Viewed on a world map on your computer, the Cook Islands is so small you might try to wipe it off your screen - 15 crumbs of sand adrift in the South Pacific, atomised by ocean. These 236 square kilometres of jungle-strewn land lay claim to 1.8 million square kilometres of water, roughly the equivalent of a house with a 59,000-metre pool. The sea doesn't just separate the Cooks from other nations though; it also separates the islands from each other, making them distinct. Few travellers or even locals ever visit the outermost reaches of the country.
The islands lie in two groups, northern and southern. The southern islands are clustered around the capital, Rarotonga, while the northern ones include Manihiki, famed for its black pearls; tiny Suwarrow, named after a passing Russian ship; and Nassau, which got its first telephones less than 10 years ago. Furthest is Palmerston, a place accessible only by yacht or supply boat, home to approximately 50 people all descended from a single marauding British carpenter who annexed it for himself. Boats arriving here are greeted on the water, the first resident to touch a vessel playing host to its occupants.
From Australia, Rarotonga is within easy reach, a six-hour flight direct from Sydney. I'm greeted by a sun-beaten man with a ukulele moments after the plane touches down. On the beach-side road from the airport in the small hours of the morning, it's just light enough to see the waves - the first blush of dawn falling on distant grey breakers as they falter on a far reef that keeps both surfers and sharks beyond the lagoon.
The road from the airport could simply be called the Road: there's only one big one on Raro, looping the whole island. On it there are two public buses (Clockwise and Anticlockwise, describing their routes), a handful of cars and motorbikes with three-digit number plates and a few suicidal cockerels. Street numbers are infrequent. An address here might be "the big house near the white road". Numbers climb high only when you're counting churches, dogs and scenes of natural beauty.
It's not just the quantity of churches that surprises, but their variety. On the short ride I count Presbyterian, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness and Cook Islands Christian churches, even a Baha'i temple. Missionaries made all of Polynesia religious, but few places on earth are as pious as the Cooks. There's a refreshing lack of zealotry though. It's a place no one can be bothered to be a God-botherer.
I've arrived on a Sunday morning, and stop off at the most spectacular of the churches, an old building at Titikaveka built from hand-cut coral blocks and held up on painted tree-trunk columns. The place is already full, even before an old man pulls a long rope to ring the bell. Venerable old women wearing hibiscus pattern muumuus and hats woven from fine palm fronds sit next to their younger relatives in earrings and rat tails. Some of the high nobility of the island is here and so is the former deputy prime minister (he runs the general store). In the mugginess of the early morning, the stage is covered in potted orchids and a glimpse of steaming copse is visible out the back window. The attraction for me isn't the service but the singing, which has gained a reputation as a spiritual experience in itself.
The first song isn't exactly the hallelujah moment I've been waiting for: the choir kicks off with an a off-season Christmas carol, tentatively rendered to a MIDI backing. It's only after a warm-up guy finishes and the pastor begins (a man who looks strangely like a Polynesian Kim Jong-il), that we hear the real thing - the imene tuki, the "grunt hymns". The ceiling, nearly five storeys high, fills with a swell of round, crystalline melody held up by the women, while the men punctuate it with rhythmic interjections of harmony.
The meaning of the songs is hard to grasp exactly - they're like poems, or gossip, with lyrics often composed by a member of the choir, commenting on anything from matters of legend to current events. The most succinct explanation I hear comes later, from a woman selling home-grown vegetables at the markets. "Imene tuki?" she says. "Why, that's just the Cook Islands rap."
Her name is Kairangi, which I am told means something like "sky-eater". Names in the Cooks are poetic, innovative and sometimes eccentric to the visiting ear. Here there are boys called Anzac Day, girls called Merry Christmas, Maori compounds that translate as "Auntie Went to School in New Zealand". There's someone called Alone, a kid called Party and a guy who works in a hotel called Trainee. His name-tag is confusing.
