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Mitiaro

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130



HISTORY

Mitiaro
The minuscule island of Mitiaro is one of the least visited of the Southern Group, and while
it might not have the glorious beaches or dramatic scenery of Aitutaki and Rarotonga, it’s
still a rewarding island to visit. Home to just a couple of hundred people, and barely 6km
across at its widest point, Mitiaro is a great place to get to grips with traditional culture.
The islanders still live in much the same way as their ancient ancestors, farming, fishing
and trading with nearby islands (although these days they’re helped by a few modern conveniences such as electricity and motor scooters). Like the other makatea (raised coral reef )
islands, Mitiaro is riddled with deep caves, including the stunning underground pool of Vai
Nauri, but it also has plenty of history to explore – the remains of the only known fort in
the Cook Islands is hidden away in the makatea along the island’s southern coast.

HIGHLIGHTS
Taking a dip in Mitiaro’s natural
swimming pool, Vai Nauri (p133)
Visiting the ruins of the coral fort at
Te Pare (p133)
Having a picnic at the island’s largest
lake, Te Rotonui (p134)
Cruising around Mitiaro’s deserted
coastline (p133), either on foot or by
scooter

Foodlands

Te Rotonui

Te Pare
Coastline

POPULATION: 236

Vai Nauri

AREA: 22.3 SQ KM

THE CULTURE
Even within the Cooks, Mitiaro is a tiny island. Practically all the islanders are related
to one another, and everyone seems to have
family here, there and everywhere, as well
as on Ma’uke, ’Atiu, Rarotonga and further afield. Unsurprisingly, this can make
finding a spouse rather difficult – the lack
of decent marital material is one of the
main reasons for the population drain to

