Atui’s Daunting Dens: Caving in the Cook Islands


Rima Rau Burial Cave is another of Atiu’s daunting dens that we warily venture into. “In the native language, the name ‘Rima Rau’, equates to one thousand dead,” Humphreys says casually, as if reporting the weather.

Based on the visual remains, we gather he’s telling the truth. Flanking our narrow route is a primordial gravesite, displaying an array of bones and human skulls, some still bearing teeth.

As we slither through this subterranean tomb, I stare into empty eyes and literally rub elbows with long-gone souls. Legends suggest some died in battle, others from revenge and a few due to cannibalism.

Amazingly, this phenomenon has never been analyzed by anthropologists. By the end of this spooky experience I feel chilled—yes, you’ve got it—to the bone.

Later, we meet with a new guide, Tere, who is native to the Cook Island of Mangaia and an expert when it comes to caves and sharing tales of the past. “There are way more caves on this island than we know about,” he states in his strong Maori accent.

“Some contain forgotten weapons and sacred artifacts.” We discover there is even a fabled cavern that contains bones from giant warriors.

Delighted with the tales of the unknown, the caves have captured my imagination and leave me wanting more. Mystery, fascination, intrigue. It’s all part of the adventure when caving in the Cooks.

If You Go

Air New Zealand

Atiu Tours

Cook Islands Tourism

Emily Nixon is a freelance travel writer. This is her first piece for