We arrived in Rarotonga on Tuesday, July 20, shortly after first light, after a very rough 535-mile, 70-hour passage. This is the beginning of Leg Two of the “Coconut Milk Run” for us, leaving the Society Islands of French Polynesia and entering the Southern Cook Islands, along our westward journey to Tonga. Steep 10-foot south seas, and 25- to 30-knot reinforced east-southeasterly tradewinds ruined any chance of a good meal or rest along the way. We did land a 25-pound mahi-mahi, but boarding, filleting and skinning it required a Herculean effort on my part, as “Moonshadow” pitched and rolled in the confused seas.
There are moments, when we’ve not slept or been able to have a decent meal for days on end, that commute traffic and twelve hours at the office don’t sound so bad. Just moments. Then we make landfall at the next paradise and the bad memories of the passage quickly fade into the adventure and excitement of a new port of call.
I spotted the rugged profile of “Raro” on the port bow just as the sun made its way to the eastern horizon and the bright morning stars faded into the sky. I always enjoy this part of the 0300 to 0600 watch. As we sailed to the lee of the lush green island, we began to get the loamy aroma of a tropical island wafting out to us. MaiTai’s little black sniffer was in overdrive. The entrance to the pass was easy and straightforward, and there were a number of other cruisers on hand at the quay to catch our lines and help us med-moor (dock stern to) “Moonshadow” in the tight little harbor of Avatiu.
Don the harbormaster was friendly, checking in was a breeze, and he provided us with a packet of information about Raro and the surrounding Cook Islands. We witnessed that if you get to know him, he can be coaxed into handling the formalities over a beer at his “unofficial office,” which is at Trader Jack’s, one of the local watering holes on the waterfront in the nearby town of Avarua.
It didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t in French Polynesia any more. The language is English with a strong New Zealand accent, the people are disarmingly friendly and helpful, customer service is NOT an oxymoron and the prices are on par with New Zealand (about half that of the US). We like this place!
They only just recently built an airport here, so tourism is still in its infancy stage and the pace is still quite laid back. There are NO high-rise hotels, just cool little beach resorts. The island is quiet, clean, lush and tropical, and at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii (but south of the equator), quite pleasant now during the Southern Hemisphere winter. If you ever wished you had gone to Hawaii in the 50s, before it was ruined, Raro is probably one of your last chances to see what pre-tourist Polynesia is really like. And yes, you CAN get here from there.
The day after we arrived, we joined Vicky and Tom from “Sunstone” and Cindy and Tim from “Total Devotion” for the cross-island “trek.” The Sunstones (cruisers use boat names as last names) are from England and have lived aboard their gorgeous 40- foot Sparkman and Stephens design varnished teak and mahogany sloop for 18 years. At two coats of varnish a year, well, you do the math. The Total Devotions are from the Gray Area and are roughing it aboard their beautiful 50-foot Beneteau sloop. Since we all made the passage (bashage?) from Bora at the same time, staying in constant radio contact and commiserating, a bond was formed.
Anyway, less than an hour into this “trek,” it became apparent to me that this was not going to be a walk in the park. As we made our way up to the volcanic “needle” in the middle of the island, I felt more like George of the Jungle swinging from trees, vines and roots than Paul Hogan on his “walkabout.” The dense foliage on either side of the narrow trail masked the fact that, in some parts, we were walking on a ridge that resembled the business side of a serrated-edge knife blade. The trail, about a foot wide, dropped hundreds of feet on either side. Other parts resembled an irregular root ladder, with near-vertical pitches. It rains a fair amount in Raro, so of course any bare patches of earth were like walking on banana peels. At the highest point, we relaxed and took in the spectacular views down verdant valleys to the blue Pacific. We took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up on an even more challenging trail on private property (we saw the sign at the bottom). We ended up literally bushwhacking through the tropical forest and fields of fern. Three-and-a-half hours later, six of us, safe, sound, soiled and sore, reached the other side of the island.
We hopped a bus to town. Dennis, the bus driver, a Kiwi ex-pat, gave us the lay of the land with typical Kiwi humor and dropped us at Trader Jack’s, where we had lunch and a beer. Of course, it always tastes better when you’ve earned it. After a look around at Trader Jack’s, we determined that it was, in fact, the unofficial office of MANY of the town’s notables.
