Rarotonga Island Crossing
By T. Dietz
I had wanted to go to one of the more remote Pacific Ocean archipelagos for some time and the Cook Islands seemed like a good balance of remoteness, 15 islands scattered among almost 700,000 square miles of ocean, and facilities for the family. Our destination was Rarotonga. With its town of Avarua as the Cook Islands’ Capital, Rarotonga is the most populous of the Cooks and was described by the British in the early 1800s and became a British protectorate in 1888. It is now self-governed with New Zealand responsible for foreign affairs and security.
A volcanic island, Rarotonga is only 20 miles in circumference and considered a fringed coral reef island and surrounded by a lagoon. The vast majority of the island’s 10,000 plus residents live within the lowlands that fringe the Island, not trying to conquer the imposing interior terrain. We had arrived in July to 85F temps, and a high likelihood for rain, for some scuba diving, beach time and hiking.
For our hiking goal we had the Cross Island Trek top of mind. The trek crosses the entire island along a north-south line just slightly west of center. Several sources recommend going the north to south direction as the trail is more obvious on the south descent with multiple intersecting trails that could lead you astray on the south base ascent.
My son Colin and I began the day with the goal of hiking the Cross Island Trek. We outfitted ourselves with good hiking boots, shorts and broad-rimed hats plus a backpack with a rain jacket, multi-tool, hydration pack and nutrition bars for a planned 3-4 hour hike. At the bus stop early, we waited with a local mom and her baby for the bus which didn’t even slow down as it whizzed by us. Colin and I were surprised but the mom, well, she had some choice words for the driver who was her cousin! Later we found out most of the islanders are related in some way. Since it would be another hour before the next bus, we headed back to the hotel for caffeine. I was ready to go again but the hour had persuaded Colin that beach time was more his speed for the day.
Not deterred, I headed back out and caught the clockwise bus (yes, there is an anti-clockwise bus as well) to Avatiu Harbor, in Avarua. My map was good at positioning me on Happy Valley Road behind the Pandanus gas station where the road leads south with a shallow uphill gradient. For about a kilometer the road follows past local island residences and small farms with lots of pigs, goats and cows. Friendly folks along the way waved and said hello as I passed their properties. The Polynesians are not only graceful hosts to visitors but take immense pride in their tropical paradise.
I caught up with a hiking couple and moments later a small pickup truck pulled up and offered to take us to the trail head about a kilometer beyond. I decided to make the trek ocean to ocean so I turned down the generous offer while the couple jumped in the pickup bed and continued up the dirt road. I was on a fairly quick pace but relished in the dense jungle that had begun and with a breeze that caused a one tone symphony. The occasional falling coconut added to the music.
Now on a single track, a changing gradient continued to steepen and if not for root stairs and vines it would have been difficult to ascend the muddy and slippery path. At times hands and feet were required to climb the almost ladder like roots. The climb (noted as an hour in the guide book) took about 30 minutes with a quick pace and a couple of short, catch your breath stops. The dense jungle was cooler than the beach but still quite warm.
The track is marked by sporadically placed orange triangular markers that are ok for the most part providing fairly straight forward directions despite intersecting trails along the way. I also had a guide book trail description with me on my phone that had key points highlighted like
avoiding the track with the white plastic power cables or stay on the track next to the large boulder. This is a no stress trek although guide books point out that folks have gotten lost and spent a night in the jungle.
It’s worth mentioning that bird sound is quite prevalent on the hike and myna birds (Acridotheres tristis, Linnaeus 1766) were a very common sight. One bird in particular was very prominent participant on the hike – my guardian rooster. Early on in the hike a very distinct and ornate rooster started walking just in front of me. He remained with me until the root section and then reappeared several more times all the way up until the junction to head up to the Needle or down to the south. On the way down I saw him three more times and then just before Wigmores Fall. I saw other roosters along the track but this one clearly decided to shadow me for my journey that day.
At the top of the climb there was a small clearing where several folks were resting. Off of the clearing the trail splits with one track heading up to the Needle and the other heading east then dropping toward the south part of the island. The trail to the Needle is a return trip track and took a bit over 10 minutes to navigate the reasonable gradient.
Te Rua Manga – The Needle. Rising to just over 400 meters (1,300 feet) the Needle is a prominent mountain top observable from several places on the island. It is recommended not to climb the rock outcropping due to rock falls and slides and with terrain dropping steeply away on the path nearest the Needle and along the its sides. Despite the warning people do attempt the climb. In fact, when I arrived at the base of the rock a German tourist, about 1/3rd of the way up the rock, was stuck trying to get down with guidance help from a British couple. He was not successful in his attempts at gaining a proper footing while I was there. He had plenty of helpful advice so I took my leave back down the trail.
Back at the clearing I took the track east. It began downhill slightly then ascended back to another great vantage point from which to observe the Needle and the ocean to the south. From here the track turns south and leads to Wigmores Falls. The descent is mostly steep, muddy and slippery, through dense jungle. Grabbing tree branches and trunks while sliding a great deal made for a fun and adventurous descent.
There are multiple spots on the descent that cross the Papua Stream as the trail zig zags back and forth. In several locations you cross the stream either by walking through it or over it by means of rocks and fallen trees. There are ropes anchored from trees to help with climbing back up to the track after the water crossings, some absolutely required due to slippery steep slopes. Other than my own noisiness, the only other sounds were birds and the rushing water of the Papua Stream. A welcomed respite from a world of constant road noise where I normally live.
As the descent continues you come into a distinctly new floral area called Fernland in the guidebooks. Here the jungle canopy opens up and high-flying terns can be seen as well as the island’s surf zone. The track officially ends at Wigmores Falls at the end of Papua Road which leads to the beach. With not much rain the Falls were unimpressive but the pool at its base looked quite inviting and if not for a couple enjoying a dip I would have done the same.
A dirt road led away from the Falls to the coast road. It was lined with giant taro plants (Alocasia macrorrhiza, G. Don 181x) with their thick leathery leaves. You’re on the road for about 20 minutes when you reach a man that collects money from folks heading south to north on the Crossing or visiting Wigmores Falls. A quick wave and another 100 yards to the main circumference road. Here I waited briefly for the clockwise bus and then decided to walk the coast and wave down the bus – which took another 90 minutes.
Total Cross Island trek time was 2.5 hours with another 90 minutes of walking until my bus pick up. An approximate total of 2,500 vertical feet and a GPS distance of about 6 miles trekked.
Scuba Dive PS
We had four great dives around the north and west side of Rarotonga. Highlights were spotted eels, sea turtles, lionfish, an underwater slotted canyon known as the Labrynth, and caves and caverns. The coral were unlike I’ve ever seen before resembling snow caps and mushrooms and providing home and protection to an amazing array of fishes including parrot fish, trigger fish, angle fish, surgeons, wrasses and boxfishes.