Adventure into Caving


 Last week, we explored the cannibal origins and skeleton issues of Atiu, the distinct and adventurous Cook Island's third most populous isle.

Now, it's a time to go further underground on this trip — on to the famous Anatakitaki Caves, home to 400-swift like Kopeka birds that are indigenous and unique to Atiu.

Into the caves we now go like bats out of …

A bird with bat-like characteristics, the Kopeka flies readily in Atiuan skies, but lands only in the depths of the Anatakitaki caves, which it navigates by sonar. "They fly for up to 14 hours without landing once, until they return to this cave," according to Marshall Humphreys, a British immigrant to Atiu — and our guide.

We've turned off the torches and are standing inside the caves, listening intently for the sound of a Kopeka.

Below us, the rocks are slippery from all the humidity, and small cockroaches scuttle around our feet.

Our bodies are sweaty from exertion and weary from the effort of moving cautiously over the rocks in the dim light of a torch.

But finally, we hear the sharp, clicking noise of one lonely bird as it finds its home in a crevice of the cave.

Back outside, we meet Birdman George, a local Atiuan who leads eco-tours on the island.

"The younger generation of Atiuans is lazy," declares the 47-year-old as he deftly climbs a 30-foot coconut tree, throwing some fresh, young coconuts down for his captive audience.

On the ground, he skins them in minutes, presenting us with cool, sweet-tasting milk to take the edge off the heat.

Indeed, the generation of Atiuans growing up on the island today faces different challenges from those encountered by generations past. For one, the overall population has dropped from 1,500 in the early 1980s to less than 500 full-time residents today.

Most glean what they need from the land, fishing off the rocky shores for their protein. They also raise pigs and grow taro, which is akin to a potato-like vegetable, as well as guavas, bananas, avocado and other fruits.

On an average day, the town center is entirely devoid of traffic and people. A few small convenience stores stock canned goods imported from New Zealand and Australia, and at the town bakery, locals stock up on the white loaves cooked daily in a stone oven.

"There are three royal families in town — two kings and a queen," explains Humphreys as we pass the palace.

This palace, in reality, is a home not really that much different than one you might see in a somewhat peripheral Philadelphia neighborhood.

But it's the chiefs of the five villages that yield significant power. When Humphreys moved to Atiu with his Cook Island-born wife in 1992, he constructed his home from a build-it-yourself kit set he'd purchased abroad and began his farm with the assistance of a local chief, Moetaua Boaza, who welcomed him with gifts of banana trees and kumara cuttings.

Today, he makes a living guiding cave tours, offering home-stay accommodation and selling sun-dried banana to stores on the main island of Rarotonga.

Like Humphreys, Malcolm has found his paradise on Atiu.

"Who wants to be a public servant working in the capital city of New Zealand, when there's the opportunity to live in the untouched natural splendor of Atiu island?" he asks.

It's a no-brainer, I'm thinking, as I fall asleep in one of his villas, which he built by hand using the timber grains of mango, pacific mahogany, coconut and other local island trees.

Atiuan locals enjoy their lives, live off their land and focus on their relationships with family and friends, and on helping one another survive.

And that, after all, is what life really should be all about.

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