her remains were uncovered, proving say Maukeans, this legend of utter devotion to be true. Paikea is believed to have finally reached Aotearoa (New Zealand) gaining historical prominence as the ancestor of the Ngati Porou iwi, a Maori tribe of the North Island east coast. When Paikea did reach Aotearoa, surely he must have remembered with some longing Kea and Akatokomanava, the beautiful woman and island he left behind. Time to leave. Maybe Paikea had the same feeling – but maybe he looked to the horizon and saw not the end of the sea, but a pathway to a new land and adventure. For us, it’s a return home to Rarotonga via the skies. We take with us Mauke garlands, which for days leave a lingering scent of this lovely island and people. As Reverend Ngara Aratangi said after welcoming us to Ziona church; “Go home and tell your friends…there is an island called Mauke in paradise under the sun.” Thank you Reverend Aratangi, I am doing that now.

Aerial view of Mauke
Interior of Ziona Church Mauke
O Kiva lookout Mauke
Mauke school children on beach
Mauke Maire leaves
Vai Tango cave
A secluded cove on the eastern cove