Cook Islands – 1992

Travel recipes from Paul and Louise’s trip to the Cook Islands – 24 September – 4 October 1992

They stayed with their friends Willy and Richard Barton who built their own little paradise in Arorangi, Manuie Beach, on Rarotonga, the main island of the Cooks.

Remote, remoter, remotest

If you think Australia and New Zealand are situated in a remote corner of the world, think again when talking about the Cook Islands.

First of all, they are again another 4000km away from Australia. Furthermore, you pass the date line going back in time one day and when you arrive in the Cooks, you will find that the archipelago consists of 15 islands, scattered over an area as large as Europe with no more than 21,00 inhabitants. Half of them live on the main island of Rarotonga. and another 2,500 on Aitutaki, the rest is scattered over the other islands, while two of the islands are uninhabited.

The Cooks are closely linked with New Zealand, from which they received self government in 1965. All major supplies have to come from here – a distance of some 2,000 kms.

The islands are very well off, everybody lives in proper (at a minimum weatherboard) houses. There are lots of cars and motorbikes and the islanders are well travelled, many beyond Australia and New Zealand. There is no poverty, but sadly there is also very little self sufficiency because of the ease of New Zealand imports. Surrounded by oceans where you can catch all kinds of fish with you bare hands, you will fined canned tuna imported from Australia. The soil on Rarotonga is so fertile that you can put a stick into it and 12 months later reap the fruits. But on the flight we arrived on from New Zealand I saw the cargo crew unloading boxes of fresh lettuce, imported from New Zealand!

But there is a wind of change on its way. Financial aid from New Zealand will end in 15 year’s time and the islanders will have to think on how to become self sufficient. But even in this case, the people should be able to ‘survive’ without too much of the hardships of labour. The tourism potential is very large indeed. There is a large number of people that would like to escape the overcrowded places in Europe and America, looking for remote, remoter and if possible the remotest tourist places on earth.

Pa-ariki and other arikis

One of the beauties of the Cook Islands is that, despite their Western appearance, they have been able to keep most of the their social and cultural traditions. While the missionaries within a short period of only two years were able to rob the islanders of their religion, the islands were too remote for any foreign government to govern and as such implant western way of life. Not that they haven’t tried. The New Zealanders sized the opportunity to include themself into the ranks of colonising nations. The way their representatives governed the Cook Islands has been appalling. Many of them were there only for their own profits and treated the islanders as dirt.

Between 1820 and 1890, the missionaries ruled the Cook Islands with an iron fist and while this regime has long gone, the islanders are most certainly still among the most religious Christians in the region.

When finally western colonising arrived, first from the British and later from the New Zealanders, the missionary fist was shaken off in favour of the traditional social laws that had been in place on the islands for hundreds of years. But only through their own determination where they able to maintain their own structures.

This feudal structure evolved around tribal ownership of the land. Land cannot be sold in the Cook Islands. Heritage laws have divided the land over the centuries in small plots scattered all over the islands; but they still all belong to the same tribes, headed by the Ariki (Chief). Decisions regarding the land are made based on a 50% agreement from all the family members involved (yes, 50% and not 51%). It is obvious that such a system eventually leads to many disputes. The main task of the local Ariki therefore is to rule in case of disputes. Extensive knowledge of the heritage laws is a must for any Ariki.

The history and the power of the Ariki is shrouded in legends and religions. All Polynesian people come from the legendary land of Hawaiiki (not the same as Hawaii). From here, they sailed the South Pacific. Around the year 1000, they settled in the islands now called the Cook Islands. And from here the legends have it that they settled New Zealand around 1350. The people on the islands speak a language very similar to that of the indigenous people of New Zealand, called Maori. Both their languages are known by the same name. The same language is closely related to the language spoken by the people of Tahiti and Hawaii.

Nowadays, relationships in the South Pacific are even further spread out and incorporate the indigenous people of Australia, Torres Strait Islands, Papua New Guinea in the East and Micronesia in the North (Hawaii being the Western border and New Zealand the southern).

