Day Thirty-nine: Paradise found

A beautiful, sun-dappled day dawned for us on this Wednesday morning, perfect timing for our Teking lagoon cruise.  The cruise was an all-day affair, definitely one to write home about.  After scarfing down a nutritious toast-and-jam breakfast, we were picked up by the man himself, Teking, at 9 am.  Squashing into an over-crowded van, practically sitting on the knee of a somewhat too-friendly man from NSW, really broke the ice for all of our fellow cruise enthusiasts, as we bumped around to the south of the island, the launch point for the tour.  Teking went through the master plan for the day, laying out a mental route around 5 of the Aitutaki motus and highlighting what we would be seeing during the 3 different snorkeling opportunities.  He was a very personable guide, full of biting sarcasm, dry humor and interesting information.

A box of assorted flippers awaited us – finding one in the correct size was a minor victory, not to be celebrated as a real win until the matching partner was also clutched in your triumphant fist.  I surprisingly fit the smallest size they offered, which only makes me wonder what a petite Asian woman would do if she were to book their tour.  Lord knows I look like the giantess at the top of Jack’s beanstalk in comparison to the average-sized Thai woman.  With my fashionable black flippers secured, I made my way on to the boat, securing space up the front for the Gees.  The ride out was exhilarating, the endless blue sky hovering above, sparingly dotted with cotton-puff clouds.  The water surrounding us was crystal clear, giving the impression that at any second we would come adrift on a column of coral, which was in all likelihood several meters below the surface of the water.

The first thing we spotted on our lagoon tour was the remnants of a sunken ship, one that had smashed against the protective reef surrounding Aitutaki.  We drifted to a stop not far away from it to begin our snorkeling adventures.  As soon as the boat was tied up to the permanently secured anchor, I could see fish flocking over to greet us from every direction.  The water was amazingly colorless when right up close, but still a magnificent cerulean from a distance.  The fish were just…right there, you know?  It was like looking in over the top of a salt-water viewing pond at the zoo.  From my seat at the front of the boat I could see blacks, blues, whites, yellows.  They were drifting this way and that, seemingly waiting for something.  I very quickly discovered what that something was, as Teking pulled out a loaf of plain white bread.  Watching? he asked.  You at the front, stand up so you can see.  He crumpled two pieces of the bread in his fist and lobbed it up into the air.  The bread arced backwards, landing about 10 feet off the rear of the boat and was instantly pulled into a rainbow dog-pile of slippery, competing fish.  During the time it took us to get to this snorkeling spot, the ever-changing weather of Aitutaki had shifted, resulting in more cloud cover.  It’s amazing what sort of temperature difference you can experience without the full strength of the sun to warm your shoulders.  I was mentally debating whether or not I wanted to get in – without a whole heck of a lot of natural insulation, cold water is just not my forte.  Of course while I was hemming and hawing, my “big fish” had already thrown himself over the side of the boat.  I swear that G2 would go swimming in Antarctica if only presented with the opportunity.  Haha! shouted Teking.  They will love you because you are white, like the bread!  And sure enough, as soon as my darling husband hit the water, he was surrounded by a flurry of fins.  I snapped off a few pictures of him feeding flocks of butterfly fish as some of the other cruisers suited up and joined him in the lagoon.  You HAVE to come in! was the cry I received from G2.  Still feeling a bit like a baby, I tentatively pulled off my clothes and toddled down to the back of the boat, intent on getting in the slow way, via the ladder.  I only ended up using the first rung before plunging the rest of the way in – being in such a relatively shallow area (maybe 2 meters/6-odd feet), it was very pleasantly warm.

The fish, oh my goodness, the fish!  I have never, ever experienced snorkeling like this.  The fish were everywhere, colors and patterns to ensnare the observer.  Zebra striped fish.  Fish that flashed blue, then silver, then blue again.  Butterfly fish, bright yellow tails, with their daring natures, gently nibbling at your fingers in hopes of discovering bread.  Damsel fish, vibrant purples.  Angel fish, black, white, and yellow, fins trailing, exotic cousins to the ones you can buy in pet stores.  Tiny schools of electric blue fish, iridescent green from above.  Fish that were, quite literally, every color of the rainbow, patchwork quilts of the marine world.  They were all there, and so close.  There were times that, while floating around and looking at the coral, I would accidentally be run into by a passing fish, as they were that crowded in the water.  Te King gave us all a couple of pieces of bread to feed the passing fish.  To avoid having it snatched by a vicious, but scaredy-cat fish, you had to hold the bread close to your body.  Only the little rainbow fish, the damselfish, and the butterfly fish would dare come that close to you.  They would flock over in cloud of color, picking at the bread you had clutched up to your face, affording you the most up-close and personal view possible.  They were gentle, little sucks would sometimes land on your hands instead of the bread.  The other, larger blue/silver/blue fish were NOT nice.  If the bread got too far away from your body, they would dive in like a professional athlete to pluck it from your grip, taking any amount of skin with them as necessary.  Poor G2 learned that lesson the hard way and has a red-ringed bite mark on his hand to prove it.

