PUKAPUKA

'Land of beautiful girls'

Photo: Cook Islands Tourism/Tayla Beddoes

1,324 kms/823 mls North West by North of Rarotonga  
Access: Difficult. Occasional flights from Rarotonga. Occasional boats from Samoa
Population: 83     4.1 sq.kms/1.6 sq. mls

ABOUT PUKAPUKA
Pukapuka is one of the most remote places on earth. It's closer to Samoa than it is to the capital island of Rarotonga. It has its own language and customs and other Cook Islanders say its main asset is beautiful girls. It's also the most densely populated part of the Cooks (appromimately 390 people per square kilometre).  The Island's name is usually said to derive from the puka tree (Hernandia nymphaeifolia) which grows all over the place. But Puka-Puka itself means 'land of little hills', and others say that's the real origin of the name which was given to the island by the first Polynesians who came here thousands of years ago

GETTING THERE

Air Rarotonga have flights to the island, but you need to check with when (or if) they're operating as services depend on having enough passengers and enough fuel at the destination for the return journey. As the flights are occasional, you could have to stay for weeks before being able to return to Rarotonga.  There are also occasional boat services from Samoa which is nearer, but there's no air service from there

WHAT TO EXPECT

Tourism is non-existent. According to one very rare visitor "the people on Pukapuka are friendly, generous and peaceful". Life revolves around the sea and Pukapukan people live within a beautifully ordered and ancient raui system. This allows them to leave their normal home villages and re-inhabit a customary village site in another part of the island, to live, plant and fish

"DANGER ISLAND"

Photo: Ewan Smith, Air Rarotonga

There are three islets on the huge triangular shaped reef - Ko to the south east, Frigate Bird to the southwest and the main islet of Wale ("wah-lay") to the north where there are three villages. They're called Ngake, Loto and Yato ("thar-toe") - or Windward, Central and Leeward. The highest point is less than 5 metres (16.5 feet) above sea level. The soil is infertile and coconut palms, pandanus, puraka - a variety of taro tolerant of the environment - and a few breadfruit trees make up the main vegetation. And mosquitos are a particular...although they're not malarial. Some know it as 'DANGER ISLAND' because of an 8km submerged reef - Te Arai - and dangerous rip tides around it to the west. The name still appears on some maps to this day. The island is ancient and the bones of dogs have been found dating back as far as 2130 BC

UNCHANGED AND UNCHANGING

Culture and traditions like palm weaving have remained unchanged for centuries. And even with the arrival of an irregular air service, the island's unlikely to be overwhelmed with tourists. The five hour flight from Rarotonga is scheduled to operate only once every six weeks or so, but it rarely does these days because of fuel shortages on the island. The airport is about an hour's boat trip from the main settlement of Wale

...excepting 'Candy Crush'

Community and clinical psychologist, Dr Amelia Hokule’a Borofsky grew up on Pukapuka and went back to the island to teach and write. After another year away ("on the outside" as she puts it), she returned in 2014. Writing in Cook Islands News, she said things were still mostly the same, but she noted that even this remote island is not immune to 21st century technology...

"Wale remains the same, just a few more cellular phones, more youth playing candy crush and using the flashlight from the mobile to catch kaveau or coconut crabs. The roosters still crow every morning, the men have been playing toto, the game of throwing sticks every afternoon on the main sandy road, Ngake village is out at Motu Ko, and the kids splash in the lagoon as the sun sets over Yato point"

Dr Amelia Hokule’a Borofsky   Photo: Cook Islands News

TSUNAMI SURVIVORS

The entire population is said to be descended from just 14 people who survived a catastrophic storm and tidal waves (a tsunami) over 500 years ago, although the first human settlement is thought to date back to 1300 AD.

IN THEIR OWN UNIQUE WORDS

English is rarely spoken, although most locals know some and children are taught it in the local school. It's estimated just over 2,000 people in Oceania speak Pukapukan. If you want to impress, here are a few words:
PEWEA: Hello, how are you?
KO LELEI WUA: I'm fine
ATA WAI WOLO: Hello/Thank you

A written form of the language does not exist, but a unique project is underway to translate the Bible into Pukapukan with the help of islanders
School on the beach photo by Dr Wolfgang Losacker from his book "South Seas Cook Islands"

IT'S JUST NOT CRICKET...OR AT LEAST, NOT AS WE KNOW IT

The islanders have a passion for their own form of cricket called kirikiti. It originated in Samoa. Games are played with a long three-sided bat and a "ball" or "bowl" that can best be described as a solid block of wood. The number of players is decided by the challenging team, but it's never less than 20 or more than 40. The batsman - who doesn't wear shoes, let alone shin pads - doesn't run himself. He has a bunch of younger islanders who do it for him.

Every time a batsman is out, not only are there chants of triumph but also some provocative macho dances, before he's replaced with a batsman from the opposing team. Umpires use their whistle for any number of reasons (including just the sheer joy of being alive), and games continue for an indefinite number of days, before the winner is decided by a mysterious process that seems to be known only to participants.

One report of a 35 a side match says pseudo karate routines, obscene speeches, ridiculing and teasing are an essential part of a good game. There's also a women only version! And in both cases, the match is played for food...which the losing team have to fish for

EXPLORE
MORE
OF PUKAPUKA

Why a famous writer called this "The Island of Desire"
Why you must see "the guns
And why the island was almost abandoned

Find out more