Penrhyn Rakahunga Manihiki Pukapuka Nassau Suwarrow Palmerston Aitutaki Manuae Takutea Mitiaro Rarotonga Atiu Mauke Mangaia
Steeped in legends and mystique and estimated at 18 million years old, Mangaia is said to be the oldest island in the Pacific. The island is traditionally known as Auau Enua, meaning terraces, or A’Ua’U meaning 'akatautika' or 'levelled'. It's the most southerly of the Cooks and the second largest; Mangaia has to be as far from the madding crowd as any island could possibly be. It’s a place for travellers and walkers.
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Mangaia has a variety of accommodation on the island – all traditionally decorated and comfortable. There’s a lodge, a motel, and chalets where you can cater for yourself
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Friday is market day – the fruits are fabulous, pineapple particularly. After a day of reef or deep sea fishing, whale watching, or caving, spend the night at Babe’s Bar.
Steeped in History

With a volcanic plateau framed by a ring of high fossilised coral cliffs – Mangaia’s remarkable natural beauty and serenity are only part of its fascination. Its age, structure and ancient artefacts have for decades been a draw card to archaeologists and anthropologists who make it a “must” on their expeditions.

Spectacular Landscape

Makatea honeycombs the edge of the reef but rises formidably to a 70m cliff face which reveals a sunken plateau of lush wetlands kept fertile by underground streams and splashing creeks dropping down the sides. A complex subterranean irrigation system created by nature leads through the caves like structures to the reef and a small lake, Tiriara, follows the same path.

All this creates one of the most beautiful island paradise interiors to be found in the Pacific. With the visual splendour of bright earth, makatea paths lined with flamboyant trees cast their blossoms to the ground set against a skyline of the inevitable palm trees behind. The brilliance of the taro swamps glisten in the sun framed by the Barringtonia forests and beyond the plantations bloom.

Ancient Caves

The legends related to these ancient caves are as intricate as their origins. And many believe there is a multiplicity yet undiscovered by humans. The cave Te Puta, where the local recluse Tuna lived, has a high stunning view of the interior plateau. Teruarere with its dramatic and seemingly endless chambers hoarding ancestral bones and rediscovered in the early 1930s by Robert Dean Frisbie and Te Uru a Puru is said to be over 3km long as it stretches to the reef. All reveal magnificent stalactites and stalagmites - awesome in their ancient structure.

If the caves are famous, so too are the “staircases” cutting through the towering coral cliffs and for which Mangaia was originally named. To reach the plantations centred in the verdant plateau; these natural crevices (Ara Kiore for one) were made into steps by the forefathers who hand-carried rocks before forging them into shape to provide easy access. Unknown to the marauding islanders from other areas, legend says that they also provided quick escape for women and children during warfare.

Mangaia’s History

The redoubtable John Williams who features largely in the history books of the Pacific came upon Mangaia while searching for Rarotonga in 1823. But he met a fierce reception and no missionaries landed here. And despite becoming a British Protectorate in 1888 the Mangaians maintain a dour reputation amongst their own and are recognised as being fiercely independent.

A fact reflected in their refusal to have anything to do with the Cook Islands Land Court; hence probably adding further appeal to this island, which has somehow managed to avoid the land court system introduced during the colonial area to most of the other inhabited islands. Divided into six puna, or districts, the island chiefs or kavana administer them and with one paramount chief, Numangatini Ariki, resolutions affecting land issues are easy and amicable.

Recently, the strong matriarchal influence caused a new introduction which now allows for women to inherit traditional titles and become land owners. Something no doubt many other islanders wish were a part of their own system.

Rich Soil

The lush growth of coconut, pandanus and the huge Puka trees springing out of the coral rock, reveal a rich earth. Renowned for its coconuts, the Mangaians regard the palm as a staple plant of survival providing food, coconut milk and also fibre.

Rare Birdlife

Not forgetting the rare birds like the Mangaian Kingfisher- which never eats fish but instead preys on skinks, insects and spiders. Nesting in old coconut palms, the Mangaian Kingfisher was thought to be under threat of extinction, but with a population of between 400-700, is safe for now.

The Barringtonia houses the tanga’eo – often the target of that very aggressive Mynah bird that besieges so many of the islands today. In the forlorn hope of reducing insect levels, which are high here, the hapless Mynah’s other name is Gudgeon’s Revenge, after some blighted do-gooder who hoped the bird would help.


The CICC is alive and well in Mangaia; the churches in Kaumata and Ivirua are an interesting architectural mix of Gothic and Norman. These buildings are a pivotal part of community life.


Also pivotal is the main industry for Mangaia – Pupu – the tiny yellow land snails which emerge only after rain – are highly prized as hatband decorations and long “eis” for arriving and departing visitors. The gathering, processing, piercing and stringing of these miniscule shells is hugely time consuming. They are in high demand, particularly in Tahiti and Hawaii – hardly surprising considering the process behind their creation.

Infinite Beauty

Despite its comparably large size, Mangaia has only around 500 inhabitants and few travellers visit its infinite beauty and lush landscape. Of the three villages on Mangaia, including Tamarua in the south, Ivirua in the northeast, and Oneroa in the west, the latter is the hub and the prideful place of a Union Jack bestowed on the “king” Numangatini by Queen Victoria when he visited London.

It is the extraordinary rugged beauty that beats even the unique ancient history and alluring traditional way of life. The roar of surf at night is untainted by other sounds. The blackness is absolute. No streetlamps or lights compete with the vast ebony sky and its myriad of shining stars. Nature rests very near.
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