The Monsters Of Aitutaki

There are moments when it is sensible to entertain an epiphany, and there are moments when it is not. There are also places where it may or may not be wise to allow an emerging seed of thought to flourish in the mind, although the problem with this is that it is often the place itself that has inspired the budding profundity, and as such it cannot be stopped.

For me, the place was a flat field of grass in Aitutaki of the Cook Islands. It was large enough to accommodate a rugby pitch, and luckily somebody had indeed thought to put a rugby pitch right there. (Though, evidently, nobody had informed the local hens this was the arrangement, given their persistent attempts to guide flustered chicks across a stampede of legs.) Lining this field sat a few dozen locals, sailors, divers, and kitesurfers: the groups mingling effortlessly, sharing a heady atmosphere of a town gathered and a sun setting. Above them a row of palm trees rustled tranquilly and uninterrupted, save for the occasional bleat of a goat that had all of a sudden found itself victim to a charge of chickens, with rugby players in their wake.

The scene was drenched in the yellow-come-orange rays of sunshine that poured through the masts of the sailboats, sitting daintily out in the lagoon. Though the sun was slowly slipping into a darkening ocean – an ocean that spread far and wide behind one set of rugby posts – for now the beams of light continued to sprawl across the idyllic stage, and all the way up to the tall white walls of the majestic church that dominated behind the other end of the pitch.

This was a fine venue for an epiphany indeed. But gazing up to the oval-shaped ball dropping end-over-end out of the soft-blue sky was not the moment to be having it.

Two things hit me in quick succession. The first was the realisation that never again would I play a game of rugby in such a picturesque setting. The second was the not-insignificant force of a flying Pacific islander landing on my epiphany-prone head, which might have well have meant I never played a game of rugby again anywhere at all.

I’m mostly certain he didn’t intend to hurt me. It was only a game of touch – one that we had been welcomed into for five bone-aching days – but for all the good-humour and casualness of these evenings, they never lacked a competitive edge. As such, as the ball gravitated toward the spot where my mind had inopportunely taken on this reflective quality, I was poorly placed to deal with what was coming: a cannonball of a man who had taken to the air with admirable zeal to make the ball his. Accompanying his enthusiasm were legs as thick as the surrounding palm trees and biceps as big as the coconuts they shed, and – given the choice – next time I think I would opt for the tree itself to crash down on me. At least it could not have reached the speed of the man that would embed me into the hard earth.

Whilst play continued unconcerned, I clambered out of the skinny-sailor-shaped hole and turned dazed eyes toward my assailant. He stood grinning a great Pacific grin – one that I have come to know and love – and with a frying-pan-of-a-hand he gave me an encouraging clap on the shoulder that served only to knock me back down into the Tom-and-Jerryesque imprint in the ground, before bounding off to re-enter the fray.

I would learn later that the “man” who put me into the ground was actually a boy of just 18. What they feed them in Aitutaki I do not know, but whatever it is has produced a throng of men who are simultaneously very heavy and very fast. These assets, along with a relentless passion for rugby (they are, after all, islands that fall under New Zealand sovereignty), are displayed every weekday evening as a game of touch gradually grows into a spectacle for the whole town. And that they play everyday is evidenced in the skilled and deft hands that send the ball whizzing from one side of the pitch to the other, as well as the lightning counter attacks that – if you haven’t played for sometime (say, for example, you have been at sea for over a year) – might well leave you wheezing along behind, vainly trying to keep up…

As these yellow afternoons became the orange evenings, more men were finishing work and joining the fun, each one bigger than the last. Whilst we routinely began with the fashion-fussed youngsters in their shiny boots and backwards baseball caps, the demographic slowly became older, larger and less style-conscious throughout the evening. This trend tended to peak with the arrival of a 6’3”, 17-stone monster of a man, whose breadth of frame was matched only by that of his own smile. He did don a rugby training top, but only underneath his bright-blue overalls and steel toe-capped working boots, which leads me to believe he must have actually vacated his work clothes at some point, only to put them back on again upon locating his training top, which I thought odd. He – along with the other particularly big islanders – tended to occupy the middle of the pitch, shouting ceaselessly and laughing hysterically, waiting for the game to come to them, rather than lumbering themselves to it.

*          *          *

These quirks of island life are inescapably endearing, and we have been lucky enough to observe an eclecticism of them over the last few months in our South Pacific travels. Of all of the islands, however, this one has stolen the show so far.

