Mei te kopu mai tatou o te enua e ka oki akao tatou ki te enua. We come from the land and go back to the land.
We were descending into the recesses of a coral island.
Each hesitant step took us deeper into Anatakitaki, a vast cave of legends and stillness and intrigue.
The sunlight disappeared as we entered one of the island’s cavities. Banyan roots broke through the ceiling and stretched into the blackness below us. If we held our breath the only sound we could hear was a slow drip, squeezing its way out of a stalactite somewhere overhead.
It felt like we were walking into some kind of secret, known only by the people of Atiu, a raised volcanic island north of Rarotonga. Locals also know her as Enuamanu, the Land of the Birds, and for good reason.
“Shh.” Our guide, Marshall, broke the silence. “Hear it?”
Senses heightened, we froze, switched off our headlamps, and listened. I reached for my cousin’s hand in the dark. And then I heard it – a faint clicking, growing louder and nearer, the signature song of the kopeka, a bird found only on Atiu.
The tiny winged thing lives in the cave, echolocating its way around the vast darkness to find a nest the size of a dessertspoon. It hunts outside, activating vision when it crosses into daylight’s domain. It circles the island for up to 16 hours at a time without landing. But always, it returns to its miniature nest for rest and respite from the outside world. No one’s ever seen it land anywhere else.
I’ve thought about the kopeka in the days since I left Atiu, and I’ve decided I can relate to this little guy. I’m navigating my way through a big and busy world, but like him, I know there is a little place I can go to find peace. For me, that place is an island of caves, birds, and some of the world’s loveliest people.
Entering the mouth of Anatakitaki marked dual beginnings: of my trip to Atiu and a meaningful journey through my family’s history. Because, like the banyan’s, my roots plunge deep into Atiu’s earth.
It is my grandmother’s home island.
Her mother, Upoko’ina Po’ona, was Paerangi Mataiapo (a traditional chief of sorts) of the village of Areora, but surrendered her title when she married a European and moved to Rarotonga, a bustling metropolis by comparison. It was my great-grandmother Upoko’ina – we called her Grandma – who gave me the name Te Ana, meaning cave in Cook Islands Maori, the native tongue.
Te Ana inhabited the space between my first and surnames, but didn’t carry much meaning until I had the enormous fortune to discover Atiu, a labyrinth of caves – burial caves hiding skulls and bones, caves with secret swimming holes, caves submerged in the sea.
And as I explored those caves, I quietly thanked Grandma for giving me their namesake. I thanked her, too, for the gift of her island in all its unadulterated beauty. She died in 2004, but I know she was with me on Atiu, and I know she heard me.
I flew to Atiu with my cousin Brie and a friend, Shannon. I expected the things you’d generally expect from a holiday – laughs, photo ops, organised tours, cocktails on the beach. I wasn’t prepared for what the holiday became – a voyage into our cultural heritage, a spiritual connection to a physical place, and something of a homecoming.
It had been decades since our grandmother lived on Atiu, and Brie and I had never met most of her relatives there. Culturally the generations had grown more diluted, and neither of us spoke the language. I was (still am, last I checked) blonde and fair. None of that mattered to the good people who embraced us, fed us, and made us feel like they’d been waiting years for our return. In those people we saw Grandma – her welcoming spirit, her kind eyes, and her gentleness – and because of them we began to understand that we belonged to that remote island community.
It seemed everywhere we went, there were aunties and uncles to meet, stories to absorb, and hugs to reciprocate. Atiu became our experience of te pito enua, literally, the umbilical cord and symbolically, the tie a people feels to a place.
This is my story, a story of the deeply resonant way I experienced the Atiuans and their land. While my journey was personal, the locals’ warmth and hospitality was not because of my Cook Islands roots. The Atiuans just have that quintessentially Polynesian spirit of aloha.
Atiu is 27 wild and unpredictable square kilometres of gnarled jungle, sharp makatea (fossilised coral), grassy swampland, white-sand beach, and verdant hills, a canvas pockmarked all over by caves. It’s dramatic, lovely, stark, and lush.
“This feels like Jurassic Park,” my wide-eyed cousin whispered to me as our host Roger drove us along a road ascending to the centre of the island.
(Years ago, missionaries organized the Atiu people into the island’s raised interior, merging them into three villages that today sit about 70 metres above sea level.) Atiu’s topography is raw and untamed but has all the trappings of a Polynesian paradise – blue lagoons, shell-sprinkled beaches, seamless blue skies, fragrant tiare bushes, coconut trees.
On Atiu there’s a kind of harmonious dichotomy: the promise of adventure and peace. It’s like there’s too much to do but zero rush to do it. Locals say almost all tourists complain they didn’t feel they had enough time on Atiu.
We arrived, put our suitcases down, and knifed open ripe papayas, and Marshall showed up to take us on a cave tour. We hiked across the makatea, tasted ara (pandanus) roots, listened for the kopeka, and swam in a cold freshwater pool, and then we emerged, damp and dirty, and hopped into the tray of Marshall’s truck.
We pulled up at a tumunu, the thatched-roof legacy of what locals call “the missionary days.” Missionaries forbade drinking, driving partakers into hidden tumunu, of which seven remain and on any given night are still thriving. For a $5 donation, tourists can join the locals, who offer fruit, friendly questions, and homebrew – Cook Islands moonshine – in a coconut shell.
At the tumunu, we mentioned our family name. Recognition registered on the face of an older man. His eyes heavy with homebrew, he recited the names of our ancestors and gave us directions to our family’s land. He didn’t know us, but he knew all that came before us. He knew the roots that supported our branches. We would learn that he was only one of many.
