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Circumnavigating Manihiki
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Circumnavigating Manihiki

I'm not sure where I first got the idea to circumnavigate Manihiki, a small coral atoll of the northern Cook Islands. I had been living there for about five months, teaching the five forms in the tiny one room high school and staying with the principal's family. I was happy enough, eating my limited vegetarian diet of tinned beans and spaghetti and rice from the shops, supplemented by the occasional banana and orange and overwhelmed with coconuts.

Classes were going well. I was teaching an elementary science I thought might be useful to people living here: how to make a battery, a generator, how to distil drinking water from the ocean.

I wasn't really bored by the panoply of life I was offered, but I did have a desire to see the other reef islands that made up Manihiki. Like many coral atolls Manihiki, was shaped like a doughnut. It was built out of the upthrust top of an old volcano by tiny coral polyps, so it was necessarily round. Many of the string of islands, or motus, were scattered along the edges of the now dormant volcano, with the odd intrusion in the doughnut's centre. Most of the population lived along the two landing-strip shaped islands of Tahunu and Takahu. I lived on Tahunu, an island that supported some two hundred people.On my island, I was the only papa'a, or European-descended person, although I'd heard there were a few more on Takahu.

Circumnavigation was actually quite easy, and according to Temu, a man I'd befriended from the village, and he told me the reef was a traditional causeway. Temu was mildly schizophrenic, which meant that his actions and ideas were outside the norm, but in this as in many things, I found he knew what he was talking about. To go around the island, I only needed to follow the reef. Although much of the reef was submerged, even at low tide, it was reasonably easy to wade though the chest-high water to the next motu. At the most, Temu had explained to me, I need only wade for a mile. Often the motus were closer, and it was merely a matter of going from one to the other. Temu was quite informative on the subject, although he never mentioned the sharks.

One weekend I had gone to Porea, one of the largest motus, with my host family. There I'd had my first couple encounters with the sea. I had walked far out onto the exposed reef to get a picture of the huge waves that thrashed against the southern side of the island, exposed as it was to the constant trades, when I suddenly realised how little I knew about the patterns of waves. They come in sequences, and I'd waded out during a calmer period. By the time I had my camera out, the waves had begun to build. I looked up with an eye to taking a picture, and a monster comber, some five metres high was spilling towards me. I packed away my camera, turned and ran, and when the wave was upon my heels, wheeled to face it. The wave hit me in the chest and I was blown backwards on the reef, gouging the soles of my shoes. When the surge had somewhat subsided, I turned to run again, and this time the deluge was waist-high. When I finally made it to shore, only somewhat wiser, I saw Willy, the father of the house I had been living in, watching. He shrugged, picked up the three prong spear he'd been leaning on, and went back to fishing.

After that narrow escape, I kept closer to shore. But my interest in the motus had been aroused and the possibility of travelling by walking around the island seemed possible. I need only make sure I stay away from the open sea, which pounded relentlessly against the mountain's edge of the old volcano.

I taught until one in the afternoon, typically. Then I would take my cue from nearly everyone else and take a siesta, waiting until the blasting heat of midday turned to the relative cool of evening, at six o'clock. This close to the equator, the days were twelve hours in length.

On this particular Friday, I didn't take my siesta. Instead, I loaded up my camera, and some hard biscuits, which the shops called cabin bread, and set off to the southern portion of Tahunu. Tahunu is about four miles in length, and I lived just north of the middle. At almost any point the sea may be glimpsed through the trees, and to my left I could see the relative calm of the lagoon, its metre high waves stirred up by the trades, and to my right, the open ocean which only twice in my time on the island had shown a ship.

When I got to the southern tip of Tahunu, I mounted the platform that was built by the American military for Maori men to watch for the invading Japanese. The Japanese never came, and the hardy platform, which had been built from blocks of coral, outlasted the war. I had found it a month earlier, and had been at first reluctant to climb it. I thought it might me a Marae, a sacred site dedicated to the forgotten island gods. My friend from the school, Api Dan, knew the names of the gods, since she was in her sixties and had been told them as a child. She told me the history of the stone structure, and explained the Marae had all been burned and the churches built upon the old sites, when the British had first invaded and brought Christianity.

