Uncle Jimmy is an enormous fellow with a wispy tangle for a beard and permanently knotted brows. His cycle helmet perches atop his head as if crammed on as an angry afterthought, and he carries a big stick he says he'll use on anyone who cycles too slowly. He announces this not with a tour-guide smirk but deadpan, and then whacks the stick against his bicycle with a clang, making us jump.
I'm in Rarotonga, the most important of the Cook Islands, and about to embark on an eco-cycle that will take us away from what is usually considered the whole point of visiting Pacific islands, the sapphire-shimmering lagoon. Yet between the lagoon and the rugged, road-less and densely forested interior of the island lies a slender strip of Rarotonga that most visitors overlook.
It's here, beyond the holiday apartments, mini-marts and petrol pumps of the main island-looping road, that traditional Rarotongan life remains truly slow-paced. Not that any life here is anything else but slow. There are only 15 Cook Islands scattered over 1.8 million square kilometres of ocean, with a population of just 17,000 people. Visitors come here to temporarily leap off the spinning wheel of modern life and flop in the warm, shallow waters of a blue lagoon beneath cliched leaning coconut trees.
Uncle Jimmy is offering something a bit different to the beach, though. His Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours poke beyond the confines of the lagoon edge and its holiday romance, and take visitors into Rarotonga's rural hinterland. Here you can unwind even more in a destination where you're already unwound from the minute you arrive at the tiny airport.
Almost immediately you pedal away from fishing-tackle shops and restaurants and into a landscape of taro farms and hibiscus hedges. No more cough of motorbikes, just cackling roosters and the rustle of banana trees, and the occasional twang of a ukulele sounding from the verandah of a whitewashed house.
Go even further inland and, despite Rarotonga's diminutive size, virtual wilderness takes over. When Uncle Jimmy was young he hacked his way up one of the valleys and found the ruins of a huge marae, or ceremonial meeting house, that nobody knew about, tumbled with building blocks and human bones.
"In the old days, nobody lived by the water. All our history is up there somewhere. This earth is the ashes of our ancestors."
To my satisfaction, Uncle Jimmy isn't one of those tour guides of endless patter and dim wit. He doesn't try to impress. He talks with the slow plod of someone who's never been in a hurry – don't book a tour until you've been in the Cook Islands a few days, and shaken off some of your big-city impatience. He has everyone listening to what he says, though. He knows this land, and this island and he'll answer any question.
"Ask me anything on this tour – you can cycle analyse me!" he says, deadpan as ever. His sparks of wit stud conversations about how to grow arrowroot, how to split open a coconut and what Rarotonga was like during the war years, when the airstrip that became the airport was built.
There's plenty to talk about. How the burning of garden clippings is something of a national habit, so that we occasionally pedal through a cloud of smoke. How long it takes a taro crop to mature and how to harvest it. How the noni fruit is now exported to China for use in traditional medicine. Uncle Jimmy cuts a noni off a tree. ("I'll pick the fruit while you keep an eye out for the owner!") The old-sock smell of it sends us reeling, but Uncle Jimmy rubs it over his face. Good for the skin, he claims and – fair enough – his skin seems youthful despite the grey that peppers his beard.
We pedal through a beautiful landscape. Gardens and roadsides are neatly trimmed and studded with tropical flowers. Rows of taro plants are ankle-deep in paddies. Houses are yellow and white, fronted by tiled family tombs decorated with bunches of plastic flowers in red and pink.
Tiny white churches are dwarfed by the interior's dark volcanic peaks, which look like the overly dramatic mountains you see in kindergarten drawings. As the day progresses the peaks gather clouds, creating their own damp micro-climate.
It's not all paradise, says Uncle Jimmy as we pedal. Dengue fever and diabetes are problems – one of the reasons gardens and roadsides are so well kept is to try and reduce mosquito breeding grounds. At weekends, everyone gets drunk and adultery is rife. (Maybe the latter is Jimmy's deadpan humour again, because it seems to me that, at weekends, everyone is in church, singing lustily and wearing hats adorned with flowers that stir in the gentle breeze of overhead fans). And yes, Rarotonga does have a prison. It has nine inmates at the moment. You can hire them out as labourers to mow your lawn or paint your home.
It's hard to think of anyone ending up in prison here. The islanders we meet are gentle and courteous and seem unlikely to be stirred to passion. Everyone seems to know Uncle Jimmy. Bright-eyed kids giggle and wave, wrinkled men smoking cigarettes in the shade of trees say hello, and taro farmers chat to us as we pass. A ute drives by carrying drummers and bare-chested boys with garlands of flowers in their hair, fundraising for a school.
We pedal uphill and into forest where a river offers our tired feet a cool respite. Then down through farmland and beneath giant mango trees, and finally back to Rarotonga's main road. We pass the house where the Queen's representative lives ("By appointment only"), prim behind a clipped hedge. We pedal past roadside stalls presided over by plump women in Mother Hubbard dresses, bagging paw paws and turning chickens over charcoal.
We finish with a picnic lunch at Papaaroa Beach, with the lagoon glinting an unlikely blue between the trees. Uncle Jimmy thanks the Lord for the food and for us having completed our journey safely. Nearby an islander is playing the ukulele. "So tired, so tired of being alone," he sings. "She took my pride and my reason…"
We hobble across coral rubble and into the lagoon. Surf booms on the outer reef and white terns fleck the blue sky. I float on my back, a dot in the vast Pacific Ocean while Uncle Jimmy sits in the water with all his clothes on, looking content.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Crystal Cruises and Cook Islands Tourism.
Air New Zealand flies to the Cook Islands direct from Sydney once a week, but has connections through Auckland 13 times a week. See airnewzealand.com.au
Crystal Blue Lagoon Luxury Villas sits on Muri Lagoon and has two-bedroom villas with full kitchens from $NZ720 a night. See crystalbluelagoonvillas.com
Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours has three Rarotonga tours that demand varying levels of effort. The Explore tour is a moderate four-hour cycle and costs $NZ99, including lunch. See storytellers.co.ck