Run to Paradise: Tour de Cooks

TrailRunMag 26.05.2015

How to turn your entire family into trail runners?
Take them to the Cook Islands…and take your time.
WORDS: & IMAGES: Chris Ord

I’ve never DNFed in my life. Without any pride and with much prejudice, I can now say that I’ve joined the quitters’ club.

There are no upsides to quitting. You feel a fool. You hate your body for letting you down. You feel depressed. Maudlin. Morose. Dejected. Guilty. Ashamed. More pointedly, pissed off.

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Rarotonga’s Round Raro Road Race (32km) has to be one of the most spectacular loop runs in the world.

With all that negativity oozing through my body – not to mention the blown VMO (vastus medialis oblique) muscle, which remained silent for the first ten kilometres of the Round Raro 32km run, then started whingeing at 12km before throwing a truly angry, spiteful spat at 15km – it’s lucky that my first ever failure happens to me in the halcyon paradise that is the Cook Islands. It helps take the edge off all that grieving for an imagined achievement scuttled by injury. Or stupidity, depending on how you judge these things. I’d injured my VMO two weeks earlier. But applying at least two of the RICE (Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.) principles, figured I’d come good on race day. Seems two out of four isn’t good enough.

Still, if you’re going to forage through the library of self-pity, you may as well do it sitting beside a sparkling pool, across from a reef-fringed lagoon, palm trees swaying, sky azure and tropical mountains dramatic and volcanic in their backdrop.

Looking up, the breeze coming off the mountains seems to be comforting me: ‘There, there, rest up, you’ll run again. Papaya cocktail?’

Yet in their anthropomorphised and wholly imagined whisperings, the sympathetic mountains are in themselves a tease. For they are where I want to be running. Injury-free.

I’d travelled to the Cook Islands for the Round Raro Run, a (blasphemy warning) road run which circumnavigates the entire island using the tried and tested ‘keep the ocean to the right and you’ll never get lost’ route-finder methodology. It’s the only road that goes right round the island so you’d have to be a coconut liquored-up idiot to stuff it up. The event is the trophy outing in a full week of running action that happens annually every September on the Cook Islands. However, for me it was supposed to be the warm up.

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Home stretch on Cook Islands’ Round Raro Run.

The jewel in Cook Island’s running crown that caught my dirty eye was the Nutters Run, an 8.5km trail run that trades the circuitous road for sweet jungle singletrack. It’s the only cross-island route that dares slice wholly through Rarotonga’s mountainous heart. Like a rooty brown artery, it allows passage of human life through an impenetrable body of jungle green characterised by vertiginous mountains striking up from near sea level to 653 metres. While relatively short statured comparable to the planet’s biggest berthas, the peaks are nevertheless impressive last vestiges of Rarotonga’s volcanic origins.

Weaving into the foothills, and sometimes precariously up their flanks and ridges, are wonderland trails ripe for the running, although according to the official maps, there only a few: the cross island being the most well trodden (and generally only run once a year for the Nutters – no locals being nutty enough to run it otherwise); the tough and in parts un-runnable Te Manga and Ikurangi trails; Maungatea, which rises to the cliff above the main town of Avarua; the short Tereora Hill; and the short Raemaru. None will get ultra runners excited, given their lengths are all sub-10km. All, however, will tickle the fancy for those looking to adventure as much as run. No-one will tick off their fastest kilometre on any – in fact, the terrain may just squeeze out your slowest kilometre. For technical runs, however, they rank right up there.

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Technical trail running? You betcha on the 9km Nutters Cross island run scaling the island’s mountainous interior.

Enticingly, there are many more trails not shown on any official maps, according to local whisperings. One such trail whisperer is Dave Furnell from Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. Figuring that a local two-wheel warrior would know where the best trails are, I join one of his outings, which meld the genteel riding with an ongoing commentary giving insight into the island’s history and culture. As we ride the back roads, Dave explains the Cooks’ farming practises, introduces some fishermen sorting the early morn’s net catch, and then sweeps us uphill to a refreshing swim in a hidden waterfall, apparently with ‘healing’ properties. All the while my eye scans for footpads darting off into the thicket. Dave and his co-guide Rebecca soon tire of my constant querying about where I can find trails in the foothills we teasingly explore on the ride.

Now, my theory is where there are mountains, there are trails. And Rarotonga’s mountains are some of the most majestic I’ve seen. But jungle mountains in particular have a habit of been impenetrable. Unlike other Pacific Island paradises, there are no villages plonked in the belly of Rarotonga. Every bit of civilisation is dotted along the two ring roads around the island, like a donut of habitation encircling a hole that happens to be stuffed full of wilderness and thus potential. So to the untrained eye, the chances of trails other than the few marked on the tourist map may be slim. But as demonstrated in florid colours of failure on the Round Raro run, I’m a stupidly, bloody minded, headstrong bugger (others use more invective adjectives). And so I persist.

