Cook Islands, Tide of Tradition

The opening ceremony of the Te Mire Tarai Vaka - which literally means ‘the small festival of canoe carving’ in Cook Islands’ Maori - has all the solemnity of a coronation, albeit one where most participants are rather unsure of what’s going on.

After the high priest finishes his chanting (and, boy, does he like chanting), a chap rises up from his chair. It turns out that he’s the Cook Islands’ Prime Minister, the Honourable Jim Marurai. One of the joys of being on Rarotonga is it is so small, people from all walks of life can be seen mingling. 

The main island of a group spread over two million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, Rarotonga - with a population of 14,153 - is the hub of everything that goes on in the archipelago. It takes only 45 minutes to drive around the island of Rarotonga and even a national festival has the feel of a tight-knit community mucking in. 

The adze-wielding locals are all wood workers - some experienced and others apprentices. They drink kava (a muddy-coloured drink made using the roots of a local plant] from a wooden bowl and then, after the prime minister’s speech and more chanting, Te Mire Tarai Vaka is officially underway.

This year, the annual festival will be held from 13 to 23 October on the island of Aitutaki - a 45-minute flight north of Rarotonga. It’s designed to keep alive an important craft, which is passed down from generation to generation. While traditional canoes (vakas) are still made throughout Polynesia, each island has its own unique design and, in an age of ships and planes, many designs have died out. 

During Te Mire Tarai Vaka, teams of carvers from some of the 15 islands will create impressive vakas from huge tree trunks, each made according to the traditional style of the individual island.

Time Travel

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the vaka to the Cook Islanders (and, indeed, to the rest of Polynesia). After all, it was what got them to the islands in the first place from what is now French Polynesia. And for a very long time it was the only mode of transport between the many islands. It is also thought that it was a party from Rarotonga (that took off in their canoes, of course) that discovered New Zealand.

The canoes were also a creative outlet, says Ngametua Papatua. Now 60, he’s a pastor on the southern island of Mangaia, but he learned to carve canoes when he was 20. He’s since found himself designated as the island’s master carver.

“We want to keep the culture alive,” he says while working on the tailpiece of the canoe. “There’s a big difference between the designs for each island. Everything has a different meaning.

“People in the old days would see something and carve it - pig’s teeth, shark’s teeth, a taro plant [a common root vegetable].” 

There’s also big difference in how the canoes are used. Some islands have reefs and surf, some have gentle seas, while others have wide harbours or narrow channels. What works for one island could be disastrous for another.

At the harbour in Rarotonga’s main town of Avarua, the teams are sweating away in the sun, with the buzz of chainsaws creating an inescapable racket. Creating the canoes could be carried out in workshops, but there is method in the madness of doing so in public. It not only allows tourists to view the works in progress, but it also draws the locals’ attention to the ancient craft. It is hoped some will be inspired to take it up and carry on the tradition.

The Te Mire Tarai Vaka is overseen by local poet and writer Mike Tavioni, who is a giant of a man, coated liberally in sweat and sawdust. He is Rarotonga’s master carver and one of the only men at the festival who possesses the knowledge and know-how to help amateurs through the process.

However, Tavioni is a little unhappy that some of the participants are more interested in island pride than education. “If they keep going at that pace, they’ll be finished two days into a two-week festival,” he grunts in the direction of an ever-swelling team of enthusiasts. “It’s not a race.”

Ready, Set, Go!

Competitive types can get their fill of canoe racing at the Vaka Eiva - or ‘Canoe Festival’ - in Avarua, Rarotonga. The festival first took place in 2004 and has since grown into one of the biggest annual meet-ups for the world’s paddling community. 

Consequently, the scene around Avarua Harbour is one of barely controlled pandemonium. Hundreds of (not-so-traditional) canoes are strewn all over the place. Competitors and their supporters bustle about willy-nilly through the event headquarters at Avarua Wharf. Rapid-fire announcements urge people to report to various officials, while children splash about around the ramp from which exhausted paddlers are set to emerge.

Throughout the week, there is a series of competitions from team events to individual races - all held over various distances. The main event, however, is the Rarotonga round-island race - and at 36 kilometres, it’s a hard slog.

Seeing is Believing

Paddlers competing in the Vaka Eiva travel from far and wide - including Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii as well as other Pacific islands. This year the Vaka Eiva takes place from 14 to 21 November, and everyone on Rarotonga seems to be caught up in it. The locals are either competing themselves or have a good friend that is, and every time a Cook Islander makes their way up the ramp, they are converged upon by cheering well-wishers. 

The absolute hub of the bedlam is Trader Jacks Restaurant and Bar - the type of place where you are likely to bump into a taxi driver, tourist or high-ranking government official. The venue is owned and run by the self-appointed harbourmaster of Avarua Harbour, Jack Cooper from New Zealand. Trader Jacks has been knocked down by cyclones three times since it opened in 1986, which is why the current incarnation is made of wood, corrugated iron and concrete, and can be disassembled. Ask why he keeps rebuilding it, Cooper says: “Because I’m bloody MAD.” His eyes will bulge, and then he’ll go back to his drink. 

Around him, people are slugging back cocktails as they watch the Vaka Eiva race from the establishment’s prime waterfront location. They huddle around, having scurried inside at the first clap of thunder and it’s not difficult to feel sympathetic towards those out on the water.

The men get away lightly, but the ladies’ race is underway in torrential rain. Even the usually enthusiastic carvers have made a run for it, leaving their equipment under a tarpaulin.

Canoe Handle It?

With two canoe-related festivals taking place only a month apart, there is of course an overwhelming temptation to get amongst it. OK, so nobody’s going to let you wield chainsaws at felled trees or participate in the races (the places are hotly contested well in advance), but the next best thing is hiring a kayak and getting out on the water.

The Muri Lagoon is a 20-minute bus ride from Avarua, and for some reason, unlike on many Pacific Islands, the golden sands never seem to get too hot to walk or lie on. The main resorts around Muri Lagoon hire out kayaks and snorkelling gear, and they’re the only ingredients you’ll need for a lazy afternoon albeit one where you can pretend to have had a tough work-out. 

The lagoon has four muri (little islets) that can be paddled up to and commandeered as private bathing spots. The water is blissfully calm in the lagoon itself, but just around the other side you’ll see the surf pounding the reef. The muri are surrounded by coral and schools of fish - perfect for lying face down in the water and watching the aquatic action. However, it pays to be aware of the current as it can be a long swim back to your beached kayak if you’re swept away.

But if you’re already in the kayak, the current can be wonderfully helpful. Paddle out to the furthest point, then lie back and admire the rainforest on the horizon as the current slowly brings you back to shore. So even if you’re not keen to be covered in sawdust or partake in canoe racing, there are plenty of ways to get into the Cook Islands’ vaka spirit.

Words by David Whitley - Published in Voyeur September 2008
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 19,000
Area 236 km² (15 islands)
Time Zone GMT -10
Languages English, Cook Islands Māori
Currency New Zealand dollar (NZD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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