A raised volcanic island in the Cook Islands southern group, Atiu is surrounded by a reef from which rise six-metre cliffs of fossilised coral -- makatea -- which form a mile-wide ring around the island, virtually a plateau. Erosion at the inner side of the ring has formed a dip of some 30 metres into fertile land which gradually rises again to a central flat-topped hill about 230 feet (70 m) above sea level where most human habitation is concentrated. The island stands some 14,500 feet (4500 m) above the ocean floor.
Atiuans trace their ancestry from Tangaroa, the principal god of Atiu and universally recognised in Polynesia as tutelary God of the Sea. Atiu's area is about half that of Rarotonga. The low swampy land consists of taro plantations, marshes and a lake, Te Roto. This fertile area also grows bananas, citrus fruits, pawpaws, breadfruit and coconuts. The ancient name of the island was Enuamanu, meaning the island of insects and animals, although there is some dispute over whether 'animals' includes 'insects'.
The Atiuans understand it as meaning there were no previous inhabitants. The Atiuans call themselves 'worms of Enuamanu' because they were born on Atiu and hope to be buried there. There was once a custom on Atiu similar to that of New Zealand Maori of burying a newborn child's placenta under a newly planted tree. This is the origin of the Atiuan saying: "We come from the land and go back to the land." The Atiuans were a fierce, warrior people and before the arrival of the missionaries busied themselves with making war on their neighbors on Mauke and Mitiaro, slaughtering and eating significant numbers of them.
Captain Cook sighted the island on March 31 1777 and made tentative contact with some of the people over the next few days. In common with most islands in the southern group, Atiu has only a small, shallow lagoon. It compensates, however, with many picturesque, sandy beaches. As is usual with the makatea islands of the southern group, the fossilised coral limestone abounds with caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. One in particular, the Anatakitaki Cave, is inhabited by tiny kopeka birds which navigate in the dark using sonar, like bats. Male visitors can enjoy the esoteric delights of the "tumunu" or bush beer party. Technically illegal and banned ever since the missionaries descended on these beautiful islands, the tumunu is a hangover (in more senses than one) from the old-time kava ceremonies so detested by the missionaries. However, they have survived and "invitations" can be arranged for visiting enthusiasts. Atiu is a great place for active travellers and holidaymakers who enjoy scenery and walking.
A travel impression
We touch down on the baked coral airstrip on the north of Atiu and board a pickup truck which bounces up through the makatea (fossilised coral) cliffs which form a kilometre-wide ring around the island. This is heavily forested with tropical broadleaf trees and vines in luxuriant abundance. The grey outcrops of razor-sharp makatea loom mysteriously out of the green depths of the forest. The truck starts to climb on a red earth road up onto the high plateau which is the inhabited centre. Here five small villages cluster together to form what appears to be a single unit. It is hot and very dry.The normally rainy season has been cancelled because of El Niño. The village roads are dusty and the low coral walls which line them are stained with red. Here and there are magnificent cashew trees.
Atiu had been suffering near drought conditions for the past eight weeks. There was underground water at the foot of the hill near the makatea but almost no water pressure at the top of the hill. The hose at the back of the house trickled slowly all day into buckets, freezer cabinets and other containers. We had to carry these inside to the shower to enjoy a "Manihiki" shower, which consists of filling a bowl from a bucket, washing and scrubbing down the whole body with the cold water in the bowl and then rinsing off with the rest of the bucket. One becomes quite adept after two practice sessions. Similarly, we boiled the cold water in the electric jug and transfer it to plastic bottles in the refrigerator.
The first night was extremely hot because we closed the louvred windows to keep mosquitoes at bay. Sleeping was very difficult. The second night we solved the problem by leaving the eastern door open to allow ingress for the breeze. We also opened the windows. Mosquitoes were deterred by lighting a mosquito coil in each room as well as the corridor. Atiu's economy was feeling the pain of the austerity regime introduced in 1997 to bring the Cook Islands back onto an accountable, free market basis. The drastic reductions in the Public Service -- down from about 120 to 49 on Atiu -- had resulted in many families going back to subsistence farming and fishing. There was also much more time for the men to enjoy their favorite pastime, the tumunu.
ORIGINALLY tumunu was Atiu's version of the Pacific-wide habit of kava drinking. After the Europeans arrived it became an illegal beer brewing and drinking school which grew out of the prohibitions placed on alcohol last century by the missionaries. To outwit the zealots the men of Atiu would disappear into the bush and brew beer made mainly from oranges. Nowadays they use hops, malt, yeast and sugar. There are about eight tumunu currently in Atiu. We were taken to Sam and the Boys which was run in a tiny bush hut with coconut thatched roof (kiekau). Before entering, our necks were garlanded with two leaves with stems knotted together. We sat on the verandah on upended coconut logs in a circle with the barman in the centre. Ranged in a semi-circle was, first, Sam himself, a dour thin man who smiled only with difficulty. Then came the Brewmaster, a strikingly handsome man who sat before a white plastic drum and occasionally stirred its contents with a stick. Next, the Atiuan Earthquake, a wrestler who played the tea-chest bass, and two other lugubrious characters.
The barman, who wore a headcloth in approved Los Angeles streetgang style, pulled back the lid of his plastic drum, dipped in a cup made from the pointed end of a coconut shell, and offered it to each person in turn. Everyone was expected to drink the first cup straight down and hand it back to the barman. After that, those who did not wish to drink held up a hand with palm outwards each time the cup passed. The brew was warm and flat and tasted faintly like a fortified wine, a rough port, although it was clearly a beer. However, it was quite strong, probably about 10 per cent alcohol. After a couple of circuits during which the boys sang some songs to their own accompaniment on ukelele, guitar and string bass, the barman tapped the pointed end of the cup on the lid of his keg.
This was the signal for silence while a short prayer was intoned -- one wonders what the missionaries would have thought of that little touch -- and the guests were then expected to introduce themselves and give a brief autobiography. When one has had a sufficiency of the brew and wishes to leave it is customary, indeed expected, that visitors will leave a small donation (usually about $3) to assist with the costs of making the next brew. The tumunu also has a practical function. Much of the community's day-to-day operations are discussed there and, under the influence of alcohol, paths are smoothed and ways made straight because normally inarticulate citizens are emboldened to speak.
Arts and crafts
At the northern end, in the village of Teenui, is the Fibre Arts Studio, a gallery and arts centre plus coffee shop run by Andrea Eimke, a German-born artist who designs, paints and embroiders with exquisite craftsmanship a wide range of Polynesian handicrafts. These include the home-grown Cook Islands speciality, tivaevae quilts, as well as wall hangings, handbags, earrings, jewellery and tapa artefacts. The quality of the work is outstanding. Her husband runs the Atiu coffee factory, whose product is exported in whole bean form to Rarotonga and New Zealand.
A short way down the road in Areora is Mrs Patikura Jim, who turns out beautiful pandanus hats and tapa flowers. The process of making tapa is manual and time-consuming. The women sit on the floor and beat banyan tree and other plant fibre with heavy sticks on an ironwood anvil. When dry they cut them into the shape of petals of different colors and make artificial flowers to adorn the hair and hats of those island women able to afford them. Usually they cost about $15 each -- approximately US$8.
Beaches on Atiu are few and far between. To reach them one has to strike seawards off the road which circles the island. They are well worth the effort. They are small, clean and nearly always deserted. The reef is very close and in a big swell, swimming in the narrow lagoon is exhilarating.
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