The sand felt cold beneath my toes. The sun was slowly sinking below the horizon, painting the sky with beautiful colours. I allowed my feet to sink into the sand as I wandered closer and closer to the ocean, observing the rocks and coral glittering beneath the crystal-clear water. The smell of salt in the air intoxicated me, as did the sound of the waves rolling softly against the shore. I closed my eyes and inhaled, taking the salty air into my lungs. I was home.
The first time I visited Rarotonga, the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands, I felt a strange connection to the small island nation; nothing I’d ever felt before in my travels. I could picture myself living on the white, sandy beaches; spending my spare time collecting sea shells and drinking from fresh coconuts, with sun-kissed skin and wild, untamed salty hair. I still picture this, even now.
The second time I visited the island, all those feelings that I had experienced three years earlier came rushing back to me in dancing waves as I stepped off the plane and walked out onto the tarmac in the early morning haze. The recognisable smell of the island crept up my nose, and I inhaled the musky scent in a long, deep breath. As I looked around and took in the view of the luscious, green jungle behind me, and the strikingly blue lagoon before me, I knew again that I was home.
LIVING LIKE A LOCAL
On that second trip to Rarotonga, we decided it was time to give the whole ‘living like a local’ thing a go. Scott & I found a charming little self-contained unit on Airbnb called Manuae’s Accommodation, and booked a three-week stay. While many of you might think that three weeks is a long time to spend in one place, I must admit that it wasn’t nearly enough time for me. I could’ve spent months in that little unit, living like the Islanders do. In fact, if someone had given me a job, I’d probably still be there.
Manuae herself met us at the airport in the early hours of that first morning, the sun having only just risen as we touched down. We recognised her giant smile from pictures on the Airbnb listing, and the beautiful, fresh frangipani lei’s in her hands indicated that she was our host for our time on the island. As we approached, she embraced us both with loving arms. Within mere minutes of meeting us, she’d already welcomed us as part of her family, and we’d already given her a nickname (Raro Nonna, after Scott’s beloved Nonna, whose loving smile matched the loving smile on Manuae’s own face).
Manuae, in her tiny yet oddly spacious van, drove us down a familiar road, heading south east from the airport towards Arorangi. We passed many recognisable places, and memories from my previous trip to the island came flooding back. I smiled to myself as I thought of those memories, and the memories that we were yet to make.
AN ISLAND LIFE FOR ME
Upon arrival to Manuae’s Accommodation, we were greeted with enthusiasm by Shalom, Manuae’s beautiful granddaughter, and the family pup, Chewy. As we pulled into the driveway, we realised in an instant that we’d made the right choice. Our simple unit had everything we needed; a huge bowl of fresh, tropical fruit welcomed us in the kitchen, a shelf full of books stood proudly in the living room, and the lagoon was located right across the road.
As we settled into island life, Shalom was the perfect combination of host, friend and relative. Her infectious smile and friendly nature made us feel as though we’d known her forever, and she was always making sure that we were comfortable and happy. We often came home to fresh fruit sitting outside the front door of our unit; juicy mangoes, fresh coconuts and starfruit by the dozen. I quickly discovered that the island life was something I could get used to!
Now, like I mentioned earlier, three weeks in one place seems like a long time; especially in a place as small as Rarotonga, whose main road circles the entire island for just 32km. So, how did we occupy our time? Luckily, Rarotonga, despite its size, is full of opportunities for adventure…
HIKE, HIKE BABY
Both Scott & myself are both naturally drawn to the great outdoors – there’s nothing better than experiencing all the sights and smells of nature; especially in a tropical place like Rarotonga. We took advantage of the numerous hikes and treks available on the island, trying our best to spend as much time outside as possible.
Hiking has always been a hobby of mine, and admittedly I don’t do it as often as I’d like, despite living near several great hiking tracks. In Rarotonga, the island is littered with glorious, tall mountains, most of which have spectacular and unique hiking trails. Shalom suggested we try Mt. Raemaru, as the start of the trek was close. With a flattened top, Mt. Raemaru is easy to spot, and we were lucky enough to have a pretty great view of it from our unit.
