Rarotonga: Pa’s Cross-Island Trek

Pa, at 69 years young

Climbing a couple thousand feet straight up through a South Pacific island jungle in the company of a sweet and dotty native healer, then picking your steep and muddy way back down using only vines and roots to hold you steady might not sound like your idea of a good time…

…but we swear, it’s a truly phenomenal experience.

On Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, the Cross-Island Trek is a doozy of a trail dug out of thick, mountainous jungle; it follows the island’s spine between the towns of Avarua and Vaimaanga.  It’s best not to attempt the four-hour Trek without a guide, as it offers few signs and even fewer markers to point your way/tell you where to hold on for dear life.

After first learning about him in Frommer’s, we chose to undertake this hike with Pa, a groovy sexegenerian with yellowed dreadlocks, a wicked sense of humor and an eye for the ladies.  On the day of our trek, August 15, 2009, Pa announced that our trip would be his 3,752nd.  Safe to say we were in excellent hands.

Our small group was picked up by caravan from our separate lodgings, and we formed a motley crew:

  • Two young German medical students doing part of their residency at the island’s hospital;
  • A friendly British couple on their honeymoon, disappointed to have fled overcast, windy London for overcast, windy Rarotonga (in Oceania’s winter);
  • A sure-footed and confident German woman and her gangly, poorly-shod African boyfriend;
  • A couple of whackadoodle Aussie women, one who hates mud and never, ever stopped talking, and one who misunderstood the upwards nature of the Trek…and never, ever, ever stopped talking.

The Avarua side of the Cross-Island Trek

Our adventure began on the Avarua side of the Trek, in a verdant valley surrounded by vine-tangled hills.  Pa began with a prayer for our health and safety (in both English and his native Cook Islands Maori), distribution of a coconut-oil bug repellent, and then a straight launch into his encyclopedic knowledge of Rarotonga’s botany.  The last in a 60-generation familial line of herbal healers, he knows the name and medical use for every plant you might encounter here.

One tree was hung with what he termed “The Big Bean,” and he wasn’t kidding; we’ve never seen one bigger.  I asked after a dainty plant with delicate, deep-purple flowers and was told that if I put twenty blossoms under my pillow at night, they’d induce vivid dreams.  One leafy shrub with tiny pink flowers was known as “Island Viagra,” and Pa always prescribes it as a tea for a husband and wife simultaneously to (and I quote), “…keep just one person from jumping on the other.”

Clockwise from L: Pa at work; The Big Bean; purple dream flower; Island Viagra; papayas

Ten minutes in, when we reached the jungle, it was clear that the shrill Aussies would not be silenced despite the reverent beauty all around us; we checked with a bemused Pa for directions and sped on ahead. We fairly shocked ourselves with a heretofore unknown ability to climb like monkeys, using hard-packed tree roots to power upwards at a 100° angle.

Apparently, we’ll do just about anything to avoid being annoyed on vacation.

First to reach the round, rocky marae towards the halfway point, we stopped to pant heavily…and greet a jaunty rooster, who surprised us by strutting straight out of the jungle at an elevation of 1,300 feet.  We dubbed him Stanley the Jungle Chicken, but Pa assured us that he’s a wild fowl and answers to no one.

Clockwise from L: Adam mid-Trek; Stanley the Jungle Chicken; the mid-Trek view; mid-point marae

Clockwise from L: Adam mid-Trek; Stanley the Jungle Chicken; right side view; marae

By the time the others joined us, we’d temporarily lost the Aussies.  (Amidst much bitching and moaning, they’d chosen to bypass the steepest portion of the Trek.)  With a collective sigh of relief, the remainder of our group soldiered on to the Trek’s star attraction: Te Rua Manga, or The Rarotonga Needle.

Our Trek group at Te Rua Manga

Most of our Trek group at Te Rua Manga

At 2,140 feet above sea level, this huge and forbidding tower of rock is the highest point on the island.  Long a sacred site, The Needle naturally bears the profile of a moai, a monolithic Polynesian statue like the ones found on Easter Island.  From up here, the gauzy views of the soft blue Pacific and jungle-draped jagged mountains had us disoriented in time; Pa says this scene would have looked much the same to Cook Islanders circa 1000 A.D.

The Needle and its views, both east and west

From the Needle, it’s a shaded downhill sprawl beneath massive, arching palms, through thick, red mud, and along a web of roots and vines that loosely follow the path of a white PVC electrical cable.  In this prehistoric ferngully, a soft, rain began to fall as we carefully backed our slippery way down; even the Aussies fell (almost entirely) silent, and our unfortunate African trekker, in his smooth-soled sneakers, held tightly to his girlfriend whenever he wasn’t sliding past us, nearly horizontal and shrieking.

The jungle floor’s reward for our brave, collective effort was a series of cool and rushing streams.

Left side view going down; yours truly, reaching the bottom at last; waterfall-fed stream

Our trek ended at Wigmore’s Falls, a waterfall/pool where we were all grateful to wash our muddy arms and legs; only the veteran Pa remained unsullied.  Moving quickly to avoid mosquitoes just waking up to the afternoon, we devoured Pa’s delicious homemade smoked tuna sandwiches, fresh coconut and papaya…and patted ourselves on the back for making it all the way up and over the Cross-Island Trek, together.

The perfect shoes for this adventure are Keen’s Venice H2 (with which TWT has no affiliation).
Made from lightweight, stretchy neoprene and featuring a strong, grippy sole and protective toe cap,
these are ideal for maneuvering on steep slopes, muddy tree roots and through shallow streams.
They come in men’s and women’s styles, and are resoundingly Pa-approved.

Pa’s Cross-Island Trek
phone 011-682-21079
or, book through Island Hopper Vacations

See related posts:
TWT Travel Binder: Cook Islands
All Around Rarotonga
Rumors of Rarotonga
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Easy Version
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The-Not-So-Easy Version


  1. Wow this looks fun and exciting! You’re all so brave to do this! 🙂

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