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 Rarotonga, a Rare Place Indeed


© By Robert W. Bone

RAROTONGA -- Dennis Tiapapa Heather doesn’t think too much of politicians – or officialdom in general, for that matter.

“They want to put everything down on paper,” he said. “We’d rather use common sense.”

“Some mucky-muck came up here from New Zealand and  decided that we needed to have a zebra crossing (pedestrian crosswalk) in town,” he said. “So he painted one, but nobody uses it.

“We look left, we look right. Nobody coming? We go across. Just common sense,” he said, tapping his forehead.

In truth it is the only zebra crossing in the entire nation of the Cook Islands. It’s complete with a flashing orange light, just like the ones in Auckland and London. DENNIS HEATHER

Here in Rarotonga, the capital of the island nation, and a member of the British Commonwealth, there is not a single traffic light. There are, however, three “stop” signs. There used to be just two, Dennis explained, but at one three-way intersection they had three “give way” (yield) signs for awhile.

“There was a terrible jam up. Nobody ever went – all trying to give way to each other. Finally they made one of them a stop sign so that cars could move again.”

Dennis conducts the Raro Mountain Safari Tour, a four-wheel drive common sense experience through the interior of Rarotonga, largely in areas inaccessible to tourists in rental cars.

There is a paved road entirely around this circular volcanic island, the largest of the 15 which make up the nation. A determined driver can circumnavigate the island in 45 minutes or so, casting his eyes on blue skies, blue ocean, and white waves breaking dramatically against the offshore reef, and then one beautiful beach and resort hotel after another.

But it is in the mountainous interior where the Rarotongans really live. Here are bright greens, yellows, and reds everywhere, a scene filled with lush jungle growth sprinkled with abundant tropical flowers, both underfoot and in trees overhead.

Now and then Dennis would pick up a flower or a leaf and pass it to his passengers, explaining its use: The wild beach hibiscus leaf: “They make skirts out of it – it’s also good for toilet paper,” he said.

He plucked a basil leaf, and we all rubbed  it on our arms as an effective deterrent to mosquitoes (none of us got a bite on the tour). Then he pointed out the noni tree, whose sap is now said to be a “natural Viagra,” and also a treatment for arthritis.

“Everybody has been pulling out their lemon trees and putting in noni trees, and it’s becoming known as our ‘money tree.’”

You can now buy Noni water in the market in Rarotonga, and the product is being exported, too, Dennis said.

Dennis apologized for the paved portion of the roads, saying they all used to be white coral – you could even see them at night.

“But some politician thought they should be bitumen (asphalt), so now we have to have lights to see where we’re going.”

One symbolic point of interest on Dennis’ tour is a hotel which didn’t make it – an unfinished ruin which stands as a symbol for much of what’s wrong with the outside world.

“We have beautiful Rarotongan-style hotels here, he said, truthfully enough. “But somebody decided we should have one international standard super de luxe American-designed hotel, too, which was supposed to become a Sheraton. They went broke before they finished  building it. The reason: Crooked politicians!

“Ninety-nine point five percent of the people didn’t want this hotel. The other point five percent were crooked politicians!”

Along with some other Pacific destinations, Rarotonga is increasingly popular with foreign tourists, especially New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, and now Americans, as it becomes more accessible. Frequent scheduled flights arrive from Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles, and now from Vancouver (via Hawaii on Aloha Airlines).

While bouncing along in Dennis’ Land Rover we learned that if suddenly Rarotonga were to lose contact with the outside world, it would get along pretty well. Agriculture, almost all on family farms, is universally successful.

With the fish in the ocean and the tons of breadfruit, bananas, taro, avocados – vegetables and fruits of all kind grown on the island, all of its 9,000 residents would probably still have plenty to eat.

“No one is hungry here,” Dennis explained. “And that’s why you see plenty like me who now look like a barrel. (Dennis recently turned 39 – he says, when asked.  He has eight children – “so far.” – all without turning to the benefits of the noni tree.).

“If you see a skinny Rarotongan, it’s probably because he plays rugby or he dances in the hotels.

The frenetic Cook Island hura (hula) and accompanying drums are known all over the Pacific as the most energetic of similar Polynesian performances – even more animated and sensual than the Tahitian dances.

“I used to dance – even went to London to dance for the queen in Buckingham Palace. But now they won’t let me in the front row any more,” he said, with mock sadness.

Dennis indicates, apparently with tongue in cheek, that he does have ambition, though – one where he can keep an eye on crooked politicians.

“See that gate there with the two crowns That’s the entrance to the home of the Queen’s Representative – the fellow whose duties consist of cutting ribbons and making speeches. His license plate also has two crowns.

“I’ve got my eye set on that job,” he said. “Except when I get in, those two crowns are going to be on a Harley Davidson, he said.

Much better to drive that instead of that big black car.

“It’s just common sense!