The most isolated island in the Cooks group,
Pukapuka is a true atoll comprising three islets and a sandbank -- the
whole shaped like a three-bladed fan. It lies 715 miles (1150 km)
north-west of Rarotonga and is one of
the most remote of the Cooks group.
It is also difficult for
the ordinary traveller to access because although Air
Rarotonga flies there it is on an irregular basis which is
determined by weather conditions. The small population lives and works as
a true commune, often the case with tiny Pacific island communities.
The first and most obvious attribute of Pukapuka
is that it is astonishingly beautiful. The anthropologist Ernest
Beaglehole described his first sight of it in 1934:
"White clouds flecked the sky overhead,
the sea below us was a tangle of shadowy blues and foaming wave crests,
the sun had a caressing warmth about it...we could distinguish the vivid
belt of green coconut and pandanus trees poised in the air above beaches
of glittering whiteness...coming nearer still, we could make out little
coconut-thatched native houses growing as if out of the sandy beach
But it was an American writer, Robert
Dean Frisbie, who immortalised Pukapuka in his books "The book of
Puka Puka" and "The Island of Desire". He moved to the
atoll in 1924 to become a storekeeper and to seek isolation from the
technological world of the 20th century. In 1928 he wrote in the Atlantic
"It comprises three small islets
threaded on a reef six or seven miles in circumference, which encloses a
lagoon so beautifully clear that one can see the strange forests of
coral to a depth of ten fathoms. The islets are little more than banks
of sand and bleached coral where coconut palms and pandanus and puka
trees break momentarily the steady sweep of the trade wind."
Humans have inhabited Pukapuka from at least 300
BC and excavations have shown that the island was home to humans around
400 AD. An extraordinary archaeological find from 300 BC are dogs' bones
big enough to suggest one specimen was similar in size to the ancient
dingo of Australia. The skull was larger than the dog skulls excavated
from Moorea in the Society Islands. According to Japanese archaeologists
there are no archaeological specimens of such large dogs from south-east
The Pukapukans are famous sailors and navigators.
This version of a Pukapukan star map shows the occidental names of the
constellations but with the Polynesian references using the legends, and
ocean creatures with which they were familiar. For instance, they saw the
Milky Way as two large sharks.
It is not known whether Pukapuka was inhabited
continuously but it seems fairly certain it was finally settled around
1300 AD from Western Polynesia. The island is extremely important in the
arena of Pacific cultural history both because of its geographical
location and because its culture has close affiliations with both Eastern
and Western Polynesia. The people speak a language more related to Samoan
than the Maori tongues of the southern Cook Islands but there is evidence
of linguistic influence from eastern Polynesia. Legends have it that a
tsunami -- tidal wave -- struck Pukapuka around 1525 -- four years after
Magellan crossed the Pacific -- and killed all the inhabitants except for
15 men and two women. These doughty survivors repopulated the island.
Pukapuka has the distinction of being the first
of the Cook Islands to be sighted by Europeans. The Spanish explorer
Alvaro de Mendana saw it on August 20 1595 and named it San Bernardo. By a
strange coincidence the first Pacific island sighted by Europeans was
another Pukapuka, this one in the north-eastern corner of the Tuamotu
archipelago, discovered by Ferdinand Magellan on January 24 1521.
The next known European sighting came from a
British ship, the "HMS Dolphin", under the command of
John Byron on June 21 1765. He could not land because of high surf and
dangerous rocks and, such was the paucity of his imagination, named
Pukapuka the Island of Danger. In 1857, Polynesian missionary teachers
were landed and in 1865 the missionary ship "John Williams"
went aground on the reef.
Pukapuka was proclaimed a British protectorate in
1892 and was included in the Cook Islands boundaries under the control of
New Zealand in 1901.
Pukapuka lies far to
the north west, nearly 800miles from Rarotonga and \280 miles north east
of the Samoa's.
Only recently opened
up to air services, the population have preserved innovative ways of
sustaining a comfortable life almost oblivious to the outside world.
can be arranged with the local families at an including meals bases.
A variety of fish and
birds are found. Taro is grown in a man made swamp which
along with products of the coconut palm provide remarkable fare at meal
times. A substantially different dialect, finely woven maps and a
passion for kirikiti (island cricket of Samoan origin) are some of
the features that set Pukapuka aside from the rest of the Cook Islands.
Air services are provided by charter or on
average once every two months on a 3 day circuit of Pukapuka, Manihiki and
For more information on the islands of the Northern group,
more general information
on Cook Islands, go to: