“For a moment I might have been back in the oldest Polynesia, where virgin islands could still surprise the voyager. The haunting Polynesia of Western dreams, of the writer Melville and the painter Gauguin; the Polynesia of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” heaven-sent for philosopher, poet, and adventurer.” —Maurice Shadbolt, 1967
Wherever he went, he would be a stranger. A desolate fisherman, hidden by the island’s profound insularity and lost in an infinity of sea, he was a person one reads about, no one anybody actually knew.
“They always say we came from them, but we keep reminding them, that, no, they came from us. This has been proven. They are our younger brothers and sisters—there no two way about that.”
He clarified his relation with New Zealand’s Maoris, ancient blood brothers of most modern Cook Islanders. Was the ‘Great Migration,’ circa 1350 AD, when the Maori canoes voyaged 2,200 miles from Rarotonga’s Avana Harbor to New Zealand, then known as Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. Today, the seven-canoe fleet is commemorated at Avana Harbor with a circle of seven stones: Mataatua, Te Arawa, Tainui, Aotea, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, and Takitumu. Each tracing their genealogies to ancestors who arrived from the crossing, New Zealand’s Maori tribes are named after these seven ‘Great Canoes,’ immortalized in paint on Air New Zealand’s seven Boeing 747s.
“They came from us.”
With beers on my hotel balcony, we watched pallid, pink-skinned tourists wallow in the lagoon, sunbathe below the palms, stroll for token shells. It was colder where they lived, after all—icy in Reykjavik, snowy in Winnipeg, drafty in Dunedin. And beyond them, past the lagoon and barrier reef, a double-overhead left exploded, slightly marred by the tradewind but treacherously impressive. Fast and sectiony, the wave peaked way up at the reef’s tip and bent around the shelf for 200 yards before thwacking onto a horrendous ledge. Looked thrilling, but not my style.
Piri gleamed. “You will meet him, I promise,” he said. “You will surf together.”
The wave was fancied by Luc, Piri’s son and one of Rarotonga’s few stand-up surfers. Because new surfboards are unavailable in the Cooks and because the waves’ ferocity inevitably snaps them, bodyboards are the norm. All spots break over severely shallow, sharp coral, characteristically hollow and lethal. Luc learned to surf in such waves, excelling now when injury looms.
“Ah, but this?” he said, exhaling, raising his eyebrows and opening a hand toward the sea. “My son never surf here. My son live on Aitutaki and surf those north atolls. This possible with the cargo ship: Pukapuka, Suwarrow, Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga…you should see. Taste the coconut crab and wear the black pearl. You never forget these places, my friend.”