Blessed to be a witness

Tuesday, 20th September

The middle of nowhere

Consulting a map, I find roughly that the furthest from home we've been so far was in New Zealand's south island, and now we're slightly closer to our point of origin. However, it certainly feels like we're at our furthest point. Rarotonga, the main island in the archipelago, is pretty much the most isolated I've ever been - it's in the middle of bloody nowhere. All around us is ocean, ocean, ocean. Our nearest neighbours are Tahiti and Fiji, a thousand kilometres either side of here. I can't even get the BBC World Service here.

Never heard of the Cook Islands? Nor had I before we were told that we could have one stopoff in the South Pacific when we were buying our ticket, and the travel agent recommended here, since she had visited it and liked it, and found it to be cheaper than its neighbours. Yet for a country nobody's heard of, it's bloody enormous: it has the surface area of Western Europe (albeit a land area smaller than Luxembourg). The only other island with a decent infrastructure is Aitutaki, which is a short plane ride, or a long boat ride, away, and similarly accessible 'Atiu has growing tourism. The northern islands, of which a couple have airstrips, are hundreds of kilometres away and largely untouched by modernity. The population is mostly Polynesian Maori, though the northern islands share heritage with Samoa, but nearly everyone speaks fluent English. In Maori tradition, the capital and largest island, Rarotonga, is where the large canoes left that populated New Zealand, and there's a commemorative stone at the point they allegedly embarked.

Despite my initial ignorance of the place, it paled into comparison with the rather (sorry, did I type "rather"? I meant to say "breathtakingly") uninformed Canadian woman beside me on the flight. She'd overheard that we were flying on to LA, and was outraged. "They're making me go back to New Zealand to go to China!" she spluttered. In what I hoped were patient tones, I explained that we were currently heading to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and China was thousands of kilometres back the other way. "No," she whined, "I came all the way down to New Zealand from Canada, and now I've got to go back down to get back up again! It's ridiculous!" She rolled her eyes at the injustice of it all: "But, oh, you get to go to LA." Eventually it transpired that she could only think in terms of latitude, and was entirely unaware of the huge distances involved in longitude, and in particular the vast width of the Pacific Ocean. I eventually got through to her by saying "China's quite a poor country and the people there can't afford to go on South Pacific island holidays, so there aren't any direct flights." We bumped into her later, and she was bitching that her Canadian wireless internet connection wouldn't work. She then said she was suffering from culture shock. "Wait 'till you get to China!" we said. "Ah, it'll be just like being back at home!" she resolved. "Good Lord, I'd so love to be a fly on the wall when she gets there," said M later.

The history of the Cook Islands is full of 'not quites'. It was not quite colonised in the nineteenth century - a bunch of English missionaries arrived, converted everyone, and set up a de facto theocracy, ruling with a Taliban-style iron rod. Sadly, the diseases brought with the missionaries, that, together with the Peru-bound slave trade, almost literally decimated the population, were seen by the islanders as a sign to abandon the old religion and turn to Christianity. It was formally declared a 'protectorate' by the UK in 1888, but Britain didn't quite work out which islands were to be included in the grouping. Then it was not quite made a New Zealand colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, eventually not quite getting its independence in the 1960s: the country still relies on New Zealand for foreign relations, defense and currency. Due to this reliance, it's now not quite a country - the UN doesn't recognise it - but the locals are fairly happy with this arrangement.

However, it is self-governing and democratic, with a parliamentary system of national government, though a tribal system of local governance. It has a dreadful balance of trade, with imports outweighing exports several times over, its main export being black pearls, and only tourism and offshore banking contributing to the economy, and it relies on handouts from New Zealand and Australia to survive.

It's therefore a poor country, but there is very little evidence of poverty. Put it this way: clearly nobody is starving. It's not terribly sensitive to point this out, I know, but the majority of islanders are big round lardballs who would give the Americans a run for their money. I was wondering if it's genetic or diet, but the state of many of the expatriates here tips the balance of probability towards the latter, in my opinion. But they do appear to be very happy round people, full of food and joie de vivre.

We arrived at our guesthouse in the small hours and went straight to bed, awakening at about five when a jet liner flew right over us with an astonishingly loud roar that suggested the thing was about to come through the roof - we're at one end of the runway - and then listening to the cacophony of twenty or so cockerels surrounding the guesthouse, announcing the dawn way before the dawn arrived. "Cock-a-doodle-don't" I groaned. When we finally got back to sleep, we didn't awake until 11 local time. I then borrowed a bicycle from the guesthouse manager to go into Avarua, the capital 'city', to use one of the country's three ATMs. She told me to turn right at the main round-island circle road and "the town is one and a half kilometres from there". I suspect she meant one hundred and fifty metres, because I turned and cycled what I reckoned was 1500 metres and there was nothing but bungalows and surf crashing on empty beaches to my left, and green jagged mountains to my right. I carried on for another fifteen minutes, sweating like mad, until I saw a small electronics shop. I went in and asked where the ATM was. "It's exactly five kilometres back the way you came, mate," said the unusually cadaverous shirtless Kiwi who ran the place. "Did you by any chance blink and miss our capital?"

Indeed I had, so I sweltered back to the town, where I found the ATM and supermarket - I realised that on the way through I had been too busy looking at the beach - where I stocked up for our self-catering room. We're staying in a rather nice place about half-an-hour's walk from the town, with a big fan-cooled room from which, despite the insect screens, I had to remove a Very Large Spider - though not before running to the guidebook and reading "there are no poisonous spiders in the Cook Islands" - and a similarly huge wasp.

And no, I haven't messed up the date. We crossed the international dateline on our night flight, and arrived at 4 in the morning of the same day we left. Like naughty schoolchildren we have to repeat Tuesday. It's Groundhog Day here in the Cooks, but it's a beautiful place to experience it.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at