PENRHYN  a​ka Tongareva

Floating in empty space

Photo: Cook Islands Tourism/Tayla Beddoes

The most far flung of the Cook Islands 9 degrees below the equator
One of largest and most stunning lagoons in the world

LOCATION: ​​1,365 kms/848 mls North by North East of Rarotonga  
ACCESS: Inter-island boat and occasional  charter flights
POPULATON: 233    
LAND AREA: 9.8 sq.kms/3.8 sq. mls

GETTING THERE

It's neither easy, nor cheap! Air Rarotonga operates on a charter basis only and you need to contact them to find out when and if they are flying. Even then, flights can be cancelled at very short notice if there aren't enough passengers to make the trip viable, or if there's insufficient fuel at Penrhyn to enable the return trip. It takes about five hours to reach the island, and you can expect to pay at least NZ$3,000 for a return trip

Alternatively, you could try getting there by sea, either from Rarotonga or one of the other northern group islands (assuming you can reach them as well). If you want to explore that possibility, speak to the Harbour Master on Rarotonga for information on sailings, which are few and far between.  There are inter-island vessels, if you don't mind very small boats! 

WHAT TO EXPECT

Tourism is almost non-existent. Visitors can stay with a local family and fishing and pearl farm trips can be organised locally. Snorkelling and diving in the pristine lagoon are a dream come true experience but watch out for the sharks!

VAST AND STUNNING

The stunning lagoon covers 233 sq. kms (90 square miles)...or to put it another way, that's more than the total land area of all 15 of the Cook Islands put together. 62 sq. kms (24 sq. miles) are pearlshell, and that and mother of pearl jewellery are among the main sources of income. Islanders also dive for rare golden pearls. The vastness can only really be captured from high above the earth and the first photo is from the NASA space shuttle. The second photo is from a plane and gives you an idea of how beautiful this island is as you approach it from the air. The lagoon is surrounded by 53 motus or islets and it's so large that there are some points where you can't see the opposite side. It takes about an hour to cross from east to west.

Photos: NASA; Ewan Smith, Air Rarotonga

NO FISHING!

Almost half of the southern part of the lagoon between Omoka and Te Tautua has been designated a no fishing zone until December 2025 as part of preparations for a huge celebration. A "ra'ui" - a traditional method of conservation and preservation - has been placed on the area ahead of a homecoming event next year when hundreds of islanders from overseas will join residents for the opening of the Cook Islands Christian Church Mission House. Executive officer Puna Vano said the ra'ui was necessary to make sure there 's plenty to feed everyone at the very special occasion and he's hoping it's also a chance for children and grandchildren from overseas to connect with their homeland.

A CLOSER LOOK

Omoka village, Penrhyn

Islanders live in two main villages, each on their own island in the lagoon. Omoka  (above) on the Moananui islet is considered the main island and it's home to three quarters of the population. It's where the government, shipping and air service offices are located. The vast airstrip (below) dominates. Tetautua on the Pokere islet in the east is about 10.5 kms (6 miles) away across the lagoon and has around 50 residents. Both villages have an administration building, school, church and Sunday school. Robert Broussard was one of the first outsiders to visit Omaka after Penrhyn was designated as an official port of entry to the Islands and he kindly provided the Omoka picture. There's a good natural harbour and vessels can enter the lagoon through Taruia Passage just above Omoka and tie up at Omoka wharf.

Penryhn airstrip

The island has an airfield, thanks to American GIs. About a thousand of them arrived on Penrhyn on 8th November 1942 and stayed until 20th September, 1946. They built a 10,000 foot (3 kms) long runway as part of an alternative supply route from Hawaii through to Australia and New Zealand in case hostilities in the Pacific reached this far east. It's since been shortened to 1700 metres. US President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor flew in briefly in 1944 on a morale boosting tour for the troops. 

The runway photo is from a video  about Penrhyn by Air Rarotonga.  Watch it here

GI JOES AND THEIR "GO GETTIN' GAL"

The remains of a crashed B24 Liberator bomber called "Go Gettin' Gal" are evidence of the bygone era. Four engines and a bit of fuselage rust away in the lush landscape...the rest of the plane has been picked over and the metal is often used to patch up the aluminium dinghies which almost everyone seems to own . Much more interesting than what's left though is the true story behind it shared with me exclusively...

