Cam Cope climbs aboard a traditional double-hulled vaka in the Cook Islands and sails into an ocean alive with Polynesian legends.
Tua Pittman grips a hefty wooden tiller under one arm and leans his bodyweight to port.
“I can’t promise this will be an easy ride,” he reminds all seven passengers aboard as the crew haul sail. As soon as we exit the coral’s natural defences we’re hit with inertia and our twin set of rust-coloured sails fill with wind.
Tua’s silver hair and calm countenance lend him the aspect of a wayfaring mythic, and amidst the rolling and pitching he quickly demonstrates the agility of a lifetime spent at sea. He’s a Traditional Master Navigator and key member of a Pan-Pacific vanguard reviving the long-thought lost art of Polynesian navigation.
His ancestors sailed giant vaka – traditional double-hulled catamarans up to 60 metres in length – on oceanic epics across the vastest expanse of water on Earth, a thousand years before Europeans caught wind west of the Mediterranean. I’ve flown over 6000 kilometres into the South Pacific to experience their legend on board the Marumaru Atua, a 22-metre modern vaka built in the style of the ancients, for a voyage guided by the stars.
Spread over two million square-kilometres halfway between Tonga and Tahiti, the 15 tiny islands of the Cooks are home to less than 20,000 people on only 240 square-kilometres of dry land. Arriving from the air, the main island, Rarotonga, reveals itself: a turquoise-fringed shard of emerald beneath stratocumulus that float like aerial lilies over the ocean.
Within hours of landing I realise I’ve flown snugly into the tropical back pocket of New Zealand. Kiwi honeymooners – who make up the majority of the two-thirds tourism-based economy – gurgle on scooters around Raro’s 32-kilometre circumference between doe-eyeing in paradisiacal Muri Lagoon. And many of the boutique villas and eateries that encircle the island are run by Kiwis. But there is a much older connection: around 600 years before the missionaries, whalers and sandalwood traders stirred up trouble here in the 19th century, it was the Cook Islanders who sailed out to colonise New Zealand, naming it Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’.
I first meet Tua on Arorangi Beach in front of Waterline Restaurant as a team of lithe silhouettes cool off against the sunset with a game of lagoon rugby. In the dying light he welcomes a handful of guests into a thoughtful conversation that travels through time across the Pacific, over several margaritas and a plate of seared yellow fin tuna. Without a hint of ego he describes an unprecedented 18-month voyage that he and over 100 other Pan-Pacific Islanders completed in 2012.
With a fleet of seven traditional vakas, they journeyed over 15,000 nautical miles, tacking from Aotearoa to Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii, San Francisco, down the western seaboard of North America to San Diego, Baja California Sur, the Galapagos Islands, then west back to the Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands where their journey culminated in a celebration at the Festival of Pacific Arts. Together they turned legend into history and are now carrying a message of ocean stewardship to the world via a feature film documentary, Our Blue Canoe.
Conversation then turns to the weather and Tua breaks the news. The breeze blowing softly in the coconut palms overhead is a deception. We’re actually on the lee side of the island, and out to sea a north-easterly sent from the far reaches of the Pacific is gusting up to 26 knots. Respect for the ocean is a guiding principle onboard the Marumaru Atua, so our embarkation to sail 140 nautical miles north to renowned Aitutaki Lagoon has to be postponed by days.
Fortunately, my departure lounge is an alluring tropical island. On all sides Rarotonga climbs gently from white sandy beaches into terraces of taro and family plots of banana, pineapples, arrowroot, avocado, mango and paw paw.
But the interior is a wild no man’s land of vertical forests, king fern gullies, razorback ridges and 700-metre volcanic peaks glistening like dragons’ teeth. It’s there that I meet Pa, an eccentric forest spirit who dresses in leaves and is philosophically opposed to shoes. He guides me on a four-hour trek through the centre of the island via staircases of roots and vines to Te Rua Manga, a volcanic pinnacle towering over the rainforest. By his own count it’s his 4388th time making the journey. Taking in the sweeping 360-degree views, I can think of worse daily habits to develop.
At Pananga Nui market I sip on a soursop smoothie and shop for black pearls, polished shells and hand-woven fans. As change I’m handed a pile of triangular coins and a three-dollar note with the most outlandish currency diagram in history. Depicted is Hina, a naked moon goddess – hair flowing as wildly as her breasts – as she rides an aggressively flexing shark named Mango down the face of a tsunami with the serenest of eyes and a coconut in her hands. ‘Beats that Banjo Patterson’ she seems to jibe, looking into my wallet at an Australian $10 note.
In the foothills above Arorangi Beach I join a group ascending to Highland Paradise, a cultural centre built at the site of a marae, an impressive arrangement of boulders that served as a stone parliament for the Ariki (high chief) Tinomana Enuarurutini 200 years ago.
During strictly observed formalities of offering we’re informed precisely where and where not to stand as warriors scream a welcome. Despite the warning, a black sheep climbs a prohibited stone wielding a camera. Moments later a coconut drops from directly above, and in a split-second, suspended by collectively held breath, it softly kisses the brim of the offender’s hat before smacking into the earth with deadly force. The welcome halts and all present fall into a stunned silence, pondering the power of the ancestors.
