Pa Teuruaa didn’t
look like a typical hiking companion. Dressed in a loincloth with blond dreadlocks
down to his shoulder blades, he walked barefoot and bare-chested through the
thick jungle as we explored the island's interior of tangled forest and
We were traversing
Rarotonga, the largest and most populous of the Cook Islands, an archipelago in
the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors typically come to this Polynesian paradise
to laze and play among its beaches and reefs, but Teuruaa’s – known to virtually
everyone on the island as just Pa – half-day Cross
Island Trek provides a rare chance to explore the island's inner heart.
champion swimmer and surf lifesaver, Pa has been guiding hikers across
Rarotonga for almost 30 years.
first time I did this trek was 10 May 1985, and as of today I've trekked it 4,388
times," Pa told our group as we gathered near the island's north coast.
It's that longevity that saw him honoured with the Outstanding Contribution to Tourism
prize at the 2013 Cook Islands Tourism Awards. The most astounding of the
numbers, however, is Pa’s age. Though he won't reveal the exact figure, he's in
his 70s – and still makes this steep and humid crossing three times a week,
walking with the ease and strength of someone half his age.
raised on Rarotonga, Pa moved 3,000km to Auckland when he was 15, following a
common path among islanders who head to New Zealand for greater opportunities (all
Cook Islanders are also New Zealand citizens). Here he won surf ski competitions
and marathon swim races, working for a time as a surf lifesaver on Auckland’s wild
Piha Beach. In 1985, he swam solo between the South Pacific islands of Moorea
and Tahiti – a 22km ocean crossing. A scar on his arm tells of a shark attack during
to the Cook Islands in the early 1980s, today Pa's bare feet are very much on
the ground. As he guides hikers through the
jungle, he brings a sense of reverence and respect to an island much affected
by settlement, agriculture and tourism.
On the morning
of our trek, Pa collected our group of eight walkers from various Rarotonga
hotels. Circling the island's ring road, there were several unscheduled stops
as he delivered natural remedies to the island's sick. Pa's family have been
medicine men and women for many generations, and as a child he learned about natural
remedies from his grandmother. Today he gathers ingredients from his garden and
the jungle beyond, continuing the family's tradition of natural healing.
give life to life," he said, a philosophy that extended to the walk. At
the start of the trail he poured out his water bottle to revive a wilting
plant. It was clear that this would be no ordinary morning.
The trek began
along a grassy track lined with taro plants. Watercress covered the surface of
a dam, and chickens scratched at the trail's edge. Slowly the cultivation yielded
to thickening rainforest as the trail climbed into the mountains, following a
path originally used by islanders to get to the base of lofty Te Rua Manga, a
groped across the track, providing both obstacles and rungs as the climb
steepened along a sharp-tipped spur. Pa walked at the head of the group,
striding along easily but never speaking.
only talk to one person when I hike, and that's God," he said. "I
tell everybody, 'if you want to talk, talk to God, don't talk to Pa'."
ended atop the ridgeline as hikers paused to recover their breath and Pa pulled
out containers of fresh tropical fruit. Up here, with views along the
knife-sharp ridge, his stories were plentiful. Sitting beside a coconut palm
that looked incongruous among the cloud forest, Pa explained that he planted
the tree in 2007 to celebrate the birthday of a hiker in one of his groups –
she'd turned 96 that day.
another story at the base of Te Rua Manga, reached along a short side track.
Better known as the Needle, this towering, bullet-shaped rock is one of the
dominant figures of the Rarotonga skyline. He explained that early islanders
climbed this peak to worship, carving one side of the rock so that its profile
resembled the face of a god. Centuries on, it has retained its spiritual
significance: in 2002 the Dalai Lama declared it one of the world's eight
remaining energy points after walking the Cross Island Trek with Pa.
base of Te Rua Manga, the view opened out even wider, peering through a valley
to the beaches and reef that ring the island. Across the high slopes, lichen draped
from tree branches, drawing water from the clouds that cling regularly to these
Back at the
main trail, the descent began south, dipping steeply into rainforest-covered
gullies and down to the walk's end at Wigmore's Waterfall, which tumbles down the cliff into a beautiful
Silence descended across the slopes once again, broken only by the flow of
water and the sound of footsteps, including the soft tread of Pa's bare feet.
walk with no shoes because I'm healing the Earth Mother," Pa said. "I
was born without shoes and so I walk without shoes."
comfortable times to visit Rarotonga are before and after its December to March
about the Cross Island Trek can be found on Pa's website, while bookings can be made by
or through hotels in Rarotonga.