Settled on the simple life

In a place with a violent warrior past, Carol West mixes with easygoing locals armed only with necklaces and tasty cakes.

The co-pilot holds a newborn babe as the mother carefully lowers herself into the seat for the 40-minute flight from Rarotonga to Mangaia. Across a narrow aisle, a stocky man sprawls uncomfortably in his seat while ladies, their glossy hair decorated with jasmine, fan themselves with the plane's safety instructions.

Departing Rarotonga, we fly over the skeleton of the Chinese-built stadium being constructed for the Mini Pacific Games this September, before swooping out over the Pacific Ocean.

Before dropping lightly onto Mangaia's short coral runway, we pass over towering ramparts of rock, dramatic makatea battlements that protect the island's fertile heartland and central volcanic cone. Jagged and impenetrable, makatea, or fossilised coral, is a formidable feature of the landscape in Mangaia, the second largest and oldest in the Cook Islands group.

Composed of calcareous limestone, sometimes more than 60 metres high, it surrounds the island like a giant coil of razor wire. With its colourful history of inter-tribal fighting, we're to hear many stories about battles for these verdant valleys, fishing, faith and family over the next few days.

Virtually undiscovered by tourism, attracting just 130 visitors last year, Mangaia is off the radar. What it does offer travellers, however, is an authentic opportunity to get to know the unhurried pace of life in a warm-hearted island community and experience genuine hospitality, things that are increasingly difficult to find nowadays.

"In the 1950s, population numbers were around 3000 but today only around 550 remain," the island's part-time tourism officer, Taoi Nooroa, says. Nooroa lived in Darwin for 16 years before returning to his island home, where, historically, life was always a battle.

"Traditional land allocation was established through battle; the fighting was always about land and women," Nooroa says with a grin.

We're standing in the remnants of the Orongo marae, where chiefs were invested, the seat of political order established and human sacrifices made to the god Rongo.

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Following Christian conversion in the early 19th century, symbols of the old gods were destroyed, including the marae, but poking around the site we uncover human bone fragments, poignant reminders of a bygone time.

"With its taro fields in the fertile valleys and the inhospitable makatea dominating the clifftops, the spear ruled and Mangaia operated on a winner-takes-all system," Nooroa says. "We have an old wives' saying: 'When you eat your pudding, you turn your eyes to the cliff.' In other words, enjoy it while you can before the next challenge from the vanquished occupying the barren highlands."

Despite its warrior past, Mangaia is a serene place and you can trek for kilometres along its coastal coral track, passing well-tended taro patches, pineapple and vegetable plantations without meeting another soul. With the makatea forest to one side and lagoon glimpses to the other, we seek out narrow cuttings through the original reef, which lead to coral sandy coves and secluded bathing spots.

Floating in crystal water as the Pacific Ocean pounds against the outer reef, we gaze on a craggy coastline sculpted over eons. A family arrives at a neighbouring cove and children plunge into the bath-warm water. Bearing a long bamboo fishing pole, father and son pick their way across the lagoon to the reef to fish the Pacific as it plumes and cascades into the lagoon.

Faith may be the glue that binds Mangaian society but the missionaries received some rough treatment at the hands of these fiercely independent islanders at their first conversion attempt in 1823. Their task was made easier in 1824 following a plague that swept through the island and this, coupled with a local prophecy, made the London Missionary Society's timing heaven-sent.

Some Mangaians resisted the "Bible eaters" and kept their animist beliefs, becoming known as "stubborn fish". The final battle for hearts and minds was waged in 1828 with the missionaries watching from the sidelines. The missionaries sealed the deal with the rival chiefs by settling on a system of land ownership that was fair for all.

Armed with a little local knowledge, we rent a scooter and head down to Avarua Landing to wait for the fishermen's return. An orange wooden outrigger steadies just beyond the reef readying for the run up the channel. Lean children in surf shorts splash about, waiting to help haul the wooden vakas up the concrete ramp, where women have gathered to buy from a pile of gleaming red snapper or portions of a seven-kilogram wahoo. Big jovial people, they talk readily about Australian family connections.