During our float with the fishes, G2 came upon a most unfriendly addition to the coral reef.  Once he spotted it, he dutifully called me over to share in his discovery.  Tucked away in a hollow of the coral was an olive green head slowly rocking back and forth.  Two tiny yellow eyes stared out of the depths, making my blood run cold.  A small mouth, always gaping as if to show off its razor sharp teeth, leered up.  I slowly backed away.  Checking my periphery to ensure that Ursula wasn’t lurking nearby, I kept up my watch of the moray eel.  While naturally quite nasty looking, this one didn’t seem particularly aggressive.  Besides having a nip at a few fish that drifted too close to his hidey hole, he remained calm, sticking to his space while we stuck to ours.  After having fulfilled a few minutes of eel watching, we made our way back to the boat to move along to the next destination.

Continuing on with the snorkeling theme, and enjoying the fact the sun had amped up to its full potential again, we quickly found ourselves in ‘clam country.’  Years ago the lagoon of Aitutaki was full of a native clam species, vibrantly blue and tasty in local dishes.  Unfortunately, as the island’s population and agriculture built up, and tourists began arriving, some of the environmental practices were not the best – thanks to chemical runoffs to the lagoon, the native clam population plummeted.  New regulations have helped to prevent future damage to the marine habitat and the native clams are slowly building up again.  However, in addition to these clams, which when full grown after 30 years are approximately 7-8 inches in length, the residents of Aitutaki have also imported giant clams from Australia.  They are grown in the lagoon, at much faster rates than the natives, and exported to Asian countries.  These clams reach their full size in approximately 15 years and are enormous – around 2 feet or so in length!  They are a rich royal blue in color and will open and close at will (they can be ‘frightened’ into closing by waving your hand in front of them – definitely a case of beauty, not brains).  These clams were on display for us, in addition to the reef fish and various types of coral.  We saw brain coral, mushroom coral, and columns of coral that stretched from the floor all the way to the surface of the water – maybe 6 meters or so.  It’s absolutely mesmerizing to simply tread water in one spot and watch the interactions on the reef.  The fish poke around, the coral glistens in constantly changing light.  On this second snorkel trip we also saw where the Aitutakians had attempted to set up a black pearl farm.  There were strands of rope swooping across the lagoon, suspended halfway between the floor of the ocean and the surface.  Along these horizontal lines were ropes hanging down vertically, large oysters lashed on to them at even intervals.  There were not very many there at all – possibly around 25 or 30?  It seems that just as the farm was established, a major cyclone went through the area, completely demolishing all of the work that had just been completed.  The farm is only in the process of being reestablished now and I am very interested to see how it turns out.  I would love to get a genuine Aitutaki pearl!

After our second snorkel, it was nearly time for lunch.  We were dropped off on the edge of Honeymoon Island, which used to be a completely bare sandbar of the neighboring island, Maina.  The water there was…  Fill in the blank.  Think of the most evocative, effusive, all-encompassing word, and slot it neatly in there.  It was what everyone dreams of when they conjure up images of the South Pacific.  The sand was so white that if you squinted, you could nearly believe you were looking at just fallen snow.  In the shallows immediately around the island, the water was so transparent that without the glitter of sunlight reflecting off of it, you might not even realize it was there at all.  The water colors changed as the depths around the islands varied – white, cream, iridescent green, aquamarine, teal, cerulean.   I can’t even count how many photos I took in a vain effort to show the world exactly what the lagoon of Aitutaki has to offer.  It simply can’t be done though: the real life colors will not translate to those that are capable of being displayed on an LCD screen.  I feel as if I need to shout it from the mountaintop: IT WAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD!!  I have been to a lot of places, I’ve seen a lot of landscapes, and the beaches of Honeymoon and Maina islands stand alone.

During our trek around the right side of Honeymoon Island, we admired all of the kitesurfers who had gathered to catch the breeze.  There was an international kitesurfing championship held here just last week and many of the competitors stayed on to enjoy extra time on Aitutaki.  They were amazing to watch – such a delicate balance of strength and grace.  There were probably at least 15 of them all around this island, which is nearly small enough to throw a coconut across, so no matter where you looked there was someone to watch.  As there used to be no vegetation on Honeymoon Island at all, it is nice to see a well-established central patch of coconut trees, and associated bushes, there now.  Some of the plants would have been seeded by the wind, blown over from Maina Island…and the others were planted on purpose, a tradition for honeymooners.  Continuing along a sandbar and through the shallows, we found ourselves on Maina Island.  This is known, as a direct counterpart to Honeymoon, as Infidelity, or Divorce, Island.  Sadly, this island is much, much larger than Honeymoon.  However, at least it affords spectacular views of the white sand beaches of its more romantic neighbor…and it is the only island in the atoll that does not have any mosquitos.  So Infidelity does have its perks.

