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Samoa - Rarotonga - Aitutaki - Atiu (Cook Islands)
26 February to 4 March

The customs officer at Faleolo Airport was fast asleep at 10 a.m., but he was in a good mood in spite of the rude awakening.  It's a pleasure dealing with such friendly officials in the South Pacific countries.  The security officer asked us to take a photo of him by the plane, and we'll be sending it to him when we get the chance.

The weather was fine for our flight to Rarotonga, just a headwind which increased the flight time by about half an hour to 6 hours 15 minutes.  The time passed quickly enough as we've now found a way for me to work on the laptop from the front seat.  As long as there is nothing behind the seat, I can push it back just far enough to make room for the computer.

We landed at Rarotonga Airport just before sunset with great views of the green clad mountainous interior and white sandy beaches.  We spent just one night in Rarotonga in an air condtioned room with direct phone line so we could send faxes off to Kiribati (for clearance and arrange for fuel) and to Tahiti to arrange for shipping of fuel to Rangiroa.  We've now got a clearance from the French Polynesian civil aviation authorities to leave directly from Rangiiroa to Kiribati (Christmas Island), but since this is an 8-hour flight and there is no Avgas at Rangiroa, it has to be shipped from Papeete.

It was just as well we didn't stay long in Rarotonga as they've got an epidemic of dengue fever.  Out of a population of 11,000 they have over 300 cases of it.  The dengue fever carrying mosquito lives inside houses but they don't like air conditioning, so we should be okay.  We sprayed ourselves liberally with repellent anyway as there are plenty of mosquitoes outside too.

It was fine again the next day for our one-hour flight to Aitutaki and we had superb views of the turquoise lagoons before landing on the coral gravel runway.  There are no phones at the landing strips in the outer islands, so we pre-arranged for Aroha, the manager of the Sunny Beach Lodge, to meet us.  The lodge was located by a beautiful palm-frnged  beach, but it was impossible to swim from it as the water was too shallow, even at high tide.  Our friendly Norwegian neighbours invited us to join them for dinner in the lodge's open-sided beach hut.  They also recommended a lagoon cruise which we greatly enjoyed the next day.  The snorkelling was pretty good with lots of fish, although more than half the coral is dead.  More stunning, though, were the little atolls, the pristine white beaches, the turquoise water and coconut palms.  Even better than the picture postcards or holiday brochures!   A delicious lunch of grilled fish and tropical vegetables and fruit was provided on One Foot Island, shaped as the name suggests, although it was actually named after someone's footprint.  While we ate, the talented captain of our boat sung and played the ukelele.

Later we dined with our Norwegian friends at a local restaurant.   We  celebrated Sverre's birthday with mango daiquiris.  Unfortunately for him, he was born on 29 February, so 28 February was the nearest he could get to it this year.

The next day, Flemming got up early to join Reinhardt for a 15 minute walk to the top of the island. At just 124 meters, it is lower than the highest hill in Denmark.  Then we rented some pushbikes and peddled to a beach near the landing strip where we could do some snorkelling.  We didn't linger there long as we were bothered by mozzies and sandflies.  Nearby, at the other end of the runway, was the Pearl Beach Resort where Italians spend US$ 500 a night for luxury beach huts on stilts over the lagoon.  We enjoyed a good lunch of marinated raw fish, called ika mata, and then occupied a comfortable bed-chair on their beautiful beach in the shade of coconut palms for the rest of the afternoon.

That evening it was 'Island Night' at Fletcher's bar and restaurant just up the road from us.  There was a delicious buffet dinner and then an excellent show of Polynesian dancing.  Generally the men and women performed separately.   The dancing was pretty energetic, in spite of the heat.   The men's legs quivered and they jumped around as if they had a hot potato between their thighs.   The women's hips swayed seductively and wiggled their bums.  It was very like samba, only they were more modestly dressed than the Brazilian mulattas.

There were threatening looking black clouds around when we took off the next morning for Atiu, but they were just warm front clouds, so although we flew through some clouds and rain, there was little turbulence.  One hour later we landed on another coral gravel runway at Atiu.  There was quite a crowd at the airport and it looked as though the whole island had come to greet us, but in fact they were waiting for relatives arriving on a commercial flight from Rarotonga that landed 10 minutes later.   The children were all excited about our plane and tried to touch it until we firmly told them to look not touch.  We made up for that by taking their photo beside it.

