‘We didn’t emigrate, we chose to explore’

Life on the South Pacific island of Aitutaki moves at a different pace to anywhere else


‘Clare!” “Clare!” What I love most about living in Aitutaki is that my name is sung from all corners of the island, as I cycle along on my lime green bicycle. Having your name bellowed at you by school children on a remote tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific does something marvellous to your soul. Aitutakians make you feel welcome from the moment you land, signified by the placing a lei over your head, handmade with sweetly scented frangipani flowers picked straight from their gardens.

On a map, Aitutaki is a little dot in the South Pacific, nestled in between Tahiti, Fiji and Tonga, just a few hours north of New Zealand. Scientists come to study green turtles, humpback whales and coral atolls, while tourists soak up the sun on the white sand beaches, fringed with coconut palms.

I am here with my partner, Mak, whose 82-year-old father is from the main village of Arutanga. We moved here seven months ago from Wellington, where I spent three years working as an economist in central government. Within days, I switched from managing complex projects and meeting ministers’ deadlines to husking coconuts, weaving palms and playing the ukulele. I slipped into “island time” very naturally, though I still miss sipping soy lattes with inspiring colleagues who run marathons and organise TEDx events in their spare time.

Aitutaki is one of the 15 Cook Islands named after Captain James Cook, who charted the archipelago in 1773. Captain Bligh is credited with discovering “Wytootackee” (his spelling) in 1789, just 18 days before the Mutiny on the Bounty. Polynesians first settled here around 800AD, having navigated the South Pacific on vakas (traditional canoes) using the sun, stars, winds and currents, a feat likened to present day space travel.

New Zealand Maori tribes (iwi) trace their genealogy back to Cook Island Maori who, later ventured onwards to Aotearoa. Both share a similar language, culture, physique and love of rugby. However, Cook Islanders seem to have a less tainted relationship with the Crown. Cook Island Ariki (chiefs) themselves requested to become a British protectorate and then territory in 1900, afraid that the French were en route from Tahiti. Although the islands were part of New Zealand territory up to 50 years ago, the locals own all of the land here while benefiting from the opportunity to live, work and study in the land of the long white cloud.

American soldiers were stationed here during the second World War, and there is an exquisite guesthouse on the island of Akaiami which was once a “Coral Route” terminal for the rich and famous in the 1950s.

Life here is now a charming mix of traditional Polynesian and contemporary western cultures. Mamas and papas (elders) are delighted to share their traditional skills with interested papa’as (European descendants). I feel lucky to be in their spirited presence. With modified surnames like Kavana, many Aitutakians are proud to have Irish roots.

One of my favourite writers, Paul Theroux, was here in the late 80s when he noted “It did not surprise me that life proceeded at the slowest possible pace, but rather it proceeded at all” and that when people mentioned they were busy that “this were merely an expression: no one was busy in Aitutaki”. Maybe things were different 30 years ago.

The pace of life is certainly cruisey, but I am constantly amazed at how active Aitutakians are in keeping their gardens and plantations manicured, working in resorts, spear-fishing, going to church, playing sports, attending committee meetings, fundraising, building houses and practising drumming and dancing for island nights. This is a place where you learn life skills.

As an interwoven population of 1,700 people, there is always something to celebrate. I’ve had the privilege of beholding the Pacific Voyagers sail a fleet of magnificent traditional vakas into Arutanga Wharf, welcomed by hundreds of Aitutakians with beating drums, warrior chants and hura dancing (similar to the Hawaiian hula). Witnessing Mak’s dad crack coconuts over an enormous yellow bulldozer as part of a traditional blessing of machinery donated from China, is one of many beautifully random experiences.

All events are closed with a prayer before a generous feast of local kai (food). Visitors, children and elders eat first before all ascend to pile their plates high with local delicacies. These include raw fish in coconut cream (ikamata), grilled fresh tuna, and curried papaya served up on banana leaves or pork and arrowroot cooked in an umu kai (traditional method of cooking food in the ground). No one ever goes hungry.

The land flourishes with coconut, mango and breadfruit trees. The red volcanic soil inland boasts perfectly symmetrical banana, papaya, kumara and taro plantations. Aitutaki’s blue lagoon is encircled by a 70km blooming coral reef, which protects the volcanic island and its 15 uninhabited motus (small islands) from the Pacific Ocean. Yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi and swordfish are regularly on the menu.

The beauty of the natural environment here forces me into the present moment. I bliss out snorkelling amongst colourful coral, surrounded by butterfly fish, or paddle boarding to observe green turtles coming to the surface to catch a breath. Turtles, eagle rays, napoleon wrasse and reef sharks are all in a day’s dive. This month I will dive with humpback whales and their calves on their migration north from the Antarctic, and learn to kiteboard off Honeymoon Island, where the rare red tailed Tavake birds nest.

As I get more deeply involved with the community I wonder how I will ever leave. I am running an environmental project with the local secondary school, defining a marketing strategy for a local eco-tourism organisation, surveying the motus for turtle nests and coaching kids in the Aitutaki Sailing Club.

But my heart still longs for Ireland every day, where my best pals have married and my little niece Rosie is almost two. We are en route home with lots of exciting plans, including a project to bring the intrepid Irish to Aitutaki. We didn’t emigrate, we chose to explore. I’ve missed so much, and I’ve experienced so much . . . these are the constant trade-offs of being away.

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