It’s always darkest before dawn, they say. In Rarotonga, it seems it’s always hottest before dawn. At least that’s the first thing one notices, stepping onto the stair-truck to the tarmac, from the statically pressured and cooled 737.
I personally think that one of the greatest experiences when travelling is walking across airport tarmac, after descending from a stair-truck. It’s real. The plane is right there. No one is trying to hide it from you, like they do in modern terminals. There’s always an element of remoteness, adventure, and a lassaize-faire attitude about. So it is fitting that my very first experience of Rarotonga (Raro) should be descending into the sauna-like heat & darkness of the tarmac under the galaxy-set of the milky way, somewhere between four and six AM. I can’t remember what time it was exactly – a habit of not writing until the memory is hazy, combined with a seven or so hour economy night flight from Sydney will do that for you. Especially when you can’t sleep on planes.
Bleary eyed & delirious as we were, it was hard not to succumb to the surreal and beautiful situation we were suddenly in – or was it because of it?
A short walk across the tarmac and we encounter the terminal. For a remote South Pacific developing nation island, it’s pretty nice. It’s covered in a thatched palm frond & wooden ceiling, with dugout canoes and wreaths of frangipanis & gardenias on the walls. Waiting in line for customs at some ungodly hour with a few hundred strangers evaporating is strangely calming when it’s nearing the mid 30’s, darkness outside, and an ever present drone of countless wall mounted industrial fans are operating to circulate the warm air. To top it off we were very warmly welcomed to the island by a man and his ukelele singing a song we came to know & love – a song we heard many times that trip. By the time we were out of customs, had our bags and were on the outside of the terminal, the sun was rising.
We had booked at the Club Raro Resort. Why? I don’t know. It was cheap. It looked good. For me, it was probably because I liked the name, it reminded me of my childhood South Pacific travels with my parents. Anything with “club” or “resort” in the name was definitely one for me. This one had both.
At the airport, our first real interaction with a Cook Islander was at the shuttle bus stand. We told her where we were going, she told us it would be $15 NZD each (the Cook Islands is a New Zealand protectorate and uses the NZD as currency, as well as a few Cook Island $1 and $2 coins – not so good for those looking for a cheap getaway, powered by foreign exchange benefits) – $30 NZD for the both of us. So she recommended we get a cab instead of her service. Legitimately genuine selfless helpfulness. This came to be the characterisation of the Cook Islands people.
So, we were bewildered and went to the cab rank, about to get a cab. Luckily at last minute we thought “nahh” and opted for the shuttle – we each got a free “ei” (how they pronounce “lei” in the Cook Islands) of gardenia and frangipanis and we’d get to see the scenic route of the island.
Seeing an island, or new place for the first time (I love islands) is one of the pinnacles of life, I think. It’s fresh experience and it’s the best kind. A wash of new sensations, smells, heat, humidity, ocean spray, Cook Islands radio, glaring sun. We saw Rarotonga this way through the window of a mini bus at sunrise.
We arrived at the resort around 7 I believe. Of course, it was too early to check in, so we left our bags, and decided to walk back into the main township of Avarua. Now I don’t want to deceive anyone here – Avarua is basically a small section of the real “town” of Rarotonga. Raro is an oval shaped volcanic island with a mighty mountain in it’s centre, 32km in circumference. So really, it’s one circular town that spreads around the edges of the mountain and coast. Avarua just happens to be the “big” part of this town.
We were staying about a quarter island from Avarua, so about 8km. We didn’t realise this from the map and because we were quite tired by this point, we just began walking in that direction anyway. Luckily for us, our second interaction with the locals was even friendlier than the first.
Walking along the crumbling main road that rings the volcanic island, the infinite sea on our right, the jungle clad mountain on our left, an old man slowed down and offered us a lift. Weary as we were, we accepted, and soon realised we saved ourselves an 8km walk. The man was on his way to church, like everyone else on the island. He drove about 20kmph, which seemed to be too fast for the surroundings.
The man dropped us at the markets which were just beginning and happen every Saturday in the mornings. First point of call was coffee, of course. Then some local freshly baked pastries and sourdough made by some kiwi expats who seemed to be living every inch of the proverbial dream. Fresh coconuts followed, delicious. Soon the markets became a bustling hive of activity, and before long I was the proud owner of a traditional mahogany island drum. I collect instruments though, so that’s okay.
Instead of walking back to the hotel or catching a cab we decided to rent a scooter. This took a little while, but was well worth it. I had to get my Cook Islands driver’s license from the police station first though, which required a very brief riding-through-cones test. “Of course I’ve ridden a scooter before!” I lied to the laid back officer. I had ridden a motorbike before, once, about five years prior for about five minutes. It’s easy anyway. $20 NZD later, I had a license. $25 NZD after that, I had a bike for a day. We crammed our growing pile of stuff that we had bought under the scooter seat, and scooted off back to the Club Raro Resort.
It began raining on the way back – we got soaked, and it was an amazing feeling, learning how to ride a scooter through the warm rain under a mountain covered in fog, no one else on the road except the odd chicken & dog. Coconut trees, beach and sand at our side.
We finally checked into our room which was pretty bare bones and ordinary, but we were grateful for it, as we both slipped into a very long nap until the heat of the afternoon awoke us. That will be where I resume this story, soon.