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Nothing puts the Cook Islands into perspective quite like the flight to Rarotonga, the main island in that most colourfully remote of South Seas archipelagos. It doesn’t really matter which side of the Pacific you take off from, it’s a long way out there with nothing below you but an empty vastness of water – 64 million square miles of it, in fact.

Meals are served, movies are watched and naps are taken, all the while as you cruise along at 500mph with nothing to see out of the window but a great blue void of sea and sky. Casting your eyes over the route map in the in-flight magazine for the umpteenth time, you see that thin red line arcing far out into the Pacific and find yourself marvelling that even in an age of GPS and satellite navigation, a plane can be guided with such precision as to pick out a tiny mote like Rarotonga in the middle of a body of water that’s bigger than all of the world’s land masses combined. Finally, many hours after you’ve left behind the lights of an impossibly distant city, you emerge from the plane, groggy and jet-lagged, into the bright, balmy South Pacific sunshine.

Now imagine sailing out here on a primitive canoe, built with tools of stone and shell, and lashed together with hibiscus vines, trying to find this speck without a map, nor any iron-clad certainty there would even be islands out here to find. Yet more than 1,000 years ago, a band of intrepid Polynesian seafarers did just that.

Sailing day after day into those empty horizons, they found not only Rarotonga and the rest of the Cook Islands but every other speck, mote and atoll in the vast reach of the South Pacific. Scores of the most remote tropical paradises on the planet were found and peopled in what was the most remarkable, and most romantic, migration in human history. “They were true adventurers,” says Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp, a descendant of those early seafaring pioneers and vice president of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. “At a time when Europeans were unwilling to venture out of sight of land, Polynesians were making voyages of thousands of miles through the heart of the Pacific. And what’s more, they weren’t just sailing as explorers but as colonists, taking their wives and children with them. And all their possessions – tools, pigs, chickens, taro seedlings – everything they would need to build new lives on the islands they fully expected to find out there, and did.”

It is a warm, tropical afternoon at the harbour in Avarua, Rarotonga’s main town, with puffy cumulus clouds building up over the mountains and a creamy surf breaking out on the reef. We are sitting on the deck of the 22-metre-long Marumaru Atua, a replica of a traditional vaka, a double-hulled Polynesian canoe, on which Nepia-Clamp and others recently completed a voyage from Tahiti to the Cook Islands via Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, using traditional means of navigation. It is a beautiful boat, richly evocative of South Seas romance, with its stout masts and mighty oar – although how closely it resembles the craft that was sailed by early Polynesians is a matter of conjecture among maritime archaeologists and historians.

The South Pacific is a jealous guardian of its past. The balmy, damp, corruptive climate of the islands rotted away anything made of wood or fibre, and not a single example of an original Polynesian voyaging canoe survives. Nobody truly knows what the real thing looked like. All the modern replicas are based on oral traditions and drawings made by the early European explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when the epic voyages of the Polynesians already belonged to the distant past. Having found their island paradises, they had settled down into quiet, sedentary prosperity. The swift and agile canoes that Captain James Cook recorded in his journals, although literally able to run rings around his ship, were designed for use in sheltered lagoons and for making short inter-island hops, not blue-water adventuring on a grand scale.

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