Cook Islands, Aitutaki: The unusual activity keeping obesity at bay

Nga Turi was born with a New Zealand passport – a mixed blessing bestowed on every Cook Islander. If tourists  didn't swoon over fire dancers like him, maybe he'd be living in Auckland by now, like so many others from these islands.

It's sunset by an Aitutaki lagoon and Polynesia's most unlikely cultural saviours have gathered on the sand. Davey's strumming a ukuele made from coconut shell; during lulls in conversation they sing harmonies with a complete lack of self-consciousness which epitomises Polynesia.

We're outside the restaurant at Tamanu Beach Resort. In two hours, Davey, Turi and Nga Rota, will dazzle diners with a warrior performance incorporating fire dancing and flame throwing set to the most invigorating drum beat in the Pacific. But for now, they're giggling like teenagers.

Only a decade ago, Aitutaki had a dance group for each of the eight villages on the island . Now there's two. On islands hit hard by depopulation (63,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand, 25,000 in Australia and barely 17,500 living across all 15 islands of the Cook Islands) teenagers need reasons to stay. Making tourists weak at the knees seems as good as any. .

Fire dancing began thousands of years ago in Polynesia. Though it's not distinctly a Cook Islands tradition, Aitutaki's reputation for producing some of the South Pacific's best fire dancers has inspired generations of locals to stay and dance. Some, like Davey, have used it to travel the world performing, before returning home, curiosity satisfied.

"Kids today on Aitutaki, it's all about Facebook and iPhones," Rota says. He's silent for a moment, as he stares at a white-tailed tropicbird pirouetting in the dusk. "Then they go off to New Zealand or Rarotonga because they want what they see on the internet. This is a way we have of keeping our culture alive." 

It's also a good way to keep them alive. In 2015 the World Health Organisation revealed the Cook Islands had the highest rates of obesity on Earth, with 50 per cent of the population considered obese. If there's an ounce of fat on these three dancers, I can't see it (you try taking your shirt off for a swim in public with them). But they work hard to keep it that way.

"We're in the gym every day, then there's rugby on Fridays, cricket, volleyball, rugby league," Rota says. "It's scary when you start, we get burnt, we don't have any chest hair left, but we don't want to sit around the house watching TV, eating chicken."

And then they're off and I'm left to stuff my face with food cooked in an underground oven (umu). When the drum beat starts up. Rota, Turi and Davey storm the beach beside the restaurant, bodies slick with coconut oil. I don't see a troupe of show-offs, though it takes serious confidence to pull off what they're doing. I see men dancing for their island, for their future. I see men beating obesity, and perhaps, diabetes, so prevalent through Polynesia. Under bright stars, and coconut trees, I see men holding on to what makes these islands special.

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THE DETAILS

Craig Tansley was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism, Air Raro and Air New Zealand

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FLY

Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga from Sydney every Friday or via New Zealand daily . Air Raro flies to Aitutaki daily. See airnewzealand.com.auairraro.com

STAY

Air Rarotonga's Aitutaki/Atiu two-island, four-night combo includes airfares and two nights accommodation each at Tamanu Beach Hotel and Atiu Villas. The Tamanu Beach Island Feast and Fire and Dance Show is on every Thursday at Tamanu Beach Resort. See tamanubeach.com;airraro.com

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