Atui’s Daunting Dens: Caving in the Cook Islands

LEADcookIslandsDark and enclosed spaces don’t thrill me. Neither do claustrophobic swimming pools. So, as I gingerly inch my way into the chilly, candle-lit waters of Anatakitaki Cave on the Cook Island of Atiu, it doesn’t surprise me that my heart skips a beat—and then another.“Don’t worry,” says Marshall Humphreys, our New Zealand-born guide, who is calm and comfortable in this spooky cavern. “You won’t be attacked by any creepy crawlers.”The aquamarine blue water is clearer than polished crystal, and there’s no sign of any living creatures in the ancient subterranean pond. Although I’m the only apprehensive water baby in our tour group of six, I quickly put my fears aside and submerge into the tropical pool.

The 15 exotic Cook Islands lie halfway between Tahiti and Fiji and are scattered over two million square kilometers (772,204 square miles) of the South Pacific Ocean.

Air New Zealand provides service from Los Angeles to Rarotonga, making it a doable destination for North Americans, and also offers puddle jump flights from Avarua, Cook Islands’ capital and largest city, to the outer atolls.

Atiu is one of these precious jewels. Like the other isles, it’s known for its rugged beauty and warm Polynesian hospitality. Because it was formed during pre-glacial periods when the sea levels were much higher, the entire mass is encompassed by 50- to 100-meter (164 to 328 feet) cliffs.

These mile-wide (1.6 kilometer) impenetrable rings comprised of makatea (a fossilized coral) circumvent the island and are riddled with caves.

Stalactites and stalagmites glitter like diamonds in the rough. Once I emerge from my refreshing dip, they guide us throughout the cavern. Anatakitaki is also known as the ‘Cave of the Kopekas,’ named for the thousands of resident swifts or swallow-like birds.

They nest in the clammy depths, using a form of echolocation, similar to that of a bat, to detect their way. As we fumble along the pathway by torchlight, we can hear the eerie chatter and clicks of their cries.

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