Hymn to the island life

Anna King Murdoch immerses herself in the culture of the Cook Islands to find things are changing but many traditions remain.

AS THE PLANE emerged from heavy cloud just above the ground at Rarotonga airport, the massive central range and pale-blue lagoon suddenly came into view, lashed by rain and wind. The coconut palms were bent at all the wrong angles for a holiday.

Umbrellas were given out to cross the tarmac. This is not how the Pacific islands are supposed to be in the middle of the year, but what did it matter? It was warm, and in the small, crowded airport an old musician wearing a flower-covered hat was greeting us with island songs and locals wearing garlands of gardenias were handing out fresh frangipani leis.

Five hours out to sea from New Zealand, the Cook Islands feel a long way from everywhere. At night at the Rarotongan Beach Resort, right on the water, with the wild wind, rain and waves crashing against the rim of the lagoon, it felt a most vulnerable place to be.

Tsunamis came easily to mind and I found myself taking note of the lanes running off the coastal road up into the tropical range and wondering how fast we could run to save ourselves.

But climate change can work in a place's favour. At the Christian Church of the Cook Islands, the stormy weather gave unique charm to the Sunday service. Built in 1841 and made of the local white coral limestone, it's worth going to Cook Islands for this church choir alone.

The women, in their finely woven coloured hats (pink, green, blue, white) with the black pearl shell in the crown and bright floral dresses, and the men, ranged behind them in their floral shirts and polished shoes, sang a series of Christian-Maori hymns with overwhelming power.

Swaying, with their eyes closed and hats bobbing, it seemed as if the old church could only just contain so much passionate feeling.

All through, the pastor stood watching impassively from high in his pulpit above arrangements of white ginger flowers. Red hibiscus bushes rustled in the wind and rain just outside the open louvres and doors and the tall, thin palms swayed in the distance against the great dark-green range.

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On the way back in the old bus, the driver told me that religion came to the islands with a missionary swimming across the lagoon with a bible on his head. They had certainly taken it to heart.

But traditions are changing in the Cook Islands. All along the coast road were family tombstones in private gardens, but now the younger generation wants a public cemetery for their dead.

And boredom among the young is becoming a big problem. I was told that marijuana is a booming crop.

But some young islanders are proud of their traditional arts. At the resort there were several performances by young dancers during the week for the mainly New Zealand tourists. These young men danced with an intensity that could rival any modern dance company.

We were given a lesson in how to make the traditional coconut-leaf hats, a brilliant system of turning the central stem round and then folding the strands in until suddenly there's a bright-green, cool, perfectly comfortable and protective hat in your hands. But islanders don't want to wear them any more.

My best experience was visiting the historic village high up on the side of the mountain range overlooking the Pacific. There were no tourists there that day. All that remains is the marae, once the traditional meeting area but now just a shaded terrace of large stones and, further up the mountain through a beautiful tropical garden, a grove of squat palms at the top of which are two large rocks: the throne where the chief, said to be 2.1 metres (seven feet) tall, meted out sentences for crimes and, behind that, the killing stone where the offenders were slaughtered. The blood ran down the crevices in the rock into a wooden container, which was then offered to the chief to drink.

It was a lonely place; the only sound was the Pacific waves crashing far below. On the way down is the massive Compass Stone. Pointing south-west, it can be seen far out to sea and guided the Polynesian seamen for centuries as they set off for Aotearoa (New Zealand). Not far down from here is the Cultural Village, which gives a wonderful half-day history of Maori medicine, fishing, weaving, coconut husking, carving, cooking, costume-making and dancing - and a perfect traditional lunch on a banana leaf: tender chicken (cooked for hours in an umu, an underground oven), taro, cooked taro leaves (much like spinach) and pawpaw.

I spent a day in the main town of Avarua investigating the black pearl shops and crafts. Cook Islands is the second-largest producer of black pearls in the world after Tahiti.

It is a fascinating study: there are so many colours, including a dazzling pale grey that looks almost like silver. One long necklace of large, black pearls was selling for $49,000. There's little traditional craft to buy in Cook Islands because the wage rates - almost equal to those in New Zealand - push up the prices too high for tourists. Unlike Fiji or Indonesia, Cook Islands is not part of the Third World.

But there are those hats - so distinctive, with that lustrous black pearl shell in the crown - which are made way up north on the island of Tongareva, and the embroidery (tivaevae) which was introduced by missionaries and which, like the hymns, Cook Islanders have made their own.

Fast facts

Getting there: Air New Zealand is the best option: the cheapest adult return fare starts at $720 plus taxes (of $190 return). Cheapest child rate is $540.

Staying/eating: There are many nice resorts ranging from normal hotel rooms to over-water bungalows on some of the smaller islands. In Rarotonga there are two smaller five-star beachfront resorts: Sea Change Villas, which are fully self-contained, and Reflections on Rarotonga. Slightly cheaper is the larger, four-star The Rarotongan on Aroa Beach, which has a range of accommodation, more facilities and a buffet for children. There are many restaurants but cost means it is advisable to pre-book some meals.

Visas: No visas required.

When to go: Any time, really, because it's warm all year. In these days of climate change, the rainy season - which is not monsoonal - could well become a preferable time to visit the Cook Islands. It is the season of mangoes, frangipani, guavas and pineapples and tropical trees are flowering all around the coastal road.

Getting around: Motorbikes, bicycles or bus.

Currency: $NZ ($A0.87).

Optional extras: A Cultural Village tour on Rarotonga is highly recommended; as is a day or more on the small island of Aitutaki, with a world-famous lagoon, about 45 minutes' flight away.