|Uninhabited by man and teeming with marine life and sea turtles, this little Cook Island is a true atoll set on the peak of a submerged volcano which plunges deep into the ocean bed. Its little horseshoe shaped islets sit either side of the lagoon – Manuae to the west and Te Au O Te to the east – and cover an area of 6.1km either side of the 13sq km lagoon, which these days is where all the action is. This was not always the case.
First to be discovered
About the time Captain Cook first sighted Manuae in 1773 – the first of all the Cook Islands - it was home to about 600 Polynesians. When the Reverend John Williams got there 50 years later it had dwindled to only 40 inhabitants. The decline in population has been put down to conflict about who should be the paramount chief (ariki). By the time the missionaries sailed in to make their mark, (they might as well not have) only five men and three women remained on the island and they were shifted off to Aitutaki – Manuae’s neighbour 100km southeast.
There was a population peak of 32 people around 1956 but 20 years later the island was abandoned. Now administrated as part of Aitutaki , it doesn't however belong to any tapere of that island. It is though part of the Arutanga-Reureu-Nikaupara Constituency.
Even its name has had a disparate history. Originally named Sandwich Island by Captain Cook he then changed it to Hervey Island after the 3rd Earl of Bristol and a Lord of the Admiralty at the time because he decided to name the Hawaiian Islands after Sandwich instead. It became affectionately known as Hervey’s Island or Isle which later applied to the entire Southern Group until 1824 when all the islands were renamed the Cook Islands by the Russian cartographer, von Krusenstern in honour of the man who discovered them.
Former Penal Colony
Before the marine life claimed it as its own, Manuae’s rather speckled history also relates it was a penal colony because Rarotonga had no jail. Fortunately that was abandoned when one was built on the capital island around 1915 and attention was then turned to it becoming a source of copra. But the settlement which was established next to the tiny reef passage just northeast of Turakino, the westernmost point of the atoll and exceedingly dangerous to enter, was abandoned when copra prices plummeted.
There was a small hiatus when an airstrip was built at the prospect of a conversion to an exclusive resort and casino which came to naught – and the remains have become overgrown and unusable. And finally Aitutakians forbade humans to live on the atoll because it was decided that Manuae and its marine life needed protection. Also provision was needed for its biodiversity to recoup from the aftermath of copra harvesting.
Outside the reef lie rich fishing grounds, but despite the quarry available not many venture into its waters. And given the challenges of that very narrow passage into the lagoon, even though huge varieties of fish swim languidly and confidently at the water’s edge, they are not usually an easy catch.
All of which makes Manuae one of the most remote of all the islands. Liaison with the Island Council for permission to visit is necessary and then an experienced local with a very sturdy and well-equipped motorboat to make the three or four hour journey – which can only be made when the weather is at its calmest.
Occasionally commercial yachts make stopovers as part of larger adventure tours of the Northern Islands. But the only other form of life on Manuaae is the Bristle Thighed Curlew which land on Te Au Otu during summer. The most endangered long distance flyer, the Curlew’s journey begins in Alaska – so its destination of the uninhabited and protected Te Au Otu unquestionably provides the perfect sanctuary at the end of the flight of these hardy little travellers.
The beauty of Manuae has been experienced by few. Its tranquility is legend. But the difficulties of getting there make it, much like a beautiful woman, desirable yet elusive and only a fortunate few can lay claim to having landed on her shores.