The man guiding me around Raro is called Mr Useless. He grinds us up the slippy, rutted mountain roads in a World War II-era jeep, a scenario where a driver called Mr Confidence might inspire more confidence. But Mr Useless finds a way, pointing out patches of arrowroot and pawpaw along the muddy track until we finally reach our destination. It's what he calls a "height", a high clearing looking out over the fields and villages to the sea, a place once used by chiefs when handing out land and settling disputes.
"Everything from the villages to the mountain, and the villages to the sea, is owned by everyone. But all the plots are owned by people," he says. The Cook Islanders never sold their land to colonisers, and here people take pride in huge ancestral grave slabs in front yards, the way we might show off a well-trimmed lawn. "A mark of real respect to the ancestor is to bury them on their land, seven feet deep. That's if you like them. Mother-in-law, she can go in the bush," says Mr Useless. We spend some time looking for whales in the ocean, and Useless seems a little pleased we don't find any. "Any time white people see a whale they want to look at it for hours," he says. When I ask how far the drive back down the steep road is, he's not sure. "We don't care about distance here. Or climate. I measure the trip in how many cigarettes it takes me to smoke. We're unhurried here. That's one of the five "u"s in the Cook Islands: unhurried, unreliable, untouched, unbelievable, and unforgettable."
The unhurried slip into island time happens quickly. Buy a few things at the general store, and before long it feels natural that the person in front of you will talk to the check-out staff for five minutes, and equally natural that you will join in. The huffing and foot-tapping this would provoke in a big city would be unthinkable here (and given that the former deputy PM is behind the counter, it could spark a diplomatic incident). I find an
old book in the local museum called Some Aspects of Rarotongan Life which captures the unhurried feeling Useless is talking about. "The clock was a papa'a [foreigner] invention. The Maori could not see much sense in subjecting himself to the dictates of this papa'a machine!" It also shows itself in the hospitality. Villages aren't pushed to an embarrassed end of the island away from resorts - here locals and visitors mingle in the shops, in the bars, and especially along the beach.
The hospitality comes partly from habit: the Cooks have been attracting visitors for a long time. My next island stop, Aitutaki, was a stop-off on the famous Coral Route in the 1950s. Jetsetters would climb aboard a Solent flying boat in Auckland, point out Cary Grant on board, and luxuriate their way to Tahiti with a stop on Aitutaki for fuel. A lot of talk about the golden age of travel is fantasy, but there's no doubt fuel stops have changed. Then it meant a couple of hours swimming in one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. Now it means shuffling around a duty-free shop in Changi Airport. The flying boats have gone, but the lagoon is still here, its status recognised with a listing in the book Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die.
Along with a cluster of small resorts, there are fewer than 2000 people in eight small villages on Aitutaki, with diesel-generated power keeping the whole place going. Everyone knows everyone, and they soon know visitors as well. I'm walking the main street barely an hour after arriving when a total stranger drives up, greets me by name, and asks whether I need a lift. We get talking. "I don't like Raro," says the driver. "Very busy. Too much traffic." The capital, with its lazy string of motorcycles and two buses, feels like Manhattan next to Aitutaki.
This might also be the only place more pious than Rarotonga. Aitutaki was the first place on the Cooks to be converted, and the conversion was deep. Here the local school bans books with dragons on the front cover, and the Bible is shelved under G for its author, God. On the main street a few houses sport homemade signs protesting against the policy of allowing Sunday flights to the island. In February 2010, Tropical Cyclone Pat took the roof of almost every house on Aitutaki, sandblasting the coastal trees bare. The storm is widely believed to have been God's enraged response to the breaking of the Sabbath.
"In those days" is a phrase you often hear attached to stories from the Cook Islands, a time span that can stretch anywhere from the Cary Grant era to Polynesian sailing escapades of 800 years ago (there's a reason so many places in New Zealand bear the names of Cook Islands tribes). It reflects the fact that missionaries didn't just bring religion, but took almost everything else away. Artefacts were burned, sacred sites deserted, and cannibalism abandoned. The country is in the unusual position of having to re-import a lot of its own history.
