One of the Pacific's most beautiful atolls, Manihiki's reef bears 39 coral islets enclosing a closed lagoon four km wide that's thick with sharks. The dark green, coconut-covered motu are clearly visible across the blue waters.
Until 1852, Manihiki was owned by the people of Rakahanga, who commuted the 44 km between the two islands in outrigger canoes, with great loss of life. In that year the missionaries convinced the islanders to divide themselves between the two islands and give up the hazardous voyages.
In 1889 some disenchanted Manihiki islanders invited the French to annex their island. When a French warship arrived to consummate the act, anxious missionaries speedily hoisted the Union Jack, so the French sailed off. The same August Britain officially declared a protectorate over the island.
Today Manihiki is best known for its pearl farms. In November 1997, Hurricane Martin passed near Manihiki leaving 20 people dead, Tauhunu village in a shambles, and pearl industry installations above water blown away. On the brighter side, most of the oysters survived.
Manihiki is famous for its handsome people. The administrative center is Tauhunu on the west side of the atoll, and there's a second village at Tukao next to the airstrip. Permission of the chief of Tauhunu is required to dive in the lagoon.
The anchorage off Tauhunu is not entirely safe. With the pearl boom in full swing, Air Rarotonga flies here weekly from Rarotonga (1,204 km) and the flights are heavily booked by people involved in the pearl business. Manihiki Lagoon Villas has bungalows, otherwise the airline may be able to arrange accommodations in a local home.
We spent nine days on Manihiki and were told by the locals that we were the first tourists ever to stay overnight. Could that be true in this day and age? The difficulty in getting there was considerable. It cost about US$500 each from Rarotonga, and we had to provide Air Rarotonga with the name of the family we would be staying with, otherwise no plane reservations would be given.
We have been to all of the southern Cooks, Samoa, Fiji, and Tahiti, but here we encountered a warmth and happiness the source of which remains a mystery to us here in New York. In extremely tight clusters of homes they live, inescapably sharing each other's noises, emotions, and actions with a tolerance perhaps only possible in a homogeneous society in which so much is tacitly understood and accepted, to the point of resembling a genetic disposition. And the laughter, the giggling—it never ceased!
Our host was gracious and tender beyond justification. Of course, not only did we provide some monetary relief for putting us up, we took along pounds of meat, vegetables, and gifts for each member of the family. But I was convinced that none of this was the impetus for our most tender treatment.
Now for the downside. As soon as the aspiring snorkeler descends below the Manihiki lagoon, sharks come at you with the utmost curiosity. I saw at least three species, not to mention the black ones that attack you between the motu (the motu themselves were absolutely gorgeous). Another problem was the drinking water situation. Clearly visible in a random glass of water from the cement tanks were little tadpolelike creatures swimming merrily about. This stuff shot through our systems like lightening.
Then, as if matters could not get any worse, there came the news that there may not be enough fuel on the island for our plane to make the return trip. The prospect of staying on Manihiki, dehydrating to a shrivel, was on the horizon as we waited for the next boat shipment of petrol. And, in typical island fashion, I received so much misinformation about the flight that was or was not to be that I became numb until the day of our scheduled departure. Then that day, it took us away, that bird of salvation, right on schedule.