Dave tells me that one of his Storyteller guides often walks trails not known to most and definitely not on any tourist map. He also mentions a book: “It describes a bunch of trails, but it’s out of print and hard to get your hands on now.”

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The up features ropes and scrambling, the down on the Nutters’ Run is all about minding your step.

A tease to be sure, but it seems Rarotonga has, for trail runners, a holy grail bible. I try to track it down at the local library, but a rather unimpressed librarian shuts down my quest claiming no knowledge of any such tome.

Of course, Cook Islanders – Cookies as someone quips – aren’t ones for writing things down. Like many indigenous cultures, their traditions going back to 800AD are oral. Chiefs and elders maintain the knowledge of their forebears in their memories and by the telling of tales. They hand down that knowledge through generations, selectively choosing which of their family they tell, those chosen by their aptitude to be trusted with and to remember the knowledge. So while the book may or may not be uncovered in some disgruntled historian’s library, the knowledge may still be found, from the mouth and mind of a trusted one. My mission, then, is to find that person.

Rebecca tells me that her Uncle is one such keeper, but the knowledge remains elusive to me, as it is also explained that it’s not the done thing to just waltz up and start haranguing locals for information. Nothing happens in a hurry on the Cooks – one of the islands’ pure charms – and in that tradition, locals take their good time to give over their trust, especially when it comes to the sacred grounds through which I want to run. So while I pass the roadside kiosk run by Rebecca’s Uncle, I know that it’s not culturally sensitive to just barge in there, tempting though it may me. It seems this trip is all about a lesson in the virtues of patience. Slow down seems to be the message on all fronts.

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Running in paradise demands it…

I also happen upon another keeper of trail wisdom who is not a Cookie. Len ‘Poly’ Edwards, one of the chiefs of the local Hash Harriers running club has been living on island and organising Hash runs for years. Hash runs, for the uninitiated, are runs where no-one knows the course before running or walking it. It is set by one person only (on Rarotonga, usually Poly), marked by bit of ratty paper and arrows scrawled in chalk. It is a style of running perfectly suited to the Cooks: uber relaxed.

I track Poly down at the kick off to the Hash Run taking place as part of the week of running festivities. Hash Harriers running is my kind of running.

It’s like joining a Comics Convention crossed with a bad bar joke: Batman, Minnie Mouse, a nun, a leprechaun, a pirate and a viking, walk into a temporary bar plonked in a paddock…. The punch line, however, is that everyone must try to run back-trails around the villages, onto the beach and through farmer’s yards, past goats and pigs, through ditches, following route clues dropped with much sense of humour by Poly, who admits to throwing in a few red herrings.

Those who show up without costume (it’s a welcome all-comers policy – you don’t need to be a member of a Hash Harrier club to join the fray) are supplied with something colourful and wonderfully ridiculous on the spot. For the Hash Harriers, it seems, the joke is on anyone who takes running too seriously, the focus being on fun, frivolity, post-run Pythonesque speeches and awards of ridiculousness and, like any good community that binds, plenty of beer chugging to the chant of ‘downsies’ while wearing a toilet seat necklace. I do like this mob.

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The author running a jungle too good to resist, smashed knee be-damned.

I settle in for the after run feast – known as the best and cheapest ($10) feed on the island ­– and bend the ear of Rebecca, a physiotherapist, who has lived on island for a period. She mentions a 2-3 day trail mooted for overnight camping tourism. The cogs of my dirty mind grind with thoughts of what such a trail may mean for runners.

Back with Poly, I ask him about his usual courses.

“I keep them mostly off road. I try to anyway. I think it’s the best way for those new to the island – or even those who have lived here for a while – to see places they haven’t seen before. It’s a small island but trust me there’s plenty of places to see and the best way to see them is running through them.”

Pushed on his off road knowledge, he gives up the gold: “There are lots of trails out there, In fact, there’s one from my front door. It runs up to the lookout above the hospital, but could easily be extended, and easily turn into a ridgeline run and on…

He had me at ‘ridgeline run’.

The maths was adding up. Lots of locals who talked of lots of trails. There’s dirty gold in them there hills…

But back to the problem of the trail run that we know exists already: the Nutters’ run. I’m here to get a story. This story you’re reading. But how when I can’t run?

After taking on the three or so kilometre Hash Run with my six-year old daughter tagging along (me in a mad hair wig, her in a tiger beanie), I suggest to my wife that I can jog-walk the Nutters with my offspring. We’ll be the ‘mascots’ sweeping the field, I suggest, thinking the experience my daughter will have – “six year old becomes trail runner by default” – will produce a semblance of story.

At this point, I stumble across the Black/White strategy. I say Black, my wife will say White. I say don’t worry about taking my pace on the trail, my wife – now unpressured – leans the other way.

