The Oldest and Most Beautiful Island in the Cook Islands shares a Dark Secret

The Oldest and Most Beautiful Island in the Cook Islands shares a Dark Secret

Deep in the South Seas, the most southerly of the Cook Islands has the distinction of being the oldest island in the Pacific. Analysis of its geology shows it dates from 18 million years ago Steeped with legends and myths, its age, structure and ancient artifacts have for decades meant this unique tropical island has become a Mecca for archaeologists and anthropologists... Mangaia’s remarkable natural beauty and serenity are only part of its fascination…

Ancient Burial Caves on the Island of Makatea.  

The People

Despite its comparably large size, only 500 people live here. It's a proud island, the inhabitants are renowned for their unique culture and sense of independence. The explorer James Cook landed here in 1777 and after a not so friendly reception promptly hightailed it to the friendlier Island of 'Atiu. To this day Mangaia stands aloof from the rest of the Cooks, they have traditional leaders and no courts, they set aside land distribution according to need of the people and proven ability. Mangaia has its own Queen with a palace in the village of Oneroa.

The Land Scape

Like many of the southern islands Makatea is surrounded by a ring of makatea, (a fossilised coral reef) which encircles the island, rising formidably to a 70m face that creates a natural barrier for the island against the elements. These cliffs fall away to a sunken plateau of lush wetlands kept fertile by a complex subterranean irrigation system and is cut off from the raised interior by inner cliffs of makatea. A narrow road winds impressively through the steep cliffs between the coast and interior that are referred to by locals as “upstairs” and “downstairs.” The central plateaus fertile volcanic earth nourishes a jungle of huge Puka, coconut and pandanu trees, confirming that Makatea is the Garden of the Cook Islands”

One of the most beautiful island interiors to be found in the Pacific.

Ancient Burial Caves and Legendary Creatures.

The legends related to the ancient caves of Mangaia are as intricate as their origins. The pre-Christian tradition of burial was in the caves and chasms of its coralline plateau, even in recent Christian times burials alongside dwellings was forbidden. Each cave is on family land and for a nominal fee an apointed family guide will be willingly show you the way.

Te Rua Rere Cave

There are many burial cave’s to be visited on the island and It is believed there are many yet undiscovered by “humans”. Through the Barringtonia speciosa forest on the north-western makatea these is the massive Te Rua Rere Cave. This is considered the most stunning. A dramatic cave, high but narrow, a seemingly endless series of interconnected chambers adorned with huge crystalline, glistening-white stalactites and impressive stalagmites rising from its wet floors. Here amongst the labyrinths is the last resting place for previous generations whose remains can still be seen by torchlight. Is said to be over three kilometers long as it stretches all the way to the reef – but no one (living) has yet been to the end of the system. Te Rua Rere, literally means jump in the local language. Because one has to literally jump to get inside the cave from the entrance. This is probably a good opportunity to point out that you need to be relatively fit and agile to explore the caves, the interiors are mainly dark and swampy there are no "official" tours and certainly no lighting or handrails.

The Legend of Momokē

The spirits of ancient ancestors are believed to walk the island and once the sun sets, many locals won't venture into the murky makatea after dark. Inside many of the burial caves are deep freshwater pools; ancient tales describe a pale-skinned, fair-haired, slime-covered creature called Momokē (people from the Underworld ) are thought to emerge from fresh water pools at night – Probably another good reason to take a guide, to ensure you get back in time!

The Caves


Mangaia has one of the most extraordinary looking coastlines, take a day, a picnic lunch and following the coastal roads. If you head inland be prepared for a land of the totally quiet, even the occasional pickup truck or motor scooter only accentuates the silence once its exhaust has faded – you may not see another “living” sole. Follow one of the many tracks, find swimming spots, pig feeding points, taro patches, forests or even caves. You will be keenly aware that you are as far from the madding crowd as you could possibly wish to be - This is a place for travellers and walkers.

Lost? Just head for the sea, you’ll find your way back.

Is it for you?

Very few travellers get to experience its extraordinary rugged beauty that beats even the ancient history and alluring traditional way of life. Those that have, find the locals friendly and charming. The roar of the surf at night is untainted by any other sound. The blackness of the night absolute – just a mass of shining stars - Nature rests very near.  

It would make a nice two or three day excursion from Rarotonga, certainly enough going on to pep your interest.

 Fact File

The Cook Islands, located about half way between Tahiti & Fiji, are made up of 15 islands divided into 2 groups—Northern & Southern. The chain is located south of Hawaii and south of the Equator meaning the seasons are reverse from the US. Air New Zealand currently is the only airline serving the Cook Islands with 1 flight per week between Los Angeles and Rarotonga. And there is only 1 flight per week between the Cook Islands and Fiji. The Cook Islands are very family friendly and accommodations range from motel style units with kitchens up to deluxe properties and even private villas. Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga from Sydney direct every Saturday and via New Zealand most days. Air Rarotonga has 40-minute direct flights to Mangaia from Rarotonga three times a week. 


Brent Narbey
Brent Narbey
: 5 Jul 2012 (Last updated: 13 Mar 2022)

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