Rugby aside, this might also be because of the safe and serene shelter Aitutaki offered to us, after a pig of a passage from Bora Bora. Four days of wind screaming through the rigging and frequent waves finding their way into the cockpit dampened our spirits as fast as our clothes, and so when we rounded the green and gentle coast of north Aitutaki to find the vast, turquoise lagoon, we were immediately bewitched. Yet – as exhausted as we were – we could not bring ourselves to risk the infamously shallow and treacherous pass through the reef, having missed high-water by a couple of hours. It was to be a rolly and unsecure night anchored out on the coral bottom before entering the lagoon the next day.

Unbeknownst to us, a pattern had been emerging in Aitutaki. From the harbour, sailors would wince with empathy as they watched other boats try and scrape through the reef, and so a routine had developed whereby those who had last arrived would dinghy out to the hapless new cruisers and guide them in, just as they had been themselves by the boat before them. Kindness breeds kindness… and also a sizeable cut of freshly caught Mahi-Mahi, we would discover, when it was our turn to help.

It was the young and delightful couple, Quintin and Macy, who convinced us to follow their dinghy in through the pass that afternoon. As such, it was the same Quintin and Macy who we blamed when Blue Eye eased to a halt on the sandy seabed halfway up, with menacing coral bommies either side of our now vulnerable vessel. But it was also the same Macy who would drive her dinghy into the side of Blue Eye to push us off the shallow bank, and it was the same Quintin who would then heroically hold onto our dangling bow anchor with one arm, put his masked face underwater, and with his available arm direct us to the deepest parts of the channel. Ally, through fits of laughter, stood on the bow and called out the instructions of the omniscient arm, and it was in this way that we graced Aitutaki’s shining and shielded waters. To this day, Quintin is fondly remembered on board as the ‘human depth-sounder’.

It was such camaraderie between sailors that provided the basis for a community feeling that we hadn’t experienced up until then. That the wind would continue to howl out in the ocean pleased us no end, as it kept the fleet of young and fun souls happily-incarcerated in the lagoon with us. We could spend our days exploring a new place with new company, and our nights eating and drinking with them too. At the height of this unprecedented socialising, a ‘boat crawl’ was arranged whereby the crew of four boats would pile onto one vessel at a time throughout the evening, and the hosts would provide snacks and beverages accordingly. Whether or not Blue Eye has ever held eleven people aboard in it’s 45-years we aren’t sure, but given the gradual ingress of water from the unfamiliar weight pushing the cockpit drains below the waterline, we think we might leave that as the record for now.

Rugby and fun, then, was on-tap, but the snorkelling outside of the reef was next level. In one particularly fortuitous afternoon we glided along with a fifty-strong flock of spotted-eagle rays, swam after colossal sea turtles, and, in diving just slightly below the surface, we could listen to the chatter of the humpback whales many miles away. Amusingly, the first time Quintin took us out to go spearfishing beyond the reef he assumed these noises to be the silly poms harping away to one another, before he realised that we were far too engrossed in failing to shoot the parrotfish for it to be us, and that it was in fact the other (slightly larger) set of mammals in the water. Later in the afternoon the shadow of something immense squeezed through the coral crevices below, and at first glance we all honestly thought it was a whale itself, before deeming it to be just a fish… just the biggest fish we’ve ever seen, that is. I was starting to believe it was not the food of Aitutaki that produced monsters of both men and sea, but rather something in its’ waters.

After a mesmerising three hours amongst this submerged world we begrudgingly clambered out, though this was only due to the reappearance of a curious white-tipped shark, attracted to the smell of the parrotfish we had been – very infrequently – spearing.

*          *          *

Eventually, the wind that had locked us all in the lagoon began to abate and talk turned to the continued march west. Almost all boats we meet are, like us, heading down to New Zealand for the cyclone season that starts in November, and so an obligation to make mileage inflicted itself upon us all too soon. Even after the relatively short ten days we were there, a cheerless mood prevailed as we took Blue Eye back out of the pass and away from the highlight of our South Pacific journey so far. It was at least high-water this time, and as such was uneventful.

That is until two spouts of water erupted from the ocean. Whooping and shouting we gawped as two humpback whales – those that we’d before heard but not seen – progressed along the leeward shore of Aitutaki. There glistening bodies breached the surface with a deafening puff of air, before a majestic tail rose up only to fall smoothly back down into the blue. This continued for some minutes as we cautiously followed the mother and calf from a distance of 30-metres or so, and indeed we could have watched all day, but with one mighty inhalation they dove again and the show – a show seemingly prearranged for our departure – was over.

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