Thursday, March 11

Spay Day on Rarotonga was a great success


Strictly speaking, World Spay Day falls on the fourth Tuesday in February which would have been 23 February this year.

However here on Rarotonga we had been lashed by wind and heavy rain for about a week before the event, organised by Te Are Manu and CISPCA, so it was postponed until Wednesday 3 March.
It turned out to be a wise decision. The warm, sunny weather probably encouraged more people to take advantage of the event.

World Spay Day is an annual campaign that aims to encourage people to save animal lives and prevent unwanted litters by spaying and neutering companion animals and feral cats.


Marquees  were set up behind KiteSup in Muri with areas for operations, waiting and recovery.
There was plenty of room for cars as pet owners dropped off their animals and CISPCA provided transport for owners who weren’t able to get there themselves.
Spay Day started at 8am. By 8.30am we already had three dogs and a cat ready to go and they just kept coming.

 In the months since our borders closed (in March 2020) Dr Ellen McBryde has been the only vet on the island. She has had to work incredibly hard and Te Are Manu is so grateful for all she has done, as are all the pet owners and their cats and dogs (and goats). But things are looking up. Just recently vet Dr Bridget Roulston and vet nurse Parish Short have arrived from New Zealand and local Sara Nooroa has started learning the ins and outs of being a vet technician.

Of course clinic manager Debbie Topp and assistant manager Pip Henderson did an awesome job of organisation and kept things moving along smoothly.

Many other people helped make the day a huge success.
Volunteers manning various stalls, raffle donations, a fantastic lunch prepared by Island Platters, fish from Trader Don Beer and salad provided by Steve Witta at Aroa Vegeland. And of course all the caring people who brought their pets along. 

Our vets completed thirty-eight desexes in the day: 14 male dogs; 11 female dogs; 7 male cats; 6 female cats.

By the way, the operations were free although donations were gratefully accepted.

Check out the Cook Islands News story about Spay Day here:

Friday, January 29

Manihiki - the island of black pearls

Manihiki was once known as Humphrey Island and is also called, informally,  the island of black pearls.

The northern group coral atoll has over forty motu (islets) surrounding a deep lagoon about nine kilometres wide. The two main motu are Tukao, where the airport is situated, and Tauhunu where we stayed for two nights.

To get from the airport to Tauhunu we climbed aboard an aluminium dinghy - the main method of transport in the northern atolls.

Some of the group stopped at the two over-water bungalows of Manihiki Lagoon Villas. Phil and I carried on to Numahanga Homestead, further into Tauhunu village.

Numahanga Homestead

The homestead was built by Tekake William, the father of black pearl farming in Manihiki. It’s certainly built to house a lot of people. 

There’s a huge kitchen/dining/living/sleeping room. As well as a double bed, two large sofas could also be used for sleeping and on the wide covered verandas that surround the house are several more beds.

The bathroom and shower are accessible from the veranda.

Fabulous food

The fridge was well stocked but we never needed to cook because our host Gabriel (a relative of the late Tekake) and his wife Joyana brought along our meals - breakfasts and dinners.

And what meals they were.

BBQ tuna and other fish, sashimi, salads, rice, taro, coconut crab, uto pancakes with fresh nu to drink.

For breakfast we were treated to pawpaw with lime juice, eggs, sometimes fried, sometimes scrambled, bacon, pancakes with maple syrup, and toast.

Far too much for just the two of us so I hope the leftovers were recycled!

Manihiki pearl farming

One of the highlights of our time on Manihiki was a visit to a kaoa - a pearl farm centred on a coral outcrop in the lagoon.

The Cook Islands pearl industry developed quickly in the 1980s. Prices and global demand were high and the buyers were buying everything the 200 or so Manihiki farmers produced - about $18m annually in 2000.

But as more and more oysters were crammed into a small lagoon with limited food and oxygen, a bacterial disease broke out and devastated the industry.

Many farmers gave up altogether and the number of oysters in the lagoon plummeted, back to a level which nature could support.

There are now around 25 pearl farmers who sell most of their pearls locally although since our borders closed because of covid-19 there are no tourists to buy them.

In the late 1990s the population was about 600 but following cyclone Martin in 1997 and the collapse of the pearl industry it has dropped to about 200.

A day on a kaoa

This farm was once the home of Tekake William. The house and outbuildings are substantial although they have fallen into disrepair. Pearl farmers no longer live on the kaoa but just visit them when there is work to be done.

The oysters

Oysters are attached to strings, called chaplets, dangling in the lagoon. Once an oyster has been seeded it takes about two years for a pearl to develop.

The boys dived to collect a basket of oyster shells and then hacked off the marine growth on the shells, a messy job.

This rubbish can’t be dumped back into the lagoon, it must be taken to land on one of the many uninhabited motu.

First the shells are prised slightly apart and a technician peers inside to see if there’s a pearl nestling in a sac. If so there follows a delicate probing and cutting to release the pearl. If not, the oyster will be eaten!

Our group had the chance to probe and they found several keshis (mal-formed pearls) and a couple of beauties.

More fabulous food

After all the hard work it was time for lunch.

The BBQ is a wishing-well-shaped structure with a pit for stones to be heated with driftwood and old, dead trees. BTW the stones are imported from Rarotonga because the local coral boulders just split when heated.

