Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Our little twin propeller plane bumped as it dropped down through a thin layer of white whispy clouds, before flattening out again in the bright Pacific sunshine.

Below us the little island of Aitutaki was suddenly revealed in all its glory; a band of coral reef thrown wide around a few scattered peaks of tropical islands that rise above the bright waters of the turquoise lagoon. Everyone gasped as our tiny plane banked unexpectedly and we dropped a few hundred feet. Suddenly we seemed to be skimming across the lagoon itself, and then with a jolt we touched down on the runway. I think I left my fear of flying somewhere high above the South Pacific, because I loved every minute of that journey, and all I could think about was exploring this perfect little paradise over the next 5 days.

Rarotonga felt like a big shift of pace after the smog-filled, gridlocked, skyrise madness of LA, but sleepy little Aitutaki makes Raro feel like a bustling metropolis. Everyone you pass has a smile and a wave, the top speed on the few roads across the island is equivalent to a brisk jog, and there’s nothing more hazardous than falling coconuts or the occasional daredevil rooster that wants to play chicken with your scooter.

We spent our 5 nights on the island in what was to become the nicest accommodation of our entire trip; a beach hut facing the perfect lagoon. It even had a palm tree growing through its balcony! The ideal spot to live out any bizarre childhood Swiss Family Robinson fantasies that might have lingered into adulthood (with a bit more time I might have been able to train some monkey butlers…). Normally it would have been out of our price range, but we got a good internet deal months in advance and it ended up costing about £25 a night. They could have charged us three times that and I wouldn’t have felt ripped off.

Our beach hut

After a couple of days we decided to stretch the budget even further with a day trip across the lagoon. Left to ourselves we might not have spent the money, but everyone we spoke to told us we’d be missing out, and I’m really glad we took their advice.

We were picked up by softly spoken, immediately likable Captain Puna, and clambered aboard his battered yellow pickup truck. Two other couples (tourists on Aitutaki are overwhelmingly couples) were inside the truck’s twin-cab, so we had to ride on the back. I couldn’t have been happier – we had a bumpy, windswept ride to Puna’s little pontoon while the others looked at us a little jealously from their more comfortable, more boring seats inside.

Once we were aboard it quickly became clear why a boat trip is the only way to fully appreciate Aitutaki. The waters stay fairly shallow throughout the lagoon, although the water is so clear that you can see the bottom even in 20 metres or so of depth. Puna picked his way effortlessly through the hidden maze of underwater coral islands that can easily tear through the hull of a carelessly piloted boat, and soon we were in about 8 metres of water above one of the protected reserve areas of the lagoon.

We could clearly make out the enormous stands of coral all around us as we peered over the deck and hurriedly got our snorkel gear on. The ripples of the waves broke up the outlines of what I first imagined to be chunky rocks dotted around the seabed, until Puna explained we were in a good area for giant clams. That was all I could take; a few seconds later I was over the side and splashing about in the stunning undersea landscape of the reef.

Giant clams! I have two vivid childhood memories of learning about these weird little beasties; seeing them in David Attenborough documentaries and reading the Willard Price novel South Sea Adventure, where a diver gets his flipper trapped in one as it slams shut. I swam down as close as I dared (well within flipper snapping distance), but managed to survive unscathed.

A giant clam!

The coral amongst the lagoon was like nothing I’d seen before. This was my first experience in tropical waters, and we found ourselves surrounded by huge ‘forests’ of coral standing tens of meters high, with dazzling clouds of colourful fish constantly weaving in and out of the multitude of sheltered nooks and crannies. It was like swimming in an enormous fish tank, but a more sublime fish tank than I ever could have imagined.

After an hour or so of happy splashing about we climbed back aboard the boat, through a pulsing shoal of fish feeding on a tuna fish tail that Puna had thrown in for them, and we jetted off for the second part of the trip.

We stopped at a few of the myriad little islands that pepper the lagoon; deserted honeymoon island, a beautiful, unnamed golden white sandspit, circumnavigated the islands used on T4’s Shipwrecked as Tiger and Shark islands, and then stopped for lunch on glorious little One Foot Island, where Puna cooked up an enormous spread of barbecue food that was worth the price of the trip on its own.

Captain Puna

Aside from the boat trip, the rest of the adventuring was left up to us. We hired a scooter and drove the circumference of the island, waving to the friendly locals and their playful kids, and scattering crowds of scuttling mudcrabs that bolted back to the safety of their burrows on the swampy, unpopulated area of island near the airstrip.

As we were on a shoestring budget, we got a little freaked out as we scoured the shelves of the island’s only supermarket, only to find them bare of anything much beyond a few expensive tins of food. Our dismay turned to delight when we chatted to the lady that worked there, and she told us that we could buy fresh tropical fruits straight from the gardens of the villagers, and pick up delicious game fish fresh from the docks as the fishermen came home with their catch of the day. We cooked for ourselves and ate like healthy, happy kings all week.

In no time at all we were watching the sun melt into the lagoon for one final spectacular sunset. We boarded our little plane again the next morning , and as we sat on the runway we caught a glimpse through the window of a pair of humpback whales blowing out breaths of salty spray just off the reef to our left. Our startled happy shouts weren’t enough to keep the plane on the ground, and with a rush and a jolt we were launched back into that bright South Pacific sky, the stunning colours of the island shrinking away beneath us.

However long it takes, I know someday I’ll go back there.

Sunset on Aitutaki

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