“Okay, I’ll do it. But only to help you out.”

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It’s a difficult place to run, but someone’s gotta do it. Pina Colada, anyone?

And it starts rather begrudgingly like that. I run with it and thank her for the offer but no, I’ll get over the mountain somehow, limping or otherwise. But the seed is sown. Over the coming days, as we explore the island, sometimes venturing into it’s jungle heart along the numerous trails that dive in, that sentiment of ‘doing a favour for one’s husband’ ever so gently transposes to her actually looking forward to the run, it becoming about an experience for and about her, rather than a favour for me. She gets nervous. I drink more cocktails than I should knowing that I’m well and truly benched.

To assuage my wife’s nerves, we recce the trail with our daughters and I swing from being thankful for her sacrifice, to being outright jealous. I want to run this trail. I need to run this trail. It is simply captivating and my kind of terrain: tough, technical, where the running involves as much upper body as lower. Ducking under branches and vines, jumping over trees, scrambling and indeed climbing up steep rutted sections rising to ridges. This is pure ‘fun’ running. And for my wife, someone who hasn’t run, let alone run a trail, in six years, it’s a mountain of a challenge. I get nervous for her and order a double Daiquiri.

Come Nutter’s Run race day we drop my wife at the start and then make for the end-point trail head, walking in to capture photos of runners emerging from the foliage. It’s a tense wait: a flip of a coin whether my running saviour will come past and wallop me for the torture I’ve goaded her into, or…

I see the smile before I see the rest of her. Like a Cheshire cat with dirty paws, my wife leaps down the steep trail. There’s no walloping just hollering. She, rather than my daughter, has become a trail runner by default.

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The reward and its idyllic view…

Of course, seeing my wife so amped, I can’t crush the urge to rush into the very same jungle. I ignore the fact that the reason she ran on my behalf is because of a bung leg. I put it on the line, drop the family back at our hotel for another session of poolside lazing, and, in a very un-Cook Islands fashion, rush round the island to the trail head. It is nearing dusk, and I have images of a sunset viewed from atop the Needle. I start off gingerly, mindful of my leg. The trail rises sharply, repeatedly weaving over a bubbling river. If ever there was a trail that underfoot screamed ‘rolled ankle risk’, this is it. But I now have jungle fever and the injury is forgotten as I concentrate on footfall and pump the legs hard to reach the top. I’m doing something very un-Cook like: I’m rushing.

At the Needle, where only hours ago my wife was getting her first true taste of the trail, I scramble up the sheer sides and find what could easily be a sea eagles’ perch. The view over the island and across the ocean squeezes more air from my lungs, just as the sun drops below the horizon. I stop, I breathe. Maybe it was the waterfall with those healing properties, but my leg hasn’t complained once.

From up high, as tropical shadows cast across the jungle carpet, I reflect on what it is to run in the Cook Islands. The secret: slowing down. Time here is all about ‘The Art of Slow’. It takes time to remember, time to know people, time to gain trust, time to drive round the island, time to get served, time, time, time, everything takes time. But in taking time, the Cook Islands gives it back to you in spades. And if you’re not already a trail runner, it may just turn you into one by default. Cook Islands is magic like that.

This article first appeared in Trail Run Mag Edition #16, available as a FREE pdf download from 


Cook Islands Running Festival

Although it’s not officially a cohesive festival, we’ll call it one. It includes the main Round Raro 31km run which loops the island and is run to raise money for local athletes to compete in New Zealand. Even for picky trail runners, it’s worth bustin the bitumen for this one as it’s a beautiful run, passing through all the villages and fringed by palm trees and sometimes crisp white beaches as you trot around. Plus there are several Hash Harrier events including a Round The Rock Relay and of course the Nutters Run.

This is an ideal target for a ‘running family’ be it one family member being the main addict, or all, because there is a run suitable for everyone (as shownb, even a non-runner can knock into the Nutters Run!) and plenty on island to do for the non-runners from diving, walking, riding to cruising the (extensive) cocktail menu. Importantly, this is a perfect family holiday destination as it is safe, logistics are easy, there is a lot to keep the kids entertained, food is great, and the locals friendly. It’s just one of ‘those’ places that locks in as an instant family tradition classic. Get here for it every September (17-23 September 2015, celebrating its 38th year).

Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours

Tour de Cooks: book your run holiday to paradise!

Tour de Trails is looking to organise a Tour de Cooks to coincide with the 2015 Run Festival, with all accommodation, food, on island transport, runs and other activities (including a Storyteller ride) inclusive. We can also arrange flights for you via our partnership with Flightcentre Active Travel if you wish. Accommodation will be a selection of high-end resort and mid range, according to budget.

For more details and/or to register your interest (we need sufficient numbers to green light a trip): /


Mt Buller