“Watch out for wasps,” Ngaakitai Pureariki calls over his shoulder as we dive into the underbrush. My friend and guide has convinced me to accompany him to Te Are Karioi on the island of Aitutaki. The site, which translates into English as “House of Entertainment,” has never been seen by outsiders. How could I refuse such an offer?
We crawl on our hands and knees through thickets of low scrub, all the while climbing uphill. We are on the west side of the atoll, far from human habitation in a densely forested stand of native palms and the occasional hardwood with a nearly impenetrable understory of thorns and brambles.
I answer lamely, “Oh, right. There’s wasps here?”
“Do you know what to do if they come at us?”
Thinking quickly of other treks through other jungles, I venture a guess. “Don’t run.”
“Yes. That would be very bad.”
I prefer not to consider the consequences of standing mute in the center of swarming and stinging insects. We head deeper into the bush.
1) Hiking at Te Are Karioi
Te Are Karioi was famous in this region of Polynesia during pre-contact times, before the arrival of Europeans, as a place where men could find refuge from their wives and families and dance the nights away in the company of young women. The location has been carefully guarded over the years since missionaries would have ordered the destruction of its locale and memories. Why I have been chosen as the first traveler to see the ruins is a curious question. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that I have been communicating with Ngaa, as he prefers to be called, via email for several months since meeting him during my first visit to Aitutaki, and have asked him to show me unusual “attractions” upon my next arrival.
Soon the brush thins. We are ascending now on the remains of an ancient trail that was once paved with coral stones brought from one of the motus, or small islands, that outline the Aitutaki atoll.
2) One of the motus from which coral was brought to the island in the old days
The land seems to have been terraced and where the ground was shaped nothing grows except a kind of grass. But we still have to pick our way through the undergrowth. Mercifully the sun cannot penetrate the canopy but the temperature still hovers near 35 degrees Celsius. I wonder if my sweat will attract wasps but decide there is nothing I can do but keep watch and pray they are too sleepy in the heat to mount an attack against human interlopers.
The track levels on a small plateau. “Here we are,” Ngaa says. I blink, not comprehending. But my vision adjusts to the leaf clutter and makes out a long foundation of basalt stones. Ngaa exclaims, “This is much bigger than I remembered. Wow! And it’s not a marae. It’s a pai-pai.”
“What does that mean?”
“A marae is a meeting place, sacred. Pai-pai is a house.”
“Did you think this was a marae, then? Before today?”
“I was not sure. All the local people call it a marae, but they do not know their own history and most have never been here. So now we know.”
3) Stone foundations of Te Are Karioi
Around the foundation are stone fire pits. Ngaa reaches down and picks up an object. “Look, Kit, a stone adze.” He hands it to me, a relic of the distant past. I put it in my shoulder bag.
4) Fire pit
We hack with machetes around the perimeter of the house. It measures roughly twelve by six meters. Inside the remains of the structure are thousands of tiny coral rocks. “Why did they haul this stuff up here?” I say.
“Fertility,” is the quiet answer.
We walk around some more and Ngaa tells me what little he knows about the history. “When the missionaries came they forced us to forget our culture. Everything.”
“Your people don’t even have oral traditions?”
“No. We are trying to relearn our past. Our culture has been destroyed. This is why I work to uncover what our ancestors built here.” Ngaa is the director of the Paengariki Marae Archeological Project, an ongoing excavation that he supervises with Mark Eddowes, a field anthropologist from French Polynesia. Ngaa enjoys only the partial and sometimes reluctant support of Aitutaki’s residents.
Paengariki Marae is one of the most important sacred “meeting places” in the Cook Islands, with standing stones that have been dated to around 1300 AD.
5) Excavating at Paengariki Marae, 2009
We stand at the House of Entertainment, listening to lorikeets twitter in the trees, trying to imagine a way of life that vanished over two hundred years ago. We find traces of cooking, with pieces of discarded sea snails and clams. “A lot of people stayed here,” Ngaa says. “This must have been a beautiful place. And all now has been ruined; all is lost.”
6) The stones at Te Are Karioi; broken coral brought here from the motus is clearly visible – such coral would not have occurred inland naturally
“Would the building have had walls?” I ask.
“Yes, made of wood. So there is nothing left.”
