Blessed to be a witness

Sunday, 25th September

Island time

It is probably the only time in my life I'll get away with saying to M: "hold on a second, I'm just taking a movie of that girl's arse".

We were at Island Night, a popular dance-and-music event put on in bars and restaurants across the Cook Islands, and probably the rest of the Polynesian world. I suppose it's primarily for tourists, and therefore has a somewhat cheesy cachet, though there were many locals attending too, so it does still retain some cultural significance. The female dancers were demonstrating their amazingly lithe hip-shaking, while the boys were wiggling their legs like crazy. Both styles of dancing involve frenetic movement below the waist while the top half of the body remains stationary, like a swan on a lake, though the men make warlike arm movements, similar to that of the Maori haka, and the women make graceful hand gestures that interpret the music. The hip swivelling is quite erotic, and was greeted with horror by the Christian missionaries when they arrived in the nineteenth century, who subsequently tried to ban it. They actually succeeded on neighbouring 'Atiu, where they told the islanders that such dancing would cause cyclones (hurricanes), and to this day they do not dance during cyclone season.

The next day, a trifle hungover, a fellow hostel-dweller and I took the cross-island trek, from the north coast to the south over the hills in the middle, roughly ten kilometres in length, with a 488 metre maximum elevation. The two guys who'd done it a couple of days previously had shrugged it off as "not too bad", possibly due to machismo. It was, in fact, the toughest walk I've ever done, resembling the cliff-and-root climb we had undertaken back in May on Phi Phi, but for about two hours non-stop.

The elevation to the summit went swiftly from the moment the track started to climb. In fact, it was more of a climb than a walk, in thick jungle, using tree roots and branches as footholds. The trail kept disappearing, and we had to scout around for footprints to find it again, as we stepped up, and up, and up. It really didn't help that it had rained copiously and that the mud had made the branches and roots slick, but we hauled ourselves up by trees as we went, and climbed and climbed and climbed. Every time we got to a plateau we found another vertiginous ascent ahead of us.

After my legs began to declaim their exhaustion in very strident tones, we finally got to the top. The cloud was so thick that we couldn't see a thing, and so chilly that we didn't linger. We did make a side-trip to 'The Needle', a tall limestone outcrop, that involved another 150 metres near-vertical ascent, along a ridge less than a metre wide, with hundreds of metres of drop either side.

We had made the initial ascent in about half an hour, and thought the hard bit was over. We were wrong. Climbing down proved to be way harder than the way up. Constantly slipping and falling in the mud, I started to get a little worried, since one wrong move would involve a severe plunge hundreds of metres down a jungle hillside for the victim, and a hasty and dangerous descent by the survivor to get help, so we reduced our speed and used hand-holds, to climb rather than to walk. It began to rain more heavily, and we still fell and tripped, and I bashed my head on an overhanging branch. After about an hour and a half of tricky descent, we finally arrived in a dense rain forest, where it lived up to its name, and the rain began pissing down.

After another hour and a half of this, the trail eventually met a stream, and the path constantly crossed and re-crossed it via moss-covered stepping-stones, though this too kept on disappearing and we had to retrace our steps several times. This lasted another hour before we finally made it to dense grasslands and a car park. A couple we'd met on the top, being chased by a rooster for their picnic, recognised us and gave us a lift round the island perimeter road, and then, despite both of us being almost entirely covered with thick red mud from falling all over the track, we got another one in the back of a pickup truck, driven slowly by a very large and jolly Raratongan, before we reached the town of Avarua, and walked the last three kilometres back to the hostel.

There's a seemingly infinite amount of patience here, and nothing is done with any great speed. It's a feature of most of the islands we've been to, including Lamma in Hong Kong and in the Caribbean, but here it's even more pronounced: people are almost horizontally laid-back. It's called 'island time' in all those places - and it's really rather pleasant, once you wrap your head around it. Sometimes, however, it's also a trifle frustrating - the local paper was saying that the forthcoming 'Cook Islands Idol' TV program should actually be called 'Cook Islands Idle', and government workers would automatically qualify.

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