My personal notes on Manihiki

The following are my notes, as I wrote them there and then. No nice formatting here, just plain conversion to HTML. What follows is of course my personal opinion only, and I can accept no responsability for use of there information herein contained by other people. Note that this refers to Manihiki only. See the Rarotonga section for additional information.

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The Manihiki chapter of the LP is, in perfect Nancy Keller style, totally inadequate. The LP editors seem to think that somebody who wants to travel to such a remote island will need, first and foremost, an account of its history and local literature. To this, LP devotes 75% of the two pages of text on Manihiki.

Another 20%, i.e. a whole paragraph of text, is devoted to a physical description of the island. Unfortunately, this is quite useless too, since it reports the usual idiotic statements on the beauty of the lagoon. It is also inaccurate and misleading, since it mentions the ability of the local divers to "dive effortlessly to great depths and stay submerged for minutes at a time". I found this particularly irritating, since it convinced me to go all the way up there, to discover that nobody in the present generation of pearl farmers dives to more than 15 meters, and most of the diving is done by scuba gear anyway. Thank you dear LP authors, for this additional bullshit that has cost me a good deal of money and disappointment.

On the other hand, it is obvious that neither NK nor TW ever set foot on the island and that all they did was to rewrite some text borrowed from other books, probably several tens of years old.

A last few lines are devoted to accomodation and travel, as if these were almost accessories of secondary importance. The travel section is in typical LP style "Air Rarotonga flies once a week" (as if the day of the week were after all irrelevant), and the accomodation section is totally out of date: in this case, this is excusable since after hurricane Martin of November 1, 1997, many things have changed on the island and LP warns about this.

I have visited Manihiki , with great expense, several difficulties and a few surprises, in January 2001. During my visit, the LP has remained completely useless in my bag. Instead, I have accumulated a few notes that could be of interest to other persons interested in such a visit.

This account has no pretense of being exhaustive, accurate, or anything more than just my own personal notes.

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Manihiki can be reached, officially, once a week with a direct flight (3:45min) from Rarotonga by Air Rarotonga. The flight leaves Raro 7am on Thursdays. From what I have heard and witnessed, the flight stops almost invariably in Aitutaki for refueling. If you inquire ahead, Air Raro will tell you that the stop is not scheduled and therefore they will not sell a AIT-MHX flight. However, if you are in AIT, you can call the day before and if they know that they are going to stop, they will allow you to board the plane in AIT (this is what I did).

The plane is a small 18-seat Bandeirante, which however is only allowed to load 10 passengers since the extra weight is used for additional fuel and cargo.

Also unofficially, the Saturday flight from Rarotonga to Penrhyn almost invariably stops in Manihiki. If you buy the ticket 1-2 days before the flight, Air Raro might be able to sell you a flight to Manihiki on this route.

Even more unofficially, there are occasional out-of-schedule flights when enough passengers warrant them. In the typical Air Raro style, they will never tell you this, but you might try to ask around. While I was on the island, there was a chartered flight on a Monday and an extra one on a Tuesday.

Note that December-January are periods when the flights are invariably sold-out, often with bookings made months in advance, by locals travelling abroad for the holiday season (or locals working abroad and returning to their home island). In my case, Air Raro told me that all flights were sold-out when I inquired in October. When I was in Raro in December, by some miracle (a cancellation I assume) a seat had become available. Interestingly, when I actually flew to Manihiki, the plane was actually empty. Apparently, everybody had cancelled - I heard several versions of possible reasons, and they all seemed less than convincing so I don't know what to make of this.

My flight was smooth, with a very relaxed atmosphere, and only one hour late.

I have heard that the inter-island ship takes 3 days from Raro, and that it goes once a month. This might be true, since I heard it from several locals. With their usual friendly service, travel agents in Raro had answered my inquiries about this by saying "there is no ship", or "it goes every 4 months".

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There used to be a guesthouse in Manihiki. The house is still there, but the people who ran it have left after Martin. Some of their relatives are still on the island and told me that there have been talks of opening it again, but nobody has the time since pearl-farm work keeps all of them busy. My impression is that it will be a long while.

Anyway, I was able to contact Kora Kora and Nancy, and they took me in at their place. I can recommend it, since they are friendly and the house is large and conveniently set in Tauhunu. Note that they have a large family of young children, who might disrupt a little your plans of meditation and quietness. They provide all meals, and Kora Kora can arrange any activities that you might wish. However, this is done as usual in the Cooks way, i.e. when they say "we will go tomorrow" it probably means "we could go tomorrow, or the day after, or next week, or never".

They also run a farm on a nearby kawa, and a visit is certainly worthy.

However, this is not the only choice. Upon my arrival, while I was waiting at the airport (which is in itself an interesting facility...), a couple of persons approached me and very kindly inquired if I needed a place to stay.

I am sure that nobody will be left stranded. However, it might be worthy to inquire in advance.

Many houses in both villages seem new, and quite clean and spacious. However, it is obvious that standards may vary and several families have less inviting houses.

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Let me try to fill in the disappointingly brief description provided by LP. At least, the map provided by LP is relatively accurate, so you can look up there the lay-out of the main islands and the motus. Also the scale is right. I point this out, because funnily NK for some reason has decided to write that it is 4km wide, when the map clearly shows the true size of at least 10km across. The difference might have seemed irrelevant to our valiant NK, but you will notice it quite obviously if you try to swim across, or walk around, or do any other lagoon-related activity. Which is not what NK has in mind when she travels in the South Pacific, apparently.

