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’Atiu

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© Lonely Planet Publications
112



HISTORY

’Atiu

For such a small place, ’Atiu supports an amazing variety of natural habitats, from deep
underground caves and dense coastal forest to soggy swamps and inland lakes, and the
island’s rich wildlife is a major draw – but ’Atiu is more than just a natural playground.
It’s a far more traditional island than either Rarotonga or Aitutaki, and the people here
are more in touch with their Polynesian heritage. There are historic marae (open-air meeting grounds), eerie burial caves and ancient coral roads to explore, and ’Atiu is the only
island where you can experience a traditional tumunu, the Cook Islands’ equivalent of the
kava-drinking ceremonies you’ll see in the rest of the South Pacific. Most people only stay
on ’Atiu for a few days, but that’s really only long enough to scratch the surface of this
fascinating island.

HIGHLIGHTS
Reef-fishing

Watching the elusive kopeka in the
ancient cave of Anatakitaki (p115)
Seeking out James Cook’s landing spot
at Oravaru Beach (p117)
Downing a few cups of the local brew
at an ’Atiuan tumunu (p120)

Oravaru
Beach

Coffee
Plantations

Tasting the home-grown coffee at
one of the island’s coffee plantations
(p116)

Anatakitaki

Taking a circle-island tour (p119) to
learn about the island’s rich history and
wildlife
Reef-fishing (p118) the traditional way
with a bamboo rod
POPULATION: 611

AREA: 27 SQ KM

took the mission party to his personal marae
(possibly Orongo Marae on the island’s
west coast) and challenged them to eat the
sugar cane from a sacred grove. When the
missionaries ate the cane and did not drop
dead on the spot Rongomatane became an
instant convert, ordered all the idols on the
island burnt and told his people to listen to
the missionaries’ teachings. With Rongomatane’s navigational assistance, Williams
then sailed on to find Rarotonga, the island
he had been searching for over two years.
The missionaries subsequently made occasional visits to ’Atiu from Tahiti but in
1836 the Tahitian convert Papeiha was sent
back from Rarotonga and started the serious
work of bringing Christianity to the island.
Gospel Day is still celebrated on ’Atiu on
19 July every year, often with nuku (traditional plays) acting out the drama of how
the gospel came to ’Atiu.

