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Rarotonga Island.jpg
NASA satellite image of Rarotonga
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Location Central-Southern Pacific Ocean
Coordinates 21°14′06″S159°46′41″W / 21.235°S 159.778°W / -21.235; -159.778 Coordinates: 21°14′06″S159°46′41″W / 21.235°S 159.778°W / -21.235; -159.778
Archipelago Cook Islands
Major islands
  • Motutapu
  • Oneroa
  • Koromiri
  • Taakoka
Area67.39 km2 (26.02 sq mi)
Highest elevation2,139 ft (652 m)
Highest point Te Manga
Largest settlement Avarua (pop. 4,906)
Population13007 [1]
Avarua is the most populous centre on Rarotonga Avarua, february 2006.jpg
Avarua is the most populous centre on Rarotonga

Rarotonga is the largest and most populous of the Cook Islands. The island is volcanic, with an area of 67.39 km2 (26.02 sq mi), and is home to almost 75% of the country's population, with 13,007 of a total population of 17,434. [1] The Cook Islands' Parliament buildings and international airport are on Rarotonga. Rarotonga is a very popular tourist destination with many resorts, hotels and motels. The chief town, Avarua, on the north coast, is the capital of the Cook Islands.


Captain John Dibbs, master of the colonial brig Endeavour, is credited as the European discoverer on 25 July 1823, while transporting the missionary Reverend John Williams.

Te Manga is the highest mountain on Rarotonga and Cook Islands CookIslands-Rarotonga-TeManga-mgl20030609-01.jpg
Te Manga is the highest mountain on Rarotonga and Cook Islands


Panorama Rarotonga.jpg
Rarotonga from the north

Rarotonga is a kidney-shaped volcanic island, 32 km (20 mi) in circumference, and 11.2 km (7.0 mi) wide on its longest (east-west) axis. [2] The island is the summit of an extinct Pliocene or Pleistocene volcano, which rises 5000 meters from the seafloor. [3] The island was formed between 2.3 to 1.6 million years ago, with a later stage of volcanism between 1.4 and 1.1 million years ago. [3] While its position is consistent with being formed by the Macdonald hotspot, its age is too young, and its formation is attributed to a short-lived Rarotonga hotspot, [4] or to rejuvenated volcanism at Aitutaki. [5]

The core of the island consists of densely forested hills cut by deep valleys, the eroded remnants of the original volcanic cone. [6] The hills are drained by a number of radial streams, including the Avatiu Stream and Takuvaine Stream. [6] Te Manga, at 658 m (2,140 ft) above sea level, is the highest peak on the island. Ikurangi, a smaller peak, overlooks the capital.

The hills are surrounded by a low coastal plain consisting of beaches, a storm ridge, lowland swamps, and alluvial deposits. [7] :9 This in turn is surrounded by a fringing reef, which ranges from 30 to 900 metres wide. [7] :30 The reef is shallow, with a maximum depth of 1.5m, [7] :31 and has a number of passages, notably at Avarua, Avatiu and Ngatangiia. Beyond the reef crest, the outer reef slopes steeply to deep water. [7] :31

The lagoon is at its widest off the southeast coast between Ngatangiia and Muri. This area contains four small islets or motu. From north to south, the islets are: [8]

  1. Motutapu, 10.5 hectares (0.041 sq mi)
  2. Oneroa, 8.1 hectares (0.031 sq mi)
  3. Koromiri, 2.9 hectares (0.011 sq mi)
  4. Taakoka, 1.3 hectares (0.0050 sq mi)

Another small islet, Motutoa, lies on the reef flat on the northwest coast. [7] :33

Natural environment

The interior of the island is dominated by eroded volcanic peaks cloaked in dense vegetation. Paved and unpaved roads allow access to valleys but the interior of the island remains largely unpopulated due to forbidding terrain and lack of infrastructure.