Back to the Ariki. It is believed that in its origin this position of chief was established by the gods. While heritage was, and currently certainly is, the major factor in the Ariki hierarchy, whether the Ariki was accepted by the people also depended on the magical power (mana). But as Ina Nui, heir to the Mekea Ariki, told me, Arikis come and go but the mana stays with the land, indicating the importance of the link between the people, their land and their laws. When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Rarotonga, they first settled in the district of Takitumu. The ariki of this district is still distinguished by the title of Pa-Ariki (paramount chief). Each group of 100-200 people has a lower level of chief known as the Mataiopo.

In the period following settlement, more districts were created, each with their own Ariki. Disputes within districts sometimes led to the establishment of more arikis in one district or none at all. Rarotonga is divided into five districts but two of them are combined. In all, there are six Arikis on the island. Because (in the past) chiefs had many wives, the heritage lines are very complex indeed and disputes are common place, not only regarding the land but also regarding the heritage of royal status including the one of Ariki. The Arikis in the Cook Islands are consulted in a wide range of government activities. Some arikis, however, see this as a way of control by the Government of their power. They would like to see more control of the islands in the hands of the Arikis. The power of the Arikis re-emerged in the late 19th century when the Mekea (a powerful Ariki on Rarotonga) went to New Zealand and was treated as a queen. Her unexpected visit and her fame made headlines around the world. Her visit eventually led to the protection of her people by Britain and New Zealand against semi-slavery activities from Chilean and French Tahitian traders for cheap plantation labour.

On the first day of our arrival, the Pa-Ariki Marie celebrated her 42nd birthday. Friends and family had organised a small surprise birthday party. Richard and Willy Barton, together with visiting friends (us) were invited to participate.

It turned out to be a very special occasion. First of all because of the impact of the western way of life – old traditions tend to disappear – and this was for the first time in many years that such a party had been organised. Pa-ariki’s predecessor had been her mother, who was loved by everybody who knew her. She had died only two years ago in New Zealand during the signing of the Treaty of Waitiki. She was a very hard person to follow up.

Some 30-40 people were invited and apart from one other white person, the four of us were the only whites. Most people present belong to the tribe of the pa-ariki. But also two other Arikis from Rarotonga attended the party (both female) as well as representatives from some of the other islands and even one from Tahiti – all of whom speeched at the occasion. As all of the speeches were in Maori, we were very grateful for the translation by Padre (who works for Richard at the Brewery).

One of the Arikis had an emotional collection of the previous Pa-ariki and the representation of Tahiti put a lot of emphasis on the function of the Pa-ariki as a ruler for her subjects. He also spoke about the band between her and Jesus Christ. Richard did a presentation on behalf of the ‘whites’ and mentioned the honour we all felt of being invited to be a part of the important event.

After the final presentation, delicious food was presented (buffet style) and we experienced the first flavour of the most important elements of Cook Island tradition – song and dance. Something that would be repeated in one way or another on every single day we spent on this Pacific Paradise.

From Tangaroa to Jesus Christ

Polynesian religion was not without fear. Some 71 gods dwelled through 12 heavens. Tangaroa was one of the most important gods, distinctively male, he still is the most popular god of the islands. Spiritual powers existed all over the island and there were (and still are) many sacred sites called Marae. Cannibalism to obtain spiritual powers from the defeated was widespread. Within a few years this was totally wiped out by the early missionaries who arrived in 1821. Unfortunately also sacred places were destroyed, religious carving banned and Christian churched erected. Without any legal control the missionaries ruled the islands for some 60 years. They had their own police force (informers like the East German Stasi), prisons and punishments not much better than the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages.

The British resident, Frederick Moss, put an end to the power of the missionaries and the by that time also well established island trading companies. Unfortunately the good work of Moss was not continued by his succeeders

In the meantime Christianity had been so enthusiastically embraced by the Cook Islanders, that it has become a part of the Cook Island culture. It is a real treat to visit a church on Sunday. The friendly atmosphere is there, women folk are all dressed up with the most beautiful hats and there is of course the singing. When we went to church there were two distinct choir groups amongst the church goers and in turn they took the lead in singing. At times swinging but there were also very moving soft sung hymns.

