Trader Jack's



David Whitley finds that it’s the rain, not the sun, that sets the slow pace of life in the Cook Islands.

They never tell you about the rain. It’s all about the beaches, the lagoons and the coconut palms. But the rain is the secret part of the package that makes the tropical islands of the South Pacific so green. And it’s not the feeble drizzly rain that we grumble about in Britain. It’s proper rain, the sky’s powerful toilet flush, that comes down in walls and turns streets into streams within seconds.

From under the corrugated iron roof of Trader Jack’s on Avarua’s waterfront, the cacophony sounds like a thousand drum kits being simultaneously thrashed and trashed. To venture outside is to be sucked into the squall. To be out on the water is somewhere on the extreme bravery/ stupidity axis. Bravo, therefore, to the girls we’re watching on the TV screen.

Every November, Trader Jack’s becomes the hub for the Vaka Eiva festival. It’s when outrigger canoe junkies from all over the world get together for a series of races. It’s partly serious, partly piss-up. Once the racing is done, the beer is attacked with a frenzied relish more closely associated with starving bears in a butcher’s shop.

When they get in, the girls will deserve a drink. The downpour has struck just after the start, and they’ve got to battle through the most atrocious conditions to get to the finish line. On the TV screens, we watch the safety boats head out towards the plucky paddlers in case the canoes turn into sinking bathtubs under the deluge.

In a funny way, you properly get to understand island outposts such as Rarotonga when it’s like this. The pace of life is slow – often excruciatingly so – and that’s often attributed to the heat. But it’s not the sweating under the sun’s glare that slows things down. It’s the realisation that a day or two can effectively spent underwater. If it’s tipping down, you’re only going to walk from A to B in the direst emergency. It’s easier just to take shelter and wait. We’re on island time, after all.

Places like Trader Jack’s give an essential insight into island life too. Virtually every small island nation has one – a bar/ restaurant in the capital where far more gets done than in the Parliament building. It’s where you’re equally likely to bump into a taxi driver, tourist or high-ranking government official. Gentlemen’s agreements are made, expats cling to it as a surrogate of the real world. 

It’s run by a retired harbourmaster from New Zealand, and has been knocked down by cyclones on four occasions. Hence the current incarnation is made of wood and corrugated iron, and valuables can be taken off-site in a hurry.

Ask why he keeps rebuilding it, and Jack will just say: “Because I’m bloody MAD.” His eyes will bulge, and then he’ll go back to his drink.

He’s in good company too. While a dog splashes in the water by the boat ramp, proving singularly unhelpful to anyone trying to get their canoe out of the water, the crowd is getting louder. One particularly rotund chap makes a pudgily flamboyant entrance, and the cry of “Athlete! Athlete!” goes up.  

We watch the screens as the ladies battle their way home. The local girl is getting the most raucous support, although she’s lagging behind. The rain still pours. It’s just the way it is here. It may downchuck for another day, but life goes on. Just slowly.