A couple of days after we arrived, a front came through, blowing a fresh nor’wester. The harbor is exposed to the north, so it was uncomfortable and we weren’t able to leave the boat for most of the day, standing watch over our anchor and mooring lines, and staying ready in case anyone had a problem. The already disturbed waves rolling into the harbor reflected off the quay and created a washing machine effect. Being on board some of the smaller boats would have been sort of like hanging out inside of a ping pong ball. Some of the later arrivals from Bora were caught out in winds up to 50 knots and steep 10-foot seas. All made it in fine with some coaching, encouragement and piloting from us “lucky” ones on shore.
One night, on the quay, we met former yachties and Kiwi ex-pats Carol and Chris. They appointed themselves as fun chairpersons for the visiting yachties, organizing all sorts of events and helping us with local knowledge, rides, etc. The best event was a party at their beachfront home on the opposite side of the island. The fare was “pigs on the spit.” We arrived in the early afternoon and socialized with other cruisers as well as locals. I think they invited half the island to the party, and the other half “crashed” it. There was great conversation, live music, an excellent island- style meal, lots of beer, wine and local “home brew” and by dark we were dancing on the back porch to music from “Saturday Night Fever.” The following day found us recovering on “Total Devotion” to Cindy’s world-class Bloody Marys, and then a spirited 10-kilometer rollerblade to the lovely Pacific Beach Resort on the other side of the island.
The main town of Avarua, about a kilometer from the harbor, is just right. Just about everything that one needs but not too much of anything. There’s even a nice department store and a couple of hip little cafe/espresso bars. Oh, and lots of banks. The Cook Islands are apparently some sort of a “tax haven.”
There are two roads that circle the island. The newer road is pretty much along the beach and bears most of the traffic. It seems as if most people here drive small motorcycles (with mufflers). It’s still a bit strange to see elderly Polynesian women with bright flowered dresses and flower headbands riding along on Honda 90s. The inner and older road is definitely the “scenic route.”
Paula and I cycled around the island, with a few side trips, about 40 kilometers, mostly along this road. It is narrow, almost deserted and just gorgeous. Nearly every home, whether a shack or villa, was on a tidy and well (naturally) landscaped lot. The vegetation is lush and green and all sorts of flowers are in bloom. Nearly every person we saw along the way greeted us with a smile and a pleasant and enthusiastic “good morning.” On the south side of the island, the scape turns more into small plantations of coconut palm, banana, papaya, taro root and some other tropical items, unidentifiable to me. The road undulates along the edge of the mountain rise and makes for an ideal island bike ride. Back in Avarua we popped into one of the trendy cafes and had a lunch of bread with hummus, vegetable lentil soup and a tall “paw paw” (papaya) juice. Ahhh, fitness island style.
Of course it’s never long when a group of cruisers gather before there is a potluck. We assembled for some dinner, socializing and reading material swapping on Tuesday evening. Thursday evening we attended a cocktail party aboard Chris and Joyce’s “Touche M’Dear,” a very cool Sundeer 64-foot ketch. Chris was a professional jazz singer who turned world-class painter. He and Joyce split their time between cruising on “Touche” and their spectacular “hacienda” in Malibu, California.
We had meant to stay just a few days in Raro as we had in many of the islands of French Polynesia. Ten days later, we know we need to move on, but are wishing we could linger. So today, July 30, we begin the process of checking out, provisioning and once again making “Moonshadow” ready for sea.
With our clearance papers in hand, we dropped into the Bond Liquor Store a short walk from the quay. This entitled us to stock up our wine cellar at “duty-free” prices. They had a great selection of excellent Australian and Kiwi wines and with the average 30% discount we picked up some great Chard’s and Sauv Blancs for an average of US$7.00 a bottle. They even gave us and our purchases a lift back to the boat.
There is a weak cold front passing over us at the moment, so by the time we set sail north for Aitutaki tomorrow, we should have a cool breeze from the southwest.
On Friday night, we hitchhiked over to the National Stadium to catch the rugby match between Tonga and the Cook Islands. It was good fun and the stadium had stands on only one side. If one gets tired of watching the rugby, you can look at the beautiful mountain scape opposite the stands above the field.
We have really enjoyed ourselves here, as we’ve set a new record low boat work-to-fun ratio. We did manage to find and repair the last of our “mystery” leaks so we are once again a dry boat. It’s our last morning in Raro and we’ve done enough laundry to cover 100 feet of “Moonshadow’s” rails, given her a good rinse down, scrubbed the dinghy and filled our water tanks. It may be months before we can plug our hose into a tap again so we’re making the most of it.
We set sail for the island of Aitutaki, 140 miles north, this afternoon.