I shielded my eyes from the sun to get a better look at the ocean; rolling and blue, it was breaking across a halo of coral reef, gliding up on to white, sandy beaches. Inland was dense forest from which rose a small mountain: Te... " />

Cook Islands: Oh Brother, where art thou?

Reuniting with family, Jesse Leonard finds his sibling bonds remain strong in Rarotongaâ„¢s tropical heat.

I shielded my eyes from the sun to get a better look at the ocean; rolling and blue, it was breaking across a halo of coral reef, gliding up on to white, sandy beaches. Inland was dense forest from which rose a small mountain: Te Rua Manga.

I grinned, happy to be on terra firma, happy that my flight was smooth and uneventful, and happy that I was about to spend 10 nights in beautiful Rarotonga, catching up with my brother.

We had just disembarked from the plane and stood on the runway (something I always wanted to do), when several passengers scurried past us; beelining toward the airport terminal with the hope of recycled air. But there was none to be had, only broken ceiling fans and oppressive waiting-line warmth. Brother and I followed at leisure, and after a lengthy queue, were greeted, lei’d and ushered to a bus. From there we sat witness to palms, scooters, and the sun-damaged tourists of central Avarua zipping past the windows.

Our accommodation consisted of one room with two beds at the Edgewater, a beautiful place with amenities aplenty.

The room was modest, clean, and I didn’t have to pay a cent, meaning I have zero criticisms.

We dumped our things and headed back out into the tropical heat. A path led past the bar, where a group played ukuleles, past a swimming pool where children beat on each other with pool noodles, and ended at he beach, where we stripped and lumbered into the water.

I remember wondering why the water was so shallow, and why everybody seemed to be wearing horrifically unfashionable water shoes. One question was answered the minute I stepped out of the ocean. A blase member of the resort staff came over and told me about the stonefish: a camouflaged fellow who gads about the seabed, wearing spines filled with venom, powerful enough to put you in the hospital.

The abandoned Sheraton Resort. Photo / Jesse Leonard
The abandoned Sheraton Resort. Photo / Jesse Leonard

It wasn’t long before I had spent all my money, most of it on a motorbike licence. I had to do three small circuits of a parking lot while the scooter rental manager checked his Facebook.

Brother and I revved our scooters, eager to take the hour-long, 32km circuit of the island along the main road: Ara Tapu. We made it five minutes from the resort before we were sidetracked by a hulking white complex covered in graffiti with a Do Not Enter sign by the driveway.

We stopped and marvelled at the Chernobyl-like appearance of the abandoned Sheraton hotel. It was a concept originally brokered between an Italian bank and the Cook Islands, but fell into development hell when accusations of land theft were brought up at the land breaking ceremony.

The Sheraton progressed not much further, and the ruins, though for sale, are considered cursed by the locals. Brother and I walked through the central building and into one of the suites, where wires hung from the ceiling and a spa bath was filled with mould. We looked out the window and saw a squatter village made of tents, with packs of dogs running between them. In a distant part of the complex two men talked loudly while holding machetes, and in the opposite direction a cow was grazing.

We collected the scooters and moved on up the road to look at a waterfall, but it hadn’t rained for weeks, and was somewhat lacklustre.

Three days were left, and I was surviving on complimentary breakfast toast. This required getting up at six thirty in the morning and going to the breakfast hall. It was torture. I would sit and munch on cooked, crunchy bread and ruminate on the turn the trip had taken. My surroundings were beautiful, but I felt somewhat ugly and out of place. Brother had disappeared, flat-out vanished, leaving me with a hangover and a hankering for detective work.

The previous night we had eaten $5 burgers for dinner at a store called Roadhouse. The burger place was attached to a bar where Brother went broke on fishbowl-sized drinks, snooker, and karaoke. We had left late and staggered back to the resort in good cheer, but close to home, Brother fell into a mood, and was adamant about sitting poolside. At that moment I got a phone call from my girlfriend, and went off to take it, arranging to meet Brother back at the room.

When I finally made it back to the room it was empty, and I started to worry.

I needn’t have; Brother would make it back before the flight; freshly tattooed, sunburnt and recklessly happy, but at the time I didn’t know it, so I freaked out and went to look for him.

I weaved my way down the path to the water’s edge, panic rising. I looked at the ocean, and wondered if he had gone swimming, when a ship’s lights flashed from the horizon.

The light hit some meaningful spot somewhere in my psyche, and I was flooded with negativity. It must have been the mood my brother left when he disappeared into the night. I dropped into a white beach chair, spun my glass into the sand, and felt absolutely hopeless: just another star in an overcrowded universe.

A local church. Photo / Jesse Leonard
A local church. Photo / Jesse Leonard


Getting there
Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Rarotonga. One-way Economy Class fares ex-Auckland start from $313.


- NZ Herald