Could this happen anywhere else? I don’t know.
Picture this. Vaimaanga Tapere, a stretch of land that runs from The Needle, an inland spike of rock, down to the beach on the southern side of Rarotonga, looking out onto the lagoon.
Rarotonga’s Great Road, Ara Tapu, encircling the island, runs through it. Beside this road, blink and you miss it, there’s a quiet space, a blank moment, with a strange sense of past times, of quiet and decay. This is the Sheraton Hotel Resort.
No, this is not the bitchiest hotel review ever. This isn’t because I had simply the worst quiche in my life there, or the most overpriced daquiri, at this hotel there is no customer service, no daquiris. No anything except brooding, quiet ruin.
In spite of being prime Rarotongan real estate, the resort was abandoned when it was partially completed, something like 25 years ago. No guests have ever stayed there and to date, nobody has stepped in to try to develop it.
This is one of about 15 buildings, set in a great semicircle that make up the complex.
Admittedly there are some downsides to the location: You have to cross the main road to get to the beach (this makes a huge difference to the prices holiday lets can charge); The beach itself is relatively small and it opens onto a fairly rocky part of the lagoon; And finally, this part of the lagoon can kill you.
If you look slightly to the left of the hotel complex in this picture, you also see a blue ribbon going from the lagoon out past the reef, and another, more obvious blue tendril to the far left of the picture.
These are riptides, deceptively calm looking parts of the lagoon with a strong current that will whisk you out to sea before you know it.
But the real reason this complex lies abandoned is because it is cursed.
In pre-colonial days, it was the scene of bloody tribal battles and spirits are said to walk the land. And in the early 1900s, the land was claimed by a prominent chief at the time, Pa Ariki. The claim was disputed by another tribe led by chief More Uriatua and this simmering powder keg of emotions (you get it all in this blog, don’t you?) came to a head in 1911, when a European Settler by the name of William Wigmore, shot and killed More Uriatua.
More Uriatua’s daughter, Metua, appeared in vengeance and placed a curse on the land. She said that none would profit from the land until it was returned to the tribe. Although Wigmore managed to escape prison, his businesses failed.
Fast forward to 1980, and some Italian businessmen struck a deal with the Cook Islands Government, to open a 5 star hotel on the site, involving joint investment from both parties.
In 1990, at the ceremony to start the building works, Metua’s grandson, More Rua, suddenly appeared dressed as a high priest and dramatically renewed Metua’s curse. He struck his spear on the rock bearing the inaugural plaque, and it shattered.
This naturally was a little upsetting for the developers, but they pressed on. Three years later, with the site almost finished, the Italian money suddenly stopped, and the building contractor went bust. There were rumours of mafia involvement and the Cook Islands government who had underwritten the project ended up facing a bill of $120m. This had an absolutely devastating effect on the island and marked the emigration of waves of Cook Islanders to New Zealand to try to find work.
In spite of repeated attempts to re-start the project, all subsequent efforts have failed amid allegations of tax fraud, and the head of the tribe, Amoa Amoa, has refused to lift the curse unless the land is given back to the More tribe.
This story might seem incredible to our eyes, but the place really has a creepy atmosphere.
I had the eeriest feeling I was being watched. In spite of the fact that it was very obviously abandoned, I felt really uncomfortable about going in any further. You can just walk off the road onto the site, but you do feel like you are walking on sacred ground.
Pause for thought.
Later on the same day, I took the road from the north of the island, Happy Valley Road, up to the start of the track to The Needle. Calling it a road was aspirational, in the same way as calling my moped an Off Road Vehicle was. Mopeds have a very odd centre of balance thing that makes you feel a bit like an elephant riding on a marble. You sort of get the impression that this thing was designed by someone who just didn’t care if it remained upright.
The road gradually deteriorated under me, there were deep channels cut into it from flash floods. And it got increasingly rural. Rarotonga is well known for its roosters and chickens everywhere, but here there were also pigs tied at the side of the road, the odd farmer working in a field.
The atmosphere got steadily more intimidating, and eventually I got to the end of the track, and parked up.
It was really quiet, you really noticed that you couldn’t hear the waves, something you got used to virtually everywhere else on the island.
I headed back down. I came to a fork in the road, and on one side was a farmer loading some crops onto a flatbed truck. Next to him was his son, probably about 12, staring at me.
I thought, what must I look like to them? bleached white and occasionally sunburnt, on a hired moped, obviously a tourist, with a backpack. I started drawing parallels with the film ‘Deliverance’ in my mind.
Then the boy waved at me and gave me a thumbs up sign.
These Rarotongans are really Awfully Nice People, aren’t they?
That is it for this evening, the next post, one more from Raro I think, to say goodbye and then off to New Zealand, Rotorua, and Lake Taupo!