Cook Island Christianity has nothing to do with dull religion, it is alive and Cook Islands traditions are firmly embedded. More indication of culture integration can be observed in the beautiful gardens along the roads on the island. Many passed away relatives are buried in graves next to the house. For the islanders, the spirits of ancestors are ever present and are not feared as in some other cultures.

The marae (sacred sites) even while most of them are destroyed, are still used by the Ariki for special occasions. No longer are they used for religious purposes, than they were tapu (taboo) for other earthly beings.

When we were at the Cook Islands, the age old Marea behind the palace of the Makea was once again in use. The Ariki of Te Au Tonga (which includes the capital of Avarua) hosted a ceremonial welcome to warriors from Tahiti who had come by canoe (vaka) to Rarotonga for the Art Festival later in October.

The Best in Polynesia

The Cook Islanders have quite a reputation for their song and dance. Louise and I were already, since the mid-eighties, convinced that they were the best. On several occasions, when Cook Islanders visited Willy and Richard’s house in Sydney and performed we were sitting in the first row.

But even among their own Polynesia peers their dances are regarded as the best. And these people do have the possibility to make comparisons as they all share the same dances in honour of their main God, Tangaroa. This male God has very fertile powers. And in his full penis glory he is well featured on stamps, coins, T-shirts and virtually every other Cook Island article.

His fertile performance has inspired the dancers throughout history and there is no slowing down in current times – to the contrary, with missionary limitations gone, the suggestive hip dances between men and women gets everybody in the audience involved in a big way.

At one occasion, I was awarded the best papa (white male) dancer of the evening after a great performance with my big friend Maiva (5 years old). Richard had been disqualified and that, of course, greatly improved my chances for the title of the night.

I had met Maiva at a lunch that friends of Richard and Willy, Pio and Ikle had organised. Their youngest daughter, Emma (3 years old), is their god child. The food that Pio and Iklei had prepared was again delicious. Most Cook Islanders have one or more pigs in the garden, tied up with one leg to a (fruit) tree. There is too much fruit and the islanders let it fall from the tree be it mangos, papayas, bananas, apples or oranges and so pigs and chicken on the islands have a ball. Hopefully the drive to self sufficiency will see a better use of these delicious fruits.

For the occasion, Pio had killed one of his pigs and together with taro (staple food, similar to potato) and a range of other vegetables and fruits, this was served to us for lunch. Sitting under the bright red bougainvillea, overlooking the Pacific and Maiva and Emma on my knees.

The Rarotonga soapy

While the Cook Islands are scattered over some 2 million square kilometres, it only has a land surface similar to a quart of the size of Canberra with only 20,000 people. Not much more than the average Dutch village.

Cook Islands politics is therefore very similar to village politics. But the fact that it is on a national level with great titles such as Prime Minister, Treasurer, Minister for so-and-so adds to its flavour.

We met the Prime Minister twice; once in the liquor store and once in church and during our numerous trips around the island we have been introduced by Richard to a rich variety of dignities of the islands. Richard runs the only local brewery on the islands and is also the official trade commissioner for the Cook Islands in Australia. He therefore knows everybody in Rarotonga involved in business or politics. And Richard thrives on these islands and when I say thrives, I really mean thrives. He is involved in almost anything of any importance and if he is not involved, he still knows about it.

He arranged the import of some 40 Australian Mitsubishi’s in September 1992, organised scooters for the posties, sells Cook Island resorts to the United States, negotiates equipment for shell processing and agricultural produce. He bought the marquee for the Art Festival and as he is the only one that knows about it, he will also have to erect it. He is the only VIP during the Art Festival who will also be a driver for other VIPs, with all the confusing protocols surrounding such a double function.

