Steeped in legends and mystique and estimated at 18 million years old to be the oldest island in the Pacific, Mangaia, or as it is traditionally known, A’Ua’U Enua meaning terraces, or A’Ua’U meaning akatautika or levelled is the most southerly of the Cooks and the second largest . It has to be as far from the madding crowd as any island could possibly be.
With a volcanic plateau framed by a ring of high fossilised coral cliffs – Mangaia's remarkable natural beauty and serenity are only part of its fascination. Its age, structure and ancient artefacts have for decades been a draw card to archaeologists and anthropologists who make it a “must” on their expeditions.
Makatea honeycombs the edge of the reef but rises formidably to something like a 70 metre cliff face which reveals a sunken plateau of lush wetlands kept fertile by underground streams and splashing creeks dropping down the sides. A complex subterranean irrigation system created by nature leads through the caves like structures to the reef and a small lake, Tiriara follows the same path. All create one of the most beautiful island interiors to be found in the Pacific. With the visual splendour of bright earth, makatea paths lined with flamboyant trees cast their blossoms to the ground set against a skyline of the inevitable palm trees behind. The brilliance of the taro swamps glisten in the sun framed by the Barringtonia forests and beyond the plantations bloom.
The legends related to these ancient caves are as intricate as their origins. And many believe there is a multiplicity yet undiscovered by humans. The cave Te Puta, where the local recluse Tuna lived, has a high stunning view of the interior plateau. Teruarere with its dramatic and seemingly endless chambers hoarding ancestral bones and rediscovered in the early 1930s by Robert Dean Frisbie and Te Uru a Puru is said to be over three kilometres long as it stretches to the reef. All reveal magnificent stalactites and stalagmites - awesome in their ancient structure.
If the caves are famous, so too are the “staircases” cutting through the towering coral cliffs and for which Mangaia was originally named. To reach the plantations centred in the verdant plateau; these natural crevices (Ara Kiore for one) were made into steps by the forefathers who hand carried rocks before forging them into shape to provide easy access. Unknown to the marauding islanders from other areas, legend says that they also provided quick escape for women and children during warfare.
The lush growth of coconut, pandanus and the huge Puka trees springing out of the coral rock, reveal a rich earth. Renowned for its coconuts, the Mangaians regard the palm as a staple plant of survival providing food, coconut milk and also fibre.
Not forgetting the rare birds like the Mangaian Kingfisher- which never eats fish but instead preys on skinks, insects and spiders. Nesting in old coconut palms it was thought to be under threat of extinction, but with a population of between 400-700 it is apparently safe for now. The Barringtonia houses the tanga’eo often the target of that very aggressive Mynah bird that besieges so many of the islands today. In the forlorn hope of reducing insect levels, which are high here, the hapless Mynah’s other name is Gudgeon’s Revenge after some blighted do-gooder who hoped they would help. The Mynahs now are blight on the islands – brazen and bold.
The CICC is alive and well in Mangaia with churches in Kaumata and Ivirua an interesting architectural mix of Gothic and Norman. These buildings are a pivotal part of community life. As is the main industry, “pupu” the tiny yellow land snails which emerge only after rain and are highly prized as hatband decorations and long “eis” for arriving and departing visitors. The gathering, processing, piercing and stringing of these miniscule shells is hugely time consuming. But there’s a high demand particularly in Tahiti and Hawaii. Hardly surprising considering the process behind their creation.
Despite its comparably large size, Mangaia has only around 500 population and few visit its infinite beauty and lush landscape. Of the three villages of Mangaia, namely Tamarua (south) and northeast some distance away Ivirua, and Oneroa in the west the latter is the hub and the prideful place of a Union Jack bestowed on the “king” Numangatini by Queen Victoria when he visited London.
It is however the extraordinary rugged beauty that beats even the unique ancient history and alluring traditional way of life. The roar of surf at night is untainted by other sounds. The blackness is absolute. No streetlamps or lights compete with the vast ebony sky and its myriad of shining stars. Nature rests very near.