While bicycles may not be a major mode of transportation on Rarotonga, their presence is far from foreign.
On most days, the usual suspects - determined triathletes, seasonal fitness converts, a handful of climate-conscious environmentalists and even a few intrepid tourists - could be seen riding the flat, paved road around the picturesque island’s 32-kilometre perimeter. But at the end of last year, cycling in paradise received a major boost. The first professional, full service bike shop, Ride Rarotonga, opened in Panama (just outside of town) and a new cultural experience, Storytellers, began their eco cycle tours in Arorangi, on the western side of the island.
Admittedly, I’d considered cycling around the island for years. There were a few places I could rent a push bike; Island Car & Bike Hire and Polynesian Bike Hire to name a few. But for some reason I never pulled the trigger, an oversight I meant to remedy. Maybe I too, was infected by the new cycle craze on Raro. The more I learned about the two new bike ventures, the more excited I felt about the possibilities.
Before I embarked on my round Raro bicycle journey, I was keen to learn a bit more about the lush green interior of Rarotonga while I rode. Since the majority of my free time was usually spent either on or below the water, I thought it would be good to have a guide the first time I meandered off the beaten path on a bike.
Coupled with my desire for a unique inland adventure, when Ani Katu, a Cook Islander and guide for Storytellers told me excitedly that leading cycle tours has also motivated her to learn more about her own culture, I decided it was time to start pedaling.
Upon arrival I met Storytellers founder/owner Dave Furnell, whose calm respect for the land and people of the Cooks was immediately evident. Alongside his wife Natavia and daughter Olive, they moved to the Cook Islands from Australia because of the dramatic scenery, the island lifestyle and their deep passion for the Cook Islands people. “Culture is about the people,” said Dave, who insists on hiring only Cook Islanders as guides, each with their own set of stories to share.
Dave and Natavia are passionate about the tours being “much more than a bike ride” and want visitors to have a genuine exposure to the culture that enraptured them, something that is difficult to experience inside the resorts. Whether that means just stopping on the tour and saying “Kia Orana” to someone working, or taking a new road, “You never know what you’ll get. They all have their own stories - everyone becomes a storyteller.” I was excited to explore the culture and landscape through this unique lens.
The bikes were sturdy and new and our group today was small, just four people. We took off from Arorangi and headed inland, each of us toying with our gears and brakes before we got into steeper terrain. Although we were on the mid-level “Explore” tour, it was made clear from the beginning that no two tours are alike. Ani describes the variable nature of each tour by saying “We want people to enjoy the environment as much as possible. We don’t rush people through the tour, we want them to experience it for themselves… the things they miss on scooters because they are too busy looking at the road.” There were a few pre-planned stops to little-known gems, but if we wanted to go harder or stop and chat some more with locals, it was up to us.
This was great news to me, because while I was looking forward to breaking a sweat, I hadn’t been on a bike in a while and the thought of spending four hours in the saddle made me a little nervous. But my worries were unnecessary; it was never intended to be four hours of non-stop riding and the pace was ours to control.
Our story began in a taro patch, where the history and laborious cultivation of this Polynesian food staple was brought into light. From the taro patch we zigzagged through fields and the back road of Arorangi village, where we happened upon a small workshop. Still wearing my bike helmet, I ducked into the shed and was thrilled by what lay before me. Ukuleles in many forms covered the walls, a beautifully painted Cook Islands coconut ukulele hung next to its guitar-shaped Hawaiian cousin. On the work bench, the new pine and mahogany, or tamanu, body of a Tahitian ukulele was squeezed together by glue and clamps. Natua Teururai, who is not only an expert ukulele builder but a musician too, explained the craft of his operation to us and then played a tune. Unrehearsed and full of giggles and retakes, I couldn’t think of a more authentic Rarotonga moment.
Leaving Natua’s, we made a pit stop to nosh on sugarcane, or to, and matakoviriviri, the hard-shelled red nut that rivals macadamia in its deliciousness. Before we reached the mountainside, we weaved through ten different types of fruit trees, sampling a few, and learned the stories of a number of medicinal uses for the surrounding plants, Ani’s favorite part of leading the tours. “I learned the uses of the plants from my grandmothers,” she said. Readying ourselves to head further into the bush, we mashed wild basil, or pa, into the palms of our hands, rolling it vigorously to extract the oils, which we spread on our skin as natural insect repellent.
For me, the excitement increased with elevation. The rain from the previous day made the terrain muddy and more difficult than usual. My back tire slipped as I tried hard to stay seated pedaling uphill. I was in competition with no one but myself, the physical challenge a welcome addition to the cultural tour. When we crested the muddy hill, we stood under a canopy of trees, listening intently for the Cook Islands endemic bird kakerori, or Rarotonga flycatcher while we snacked on raparapa, star fruit. On the way down, we took it easy on the switchbacks and cooled down in the fresh water pool of a secluded waterfall, a secret spot I never knew existed in the area.
The stories continued as we made our way to a secluded beach in Vaima’anga where the tour ended and we enjoyed a local lunch. A picnic table was nestled in the shade, staring out on the clear, turquoise lagoon. Still wet from exploring the waterfall, I opted out of a dip in the warm sea. Instead I sat in the shade, devoured my sandwich - pole caught bonito on homemade bread, fresh baked pastries, an assortment of tropical fruit and natural fruit juice - and recounted my favorite parts of the tour.
I pedaled, I laughed, I learned and I listened. It was, in fact, much more than a bike ride. It was a workout, a history lesson, a cultural experience, and an adventure - and it reminded me that it was about time to make good on my promise to ride around the island.
The minute I pulled into the lot of Ride Rarotonga, I understood why the numbers of bicycles on the road were increasing. I could see not one, but two technicians working on bikes and I soon learned that they are Shimano certified techs working to professional standards. It is the first dedicated bike shop in the Cook Islands and the expertise inside those four walls is something special for Raro.
For the Ride Rarotonga crew, the new shop is a vehicle for bringing life-changing options to Cook Islanders. They are committed to the local market and are keen to increase awareness of using bikes as “tools instead of toys”. “We’d like everyone to think of bikes as tools rather than toys. Whether you want to get fit, save money on daily commuting or simply have a great time with your friends, a bike is the perfect tool for the job”, explains the manager.
This includes partnering with local businesses on bike purchases to encourage employees to cycle to work, and repairing bikes that may have seen better days -anything to get Cook Islanders pedaling again. While they could charge a lot more for their bikes, they have committed to offering quality bikes at New Zealand prices.
For visitors to the island, a state of the art assortment of bikes is available for hire, complete with helmets, baskets, trailers and baby carriers if desired. My ears perked up when he explained that the shop delivers bikes, free of charge. After all, I had felt a little silly riding my motorized scooter to a bike shop.
With the new options on the island for both Storytellers’ unique cycle tours and Ride Rarotonga’s do it yourself options, I truly understood and now embraced Raro’s new cycle craze. It felt like just the right time to ensemble my team of bicycle bandits and finally embark on that cruise around the island I dreamt up many moons ago.