Next to Rarotonga, Mangaia (pronounced mung-EYE-ah) is the Cooks’ most geographically dramatic island. It is the second largest of the islands – it’s only slightly smaller than Rarotonga – with a towering circlet of black two-tiered raised-coral makatea (three-tiered in the island’s north) concealing a huge sunken volcanic caldera that falls away on each side of the 169m Rangimotia ridge, the island’s central spine. This sunken interior is swampland planted with taro fields and vegetables.
Mangaia is the Pacific’s oldest island – at once craggy and lushly vegetated – and riddled with limestone caves that once served as sacred burial grounds and havens during tribal fighting. There are lakes in the island’s centre, dramatic cliffs and many spectacular lookout points. Mangaians have a reputation for haughtiness and superiority, and they’re perhaps a little less voluble on first meetings, but they are friendly, gracious and impeccably well mannered.
Mangaia’s three main villages are on the coast: Oneroa in the west, Ivirua in the east and Tamarua in the south. Oneroa, the main village, has three parts: Tava’enga to the north and Kaumata to the south on the coast, and Temakatea high above the second makatea tier overlooking the ocean. The island’s interior is cross-hatched by tracks and dirt roads, which are great for walking, but they can get very muddy after heavy rain. The airstrip is in the north of the island.