Monday, December 20, 2010

The Capital Island of the Cook Islands

Rarotonga: The Capital Island of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands International Airport is located on the main island of Rarotonga, which is abtly called the Rarotonga International Airport. All international flights arrive and depart from Rarotonga, but since there are 15 islands in the Cook Islands, you will need to book a flight with Air Rarotonga, the carrier service for the outer islands of Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro and occasional flights to the remote Northern Atolls of Manihiki, Tongareva (Penrhyn) and Pukapuka.

The main shopping centre is in the chief town of Avarua, it is on the north coast of the island.

Rarotonga is a volcanic island, and the youngest island in the Cook Islands southern group, it stands over 14,750 feet or (4,500 meters) above the ocean floor. The island is 20 miles or (32 km) in circumference and has an area of 26 square miles or (67.19 km²). At a depth of 13,000 ft (4,000 m), the volcano is nearly 31 miles (50 km) in diameter. Te Manga, at 2,140 ft (658 m) above sea level, is the highest peak on the island.

Rarotonga is the second furthest south of the Cooks group and is almost exactly opposite Honolulu in relative latitude. It enjoys temperatures of between 64ºF (18ºC) and 82ºF (28ºC) during the months of May to October; and between 70ºF (21ºC) and 84ºF (29ºC) in the summer which spans from November to April. The wet season is normally January to early May.

The island is surrounded by a lagoon, which often extends more than a hundred yards (meters) to the reef, then slopes steeply to deep water. The reef fronts the shore to the north of the island, making the lagoon there unsuitable for swimming and water sports, but to the south east, particularly around Muri, the lagoon is at its widest and deepest. This part of the island is the most popular with tourists for swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and boating.
The Name Rarotonga

A large tract of land has been set aside in the south east as the Takitumu Conservation Area to protect the islands' native birds and plants, especially the endangered Kakerori, the Rarotongan Flycatcher.

The island's present-day name stems from 'raro' meaning 'down' and 'tonga' meaning 'south'. The most popular version of its origin is that the famous Tahitian navigator, Iro, visited it once and some years later while on Mauke he met Tangiia who asked where he was going. Iro replied: 'I am going down to the south.' The Samoan voyager, Karika, is also reputed to have called it Rarotonga when he first saw it from the north-east because it was to leeward - 'raro' -- and towards the south - 'tonga'.

Palm-studded white sandy beaches fringe most of the island, and there is a popular cross-island walk that connects Avatiu valley with the south side of the island. This walk passes Te Rua Manga, the prominent needle-shaped rock visible from the air and some coastal areas. Hikes can also be taken to Raemaru, or flat-top mountain. Other stops should include Wigmore Falls and the ancient marae, Arai te Tonga.

Popular island activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, bike riding, horse back riding, hiking, deep-sea fishing, boat tours, scenic flights, restaurants, dancing, island shows, squash, tennis, zipping around on mopeds, and sleeping on the beach. There are also many churches open for service on Sunday, and the beautiful a capella singing alone makes them a must. The pace of life is so relaxed at night people congregate at the sea wall which skirts the end of the runway and watch the jets land.

There are three harbours, Avatiu, Avarua and Avana of which only Avatiu harbour is of any commercial significance. Avatiu harbour serves a small fleet of inter-islands and fishing vessels and cargo ships regularly call from New Zealand. Large cruise ships have to anchor off shore.

Rarotonga is encircled by a main "ring" road that traces the coast. In places there is also a secondary ring road slightly further inland. Due to the mountainous interior, there is no road crossing the island.

Rarotonga only has two bus routes: Clockwise & Anti-Clockwise. Although they have bus stops, the bus drivers drive around picking up anyone they see and dropping them off when the passengers want them to.

The Four Motu's

Along the southeast coast off Muri Beach are four small coral islets within a few hundred meters of the shore and within the fringing coral reef. From north to south, the islets are:

1. Mo tutapu, 11.0 hectares (0.042 sq mi)
2. Oneroa, 10.6 hectares (0.041 sq mi)
3. Koromiri, 3.0 hectares (0.012 sq mi)
4. Taakoka, 1.7 hectares (0.0066 sq mi)
5. In 1997 Japanese archaeologists unearthed a previously unknown 'marae' (sacred site) on Motu Tapu. This is estimated to be 1500 years old which would put settlement much earlier than the legend of the arrival of Kainuku Ariki. Based on the evidence of fires, archaeologists have estimated that there was human life on Rarotonga about 5000 years ago.


