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Monday, 6th December  2021 12:40:am

news01My journey starts on the island of Aitutaki, 222 years to the day after Captain Bligh first saw it. As we land, a chubby New Zealander, squeezed into her seat ahead of me, mutters, 'Soon be able to stretch my legs.' Stepping through the aircraft door, I'm struck by the Pacific heat, a concentration of smells more than temperature: coconut husks, frangipani and warm damp earth, oil and salt air, a complicated, pungent layering of scents decaying as others bloom fragrantly in their place. I'm also struck by the raw clarity of the sunlight, and another sort of clarity I can only describe as uncrowded air.
Prawn-shaped, lizard-green, the island was once busier than it is now, its airstrip built by American GIs during World War II being formerly one of the Cooks' main airfields. In the 1950s Tasman Empire Airways also used Akaiami, an islet at the far end of Aitutaki's lagoon, as a refuelling stop for its Solent flying boats on the Auckland-Tahiti route (rumours are circulating of 
a plan to bring back the romance of the flying boats).news02

The next morning we drive to Ootu Beach at the end of the airfield. On the near-empty road we pass a parked pickup with the tail of a big yellow fin tuna poking out from its back. At Ootu we board a white launch skippered by Captain Awesome, a jokey, purposeful Aitutakian who speeds us eight or nine kilometres to the southern end of the lagoon, past Akaiami's crumbling flying-
boat jetty and its neighbouring islets, to One Foot Island. In the lagoon, too shallow for dolphins, are paddling green turtles, baby reef rays hunting for their mother, and countless sea cucumbers as chunky and black as Stalin's moustache - the unprepossessing, never-lose-suction Dysons of the lagoon.
We drop anchor off a hallucinatory white 
sandbank, a sliver of palest ochre between the lagoon's mint and the sky's boundless violet. Popular for weddings, it feels like the edge of the world, and I find its untetheredness unsettling. Over 
a picnic of seared tuna and guava-and-starfruit salad ('Your lovely awesome blessing on it' is Captain Awesome's grace), we suspect that the excursion is as much for Awesome's benefit as ours, as he pulls out a ukulele and jams with the crew 
from another boat. After lunch the One Foot Island Ukulele Band plus spoons, its members singing in a quick, plangent Polynesian register about spectacular vaines and cheating hearts that excite, carries to where I'm swimming and sounds like George Formby in a caffeine delirium. It's hard to pull Captain Awesome away.
On the return journey we glimpse the ease with which an unspoiled ecology is disturbed. Greedy organisers have taken over the islet of Motu tavake for a kite-surfing competition in a month's time, and instead of constructing facilities on the beach they have clear-cut the islet's interior. Neighbouring Maina island is a nesting-ground for red-tailed tropicbirds, and it's the breeding season. A female shrieks as I step too close to where she's nesting (with the dearth of trees, there are birds under every bush); in the air hundreds of males clamour in protest at their razed habitat.news03

Elsewhere Aitutaki's pristineness and simplicity steal over me. Time spools out. The islanders were astonished when their bank was robbed recently for the first time in the island's history, but you can look at this two ways: either it's a disgraceful sign of the times, or an emphatic reminder of how unspoilt life is almost 
all the time. For little oppresses people here, not even the Church. Aitutaki was the first of the Cook Islands to be converted to Christianity, in 1821, when two Tahitian pastors were landed by the London Missionary Society, but there's none of the prohibitionist fervour here that I've noticed in other Pacific nations.
In the hall by the wharf at Arutanga, next to the white limestone church built in 1828, village women show me how they make tivaevae, ceremonial appliqué quilts. Outside, between hall and road, inquisitive, snotty toddlers play unsupervised. 
On the road no one exceeds the speed limit: they don't need to. 
I have breakfast watching great frigatebirds low-flying over the lagoon for theirs; lunch on a motu; and after sunset, when the 
sky is irradiated by flounces of baby-pink and blue, barred and exploded with grey, and the sea lacquered with the nacreous sheen of black pearls, dinner is served on the deck at a nearby resort.news04

But I'm restless. To sit too long on a desert shore ensnares the soul. This is not just a Western discontent. Pacific islanders are just as prone to feel that an island can be a trap; sometimes you sense them fidgeting beneath their equability. Cook Islanders are remarkably lucky: an almost unique virtue of the Cook Islands' political arrangements is that they enjoy New Zealand citizenship as well as their own. As a result, four fifths of the population live and work abroad; and when only a fifth of your country is in residence at any time, it must be easy to 
be relaxed. Put it another way: if, out of a total of 85,000, the absent 70,000 were all to return at once, the commotion would be considerable.
So on the last day on Aitutaki we rent scooters, the island's chief form of transport. (Aitutakians can dwarf their scooters: I see a little girl, perhaps two years old, unable to reach round her father's sizeable Polynesian waist and instead clutching fistfuls of his T-shirt for dear life.) We visit the Marine Resources Centre, engaged in repopulating the lagoon with clams from breeding tanks, their squiggly fat lips another mesmerising spectrum of blues: turquoise, aquamarine, cobalt and Yves Klein.
And in the afternoon we discover a Swiss accountant's secret garden. Bill Tschan retired twelve years ago and was given a hectare of land 
by his Aitutakian father-in-law. He has devoted his leisure to producing a remarkable collection of the world's fruit on a single plantation. He travels, and visitors dispatch seeds to him: dates from Saudi Arabia, durian from Borneo, sapodillas from South America, miracle berries from West Africa (chew one, then eat a lemon and taste it flooding your mouth with sweetness). He is 80 per cent self-sufficient, still an obsessional accountant (he knows the yield of every tree) and an expert on natural remedies. 'Momordica charantia for back pain, nothing better,' he tells me. 'Mile-a-minute is the best coagulant and antiseptic.' White-haired, youthful, eager, in 
love with his days and his acres, Tschan seemed to have resolved 
the question of restlessness in a majestically Voltairean way, cultivating his garden as both passion and remedy.

From last year's NZ Herald:

Aitutaki Lagoon