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Travel Story

The Blue Lagoon of Aitutaki

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The 15 tiny specks of land that make up the Cook Islands Nation are scattered across an area of South Pacific ocean the size of Western Canada. With a total land area of 91 square miles, not much bigger than Saltspring, the islands are home to about 24,000 Polynesian people whose ancestors arrived in dugout canoes at some unrecorded time in the distant past.

From my Air Rarotonga plane, cruising at 13,000 feet, I can see to the horizon and there is nothing out there but ocean. Our Saab 340 turboprop, guided by a modern navigation system, takes about 40 minutes to fly from the island of Rarotonga to Aitutaki. For the early Polynesian people, travelling under sail in double-hulled dugout canoes, guided by the stars, the direction of the waves, and the flight patterns of birds, the same trip would have taken at least a week.

From the air, Aitutaki atoll is outlined by a line of white surf breaking against the coral reef that separates dark blue water of the open Pacific from shallow, pale turquoise water inside the lagoon. The triangular-shaped lagoon, 20 km across at its widest point, contains three volcanic islands and 12 coral islets or motus. We touched down on the main island and were taken by van across a narrow bridge to the Pacific Pearl Resort on the tiny islet of Akitua. Arriving too early to occupy our room we settled for a complimentary drink at Ru's Bar.

According to legend Ru, for whom the bar is named, set out in search of new land but instead of loading his double hulled canoe with the customary warriors he took instead 20 beautiful young maidens. Many days later they discovered Aitutaki. Ru turned his back to the sea and settled down knowing that others would follow and challenge him for this bountiful island. During his lifetime 18 other canoes did indeed arrive. But rather than fight, Ru offered the headman of each canoe a maiden in marriage, thus assuring the peace and security of a family tie. Ru himself sired many children who, along with those from the other 18 canoes, are believed to be the ancestors of Aitutaki's present Polynesian residents.

By the time Betty and I finished our "island smoothies" it had started to rain so we joined two other couples for Chloe's workshop on Polynesian Culture. The multi-talented Chloe may well be descended from one of Ru's legendary maidens. Certainly any maiden with her beauty and personality would have no trouble melting the heart of the most warlike chief.

Chloe is the daughter of a prominent Aitutaki family. She has her own dance troupe and has travelled overseas – having recently returned from Mexico where she was instructing dance teachers from Mexico, California, Argentina, and Canada. For the next hour Chloe and three of her troupe guided us through everything from husking coconuts, and tying pareu, to beating out rhythms on "pate" (slit log drums). Switching back and forth from entertainer to teacher she helped us make utter fools of ourselves – the women tried swinging their hips while we men clapped our knees together in a pathetic parody of the strident male dance. Chloe's instructions – "just pretend you're crushing ice in your crotch." But on top of all the fun and silliness Chloe actually taught us a lot about her island and the culture of her people.

That evening the Pearl Beach put on yet another umu feast followed by a powerful performance of Polynesian drumming and dancing. Aitutakians are acknowledged throughout the Cook Islands for their skill in making and playing the slit drums which accompany traditional dancing. From the slow, seductive hip swinging dances of the women in their low-slung grass skirts and coconut shell bras to the frenzied pace of the near-naked male dancers, the theme was unashamedly erotic. We were treated to a virtuoso performance – a glimpse of the joyful, exuberant Polynesian culture that has thankfully survived the puritanical strictures of the missionaries.

The next morning not a single cloud was reflected on the glassy blue surface of the lagoon and we set out to explore some of the other islets within the reef. The driver of our 10 person aluminum skiff introduced himself as "Captain Marvelous," fired up the 130 horsepower outboard, and blasted off in the direction of the distant reef. The clear shallow water of the lagoon is dotted with ominous dark coral heads only inches below the surface, any one of them capable of stripping the leg off our motor. "No worry," said Captain M as he threaded his way through them, "I been fishin’ these waters all m' life."

He put us off on several of the small motus where we were able to escape the searing tropical sun and explore the cool, green jungle behind the fringing row of coconut palms. The ground was littered with "drinking nuts" that offered a refreshing mid-morning snack.

Along the storm-facing southern edge of the atoll, submerged sandbars extend from the reef out into the lagoon. Captain M anchored his boat on the edge of a bar. We stepped out into 18 inches of crystal clear water and were handed the skeletal remains of several yellow-fin tuna, leftovers from yesterday's feast. As soon as these were held in the water fish appeared from nowhere, churning and tugging fighting for every last scrap of meat still clinging to the bony carcasses.

Donning snorkels and flippers we pushed off the edge of the sandbar where the water drops steeply to a depth of about three metres. Huge dark coral heads rise from the pure white, light-rippled bottom, to within half a metre of the surface. The first thing I saw were three giant clams the size of toilet bowls, their interlocking shells agape as they sucked water through siphons twice the diameter of garden hoses. "Get a foot in one of them an you're gonna miss the boat," warns Captain M.

I watch a huge moray eel weave its way up the sloping edge of the bar, snatch one of the tuna carcasses away from the smaller fish and drag it to the bottom. Each coral head seems to be the domain of a different species of fish, a myriad different colours, patterns, and shapes. I could have spent the day there but I heard the motor start and we were off to One Foot Island.

In the open-sided thatched hut, where our lunch was already simmering on the grill, Captain M changed hats and became the immigration officer. He put the official stamp of One Foot Island on our passports and told us the sad origin of the island's name. Fleeing from a group of warriors a father and son landed on the island and fled inland. But as they entered the beach the dad stepped carefully in his son's tracks, leaving only one set of prints. The father was hunted down and killed. Believing there was no one else on the island the raiders left and the son survived.

After lunch I walked along the beach where the palms were loaded with green coconuts and ripe ones littered the ground. When the first people arrived here it was the coconut palm, the Polynesian "tree of life" that provided an abundance of nourishing food and drink, material to build and thatch shelters; fibre for ropes, lines, clothing and sails. Here and there along the beach new sprouts have begun to spring from partly buried nuts – a reminder that sometime in the distant past that is how it all began. A coconut from some distant island washed up on the shore of a new island, took root, multiplied and was there when that first boat load of people arrived. But as I looked across the lagoon to the main island, only about 10 kilometres away yet barely visible above the horizon, I pondered the odds against a coconut, or a dugout canoe, ever finding these tiny havens of land in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

For every boat like Ru's that blundered into a paradise like Aitutaki, I wonder how many others sailed on into oblivion leaving no record of their voyage in either history or legend.