Land of the birds

214 kms/133 mls North East of Rarotonga  
Access: Frequent internal flights and international connections.  Direct internal flights from Rarotonga and Aitutaki
Population: 234     26.9 sq.kms/10.4 sq. mls

Atiu is the third largest and third most visited of the Cook Islands. That doesn't mean it's busy though...typically there are around 50 visitors a week. The island is about half the size of Rarotonga. Surrounding the plateau is a ring of taro water gardens and then the jungle-clad makatea (fossil coral reef). Notched into the cliffs of makatea are over 28 beaches which, albeit small, are untouched and almost unvisited. 
The island is also known as Enuamanu which means land of the birds. More species live there than on any of the other islands, and they include some of the world's rarest. But there's much more to Atiu than just birds, as you'll find out.  

Legend says Tangaroa, the divine god of the sea, was the first inhabitant. Scientists from the UK believe the first human habitation was around 900AD. Captain Cook was the first European to sight the island on 31 March, 1777. 


Internal airline, Air Rarotonga operates several flights a weeks from both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Flying time in each case is 45-50 minutes. And you can easily combine a trip to both islands. When travelling from Aitutaki, your plane passes the country's two uninhabited islands, Manuae and Takutea


Tourism is still in its infancy, and with so few visitors you can expect to treated more like a personal guest. The islanders also want their homeland to be a destination with a difference. Here's how they describe it:

"Atiu has positioned itself as an Eco-Island trying to attract the nature enthusiasts and those seeking a natural unspoilt island. This we do well with caves, secluded beaches, pristine tropical jungle, the weird shaped makatea, little commerce and very friendly people. We are trying to retain our differences from the rest of the world. This is hard to do. At best we are about 35 years behind the modern world and enjoying it. You will notice the refreshing difference"  


Atiu's five villages of Areora, Ngatiarua, Teenui, Mapumai and Tengatangi form a man-like figure in the centre of island.
Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC

Atiu was once a volcano which sank leaving a coral reef around a low plateau. 100,000 years ago, volcanic action pushed it up killing the reef and creating a razor sharp band of coral called a makatea. The makatea runs around the island ranging in width from 50 to 100 metres


Limestone caves are found all over the makatea. Some are used as ancient burial sites and others are water filled and ideal for a refreshing swim.        


Low cliffs, 3 to 6 metres high surround the island, but there are many recesses in which you can find small sandy coves 


The kopeka (pronounced coo-peak-a) or Atiu Swiflet is Atiu's signature bird, and just like a bat, it can navigate in pitch blackness. It builds its nest in the deepest part of the Anataketake cave between the stalactites and stalagmites , and finds its way around using the echo of a unique clicking sound that it makes. You'll need a guide to find it. The Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust director, Gerald McCormac says it's now the country's most endangered endemic species. He estimates there are just 440 left in caves like these

How the kopeka (supposedly) got its name

I love this story even though it's almost certainly not true! Centuries ago, an islander spotted the bird from a distance and thought it was a peeka which is a Maori word for bat. He exclaimed: "Coo! Peeka" and that's how the bird got its name! :- )


Coffee really does grow on trees in Atiu, it's totally organic and the Islanders are justly proud of their produce. The Atiu Coffee Factory also has a coffee tour during which you can learn how to process your own coffee and enjoy fire roasted coffee with coconut cream and pikelets (and if anyone from Staffordshire, England is reading this...yes, they're similar to the pikelets you get back home!).

"Atiu Coffee" is one of two types unique to the Island and it's known as a gourmet variety in many parts of the world.  "Atiu Island Coffee" is produced by Mata Arai in the Atiu traditional method of roasting in coconut cream over an open fire.   

If your taste is for something stronger...

Bush beer is a lethal local conconction that dates back to pre-missionary days.  And drinking it is a tradition that's now a tourist attraction.  Atiu boasts seven tumunus or bush beer schools.  Everyone gathers round a barrel which these days is more likely to be plastic than the hollowed out trunk of a coconut tree as in the old days.  The "barman" hands out the drink in a coconut shell.  Once emptied, it's handed back, refilled and passed to the next person...and so it goes on, round and round...a bit like the school itself after you've drunk a few shells-ful. 

The drink itself is made either from fermented bananas or simply a home brew which is served very young.  Either way, it's very alcoholic! When the barman taps his shell against the barrel, everyone falls silent for a short prayer and afterwards he introduces the drinkers to each other.  Then everyone starts sharing stories about their own country and customs (hence why this is called a school), before the singing starts accompanied on ukeleles, guitars and the umba (a home made bass).  There's no charge for the drink, but it's customary to compensate your hosts with at least NZ$5....or the equivalent in sugar!  


Follow in the footsteps of Captain Cook
Discover the Bondi of Atiu
Learn about art from heart
And more