The other day, while sorting out folders in the external hard drive, I came across the pictures of the morning spent hiking the cross-island track in Rarotonga (Cook Islands) last year. It is still one of the best hikes I’ve ever done and I remember that morning like it happened last week (sadly, it didn’t), when we made our way up to Te Rua Manga (commonly known as The Needle), through luscious South Pacific jungle.
We got picked up from our hotel early in the morning by Pa with his friend Susan, in Susan’s car. It was about 8AM and we could already tell it was going to be another scorching hot day. “So I read online the hike is supposed to take about four hours,” I said to Pa while Susan’s sports car drove on the only road on the island. “That’s if you do the suicide trail. With Pa, it’ll take you two and a half hours,” he replied from the front passenger seat, while I tried to get over my issue with people referring to themselves in the third person. As we drove through the village, it became fairly obvious that Pa is a local celebrity, given the number of “hey Pa!” and waves we saw. “Pa coming through! Pa coming through!” he kept shouting out the window, as Susan’s sports car zoomed through all the scooters on the road.
We had biscuits and water in our backpacks but Pa told us there was no need for any of that. That same morning, he had gotten up and smoked some fresh tuna himself and had also made us smoked tuna sandwiches with freshly picked lettuce and apple. On an another container, he had packed us up some bananas and starfruit (or carambola).
Pa recommends sturdy walking boots for the hike – and we quickly learnt why, as we started the steep 400m climb through intricate roots. Our guide, however, did it in jandals, even though, as he told us, he prefers to do it barefoot.
The track was much steeper than I had predicted and, in some places, there wasn’t much of a track at all. In some parts of the hike, there were so many little tracks going off in all directions that it made me wonder how anyone managed to do the trek without a local guide. And yet, carrying the lunch of the two sort-of-fit-but-not-really westerners behind him, Pa climbed up to the Needle and then down again, always at the slow but steady pace he had warned us about in the beginning. We made a few stops when he told us about the fauna and flora of the area, as well as many stories of his over 4000 times on the trek. We made our way through intricate roots – “they are your staircase” – and sweetened our way through the jungles with fresh guavas right off the trees.
He is, as he describes himself, “a spiritual man”. And also a herbalist, natural medicine guru, an endurance athlete, and fluent in several languages. He told us about his years away from the island, living in Germany and about his many children, scattered around the world, living their dreams. Always looking ahead, Pa told us of those who didn’t survive the trek and those who were so transformed by it that they returned to their countries but are still in touch with the guide on a regular basis. He told us about the famous TV personality in New Zealand, who hiked the track on the first day and, seeing Pa wearing no shoes, decided to do the same. And then proceeded to book two other cross-island treks in that same week.
That morning with us was Pa’s 4011th hike to the Needle, known in Rarotonga as the point of male energy. The Dalai Lama considered the Needle one of the eight remaining energy points in the world. Years ago, Pa led the Dalai Lama and his monks to the base of the rock, where they buried an urn with the 900-year-old remains on an ancient master. Pa pointed us to the urn, hidden under a fern.
From the top, the panoramic views show you an infinite sea and how the rugged jungle shapes the island. “I’ve pissed on each one of these mountains,” says Pa, pointing at all the high peaks in front of us and somehow managing to take away the poetry of the moment. “What about the Needle? Have you been right at the very top?” C. asked, looking at the sign saying “climb at your own risk” and the chain next to it. “Pa has climbed it 22 times! But I don’t go that way,” says Pa, looking at the chain. He points at the gap in the middle of the rock, hinting that that’s where he starts his climb. “Do you wear any climbing gear?” C. asks, later telling me he could tell what the answer would be. “Climbing gear? I wasn’t born with any gear! Pa climbs with a grass skirt,” he says, and then laughs, knowing damn well his answer is entertaining for his newfound white friends.
But then there was silence. It lasted a long time as we sat up on the top contemplating the views. I was the one who broke it after a while, when I had to ask him if he realised how lucky he was. I didn’t mean just him, I meant every single person living on that island. With his back leaning on the Needle rock, his eyes looking right into the sea, he said: “Having travelled to other countries and lived in other places, yes, I know exactly how lucky I am”.
If you’re visiting Rarotonga, make sure you get in touch with Pa for one of the best eco tourism experiences of your life. He lives up on the mountain but comes down to take people on the track about three times a week (he opened an exception for us and took us alone on a Saturday, even though he normally takes people in groups and only during the week). For more information or to make a booking, click here.