When I left the platform, I crossed the narrow island, travelling east under the ubiquitous coconut palms and past nearly the only taro swamp on the island. This Maori staple needs to grow in rich mud, but since Tahunu was an atoll, its subsoil was made of broken pieces of coral and its ground water was brackish. There was little swamp to be had. Taro only grew in this brackish backwater, where it was carefully cultivated by the people from my village. Land was held in common, sections of it owned by families and divided according to need, so likely sections of this taro swamp was planted by each family, sharing in the wealth of the scarce soil.

The first few motus were an easy hike, and in the distance I could see the waving trees of Porea, since it was larger than the motus I was on. Most reef islands were mere flat chunk of coral, weathered into sharp points by the sea and rain, and a hazard to shoes, although Maori children ran across them barefoot with impunity. By evening I stepped on the shores of Porea, walking along the narrow sandy strip that separated the island from the lagoon. Coming suddenly around a corner, I found a group of men eating a ground crab around a fire. These large lobster-like crabs live in holes in the ground, and if you are not certain they are there, their furtive movements can be frightening. One of the men hailed me and I recognised Peretira's father. She was one of my students, and her father was a relative of some kind of Api Dan from the school. I never figured out the complexities of Maori kinship, but I had realised, by this point that nearly everyone had an auntie in another family.

I stopped and chatted a bit, answered their puzzled questions about my destination, and then went on. I heard later that he was not happy that I did not join them, but I was never certain how to explain my lack of interest in bush beer, an alcoholic drink made by brewing sugar and coconut juice in a log, and crab eating. A teetotaling vegetarian is a rare beast on Manihiki, and I had been perceived as rude more than once.

Once I left them, and rounded the eastern tip of the island, it was late and the other motu, far in the distance across a featureless stretch of churning reef, looked inhospitable. I climbed a short coconut palm, since I had never picked up the skills the Maori had in climbing the tall ones, and pulled down a few nu, coconuts which were not quite ripe enough to fall, but had a soft meat inside them and a fluid that was sweet and tasted somewhat carbonated. I hacked through them with my knife, since I had no bar to tear them open like I used in Willy and Ana's yard, and while the sun set, I gathered kikau leaves for a fire, as well as a few husks of coconuts, and wove some leaves together as Api Dan had shown me, to make a rude blanket. The climate was warm enough, this close to the equator, that I'd brought no blanket, but I knew I needed some covering for the night.

I set a couple of remaining coconuts near the fire for my breakfast, which meant that much of my night was spent fending off the coconut rats and small four or five inch sea crabs, who were drawn by the smell of feasting. Finally, since I knew it would take them hours to crack the coconut's thick husk, I flung them up the beach away from me, built up the fire, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, I brushed my teeth with seawater, cut open my coconuts for fluid and food, and was on my way as soon as the sea levels dropped. The tides were low, only a metre or so, but when I had such a narrow margin between wading chest high water and being submerged, that metre mattered.

Along the rough southern shore, wading from motu to motu, I was to see many strange and wonderful things. Rearing up in the fog in the distance, I saw what must be the wreck of a ship. Running, as much as that was possible across the broken coral slabs, I went towards her. I had heard nothing about a shipwreck on the reef, so in my excitement I thought that meant she was recent. I imagined bodies scattered about her on the reef, and survivors huddled on shore, shivering and traumatised. I was reluctant to put my trip aside, but it was necessary, obviously, to ensure the survivors were taken to Tahunu.

Once I stood by the side of the ship I realised how wrong my fantasies had been. The ship had been there for many years already, and gaping holes showed her motors clogged in rust and beat about by the storms. I took a piece of copper as a memento, captured the poignant scene in a photo, and continued along the shore. Crossing from one motu to the next, harassed by the wheeling frigate birds that lived on the tiny islets that made up a Manihikian preserve, I watched moray eels waver ribbon-like through the clear water, saw pau shells half open and feeding, their polyps colours I not sure English has words for, and feeling their way blindly along, green sea cucumbers crossed the bottom.

