Leaning against the weathered wall of a beachside hut, June Hosking gazes at the wind-whipped sea before us. She’s wearing garden gloves and a tie-dyed pareu; her feet are caked in mud. This is her mid-afternoon break.
She spent the morning feeding pigs, tilling vegetables, plaiting coconut fronds, measuring planks that will become the house she and her husband are building on their little patch of soil – and she’s telling me why she left the bright lights and big city for a life on Mauke.
It’s a story I’ve heard several times during the five short days I’ve been here.
Our hospitable hosts at Tiare Cottages, Tangata and Teata Aretiano, have told it. Several locals we clinked plastic glasses with at Tura’s Bar on Friday night told their own versions. It’s a story of te pito enua, literally the umbilical cord, a symbolic representation of the spiritual and cultural connection a people feel with a place.
Mauke’s traditional name is Akatokamanava, which, according to some translations, is Cook Islands Maori for ‘where my heart rests’. It’s easy to see why so many have willingly given their hearts to this island. Not just locals, either; the Tiare Cottages guestbook is filled with pages passionately penned by tourists who just keep coming back. One couple has been making an annual pilgrimage to this South Pacific paradise since the 80s.
Mauke is tranquil. It’s picturesque, to be sure, but its comparative advantage is an overwhelming sense of peace.
You can find peace on a lonely path in a sun-dappled ironwood forest. You can find it beneath the expansive canvas of the island’s enormous banyan tree, its aerial roots spread over nearly an acre, or on one of its footprint-free white-sand beaches, sprinkled with pink and blue shells. And you can find it beneath the high tamanu beams of the Cook Islands Christian Church, its ceiling awash with bold primary colours.
The limestone structure, a longstanding Mauke icon, has been dubbed the divided church; years ago, the conflicting visions of two villages and two architects begat a building with two distinctly decorated halves and two separate entrances. Some people today, though, prefer to think of it as a unified church that reflects two unique personalities, as it shelters one people who worship one God.
And worship they do. The resonating a capella harmonies delivered on Sunday mornings by a chorus of 30-odd locals clad in white are heartrending, proof that peace isn’t the same as quiet.
Mauke is scenic and serene – a honeymooner’s paradise – and its people embody the Polynesian spirit of warmth and good humour.
Local kids run barefoot down the harbour’s concrete loading dock, squealing with laughter as they catapult headfirst into gentle waves. Piglets shuffle obediently after their mother, who takes her time crossing the crushed-coral road as we wait to resume our drive through town. When we do, people stop what they’re doing to wave.
This is Mauke, the garden isle, its tidy roads lined with tiare-studded shrubs and low white walls. Yards are impeccably raked, our cottages are clean and stocked with such luxuries as soap and towels, and the sky is an unbroken blue.
Our hosts are gracious and considerate, and each morning we wake to a beautifully arranged breakfast of fresh pawpaw, warm doughnuts and nu, our plates decorated with red hibiscus and tiare Maori. Here on Mauke, the bigness and the badness of the world is far, far away.
The whales are sometimes “so close you can touch them”, Tangata tells us. We look for them over a glass of Merlot, from lounge chairs on a precipice overlooking the ocean. As the sun wanes, our hosts hand-deliver to us a tray of curried fish, rice, taro chips and fresh vegetables, and we eat and chat about the charm of the Cook Islands until the moon rises. This is our cue to wander into “town” and mingle at Tura’s Bar.
There, we have three choices – vodka-lemonade, bourbon-Coke, Steinlager. As the hours pass, people start to fill the dance floor, a concrete slab illuminated by a string of coloured lights and a canvas of stars – and the picnic tables occupying this open-air space.
We sit and make conversation with the island’s Member of Parliament, the government representative and a half-dozen other Maukeans both young and old, whose life stories span the globe but all culminate on this island with a 12-mile circumference. I ask them what’s special about Mauke.