While his energy and hard working ethics might be sometimes a bit too much for the somewhat laid-back Cook Islanders, he is widely respected and loved.

Politics in the Rarotonga soapy are great fun to follow. A change of Government may result in a new national flag, based on the ruling party’s colours (green or blue). Election rules are changed if it helps the politicians. At the start of self Government in 1965 a Cook Islander living in New Zealand, Albert Henry, became popular and started his own party. The Cook Island based politicians decided to declare that, in order to become a PM, one had to live in the islands for at least three years. So Albert Henry put his sister (who lived on the islands) up for elections. When his party won, he changed the three years regulation into three months (the period he had been on the islands), held a by-election and became PM.

With such a small population, small numbers of votes can decide an election. For such occasions, it is therefore not uncommon to fly a couple of aeroplanes of some of the 30,000 Cook Islanders, living in New Zealand (around 9,000 are living in Australia), over to Rarotonga to influence the election in favour of the sponsor of the flights.

In the running up to the Pacific Art Festival (2,000 performers from all over the Pacific) most schools in Rarotonga will be closed to accommodate the performers and guests. Public servants (half of the Cook Island workers) will be given 3 1/2 days off to participate in the celebrations.

These two examples are by no means an indication that the rest of Raro will function normally. I am sure that everybody will be in or around the new magnificent $9 million Art Centre, singing, dancing, performing and so on. At one stage or another the audience will turn performers and there will be a continuing inter-changing role between the two.

We have seen the PM playing the ukulele and the strict and authoritative police inspector runs his own island dance group of which he is the lead singer and the main drummer, while his wife and daughter are amongst the dancers.

How to travel to heaven

 If you think Rarotonga is remote, think again twice. Raro is the big smoke if you compare it with the motos (lagoon islands) of Aitutaki. The Cook Islands are advertised as the Heavens on earth, so why wait until you are dead is what the slogan says. The entrance to heaven is right on Manuie beach on Rarotonga. It is build by the Bartons in the shape of 6 heavenly guesthouses, right on the beach, facing the thousands of different sunsets as Ra (in which also the Maoris believe) retreats to heaven over the reef of the South Pacific Ocean. We stayed in one of those guesthouses.

If you decide not to wait to go to heaven until you die, you follow Ra in the westerly direction. I will tell you how to do it. First ten minutes in Richard BMW (the only one in the Cooks), then 45 minutes in a 18 seater aircraft. Only 18 people can go to heaven at the same time. Then 1 hour in a bus on a 2 km long island and 45 minutes on a luxurious yacht and you arrive on One Foot moto. One Foot moto is one of the 21 motos in the lagoon of Aitutaki. According to the experts (National Geographic) the most beautiful lagoon on earth. The different shades of blues and greens of the lagoon are truly heavenly. Deep blue, crystal clear waters and in it the motos. You can select your own heaven with coconut palms, pure white beaches, tropical fish and coral reefs.

In heaven they cook the most delicious fish you have ever tasted, and they serve it with fresh coconut, salads, melons and “male” (remember Tangaroa) doughnuts. They play guitar for you, and they let you dream on the white sands with your eyes open.

You are allowed to walk around your selected heaven, enjoy the curvy shapes of the trunks of a coconut tree. They have also just spread out a few million shells for you to walk on while trying to distinguish how many different colours turquoise blue there are in heaven.

They also let you play with the angels that are surrounding your moto heaven. For this you get some gear to wear and off you are, in the heavenly pond. Some of the angel fish play ‘hide and seek’, other play ‘try to catch me’, or ‘look how impressive I am’. There are silver curtains draped by fish and they let you swim right through it, stunning. Some of the angels are orange, and in a box format, others with an even brighter costume, blue as the water they swim in, others whiter than the white sand, the multicoloured ones and the true angel fish are among my many favourites.

The warriors of Tahiti have arrived!

When we arrived in Rarotonga, everybody was still talking about the event that took place the day before. During a five hour lasting trip, the vaka (canoe) from Rarotonga had been carried from the carving place to the ocean. The high, two hull wooden canoe is a replica of the ones that were used by the islanders around 1350 AD when they travelled to New Zealand.

