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On Safari... In The Cook Islands

24th February 2016

There’s a family of piglets I’m getting awfully familiar with out here on the back road. Each morning – not too long after sunrise – I take a slow walk along Rarotonga’s too-often-overlooked inland road – the Ara Metua.

The first rays of sunshine light up Rarotonga’s dark, green hinterland – all rocky triangular peaks that drop down into untethered jungle with few walking tracks, and no sign of development at all – and I’m the only one here to see it… oh, except for the piglets, that is, but then they seem more focused on jumping on me than admiring the view.

Most visitors who come to the Cook Islands are here for the island group’s blue lagoons and white sand beaches; but few know Rarotonga has a hinterland that’s every bit as fetching. But it’s been almost impossible to stay somewhere that focuses on these mountains, not the sea… till now, that is.

While most come to Rarotonga for lagoons, its hinterland is just as stunning. Image courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism.

Now I’m staying in Rarotonga’s newest accommodation option – I’m glamping in an African safari-style tent with polished timber floors and a view from my king-size bed of the mountains of Rarotonga’s interior.

Now, that’s not to say I won’t be spending time on the lagoon – Rarotonga is so small (69 square kilometres) so nothing is ever far away; in fact, the sea is just a 500 metre walk from me here. But here at Ikurangi Eco Retreat, I’m nestled in amongst pawpaw plantations with my own private yoga tent – and no other tourists can possibly walk in the way of my view. In fact, aside from the handful of other guests here, I won’t see a single soul for days… just pigs, goats, coconut trees and taro plants.

Ikurangi Eco Retreat offers an alternative to Rarotonga's lagoon-side stays. Image courtesy of Ikurangi Eco Retreat.

Ikurangi Eco Retreat is only the South Pacific’s second luxury safari glamping option. I’m surprised more operators haven’t thought to embrace the romanticism of luxury camping in the most romanticised region on Earth, but at least now you can lie out under the Polynesian night sky with all its stars in your own claw foot bath in your safari tent’s outdoor private bathroom.

Or enjoy a yoga session in the special yoga tent next door before a breakfast of freshly-made coconut yoghurt and local fruits on your own private timber deck overlooking the Takitumu mountain range.

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What I like too is that everything at Ikurangi is environmentally friendly. Co-owner Luana Scowcroft is a third-generation Cook Islander who worked for environmental organisations in New Zealand before returning home and wanted to develop the Cook Islands’ first purpose-built eco accommodation.

Ikurangi Eco Retreats’ compost toilets use banana leaves from the neighbour’s plantation, while toiletries and cleaning materials are all biodegradable and natural. Guests are also encouraged to use free-of-charge bicycles to cut down on their carbon footprint.

The open air ensuite bathroom allows guests to bathe out under the stars. Image courtesy of Ikurangi Eco Retreat.

Yoga instructors can come into Ikurangi Eco Retreat for private sessions and Scowcroft has just established the first of many week-long yoga retreats for wellness vacations.

Even at the busiest times it never feels crowded in Rarotonga, but then I always like to leave the coastal road behind to escape here. Up here near the Ara Metua I ride my bike down dirt roads deep into the green hinterland where water catchment areas allow visitors in the know to ride into green valleys just underneath the mountains.

Staying inside the exclusive Ariki Safari Tent is hardly anyone’s idea of roughing it. Image courtesty of Ikurangi Eco Retreat.

For three of my four days at Ikurangi I leave the coast behind entirely, preferring the sanctity of the interior, focusing instead on how the colours change in the hinterland as the sun moves across the sky. Subsistence farmers tend to taro and pawpaw plantations out here, and pigs and piglets far outnumber passing cars.

By the fourth day I’m desperate for some salt on my skin, so I ride to the lagoon, and refresh myself in the warm water, before finding solace again staring out at my mountains. Everything moves as I look – Tropicbirds circle the peaks and long shadows add to the sense of the unknown in the mountains as the afternoon wears itself down.

Underneath all those stars, nowhere is as cosy as a luxury safari tent in the South Pacific. Image courtesy of Ikurangi Eco Retreat.

But it’s the evenings I like most at Ikurangi Eco Retreat – when the land cools down and the colours of the sunset bounce off the tallest peaks, and the chooks and their chicks gather for last minute bedtime snacks under the mango tree beside me.

That’s when I know the stars aren’t far away and soon I’ll be lying in a warm bath counting shooting stars and smelling frangipani and gardenia on the warm Polynesian breeze.

Ikurangi Eco Retreat offers their most exclusive Ariki Safari Tent and four luxury safari tents. They also offer studio accommodation. Contact Travel Associates for more information.