Ashley C. Curry from Alabama, USA wrote to tell me that his father was the pilot of the plane And he generously shared some family photos which have never been seen publicly before. Above  are his father, Lt. (later Lt. Colonel) Benjamin P Curry, left, with a Mr Campbell who was airport manager on Rarotonga and right standing in front of the ill-fated bomber. The plane itself in all its former glory on Rarotonga is pictured above these. Ashley wrote:

"My father, now deceased, told me that he was on a bombing mission and that the plane received extensive damage from anti-aircraft fire, and that he landed the plane with the crew on board. He sustained minor injury to his ankle, but all survived. He continued his service and piloted another B24 named the 'Shady Lady'. He served throughout the war and returned home when the war was over." 

ART FROM THE HEART
Any Sunday on any of the Cook Islands, you can expect to see some of the finest hats in the world, adorning the heads of women on their way to church. Rito (pronounced ree-toe or lee-toe) hats are justly prized and come out also for special occasions such as baptisms and weddings. Penrhyn is the home of what islanders call "art from the heart". None of the patterns is written down...islanders just think of them in their heads. Some of the hats sell for hundreds of New Zealand dollars on Rarotonga. But they're also often given as gifts to honoured guests and family
More about Islands' crafts

SHARK PRACTICES!
The lagoon is teeming with sharks - mostly the black tip species which islanders say won't harm humans. They should know as they dive among them to harvest precious black pearls which are farmed in the warm, clear waters. But it's an indsutry which is struggling in the face of competition from China and the Far East. Manihiki is the main centre for pearl farming

THE SURVIVAL SHIPS

Every three months or so, anticipation sweeps across Penrhyn as a cargo ship arrives. The supplies it brings are essential for survival on this remote island. As well as sacks of rice and sugar, a typical delivery might include building materials, outboard motors, bicycles and refrigerated cartons of beef, chicken and a very special treat...ice cream! .  Photo: Tom Robinson

SHIPPED INTO SLAVERY

This is the only island in the Cooks without any ariki or paramount chiefs. The entire hierarchy disappeared in the early 1860s when Peruvian labour traders ("Blackbirders") arrived on the island and shipped 472 women and children to the mines of Peru with the blessing of the island's missionaries. Just 88 people remained....the rest were never seen again

THE CLIMATE CHANGE THREAT

Of all the lower lying Cook Islands, scientists who visited in June 2019 said Penrhyn is the one most under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate chante.  Penrhyn's executive officer says there's daily evidence of coastal erosion and homes are being moved back from the seafront to avoid further damage to them

SHIPPED INTO SLAVERY

This is the only island in the Cooks without any ariki or paramount chiefs. The entire hierarchy disappeared in the early 1860s when Peruvian labour traders ("Blackbirders") arrived on the island and shipped 472 women and children to the mines of Peru with the blessing of the island's missionaries. Just 88 people remained....the rest were never seen again

THE CLIMATE CHANGE THREAT

Of all the lower lying Cook Islands, scientists who visited in June 2019 said Penrhyn is the one most under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate chante.  Penrhyn's executive officer says there's daily evidence of coastal erosion and homes are being moved back from the seafront to avoid further damage to them

DATING PENRHYN STYLE

One author* who spent some time on the island in the 1990s, wrote about a type of group date called 'ping pong' where a man and a woman each invites a "team" of four friends to the beach where they then pair off in couples, but I've been assured that no such thing happens. Tom Robinson spent four months on the island while rowing across the Pacific, and he checked this out for me...

"Here they are rather prudish and seem to take commitment quite seriously. Apparently, here it’s v​ery hard to know which young people are seeing each other, as it is sometimes done rather secretly, although I have heard that going to the airport to collect uto (mature coconuts) is something of a common first date" 

Click here to read more about Tom's time on the island

*Elliot Smith,  Cook Islands Companion. Pacific Publishing Company, Albany, California

STAY A WHILE

Visitors to the island will have to stay with a local family as there's  no tourist accommodation.  Soa's family is one such host with a three bedroom home in the main village of Omoka. Soatini takes guests fishing and organises tours of his pearl farm

ALL THE NORTHERN GROUP ISLANDS An insight into life on penrhyn