Rarotonga February 2005: Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

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I've managed to dig out my blog from moving to NZ back in 2005. It's been offline a while now, but I still have the text files, and some of the photographs I made. I'll be posting some here. This one is from when I was flying over to New Zealand from the UK to emigrate, back in February 2005. I had planned to go to the Cook Islands for a week or so, but Cyclone Olaf had other plans. Read on ... Coming into Rarotonga on the delayed morning flight from Tahiti, verdant tree-covered mountains rose from the sea, out of the mist. No - not mist - smoke. The island was on fire. Smoke clouds floated around, enveloping the island in a sombre veil. I half expected to see King Kong come out from behind the mountains.

The islanders were clearing up after three cyclones in a fortnight - the worst grouping for over 18 years. The fires were dead trees and debris - there was nothing else to do with it. The French troops from Tahiti were the first foreigners to arrive to help resurrect the island, followed a day later by engineers from New Zealand and then a Hercules from NZ containing mulchers and other heavy machinery.

A week after the last Cyclone (curiously named Olaf - Cyclone number 3), some parts of the island were still without electricity and water. Cyclone Meena (1) was bad enough, but Cyclone Nancy (2 - culturally diverse these cyclone names) did the most damage to the ecology of the island. What was once a lush green paradise had been reduced to a desert island landscape - brown rotting coconut palms everywhere, beaches eroded beyond recognition, and sea water spray killing palms and ferns far inland. The beaches are full of debris, and the once green lagoon close to the shore on the south side of the island has been polluted by large influxes of sea-water. Much of the fish life is now gone - not that you'd know it from some of these photographs I made.

Driving through Avarua, it became clear that the clean-up had only just begun. Trader Jack's - the big watering hole in town - had been blown apart. Pete, a bar owner in Avarua was lucky - the Cyclone blew straight through his open structure bar and had left most of it intact. But he had lost all of 16 years worth of plants and cultivation, completely washed away when the sea invaded the land and stole it all away when it returned to its usual territory. Many of the businesses and beaches of the more developed North and West of Rarotonga and taken the brunt of the Cyclones. Mano, my host for my stay, explained that it was the power of prayer that had kept the island from an even worse fate.

"People were saying 'What is that idiot doing down there on the beach shouting at the sea?' I say that if you have the Lord God Jesus Christ and you accept him in your heart as your saviour, he will protect you from anything."

I had heard that the South Pacific was still heavily influenced by missionary zeal, but i wondered how widely this view was held. The island was certainly full of well-maintained churches - Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Missions, Jehovah's Witnesses - many flavours of Judeo-Christian creed were available to be tasted. The big event was Sunday morning when the whole island pretty much came to a standstill for prayers.

I didn't stick around long enough to see for myself. The state of the island, and the trade winds blowing rain relentlessly off the Pacific Ocean on to the island persuaded me fairly early to cut my stay short. I was going to stay here for longer than a week. In the end, it was three nights. Matty, a Kiwi with family connections on the Cook Islands, had been coming to Rarotonga since he was a kid. He was going to stay for seven weeks, but was also re-considering his options

"Man, this was paradise - but now if you look at it, it makes me want to cry." It's so bad that you couldn't see it how it was." Matty's girlfriend was supposed to visit him for a week - he had just called to cancel the visit. "She's a high-class chick. She'd only be disappointed".

When I travel, I try to be aware that the gap between my fantasy of a place and its people may be somewhat different from my actual experience. As I sat thinking about this on the longest flat section on the island (the runway), I realised that the gap between my fantasy and reality on triple-whammy-cyclone Rarotonga had probably never been bigger. I did see some great things while I was there, but there wasn't a lot open, and people were clearly busy. I stayed a while but then got the last seat on the last plane out before the next Cyclone was due to make an appearance. I'm sure the Cook Islands will recover, although it may take some time for things to start growing again. I may be back, but not if its blowing anything more than a light breeze - enough to blow away the smoke.

Note: I have since been back - and had a great time too. There was no wind.