Two hundred kilometres east-south-east from Rarotonga lies the 'high' island (raised atoll) of Mangaia that has always been isolated and determinedly independent. Mangaia is the second largest of the Cook Islands and one of the oldest in the South Pacific, having been formed by volcanic eruption more than 16 million years ago.

Tradition has it that the island was not discovered by a voyaging ancestor - Mangaian belief is that the first human being rose from a hole in the centre of their island. Mangaia and Avaiki, the spiritual homeland, are thus one and the same. In less legendary terms, it is thought that the island was populated by seafarers from Tahiti, Rarotonga and Tonga.

Geologically, Mangaia is by far the oldest of the 15 islands in the Cook Group, and is shaped like a tail-less stingray whose head faces north-west. Fifty-one square kilometres in size, the island is surrounded by a thick coral reef, with tiny white-sand beaches notched into its coastal rock.

Tunnels and Caves

The karstic nature of the makatea means that it is honeycombed with sinkholes, tunnels and caves which the Mangaians have used as tombs for hundreds of years. Teruarere Cave, for example, on the northern inland edge of the makatea, is an apparently endless succession of connected chambers, from the inner reaches of which it is possible to hear the beating of waves on the reef, somewhere overhead.

At just inside latitude 22º south, Mangaia is the southernmost of the Cook Islands. The coolness of the months from June to August, when the mean temperature is just over 21ºC, means that crops more commonly associated with temperate climates grow well here.

Direct flights from Rarotonga most days and several guest house style accommodation make visits to Mangaia an interesting excursion away from the beaten track.

Find out more about the other islands of the Cook Islands