After 48 hours the wind drops enough to climb aboard Marumaru Atua and get acquainted with vessel and crew. Amidships a thatched galley with a curved roof serves as a kitchen and shelter from the weather. But as we push out from the lagoon most passengers sit on the deck against wooden storage compartments that double as benches. Overhead all the sails are decorated with Polynesian motifs and at the rear of ship a set of large solar panels provides power for masthead and cabin lights. Radios and a GPS system are also onboard to comply with insurance requirements, but are not used except in case of emergency.
The sun paints a scarlet horizon as Rarotonga fades into the backdrop and the crew unfurl the jib sail. Tua and the captain, Peia Patai, who is also a Master Navigator and returned veteran of the Australian Navy, guide us due north. My apprehension at the growing swell turns to excitement as the twin canoes demonstrate how well they ride. Though the wave action does not agree with all stomachs on board.
Malik, a 16-year-old recruit, takes to the rails chest heaving within minutes of weighing anchor, where he remains stoically all voyage without complaint. He was invited aboard by school guidance counsellor-cum-crew member Thomas Wynne, and represents the future direction for Tua and his team. Their aim is to build Polynesian Navigation into school curriculum and employ the Marumaru Atua as a vessel to carry their cultural heritage into the future.
“Traditional navigators have to memorise at least 200–250 prominent stars, where they rise and where they set,” Tua enthuses, calmly pointing out navigational insights during the night. “And the cut of the moon at any stage bar full always gives an approximate north, south, east and west.”
We learn that the sun is near useless in the middle of the day. But the sunrise and sunset are key for determining swell direction, and from that the feel of wave action on the canoe is used to determine sail direction later in the day (or on cloudy nights).
Tua insists he can feel in an instant when the vessel goes off course, even when he’s resting below deck on one of the eight bunks fitted within each canoe. The regularity of the waves on the prow attests to Tua’s comments, but there’s much more to learn. Water colour, migrating birds, floating debris, cloud patterns and sea life also help indicate proximity to land and the coming weather.
“And believe me,” he warns, “what we’re doing is only just touching the surface of our ancestor’s knowledge.”
At 3am the swell peaks at four metres and the team decide to turn back for Rarotonga. Waves of this size aren’t normally threatening (the Marumaru Atua has safely ridden out swell of up to 10 metres in the past), but the channel through the reef into Aitutaki Lagoon is so narrow it can only be entered safely on the calmer seas more typical from April to October.
In the morning the sun rises just where it had set to port and Rarotonga reappears on the horizon. As the watch teams sleepily exchange duties at the star compass, Tua reflects quietly on a life that explains why, despite his achievements, he remains so humble.
Born to Tahitian, New Zealand Maori and Cook Island lineages, Tua tragically lost both his father and grandfather at age five when they were both swept away by a freak wave while fishing off Rarotonga.
A fear of the ocean then gripped his family until, at age 19, chance offered Tua a berth on the Hokulea, a replica Hawaiian vaka. To his crying mother he declared: “If we’re going to combat the fear of the ocean then this is the way to do it. Front on.”
From there he never looked back and at 25 became a disciple of Mau Piailug, a revered traditional Micronesian navigator who by passing on rote learning from oral traditions, lit the torch of the craft’s modern revival in the 1970s.
I’m floored by the arc of Tua’s story, his place in history and what the Marumaru Atua represents. Between the captain, the navigators, the veteran crew and the new recruits, I’ve experienced an atmosphere of a welcoming family rather than the stern command of a military brig.
Vigilance is kept and authority respected, but so is a sense of humour, encouragement and adventure. There’s a clear understanding that together they are building something powerful, and that their achievements are shared with and in honour of their ancestors. It’s an inspiring and unrivalled foundation for a charter tour, and one I suspect I’ll return for, even if this time I’ll be flying to Aitutaki.
How to get there
Air New Zealand offers direct Sydney to Rarotonga flights weekly as well as daily connections via Auckland. Return prices range from $800 in low season to $1800 in high season. airnewzealand.com.au
When to go
April to October is the best time to visit Cook Islands to avoid the heat, humidity and potential cyclones over summer.
Where to stay
Pacific Resort Rarotonga is the best full service resort for all ages on Rarotonga, offering direct access to Muri Lagoon. From $665 per night; pacificresort.com
Little Polynesian Resort on Titikaveka Beach boasts a secluded location, infinity pool with sea views, over-beach Are (bungalows) and Pia Tiare (garden units). From $495 per night; littlepolynesian.com
• Island Discoveries offers a three-hour cruise onboard the Marumaru Atua Saturdays at 1pm and Wednesdays at 9am, from $90 per person.
• Three-night Aitutaki Voyage onboard the Marumaru Atua is from $780 per person for minimum four and maximum eight people. Runs monthly on demand. Contact +682 55884; firstname.lastname@example.org (website in development)
• The Cross Island Trek with Pa’s Treks is $65 per person including transfers and a light lunch; pastreks.com
• Sunset cultural show and feast at Highland Paradise Cultural Centre is $83 per adult and $46 per child, runs Wednesdays and Fridays. www.highlandparadise.co.ck