Anyways, the two main island are relatively different. On Tauhunu, there is a main dirt road that cross almost the totality of the island. The village is conspicuous, and it has a large church, some sports grounds, two wharfs (one on the reef, one on the lagoon side), and lots of houses scattered around for about a couple of kilometers.

On Tukao, the village is smaller, it has a smaller wharf on the lagoon side, and it borders the airport. The runway also doubles as the main road. Outside of this, it's all relatively thick groves and you'll have to walk either along the reef or along the lagoon. Interestingly enough, even the local people do not have a lot of knowledge about the geography of their own islands. Of course they will never admit it, so be careful when you ask questions on how to go from one point to another or about the existence of tracks and so forth. Always ask the same question to three or four unrelated people.

The two main islands also differ in their fauna. On Tauhunu, the fly is king. You cannot sit, walk, run, without being constantly covered with several tens of flies. Harmless, but quite annoying. The eternal annoyance of this insect is so evident, that the fact that it is not mentioned in the LP proves that the authors never set foot there.

On Tukao, the thick groves are made thicker by an amazing number of spiderwebs. Their owners obviously keep the fly population under better control here, however if you decide to walk in the groves be prepared to be cocooned in spiderwebs at each step.

It's hard to choose which evil is worse.

The lagoon is totally encircled by a reef, and inside of this a makatea with its sharp rocks. More inward, a lot of motus: LP mentions 40, at my count they were a few less, but then a lot depends on what you call a motu and what you call a patch of sand which occasionally rises above the sea level at low tide. In any case, the view is spectacular, expecially from the plane so if you fly in try to get a window seat.

The main characteristic of most of these motus is a resident population of hundreds of seabirds. When you step there, they will make it very clear that you should move on to the next one. The situation is further aggravated by the total absence of coconuts within reach, unless you are prepared to climb to the top of 20-meter high trees. All the easy nuts are very frequently harvested by the people from the villages. In other words, you will die of thirst everywhere, apart from the two main villages. Which is sad and ridiculous at the same time, and quite a blow to the idillyic image of this island.

The idillyc image is further shattered by the almos total absence of sand. In fact, what is not immediately evident from the LP map nor from their text, is that the motus are completely covered by inextricable and almost impassable coconut groves. You are confined to a thin 1-m wide margin around each motu, which is mostly covered by tiny rocks and very rough sand. In fact, it is impossible to walk without shoes. Only on a few motus there was enough sand worthy of this name, to be able to lie down.

I have had a few fit of desperation, walking incessantly from one motu to the next, constantly covered in flies, with nothing to drink, and without being able to sit down at all.

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The lagoon is spectacular from the air, and would probably compete with any other one in the Pacific for beauty. The main disadvantage is that it is in fact a bit too large. Like the Grand Canyon, when you are there you cannot enjoy all of it in one look.

It is worthy to go around it, to see all the different corals and the colors is tour is best accomplished by boat. I tried to do it on foot, and it took me about 12 hours and I was quite exhausted in the end.

The water between the motus is shallow, reaching between your ankle and your waist most of the time (note also that tides have some influence). You need shoes, since the bottom is almost invariably covered with corals and hard stones. It is a pleasure to see all the fish around you while you walk in these shallow waters. Often you will see also the dorsal fins of reef sharks. These animals are shy and will run away if you splash the water or make noises, but still it gives a little thrill to see their silhouettes in the shallow water swimming around you. Many of them are just baby ones, about 30cm long. You will also see all the usual tropical fish, moray eels, turtles, and above all crabs. Some of which reach quite spectacular sizes.

The lagoon is totally enclosed, apart from very shallow outlets where the water flows into the ocean. Therefore, the fish inside the lagoon are in practice separated from those outside the reef. In particular, there are no dangerous sharks inside, which makes pearl farming and diving more pleasant than in Penrhyn.

However, diving in the lagoon was a bit of a disappointment. Apart from the shallow waters near the edge, very colourful and rich in fish, the deeper waters are not very clear, probably because of the large amount of sand in the water, as well as of the waste from the villages and the farms. The typical visibility I encountered was about 10-15 meters. The water was uniformly warm. Every now and then, strange shapes gloom in the cloudy water, such as trees, pieces of cars and household items, kind presents of Martin. Above all, the lagoon is dotted with pearl farms and their shell lines, typically hanging between 6 and 10m depth.

The locals do their farm work mostly by scuba gear these days, and always at shallow depths of less than 15 meters. The legendary free divers are gone, and since this was the main interest for me to come all the way, I was quite disappointed. Another thanks to LP.

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I swam outside the reed only once, and it was enough. I jumped out from the wharf in Tauhunu, which I thought would be the safest since all the small boats are around there. Well, in about five minutes of frantic swimming I saw about ten sharks, each bigger than two meters. I am not an expert in recognizing them, but I did see a couple of gray sharks and I know thet can be dangerous. Adding this to the stories I had heard in the village (and remembering the experience I had seen a couple of weeks before in Fiji, of a man losing his leg to a shark in an area where he had been swimming safely for 15 years), I decided that I had enough and swam precipitously out. What a pity, after all the stories I had heard (and imagined) about diving to 50 meters in the blue ocean. Maybe I was too afraid? Maybe. But nobody is there to help you, when you are a lone free diver with no bubbles, no knives and guns, and nobody to collect your remains.

Plus, who would have been putting this on the WEB?