|The Cook Islands
Two hundred kilometres east-south-east from Rarotonga, second
largest of the Cook Islands, the raised atoll of Mangaia has
always been isolated and determinedly independent. Tradition
has it that the island was not discovered by a voyaging ancestor
- Mangaian belief is that the first human being rose from a
hole in the centre of their island. Mangaia and Avaiki, the
spiritual homeland, are thus one and the same. In less legendary
terms, it is thought that the island was populated by seafarers
from Tahiti, Rarotonga and Tonga.
is by far the oldest of the 15 islands of the Cook Group, and
is shaped like a tail-less stingray whose head faces north-west.
Fifty-one square kilometres in size, the island is surrounded
by a thick coral reef, with only a few tiny beaches notched
into its coastal rock.
The shoreline steps up a few metres to a narrow rocky plain,
a shelf of land covered with palms, pandanus and coarse grasses
on which large herds of cute goats graze.
On this coastal fringe
are located the main road, several villages and, to the north-east,
the airport runway.
from the Air
|Between this fringing shelf and the
interior hills of Mangaia is the island's most formidable feature,
a band of makatea - fossilised coral composed of calcareous
limestone - in places over 60 metres high and with an average
width of a kilometre and a half. The makatea surrounds Mangaia
like giant coils of razor-wire, jagged, unbroken, impenetrable.
Not quite. The karstic nature of the makatea means that it is
honeycombed with sinkholes, tunnels and caves which the Mangaians
have used as tombs for hundreds of years.
Teruarere Cave, for example, on the northern inland edge of
the makatea, is an apparently endless succession of connected
chambers, from the inner reaches of which it is possible to
hear the beating of waves on the reef, somewhere overhead.
It was not until 1951 that a road cutting was blasted through
the makatea platform near Tavaiienga village, using war surplus
explosives. The cutting, up to 15 metres high, allows a steep,
one-way road to connect the coastal plain with the fertile interior.
The sides of the cutting reveal dramatically the depth and density
of the rock collar which surrounds the island, and the engineering
feat which its construction represented.
|The inland edge of the makatea ends
abruptly in towering ramparts of rock and the runoff from the
island's hilly heart is trapped near the foot
of these cliffs, forming a swampy moat ideal for the growing
of taro. So lush is the vegetation in these sheltered swamplands
and so fertile are the soils, that the neatly tended, irrigated
landscapes more closely resemble the padi fields of the Philippines
or Bali, rather than those of an uplifted atoll in the South
At just inside latitude 22º south, Mangaia is the southernmost
of the Cook Islands. The coolness of the months from June to
August, when the mean temperature is just over 21ºC, means that
crops more commonly associated with temperate climates grow
Direct flights most days and several guest house style accommodation
make visits to Mangaia an interesting excursion away from the