Takitumu Conservation Area

A tract of 155 ha of land has been set aside in the south-east as the Takitumu Conservation Area to protect native birds and plants, especially the Vulnerable Rarotonga monarch or kakerori. Other threatened birds resident in the conservation area include the Rarotonga fruit dove and Rarotonga starling, and the site has been recognised as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International. [9]


"RARATONGA National Flag" (Rarotonga) in 1899 publication by the United States Navy book, Flags of Maritime Nations "RARATONGA National Flag" (Rarotonga) in 1899 according to the United States Navy, from book- Flags of Maritime Nations (1899) (page 117 crop).jpg
"RARATONGA National Flag" (Rarotonga) in 1899 publication by the United States Navy book, Flags of Maritime Nations

The earliest evidence of human presence in the Southern Cook Islands has been dated to around AD 1000. Oral tradition tells that Rarotonga was settled by various groups, including Ata-i-te-kura, Apopo-te-akatinatina and Apopo-te-ivi-roa in the ninth century, and Tangi'ia Nui from Tahiti and Karika from Samoa in 1250. [2] An early ariki, Toi, is said to have built Te Ara Nui o Toi or Ara Metua, a paved road that encircles the island, though the sites adjacent to it are dated to 1530. [10] Trading contact was maintained with the Austral Islands, Samoa and the Marquesas to import basalt that was used for making local adze heads, [11] while a pottery fragment found on Ma'uke has been traced to Tongatapu to the west, the main island of Tonga. [12] The ultimate origin of almost all the islanders’ settlement cargo can be traced back to Southeast Asia: not just their chickens, Pacific rats, Polynesian pigs, Pacific dogs and crops, but also several kinds of lizards and snails. Among the species that are understood to have reached Rarotonga by this means are at least two species of geckos and three of skinks. Likewise, the ultimate origin of almost 30 of their crops lies in the west. [13] [ better source needed ]

According to New Zealand Māori tradition, Kupe, the discoverer of Aotearoa, visited Rarotonga, and the Māori migration canoes Tākitimu, Te Arawa, Tainui, Mātaatua, Tokomaru and Kurahaupō passed through on their way to Aotearoa. [2]

Fletcher Christian visited the island in 1789 on HMS Bounty but did not land. [2] Captain Theodore Walker sighted the island in 1813 on the ship Endeavour. The first recorded landing by a European was Captain Philip Goodenough with William Wentworth in 1814 on the schooner Cumberland. [14] On 25 July 1823, while transporting the missionary Reverend John Williams, the Endeavour returned to Rarotonga. Papeiha, a London Missionary Society evangelist from Bora Bora, went ashore to teach his religion. [2] Further missionaries followed, and by 1830 the island had converted to Christianity.

From 1830 to 1850, Rarotonga was a popular stop for whalers and trading schooners, [2] and trade began with the outside world. The missionaries attempted to exclude other Europeans as a bad influence, and in 1845 Rarotongan ariki prohibited the sale of land to Europeans, though they were allowed to rent land on an annual basis. [15] Despite a further ban on foreign settlement in 1848, European traders began to settle. In 1865, driven by rumours that France planned to annex the islands, the ariki of Rarotonga unsuccessfully petitioned Governor George Grey of New Zealand for British protection. [15] In 1883 the Royal navy de facto recognised the ariki of Rarotonga as an independent government. [16] By this time Makea Takau Ariki had become paramount among the ariki, and was recognised as the "Queen of Rarotonga" on a visit to New Zealand. [16] In 1888 the island became a British protectorate after a petition from the ariki. [17] In 1901, it was annexed by New Zealand.

Oranges had been introduced by the Bounty mutineers, and after annexation developed into a major export crop, though exports had been disrupted by poor shipping. [18] In 1945 the industry was revived with a government-led citrus replanting scheme, [19] and in 1961 a canning factory was opened to allow the export of juice. [20] [21] The industry survived until the 1980s, [21] but collapsed after New Zealand adopted Rogernomics and removed privileged market access. [22]

An airstrip was built in 1944, leading to regular flights to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Aitutaki. [2] The airport and better shipping links saw the beginnings of large-scale migration to New Zealand. [23] Emigration increased further in the early 1970's when the airport was upgraded, [24] but this was balanced by immigration from elsewhere in the Cook Islands. [23] :4849 [25]

Flooding in April and May 1967 damaged bridges on the island and caused widespread crop losses, raising risks of a food shortage. [26] An unnamed tropical cyclone in December of that year left hundreds homeless and caused widespread devastation after demolishing homes and offices in Avarua. [27] [28] In December 1976 80% of the island's banana crop was destroyed by tropical cyclone Kim. [29] In January 1987 Tropical Cyclone Sally made a thousand people homeless and damaged 80% of the buildings in Avarua. [30] [31]

