I’m just about to leave Atiu, an island in the Cook Islands. I’ve had a fantastic few days here, and I’ve also had an insight into life in a small isolated community in the Pacific.
Atiu has less than 500 permanent inhabitants, plus at the moment 12 vistors. Put another way, visiting with my immediate family has increased the number of people on the island by a percentage point.
The people are very welcoming. I’m staying at the Atiu Villas, run by expatriate kiwi Dr Roger Malcolm and his wife Kura Malcolm, who is from Atiu. Everyone greets you as you pass them, and people are uniformly friendly. Nobody locks anything, and keys are normally left in vehicles. People all seem to be bilingual in Cook Islands Maori and English.
There are few cars on the island. As the title of this post suggests, the main way you get around is by moped. And New Zealanders have to get a Cook Islands driving licence from the police. This isn’t hard – it took me 15 minutes and $2.50. My 16 year old son also wanted a licence so he could ride a moped, and that took a little longer because he hasn’t got a New Zealand driver’s licence of any kind. He had to sit a theory and a practical test which took about an hour and cost $2.50. He’s very proud of his motorcycle licence, but I don’t suppose he’d better try using it in New Zealand!
Atiu is beautiful. It’s not the usual volcanic cone fringed by palm trees – although there are palms a-plenty. Atiu is a volcanic seamount which never made it to the surface while active, but has since suffered a series of uplifts, resulting in a low hill surrounded by a wide band of crushed coral. There are rather more beaches than visitors so you don’t have to share. Then there is a fringing reef about 50m from the beach.
The crushed coral forms a wide belt all around the core of the island. It’s near-impossible to walk on. There are caves full of stalactites and rare birds which navigate by sounds. The interior is jungle interspersed with swamps, which the islanders use to grow taro.
Atiu has a long history as a regional power. Atiuans used to raid many local islands, and to this day own land in Tahiti. Captain Cook – who else? – was the first European to come ashore in 1777. Today, power in the island appears to be in the hands of the Ariki (chiefs), the Island Administrator (appointed by the government), and the Cook Islands Christian Church, who are the spiritual descendents of the London Missionary Society which came to convert the natives some 50 years after Cook. Although the islanders now all live in a village in the island’s centre, the jungle hides the remains of old settlements and holy places, still decorated with stalactites and coral.
We had assumed that there would be little if any medical care on the island. This definitely wasn’t the case. The island has a hospital with a doctor, a nurse and a welfare officer-cum-ambulance driver. The doctor was away on leave when we were there and his post was being filled by an English medical student on elective. Also there were two young German dentists who had been sent to provide care to the islanders. They weren’t getting many takers among the locals but New Zealand visitors were enjoying their services.
The main problem the island faces is depopulation. It’s come down from 1,500 to under 500 in a decade or so. The senior policeman was telling me that, of his 11 siblings, he is the only one still living on the island, and that his adult children now live in Australia and New Zealand.
The essential problem is that there’s very little work. You can live for nearly free on taro, coconuts, fish, chicken and pork, but that’s nearly a subsistence level of living, and the people leaving want more.
The principal showed us around the school. He’s a native Atiuan trained in New Zealand, and one of his teachers is from New Zealand. The others are from the Cooks. The kids learn in Cook Islands Maori in primary, then learn in English in secondary. They use a modified version of the New Zealand curriculum, and do NCEA level 1 and 2. The school buildings are modern, and quite like a rural New Zealand area school, but it’s very noticeable that there are many empty classrooms. The school is built for a roll of 500 but has about 150.
I’d like to think that Atiu could remain a viable place to live, if only because I enjoyed meeting the people there so much. I’m hoping that the broadband Internet – well, sort of – that has recently arrived on the island can help turn things around by offering people the chance to work elsewhere while living there.
It would be a wonderful telecommuting location.