Rarotonga and New Zealand, along with
the limited economic prospects for the island’s younger generation. As on many of
the outer islands, most of the population
is either under 18 or over 50, with almost
no-one in between.
However, since practically everyone on
Mitiaro is a relative, there’s a strong community spirit and a high degree of cooperation. There’s not much money around, but
agriculture and fishing produce abundant
yields; there’s a lot of sharing and everyone
gets what they need. Most people on Mitiaro now live in Western-style houses, but
usually have a few traditionally thatched
outbuildings used as cookhouses or fishing
shacks. A few people even live in these traditional huts – look out for the occasional
electricity meter hook...
MITIARO
130
MITIARO
www.lonelyplanet.com
Mitiaro
The minuscule island of Mitiaro is one of the least visited of the Southern Group, and while
it might not have the glorious beaches or dramatic scenery of Aitutaki and Rarotonga, it’s
still a rewarding island to visit. Home to just a couple of hundred people, and barely 6km
across at its widest point, Mitiaro is a great place to get to grips with traditional culture.
The islanders still live in much the same way as their ancient ancestors, farming, fishing
and trading with nearby islands (although these days they’re helped by a few modern con-
veniences such as electricity and motor scooters). Like the other makatea (raised coral reef )
islands, Mitiaro is riddled with deep caves, including the stunning underground pool of Vai
Nauri, but it also has plenty of history to explore – the remains of the only known fort in
the Cook Islands is hidden away in the makatea along the island’s southern coast.
HISTORY
The history of Mitiaro (traditionally known
as Nukuroa) is bound up with nearby ’Atiu
and its warlike ways. Like Ma’uke, the is-
land was repeatedly raided by ’Atiuan war-
riors, but there are two particular battles
which are important in this island’s his-
tory. The first involves the arrival of an
’Atiuan war party led by the legendary
warrior Maui. In order to avoid bloodshed,
the Mitiaroans threw a great feast to which
the ’Atiuan warriors were invited, but the
Mitiaroans betrayed their guests and killed
them while they were grating coconuts for
the feast. The only survivor of the massacre
was Maui, who escaped the island and fled
back to ’Atiu.
Fearing bloody retribution, the Miti-
aroan warrior Maaro constructed a strong-
hold deep in the razor-sharp makatea – the
fort of Te Pare. Before long a huge war party
from ’Atiu arrived, led by the great ariki
(chief) Rongomatane, and though the fort
initially proved a challenging obstacle for
the ’Atiuans, Mitiaro’s warriors were even-
tually overcome. The small and declining
population on Mitiaro today is thought to
be almost entirely descended from raiding
’Atiuan warriors.
The Reverend John Williams arrived on
Mitiaro on 29 July 1823 accompanied by
Rongomatane and the island was soon con-
verted to Christianity, and ’Atiu officially
remained in control of Mitiaro until 1902,
when New Zealand established the Cook
Islands as an overseas protectorate.
Before Christianity arrived in Mitiaro, the
people lived in inland villages – Taurangi,
Atai, Auta, Mangarei and Takaue. As oc-
curred on Rarotonga, when the missionaries
came they moved the people out to the coast,
where they built a village around the church.
The old village sites are now the plantation
areas where the food is grown.
THE CULTURE
Even within the Cooks, Mitiaro is a tiny is-
land. Practically all the islanders are related
to one another, and everyone seems to have
family here, there and everywhere, as well
as on Ma’uke, ’Atiu, Rarotonga and fur-
ther afield. Unsurprisingly, this can make
finding a spouse rather difficult – the lack
of decent marital material is one of the
main reasons for the population drain to
Rarotonga and New Zealand, along with
the limited economic prospects for the is-
land’s younger generation. As on many of
the outer islands, most of the population
is either under 18 or over 50, with almost
no-one in between.
However, since practically everyone on
Mitiaro is a relative, there’s a strong com-
munity spirit and a high degree of coopera-
tion. There’s not much money around, but
agriculture and fishing produce abundant
yields; there’s a lot of sharing and everyone
gets what they need. Most people on Miti-
aro now live in Western-style houses, but
usually have a few traditionally thatched
outbuildings used as cookhouses or fishing
shacks. A few people even live in these tra-
ditional huts – look out for the occasional
electricity meter hooked up onto the side of
a pandanus-roofed hut!
Mitiaro has three ariki titles – To’u,
Tetava and Te Ma’eu. Mitiaro, with Puka-
puka and Mangaia, differs from other Cook
Islands in that there is no central land court;
land is distributed by family agreement and
when disputes arise, they’re settled by the
three ariki.
ENVIRONMENT
Mitiaro is tiny (just 6km across and 16km
in circumference) and astonishingly flat.
Like its sister islands nearby, Mitiaro is
ringed by a raised-coral, limestone outer
plain, the makatea, which rises to a max-
imum of 9m above sea level. The interior
plantations on the island’s central plateau
are barely 3m higher than the makatea at
their highest point; much of the interior
of Mitiaro is swampland, barely a metre
above the ocean’s surface. Two parts of this
swamp are deep enough to be considered
lakes: the prosaically named Te Rotonui
(Big Lake) and Te Rotoiti (Small Lake).
Unlike Ma’uke and ’Atiu, Mitiaro has little
coastal forest; much of the exterior makatea
is surprisingly barren, home to only the
hardiest plants.
INFORMATION
Electricity is available daily from 5am to
midnight, and 24 hours on Friday, Satur-
day and Sunday. Make sure to bring plenty
of cash with you, since it can be difficult
to change money on Mitiaro and you’ll
find that many places don’t accept credit
HIGHLIGHTS
Taking a dip in Mitiaro’s natural
swimming pool, Vai Nauri ( p133 )
Visiting the ruins of the coral fort at
Te Pare ( p133 )
Having a picnic at the island’s largest
lake, Te Rotonui ( p134 )
Cruising around Mitiaro’s deserted
coastline ( p133 ), either on foot or by
scooter
Exploring the lush plantations, known
as the foodlands ( p134 ), at the
centre of the island
POPULATION: 236 AREA: 22.3 SQ KM
Foodlands
Vai Nauri
Te Rotonui
Te Pare
Coastline
MITIARO •• History 131
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