Demographics and settlements

Historical population
1906 2,441    
1916 3,064+25.5%
1926 3,936+28.5%
1936 5,054+28.4%
1945 5,573+10.3%
1951 6,048+8.5%
1961 8,676+43.5%
1966 9,971+14.9%
1971 11,478+15.1%
1976 9,802−14.6%
1981 9,530−2.8%
1986 9,826+3.1%
1996 11,225+14.2%
2001 12,188+8.6%
2006 13,890+14.0%
2011 13,095−5.7%
2016 13,007−0.7%
Source: [1]
Map of Rarotonga's districts Rarodistrict.jpg
Map of Rarotonga's districts
Te Rua Manga (The Needle) lookout Te Rua Manga (The Needle) lookout.jpg
Te Rua Manga (The Needle) lookout

The population of Rarotonga was 13007 in 2016. [1]

The island is traditionally divided into three tribal districts or vaka. Te Au O Tonga on the northern side of the island (Avarua is the capital), Takitumu on the eastern and southern side and Puaikura on the western side. For administrative purposes it is divided into five Land Districts. The Land District of Avarua is represented under vaka Te Au O Tonga, the Land Districts of Matavera, Ngatangiia and Titikaveka are represented under vaka Takitumu and the Land District Arorangi is represented under vaka Puaikura.

In 2008, the three vaka councils of Rarotonga were abolished. [32] [33]

Area attractions

Te Rua Manga (The Needle) Te Rua Manga (7189164097).jpg
Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) in Avarua CICC CHURCH IN AVARUA, RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS.jpg
Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) in Avarua

Palm-studded white sandy beaches fringe most of the island, and there is a popular cross-island walk that connects Avatiu valley with the south side of the island. It passes the Te Rua Manga, the prominent needle-shaped rock visible from the air and some coastal areas. Hikes can also be taken to the Raemaru, or flat-top mountain. Other attractions include Wigmore Falls (Papua Falls) and the ancient marae, Arai te Tonga.

Popular island activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, bike riding, kite surfing, hiking, deep-sea fishing, boat tours, scenic flights, going to restaurants, dancing, seeing island shows, squash, tennis, zipping around on mopeds, and sleeping on the beach. There are many churches open for service on Sunday, with a cappella singing. People congregate at the sea wall that skirts the end of the airport's runway to be "jetblasted" by aircraft. [34]


Topographic map Rarotonga english version.png
Topographic map

Rarotonga has three harbours, Avatiu, Avarua and Avana, of which only Avatiu harbour is of commercial significance. The Port of Avatiu serves a small fleet of inter-island and fishing vessels, with cargo ships regularly visiting from New Zealand via other Pacific Islands ports. Large cruise ships regularly visit Rarotonga but the port is too small for cruise ships to enter and they are required to anchor off shore outside the harbour.

The island is encircled by a main road, Ara Tapu, that traces the coast. Three-quarters of Rarotonga is also encircled by the ancient inner road, Ara Metua. Approximately 29 km long, this road was constructed in 11th century and for most or all of its whole length was paved with large stone slabs. Along this road are several important marae, including Arai Te Tonga, the most sacred shrine in Rarotonga. Due to the mountainous interior, there is no road crossing the island. Rarotonga has only two bus routes: clockwise and anticlockwise. [35] The clockwise bus runs from morning operating an hourly schedule until a last service at 11pm. The anti-clockwise route leaves Avarua on the half-hour, with the last service at 4.30 pm. Although there are bus stops, the buses pick up and set down anywhere en route.

Rarotonga International Airport is the international airport of the Cook Islands. Air Rarotonga operates domestic inter-island flights: daily flights to Aitutaki, regular flights to Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro, and occasional flights to the remote northern atolls of Manihiki, Tongareva (Penrhyn) and Pukapuka.

As of 2017 Air New Zealand operates weekly direct flights to and from Los Angeles and Sydney, in addition to five flights a week from Auckland. An additional six flights per week from Auckland are operated by Jetstar (3) and Virgin Australia (3). Air Tahiti operates one or two flights per week direct to and from Papeete, depending on the season.

In the media

Main street, Avarua Avarua Main Street.jpg
Main street, Avarua

See also

Related Research Articles

History of the Cook Islands Historical development of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook, who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777, although Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña was the first European to reach the islands in 1595. The Cook Islands became a British protectorate in 1888.

This article lists transport in the Cook Islands.


Aitutaki, also traditionally known as Araʻura and Utataki, is the second most-populated island in the Cook Islands, after Rarotonga. It is an "almost atoll", with fifteen islets in a lagoon adjacent to the main island. Total land area is 18.05 km2 (6.97 sq mi), and the lagoon has an area of between 50 and 74 km2. A major tourist destination, Aitutaki is the second most visited island of the Cook Islands.


