There’s more to Rarotonga than just the lagoon, stunning though it is. Why not go inland - by jeep or quad bike, to discover the island’s lush green valleys, streams and mountains.
It’s not the kind of ‘island dancing’ any of us had imagined. No long-haired maidens with hips a-swaying here. Instead, we’re hanging on to the sides of a jeep as it bucks rhythmically down a steep track pitted with large holes.
“We’re about to go Cook Island dancing,” guide Apu had yelled from behind the wheel at the top. “You could also call it a cross between dancing and horse-jumping.” Either way, a sports bra would be a good idea.
Judging by the depth of the ruts in the ground, this would be pretty interesting in rainy weather. Apu tells us, pan-faced, that islanders like to be extra- courteous to women, as instructed by the early missionaries. “So if the truck gets stuck and needs a push, ‘ladies first’!” he says, breaking into peals of laughter.
We are high in the volcanic peaks of Rarotonga, surrounded by dense bush. Far below us, the turquoise- and-white necklace of the reef encircles the island; above, a pointed rock formation juts 413 metres above sea level. Aside from hiking the four-hour, cross-island trek, this is probably the closest travellers can get to the famous Rua Manga, or the ‘Needle’ as it is commonly known. And it’s a hang of a lot easier sitting in the back of a breezy, open-sided jeep than legging it, especially in this heat. Raro Safari Tours owners Sam and Anna Crocombe own the land we’re driving through; they created this spectacular new track and lookout.
On the way down from our vantage point, we drive through the lush Avatiu Valley catching intimate glimpses of island life: a woman napping on a mattress on the front porch; two men chatting in the shade of a tree; a young man riding a scooter carrying two spare tyres over his shoulders, his bare, brown torso ending in spare tyres of his own.
At the mouth of the valley we pass the island’s sole power station, its hum just audible over the sound of our convoy. Rarotonga’s power comes entirely from diesel generators, making the island vulnerable to global oil price-hikes. The power station alone uses some seven million litres of fuel a year.
As we drive alongside the brilliantly-turquoise lagoon on the southern side of the island, Apu points out the darker-coloured Avaavaroa Passage, one of nine breaks in the reef.
“Don’t swim near there, the current is very strong and you wouldn’t be the first person to be swept out to sea,” he warns.
The waters are more serene at the beautiful Wigmore’s Waterfall. This is a favourite spot for islanders on hot days, the mountain stream- water a lot cooler than the tepid, bath-like lagoon. A teenage boy poises on a rock several metres above the surface, then leaps into the water with a large splash.
Apu pulls a length of green vine out of the bush. ‘Mile-a-minute’ vine, they call it, because of how fast it spreads. But it’s not just a nuisance, it can also be used to treat diabetes and stomach upsets. “Get a handful of leaves, pound them, squeeze in a cloth and drink the juice.” He also points out the au or wild hibiscus, one of the most useful plants on the island: use its flowers to keep your snorkelling goggles from fogging up, the wood for making ukuleles and vaka-outriggers, the bark for hula skirts, and the leaves for covering food in an earth oven, for sewing together to make tablecloths, or as bushman’s toilet paper.
“Make sure you use two-ply though,” he chortles, putting one leaf on top of another.
Back on the road, we continue along the Ara Tapu (Sacred Road) or what’s more commonly known as “the back road,” which was built by one of the island’s first chiefs about a thousand years ago. And no, that’s not a misprint, there’s more history in these islands than you can shake a pointy stick at.
Contrary to the nickname embroidered on his cap, ‘Mr Hopeless’, Apu Simpson is one of Rarotonga’s best guides – a mine of information and master of the one-liner. We pause for another photo-stop high above the beautiful Muri lagoon, from where seven double-hulled vaka or canoes are believed to have departed in around 1350 AD in search of New Zealand. They made it – a voyage of just 10 or 11 days – and became the ancestors of many of today’s New Zealand Maori. Apu regales us with more tales: bloody battles; kidnapped princesses; a missionary’s prayers healing a chief’s son; and Ann Butcher, the girlfriend of a ship’s captain, thought to be the only white woman ever killed and eaten by Pacific Islanders.
