At 18 million years, Mangaia is believed to be one of the oldest islands in the South Pacific.
Researchers, geologists, and archaeologists are drawn to the island; it has been the subject of myriad studies. Mangaia is expansive and dramatic, only slightly smaller than Rarotonga, but populated by considerably less people (today, about 500). The southernmost island in the Cooks, Mangaia can grow crops that don’t grow on warm, tropical Rarotonga, like carrots and broccoli.
The island’s topography is raw, real, and diverse, offering caves and cliffs and wetlands and streams and a giant lake. There are pine trees alongside the trees you’d expect to see in the tropics – flamboyants and coconut and frangipani. There are pathways cutting through giant cliffs, hewn by the ancient Mangaians; legend has it they were created to provide a quick escape route during times of tribal warfare. Ringed by jagged cliffs, carpeted by vegetation and pockmarked by caves, the island possesses a rugged beauty. It appeals to an adventurer’s spirit. You can swim at the rock pools, explore subterranean caves, and visit a marae, or ancient sacred meeting place.
It’s a unique island and the Mangaians are an independent people. They’re not governed by a western land court; instead, chiefs make decisions.
They will tell you their taro is the best in the Pacific, and they may be right. Another thing that sets their island apart is the pupu necklace, a garland strung with the shells of tiny yellow snails. The production process is time-consuming and tedious, and the necklaces are sought after overseas, particularly in Hawai’i.
One thing Mangaia shares with all other islands in the Cooks is profound hospitality. During the 2010 solar eclipse, the island catered to a crowd of stargazers as large as its population, and each visitor was cared for. People gave up their trucks, rooms, and sleep to cater for the eclipse-chasers, who had expected to sleep on the dirt but instead received a royal island welcome. The island’s topography might be wild, but the hearts of its people are incomparably warm. This is the Polynesian way.