Let’s face it, there’s a shortage of elephants, lions and hyaenas here in Australia. On the other hand, we do have a wealth of very unusual and extremely cute little fuzzy animals, not to mention our amazing marine life. And on our back door step, we have the magical world of the South Pacific. In the last few years, since being based in Sydney, I’ve been determined to get to know the finned and furred critters a little closer to home as well, and being married to a keen diver who actually moved to this part of the world because of the reef, for Andy’s recent 40th birthday we ended up in a little piece of paradise – the Cook Islands.
Aitutaki is a snorkelers paradise. It’s not much more than a blue lagoon surrounding a small island, but it is so much more than that. It has possibly got the friendliest people on the planet, as we learned upon arriving at our lovely self-contained unit (Aretai Beach Villas). We were immediately welcomed by our host, aptly named ‘Mama’, who in her 80s knew everything about the place there was to know. As anyone with a small child in tow knows, it’s a little more challenging traveling with a wee sprog, and the truth is kids aren’t welcome everywhere in the Cook Islands (something to do with all those romantic honeymooners). Not so at Aretai, where, with just 3 villas, you feel like you’re somewhere exclusive but little ones are welcome to play on the grass, eat the sand on the beach right out your front door (which Sol did – there wasn’t much beach left when we left – sorry Mama), swim in the idyllic blue, warm waters of the lagoon, nibble on a sea cucumber or try and eat a live hermit crab (all of which our adventurous, 10 month old crawler did).
Having said all that, while Sol had a ball, Andy and I took full advantage of the next door neighbour to Aretai, ‘Mama Q’ who ran a fish and chips shop and promptly volunteered to look after Sol while we went out on a boat to spend some time under water. At times like this there is a moment when you think to yourself ‘I hope there’s no child trafficking here’ because it’s unlikely Mama Q had any nannying qualifications and frankly we didn’t even know her last name. But the proof was in the pudding – Sol loved her. This seems to be the key to traveling with our young lad, as it was also the case in Africa – wherever you go, make sure there are child-loving local ladies there, preferably (in Sol’s case) with substantial cleavages. After he’d had a few sessions with Mama Q, including going to church with her on Sunday (when EVERYBODY in the Cook Islands goes to church and literally everything is closed), we would meet people all across the island who knew Sol. That’s because when we were out snorkeling, Sol was out visiting and making friends with the locals on Mama Q’s hip. He was becoming a local.
With Sol happy, Andy and I could get into the water. Now I’m no reef expert, but I do know that coral reefs are alarmingly threatened by climate change, due to the acidification of the sea, which affects their reproduction, and also due to thermal stress due to rising temperatures in shallow waters. These weren’t the most colourful corals I’ve ever seen, but they did seem to me to have a lot of fish, and some very cool, blue lipped clams, which sadly have been over-harvested and are now part of a captive breeding program being undertaken by the local government. Aitutaki was hit hard by a hurricane earlier this year, which may well have damaged the corals as it did on land (there are still destroyed houses all over the island). There is something incredibly therapeutic about being underwater with the sound of your own breath in your snorkel in your ears (kind of meditative), just watching the fish go about their daily business, ignoring us as we hovered just above.
And the perfect 40th birthday experience for Andy was diving out beyond the lagoon and having 3 humpback whales come right up to him in the water. Two of them, adults, appeared to be mating, belly to belly, and a youngster swam right towards him, only ducking underneath him when it was a couple of metres away. He said he could have touched its fluke. I think that must be something like having a wild elephant come right up to you and check you out, only Andy reckons the baby whale seemed a heck a lot bigger. Even now, he struggles to talk about the experience; some things words just don’t do justice to.
From Sydney you can get a direct flight with Air NZ to Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands, and then it’s a 40 minute flight over to Aitutaki, which I’d strongly recommend as it really is worth it. On Rarotonga we stayed at a great place with only two villas which overlooks the ocean and has an awesome pool, called Black Rock Villas. The delightful German owner, Holger, actually lived with his family in Namibia and South Africa for years, working as a translator among other things, so he has lots of interesting tales to tell if you can sit him down with a Heineken and get him talking.
Okay, so the South Pacific isn’t Africa, but I have to say it has its own charm, and next time I’m going to make sure I’ve got a dive course under my belt, as I reckon getting up close to a whale in the water has to be one of those once in a lifetime things that you never quite forget. The people are lovely, the snorkeling is wonderful, and most importantly, Sol reckons the hermit crabs there taste great.