“It’s easy. It’s slow,” one woman tells me. She has a husband and family in Auckland, New Zealand, but escapes to her Mauke home whenever she can. “I bypass Rarotonga and come straight home. Raro’s too commercial” – this, from an Auckland dweller – “and I have to come back to Mauke to find peace.” Tangata lived in New Zealand for years but much prefers the Mauke lifestyle. As we breakfast one morning, he strums his guitar and sings us a local tune. Dressed for church in his suit and jandals, he tells us that “this half” – the suited half – is “from there”, or the Auckland he once called home. “That half” – he points to his feet – “is from here”. Amused at his joke, he throws his head back and laughs.
Nearly everyone here has lived overseas or has family overseas; like all islands of the Cook group, Mauke struggles to cope with depopulation. But Maukeans like June Hosking are hopeful. They have a dream, and that is to bring more Maukeans home. June chose to return to the land of her tupuna because she felt a strong connection to the land, but she had several other motives.
Her father, who passed away in 2007, asked her to iron out the legal issues with the family’s land in Mauke. Several years ago she began toying with the idea, and eventually she decided to embark on a journey that would land her in Nga-Pu-Toru*.
A professional teacher and educator, June wanted to observe a school on an outer island to determine whether it requires different curricula than the schools of Rarotonga; as an environmentalist she wanted to effect positive and rippling change in a small community.
Today, she’s doing both.
A champion of sustainable living and a passionate caretaker of the land, June sacrificed her job as a school principal at Apii Te Uki Ou in Rarotonga, and the regular income it supplied, to prove it’s possible for a household to expunge its carbon footprint.
She and her husband Andrew are living on her little section of Mauke soil – and entirely off the grid.
June and Andrew have a twofold aim: they want to model a sustainable lifestyle so people will think twice before wasting, polluting, and consuming; they also want the people of Mauke to realize they can live entirely off the land, and come home. They publicise their sustainable lifestyle by writing articles for a Cook Islands newspaper and for magazines overseas.
“We want to do the right thing for the environment, to lessen our impact, but also we want to challenge everyone else to think about their impact,” June says. “Our aim is to effect change by example, but we know change takes decades. It’s a paradigm shift. That’s a long and tiresome goal, but we have to change one person at a time, one household at a time. We’ve got to promote individual action. We can do something. We don’t want people putting their hands out; we want them to do what they can with what they have.”
June acknowledges that living in the margins of the mainstream economy is not for everyone; she just wants to prove that it’s possible. She wants to make people think.
She and Andrew are walking the talk, and it’s hard, laborious work. Living off the land with minimal power consumes most of their time.
Their sustainable lair is chaotically organized. Every detail has been considered. Electricity derives from four photovoltaic panels and communication from one solar-powered radio that June calls her “lifeline”. The homestead has lights, a computer, a low-wattage deep freeze, a low-wattage washing machine and an electric drill, but otherwise no powered appliances. June and Andrew are in the process of building their own house, and even do their sawing by hand.
Their grey-water – water leftover from activities like washing and showering – channels into a mulch pit that feeds their garden. They shower using a foot pump to release water from a tank, and use a toilet that transforms waste into useful compost by means of hot air and a fan. (June is proud of her Rotaloo; she points out that the composting system eliminates odours by pulling air from the toilet, housed in a hut on stilts, toward the ground.)
The vegetable gardens are lined to retain soil and prevent leaching.
June and Andrew have hens and pigs, worm farms and compost bins. They grow and eat eggs, pumpkin (June found the mother plant at the dump), avocadoes, passion fruit, capsicum, tomato, banana, pawpaw, and coconut. They fish and they eat roosters. They do have an oven, which has been cleared of all its innards to create space for an open fire.
Today, four years into her sustainable adventure, June’s passion hasn’t waned one iota. She is dreaming big; she wants to make a difference using the media and the potential of individual change agents, and she has the faith and determination to pull it off.
“I once heard a politician say he had no vision for the outer islands. That floored me.” June said. “My mind said there’s got to be a way to save the outer islands. This is our ipukarea, our place of origin. We want people to know they can come back and live off the land. We want to make a change, one individual at a time.”
It seems to me they’re certainly on the right track.
- Nga Pu Toru is the name given to the cluster of islands of Mauke, Mitiaro and Atiu.