That night, we hired a jeep from Atiu Villas and drove into town. The woman who helped us at the local tuck shop turned out to be an aunty who said she’d been expecting us. Word travels fast across a small island. We exchanged kisses, swapped stories, and set off, into the night. As our headlights led us further along a rutted road into Atiu’s gray-and-green jungle, I wondered about the secrets this island was waiting to share with me.
We happened upon the open-air tumunu of the Big Night Boys – so-named “because over here we go late”– and we stopped briefly to enjoy a shell or two, the music, and the stars. I asked the barman (whose job it is to dip the shell into a plastic bucket of ‘bush beer’ and pass it around the circle) what life on Atiu is like. He was just a young kid. He grew up in New Zealand’s Tokoroa but moved to the island of his ancestors for a fuller, simpler life.
“It’s easy,” he said. “Life is good over here. We can plant and we got pigs. Easy.” His words echoed in my mind the next morning. I reflected on them as I sat on the veranda of our villa, a cosy wooden A-frame surrounded by a landscape of pine trees and pineapple plantations. Perched there, writing, I felt utterly at peace.
It was a louder kind of peace I found several hours later, as I sat in a pew of the Cook Islands Christian Church, surrounded by the powerful a capella harmonies of Cook Islands voices.
The mamas were in their woven rito (coconut fiber) hats, the babies in pareu print and patent-leather shoes, and the men in suits and jandals, and as they raised their voices to heaven, Atiu felt like the most spirit-filled place in the world.
I looked at my cousin and she looked at me, and we both knew Grandma was there with us. Interrupting our thoughts and his sermon, the pastor paused to welcome us in English. “We hope that when you go back to where you came from, you will take the love of our Atiu people with you,” he said from the pulpit. We blushed. The love of the Atiu people had already seeped into our souls.
“We thank you for coming. Tell your friends to come. Tell them on Facebook.” We laughed at the irony, because in that moment we wanted nothing to do with an Internet connection.
Sunday (“Muck-around-Day,” an aunty told us after church) we spent sunning in hidden coves, swimming, and building palm-frond forts on the beach. At dusk a bird led us back to our villa (seriously), where another relative was waiting with a bucket of taro and fresh maroro (flying fish).
Our newfound uncle drove us to see our sections of family land, their boundaries delineated by “that coconut tree” and “over there, that one.” There was more family to meet and greet – an aunty who welcomed us home, another who sold us doughnuts, still another whose eyes sparkled when she spoke of our great-grandmother – and there was still so much more of Atiu to see.
One afternoon we went fishing with the villas’ former barman, as per Roger’s recommendation. Andrew took us to the edge of Atiu and had admirable patience with us as we cast every which way but the right way.
We stood on an exposed reef, waves crashing against our shins, rising from the depths of a blue sea, their faces glassy and their crests foamy. We’ve no idea how, but our bait of fresh crab hooked enough pipi (similar to snapper) for a full meal, which we barbecued outdoors that evening against the backdrop of a setting sun.
Another afternoon, we took a cave tour with a guide named Paul. Silently he led us across the makatea, into the sloping mouth of a cave, and onto a high ledge towering over a tiny pool. He slipped off his gumboots and as he prepared to dive, Brie yelped. “Have you done this before?”
He looked at her, incredulous. “This my cave!” he said, grinning, and jumped.
The sun streamed through cracks in the ceiling, we treaded in cold, fresh water, and we watched Paul expertly jump several times, and wordlessly we were saying the same thing: This is the life.
One morning I climbed in Papa Paiere’s truck. He and I ambled around Atiu in first gear, and as we passed crumbling marae (communal sacred places) and fertile taro patches he talked of ancient history, chiefs, and lineage. I hung on his stories and his words, and with each I more fully appreciated that enigmatic island.
One night a local dance team cut its practice short so its leaders could join us for doughnuts and bush beer in a corrugated-iron shack decorated with pareu – a tumunu called Vai Tamina (literally, water that makes your head crazy). We were proffered drum sets of buckets and twigs, and the locals laughed with (at) us at our amateur attempts to play them, but still they courteously bobbed their heads and grinned.
“Welcome home,” one smiling woman said to me. She took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled, contemplative, her eyes boring into mine. “I see your grandmother in your face.” I hadn’t even introduced myself. It was as if no time had passed, and our family had never left.
The morning of our flight out, we accepted Aunty Patikura’s invitation to breakfast, delivered via an uncle that appeared at our villa. After our aunty matter-of-factly set to matchmaking our friend Shannon with her grandson – “Sorry, you can’t marry him,” she said to Brie and I, “You’re Atiuan” – her eyes hardened and the words began to spill from her lips.
“Welcome back home ine,” she said to us. “This is your enua (land). When you go, you leave the coconut trees behind, but we will look after them for you.” Her eyes ran over with tears as she apologised that we stayed elsewhere and not with her.
“I told my grandmother and my grandfather before they closed their eyes that I would look after my family and you are my family. We look after our family. This is not our culture, this is the culture of our ancestors,” she told us. “You are our blood. Even though you are papa’a (foreign) you are Atiuan, and even if I have nothing – even if I have only banana and taro – I will give it to you. This is how we do things.
“We want to teach you about the family and the land and the ancestors, pepe (baby).You come back. Don’t wait until my eyes are closed to come back.”
Hushed by her words, we went silently to our villa to pack our things. More relatives were there, waiting for us with ei (flower garlands). “We are so sorry we didn’t come before,” Aunty Mea Mea said. “The family didn’t know you were here.”
Brie and I looked at each other and smiled at the irony.
Now, whenever life gets crowded and complicated, I think of Atiu – her beaches, her caves, her kopeka, and her people, full of love and warmth – and I dream of the day I will return. And after you’ve visited, I promise you’ll do the same.