Mangaia – The Garden of the Cook Islands
Mangaia, the most southerly of the Cook Islands, is also the second largest. It has the distinction of being the oldest island in the Pacific. Analysis of its geology shows it dates from 18 million years ago which is probably why it arouses keen interest among geologists. Roughly circular in shape, it rises 15,600 feet (4750 m) above the ocean floor. It has a central volcanic plateau and, like many of the southern islands in the Cooks, it is surrounded by a 200-foot (60 m) high ring of cliffs of fossilised coral, makatea.
These limestone battlements are honeycombed with caves featuring stalactites and stalagmites of extraordinary beauty. The largest and most spectacular cave is Teruarere. This was rediscovered in the mid 1930s by a native Mangaian in company with the celebrated American writer and Pacific exile, Robert Dean Frisbie (Art and Culture). The high outer wall of makatea slopes into the interior and streams from it drain into a lake as well as some small swamps situated between the inner wall of the makatea and the remnants of the original volcanic cone in the centre which is the island’s highest point, Rangimotia at 550 feet (169 m). Mangaia is a recent name given by a visiting Aitutakian some two years before Captain Cook arrived on March 29 1777. Cook did not receive a friendly reception. Before then the island was called A’Ua’U which means “akatautika” or “levelled”. The redoubtable John Williams found Mangaia in June 1823 while searching for Rarotonga. This time, however, unlike Aitutaki, he met with a fierce reception from the islanders and was unable to leave behind any native missionaries, his previous successful tactic. In 1888 Mangaia was proclaimed a British protectorate and became part of the Cook Islands Federation. The dour reputation Mangaians enjoy probably stems from their independence. They have staunchly refused to have any truck with the Cook Islands Land Court which has often attempted to mediate and administer land disputes. Mangaia is a rich source of sophisticated legends and myths of origin and has attracted the interest of anthropologists from
around the world.