Three and a half hours by plane north east of New Zealand is Rarotonga, the largest and capital island of the Cook Islands.
As COVID lockdowns ease across New Zealand, I skipped out on winter for a bit and shot off to this tropical paradise. Here are some of my explorations during my time there.
Rarotonga is surrounded by a reef where waves crash sometimes a hundred or more metres out. The shallow lagoon it provides makes plentiful snorkelling available right from the beach, assuming clear waters on windless days. The island sits atop a 3000m volcano with 600m sticking out of the water. Thankfully, Rarotonga has been dormant for millions of years.
The inner parts of the island are hilly, with many climbable albeit forest covered peaks. On the south east is the largest lagoon with four explorable small islands. As a tropical island, there are huge amounts of sun, sand, palm trees, coconuts and, of course, mosquitoes.
A road runs around the coast and is a constant buzz of motorcycles, scooters and small vehicles. Two buses run in opposite directions on an almost hourly basis, circling in about 50-75 minutes depending on number of stops. Bussing is affordable enough that you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of sitting your scooter license and its associated costs. Much of the island is on ‘Island Time’, though, so the buses don’t operate on Sundays, and businesses tend to close early.
Rarotonga is a dog island, with dogs everywhere. While most run loose, they are collared but aren’t wild, having their own territories around the Island. They tend to get excited when you walk along the beach, but ignore them and they lose interest quickly enough.
Round the Island Walk
With no buses running Sundays, what better day to walk the entire ring road of the Island? At about 32km, it’s a fair walk in the winter tropical heat, thankfully at around 27-28ºC with only 70% humidity. Still warm, but not hideous.
Thankfully in many places there is an offshore wind, and the shore is fairly close to the road. Also, thankfully, there’s a store at least every kilometre selling all manner of refreshments.
The walk took me about 6 hours with most being flat. My problem with flat walks, is that I tend to walk too fast, sustaining around 5.5km an hour with few breaks. This caused my Tibialis Anterior muscles – the front muscles below the knee – to be in pain for the next three days.
The island has plenty to see. The south has the best views out to the ocean, while the south east, around the second largest town, Muri, has the best lagoon views and its four smaller islands. The north is the site of the main township, Avarua and the North west is the airport, where tourists tend to hover waiting to watch planes fly over. The island’s peaks can be seen from all sides, although I felt the best views are the north and the east.
A couple of days after my Island Circuit walk, I decided to climb one of the hills near my hostel, on the island’s western side. The start of the walk is near where I was staying, so together with one of the girls from the hostel, I headed out in the heat of the morning.
We cut along a road to the inland circular road and climbed an easy dirt road to the trailhead. From here we followed a dirt track skimming under branches. It wasn’t a hard walk, more of a steady gentle climb. The main issue was the heat with sweat pouring off us for much of it. It had rained overnight, and showered twice during the walk making the path slippery even in my hiking boots.
About a kilometre and a half into the climb, the trail came to a rock scramble, with a knotted rope and climbing struts hammered into the rock wall. I got a few metres up, and with a good ten more to go, I decided against proceeding. I could have made it, but was concerned about coming down on the slippery rock, and my companion was adamant she didn’t wish to climb. Taking advantage of what views we did have, we headed back down.
Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruise
There are many cruises in the Lagoon out from Muri, I chose Captain Tama’s as they seemed very popular. And, indeed, on the day we had four boats and about 80 people, not including the ‘captains’.
The weather, however, was not the greatest, and we were told the snorkelling might not be the best due to the murky waters, but we were heading out to see what was possible.
We got out near the edge of the lagoon, but found it indeed too murky and rough to snorkel. Annoying, as this was why I came, but it is what it is. We headed back to one of the islands for lunch, a show and a bit of a swim in the shallow but still murky waters. Then it was across the bay and back to the main island and home.
Cross Island Walk
While the Cross Island walk can be done without a guide, I chose to go with one to hear stories of the island and its local flora and fauna. Pa was the guide I wanted to walk with, a local hero, but it wasn’t to be.
Pa had been crossing the island on tours barefoot for 35 years, doing more than 5000 times. However, when COVID hit, and at the ripe old age of 70, he retired, handing the reins to his niece’s husband. He was awarded the above monument for his efforts.
The walk was still good, and I learned a lot following Bruce, with the walk being fairly easy and the partial climb up The Needle on ropes and chains fun and the views across the island great.
One other in our small group struggled due to fitness levels, which slowed the walk, but as it was only a half day walk anyway, there was plenty of time.
We ended at the Papua Waterfall with lunch provided before being dropped back at the hostel.
There are two main markets on the island, The Punanga Nut day markets, every morning but Sunday in Avarua, and the Muri Night Markets, 3 nights a week. Both offer different experiences and were worth the visit. The Punanga Day Markets are the classic markets, selling clothes, food, drinks, and on Saturday mornings some of the island’s best selections of fruit, vegetables and local cooking. While it’s quiet most of the week, Saturday morning can get busy with tourists.
The Muri Night Markets is more of an outdoor food court surrounded by food shacks. While there was some local food types, there were many typical foods, such as waffles or pizza on offer. The atmosphere, however, was still great.
As the island is surrounded by a shallow lagoon, if the weather is right, there are many good places to snorkel. I had several occasions to to get in the water, even hiring fins to make getting around a little easier.
I was able to spy many different varieties of fish during my sessions, some the length of my arm. I was even able to see several Moray Eels while swimming, usually just poking their heads from holes, but on one occasion, one at full swim.
I had brought my old waterproof camera, and used this until one day it just stopped working. After that, I had to do what I could without it.
Overall, my time in Rarotonga was most enjoyable. A couple of weeks away from New Zealand’s winter on a tropical island. While it was more expensive than I was expecting but not surprising given COVID shut down the country for most of 2 years. I got to see many sights, both physically and culturally, and while the Cook Islands’ culture has its similarities in NZ’s, it was good to see the differences. A fun overall trip to what I am calling Little New Zealand.
Until Next Time
The World Wanderer