Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Island at the End of the World

This week's episode comes from the island of Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Surrounded on all sides by the Pacific, Raro's about four hours' flight northeast of New Zealand, a microcosm that feels a million miles from the rest of the world. All the way to the horizon is nothing but sea and the occasional humpback whale. It's ringed by coral lagoons full of beautiful fish, and the main dangers are sunburn and falling coconuts. And for a Kiwi, it feels almost like home - New Zealand Maori migrated from Rarotonga about 700 years ago, and the language and culture are very similar.

Firstly, the locals. There are about 13,000 of them, but the population's declining as successive generations of Islanders move to New Zealand, which acts as a big brother and mentor to the Cooks. There are about 50,000 Cook Islanders living in NZ, making South Auckland the largest island! Cook Islanders have New Zealand passports, and they use the NZ dollar, although the islands have their own coins as well. To judge by the smiles and health of the locals, the island's a pretty good place to live, with none of the grinding poverty of many third-world countries. Dental care looks better than Queensland!

Tourism has boomed in recent years, and is now the mainstay of the islands. In a country where everything except basic produce has to be imported - vehicles, fuel, building materials, even the paper the local news is printed on - bums on plane seats are a vital source of income. A major advantage is cheapness - only a few hours flight from Auckland, a trip to Rarotonga is about the cheapest way for Australians and New Zealanders to visit somewhere foreign, yet comfortable and familiar. It's family-friendly, with most visitors arriving as couples or with children. If your idea of a holiday is resorts, bar-hopping and nightclubs, look elsewhere! And the line between locals and tourists is blurred, as Islanders move between the Cooks and NZ, and a fair few Kiwis sell up and settle in the Islands. I met ex-Kiwis running a hydroponics farm, and brewery, both completely adapted to 'island time', that relaxed pace of life dictated by the length of day, weather and temperature.

The islanders have a fairly relaxed view of safety. Kids ride on the back of pickups or in trailers, enjoying the wonderfully cool breeze, but most people, locals and tourists alike, blat about on scooters. The police recommend helmets (to promote helmets, the Avarua police station has a photo of an dead islander with a major head injury), but they aren't compulsory (like life jackets, seat belts) so the visitors cast caution to the winds and tear around just like the locals, shirt flapping and sandalled toes poking out the sides. About half a dozen people are killed on the island's roads every year despite the 50km/h limit due to head injuries, so paradise isn't as idyllic and risk free as it seems. I was sure to wear a helmet on my scooter. When the nearest neurosurgeon's a four hour flight away, survival chances are reduced. But in general, people seemed to take a sensible attitude to risk, which, coming from a highly legislated industry, I found refreshing.

One of the most common questions the locals ask is "how many times have you been here?" First-timers universally vow to return. Me too - we're already planning next year's adventures. If you want to be reminded that there's more to life than your next pay review, Rarotonga is the place to visit.

PS Geology? Rarotonga's made up of volcanic rocks and coral. I spent most of my time lying face-down in a lagoon looking at coral ;-)


Blogger vitessesteve said...

So whats with the Cockerel?

Hens run Triumphs a close second in my interests. All my hens are named after Triumph cars or bikes.

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