A remarkable climb on Rarotonga Island
By JUDI LEES
RAROTONGA, Cook Island — “Welcome to Mother Earth!” beams Pa Teuruaa as our group of panting hikers looks up at him. Then we grin, too: after a climb of ladder-like steepness we have reached the Needle, known as ‘Te Rua Manga to the Cook Island Maoris. This landmark, a pillar of stone stretching skyward, is one of Rarotonga’s most famous sights, but it’s more than that.
Teuruaa tells us that in January 2002 the Dali Lama and 22 of his followers visited the island looking for an energy point. They found it at the base of the Needle, where we now sit. In ancient times the Maoris worshipped here.
The peak we’ve just climbed is part of a spine of high mountains, cloaked with verdant forests, that sweep down to the dazzling white beaches encircling Rarotonga, the largest and most visited of the Cook Islands, a group of 15 South Pacific isles.
Although a tourist haven it lacks high-rises, multi-souvenir shops and traffic. Activities centre around the beaches and every water activity known to man, including superb scuba diving. The Cooks are independent, but citizens carry New Zealand passports. Currency is New Zealand dollars. The official language is Cook Island Maori, but everyone speaks English.
I had heard there was a challenging hike here, and the guide was a character. Meet Pa Teuruaa, a gregarious, 60ish guide/medicine man complete with dreadlocks and a huge smile.
The trek begins gently in a vast, green meadow where our eclectic group of travellers — a family from Holland, couples from New Zealand, Mexico and England — learn about medicinal plants such as noni, whose leaves stop mosquitoes and sunburn. As we stroll, Teuruaa points out other flora that cure.
Then he says, “Look up,” and we peek through the trees to our destination, the Needle, 413 metres above us. It is a hot, steamy experience and I marvel at Teuruaa, who not only leads hikes daily along this route, but, each Sunday, runs it with a group of friends!
On our occasional rest stops we are entertained by his stories.
He first visited the Needle as a five year-old and recalls the experience as a spiritual one. As a 10-year-old he made a pledge to show others this special place and he’s been doing so since 1985. (The oldest person he has led to the top was a 92-year-old.)
The gruelling ascent is worth it. From the Needle I look out to the distant, indigo-blue ocean. I must admit that, although the wind whips around me, I feel an overwhelming calm. I suppose it could be exhaustion, but then, it could be Mother Earth’s spirit smiling down on us.