One afternoon, Scott & I set off to tackle the hike, which Shalom had told us was reasonably easy to do. We started walking inland towards the inner road of Rarotonga, following the directions we’d been given by Shalom. Chewy, who had quickly become our shadow, decided he was going to join us. Since Shalom had advised us of Mt. Raemaru’s relative ease, we decided to let him join us – not that we had much choice! So, we set off as a pack of three, ready to tackle the mountain. Along the way, we met a few other island dogs, some of whom joined us on our adventure. Laughing to ourselves, Scott & I realised that we’d become the ‘pied pipers of dogs’ – a title I was proud to own! Most of the dogs dropped off by the time we reached the start of the track, and it was just the three of us again as we began the ascent.
It was about fifteen minutes later when we noticed that poor Chewy was starting to struggle; despite being about seven years old, Chewy’s fitness wasn’t quite matched with the ‘reasonably easy’ hike. His puffing and panting worried us, and without much water between us, we decided to take him home, abandoning the hike altogether.
It was later in our trip that we decided to try again, this time without Chewy in tow. As we passed the spot at which we’d turned around on our previous attempt, it became obvious that Chewy was never going to make it to the top! Ropes and chains met us near the summit, meaning we had to climb our way to the very top. Once we got there though, the views were spectacular. The flattened top meant that we had a view of almost the entire island; from the lightly coloured turquoise blue of the lagoon, to the deep, navy blue of the ocean. We could see the main road, the town, and all the little homes scattered across the island. It was incredible.
Another hike we decided to do during our time in Rarotonga was the Maungatea Bluff. We’d heard nothing but great things about the trek, and the view from the top was said to be unrivalled. Excited and determined, we took off on our scooter one morning in search of the track.
Now, the entry to the track was probably the first sign that this wasn’t an ordinary hike. Hidden behind a sow’s pen (complete with little, black piglets), the entrance was shrouded in overgrown flora, the only sign that we were in the right place being a faded yellow marker on the of the trees. Despite this, we continued; ducking, diving and crouching under wild branches, shrubby bushes and low hanging trees. If it weren’t for the markers leading the way, you wouldn’t even believe you were on a hike!
About an hour in, we noticed the jungle getting denser, the darkness of the surrounding trees and bushes made it appear as though the sun was beginning to set, despite being mid-morning at the time. It was here that we had to crawl quite literally on our hands and knees (and stomachs), scrambling through the thick undergrowth of the mountain. Now, anyone who has seen David Attenborough’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’ will understand my concern as we crawled through the darkness; I was just waiting for a creepy crawling with a thousand legs to start nesting in my hair!
As we made it through the undergrowth and pushed away the thought of having to go through it all again on our return journey, we continued up the mountain. The faded yellow markers were getting less frequent, and we took several wrong turns along the way. The mountainside got steeper and steeper as we climbed higher and higher, before we eventually lost track of the markers altogether. Not wishing to pursue the hike without a GPS, we decided to head back down.
It was disappointing to not have reached the summit of Maungatea Bluff, especially considering the effort we’d made to get as far as we did. Next time, however, I’m confident we’ll conquer it (with a guide or GPS by our side, of course).
YOU & ME BESIDE THE SEA
If you’ve followed me for a while or if you know me personally, you’ll be more than aware of my love for the beach. A water baby my entire life, I’ve always sought to be as close to the ocean as humanly possible, so you can imagine my joy at being surrounded by a beautiful lagoon with white, sandy beaches in Rarotonga for three weeks!