Avaiki is one of the many names by which the peoples of Polynesia refer to their ancestral and spiritual homelands.

Ruatapu was a son of the great chief Uenuku, and a master canoeist in Polynesian tradition who is said to have lived around 30 generations ago. Most Māori stories agree he was an older half-brother of Paikea and 69 other sons, while traditions recorded from the Cook Islands sometimes state he was Uanuku Rakeiora's only son.


Mangaia is the most southerly of the Cook Islands and the second largest, after Rarotonga. It is a roughly circular island, with an area of 51.8 square kilometres (20.0 sq mi), 203 kilometres (126 mi) from Rarotonga. Originally heavily populated, Mangaia's population has dropped by 75% in the last 50 years.


Atiu, also known as Enuamanu, is an island of the Cook Islands archipelago, lying in the central-southern Pacific Ocean. Part of the Nga-pu-Toru, it is 214 km (133 mi) northeast of Rarotonga. The island's population has dropped by two-thirds in the last 50 years.

Rarotonga International Airport

Rarotonga International Airport is the Cook Islands' main international gateway, located in the town and district of Avarua, Rarotonga, 3 km (1.9 mi) west of the downtown area on the northern coast. Originally built in 1944, the airport was expanded in the early 1970's, and officially opened for jets in January 1974.

Rugby league is the most popular team sport played in the Cook Islands. Rugby league is recognised as the national sport of the country.

Tākitimu was a waka (canoe) with whakapapa throughout the Pacific particularly with Samoa, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand in ancient times. In several Māori traditions, the Tākitimu was one of the great Māori migration ships that brought Polynesian migrants to New Zealand from Hawaiki. The canoe was said to be captained by Tamatea.

House of Ariki

The House of Ariki is a parliamentary body in the Cook Islands. It is composed of Cook Islands high chiefs (ariki), appointed by the Queen's Representative. There are up to twenty-four members, representing different islands of the Cooks.

An ariki, ꞌariki, aliki, ali‘i, ari'i, aiki or hakaiki, akariki or ‘eiki (Tonga) is or was a member of a hereditary chiefly or noble rank in Polynesia.

A Tapere or Sub-District is a low level of traditional land subdivision on five of the Lower Cook Islands, comparable to the ahupua'a of the main Hawaiian Islands. Among the populated raised islands, only Mitiaro is not subdivided into tapere. The remaining southern Cook Islands, Manuae, Palmerston and Takutea are atolls and/or uninhabited, and therefore not subject to this type of traditional subdivision. The atolls of the northern Cook Islands are subdivided into motu, instead.

Marguerite Nora Eikura Kitimira Story,, was the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Cook Islands from 1965 to 1979. She was the first female cabinet member in the Cook Islands and the first woman in the Commonwealth to become speaker of a national parliament.

Dorice Reid, also known by the chiefly title Te Tika Mataiapo Dorice Reid, was a Cook Islander tourism official, businesswoman and judge. Reid enjoyed a long career in Cook Island business, politics and tourism from the 1970s until her death in 2011.

Pa Maretu Ariki High Chief of Takitumu

Pa Maretu Ariki was a sovereign of the Cook Islands. He was the ariki of the Pa dynasty, one of the two chiefdoms of the Takitumu tribe on the island of Rarotonga.

Pa Upoko Takau Ariki High Chiefess of Takitumu

Pa Upoko Takau Ariki was a sovereign of the Cook Islands. She was the ariki of the Pa dynasty, one of the two chiefdoms of the Takitumu tribe on the island of Rarotonga.

Pa George Karika

Pa George Karika was a New Zealand-Cook Islands leader, clerk, soldier and farmer. Decorated for gallantry during the First World War, he was the only Cook Islander awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. From 1942 until his death in 1949 he was the holder of the Makea Karika Ariki title, one of the three chiefly titles of the Te Au o Tonga vaka on Rarotonga.

<i>Marumaru Atua</i>

Marumaru Atua is a reconstruction of a vaka moana, a double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe. It was built in 2009 by the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea. In 2014, it was gifted to the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. It is used to teach polynesian navigation.

Te Au o Tonga is a reconstruction of a vaka moana, a double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe. It was built in 1994 by former Cook Islands Prime Minister Thomas Davis and the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. It was used to teach polynesian navigation.


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