OF ALL the "high islands" of Polynesia, Rarotonga is the most gentle and serene, and also the least well-known. Until it came to the world's notice in the last few months as the nearest neighbour to the nuclear testing grounds in French Polynesia, no one ever thought much about the place. Even now, its protests to France, and its appeals to Britain for support as a fellow Commonwealth member whose head of state is the Queen, simply go unanswered.
Yet Rarotonga, the main island of the Cooks group, merits our attention, if only for the fact that there is something particularly sweet-tempered about the place. It lacks the boisterous aggression of Samoa, the hauteur of Tahiti, the melting-pot hustle of Hawaii. On our first night there, arriving after midnight, we went for a stroll down the high-hedged lane which is the island's main highway. Two huge dogs came out of the dark to bark at us.
"Sit!" I shouted, more or less in desperation. They sat. We could hear their tails swishing gently on the gravel.
Two motorbikes went past, then came back and stopped in front of us. We could see the villainous stubble and broken teeth of the men barring our path. "Where are you going?" they asked. Did we want a ride home? Could they take us out on the lagoon tomorrow?
There between the dark hedges, one thing was already pretty clear: despite the volcanic peak looming above us, and the Southern Cross flaring away above that, Rarotonga is, in its own way, as calm and mannerly as Dorset. The next morning a hen clucked and walked in the back door of our motel unit; there were rumours of a crab the size of a dinner plate living by the swimming pool outlet. And that was as near to a hint of menace that this island could offer. "A week is too long there," friends who had been there before warned us. "There's nothing to do and nowhere to go."
At first it looked as if they might be right. This is not a holiday for the stern-hearted. The island is tiny - 25 miles in circumference. You can take a bus clockwise round the island in an hour, and then, to unwind, take the other that goes anticlockwise. The lagoon is clean and sharkless, the forest verdant and virgin. A kind of suburban calm hangs over the tin roofs and the church steeples. And then, suddenly, something drops away beneath your feet - and you realise that you are in the heart of a very old, very small and unique culture, even a civilisation in some senses of the word. Unlike similar islands in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean this is not the home of a settler or slave culture. It lies at the centre of the Polynesian triangle, an area larger than Eurasia, through which the Spanish sailed for two centuries without sighting a human being. And alone of the five branches of the Maori race (the others are in Hawaii, Easter Island, Tahiti and New Zealand) Rarotonga has not been overwhelmed by Euro-peans. As soon as you arrive you notice the expressions - on the faces of the immigration clerk and the customs man and the policewoman who sells you a driving licence - a kind of calm, self-possessed melancholy that can be seen in Gauguin portraits but nowhere else today in Polynesia
We were up early (jet-lagged) on the first morning and soon were lost - quite a feat in itself on Rarotonga. Looking at the map I saw we were on the Ara Tapu, the "sacred road" built by the great Polynesian hero and explorer Toi in the ninth century. Up and down the road in the early light, people were up raking and sweeping with ardour.
"What's it all about, all this raking?" we asked a woman, who with two sons and a languorously beautiful daughter of 14 was hard at work.
"We don't like rubbish," she said, looking sternly at a few delinquent leaves under what is apparently the worst culprit, the purple avocado tree. Along the verge small pyramids of leaves stood marshalled into the distance. At the same time, a chorus of lawn mowers began to hum. The English cult of the lawn has a serious rival in the South Pacific. The meanest hovel stands in a quarter acre of perfectly kempt greensward. Further down the road, at one of the four or five palaces that are the residences of the various ariki or paramount chiefs - big, dark-doored, deep-verandahed houses through which wonderful dynastic disputes swirl - we counted five boys motor-mowing across the lawns simultaneously.
Across the road by the lagoon was a plaque saying that this was the place where the Great Fleet that colonised New Zealand set sail about 1350 AD. The Great Fleet theory goes in and out of fashion so often among historians that I could not remember whether to believe this or not.
As in Bali, many gardens in Rarotonga contain a grave or two, some with a roof over them so that the tomb itself makes a shaded seat. "I suppose it's nice for the dying to know they're not going far from home," I said to another islander we met across a hedge. "Only the loved ones stay here," she said briskly. "Only the ones we love."
"What about the others?"
"Off to the cemetery." (Perhaps it is this prospect which accounts for the eerily low crime rate here.)
"Who's in that one?" I asked, pointing at a grave in the garden behind her.
