A tale of the South Pacific
“I doubt whether they could sail into the wind, at least not very well,” says Nepia- Clamp, “but then I am not sure that would have mattered much to them. They understood how the seasonal winds work in the Pacific and would simply have waited and set sail when the time was ripe.” And as for the matter of locating uncharted islands, he says, there are clues aplenty out there for those who know what to look for: the flight paths of sea birds, the drift of coconuts in the current, even the afternoon pile-up of clouds in the distance can be a pointer to islands hidden well below the horizon.
The great voyaging canoes might not have survived, but the cargo of language, culture and knowledge that they brought to the islands certainly has. We see it in craftsmen such as Michael Tavioni, who turns out exquisitely carved mahogany bowls for traditional family feasts, and beautiful outrigger canoes of the kind that once graced the islands’ lagoons.
His workshop is a couple of miles out of Avarua, a pleasant drive along roads lined with flame trees and coconut palms. There is no sign to mark it, just a sprawl of heavy, dark, tropical hardwood left to dry and age in the sun and a couple of half-finished canoes in front of the open-air shed where he does his work. The ground is liberally covered with sawdust and wood shavings.
One of the canoes he’s working on at the moment, he explains, isn’t his. It’s the handiwork of an enthusiastic young craftsman who was eager to embrace his Polynesian heritage and become a builder of boats, but whose ambition thus far had outstripped his skills.
“It doesn’t float properly,” Michael shrugs, “and he has asked me if I can fix it for him. It shouldn’t be hard.” It is help freely given, he says, for the greater good of encouraging and preserving ancient traditional skills.
Likewise the age-old wisdom of Pa Teuruaa, a soft-spoken, 69th-generation medicine man who, from his home in Rarotonga’s rainforested hills, dispenses the herbal remedies he learned as a child from his grandmother. He gathers the ingredients from his garden and the nearby jungle, gladly sharing his knowledge with anyone who wants to come and learn.
“Not everyone is so keen once they realise how much time and hard work goes into collecting the plants and berries I need,” he laughs. “I have been doing this since I was four years old. I guess I am used to it.” Between collecting pharmaceuticals in the wild, leading nature hikes over Rarotonga’s rugged mountains, and the long meditative swims he takes in the lagoon every morning, he looks – and is – supremely fit. So much so that I find myself sceptical of a claim made on his behalf that he is 60 years old; he moves with the grace of a far younger man.
When I mention this, he smiles and shakes his head. “No, no, no, that’s wrong. I am not sixty. I was born in 1940. I am over seventy.” When I leave, it’s with a sense that I’ve met a man who has found Shangri La.