The interior of the island is dominated by eroded volcanic peaks cloaked in dense vegetation. Paved and unpaved roads allow access to valleys but the interior of the island remains largely unpopulated due to forbidding terrain. Around the central mountainous area of this beautiful island is a narrow band of agricultural terraces and flats which, in turn, is encircled by a ring of swamps used largely for growing taro.

The principal crops are taro (colocasia esculenta), breadfruit, bananas, kumara (ipomea batatas), yams, arrowroot, kape (alocasia macrorhiza), coconuts and ti (cordyline terminalis). Kava (piper methysticum) was grown for use as a beverage.

Taro was planted in the alluvial soils of the stream-beds. Most varieties were grown in swamps with the use of a simple irrigation system of water channels to enable the crop to be grown across the valley floor. The agricultural implements used were the ironwood digging stick, and the planting stick. Unlike the digging stick, which is of uniform thickness, the planting stick has a thick rounded end and was used to drive holes in the soft earth to plant taro. It was also known as the ‘ko’.

(Chestnut trees are still commonly used as boundary marks, and due to the age which these trees are said to attain, many of them may have been growing since the pre-contact era. Relatively few banyan trees are left today as most have been destroyed to make room for agriculture, since each tree in its natural state may cover an acre or more of ground.)

Fishing is carried out in the streams, in the lagoon, and in the open sea, which provides an important part of the peoples diet. Eels were caught in the taro swamps and crabs were taken on the beaches at certain seasons. Fish weirs, made of coral boulders, were constructed in the lagoon. Watercress was gathered from the stream-beds and edible seaweeds were collected in the lagoon.

Other foods that are gathered but not generally cultivated, are chestnuts, roots and berries. The main green foods consumed are taro leaves and the leaves of the poroporo shrub (solanum oleraceum).

Most of the other agricultural crops could be harvested throughout the year, and there was accordingly relatively little food preservation; the only recorded types being breadfruit paste stored in pits, chestnuts preserved in the same manner, and dry coconuts stacked in houses built for the purpose. Bananas were buried in the ground, but this was for the purpose of ripening the fruit rather than preserving it.

Raw materials for every need were derived from the land. Most garments were made from the beaten inner bark of the paper mulberry (broussonetia papyrifera) and the breadfruit, while a coarser cloth was prepared from the bark of the banyan tree (ficus prolixa). The hibiscus (hibiscus tiliaceus) which grew in profusion in uncultivated areas, furnished cordage from its bark, platters from its leaves and rafters from its branches. Mats and other plaited-ware were produced from the leaves of the pandanus (some varieties of which were cultivated) and the coconut. While pandanus thatch was used for the houses of chiefs, only coconut thatch was used by commoners.

Timber for house-building and the manufacture of canoes and other artifacts was obtained from cultivated trees such as the coconut and breadfruit, as well as from forest trees. A host of articles of lesser importance was obtained from the land - candlenuts for torches and dyes, barringtonia for fish poisons, pua (fagraea bertercana) for perfumes, vines for the making of fishtraps and a variety of products for medicinal purposes.

None of these products were cultivated, supplies being collected from self-propagated trees. Owing to the random growth of such trees, a considerable area of land was necessary to ensure an adequate supply of all products.

Rarotonga in the Media

* The travel writer Robert Dean Frisbie died on the island, after having lived there only briefly.
* The 1995 album Finn by The Finn Brothers ends with the song "Kiss the Road of Rarotonga", which was inspired by a motorcycle accident that Tim Finn had during a visit there.
* The U.S. television series Survivor: Cook Islands was filmed on Aitutaki, one of the islands in the southern group. One of the tribes was called Rarotonga (or Raro for short).
* Two feature-length films are linked to Rarotonga: The Other Side of Heaven, which is set in Niuatoputapu, Tonga, but was filmed in part on Rarotonga and Johnny Lingo which was set there.

In the 2008 film Nim's Island, Rarotonga is portrayed as a waypoint for fictional adventure writer Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster) on her journey from San Francisco to a South Pacific island.