Itiki (local eel, caviar to the islanders) and bream and prawns fill the crystal clear pools– marine life abounds around the beaches of Mitiaro. Part of the Nga-Pu-Toru – or “The Three Roots” - southern group along with Atiu and Mauke, Mitiaro was also once a volcano that sank to become a coral atoll then 10,000 years ago thrust up again but only for some twenty feet. Hence it is also the flattest. And although set in 4500 metres of water and four miles wide, this did not however stop its coral ring dying to form a belt of the razor sharp makatea so typical of the southern group. But the sunken pools in the inevitable subterranean limestone caves that are part of this fossilised coral formation are a different and cool alternative to the lagoons that are so much a part of the Cook Island way of life.
Mitiaro has probably the most beautiful of all the underground caves and pools to be found in the islands. Fed by the islands’ underground water reserves, Vai Nauri – a deep clear cool lake is reputed to have healing powers and is a definite must to visit. While Te Pitakare, an underground freshwater cavern is still used today for drinking water. No bathing allowed. But along the islands sandy coastal track, tiny coves of pretty and secluded sandy beaches reveal themselves for a dip in the sea. And then an expedition to explore the reef is fascinating.
The plateau like centre is quite flat and swampy – and the freshwater lakes provide a unique perspective to this beautiful little island. Rotonui (Big Lake and half the size of the island) and Toto Iti (Small Lake) between them make up a large part of Mitiaro. Startling in size for such a small island and fringed with lush greenery, they harbour a teeming population of sea life - the Itiki particularly is a delicacy and when wrapped in leaves and baked in the umu (earth oven), vanishes in a flash at any feast.
With a population of under 200, the gentle warmth of the community and the pride in their island is a marque of the island people. They live in one settlement on the west coast although if one were discussing the point, technically it is four villages which are North to South, Atai, Auta, Mangarei and Takaue. Tiny and almost with virtually little way of telling when one starts and the other ends, the government regime is in Takaue so inevitably the settlement is often referred to by this name. And the high school is in the principal village of Arai. Like most of the other inhabited islands, Mitiaro is deeply Christian and the singing in Betela, the CICC on a Sunday is an unforgettable experience for any intrepid visitor who has managed to step onto this little island secret.
Here flaming orange Pumarumaru and fragrant frangipani line the crushed white coral streets with superbly tended gardens lining either side. Even the shoreline reflects the pride of its people with the traditional fishing boats lined up perfectly side by side near the sea.
And inland a rich yield of kumara, taro, corn, bananas and watermelons are testament to a gardening technique that includes neither pesticides nor fertilisers. . Limes drop off the trees all year round and provide a succulent citrus finish to many a traditional dish. And inevitably the much prized maire vines – fragrant and darkly green – grow wild in the central makatea. And are regularly collected and plaited into the long garlands which are used for chiefly ceremonies and as a mark of respect for those who are recipients.
With less than twenty cars on the island, the pace of life – languid and lovely – is something to be cherished in a world propelled by machines and money. It wasn’t always so however. Te Pare, an ancient fort built by the forefathers of Mitiaro was used as protection against the marauding Atiu warriors with whom there was a fierce rivalry. The walls stand up to six metres high and were build intentionally close to the coast under the auspices of the great warrior Maaro to provide a 360 degree visibility .The only known fort in the Cooks it takes twenty minutes to reach it walking over the makatea, which for anyone who has experienced this coral platform knows it has danger written all over it. Sturdy footwear definitely required. But for keen trekkers, exploring this little paradise of some six kilometres at its widest point makes walking a blissful experience.