Cook Islands



In the Cook Islands, David Whitley prepares for the burn in the thighs, and takes on Rarotonga’s cross-island trek.


There are few things more humiliating than panting your way up a heart-attack inducing mountain, only to be passed by a bare-footed man in his late sixties. But that’s Pa for you. A local legend on Rarotonga, he has been leading cross-island treks for decades and absolutely nothing seems to faze him. Except, perhaps, the Dutch.



Learning that one of our group has come from the Netherlands, Pa ponders and twirls his ridiculously wild white dreadlocks. “Many times I carry people from Holland,�? he says with a little grin. “You alright with mountains?�?


Pa is endearingly eccentric/ raving mad (depending on quite how you take to his frequent proclamations on the joys of organic food and the perils of just about everything else). If things get too tough, he’ll tell the struggling party to have a mini-sleep on the trail, apparently in all seriousness. He also encourages people to do the half day trek spiritually, not physically, as that’s the way to not get hurt.


Following a traditional Polynesian prayer, we march from the clearing at the foot of the rainforest, and then look up. And up. And up. Make no mistake about it, this may be a relatively short trek, but it’s not a leisurely stroll. The paths are narrow, snake through thick canopies and can be treacherous if there has been recent rain. But the most intimidating thing is the way that you’ll get to what seems like the top of the track, then turn a corner to discover the next one reaches for the sky at an even steeper gradient.


While the rest of us are wheezing and taking frequent breaks to sit on rocks and logs, Pa presses on at a steady pace, seemingly impervious. There’s no-one in the world that knows Rarotonga as well as him, and he attempts to alleviate everyone else’s hard work by telling stories. He tells of people that he’s led up the mountain – including a 93-year-old English woman and Hollywood star Liv Tyler. “She sent me a big photo for the living room, but my wife made me take it down.�?


He also tells stories of the island, many of which should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certain flowers contain certain spirits, trees are over 4,000 years old and seemingly everyone is related to the original islanders that disappeared and found New Zealand. The hard slog is worth it at the top, though. A large (and dangerous to climb) rock called The Needle sticks out, while it’s possible to look out on the whole island. The green-to-yellow-to-blue of the jungle, beaches and ocean is quite remarkable.


The way down is much easier, and it’s possible to take in much more of the scenery without worrying about cardiac arrest. There are phenomenal giant ferns, coconut trees and flowers that can be found hardly anywhere else on earth. Pa, of course, has a story for each of them, and plenty more besides when we all sit down by the stream for lunch.


It’s all gorgeous fresh fruit and intensely juicy tuna sandwiches, and at this point Pa reveals his second career as an alternative medicine practitioner. He claims to have a cure for dengue fever, has invented his own mosquito repellent (organic, naturally) and advises people to avoid eating tomatoes, as they can lead to a build-up of crystals in the body. It’s hard to know what to take seriously, but it’s all tremendously entertaining.


When we finally get down, it’s time for a dip. After all that walking in the heat, the perfect antidote is a kayak, a snorkel and the Muri Lagoon. Enclosed by four little islets, the lagoon is a little spot of South Seas heaven. The kayaks and snorkels can be hired from the shore, and from then on, a perfect afternoon can be had with minimal paddling and the odd face-down float amongst the coral and the sea cucumbers. And it’s certainly easier going than following up a barefooted pensioner up a murderous hill...