Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours: Story of an Island, Part 1

On our recent trip to Aitutaki, the second-largest of the Cook Islands, we didn’t rent a car or moped, but still wanted to go exploring as much as possible.  Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours not only showed us most of this lush, green island, but taught us about the ancient culture of the Cook Islands Maori people.  

We’d recommend it to anyone who travels to this distant part of paradise.

The guide behind Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours is Ngaakitai Pureariki, better known around the island as Ngaa (NAH-ah).  A Cook Islands Maori thirty-something with an easy smile and a big personality, Ngaa grew up on Aitutaki as one of 11 children in an are nikau, a traditional coconut-thatched house.  As an adult, he lived in Sydney for awhile, then spent six months in Boston studying Native American culture and its historic parallels to his own.  

His passion now is the archaeological excavation of the island; he aims to reconstruct Aitutaki’s pre-missionary past from a Polynesian point of view.   

Ngaa on a typical tour (but not ours)

Ngaa on a typical tour (but not ours)

Our tour — which we were lucky to have to ourselves in Ngaa’s big yellow Range Rover — began beside the big white Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) in the commercial village of Arutanga.  Built in 1828 by British Presbyterian missionaries, this church represents, for Ngaa, the point at which his people began to lose touch with their Maori identity.   

The Cook Islands Maori people arrived in Aitutaki as part of the Polynesian migration of 800-1000 A.D. and settled in the island’s interior, safe from hurricanes.  For hundreds of years, there was a marae (Polynesian ceremonial gathering site) in a long, lagoon-side field in Arutanga, but no natives built homes here.  Missionaries, who with the help of Tahitian translators converted all Aitutakians in one 1821 day, usurped this marae, built the church, and brought the locals to settle in the path of seasonally dangerous weather.  

CICC in Arutanga

CICC in Arutanga

The plaster church, still popular but always in a state of repair, bears the crumbling brunt of its own ill-advised location.  Unlike neighboring buildings made of concrete, it’s nearly destroyed each and every hurricane season (November to March).

Missionaries sought to abolish use of the Maori language, as well storytelling in the form of native dancing, singing and drumming.  Ngaa pointed out that in more recent history, many islanders have begun gravitating back to some traditions of Maori culture and at least partially re-settled Aitutaki’s interior. 

Cook Island Maori people tend to define their land in fragmented family holdings, farming and building on several small, separate plots at once. All along the jungle back roads we saw subsistence farm plots bursting with crops; the iron-rich soil is ideal for growing taro, kumara (a purple sweet potato), tomatoes and more.  Island produce — including wild bananas, guava and starfruit — consistently shows up on restaurant plates, but little of Aitutaki’s harvest ends up in the local farmer’s market or for sale overseas.  

Aitutaki’s present economy is largely dependent on tourism.  The money generated is appreciated by some, but the focus on privately-owned luxury resorts coupled with a lack of organized, local hospitality training means that many islanders have had to leave Aitutaki to find work, and many foreigners, or papa’a, have been recruited to fill resort positions.

Marae off a garden path at the Pacific Resort

Marae at the Pacific Resort

As Cook Island Maori people are officially the stewards of their islands, a boundary-based discontent is also stirred by the presence of most local resorts.  Ngaa pointed out that our own lodgings, the Pacific Resort Aitutaki (which employs both local Maori people and papa’a), was built on what had been a marae site and popular public beach.  The marae still lies undisturbed amongst the property’s garden paths, but on the beach, there are now small warning signs to discourage non-guests from trespassing.  

In this increasingly Western/Maori-straddling climate, Ngaa, Mark Eddowes (a white archaeologist from Tahiti) and a team of committed locals have set out to unearth and catalogue Aitutaki’s cultural legacy:  Its few remaining marae.


Continued in
Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours: Story of an Island, Part 2

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