Penrhyn, also called Tongareva, is the northernmost of the Cook Islands.
Located just nine degrees from the Equator, it’s more than 300 kilometres from its nearest neighbours, Manihiki and Rakahanga. Its traditional name translates to “Tonga floating in space,” perhaps a reference to its sheer isolation.
Penrhyn is the largest atoll in the Cooks, measuring 11 kilometres wide and 24 kilometres wide, and boasts an enormous lagoon with an area of 233 square kilometres.
A couple of hundred inhabitants live in two villages, separated by a lagoon filled with abundant marine life, harmless black-tip sharks and the elusive bone-fish. The lagoon is encircled by uninhabited islets – white-sand beaches offering little else than stunning views and complete serenity. Locals rely on the lagoon for sustenance; everyone grows up fishing.
Beatrice Grimshaw wrote in her 1908 book ‘In the Strange South Seas’, that “any Penrhyn man will attack a shark single-handed in its own element, and kill it with the big knife he usually carries. They are, beyond comparison, the finest swimmers in the world; it is almost impossible to drown a Penrhyn Islander. He will swim all day as easily as he will walk.”
The locals supplement their diet of fish and seafood with coconut, fruits, and yams. A cargo ship bearing basic goods like rice and flour arrives a couple times a year. Like the rest of the locals in the northern group, the people of Penrhyn make do with what they have.
The island is known for its crafts; coconut frond hats, mats, fans, and jewellery woven in Penrhyn fetch a good price on Rarotonga. Often they are inlaid with mother of pearl shell.
In the late nineties, Penrhyn was a pearl farming site, exporting cultured black pearls to Rarotonga and beyond, but in 2003, the industry dried up due to a widespread virus in the lagoon that killed the oysters. However, the mother of pearl still finds its way into Penrhyn handicraft.
The oyster virus wasn’t Penrhyn’s first unfortunate experience. More than a century earlier, the island’s population was almost entirely decimated by ‘black-birding’, a slaving operation conducted by explorers from Peru.
Today the sense of community on Penrhyn is strong. It’s a traveller’s paradise, offering the peace and escape associated with one of the remotest places in the world. It’s also not as difficult to reach as some of the other islands, despite its distance from Rarotonga. There’s an airstrip that was constructed by the American Seabees during WWII and there are a couple of guesthouses in the village of Omoka, which include all meals.
The people of Penrhyn are warm and hospitable, and you will leave feeling blessed and rich, even if you’ve spent your holiday on an island with very little industry.