Splendid Isolation on Pukapuka

The view of the three green atolls nestling in a brilliant, aquamarine lagoon is spectacular; this is Pukapuka, the first stop of a Round-the-Rocks adventure that will also include the northern atolls of Manihiki and Penrhyn.

The small Air Rarotonga Bandeirante plane lands on Pukapuka coral airstrip and we bounce up to a small thatched hut to be greeted by a handful of locals. A welcome to Pukapuka by the mayor, prayer of thanksgiving for our safe journey and we climb on the back of a tractor trailer where all luggage and cargo for the island has been loaded. This is not a deluxe transfer, but in my books, it takes the top prize for originality. After a slow drive through the tropical bush of Motu Ko we reach the jetty where luggage and goods are easily transferred from the trailer by strong, muscled young men, to a barge especially designed for transporting people and goods to the main, northernmost island of Wale, where everyone lives.

The lagoon is calm, thank goodness, because we are sitting on long wooden platforms and the boat has no railing! It’s a bright, sunny afternoon and as we skim through the water I am thinking that this whole scenario should be accompanied by a jaunty tune. The modes of transfer from our small plane to the Government Representative’s residence on Wale where we will be staying beats anything else – totally out-of-the-ordinary! The atolls, the vast lagoon, clear skies and laughing locals with beautiful white teeth remind me of Robert Dean Frisbie, the American writer who came to this place searching for a tropical paradise. Frisbie sought a quiet, remote place of simplicity and natural beauty in surroundings and people – he found all that right here. He wrote about Pukapuka in articles for US magazines and newspapers and in “The Book of Pukapuka”. His writings helped reveal to the outside world the existence of Pukapuka and how life was lived then. I now understand how Frisbie who came from Ohio, would have fallen in love, probably instantly, with Pukapuka, or Wale as it is affectionately known by her people.

A group of people including schoolchildren are on the Wale jetty to meet us and we are greeted warmly – they’re all genuinely interested in who we are and why we are there as visitors from ‘outside’ are rare. It’s not surprising that visitors are uncommon – Pukapuka lies 1140 kilometres northwest of Rarotonga. Flights by Air Rarotonga are infrequent and the small inter-island ships call in about once every six weeks weather permitting.

There is the suggestion made by archaeological research that people may have lived on Pukapuka as early as 300 AD and permanent settlement occurred about 1300 AD. The Samoa and Tokelau islands are closer to Pukapuka atoll than Rarotonga. The proximity to the Samoa’s is reflected in the distinct Pukapuka language and customs. Here is a social system that is fundamentally different from all other islands in the Cook group. While individual enterprise is encouraged by the rest of the Cook Islands, this is not the case on Pukapuka where everything is community based. This intriguing place has a highly organised socialistic system that works extremely well for the Pukapuka people, who live on the most densely populated atoll in the Cook Islands. The closest landmass to Pukapuka is the inhabited sand cay of Nassau 83 kilometres southwest – the two are considered sister islands.”

Pukapukans live in harmony with their environment and adhere to the conservation practices of their forefathers, which ensures that never too much is ever taken from each of the atolls. The complex conservation system they observe helps make Pukapukans self-reliant and able to survive the remoteness of their location, because the biodiversity and food resources are always being protected.

The night we arrive there is a dance in the central open-air meeting house. It seems as if the entire island is there resplendent in colourful dresses and shirts, hair carefully slicked down with coconut oil and shuffling under bright lights to songs that would be classed older than old school. Everyone is sober as Pukapukans don’t approve of alcohol in their small community and, irrespective, everyone has enormous fun. I’m told that anyone caught making homebrew is called up before the village committee and fined, or has to undertake community work. The atmosphere is reminiscent of dances that were held in Rarotonga village halls during the 60’s and 70’s, before the advent of nightclubs and bars.

Pukapukans are renown as superb fishermen. So it is a huge feast of fish and local delicacies that greeted us the next day at the wedding of the island’s sole policeman to his childhood sweetheart that we were invited to. Although we’re strangers to the couple, we’re treated with wonderful hospitality and invited to sit at the VIP table. The feast is sumptuous! While Pukapukan men venture beyond the reef in either handmade canoes or small boats equipped with outboard motors to fish, local custom sees only women tend to their taro swamps. Locals explain this is because the important wetlands are passed from mother to daughter and taro and the edible leaves are an essential part of everyday diet.

The subsistence lifestyle and limited imported foods makes the Pukapukan physique strong, agile and well-suited to sports. And Pukapukans love anything remotely sporty. They are said to be the fastest coconut tree climbers in the world, young men scampering up tall, swaying trees within seconds to pick sweet drinking nuts. Just after Christmas the three villages come together for the “Pukapuka Summer Olympics” to compete in canoe racing, volleyball, island wrestling that’s similar to Sumo wrestling, beach races, soccer and whatever other sport happens to be the latest fad. The festivities last for up to three weeks, or longer if the mood takes the locals. It’s a time of island-wide fellowship and fun for all that’s unique to Pukapuka. At an afternoon tea with local school teachers they regale stories of their “Olympics” over coconut kernel pancakes which are a signature dish of the northern islands. Even the elderly mama’s race along the beach muumuu dresses flying, all determined to win for their villages.

Shaped like a triangle, Pukapuka lagoon is fringed by a reef where several vessels have run aground over the years. The passageway in the reef is too small for the inter-island ships to enter. Precious cargo is offloaded by crane on to lighters and delivered ashore. If the island’s one crane is working, it makes the job of getting everything ashore easier and if it isn’t, which is often, it’s all done by manpower. On this visit, a long overdue ship is in and the island is a-buzz as a team of local performers are leaving for Rarotonga to participate in the Maeva Nui Cultural Festival that’s held every August. Pukapukans are great dancers and always a crowd favourite in Rarotonga for their originality and humour. The team will take lovely craftwork that local women have been making for several months, which will be sold at the Cook Islands Trade Day to help support their performers while in Rarotonga.

Pukapuka women are skilled weavers specialising in pandanus mats, hats and fans. They also make sturdy kikau brooms, so favoured by Cook Islanders for hard to reach places and getting rid of cobwebs. Kikau is the central spine of the many long leaves of the palm frond. Each spine is carefully cleaned before being tightly woven at one end into a broom that sweeps cleaner than any other western invention!

Motu Kotawa where a significant population of frigate birds nest undisturbed is regarded as one of the best atoll forests in the Central Pacific. On Motu Kotawa and Motu Ko the islanders raise crops. Including Wale, all three reef atolls comprise a landmass of a little over 3 square kilometres, a tiny area in which to live and survive in the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Yet, despite the hardship Pukapukans face to eke out a living in virtual isolation from the world, their hospitality is legendary and the delight they take in life wonderful to experience.

With the local fishermen we have fished – during the day netting goatfish for raw fish and then experiencing the exhilaration of catching flying fish at night, to be barbequed over hot coals. We’ve walked along the coast in the evenings and been greeted like long lost friends by locals cooling off in their thatched beach huts.

Tourism is practically non-existent on Pukapuka – it remains undiscovered, unspoilt by the frenzy of the 21st century. Frisbie died in 1948, but the island has changed little over time; I am certain he would still find its charm intoxicating.

Arriving at Wale by barge
Main street on Wale
The local policeman marries his sweetheart
Seventh Day Adventist Church
Collecting coconuts to drink
Beach volleyball island style
Weaving a pandanus fan