Photo: Melanie Cooper Photography/Cook Islands Tourism
Living on Pukapuka is like being in a commune. The islanders practice traditional conservation which calls for entire villages to move from atoll to atoll for periods of time. But this is not a nomadic existence...rather it's one with a focus on maintaining the delicate ecological balance. The felling of trees is also prohibited without permission from village elders. If a bird is killed out of season, or crabs or coconuts taken early, small but humiliating fines are imposed. For more serious offences, the person is treated as a child until sincere remorse is shown. The offender cannot speak at meetings and is given a child's food and wages
New year celebrations last almost to the end of February when the Island Chiefs (Kau Wo Wolo) and the Island Council - pictured here in 2012 - hold their annual meeting to review the rules for governing the island in the coming year and the fines for breaking those rules. The Chiefs then visit each village to share the rules and let islanders discuss and ask questions about them. Caretakers or The Pules enforce the rules.
Each village then has a day long celebration (vananga) where the men of each village go to the other villages to share the rules, have a feed and dance with the women. And that's followed by the annual imukai to celebrate and share food.
In 2012, Yato shared kaveu and birds, Ngake shared over three hundred fish and Loto shared fish and mawu (twice-baked imu taro mixed with coconut milk).
The cooking of the mawu took over three days. The first day involved going to the taro patch and peeling and grating the taro. The second day involved gathering coconuts on the motu and making all the fresh coconut cream. The third day involved wrapping the mixture in banana leaves and baking it twice in the imu (underground oven).
From a report by Dr. Amelia Hokule’a Borofsky, who grew up on Pukapuka and Hawai’i, and has returned to the atoll to live.
Photos: Cook Islands News and Pukapuka website
Children help collect and prepare coconuts - the sun-dried flesh is exported as "kopra". Coconut and its by products are the mainstay of the island's economy
Salt in the seawater serves as toothpaste
Dr. Wolfgang Losacker worked at the hospital on the capital island and has also taken his skills to many of the outer islands, along the way capturing on film an insight into everyday life. These photos are from his book 'South Seas Cook Islands' - a highly recommended collection of stunning photographs and fascinating information which you should find in the Bounty Bookshop on Rarotonga Photos: Dr Wolfgang Losacker
Kavekave is an is an annual fishing competition between two districts from one of the villages on the island. It's held over two days using a traditional island fishing method called “pakeke” (using a handline while anchored at sea) and “takayeu” (trolling). Four days prior to the tournament, the fishermen are forbidden to fish out in the ocean. This ritual is called “Na Tapu Te Moana”.The host vilage sets the rules and decides the type of taro to be cooked for the island feast at the end of the contest
Photos: Pukapuka MP Tingika Elikana joins in the catch; children help clean the fish (Cook Islands News)
Once all the fish caught are counted, they're shared out equally and the women cook them in a traditional umu (underground oven). Any leftovers are shared between the “Kau Wowolo” - chiefs, pastors, Member of Parliament, mayor, Island Council, doctors, school principal and visitors. In 2022, a 98kg bluefin tuna was caught on the first day which island resident, Kolee Ting said was only the third of the species to be caught off the island.
Pukapukans are expert fishermen, and use traditonal methods to land their catch. But even they were surprised when this giant grouper( patuki wala ) was caught by two young islanders in June, 2020. Araitepo Dariu and Tinokura Tutau. Dariu speared the fish and had to come up for air while his friend Tutau dived down to finish off the mission. But none of them knows exactly how big their catch was. There were no scales available on the island
Photo: Cook Islands News
The late American writer, Robert Dean Frisbie settled on Pukapuka in 1924 and immortalised the island in the books he wrote about it. He said at the time he was looking for a place beyond the reach of "the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world". He found it, and to this day Pukapuka is one of the most untouched and secluded places in the Cook Islands.
Another of Frisbie's books to give an insight into the island in the 1920s is called 'The Island of Desire (The Story of a South Sea Trader)'. But the title has a double meaning. Desire was also the name of his very beautiful wife.
This never before published picture shows Frisbie with Desire on Tahiti in 1920 (it's signed and dated by Frisbie himself). My thanks to Tony Probst from the USA who kindly shared it with me. He found it inside Frisbie's own copy of another of his works, "The Book of Pukapuka" which itself has quite a story. Frisbie later gave that copy to Tom Neale who spent 15 years living alone on another of the Cook Islands, Suwarrow.
The Island of Desire is available on line thanks to Project Gutenberg of Australia
When UK author and former comedienne, Pamela Stephenson visited in December, 2004 she found an island "very nicely set up with well organized community facilities". In her book "Treasure Islands" (which I strongly recommend), she saw a school, hospital, coral sand tennis courts, garage, three churches and taro and sugar cane patches, as well as several stores.
Pukapukans are also keen on sport. A large field known as the Niua Ya O Mataliki Stadium is the focal point for soccer, wrestling, relays, volleyball, tennis, cricket - or rather "kirikiti" (see below) - and discus throwing. The island's three villages compete regularly against each other.
Treasure Islands" is published by Headline Book Publishing, London
Life on Pukapuka is far from easy, but back in 1948 when Mama Tuki (Tukiongo Poila Wright) was born there, it was tougher still. She was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty The Queen in June, 2007 for her many services to the community - an honour that she dedicated to her home island. And in an interview with Cook Islands News* she recalled her days of growing up in one of the remotest places on earth.
"That time there was no bread and the boat would come to the island only twice a year with supplies. So we would go to school with lunches that you never see today - taro, fish, breadfruit, uto or sweet coconuts. They were healthy food but it was hard work getting them
"Apart from school I would work in our taro swamps with my sisters. Actually I spent most part of a day in the swamp. That is our culture in Pukapuka and up until today we women still look after the taro swamps.
"I always laugh when I think back to those days, like when a house gets a tinned corned beef it is a big thing. The aroma of the food will filter to their neighbours who may just be standing outside watching them eat this 'expensive' and 'tasty' food. "
First published in Cook Islands News, June 2007
This amazing view of Pukapuka was captured from the space shuttle. The island looks peaceful and idillyic, but life has never been easy and as recently as 2006 there were fears it would have to be abandoned after a head on hit from the strongest of cyclone
Image: Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
On the morning of February 25, 2005 Cyclone Percy hit the Island head on. It was classified as a category 4 to 5 cyclone on an scale where 5 is the most severe, and was one of five cyclones in five weeks which swept through the Cook Islands. At one stage, it was thought Pukapuka would have to be abandoned...but the locals are made of tougher stuff and decided to stay and rebuild. Work took nearly six years. P hoto: TVNZ (from their news report, used with their permission)
Visitors to Pukapuka are few and very far between. Paul Lynch is one of those who ventured to this far northern outpost and writing about it for Cook Islands News shared the advice he was given
I was told that you have not really experienced Pukapuka unless you have done the following things: you must swim in the cool, crystal-clear lagoon at the motu and you must see “the guns”, a concrete, phallic monument on the beach at Ngake (pictured here). You must get a soft, kikau broom, and you must learn to say “Ata wai walo”, which means both “hello” and “thank you”.