For the Art Festival, vakas from throughout the Pacific will travel to Rarotonga. Several of them will first meet at the island of Aitutaki and travel the last 200 kms together. When we were at Aitutaki, the Hawaiian canoe had already arrived and was anchored next to the vaka from the island. On television we saw the departure of the New Zealand canoes.

We were lucky to be in Rarotonga when the canoe from Tahiti arrived. The one hull canoe had carried six warriors who had paddled for 8 days to arrive in Rarotonga. The first 7 days in one go to the Cook Island of Mauke, from there in one day to Rarotonga.

The official reception was given by the Ariki-Mekea at the Marae behind her palace. The 90-year old Mekea is a bit of controversy as she is a sort of dowager. The children she is a dowager for are now in their fifties and more than ready to take over, but the old queen does not want to go. Because of her age she did not sit on the Marea stone, but a special wooden seat was put on the spot. All dignities were present and, of course, Willy and Richard and their guests were also invited.

The warriors stood next to their canoe. The Tahitian Ariki we met at Marie’s birthday party did the official presentation. All in beautiful Tahitian costumes. One by one, the warriors made their individual presentation to the queen. When the official part was over, their was an emotional reunion between the warriors and their relatives who had arrived by plane.

One of the warriors told me of 5 1/5 metre waves that had capsized the canoe. As it is made of timber it does not sink. When at sea they are all the time in the boat, day and night, they took turns in sleeping.

The ceremony was followed by a kaikai (island food) under the cover of open huts made of coconut palm leaves. Of course there was music and one of the warriors was even game enough to do a dance with a local girl.

In the evening, the Pa-ariki had organised another kaikai in honour of the Tahitians. After a short visit to this event, we had our last Island dance. An appropriate good-bye to our Cook Island experience.

Paul Budde

October 1992

Cook Island glosarry.

Ina Nui Daughter of Makea (Queen) – descendant of Queen Makea

Pa-ariki (Marie Maquarie) desendent of first Ariki on Cook island

Marae Sacred site ( eg Ceremonial ground at palace)

Kai kai dinner (food)

Rarotonga main island

Aitutaki second largest island

moto uninhabitant island in lagoon

ariki chief of a tribe on the Cook islands

Hawaiiki legendary land of Polynesian peopl

Maori indigeous people of New Zealand

language of the Maori and the people on the Cook isl

Tangaroa Polynesean male god of vertility

vaka traditional Polynesian sea canoe

Avarua capital of the Cook island

Mataiopo chief of a family (100-200 people)

Thank you very much for passing on the very kind letter from Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry to me.

The good thing of all the new developments in Information Technology (IT) is that it is becoming available at affordable costs. This will make it possible for countries such as the Cook Island to participate in the superhighway developments.

There are two distinct fields to become involved in:-

  • as a user of the services for: citizens, businesses, government (education, health);
  • as a service provider to local and overseas users.

Superhighway for the Cooks

While in the Cook Islands I also looked at some of the telecommunications opportunities for this country

User aspects of superhighways

From a user delivery point of view it is important to realise that an infrastructure is needed to offer the new electronic services to individual consumers and businesses.

These superhighways (ramps) include:-

  • telephone networks (ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line = video signals over telephone networks) technology, commercially available 1995/1996);
  • cable TV (coax cable available now);
  • cable TV (hybrid of fibre to the curb and coax to the home, available now);
  • cable TV (fibre-to-the home by the end of this decade);
  • satellite dishes (available now), go for digital;
  • microwave distribution system (MDS {Multipoint Distribution Systems}) (available now).

Technologies can be mixed and matched, implementation depends on financial feasibility. There are some good inexpensive reports that do provide a good overview of these technologies. They are non-technical, written for senior management. In the past, we have sent some information on these reports to Stuart Davies.

