I’ve always had a fascination with South Pacific islands. Something about that region of the planet has always called to me. So, when I did my first international solo trip, it was a no-brainer that my itinerary would include a South Pacific destination—the Cook Islands and Aitutaki Atoll. Located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, the Cooks include 15 inhabited islands and atolls spread over more than 700,000 square miles of ocean.
I spent the first part of my visit to the Cooks on the main island of Rarotonga. But after several days there, I hopped on a small Air Rarotonga plane for the 50-minute flight to Aitutaki Atoll.
(Brief note about the photos: When I did this trip, I was still shooting film, so all of the photos in this post are film scans, with varying degrees of resolution quality.)
A Narrow Strip of Land
Atolls are ring-shaped coral reefs that encircle a lagoon. They’re basically what’s left at the surface after an extinct volcanic island has subsided into the ocean. People who live on atolls typically inhabit very narrow stretches of land, with deep ocean on the outside and a shallow lagoon in the center.
Having spent much of my journalism career writing about earth science, one of my reasons for going to Aitutaki was that I wanted to actually see an atoll with my own eyes. The thought of being on this tiny strip of land enclosing a lagoon of shallow clear water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean made me giddy.
I booked a simple and affordable bungalow for my three nights on Aitutaki. I hadn’t really planned any activities in advance, but it just so happened that the owner of these bungalows had a son who had a boat and took guests across the lagoon to an uninhabited paradise called One Foot Island. I signed up immediately.
A Three-Hour Tour
The morning of the tour, the boat captain knocked on my door at about 10:00am, and we piled into the boat and headed across the lagoon. I was joined by a nice Canadian couple who were staying in the bungalow next to me. As an aside, I was getting over a rather uncomfortable “reaction” to drinking the local water the previous day. So, I wasn’t exactly in top form, but there was no way I was missing this trip. The captain gave me a “suck it up, bucko” look and handed me a can of Cook Islands beer, promising that it would help speed my recovery.
It was a brilliant sunny day. And despite my still-rumbling stomach, I was mesmerized by the crystal-clear water and the tiny uninhabited islands (called motus) that dotted the lagoon. But about halfway across the lagoon, the boat slowed down and the motor started sputtering. Then it sputtered again. And then it stopped—completely.
After several failed attempts to get the motor running again, the guys decided they would wade/swim back to our starting point and bring back another boat so we could continue our trip. Sounded like a reasonable plan. Leslie (the Canadian woman) and I agreed, comforted by the fact that the water we were “stranded” in was actually only about three feet deep. We would stay and guard the boat while the guys went and orchestrated our rescue. Surely they’d be back in less than an hour (cue moody and scary music here).
Shipwrecked in Aitutaki Lagoon
But an hour went by. Then another hour. And then we started to wonder if they were just drinking rum swizzles somewhere. After 30 minutes or so of complaining, Leslie and I suddenly looked around at where we were. In the middle of a gorgeous lagoon in the South Pacific! Forget about the guys—let’s enjoy this.
So, we raided the lunch cooler and had a feast. We drank beer (I’m not usually a beer drinker, but they had obviously forgotten to load the Pinot Noir onboard). And then we got off the boat and walked partway to the motu that was about a half mile away, just to experience the feeling of wading in this lagoon that was like a giant swimming pool with a sandy bottom.
After a couple of hours, we squinted and saw a small dinghy heading towards us in the distance. Finally, they were back, and they all seemed pretty sober. The dinghy towed us back to the bungalows, and then we waited while they replaced the boat’s motor. At 3:00pm we were finally headed to One Foot Island, five hours after our original departure time that morning.
By the time we reached the island, it was late afternoon and the sun was already starting to set. We had about 15 minutes to snap some photos, and then it was time to leave. I felt disappointed as I watched One Foot Island disappear in the distance while we motored away. I had high hopes of doing some serious exploring on that little speck of land in the vast lagoon.
A couple days later, I headed to an internet café to do my regular email update to family (to let them know nothing crazy had happened to me—like being stuck in a boat with a dead motor). I told them all about my Aitutaki Lagoon tour experience, and I recounted the story in terms of it being a real annoyance. You won’t believe what happened! And I barely even got to see One Foot Island!
But after I got home from my trip, time passed and my perspective began to change. I started realizing that whenever I thought about my time in the Cook Islands, my lagoon experience was actually the most memorable part of the entire trip. When someone would ask me about Aitutaki Atoll, that’s the first story I told them. And every time I looked at the photos I took from the boat while Leslie and I were stranded, a big part of me just wanted to be back there in the middle of that lagoon. Gorging on potato salad, drinking Cook Islands Lager, and lying on the boat deck surrounded by nothing but turquoise clear water.
I’ll be the first to admit that I like to have my trips planned out. I don’t typically wing it and hope for the best; I’m just not wired that way. But sometimes we can get too attached to our plans and miss the spontaneous experiences that really define our journeys. I now make a conscious effort when I travel to allow for some “play it by ear” time. And I remind myself not to get all flustered if something doesn’t go according to schedule.
No, I didn’t get to spend much time on One Foot Island. And the lagoon tour wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned. But if I could do it over again, would I choose to have everything go as planned? A brochure-perfect excursion? Not a chance.
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved