Flying into the Cooks we crossed over the international date line, meaning we landed in Rarotonga about 28 hours before we took off from Auckland! - and consequently we're in the last country in the world to see the sunrise, technically speaking. It's odd to think we were behind even the UK, despite having been ahead the entire durtion of our trip.
Landing at 1.30am we experienced a particularly friendly welcome from customs and immigration, which is not something we've had much in all the flights we've been on! When we flew into New Zealand we had to declare everything from muddy shoes to wooden items and they even took Kev's trainers away from him, cleaned off the mud and disinfected them before he was allowed across the border. Now, when we landed in Rarotonga I declared my muddy shoes only to be told, "just hide them away" by the biosecurity official!
The friendly welcome seems to extend to all the locals here, from the man serenading with a ukulele at baggage reclaim, to our hostel owner who picked us up from the airport in the small hours.
Our accommodation was right on the beach, right infront of Muri Lagoon, a gorgeous stretch of calm, sheltered, turquoise water protected from the crashing waves of the South Pacific by the reef just off shore. About 200 metres out into the lagoon were a couple of small islands (called motu), accessible by swimming or by kayak, affording impressive views of the mountainous jungle interior of Rarotonga.
On walking to the local shop to buy some provisions we noticed signs showing the tsunami evacuation route (to higher ground) - it's easy to forget quite how remote we are here, having flown for 4 hours over nothing but ocean to get here, and the next biggest populated island of Aitutaki being over 263 km away. We were certainly grateful to make it back to Auckland without the threat of tsunami!
You really notice how far away you are when you see how limited the supplies are in grocery shops. Items are limited to one of each on store shelves and goods are well spaced out. Since everything has to be imported from New Zealand the price is also pretty high - in some cases four times the price of the same item in New Zealand - though that said, you can eat out in a restaurant for about the same price as in NZ so it's not all bad and there's an excellent supply of local tropical fruit and fresh fish.
Staying in a backpackers' establishment, especially one on an expensive island means it's not uncommon for other travellers to pinch your food and drink from the fridge. We were annoyed but unsurprised to find half a bottle of our lemonade stolen from the communal fridge one night - so we decided to exact our revenge! Half filling the lemonade bottle with sea water we replaced it back in the fridge. Much to our delight when we awoke the following morning, we discovered our "lemonade" standing next to an empty bottle of tequila on the table in the morning and suffice to say our bottle of mixer had hardly been touched! Revenge is sweet!
Our first few days on Rarotonga we did very little apart from swim, read and sit around in the sun. Next we hired kayaks and ventured across the lagoon to the nearby 'motu' and did some snorkelling. Most of the coral in the lagoon is now dead, but we did see a red octopus hiding in amongst the rocks - and hundreds of sea cucumbers. Apparently squeezing the guts out of the sea cucumbers is a local delicacy (called 'spaghetti'), but not one that we could be persuaded to try!
Feeling a little bit more energetic and like we ought to see a bit more of the island we hired 'e-bikes', which are push bikes with an added battery for when you're feeling lazy. We completed the 30km lap of Rarotonga with relative ease, even if Kev's battery did die about 8km before we made it back to the hostel. Navigation on 'Raro' is certainly easy: there's only one road which follows the coast, around the circumference of the island, and there are two buses per hour: one that goes clockwise and the other anti-clockwise.
From our tour round the island we realised we're definitely staying in the best bit, with the best beach and swimming, by far, so we didn't venture far from our accommodation for the rest of the week.
Having had glorious sunshine every day since we arrived, the rain arrived on the Wednesday - and we're talking torrential tropical rain storms. We had booked in to do diving that day (well, we couldn't exactly get any wetter!) so the rain didn't stop us. It was great to do another couple of dives - I think it does feel more natural and more enjoyable every time - and we were lucky enough to spot turtles, groupers and Spanish dancers. The 28 degree water felt an awful lot warmer than the cool, rainy air temperature. Amusingly, of the eight of us on the dive boat, three of us were from the Westcountry - what a small world!
One evening we went to an 'Island night': a showcase of Cook Islands music, drumming and dancing, which was truely spectacular. Also included was an enormous buffet of delicious local delicacies. Hopefully the recordings that Kev made of the music and drumming came out well: if so I'll put some of the audio files up on the blog at some point.
At the end of the evening the dancers came out into the audience for a spot of audience participation, and embarrassingly I was picked to join in with the dancing. I'm hoping that particular video didn't come out well! It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening though and a 'must do' for anyone considering a trip to the Cooks.
On our final day we did a tour around Muri lagoon in a glass bottomed boat, which stopped for us to do some snorkelling in a marine reserve. I think we saw even more marine life whilst snorkelling than we did scuba diving - we swam amongst hundreds of butterfly and parrot fish, giant trevally and other coloured fish - not forgetting a big moray eel! On the sea bed were giant clams, including a pearl farm, home to the famous Cook Islands black pearls.
The tour then called at the nearby motu for a barbeque fish lunch and a couple of hilarious demonstrations by the crew including how to husk a coconut and sarong tying (where I was picked on again to be a model!) The crew also put on an impressive drumming show and serenaded us with ukuleles whilst we snorkelled.
As we arrived at the airport for our flight back to Auckland the heavens opened and before long a lone lightening strike had taken out the runway lights! This meant that our plane (which was on its way from Auckland) was unable to land and continued on to the nearest airport, which was Tahiti! Meanwhile we had nothing to do but wait. Unfortunately as we were supposed to depart at 1:30am, our delay continued long into the night whilst we waited for the plane landing in Tahiti to turn around and come back to Rarotonga! Eventually at 6am we were bound for Auckland after a night spent trying to sleep on the floor of the departure lounge.
So now we're back in Auckland, repacking our bags and preparing for the long flight back to the UK tomorrow. It's been great being away but after seven months we're glad to be on our way home.
See you all soon!
Love Sarah and Kev xx