Welcome to the Cook Islands, Hillary – now, can anyone lend us a motorcade?


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The Independent Online

Life usually dawdles in the Cook Islands, a cluster of coral atolls sprinkled across the South Pacific. But with Hillary Clinton due to visit later this month, the place is in a spin.

For one thing, the government doesn't have enough cars for an official motorcade.

The tiny nation is hosting the annual Pacific Islands Forum from 27 August, and with the US increasingly focused on its strategic interests in the Pacific, the Secretary of State is expected to attend for the first time. For the Cooks, where nothing of note happens from one year to the next – save, perhaps, a coconut dropping on someone's head – the event represents history in the making.

First, though, the country, which is home to only 20,000 people, has to resolve the motorcade problem.

The government fleet consists of three four-wheel-drive vehicles, so officials are having to borrow extra cars from the locals. Residents are also being trained as chauffeurs, honing their skills by doing laps around the 20-mile road which circumnavigates the main island, Rarotonga. Although the Cooks – a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand – are a popular tourist destination, they rarely host high-profile international delegations. If she attends – and US diplomats are teasingly refusing to confirm it – Mrs Clinton will be the country's most illustrious visitor since the Queen popped by nearly 40 years ago.

A team from the US embassy in Wellington was in the islands this week, scouting the facilities. Jaewynn McKay, a local official coordinating preparations for the forum, said the biggest challenge was finding a suitable place for Mrs Clinton to stay with her large entourage.

"I understand she usually travels with 90 [people], but they've had to lessen their footprint on this occasion," Mrs McKay told Associated Press. "We had to tell them we just don't have the space."

Robert Graham, a government official in charge of transport arrangements, has already borrowed six four-wheel-drives from islanders, for a small fee, and is hunting for one more. That would enable the government to put together a 10-car motorcade. It has borrowed nine more late-model cars from residents, after the main rental agency ran short.

Mr Graham is stressing about the fact the US wants large four-wheel-drives, but the only ones in the Cooks are smaller Toyotas and Suzukis.

"We are a really small island and they're wanting these really big SUVs," he said. "We have tried our best to accommodate and help."

The SUVs will be used to transport not only Mrs Clinton but other leaders around Rarotonga, Mr Graham added. He has been training drivers, both government workers and private volunteers, to act as chauffeurs.

The US has been stepping up its military presence and trade ties in the Pacific, as well as increasing humanitarian aid to the region, as it seeks to provide a counterweight to China's growing military and economic might.

With about 500 people from 57 countries expected at the forum, Rarotonga – with an area of only 26 square miles – will feel like Piccadilly Circus.

The second island, Aitutaki – described by Tony Wheeler, the Lonely Planet co-founder, as "the world's most beautiful island" – made rare headlines last year when it had its first ever bank robbery. According to some reports, the bank was secured with a single padlock.