Half the benefit of a Winter’s holiday is the good it does you just anticipating it. My wife Jenny and I were lucky to get away for a couple of weeks in August to the Cook Islands – but thinking about it during the dark and rainy weeks before really lifted our the morale. We stayed just a few days in Rarotonga and spent most of the time in Aitutaki. Interestingly I hadn’t been to Aitutaki since August 1973 – which is now really way back in history.
Aitutaki is an atoll island, one of 15 islands in the Cook group. It has a volcanic main island fringed by a coral reef – enclosing the islands and an extensive lagoon. The main island is 1680 ha and together with the other motu the total land area comprises 1805 ha The lagoon itself covers approximately 50,000 ha.
When I last visited the island I was acting purser on the government Islands trader Moana Roa. I was just 24 Moana Roa was my first ship and the start of nearly 20 years at sea as a radio officer – mainly working for the British Hong Kong company Jardines, But that’s another story.
During our holiday the weather in the Cooks was great – and it was wonderful catching up with old friends Helen Browne (Te Koumu Mataiapo) now in her mid-80s and her family especially daughter Helen (Bamboo) on a flying visit from Wellington, son Ken and family and Lydia Framhein.
Then we were off to AItutaki. Physically the place seemed very much the same as I last saw it but of course there were no resorts or hotels when I was last there.
But despite the new resorts (some of them quite luxurious) the place seemed very peaceful and quiet. This probably has a bit to do with the population being significantly lower than in the early 70s. This is a phenomenon brought home when one leafs through the Cook Islands phone book. Most of the population of the outer islands would appear to be only about a quarter of what it was back in the 70s.
One vivid memory of Aitutaki in those times even though there were no public bars or accommodation was that one could be served a cold beer at the local grocer store. That would have been unthinkable in New Zealand in those times – and I suppose still is.
There were a few people I asked after that I had come to know quite well back in the Moana Roa times but found that sadly they had all passed away. “Boozers” said one lady (of clearly strong religious beliefs) on the side of the road at Vaipae village, “what do you expect?” She was probably right when I think about it – then again we were all boozers back then – it was an accepted and expected part of maritime tradition. But it wasn’t just seafarers and people associated with them. I think the World War ll generation that dominated the ‘pub culture’ when I was young never really stopped celebrating the end of the war. They just kept on going.
One of the highlights of our stay in Aitutaki was when Jenny and I hired bicycles and cycled around the whole island. Starting from the village of Amuri we went anti-clockwise and if took us two and a half hours. It was a good opportunity for me to do a bit of bird watching – especially at the more remote southern end of the island. Aitutaki is fortunate not to be infested with destructive ship rats – the only rat on Aitutaki being the kiore or Pacific rat. That is most likely why the island is home to the multiple-named Blue Lorikeet Vini peruviana. This pretty little dark blue and white parrot is known to Aitutaki people as Kura Mo’o, and in English ‘Tahiti Lorikeet’. However in French Polynesia, where the bird originated it is called ‘Lori Nonnette’ (due to its nun’s habit appearance) and in Tahitian and Paumotu, ‘Vini’ or Vini pa tea’.
The Blue Lorikeet’s population centre is on the vast central Pacific atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotu archipelago. The atoll is one of the largest in the world measuring about 70 km east-west and 32km north-south. Rangiroa is so big that reportedly both Tahiti and Mo’orea could fit inside its lagoon. There are about 1000 birds on Rangiroa and another 1000 or so on the nearby atoll of Kaukura. But the largest number of these birds is actually on Aitutaki.
The Blue Lorikeet was believed to have been brought to Aitutaki from French Polynesia as a caged bird in missionary times, probably as a chiefly gift. The Vini naturalized and has thrived on Aitutaki in an island otherwise fairly depauperate of land birds – where the most visible bird is the Mynah. According to the Cook Island’s leading biologist Gerald McCormack the Blue Lorikeet on Aitutaki was decimated by Tropical Cyclone Pat which struck the island in February 2010 (just before Cyclone Oli I experienced in French Polynesia - see: http://www.mikelee.co.nz/2010/02/french-polynesia-conservation-work/)
An excellent post-hurricane study by biology student Kimberly Jennings of the University of Leeds found that the hurricane impacts had reduced the Blue Lorikett population by half to some 1400 birds with nearly all the juvenile birds wiped out.
It took me some days to actually sight the Blue Lorikeet because I think I was looking out for something a little bigger – like the kakariki. These birds are smaller than that – not a lot bigger than a budgerigar actually – and with a rather stubby tail – not the usual long tail that parrots have. This probably accounts for its fluttery flight – rather than the characteristic swift swooping flight of other parrots.
When I finally spotted a pair in the flowers of a Coral Tree I realized I had seen them previously but in the distance. In the end one flew right past the restaurant where we were having breakfast!