We finish the day having learned how long it takes a pineapple to grow, why mynahs were introduced to Rarotonga, why there are so many half-built houses on the island, how to make breadfruit soup, what to put on a muffler-burn and what fruit-bat tastes like (“like fruit-bat”). We’ve seen the most rugged scenery and everything from the Queens’ Representative’s house to the rubbish dump; we’ve waved to lots of Apu’s friends and eaten some truly superb barbequed fish (request for marinade recipe politely declined). Best of all, we’ve laughed a lot.
A couple of days later, photographer Lainey Mills and I decide to go exploring in a little more adventurous fashion - by quad bike. The driving part falls to me seeing as she obviously needs to wield the camera, and so I find myself the only sheila behind the wheel in a line of couples. Not to worry, the Coconut Tours quad adventure tour is popular with hen parties as well as stag parties; and it doesn’t look too hard: fully-automatic and no balancing required.
At any rate, the first part of the tour cruises along the road and through plantations, so everyone has a chance to get used to the bikes; and our guide is always on hand to help.
We stop next to an orchard of spindly trees; our guide picks off a pale, yellow-green fruit and asks, “Anyone know what this is?” Once smelled never forgotten: it’s the hugely healthy but very pongy nono fruit. Famous for its antioxidant properties, the nono may be one of the reasons elderly islanders all seem to look younger than their years. He takes noni juice every morning himself, and says with a grin that it is particularly good for “men’s health.” Costs around $15 for a 1.5L bottle at Punanga Nui market, on Saturday mornings; $60 elsewhere in the world.
More than 80 per percent of the quad-bike trip is off-road, and soon we’re ploughing over gravel and tackling the first of many Matavera Stream crossings. ‘The wetter the better’ it says on the posters, complete with pictures of bikers in supplied wet-weather gear. Sometimes water can come up almost to the seat of the quad-bikes, but today the streams are mainly dry.
Wet or dry, I’m still nervous - the descent into each crossing is steep, with lots of big rocks; and at times the bike lurches alarmingly. But I’m getting the hang of it, and it’s a hoot gunning it up the other side.
The further inland we go, the wilder our surroundings: masses of tightly-entangled branches; emerald-coloured vines; jagged peaks just above us densely covered with bush. At the top of the Matavera stream, or at least as far as we go, is one of the 12 water-intakes on the island. We pause for a break; our guide points out freshwater prawn and answers questions on everything from sharks outside the reef to the land ownership system.
The two-and-a-half hour ride travels up three streams in all; on the last one, our guide throws out a challenge to “keep up if you can” before hurtling off at top speed. This gives the faster, more confident drivers a chance to let rip, some of them zigzagging delightedly up the gravel track. We, er, go a little slower, but with much style, I’m sure.
We come to a stop high up on the Avana Stream and walk through the bush to a hidden swimming hole. In we go, clothes and all – the water is deliciously cool, and it’s a nice change to swim in fresh water. Our guide shows us ‘shampoo ginger,’ a flower used by local women to wash their hair, and squeezes some of the gel from the flower-head into our hands. He also husks a sprouting coconut, and we taste ‘uto’ – the sweet, marshmallow-like substance only found at this stage of the coconut’s growth cycle.
On the way down we strike water – and just one quad bike gets stuck in the middle of the stream. Yep, just the one! It’s a tad embarrassing, but it all makes for a good yarn back at the base over a light lunch. We’re a motley-looking lot by this stage, with wet clothes and dirty faces, and it feels vaguely as though I’ve been riding a horse. But we’re all grinning broadly with a sense of achievement: it’s been a great adventure and an excellent way to see Rarotonga’s wilder terrain.
Oh, and our hair smells lovely.