Tuna slices, clams, crayfish, coconut crab and other fish didn’t take long to cook on the BBQ plate. The crew also ferried over rice, bananas, taro and a special Manihikian version of poke. Cold pawpaw juice to wash it all down.

Looking for crabs

After lunch there was time for swimming or snorkelling then we headed back to the mainland stopping off at an uninhabited motu to hunt for coconut crabs - but NOT to catch and cook them, just to look at them in their natural environment.

We enjoyed a very pleasant nature walk although jandals aren’t the best footwear for scrambling over fallen palm trees, kikau fronds, coconuts and scrubby bushes.

A fully grown coconut crab is a very impressive creature. The ones we saw were brown and blue. They can climb coconut palms but usually live in holes at the base of the trees, although one we were shown lives in a shallow cave in a rock wall. 

They can live to about 50 years - much older than the boys who found them for us. The locals know where to find them but only catch them when needed.

We left the crabs to return to their holes and sailed back to Tauhunu.


Tukao village is smaller than Tauhunu but still has a school and a government administration centre.

Outside the centre is a memorial to the nineteen people lost when cyclone Martin struck on 1 November 1997. Ten bodies were never recovered.

After Martin the New Zealand government built several cyclone shelters but they are now mostly dilapidated. They clearly haven’t been used for many years, not really surprising since the population has decreased from over 600 to 200 in the past 20 years. 

We walked from the village to the airport along a path by the side of the runway.

The Citation was waiting for us so we said farewell and thank-you to the people who’d looked after us and were soon on our way to Penrhyn, the final atoll on our discovery tour.

Saturday, December 19

Pukapuka – the Cook's most isolated island

Pukapuka was once known as Danger Island; John Byron, commodore of a British naval ship named it when he sighted it in 1765 but couldn't land because of rough seas, high surf and reefs.

The other name, the Island of Beautiful Girls, is a different matter. 'Other Cook Islanders' are supposedly the people who call it that but it only appears in blog posts, the earliest from 2004, and none written by a Cook Islander. It could be the tropical island version of an urban myth.
John Roberts of the Kia Orana Cook Islands website says he found the comment in Elliot Smith's book, 'The Cook Islands Companion' which was first published in 1991.
By the way, John's website is packed with information about all aspects of life in all of the Cook Islands. It's a wonderful resource for anyone interested in this part of the world.


Our plane had no problems landing after the two hour flight from Rarotonga. We had a good view of the beautiful two-tone blue lagoon and three palm-covered islands with thin strips of yellow sand.

The airstrip is on Motu Ko where the mayor Levi Walewaoa and our island tour guide Edson greeted us
and we had a welcome drink of refreshing sweet nu, the first of many on this trip.

The main settlement is on the largest motu, Wale.

Coconut crabs

The three northern group atolls we visited have big lagoons and the normal mode of transport is an aluminium dinghy with an outboard motor so we walked across Motu Ko to pick up a boat on the lagoon side, pausing while Edson winkled a coconut crab out of its hidey-hole.

This was a medium sized crab, about 15-years-old with a lovely black, brown and orange carapace. It didn't have the enormous claws of a fully grown crab – they can live up to fifty years.
Pukapukans are very conservation-minded and are careful not to over-harvest or take small crabs.

A boat, a swim, a tiki tour

It took about half an hour to cover the 10km north to Wale where we had time for a swim before hopping aboard a pick-up truck for a tiki tour of the village.

The roads are rough coral with neat houses set close to the road edge. Women and small children sitting on verandas waved as we passed by but we saw very few people out and about.

Pukapuka has the largest population of the northern islands at about 425 – and growing according to the mayor – so the CICC church is a substantial building with colourful carvings and painted motifs.

Government offices are located at the administration centre in Ngake village and staff were smartly dressed in pareu uniforms although they didn't look particularly busy.

The area also housed the BCI bank and Vodafone offices, the agriculture department and the solar power array. All the northern group islands have 24 hour solar power.

Wowolu, the Shark Bait Hotel sits near the admin centre.
It looks like a concrete water tank that's been converted into a jail with a ventilator on top and a barred door.
Kora said it was where miscreants could be incarcerated but it's not currently in use! Still the threat of it apparently keeps youngsters on the straight and narrow.

Eating in style

We had lunch in a room at the centre.
A long trestle table was laden down with plates of food; fish, coconut crab, raw fish, uto pancakes, taro. Also sausages, rice and potato salad all of which have to be imported - you can't grow potatoes in this climate.

The taro was definitely home grown.
The road snakes through a large taro growing area in the interior of Wale. Over many years people have filled a depression in the coral with vegetation that has rotted down and become compost, very good for growing the important staple root crop.
Fresh sweet nu, served in the shell of course, washed our lunch down.  Delicious.

We ate heartily but with only seven of us there was plenty left over. That's not a problem though. The locals would finish it off or take it home once we left. Nothing goes to waste after a feed like this.

Time to say goodbye

Our original schedule called for an overnight stay on Pukapuka but the usual accommodation was being used as a hospital while a new hospital is being built so we had just the day tour before flying on to Manihiki. Later tours were put up in the nurse's house I believe.

All too soon it was time to cross the lagoon back to Motu Ko and the airstrip for our flight to the island of black pearls – Manihiki.

Beautiful, peaceful, friendly, laid back; the real danger in Pukapuka is not wanting to leave.