Tracking the way back
Ngaa Pureariki is not convinced he'll spend an eternity burning in hell, though others might disagree. His apparent sin comes from wanting his people to return to the traditional ways of their ancestors, before missionaries introduced Christianity to the Cook Islands.
"People here now think if they believe in God then everything is OK, that they are successful human beings," he says as he drives past the Cook Islands' oldest church, in Aitutaki's main village of Arutanga. "That's not the Polynesian attitude; it's a cop-out. It's up to us to determine our happiness, that's always been the Polynesian way. It would pay for all of us to remember that."
Pureariki's four-wheel-drive tour of Aitutaki takes travellers back in time to learn the customs of Cook Islanders, to the most sacred ceremonial place in Aitutaki. Barely a five-minute drive from the first church, built in 1842, Pureariki pulls up at a marae built at least five centuries ago. Pureariki has been working with researchers from the National Geographic Channel to carbon date the ruins and document the findings for viewers around the globe.
It has been his mission since his teens to uncover evidence of his Polynesian heritage on Aitutaki. "Many of my people still think this place is cursed. They think if they come here they won't have babies," he says as we view the marae, a grassy strip of land covered with rocks in symmetrical rows under banyan trees. It is open to the public for the first time through Pureariki's tours. "The missionaries didn't want us to remember our Polynesian ways so they burnt the maraes down. All that remains now are the rocks."
There's also evidence of ancient underground ovens and a stone seat on which generations of 12-year-old boys were circumsised in ceremonies.
Pureariki says he spends more time at the marae than at church: "I feel close to my people here. There's a bond with my ancestors; I don't feel that in church."
His tour is far from conventional. He prefers conversation to scripted commentary and follows different paths, depending on which parts of the island he feels like showing to visitors. He introduces us to friends and family along the way. Roosters cross in front of us, startled piglets scatter and, beside Aitutaki's legendary lagoon, an army of crabs scurry out of our path.
We venture to Aitutaki's highest point, Maunga Pu (123 metres), where Pureariki prepares a meal of fresh coconut, pawpaw, mango, lime and passionfruit. From this clearing we can see across one of the south Pacific's most celebrated lagoons. Shaped like an equilateral triangle, with sides 12 kilometres long, Aitutaki's lagoon is more than 70 square kilometres of turquoise water and 15 mostly uninhabited motus, or small islands.
"I lived in Australia for 17 years but I came back because this is where I have to raise my kids," Pureariki says. "If I have no tourists, I feed my family with fish I catch from the lagoon and vegetables I grow. If tourism died off, I wouldn't mind. I'd just go fishing."
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Rarotonga from Auckland (4 hours); see airnewzealand.co.nz. Air Rarotonga has daily flights to Aitutaki from Rarotonga (50min) for about $NZ414 return including tax; see airraro.com.
Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours, Sunday-Friday, cost $NZ50 a person; see aitutakitourism.com /aitutaki-discovery-safari-tours.