One woman, sad that all her children have married and live in Australia, laments the lack of opportunity to see her grandchildren, while other Mangaian grandparents are relishing a second lease on life, bringing up grandchildren in traditional island style while their parents work in Rarotonga or overseas.

Riding up a narrow rocky track, we encounter Annie Moeuri sitting on her front veranda surrounded by coiled pandanus leaves.

"I cut and dry the pandanus leaves ready for weaving, collect the bark and make tapu. Everything is done the old way," says Annie, who learnt her craft from her mother.

Demand for these highly intensive labours of love is strong and her bags, traditional fans and table mats are popular with visitors and locals. However, her teenage daughter isn't interested in learning the skills and, like past generations, will probably join the island exodus.

Nooroa says: "Skills need to be valued so that people can earn money from what's around them, rather than leave."

One Melbourne-based Mangaian returns home each Christmas to produce traditional carvings on rich island mahogany. At his parents' home, we see superb collector's pieces including a Mangaian adze, the polished makatea head lashed with coconut fibre onto an intricately carved handle.

Sinnet, or lashing, creates intricate patterns with coconut fibre twine and the island's most spectacular example is at Tamarua Church, where it binds the beams. Garlands of delicate white pupu shells decorate the altar of the church, built in 1863, and elements of Mangaia's former tribal culture are symbolised in the back-to-back fighting figures carved into each support post. As the day slides to a close, men gather at the wharf to fish. One holds a net loosely in his hand, reading the flow and movement before casting, hauling in a slithering pile of mackerel. I strike up a conversation with Rima and Mary, who are sitting under a tree overlooking the scene, threading strands of pupu shells. Gently spoken, Mary recounts her family history, eyes twinkling at the thought of an upcoming reunion scheduled on the neighbouring island of Aitutaki later in the year.

Rima is a powerhouse of energy who, in between making highly prized ei pupu necklaces, bakes pineapple and banana cakes, roasts coffee beans picked in the wild and looks after an assortment of livestock.

It takes about 400 pupu and a lot of patience to make one strand from tiny ground snails that only emerge when it rains. Women and children sit by the roadside waiting for them to pop up, collecting them in plastic buckets to take home and boil in caustic soda. Others fry them as white as the coral found on Mangaia's secret coves.

A dozen golden chains of yellow ei pupu sell for about $80 and are a traditional Mangaian gift for departing friends and relatives. With its rapidly dwindling population, demand must be high.

We're leaving the following day and Rima promises to call by in the morning with a jar of her home-roasted coffee. True to her word, she arrives not only with coffee but a pineapple and banana cake, four strands of ei pupu shells and warm wishes for our return, gestures more eloquent than any words can express.

The writer was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Mangaia is 176 kilometres south-east of Rarotonga. Air New Zealand operates six flights weekly from Sydney to Rarotonga via Auckland. See airnz.com.au. Air Rarotonga have daily flights to Mangaia. See airraro.com.

STAYING THERE

Babe's Place is the best, with four spacious ensuite rooms serviced daily and local ladies Doreen and Ura who conjure up three meals a day. Single $NZ75 ($59), double $NZ120 includes airport transfers and all meals.

WHAT TO DO

The honeycombed makatea is a labyrinth which Mangaians have used as tombs for centuries. Guided tours can be arranged. There are guided reef/lagoon walks, bush walks and opportunities for deep sea fishing.

- Attend a Sunday morning church service for some spine-tingling singing and fire and brimstone preaching.

- Take a picnic lunch to Nukino Lookout and take in the fantastic views across the valley to the ocean.

- The Friday morning market in the tiny settlement of Oneroa is the best place to shop for fresh food, ei pupu necklaces, pandanus bags and pareus, tropical tie dye sarongs that depict Mangaia's fish and flora.

- Rent a scooter for $NZ25 a day from the local shop and explore the rugged coastal tracks.

- Take a front row seat for the annual whale migration just beyond the reef throughout July and August.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Phone Cook Islands Tourism on 02 9211 6590, see www.cookislands.travel.