BLACK ROCK BEACH
Black Rock Beach was one of the first places I ever went swimming in Rarotonga, and I’ve loved it ever since I first laid eyes on the spectacular black volcanic rocks nestled amongst the pure, white sand. The contrast of colours is amazing, with the rocks, sand and beautifully turquoise water perfectly complimenting each other in the visual description of the word ‘paradise’. I spent hours lying on the beach, surrounded by rocks and coral, just staring out to sea, trying my best to catch a glimpse of a sea turtle taking a breath, or a dolphin dancing above the waves. I soaked my skin in the delicious sunshine, cooling off with a refreshing dip every ten minutes because it was too hot to do otherwise. I created towers in the sand from the round, flat rocks and mismatched pieces of coral. I took about a thousand photos, because you can never have too much of a good thing. If I ever had to describe my own, personal version of heaven, it would be Black Rock Beach.
On a calm, clear day, Muri Lagoon is the place to be. Surrounded by four tiny islands, the lagoon at Muri Beach is the perfect place to enjoy water activities, such as swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, paddle-boarding and canoeing. Scott and I decided to hire a double kayak to paddle across to Koromiri, one of the small outer islands off Muri Beach. As we made our journey across the sparkling lagoon, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of the abundant marine life that called these waters home.
We parked our kayak on the shores of Koromiri, and set off to do some underwater exploring. As I dived into the clear water, I did what I always do whilst in the ocean – I pretended that I was a mermaid. Chasing the colourful fish around the large coral, I tried my best to swim as gracefully as I would if I had a tail; legs together, rolling my torso with my hands by my side as I navigated the lagoon floor. Video footage would later prove that I certainly did not move with the grace of a creature whose entire life had been lived under the sea, but hey, I tried.
We spent a couple of hours playing around in the lagoon, swimming beneath the surface as we followed the fish or examined the beautiful coral. We floated on our backs, our bodies buoyantly soaking up the afternoon sun as we watched the clouds move behind the mountains. We stared at the palm trees that dotted the shoreline of the entire island, perfectly content. It was paradise, and I never wanted to leave that moment.
One of my favourite places in Rarotonga is Papua Passage – an underwater wonderland full of intrigue, and one of the best places for snorkelling on the island. Located across the road from the half-built, abandoned Sheraton Resort, the passage is a bit of a swim from the shore. Scott & I slowly made our way across the water, wading through the shallows, being careful not to step on coral or rocks. Eventually, when it became deep enough to swim, we chucked on our masks and snorkels, and dove under the water, ready to explore.
As we snorkelled our way to the passage, we noticed we’d attracted some attention. Tiny, colourful fish began nipping at our skin; it wasn’t enough to hurt, but it was enough to be annoying! Think of swatting flies away during a hot summer day, and the irritation of one landing on your arm after you’d just flicked one away from your leg. These little fish were ruthless! Despite them, we kept swimming, and eventually we reached the passage.
Holding onto the rocks overlooking the deep, we watched with wide-eyed wonder at the sight before us. Countless fish swum in every direction; some darting around the blue water with intense speed, others just casually cruising around. It only took a few minutes for us to spot what we’d ventured out to the passage to see – a sea turtle.
If you know of my love for sea turtles, you can understand my excitement at seeing the beautiful creature swimming around just metres from where we were. I gasped into my snorkel every time the turtle looked like it was heading in our direction, and hoped that it would decide to swim right up to me. Sadly, this didn’t happen, but a few other sea turtles emerged from the deep, so we were lucky enough to encounter a few, despite not getting as close as I’d have liked!
THE ISLAND OF PLENTY
Like I said, Rarotonga is full of opportunities for adventure. It is also full of opportunities to relax, take it easy and just enjoy yourself. The best opportunity on the island, however, is the chance to change your perspective.
Something I realised during this trip was how easy it was to live simply. We didn’t have many personal possessions on the island, just what we needed. We didn’t have many clothes, just enough to get by. We just didn’t have much, yet we had it all. It made me realise that living simply, and having a minimalist attitude towards life was just as rewarding, if not more, than anything else I’d ever known.
Rarotonga may be a simple island, but to me, it’s the island of plenty.
Video Music Credit – Riptide by Vance Joy