The Cook Islands southern-most island
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.
Mangaia thumb
Geologically, Mangaia 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.

  Mangaia from the Air
The makatea and huge caves
Mangaia Cave
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. 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.

Lush swamps
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 Pacific.

At just inside latitude 22 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 21C, means that crops more commonly associated with temperate climates grow well here.

Direct flights most days and several guest house style accommodation make visits to Mangaia an interesting excursion away from the beaten track.

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