THE CULTURE
’Atiu has three ariki titles: Rongomatane,
Ngamaru and Parua. The ‘palaces’ of Queen
Ada (Rongomatane Ada Ariki) and King
Henry (Ngamaru Henry Ariki) are two of
the nicest houses...
’ATIU
112
’ATIU
www.lonelyplanet.com
HIGHLIGHTS
Watching the elusive kopeka in the
ancient cave of Anatakitaki ( p115 )
Seeking out James Cook’s landing spot
at Oravaru Beach ( p117 )
Downing a few cups of the local brew
at an ’Atiuan tumunu ( p120 )
Tasting the home-grown coffee at
one of the island’s coffee plantations
( p116 )
Taking a circle-island tour ( p119 ) to
learn about the island’s rich history and
wildlife
Reef-fishing ( p118 ) the traditional way
with a bamboo rod
Ati u
For many centuries, the island of ’Atiu was infamous across the South Seas for its warlike
ways, but these days the island is better known as perhaps the most ecofriendly and en vir-
onmentally minded of the Cook Islands. Like its sister islands, Ma’uke and Mitiaro, ’Atiu’s
most dramatic natural feature is its jagged makatea – a raised coral reef that was pushed
up by violent geological activity 100,000 years ago, and now completely encircles the outer
section of the island.
For such a small place, ’Atiu supports an amazing variety of natural habitats, from deep
underground caves and dense coastal forest to soggy swamps and inland lakes, and the
island’s rich wildlife is a major draw – but ’Atiu is more than just a natural playground.
It’s a far more traditional island than either Rarotonga or Aitutaki, and the people here
are more in touch with their Polynesian heritage. There are historic marae
(open-air meet-
ing grounds), eerie burial caves and ancient coral roads to explore, and ’Atiu is the only
island where you can experience a traditional tumunu, the Cook Islands’ equivalent of the
kava-drinking ceremonies you’ll see in the rest of the South Pacific. Most people only stay
on ’Atiu for a few days, but that’s really only long enough to scratch the surface of this
fascinating island.
HISTORY
’Atiu’s traditional name is Enua Manu, the
‘Land of Birds’ or ‘Land of Insects’ – so-
named, one legend relates, because only birds
and insects lived here when it was first discov-
ered. Numerous legends tell of early settlers
arriving by canoe and of visits by legendary
Polynesian navigators from Raiatea and Ta-
hiti (in the Society Islands) and Samoa.
’Atiuans were renowned as the greatest
warriors of the Cook Islands and special-
ised in creating bloody havoc on all their
neighbouring islands – Ma’uke and Mitiaro
had a particularly bad time of it, but ’Atiu
also managed to find time to raid Rarotonga
and Mangaia, though with considerably less
success. ’Atiu, Ma’uke and Mitiaro are some-
times referred to by the traditional name of
Nga Pu Toru (the Three Roots) due to their
geographical proximity – you could fly from
one island to the other in under 10 minutes
(or at least you could if Air Rarotonga ran
any flights between the islands). For much
of their recent history Ma’uke and Mitaro
were ruled by ariki (chiefs) from ’Atiu, a
trend that continued right to the turn of the
20th century, when New Zealand officially
took control of the Cook Islands.
The European discovery of ’Atiu is cred-
ited to James Cook, who sent three of his
boats ashore on 3 April 1777 to procure sup-
plies. His men spent a long day being enter-
tained (and pickpocketed) by the ’Atiuans,
but effectively returned empty-handed. At
one point, when a large oven was being pre-
pared, Cook’s Tahitian hitchhiker, Omai, be-
came convinced their hosts were preparing
to eat them, though the ’Atiuans expressed
shock at the mere thought of such an idea –
but given their predilection for throwing the
natives of Ma’uke and Mitiaro into the earth
oven, you have to wonder at their ingenu-
ousness. With his men safely back on board,
Cook left and managed to find provisions on
the neighbouring island of Takutea, where he
left ‘a hatchet and some nails to the full value
of what we took from the island’.
The Reverend John Williams turned up
on 19 July 1823 while searching for Raro-
tonga. Williams was accompanied by an
ariki from Aitutaki, who informed the lead-
ing ’Atiuan chief, Rongomatane Ngaka’ara
Ariki, that Aitutaki had already converted
to Christianity and that many of the gods
there had been destroyed. Rongomatane
took the mission party to his personal marae
(possibly Orongo Marae on the island’s
west coast) and challenged them to eat the
sugar cane from a sacred grove. When the
missionaries ate the cane and did not drop
dead on the spot Rongomatane became an
instant convert, ordered all the idols on the
island burnt and told his people to listen to
the missionaries’ teachings. With Rongo-
matane’s navigational assistance, Williams
then sailed on to find Rarotonga, the island
he had been searching for over two years.
The missionaries subsequently made oc-
casional visits to ’Atiu from Tahiti but in
1836 the Tahitian convert Papeiha was sent
back from Rarotonga and started the serious
work of bringing Christianity to the island.
Gospel Day is still celebrated on ’Atiu on
19 July every year, often with nuku (tradi-
tional plays) acting out the drama of how
the gospel came to ’Atiu.
THE CULTURE
’Atiu has three ariki titles: Rongomatane,
Ngamaru and Parua. The ‘palaces’ of Queen
Ada (Rongomatane Ada Ariki) and King
Henry (Ngamaru Henry Ariki) are two of
the nicest houses in town. (The present
holder of the Parua ariki title lives offshore –
not a popular move). ’Atiuans are fiercely
proud of their heritage; there’s still a touch of
swagger and haughtiness about the ’Atiuans,
especially when they’re discussing their his-
torical dominance of nearby islands.
It’s much more traditional than Raro-
tonga: customs such as tutaka (community
inspections), tumunu (bush-beer drinking
sessions) and taro-planting are still woven
into the fabric of daily life. Traditional crafts
still practised on ’Atiu include tapa (bark
cloth) – ’Atiu’s tapa flowers are very popular
on Rarotonga. There’s very little for sale here,
however; see p121 for more information.
If you’re interested in ’Atiu’s history, look
out for Atiu through European Eyes, a fasci-
nating book that collects various reports and
testimonies from the island’s first European
visitors. The more recent book Atiu, an Is-
land Community is a study of contemporary
life in ’Atiu, written by ’Atiuans. Both are
available at the USP Bookshop in Avarua.
Unlike all the other islands in the Cooks,
the villages on ’Atiu are not on the coast. The
five villages – Areora, Ngatiarua, Te’enui,
Mapumai and Tengatangi – are all close
Plantations
Coffee
Beach
Oravaru
Reef-fishing
Anatakitaki
POPULATION: 611 AREA: 27 SQ KM
’ATIU •• History 113
© Lonely Planet Publications
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