We were the only tourists on the island until an American, called Mark, arrived on the commercial flight.  That was good timing for Roger Malcolm, our host, as he could drive the three of us together to the Atiu Motel.  Roger is a Kiwi, married to an Atiu woman called Kura.  He was just starting to say that this was the first time ever that such a small plane had landed on Atiu when he remembered one other case.  Coincidentally it was a Swiss pilot who landed there in 1980.  He'd come in search of his Atiu girlfriend, but she had left for Rarotonga, so he took off again the next day.

The people of Atiu live in the centre of the island instead of on the coast.  Before the missionaries arrived in the 19th century, they used to live on the coastal plains, but the missionaries wanted the churches built on higher ground so the villages grew up round them as the locals were Christianized.  As we passed through one of the main villages, Roger pointed out one of the several tennis courts on the island, affectionately called 'Wimbledon' thanks to its floodlighting.  Tennis used to be quite a popular sport, but many of the islanders have moved to Rarotonga or New Zealand, so there are less of them to play it.  They also double up as basketball and volley ball courts.  In spite of the decreasing population, they are expanding the churches. Roger also showed us the Ministry of Works, fondly known as the 'Ministry of  Rest' for obvious reasons! 

We loved our little wooden chalet at the Atiu Motel.  Our raised wooden terrace looked out onto a tropical garden and woods behind.  The temperature was also more bearable than it had been at Aitutaki, thanks largely to living in a wood house instead of a concrete one. Concrete houses should be banned in this climate!

Atiu's tour company is run by an Englishman called Marshall Humphreys.  He is also married to an Atiu woman and has several children, some of whom are adopted according to local custom.  His eldest children have left the island for Australia and New Zealand, but the two youngest ones, Sarah and James, took us on a tour of their family caves.  Anatakitaki Caves are home to the swift-like Kopeka birds which are unique to Atiu.  They navigate in the dark by emitting a series of clicks that echo from the walls of the cave.  To reach the caves, we walked with our sturdy boots over spikey fossilized coral for about half an hour.  Then it was a daring (for me!) climb into the cave, making use of the few handholds we could find under Sarah and James' guidance. We enjoyed a refreshing bathe by candelight in a cool cave pool.

Later we were rewarded for our efforts with some bush beer.   We were invited by the locals to join them in their daily (!) ritual of bush beer drinking.  This involves sitting on tree stumps in a circle round a huge container full of the brew.  The leader of the club dips a cup made from coconut shell into the container and presents it to each participant in turn.  We had to down the first cup in one.  After that we were allowed to drink it more slowly and could 'pass' by raising the right hand.  However, everyone was honour-bound to take the drink on the last round.  The bush beer is brewed from oranges mixed with water, hops, sugar and yeast.  They called it bush beer, because the missionaries forbade the brew and they had to hide out in caves and in the bush to make it.  The missionaries supplied the oranges, and the locals found a way to make better use of them!  There are a total of 9 bush beer 'schools' or drinking clubs on Atiu - and the population decreased from 900 in 1996 to about 650 today.

Roger's wife Kura cooked us an excellent dinner of fish in coconut sauce which we consumed in the company of Roger, Mark (the only other tourist), and an Australian who is teaching mathematics at the local school.  We had to cater for ourselves for the other meals.  There are no restaurants on the island and they only serve dinner at Atiu Motel and no meals at all on Sundays.  As luck would have it, the next day was Sunday.  Fortunately, though, Marshall still worked on Sundays and took us on an interesting tour of the island.    We sat on a wooden bench on the back of his pick-up truck, travelling 'safari' style with 360 degree views, ducking  now and then to avoid having our eyes poked out by protruding branches and palms.

On Monday morning it was raining when we rented a scooter from Roger and drove to the local arts and crafts shop, run by German artist Andrea who specializes in quilt wall hangings.  Her husband has a coffee processing plant that we wanted to visit but Andrea told us we should have given them a day's warning as they don't process the coffee every day and he'd already made other plans. Nevertheless, we were able to buy some packets of it from Andrea.  If the aroma is anything to go by it promises to be excellent!

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On the approach to Rarotonga

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Over the lagoons of Aitutaki. The runway is on the motu to the right
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On Honeymoon Island
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Island Night dancers at Fletcher's bar
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Sunrise from the top of Aitutaki
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Leaving Aitutaki. Flemming is wearing a farewell garland offered by local lady Mii Thomson
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Arrival at Atiu with Roger Malcolm (left and island kids. Now we're wearing welcome garlands
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Outside our chalet at Atiu Motel
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We had the beach to ourselves (Flemming put the camera on the timer!)
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Anatakitaki caves
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The bush beer school
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Marshall Humphreys with Flemming
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The deep sinkholes behind Flemming reportedly contain sharks
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Flemming at Coral Gardens
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