We shared a lovely bbq lunch here on Maina Island, in a sort of Survivor-ish picnic area.  The food up for offer was marinated yellowfin tuna, grilled eggplant and taro root, a variety of salads (veggie, pasta, and potato), fresh fruit, and bread/butter or doughnuts.  The fish, and this is coming from someone who has a general “do not eat anything that lives in water” rule, was phenomenal.  The marinade was perfect and the tuna tasted like…chicken. J  We all ate like kings and enjoyed the meal together, unwinding with a few Heinekens along the way.  A friendly hermit crab race took place after lunch, resulting in a devastating loss for both of the Gees.  As we were sure of our victory, this race will be happily glossed over and left right there.

After lunch we headed out for our last snorkeling venture of the day – a trip around the lagoon to view the purple coral.  Having just stuffed myself to the proverbial gills and not the biggest purple-lover in the first place, I elected to remain on the boat for this excursion.  G2 reports that it was cool: the coral changed from purple to blue, back to purple as you moved closer and further away from it.

When this last water expedition was complete, we all piled back in the boat and headed over to Rapota Island.  It is the only island in the atoll that is able to support three different types of fruit trees – papaya, mango, and coconut all grow freely within its lush interior.  Teking showed us around the island; gathered around the back of it we had excellent views of all the surrounding motus.  It was on these islands that the Survivor: Cook Islands series was filmed.  Teking assisted the producers and directors of the show, fulfilling the role of underwater director (or something to that effect), happy to show off the great marine beauty of the Aitutaki lagoon.  He took the time to point out each island and what purpose it served for the show – where the black team lived, where the white team lived, where the Chinese Americans (?) lived, Exile Island, where they held council, where most of the challenges were, etc.  Having never seen a show in the series, the Gees weren’t star-struck…but we do plan on downloading it and watching it all when we return home.  It will be lovely to see the lagoon’s splendor again, and to see it as the rest of the world has.

From Rapota Island, we sank anchor next to One Foot Island, all clamoring to dig our toes into the beautiful sand on which the smallest post office in the world lies.  Thankfully we remembered to bring our passports along, so they now proudly bear stamps from our stop on One Foot Island, July 7, 2011.  This is a date that has significance to close friends of mine and I hope they can appreicate the beauty contained within this special anniversary.   One Foot Island received its name through island folklore.  It was reputed that a father and son were out on the lagoon, fishing together, when the father spotted approaching warriors from another area.  At that time, inter-island relations were non-existant and open warfare was common.  Knowing that they were in great danger, the father and son fled to this little motu that would be knonw as One Foot Island.  The father wisely followed his son on to the beach, carefully stepping over the top of his existing footprints, making it appear as if only one person had come ashore.  They retreated to the interior of the island, where the father selflessly lodged his young son in the middle of a dense, sharp bush.  He was securing the future of his family.  The warriors followed the one set of footprints and slaughtered the father, concluding that they had been mistaken when they originally thought they had seen two men fishing.  The son remained hidden for some time, eventually coming out to collect his father’s body.  He set about the hard task of dragging him around the perimeter of the reef to where a gap large enough for marine creatures to pass back and forth existed.  There he said goodbye to his father, and released his body to the ocean.  The island is now known as One Foot Island, in homage to the father’s clever effort to protect his son, and the burial passageway in the reef is known as Great Farefwell Passage (or the equivalency in Maori).

Our last stop before returning back to the mainland was at Akaiami Island.  Because of the exact positioning of this island in the atoll, it is extremely well-sheltered; the water in front of it shines like stained glass, eerily calm.  Starting in 1951, this island was used as a destination along the historically famous “Coral Route,” by TEAL, the forerunner of Air New Zealand.  The Coral Route was a stunning path of travel, originating in Auckland, and flying through to Fiji, Samoa, Aitutaki, and Tahiti.  The stop on Akaiami Island, Aitutaki, was primarily for refueling.  TEAL operated using airboats, so the planes would take off and land directly in the lagoon, in front of Akaiami.  As soon as the plane landed, the locals would be on the jetty to meet the passengers with fresh coconuts and leis, such a warm and hospitable people.  The Coral Route was primarily frequented by the extremely wealthy, as it was considered a very luxurious holiday – the likes of John Wayne and Cary Grant made it a fashionable trip for Hollywood stars to take.  The stopover on Akaiami varied depending on the amount of fuel needed and if there were any significant mechanical or engineering repairs that needed to be made.  The locals like to boast of the time passengers were stranded for a few days as engineers undertook a major operation on the plane, which of course was met by much grumbling from the wealthy travelers, accustomed to far more opulent surroundings than a few thatched huts among a grove of coconut trees.  However, by the time the repairs were made, the passengers were all in firm agreement that they weren’t ready to leave yet – and they stayed on for longer yet!  Such is the allure of Aitutaki – her beauty and spirit enchant all who visit.

Unfortunately after visiting Akaiami, our day was complete.  We headed back to the wharf on the main island of Aitutaki and bade our fellow cruise-goers a warm goodbye.  It was such an incredibly beautiful and relaxing day, we had an aside to Teking and arranged for another day out with him on our last Aitutaki day, Friday, Day Forty-one.  Having been thoroughly worn out by the sun and sea, we had a quiet takeaway dinner and nearly collapsed into sleep.