It was good to know that the blue lorikeet has survived yet another hurricane and is increasing in numbers once again. However given the bird is restricted to only nine islands and with a global population of just between 7200 to 9000 it is obvious how vulnerable to events like hurricanes and ship (black) rat invasions the blue lorikeet is - and how important Aitutaki has become for the bird’s continued survival.
Birds spotted on Aitutaki.
Black Noddy (Anous minutus)
White tern (Gygis Blanche)
Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)
Grey Duck (aka Pacific Black Duck) (Anas supercilliosa) (12) – this sighting is noteworthy as Grey Duck were reported as rare on Aitutaki due to shooting.
Reef Heron (blue and white phases) (Egretta sacra)
Long-Tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamys taitensis)
And just for completeness… Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis)
and Red Jungle Fowl or Moa (Gallus gallus).
And of course Kuramo’o (Blue Lorikeet) Vini peruviana – several pairs.
I was rather disappointed at the limited numbers and varieties of seabirds I sighted– compared to for instance what we saw on the similar island of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia last year. I am not sure why this is.
In terms of lizards, the in-house gecko (literally) where we stayed was the Asian House Gecko. This is a newcomer to Aitutaki only discovered by Brian Gill of Auckland Museum in late 1995. Also present on Aitutaki are Stump-Toed Geckos, Sad Geckos and Oceanic Geckos – but Ididn’t see any of these - perhaps our place was a bit flash. As well as four species of gecko there are also 4 species of skinks, one of which played about by the swimming pool, but was a bit quick for me to close to.
Lagoon tour – and an unexpected encounter
At the last minute Jenny and I decided to go on the lagoon tour (if my last visit was 38 years ago, who knows when next we would be here?)
The lagoon in Aututaki is quite big – about 20 km across at its widest point. Apart from the main volcanic island, the atoll has a number of coral motu (islets) large and small set along the barrier reef – and a couple of motu actually inside the lagoon which turned out to be of volcanic origin,
We boarded the big catamaran – our first port of call was the once famous Motu Akaiami where the Teal (Air NZ) flying boats used to land in the old Coral Route days of the 1950s and early 60s. Walking up from the beach through a grove of trees Jenny began chatting with a man she assumed was another passenger. My ears pricked up when the man (with slight English accent) explained he had lived in the Cooks some 40 years. I said to him – ‘So that means you would remember people like John Herman” (John half German and half Maori was something of a patriarch and a leading personality on the island in those days) – to which he replied, “Yes I knew John very well and I took over his store after he passed away’.
Hullo! I thought. Could it be I know this man? I then asked him rather abruptly ‘What’s your name?’ to which he replied ‘Des Clarke’. I removed my sunglasses , took off my cap and thrusting out my hand, said to him, ‘ Good God! Des Clarke! – I’m Mike Lee – I last saw you 38 years ago’. We were both amazed.
When I was 20 in 1969 I worked in the head office of the Maori and Island Affairs department in Wellington in the same office as Des Clarke – both of us square pegs in round holes and both bored out of our brains. Des was a couple of years older than me and regaled us all with tales of the Cook Islands where he had done some relieving work in the High Commission. I guess I was the one in the office who listened the most intently and its fair to say that he certainly had an influence on my life. Partially inspired by Des, three years later I managed to land a job on the Government Island Trader Moana Roa which carried passengers and freight to the Cook Islands and other ‘island territories.’
In fact I was on the Moana Roa voyage which brought Des and his Cook Islands’ wife Tuta’i back to the Cooks to live permanently. That was in July 1973 and it was the last time I saw them. It was odd meeting someone I hadn’t seen since we were both in our 20′s – near we were well into our 60′s. The best part of a lifetime has since passed. In the hurried conversation on the beach before our tour boat departed I learned that Tuta’i whom I remembered as a rather shy young shop assistant had with the passing of the years and passing away of more senior members of her family had risen to the rank of Ariki of her tribe on Aitutaki and the major landowner of Motu Akaiami. Here on this pretty little motu Des and Tuta’i run a low-key tourist resort called ‘Gina’s Place’ (see www.ginasaitutaki.com/)
We visited a few of the other motu and snorkeled in the lagoon – which was a wonderful experience.
I wasmost impressed with Motu Rakau which is dominated by luxuriant vegetation and as I noted from the rock formations is of volcanic rather than coral origin. Motu Rakau is alive with white terns and skinks. Almost certainly the island is rat free. I hope the TV ‘reality show’ ‘castaway’ people who use it – keep it rat free.
That wasn’t the last unexpected encounter I had in the Cooks. The next day we flew out of Aitutaki and returned to Rarotonga. When we were checking into the Edgewater Hotel on Rarotonga I turned around and standing next to me was Sandra Coney! I was so surprised I let out a stifled shout – and everyone turned to look. It was great to see Sandra and Peter Hosking who are regular visitors to Rarotonga and jolly good company. All in all a memorable holiday.