Applications for the Cook Islands

Apart from entertainment such as video-on-demand, the new digital services are able to deliver education and health care programs, also on demand. From their home people can select the program they want, either at the time they want it, or at a range of preset intervals. For example at 7am, 10am, 2 pm, 4pm, 7pm or 9pm. The last technology is called Near-Video-on-Demand (NVOD) and is less costly. There are, of course, many more applications such as parliament and government presentations directly to the people, public TV from community groups on the different islands, and so on.

KIS (Keep it simple) technologies

If TV sets sold in the Cook Islands do have teletext decoders built into them, some of the hybrids, as mentioned in my paper “Hybrids ramps to superhighways”, are possible in the field of interactive TV. I am pretty sure that Stuart has the possibility to offer audiotex services on his network. If that is the case people can dial a particular telephone number. This will connect them to a central computer (in the Cooks or overseas) which will allow them to use their TV for interactive games, shopping, banking, etc.

An audiotex service on its own (without the TV) is an option that could be very easily introduced and can be made profitable as from day one of its operation. One of the interesting features of audiotex is that it is even not necessary to invest in special computer systems, services could easily run on overseas computers. Once the service has grown to sufficient size and enough money has been earned, computer investments in the Cook Islands could be considered. We do have considerable experience in this field and are in contact with the world’s leading developers of such services.

Service Providers’ aspects of superhighways

The new technologies are very democratic. By this I mean it enables small groups and individuals to provide information to the users on the network at very little cost. It is fully two way allowing interaction between the provider and the users.

For the government as a service provider of, for instance, education, health care and community services, this means more services at lower costs, with options to recoup some money from some extra services that can be provided at a small extra fee. For this the user has the advantage that it is more convenient to use the electronic service, you don’t have to come into town, queue for counters or be there between opening hours.

Information that is currently available within the government but that is difficult to make accessible to users because of the costs involved, can now be made available electronically, at a small fee, if necessary.

The Cooks-on-demand

At a later stage, information from the Cook Islands can be linked into international networks. This makes it, for instance, possible for an American tourist, who has heard of the Cook Islands to dial up a video-on-demand from his TV set in his home in LA and receive a 15 minute video on the Cook Islands, provided directly from the Cook Islands, thus avoiding a range of middlemen. These intermediates often don’t have the correct, or the latest, information or have other destinations that they would like to push. The direct link gives full power to the user on one side and the service provider (in this situation the Cook Islands) on the other side. Video based services could also be provided by individual hotels and resorts through a menu driven service. The end user (the US tourist) makes selections on his TV screen, which hotel, resort, island or dance group he would like to “video sample”.

Knowledge: key to economic success.

This last example provides some thoughts regarding Sir Geoffrey’s notes on the different “highway” options there are for the Cook Islands (harbour, airport, information infrastructure). While all of this is of equal importance I would like to argue that the most valuable asset of any country in the future will be knowledge. If you master the skills to use knowledge to your (social, commercial, economic) advantage than there will be considerable long term rewards. The third world countries of the next century will be those countries with a population of “information have-nots”.

The Cooks Teleport

New information technology infrastructures are also making it possible for individual persons and small businesses to participate in the global village. A “teleport” in Raratonga, with ordinary (but high quality) telecommunication and computer equipment will make it possible for Cook Islanders to offer their services anywhere in the world.

Good examples include computer programmers, software designers and data entry persons who are currently offering their services from SE Asian countries directly to businesses in the United States, Europe and Australia by using the existing global information highways.

Any well-educated population will be able to participate in hi-tech services from anywhere in the world. As a matter of fact we will see an increasing number of top business people moving to places of their choice, where they can enjoy the lifestyle they want, without giving up their job. As long as there is a proper IT infrastructure in place from where they “virtually” operate, they can handle their business with only a limited amount of trips to the country or city where their “concrete” office is situated.

Densely populated countries are currently developing government policies to stimulate the growth of teleworking. This development might well offer new business opportunities for the Cook Islands. Hotels and resorts linked to the superhighway can advertise these teleworking services, or virtual offices to potential customers around the world.


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