Soon, nearly halfway between Porea and Takahu, the reef became broken, and passages opened between the reef and the sea. I was uncertain how to cross some of them. Nearer the open sea, I had been followed many times by sharks, and their sharp fins tearing towards me in the crystal clear water one of the most frightening sights I had ever seen. I carried a stick to strike the water, since I'd been told that conveyed the message that this prey was too large to attempt, but more than once I had run back to a motu and leapt upon it, throwing rocks at the sharks brave enough to follow me. Once I was set upon by four reef sharks each over a metre in length, and on another occasion, I had just stepped off the reef island when a black tipped fin of a metre and a half shark veered in my direction.

After he had been driven away, I stood on the motu a long time before I convinced myself that as many sharks were behind me as in front, and the hot tropical sun on the bare coral of the tiny islet was hardly a feasible home. No one was going to rescue me, and few even knew where I was. Either I had to brave the sharks, or I could just sit there without water or food.

I tried to make my footsteps sound random, since sharks are drawn to rhythmic thrashing, and carried my stick high in the air. I looked over one shoulder, then the other, then did a broader scan. Once I was startled out of forgetfulness to see a shark less than two dozen centimetres from me, and turning instinctively, I cracked him on the head with my stick. Only afterward did I think that might have caused him to bite, thus releasing blood into the water. With miles of sea still ahead of me, that would ensure further problems.

I leapt across one of the largest reef passages, before I realised the sea was more shallow on the lagoon side. Below me, through two metres of crystal clear water, I could see the uncertain bottom, with caves that led down into the reef itself. Timid in water that I was, since I couldn't swim, I looked with horror as I leapt, my slow motion jump carrying me across the caverns to the other side. After than I turned towards the lagoon, and to my relief, found that sand and fragmented coral, tossed by hurricanes and storms, had filled such caverns.

I stepped foot on Takahu with great relief. I had a pounding headache, which I attributed to the stress of eight hours or more of fearfully looking about me for attack. I was beginning to wonder about dehydration as well since I had drunken little the whole day. I went amongst the coconut palms with relief, and pulled down some nuts to drink. I chose young nuts, which only contain a kind of flavoured water, although didn't make my headache go away. Only later, pondering my throbbing head and fatigue, did I realise I very likely was suffering from heat stroke. At the time I was just happy to be amongst the trees. Tearing down a branch to swipe the large spider webs across my path, I fought through the jungle until I came across a rude path. It looked like it had been made by pigs and widened by people, but it was going in my direction. The path grew clearer until I came to the beginning of the village.

After only a day and a half alone on the reef, the village looked disconcerting. People waved from houses, finding, no doubt, my sudden appearance strange enough. One man beckoned me into his house, and set a glass of water in front of me. Manihikians drink rain water, but I had been boiling mine since I had arrived. I hesitated but a moment, then drank the glass, and its refill. I was dreading fighting the sharks through the open passage on the northern extent of Takahu, knowing that it was a big enough passage that smaller boats chose that place to enter the lagoon. I was even beginning to contemplate staying the night along the shore of Takahu rather than motu-hopping back to the northern tip of Tahunu, when a passing man told me there was a boat leaving for my island.

I hustled to the dock, and sat waiting with the rest, until the two-metre aluminium boat pulled alongside, and we clambered aboard. Far below us in the crystalline water I could see pearl farms, recognizable by their floats tethered to the bottom by heavy anchors of coral, and passing close to several lagoon motus, I saw how their inhabitants had used every bit of space at their disposal. The tiny islets were often no bigger than the house that sat upon them, but chunks of coral had been added to make a path to the outhouse suspended over the water, or upon which to build a shed.

As the sun dropped behind my island ahead of me, and the waving coconut palms flickered before the wavering light, I shaded my eyes to see the break in the trees which was the village, and just north of it, the few buildings that represented my home. I was let off near the house, and wading one final time, carrying my bag of shells high so I wouldn't wet my camera, I came ashore to a family who had been wondering if I had made it around the island. Later, Api Dan told me no one had done that since the old days, until I said Temu still does it.

She sighed, and then admitted, "Temu, yes. But no one really does that anymore. Only Temu."

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