Land of the birds

Photo: Atiu's own website

An eco island proudly behind the times
A bird watcher's paradise

 LOCATION: ​​214 kms/133 mls North East of Rarotonga  
ACCESS: Direct internal flights from Rarotonga and Aitutaki
POPULATION: 383     
LAND AREA: 26.9 sq.kms/10.4 sq. mls


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.   Tours are popular   


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 McCormack  estimates there are just 440 left in caves like these. The bird is unique to Atiu and is officially listed as "globally endangered"

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! :- )


These are just a few of the many rare and beautiful birds you might see on a three hour tour guided by "Birdman George" (George Mateariki) who's in our picture at the top of this page. He's employed by the Takitumu Conservation Area to look after the birds. He also does a kopeka caves tour, and an island tour which takes in burial caves, ancient trails, the different types of plants and their uses and the beaches. That takes four to five hours and includes a picnic. And on Sundays there's a special tour including his "restaurant on the beach" with local food from his family's umu (earth oven). Tour prices start at around $NZ50. 

All the bird photos are by Gerald McCormack whose Cook Islands Biodiversity and Ethnobiology Database is one of the most amazing pieces of work on the internet covering all forms of flora and fauna in the Islands. You can search it by clicking here

Pictured here are the "endangered" Rimatara Lorikeet  whose red feathers island chiefs used to wear as a mark of their rank, the "moderately endangerd" Fruit Dove and the endemic Rarotonga Fly Catcher (kakerori) which has been brought back from the verge of extinction thanks to careful  and continuing conservation management on Atiu. There were only 29 of the species left in 1989 but now there are more than 620 


Coffee really does grow on trees in Atiu, it's totally organic Arabica 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. It developed a special flavour as it survived and developed in the makatea with its calcium and phosphorus rich lowland soil until the 1950s, when a small coffee industry was started."Atiu Island Coffee" is produced by Mata Arai in the Atiu traditional method of roasting in coconut cream, although a gas commercial roaster has now replaced an open fire  

Some advice from the Islanders of Atiu
"10 cups of the tumunu are good. Don't waste your holiday talking to the porcelain loudspeaker. More than 10 cups and you are really on your own. We do not know how good your liver is. You can limit the number of cups you have by missing a round. Raising your hand in a stop sign does this. Another technique is to indicate you wish to have small cups by showing a small vertical gap between your thumb and index finge


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


With grateful acknowlegement to Atiu's own web site for additional information and some of the photos on this page