Friday 15 February 2013

Atiu! Bless you...

Finished with Easter Island, now I'm on to Vietnam, so naturally I was thinking about motorbikes. No-one who's ever been to Vietnam can remember it without thinking of motorbikes - the sheer number of them, the initial terror of taking on an unbroken tide of them while trying to cross the road, the ever-more-incredible loads carried on them. I was wondering when was the last time I actually rode one, after spending seven years of my youth puttering about the streets of Christchurch on a Vespa 90, and another one in England astride a Honda 50 (no matter how well I wrapped up, I lost so much body heat going to work in winter that it truly took me till morning tea time to thaw out).
Anyway, the answer is five years ago on Atiu, in the Cook Islands. Not many people go there, compared with Rarotonga and even Aitutaki, but it's just a 45 minute flight away. It's known as the island of birds, caves and coffee, because that's just about all there is to see there; certainly it's not the place to go for classic white beaches and turquoise lagoons. It does have those, but they're very small and shallow - no windsurfing here. Nobody lives by the beach because the coast is ringed by a wall of fossilised coral, so the only habitable bit is on the volcanic plateau at the centre.
But the birds are brilliant, literally, and the jungle is a vibrant green, the beaches that do exist are white powdery sand, and the narrow ring of lagoon is turquoise. Some of the caves have birds nesting in them that navigate by echo-location, there's an underground pool you can swim in by candle-light - oh, and other caves are full of human bones and skulls. There are also bush beer clubs where you can sit with the locals in a circle on palm tree stumps and drink orange-juice based beer from a communal coconut shell. It's surprisingly good - perhaps the original boutique beer?
The coffee business, run by a German, is interesting to visit, and his wife makes beautiful traditional and modern tivaevae, or appliqued quilts. So there is tourism there, but very laid-back and low-key, just like everything and everyone else on the island; which makes hopping onto a motorbike for a lazy circuit a very pleasant thing to do. Just watch out for the traffic.

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