"That's our grandson. He died 11 November last year."
"I'm sorry... What happened?"
"He fell out of a tree. He was a coconut climber, that boy! He must have slipped and then he fell. He was 16." She pointed to a row of shockheaded palms, 70-80ft high, bending in the breeze. One was missing - the one the boy had fallen from. It lay sawn up in the long grass.
For nearly 500 years the people on this little island were in a perpetual and complicated state of civil war. The stone maraes or meeting places, where speeches were made and wars were planned, were destroyed by the London Missionary Society but the competitive spirit of the islanders survives. Churches - there are at least 10 different, mostly Christian, sects on the island - sports clubs and even the hotels and motels provide a focus for local rivalries. Our motel had a large floating population of locals and its own team of dancers and drummers. Everyone is perfectly pleasant towards the foreign guests, whom they regard not as people there to be served but as charming strangers who have unaccountably dropped in to pay for everything.
The music and dancing are more athletic than erotic, with the girls flicking their hips from side to side in a furiously speeded up hula, while the drumming sounds in short violent crescendos, like a man beating on the door to warn you the house is on fire. The worst part, of course, is when the troupe turns to the audience to get some white, or papa'a, up on stage. However there was a ready supply of Swedes and Swiss happy, indeed anxious, to make fools of themselves.
Like most mid-ocean islands, Rarotonga has no wild animals; even the bird life is scanty. The forests, however, have never been milled, and better still, never will be - the islanders are aware of the disastrous effects of deforestation on steep tropical land. In the forest, according to the guidebook, lives a rare-ish native starling, the Oo-oi, whose call is "Oo-oi", and also a wood dove which goes "O-oo-ooo-oooo" and which, the guidebook states firmly "is always further away than it sounds".
One afternoon we went for a walk into the mountains. On the way out of town we passed passed the Govern-ment Statistics Office: emerging from its lower doors, like two enormous bananas, were the twin hulls of an ocean-going canoe wrapped in yellow plastic. For some reason the Department of Statistics owns the only garage large enough to house this vessel.
Months later - this time on BBC breakfast television - I saw an identical craft setting off from Rarotonga heading east in a deep swell. The wooden 72ft long vaka, with a crew of 17, was sailing to Mururoa to face the navy of France protecting the nuclear test zone reactivated by Mr Chirac. The absurd disparity between this craft, lost intermittently in troughs between the waves, and high-tech French frigates packed with commandos, did not frighten the Cook Islanders. They were back on a sea route across Polynesia which they have used for two millennia.
Our walk took us out of town, through a village which was fast asleep or deserted except for some hectic piglets; beyond that rose the forest. We had been told that the track was an "easy climb". This was untrue. We hauled ourselves up by the roots of trees vertically for a mile or two. Then we reached a clearing on a narrow plateau, on which stood an odd circular pile of stones about waist high: it was hard to tell whether this was a man-made or natural accretion. The rain stopped, and looking down we could see sunlight appear on the treetops below. A dove called: "O-oo-ooo". Another, further off, answered. Above, the clouds drifted away to reveal a pinnacle of black stone.
From that angle by the cairn, there was something familiar about its silhouette: it looked uncannily like the statues on Easter Island. This steeple of rock dominates the skyline from many parts of Rarotonga and, like headlands and pinnacles throughout Polynesia, had once been worshipped as a god. Could it be that migrant Rarotongan adventurers, reaching Easter Island 3,000 miles away and then unable to get home, had built their moai in evocation of the shape above us?
Well, the island lends itself to this sort of wild fancy. Rarotongans, like Basques and Hungarians, endlessly ponder the origins of their race. In the week we were there I was told that their ancestors came from: India, Java, Taiwan, Israel, Peru. The grandson of the first Prime Minister, whom we met out cycling and who had studied at Cambridge, was able to recite 48 generations of his genealogy, which makes Burke's Peerage sound like the week in review.
Rarotonga being in the middle of nowhere, aircraft come and go at crazy hours. We were to leave at 5.30 in the morning. At 4am I went down to the lagoon for a last glimpse, looking eastward in the direction of Mururoa, site of the French nuclear tests, though I did not know that at the time. The moon still shone, the palms were black, surf was breaking whitely on the reef. There seemed to be a figure standing out on the reef as well. But who? Why? The scene seemed oddly remote and inaccessible. Perhaps, like the wood dove, the reality of Polynesia is always further away than it seems. !