Nonetheless the stonework remnants are unique. Clearly this was a site of great importance. I tell this to Ngaa. “There is a legend we still have,” he replies. “Long ago a man came here from Tahiti to stay at Te Are Karioi. Since he did not return to his home island, his wife suspected he was here on Aitutaki and she crossed the ocean to find him. This is very strange, because women were not taught how to navigate.”
“Perhaps she listened to the men talk about sailing and picked up her knowledge that way.”
“No. Navigation was only discussed at the marae, which were taboo to women. They were not allowed to attend the gatherings there and what men talked about during their meetings was secret.”
“So what happened at the marae stayed at the marae, I said, referencing Las Vegas TV advertising in the States.
“Exactly. Now we must ask, how did she navigate a canoe hundreds of kilometers across the Pacific from Tahiti to Aitutaki?”
“She must have been a brave woman. And very much in love.”
Ngaa sighs, although I am not sure if this is an expression of sympathy or one of frustration with womanly obsessions. But he continues to relate the legend. “They say she arrived in Aitutaki at the beach below us. She climbed to the pai-pai and called for her husband. He was here but he hid and did not answer. In her grief and with a broken heart she returned to the beach, climbed a tall palm tree and threw herself to her death on a rock in the ocean.
7) The rock where the woman from Tahiti allegedly threw herself on and died (Ngaa showed me this place later)
Now we are silent. I ponder the similarity between ancient Polynesian culture and our own values today. The same emotions and motivations inhabit the human species everywhere, I conclude.
“Would you like to see the valley further inland?” Ngaa says. “It is the most fertile part of Aitutaki. My forefathers lived there and grew everything they needed.”
“Of course. Let’s go.” We both climb trees to get our bearings. As I scramble up a tangle of branches I think, I’m too old for this. Finally I reach the top. Poking through the forest I glimpse the highest point on the island, Maungapu. “I see the mountain,” I say to Ngaa, who scans from his own perch for familiar landmarks. “Yes, and I see houses,” he replies. “We must go that way.” He points in the correct direction.
We descend and tread carefully through the forest, coming upon curious meadows where again nothing grows but grass.
8) Walking to the valley
“I can’t believe how much coral they hauled up here,” Ngaa comments. Then he sees a group of chestnut trees. “These trees tell us there is underground water nearby.”
Soon we come to a field of tall grass. We walk to the far side and come upon a small farm that belongs to Peter Petero, the owner of the cabin that my wife and I are renting on the other side of Aitutaki. Peter evinces no surprise at our unexpected appearance from the forest and shows us his orchards and gardens. Pigs follow us dutifully, hoping for a hand-out. We continue further inland. Shell middens attest to the domestic activities of the old inhabitants and also to the size of the island’s pre-contact population.
9) Inland shell midden
We pass fresh-water ponds, dug by the ancients and used to raise fish. Today the land is dry, the streams are parched, and the water in the ponds is stagnant. The only aquatic life we see are eels, writhing on the surface of the water.
9) Ancient fish pond
“Do the locals eat these eels?” I say, thinking of sushi back home.
Ngaa makes a face. “No way.” he points to the base of the mountain, where we spot a grove of old-growth forest. “Mahogany trees,” he says. ‘We are lucky they were never cut down for the timber.”
10) Maungapu in the distance, with mahogany trees at its base. Disturbed shell midden in foreground
“Yes,” I agree, knowing that most of Aitutaki’s forests were logged in the nineteenth century by thoughtless white me who saw only profits to be extracted and not the natural beauty of the land.
The sun is now directly over our heads and the heat bears down like a blanket. It is time to return to the road from where we began our hike. “We will walk through the forest again,” Ngaa says, “like the old ones would have done.” I don’t say anything. As we make our way a last time through Te Are Karioi he says, “I wish I was alive in the time of my ancestors. I would give anything to have been here and to live as they did.”
“The past is gone,” I say, “and we can’t bring it back. But at least we can feel the spirit of the old days. Not even missionaries can take that away.”
Finally we return to our cabin on the beach. My wife Diana is waiting there and she is happy to see us. She hands out glasses of cold water to quench our formidable thirst. As Ngaa rises to leave, I reach into my bag and produce the stone adze. “Here, this belongs to Aitutaki, not to me.” Ngaa takes the artifact and we shake hands.
11) A similar adze to the one we found, this one from Paengariki Marae