Our small aircraft gently lifted off the ground in Aitutaki heading towards the island of Atiu (pronounced Ah-choo) in the Cook Islands. A short 45 minute flight south west of Aitutaki had us descending towards a small dirt strip that was visible through the broken clouds and the open cockpit.
There were 15 seats on the tiny plane with only nine of us onboard. I was seated towards the rear with only the open luggage compartment behind me. Iain our pilot turned to us in the cabin and with a smile he shouted over the whirring engines “We're almost there. Buckle up and we will have you on the ground in 5 minutes.”
As we approached Atiu it was slowly revealing how remote this island really is. It had me thinking of what a tiny dot we are on the globe. A mere speck in the middle of the South Pacific, almost a direct line south of Hawaii. We were about to meet our first tour guide for the day, George the birdman.
As we shuffled off the aircraft we headed through the small open air terminal building where we were greeted by our Atiu Villa accommodation host Roger with fresh flower leis. This was a common greeting in the South Pacific, or very least the Cook Islands.
Waiting by his pick-up truck behind the terminal building was George, who gave us a run down of the tour we were about to embark on. He explained of the different and unique birdlife that populated Atiu and how he has helped preserve and breed several species such as the Long Tailed Cuckoo, White Turn and the Pacific Golden Plover. But we were here to find a rare native bird.
We made our way up the airport dirt road a short distance in the back of his pick-up truck complete with hand made wooden bench seats. George pulled over and led us through thick tropical scrub that he had to machete his way through towards a small clearing where we quietly watched George in hushed anticipation.
He clapped his hands together, pressed one thumb firmly to his lips where he made a high pitched squeaky sound, similar to the scratching of a polystyrene box lid.
George was calling for the wild and endangered Rarotonga Flycatcher. Or as known by its scientific name Pomarea Dimidiata.
“Where are you!” exclaimed George. “People here waiting, c'mon!” Unfortunately for us we were not able to spot the Flycatcher today. An aggressive little bird afraid of nothing with its only predator being the ship rat, a pesky rodent up to a foot long introduced by the ship wrecks of the 1700's.
He will come by said George. We will see him before we finish the tour today.
We drove another 300m up the road where George stops to fashion a hand made foot harness made of tree vine. Being the city-slickers we are we looked on in awe, amazement and a certain curiosity.
George hooks the foot lasso around the base of his feet to grip the trunk as he darts up the coconut tree. He hand picks young coconuts from the top, dropping them to the ground. Out came his oversized machete knife – commonly carried by locals - and with a few precise swings of the knife the coconut was peeled and cracked.
I asked George about the young coconut juice we were drinking and said I was surprised to see the coconut so full of liquid. He explained the sugars from the coconut milk form the flesh inside over time. Once the coconut drops from the tree this process stops and the milk will start to evaporate. So in the local supermarkets back home when you can hear the milk shake inside the coconut, this is when you know it’s not fresh.
Our next stop takes us up a small dirt lane way. Overgrown banana trees full of green fruit hang low and heavy slowly dragging the tree towards the ground with its weight.
Wild island bush basil lines the lane way. We pick a small stalk and gently crush the leaves between our fingers and smell the rich fragrance of basil and lemon. Not used in cooking George explains but to stop insect bites from itching and other herbal medicine.
We are now in search for the Rimatara Lorikeet (introduced from the French Polynesian island of Rimatara). We found two of these colourful birds mating in the tree branches, screeching and flapping with a spectacular display of affection.
“Well that’s an unusual site” George said in amusement as we all laughed and turn back towards the truck.
Sitting beside the truck, George had picked a palm leaf and started to weave the leaves together. When I ask what he is making he replies "a basket for your fruit salad at lunch".
By this stage George has us all enamoured. This quietly spoken unassuming man in his 50’s was born in Atiu and left in 1974 to work in New Zealand for the first park ranger service. After being retrenched from that role he moved to Melbourne, Australia, until 1992 when his small island home called him back with a one way ticket.
We climb back into the truck for the last time with our newly weaved basket and head to a small beach for lunch. George and his wife have prepared fresh pikelets with organic fruit from their very own garden. Paw Paw with shredded coconut, fresh lime, bush apple, banana and passion fruit. Our plates were fashioned from weaved baskets made from palm leaves.
Our cutlery; simply our hands.
On the 3rd of April 1777, Captain Cook landed on this very beach. Prior to Cooks landing the island was a citrus growing island inhabited by Tahitians.
We never did see the rare Rarotonga Flycatcher on this trip. What we did see though was something none of us had expected. This was Cook Island tourism at its best. Remote, natural, untouched, unexpected and rarely visited.
Just the way nature intended.