You’re lucky I don’t yet own an underwater camera. Otherwise, this post would be a well-intentioned swarm of amateur photos of tropical fish, taken more in the spirit of enthusiasm than expertise.
That’s because we’re recently back from a holiday in the Cook Islands, and I’m still having after-flashes of all the fishy friends I met underwater there.
We did many fine things during our week’s vacation, but I must admit, snorkelling is always at the top of my activities list at a tropical destination. It generally takes me 10 seconds to regain confidence that I can breathe while underwater, 15 seconds to acclimatise to the water’s temperature, and 30 seconds to reassure myself there are no
currents that will wash me off to the shores of Chile. After that, snorkelling takes me into sheer heaven. There I am, floating face down in warm waters—staring into a panoply of magnificent marine life. It’s the most incredible unveiling. Who would ever guess, as you sit looking over a blue lagoon with your morning coffee, that all this was happening underneath?
Snorkelling is physically a wonderful thing, the closest I get to meditation—slow breaths rasping through my snorkel tube, my body floating in complete surrender, blissful comfort, the feeling of being absolutely present. But the visual feast!—that’s the magic of it. And Rarotonga in the Cook Islands put on the best display I’ve yet experienced.
There were dainty angel fish the size of dinner plates, their wispy strands floating behind them. Gentlemen fish all black and white with red cummerbunds. Masses of silver needle-nosed fish. Lorikeet-style fish, turquoise with startling swaths of yellow, green, red and orange. Swarms of butterfly fish, looking exactly as this Pinterest photo captures them. As I drifted over various rocky reefs, I counted more than three dozen varieties, each more colourful than the last. Eventually I lost confidence in the maths and surrendered to appreciation rather than precision.
Our resort host told me about one fellow who, every few months, comes to stay for a week, and spends 10 hours a day in the water with his snorkel and camera. Odds are some of the photos I’m looking at on Pinterest right now were taken by him. I’d love to have met him and heard some of his stories. A fellow-snorkel-traveller is easy to spot. One day I watched a young English tourist who was practically unable to get out of the water. She would stagger out wrinkled and shivering, lie on her towel in the sun for a few minutes, and then head back, ecstasy in her eyes. England will never look the same to her.
Somehow, the biggest sensation is the gift of being welcome to participate freely in an alien world. What a privilege.
Admittedly, the Cook Islands have much more on offer than just a world-class snorkel, and I’d be remiss not to bring that to your attention. Here’s a bit of travelogue:
Rick and I flew out to Rarotonga in the company of four other friends. We flew direct from Sydney on a six hour flight. If you have a globe, swing it round until you see all of the Pacific Ocean—and the Pacific Ocean is just about all that you see. How uninhabited this area is of anything but water! You fly hours and hours over nothing but ocean, until suddenly a small volcanic island emerges. Jagged peaks and rolling hills are surrounded by an almost unbroken reef, with waves smashing against it from the outside and a placid blue-green lagoon within. You’re looking at Rarotonga, the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands.
We rented a van and drove around the island (about a 45 minute circumference) until we could check into our wonderful little resort, the Aro’a Beachside Inn. Over the course of the week, we went to the markets, lunched and dined every day at fine cafes and restaurants, and drank local beer at our resort’s Shipwreck Hut beach bar. We sang along with Jake, a musician who welcomes every plane at the airport with Island songs—and has done so for 35 years (some 20 flights a week now). We toured the backroads, saw the local market gardens and bounced on steep roads up into the hills in an old open Land Rover Defender. We got to know a bit about the Pacific Islanders who own all the land on the Islands, about their history and their current practices. They seem a happy, peaceable people, comfortable in their skins with not a thing to prove to anyone. We took in an excellent live show, beautifully choreographed and danced, accompanied by the kind of superb drumming you might expect in a Pacific Island paradise.
On one magical day we flew out to the northernmost of the Cook Islands, called Aitutaki (nominated “the world’s most beautiful island” by Lonely Planet). We spent the day visiting its heartbreakingly lovely minor islands, all part of its atoll. One of the especially-idyllic islands hosted several episodes of both Survivor and Shipwrecked.
The Cook Islands lived up to every expectation I could have had.
Today I’m sitting here on a chilly Mitchells Island morning, with a threat of rain and the skies dark as dusk. It’s enough to set me thinking again of turquoise lagoons, orange sunsets, piña coladas and fat sandwiches of freshly caught mahi-mahi.
That’s the thing about travelling. It can leave you with the experience of being a well-tolerated guest—with my good travelling friends, with our Pacific Islander hosts, and with the technicolour denizens who briefly shared their underwater world with me.