One of the people doing the importing is a local archaeologist who lives on Aitutaki, Ngaakitai Pureariki. He spends much of his time at a sacred site on the island, an avenue of stones set in an inland valley. It's called a marae, and "in those days" was part university, part church, part men's club. Here knowledge was shared, stories were told, initiations conducted and, when the occasion called for it, ritual ceremonies practised. "When I started looking at this place, I was one of the only people who would come here," Pureariki says. "Missionaries told people it was haunted, cursed, that if they came here they wouldn't have children; that their testicles would swell up." He has slowly deciphered the place's old meaning from similar sites on Tubuai in the Austral Islands, and explains how each stone correlated to a high priest of the tribe. In the cooling afternoon this site seems eerie, especially the jagged stone altar where rituals took place.
Pureariki is non-religious, a rarity on Aitutaki. "I hate myth," he says, showing us a sling stone as big as a tennis ball, a remnant from the island's more belligerent past. Instead he pines to know more of a history that's a little way out of reach. There's a tension between the lost past of the Cook Islands and its present, and as we shelter from a thin rain, Pureariki and his relative Rua Samuel debate the merits of the culture old and new. "To be honest, I'm glad things have changed from the old times," says Samuel on the drive out. "It's a peaceful place now. No one wants to eat me."
Samuel drives us down a red-dirt track that loops around the massive trunk of an up-ended tree. This road was one of the first pieces of infrastructure rebuilt after the hurricane, and it leads to a men-only drinking spot called the Rainforest Club. This is a tumunu, where the house drink is "bush beer", brewed from the inner trunk of a coconut palm or a combination of fruit, sugar, yeast and malt. "It takes getting used to," says Samuel. "Most people have a cigarette or a piece of fruit ready to take the taste out of their mouth. Don't take a big swig or you'll throw up." I ask Samuel if he's going to stay for a drink. "No. I get my beer from a woman with clean hands," he says.
Today the pastor is in attendance, and so is the chief, who has pride of place at the head of the euchre table. The building looks ramshackle; it was shattered by the big storm. "We had to go all over the place looking for the bits," says local man Maeva Hewett. "Some were 200km away." Rebuilding the tumunu seems to have been an urgent priority.
The head brewer is Plumber Teiotu (he's an electrician). Proudly revealing evil-looking vats of fermenting orange home-brew, he half-fills a mug, dilutes it to beginner-strength with water and hands it over. There are encouraging sounds as I manage to keep it down. I ask if the wooden box with a the string in the corner is for some part of the brewing process, but it turns out to be a homemade bass guitar. Teiotu then uses it to accompany himself in an enthusiastic version of Tina Turner's "Simply the Best".
The ramifications of Teiotu's special brew are still making themselves felt the next day as I head out into the lagoon with a man known as Captain Fantastic. We're headed for Honeymoon Island, one of the uninhabited islets, or motu, of Aitutaki. They can start to crop up a few weeks after storms; we pass one just starting, a handful of tenacious coconut shoots gripping a sandbar.
Halfway to our destination, Captain Fantastic slows the boat to a bob over a stretch of reef where fish feed. Butterflyfish surface to peck at offered sandwiches, and a huge, dark Napoleon wrasse breaks the water with its slow curling back. Big as a pig, the fish has grown fat from indulgent tourists heading to Honeymoon.
On the island, the only footprints on the beach are from a trotting flock of petrels. Apart from the wind in the palm trees and the odd call from a nesting tropicbird, there's silence. The sand crawls with hundreds of hermit crabs. It's hard to walk this empty stretch of white beach and clear water without wanting to stay. I feel for a moment like Tom Neale, the man who lived on a tiny uninhabited Cook island for almost 16 years, recording the experience in a book called An Island to Oneself.
With only two pet cats and a wild duck for company, Neale ate tins of jam and whatever fish he could spear off the reef. He swam. He rebuilt a massive dock with coral blocks. He stopped wearing clothes. The duck flew away. The dock was destroyed by a storm. He injured himself and became bedridden. Unable to move, on the brink of death, he was miraculously rescued by the only yacht that had passed by for months. Once taken back to Raro he recovered, bought more tins of jam, and then pestered the authorities until he was allowed to return to his castaway island. The lure of the lagoon, the water "like sheets of satin", was too strong.