|A remote Garden of Eden, Nassau is the little sister of Pukapuka – some 90km northwest – and is the only island of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands without a lagoon. It is also the only island that isn’t an atoll.
At just 28ft above sea level it sits on a narrow coral reef which used to make it incredibly difficult for anyone visiting the 75 or so people (nearly half of those people are children) who work and play together on this delightful island.
Nassau originally belonged to Pukapuka and was called Te Nuku-o-Ngalewu. When the two islands fell out it was renamed and became Te Motu Ngaongao (Deserted Island) – supposedly by the Manihikians who had drifted there and found it abandoned.
Island of Many Names
In 1803 it became Adele Island after the ship of the first discoverer. Then some 20 years later it became Lydra Island after another explorer, then Ranger Island after a whale ship. Then in 1834 it became Mitchell Island. A year later it finally became Nassau named by an American whaler, John Sampson who called it after his ship, the Nassau. The name stuck despite the efforts of another whale ship which tried to rename it New-Port Island for rather obvious reasons.
However, it is thought that Nassau has never been traditionally inhabited and probably only became settled in the 1900s when Kiribati labourers brought over by a Samoan company started working on its copra station. Pukapukans followed and many of the workers simply chose to stay, relishing the simple life of Nassau.
Bought by the Cook Islands in 1945 Nassau was sold back to the Councillors and Chiefs of Pukapuka six years later, who now govern. There is also a Nassau Island committee which advises them on matters relating to the island.
The administration centre, community and school buildings are the only ones constructed with imported timber and roofing. At 11 degrees below the equator, days and nights are almost exactly 12hrs long and the daytime temperature stays at around 83F or 27C pretty well all year round – making the weather reliable - except for cyclones – a fact of life in this little Pacific paradise. The one tiny settlement, where all the islanders live, consists rather sensibly of thatched huts made of au (wild hibiscus) and kikau (coconut fronds) which are suited to survive the cyclones as they can rebuild in a few days.
Although termed a sand cay – the growth on this verdant little place defies the description. Lush plantations of taro and fruit groves yield plentiful harvests all year round. These, plus a freshwater spring, ensure the Nassau people of a charming lifestyle not much changed in the past 50 years.
With no airstrip and very few inter-island boats calling, the small population is pretty self-sufficient, with a minimal demand for goods. Fortunately the way of entry was paved recently with a new passage and jetty, which means goods can be loaded and unloaded onto small boats then transported to cargo ships out in the ocean.