Like every island in the Cook Islands, Mangaia has a unique character. Geologically the oldest of the islands, it's bounded on all sides by steep, sharp volcanic cliffs. Dense forests of pandanus – stout, palm-like trees -- separate these cliffs from the rugged roads. The hilly interior is thick with swamps, riddled with caves, and abounds with hibiscus and fruit trees. The Cook Islands' government technically has no control on the island as the village chiefs make all decisions and settle all disputes.
To many outsiders, and even locals, the island seems 'backward' and frozen in time. If the inhabitants worked together, they say, and opened up all the caves, uncovered the ancient marae and exhumed the ancient idols to put on display, Mangaia could easily become a prime destination for tourists exploring the Cook Islands.
But the 500 natives of Mangaia fear their way of life, and their very history and lineage is at stake. It is this very mentality that gives Mangaia its unique character, and distinguishes it from the comparative metropolis of Rarotonga and the luxury hotels of Aitutaki.
A few hours before my departure, I peered down at the sea breaking over the jagged cliffs and felt content with my decision to visit Mangaia. I had the chance to see first hand the place where so many brutal Polynesian tales unfolded, and was thankful that I had discovered some of the deep mysteries of this island and its people.