How to hike, dive and ride your way around Rarotonga.
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
It's fair to say Pa's Mountain Hike is not for the faint-hearted. Since this self-proclaimed "guru of nature" started leading cross-island treks in 1985, there have been 42 heart attacks among participants (thanks to Pa's mastery of herbal remedies, only one proved fatal).
Before we begin a challenging ascent through the jungle, we pass through a noni plantation and taro fields, where Pa invites us to rub coconut oil on our bodies to keep mosquitoes at bay. He also picks horny goat weed, in case our libido is in need of a kickstart. "Just don't call me at midnight," Pa, who is in his 70s, warns a female German tourist. "And make sure you have someone to write to before you put ink in your pen," he advises the male contingent.
The hike moves at a fairly brisk pace and over some rough terrain, so a decent level of fitness is a must. After about half an hour climbing through pristine native bush we reach the base of Te Rua Manga ("the Needle"), the island's most dramatic peak. Along the way Pa, who hikes barefoot and refers to himself in the third person, points out 1200-year old chestnut trees, "shampoo" plants and other flora and fauna.
The trek continues across freshwater streams to the top of the mountain and a large stone carving made by ancient Polynesians, an excellent photo opportunity. We're sorry to say goodbye to Pa who, as well as being a generous and good-natured host, has some fascinating stories, both about the lives of his ancestors and the escapades of his 15 children spread across the globe. Pa's tours operate on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and cost $70 per person. See pastreks.com
LICENCE TO THRILL
I'm going to ride a 350cc Yamaha Grizzly Quad through the jungle, so I apply for a temporary Cook Islands driver's licence at the police station in Avarua. With licence in hand, I zip off on a scooter along the 32km coastal road to Te Vara Nu Cultural Village, where the tour I'm taking with Jungle Quad Tours begins.
Scooters, the primary means of transport on the main island, are inexpensive to run and cost as little as $15 a day to hire.
Helmets are not compulsory when travelling under 40kmh, offering the chance to live dangerously and feel the wind in your hair.
The off-road quad bike tour provides the ultimate adrenalin rush while showing you a rarely seen side of Rarotonga. We spend around two and a half hours riding over muddy and rocky terrain, crossing streams to reach remote areas deep in the jungle.
After a refreshing dip in a freshwater creek, we cruise through hidden valleys in Turangi before getting up close and personal with the majestic Te Atukura Mountain. The quads are fully automatic and easy to drive, with instruction provided at the start of the tour. Morning and afternoon tours run Monday to Saturday for $150 per person. See coconuttours.co.ck
CRUISE YOUR CARES AWAY
For a slight change of pace, try the Koka Lagoon Cruise, a popular four-hour tour encompassing a wide range of activities, from guided snorkelling in the lagoon to a coconut tree climbing demonstration.
We're also given a brief history of the islands and learn of ongoing ecological projects to boost the local clam population and regenerate coral reefs in the marine reserve. After swimming out to an ocean nursery where giant clams are grown in underwater cages away from triggerfish and other predators, we even get to hold one of these bottom-dwelling behemoths, which weigh up to 200kgs and can live for 100-plus years. After snorkelling over the colourful coral for half an hour we wage a high-stakes crab race, where the winner walks away with the most traditional of Cook Islands souvenirs - a coconut. A percentage of ticket sales ($75 adults, $35 children) for these tours is donated to marine conservation projects. kokalagooncruises.co.ck
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Raro Mountain Safari Tours promises to take you to parts of the island you can't see on two wheels. The tour kicks off bright and early when a customised 4x4 picks us up and heads along a bumpy coastal road to the first point of interest, Wigmore's Waterfall. But not before our wisecracking guide introduces us to "the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands" picking fruit from a tree. Unfortunately, Rarotonga's lone waterfall attraction can barely muster a trickle today, despite a torrential downpour sending us running for cover. Shortly after, our 4x4 fails its first off-road test while attempting to scale a sodden embankment, forcing us to turn back for the sanctuary of a noni berry factory.
Here, we learn of the apparent healing qualities of this native fruit, and sample the organic juice produced and bottled on the island. While it may do wonders for my immune system, it does nothing for my tastebuds, with its bitter flavour leaving an unpleasant aftertaste which resembles a blend of blue cheese and red wine.
The tour also takes in Arai Te Tonga, the most sacred marae in Rarotonga, and Muri Beach, where legend has it seven canoes departed on a daring voyage to New Zealand in AD 1350. There are unscheduled stops to pick fruit and poke fun at weighty locals - "Meet the 100m champion of the Cook Islands", deadpans our guide.
But the highlight of the tour is the steep ascent along a windy, uneven dirt track to the summit of Avatiu Valley, which stands 300m above sea level and offers breathtaking views over the rainforest-clad mountains. Here, our guide demonstrates how to skin a coconut using a sharp stick planted in the ground before sharing the fruits of his labour with the group.
The tour ends with a barbecue lunch of freshly caught fish. Tours depart Monday to Friday both morning and afternoon, as well as Sunday afternoons, and cost $75 for adults and $32.50 for children. See rarosafaritours.co.ck
EXPLORE THE UNDERWATER WORLD
If you've ever been curious about the world beneath the waves, then the Dive Centre at Aroa Beach is a great place to begin your education. This PADI-approved dive centre offers introductory dives in the Aroa lagoon and outer reef for $90, as well as trips further afield for more experienced divers.
After a brief orientation session, we nervously follow our instructor Sandra into the sheltered lagoon, where she teaches us a few essential skills, including how to empty your mask when it fills up with water. Then we take the plunge, shadowing Sandra around the fish-filled marine reserve for about 50 minutes, pausing to practise the skills we learned earlier on the seabed. As the lagoon is only about 3-4 metres deep, it is the perfect spot to master the basics in a safe, controlled environment, and you won't be short-changed in terms of wildlife - during our dive we spot countless species of colourful tropical fish in their natural habitat, including angelfish, moorish idols and convict surgeonfish.
This introduction to scuba diving will give you the confidence to take one of the dive trips to the south side of the reef where turtles, sharks and rays await. thedivecentre-rarotonga.com
The writer travelled to Rarotonga as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.
Fact file Getting there Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Rarotonga. See airnewzealand.co.nz.
Staying there The adults-only Muri Beach Club Hotel has rooms from $491 per night and is in a prime location close to Muri lagoon. The hotel has an excellent restaurant serving local and international cuisine, with live music every night. Guests have free access to kayaks and snorkelling gear. See muribeachclubhotel.com.
More information For upcoming sporting and cultural events in the Cook Islands, see cookislands.travel.
- Sunday Star Times