- Exploring the Land of Cook
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“Turn a rock,” Temuti says, getting off the boat.
There are seven of us, but she’s talking only to me.
“Turn a rock?”
English is not her first language so I assume I’m missing something. She bends over to show me that I should flip over a piece of coral rock. I flip a bleached-white slab of coral as the ocean laps baby waves over my bare feet.
“When you go on to new land you turn a rock for good luck,” she explains. “It is to tell it that you are coming.”
We are on Cook Islet, a slip of land that guards the horseshoe-shaped Christmas Island. I have been on this island and its collection of islets for two weeks now, renting a shack behind a church from a grumpy old priest. Temuti is the church cook, and she brings out tea each morning to chat. Yesterday she told me about the man she married when she was seventeen. He’d taken a knife to her more than once—fairly often from the scars running up and down her arms and legs. “But I loved him,” she said. “My father and brothers told me they would kill him. They told me I should leave him. But I told them no.” Then one day he went out fishing and never came back. His outrigger washed back on shore with marks from a shark attack. “I loved him then,” she told me, “but that was the best thing that ever happened to me. The best thing. He might have killed me.”
The trip to Cook was my idea, originally conceived as a solo trip to see some birds, but Temuti caught wind and changed the plan. Why go alone when you can bring a picnic? And family?
Cook Islet covers the mouth of Christmas as a separated chunk of the once circular coral atoll, so the boatride takes less than five minutes. Stepping inland, Temuti grabs the bags of food and heads with her cousin and cousin’s daughter in the opposite direction from Bio, our guide, and Tiio, Temuti’s nephew. Something I couldn’t understand is said in I-Kiribati, the local Micronesian language.
“Are you not coming to see the birds?” I ask.
“No, it’s too hot. We are going to the maneaba.”
They had all been excited to come, but will now do what they might have done at home, head to the nearest maneaba—a thatched-roof, open-air hut—to sleep, talk, and eat. The heat is nearly unbearable out here though, and the air is still and humid, so I can hardly blame them.
The atoll Cook is part of is known to some for its fly-fishing and to others as the largest coral atoll in the world. Polynesians lived here on and off for centuries, but in the eighteenth century it was uninhabited when a Frenchman brought hundreds of Micronesians from two thousand miles away to plant half-a-million palm trees and harvest them for their meat. The five thousand people who live here now are their descendents, and the reason this atoll is part of the thirty-three-island Republic of Kiribati the British allowed independence in 1979. What it might be best known for though is the British and the U.S. nuclear testing that was done near and over civilian populations in the ’50s and ’60s.
But the atoll’s recent history actually started here, on this tiny islet. The first noted visitor was Captain Cook, who landed on Cook Islet on Christmas Eve 1777. He named the islet after himself, and the entire atoll after the day he landed.
His visit was a short one, but he reported collecting three thousand pounds of turtle meat—a brutal irony considering the fact that this islet, his namesake, is now a bird and turtle reserve. In fact, the only animal besides sea turtle, bird, and...