PUKAPUKA

"Land of beautiful girls"

Photo: Cook Islands Tou​rism/Tayla Beddoes

One of the most remote and rarely visited places on earth
Unchanged and unchanging for decades

LOCATION: ​​1,324 kms/823 mls North West by North of Rarotonga  
ACCESS:  Very difficult. Occasional flights from Rarotonga. Occasional boats from Samoa
POPULATION: 456     
LAND AREA: 1.3 sq.kms/0.5 sq. mls

Map showing location of Pukapuka

GETTING THERE

Air Rarotonga sometimes has flights to the island, but you need to check 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 ra'ui system which is a traditional method of conservation and preservation. 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.  The island is also facing electricity supply problems. Solar panels should provide a 24x7 service but on-going issues mean that is often disrupted. The future of the island is also under serious threat from climate change

"DANGER ISLAND"

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. Horsehoe-shaped Ko at the bottom of the photo is 10 Kms south west of Wale.

Some know  Pukapuka as 'DANGER ISLAND' because of an 8km submerged reef - Te Arai - and dangerous rip tides around it to the west. Englishman Commodore John Byron called the islets the "Islands of Danger" after being unable to land there in June 1765 because, he said,  "it was surrounded in every direction by rocks and breakers". The name still appears on some maps. Pukapuka is ancient and the bones of dogs have been found dating back as far as 2130 BC

Pukapuka from the air

Photo: Ewan Smith, Air Rarotonga

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. The wetland areas which are vital for the taro are passed from mother to daughter and the women take particular pride in keeping them beautiful. The waters outside the reef abound with fish and yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi and flying fish are a regular catch.   Mosquitos are a particular problem though, but they're not malarial.  Asked to name Pukapuka's main asset, other islanders say "the beautiful girls"!

Photos: Cook Islands Maori Facebook page

UNCHANGED AND UNCHANGING

Culture and traditions like palm weaving have remained unchanged for centuries. And even with the arrival of a very 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

"People, prayer and play"

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...

Photo: Cook Islands News

"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"

And writing elsewhere, Dr Borofsky summed up the island and the unique way of life

"Pukapuka prioritizes people, prayer and play. It teaches how to live closer to nature and to rely on one another. It teaches how to sing songs to the mud crabs and to stop, sit and take in the wind. While hard to physically reach, Pukapuka touches on a romantic imagaination of ancient Polynesia. You can't help but feel closer to God and the infinity of nature on this three square kilometre atoll surrounded by unlimited shades of ultramarine"

From issue 27 of the Air Rarotonga in-flight magazine, 'Escape' (June, 2018)

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  Niua school in Yato which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2024. . It's estimated just over 2,000 people in Oceania speak Pukapukan. It's known as "Te Leo Wale" which means the language of home. If you want to impress, here are a few words (good luck pronouncing them!):

PEWEA: Hello, how are you?
KO LELEI WUA: I'm fine
ATA WAI WOLO: Hello/Thank you 

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

Three sided bat

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 I found 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!

AND IT'S NOT JUST CRICKET....

Islanders have a passion for sport of all kinds. But as well as more familiar ones like volleyball and tennis they have some traditional games. For three months over Christmas and into New Year there's 'tika tika' when men throw sticks to see whose lands furthest away.  The women meanwhile play 'leli ipu' which involves racing with a coconut shell on your head. Young men complete in all day wrestling and men and women compete with each other to see who can husk 100 coconuts fastest.

EXPLORE MORE OF PUKAPUKA

DISCOVER...Why a famous writer called this "The Island of Desire"
What "the guns" are and why you must see them
Why the island was almost abandoned