SUWARROW, COOK ISLANDS...The Other Side of ParadiseBy H. G. Nowak (Barefoot Man)
It’s a far, far away island, much further than most can imagine. There are no cruise ships or planes that go there. If your trip started in Cayman (as mine did) you fly from Cayman to Miami, then Miami to Los Angeles, then Los Angeles to Tahiti, then Tahiti to Rarotonga, then Rarotonga to Aitutaki, then sail north to Suwarrow Atoll.
I discovered this tiny Eden when I was but a young lad in High School studying the heavy, huge World atlases at my local library. I’d pretend my finger was a sloop sailing across the vast pacific... I’d see a dot and then try to imagine myself there on some palm smothered island spending my days fishing or doing much of nothing.
The library’s index had little information on Suwarrow – that only intrigued me more. These were times before the internet so after several days of painstaking searching through index files I found what I was looking for... a manuscript that was to become my bible: An Island to Oneself. This volume by Tom Neale is a collection of dreamy stories that only a true beachcomber could write. It’s an account of a man's passion for solitude and escape... escape from rules, bureaucracy and the humdrum of civilization.
Tom Neale lived alone on Suwarrow for some 16 years in three different periods between 1952 and 1977. He was without question the king of all beachcombers... Next to Tom, Robinson Crusoe was second–rate.
Back in the late 80’s I had sent out feelers to various charter companies in California and Hawaii, myself and a few friends wanted to sail the south seas - part of that trip must be a stop at Suwarrow. A south sea charter was easy enough – however a stop at remote Suwarrow was only attempted by the most daring of mariners. Finally a call came in – the 72 foot classic sailing yacht “Stormvogel” was on her way from Hawaii to Australia and we could meet up with her in Aitutaki, Cook Islands for a three week sail to Samoa… with a week stop at Suwarrow. The famous “Stormvogel” is the setting for the movie DEAD CALM starring Nicole Kidman, the ship has also accumulated a long list of prestigious racing awards - to hitch a ride with her is a sailor's dream.
Our first stop after leaving Aututaki was Palmeston Atoll, at the time the population was around 50 natives - all with the surname of Marsters, and all descendants from Englishman William Marsters who arrived here in 1863 with two wives and then later took a third wife. It is said that there are over a thousand of William's offspring now living in Rarotonga and New Zealand. He was obviously a very busy man.
A few days later Suwarrow came into view, I held one hand on the bow's railing and Neal’s book in the other (the same book I pinched from the library 20 years earlier). On page eight of the book there’s an illustrated map of the atoll. I wanted confirmation that I was truly here, that the green specks in the distance were really the islets that made up Suwarrow. There is no describing my feelings as we inched through the pass. Like a child on Christmas morning, the overwhelming excitement of being within swimming distance of Neale’s island had me bubbling over. I couldn’t wait for the dinghy to be lowered – I dove in and swam to shore. And there, finally I stood on the gleaming white beach of Anchorage - Suwarrows largest islet - yet so tiny that you could throw a coral rock from the one side of the island to the other.
I couldn’t believe I was here... twenty years of dreaming and now I was here... Nothing could possibly impair this moment.
“Hello sir, Welcome to Suwarrow... do you have your passport?
Now this was some let down - disenchantment beyond disillusion. This place is supposed to be uninhabited. Isn’t there some island left on this planet where there are no regulations or bureaucracy?
Jimmy Tangi introduced himself, he was the island's caretaker, immigration officer, customs agent and agricultural inspector. In the mid-80s a pleasure craft was a rare sight on this lonely dot in the middle of the Pacific. Once Jimmy and his two young helpers found out that we had rum on board, passports were forgotten and we were treated as royalty. While Raro, from Rarotonga climbed to the top of a tall tree for fresh drinking nuts, Daniel from Puka-Puka went in search of coconut crabs. I wanted to join the hunt... in Neale’s book he talks of these ugly yet tasty creatures that resemble a gigantic version of our soldier crab - minus the shell. In no time Daniel found a huge specimen hiding under a rock. With caution he picked up the irritated beast and tickled it under its soft tail… the crab became hypnotized, until it was dropped into a pot of boiling water. After a short attempt at freedom it turned from dark blue to pink and the end result was a delicacy, a taste much like lobster, yet softer in texture. Jimmy flavored the dish by squeezing fresh coconut milk on the steaming white meat. Raro shredded more coconuts, mixed it with sugar and flour and then deep fried the concoction to create a tasty fritter... all this was downed with coconut water and a long nap.
When I visited, there were about eight islands that made up the atoll – now this can vary from year to year because some of the islands have been washed away by storms. In 1942 a super typhoon took sixteen of the twenty-two islands. At low tide you can actually walk near the reef from one island to another. However, if you miss the tide you have no choice but to swim the lagoon where small menacing sharks are abundant. Neale writes of his jaunts to One Tree Island where he would collect tern eggs for making omelets or pancakes. I had to follow my heroes footsteps with much precision, nearly every inch of sand contained an egg and the sky was filled with squawking, irritated terns not pleased with our invasion of their nesting grounds. Their screeches, flutter and squeals were deafening - it was impossible to carry on a conversation. Soon the birds became bombers... with surprising accuracy we were rained with guano (bird poop), however not before we collected a basket of eggs. We washed off in the lagoon; laughing at the poop attack …our humor was short lived. Just as Tom Neale described in his book, small reef sharks soon scurried around us in very hostile darts becoming more of a menace than a concern. Daniel went to the shallows and speared a large blue parrot fish, ripped open his belly and tossed it in the deep. This technique worked, the sharks disappeared and we arrived back on Anchorage in one piece.
Jimmy, Raro and Daniel made up the total population of Suwarrow, their main job was “official coconut watchers” for the Cook Islands government. According to Jimmy, a nasty termite bug was found flourishing inside the nuts and trees of Suwarrow atoll. As official “coconut watchers” their job was to assure that no coconuts left the island. Trees, along with fallen and floating nuts were inspected, and those infected were burned. Copra (dried coconut meat) is an important means of income for many Cook Islanders - used for making oils, soaps and even fodder for live stock. The coconut shell is used for making souvenirs, buttons and drinking cups, but most important of all (in my opinion) the coconut tree is the symbol of the South Seas. What good is a tropical island without coconut trees?
The island was beautiful in the morning light, the palms rippled under the breeze from the south. Over the ship's rail, in the clear lagoon, I could see the coral and colorful fish waking to the sun’s rays that shone like laser lights in their aquatic garden. We had been here for five glorious days. Our rum supply was running low, yet our ship's freezer was now filled with fish, lobster and crab.
The ship’s captain joined me on deck. “I suggest that you say your goodbyes to your new friends on the island, we must pull anchor soon... looks like we have some weather coming.”
The first mate brought coffee from the galley. “What poor souls," he said, "to be stuck on this half-mile long island and the only thing to spice up their lives is a rare visit from foreigners with a good stock of rum.” I said nothing to that ludicrous remark, for most think that my wanderlust for sun, sand, sea and solitude is that of a man who has never grown up... a Peter Pan syndrome. If that’s what I am – so be it. At that moment I was a sad Peter Pan as for me a dream was coming to an end. And in my humble opinion, the tiki Gods had handed Jimmy, Raro and Daniel the best deal on this planet... a dream job, they were “Official Coconut Watchers” of Suwarrow atoll.