February 2016. When I looked up at the peak of Te Manga from down at sea level in Rarotonga’s main town of Avarua, something made me really want to climb it. I imagined that the view would be amazing from the top. I asked some locals if they knew anything about climbing Te Manga, and while nobody I talked to had gone to the summit before, a lady at the visitor’s centre informed me that it was off limits. I gave up on the idea for a few days.
Then our local friend/host, Tony loaned me a book about hiking in Rarotonga titled Rarotonga’s Mountain Tracks and Plants. It contained details of all the hikes on the island, how difficult they would be, how well maintained the trails are, and what species of plants you would encounter along the way. I studied the Te Manga track section, which the book rates as being the most difficult hike on the island due to its many vertical rope sections that come one after the other near the summit. Tony told me that what the visitor’s centre lady told me was inaccurate. The trail was open, and all I needed was some nice weather to do it.
While I knew the Te Manga track would be a pretty serious hike, I was surprised to learn that it takes 5 hours return, that is, if you are fit and if you can manage to come back down without getting lost. Rarotonga is such a small island that it seems like it would be impossible to get lost there, but the whole middle of the island is made up of steep jungle covered cliffs, and deep valleys. I learned on this hike that getting lost here is a real possibility.
The following is a series of photos documenting my attempt at climbing to the peak of the highest mountain in the Cook Islands with some local dogs.
Tony told me to bring this book back with mud stains on it, which I did.
The trail starts as a road. That’s Te Manga in the top right corner.
When I got dropped off at the start of the trail there were 5 or 6 dogs all barking at me. I felt intimidated at first, but I kept walking. The older dogs of the group eventually went back to wherever they live, and these two followed me. They seemed to know exactly where I was going, and they were excited to join me.
This is where the real trail begins. I could hardly tell, but the dogs knew.
Crawled through this part. Just after this place I met a group of people who were coming back down from Te Manga. They told me that the trail gets “really sketchy” near the top. I accepted this, and resolved to myself that I would turn back if it got to be too much.
I kept thinking that the dogs would turn back, especially when the trail started getting really steep. They kept following me, and sometimes leading me.
This is the first of the many rope sections on the Te Manga track.
These roots are the trail.
With every step, hold on to something.
It was at this point that I said bye to the dogs, thinking that there is no way they can get past this point (it’s way steeper than it looks in the photo). To my surprise, when I got to the top they were already there waiting for me.
The trail runs along some pretty sharp ridges that are covered in tree roots, and the ground starts to feel like a sponge under your feet.
What is and what isn’t the trail can be confusing at times on the Te Manga track. I tried to take note of every marker that I could.
A tropical mosquito breeding facility.
Shortly after this point there was a very steep rope section of the trail that the dogs couldn’t get up. I left them there and hoped that they would still be waiting for me when I came back down. I could hear this one whimpering for a while after I departed, he really wanted to keep going.
Avarua from above.
About 10 minutes after the point where I was sure the dogs would be stuck, this one appeared out of some bushes on the trail. It was amazing because this particular part of the trail was on a sharp ridge, and I had climbed a vertical section using ropes to make it this far. I have no idea how he did it, but I am sure he has done it before.
The ecosystem really changes when you are this far up.
Clouds and rain moved in very quickly, as they do on mountain tops.
This is the last photo I took before stashing my camera away in my waterproof dry bag. I kept going up the mountain and it did get “really sketchy” like the other hikers told me it would. I climbed up vertical rope section after vertical rope section, thinking that there would be just one more until the top. Even the mountaineering dog wasn’t behind me anymore. I found myself exhausted, standing on a four inch wide ledge in the pouring rain. This made all the rocks very slippery, and while I am sure that I was very close to the summit I had to make the decision to turn around because forcing myself to go any further would have been foolish and potentially hazardous.
This is back near the bottom, a couple of hours after turning back from near the summit of Te Manga. The trip down was an adventure in itself. The dog that whimpered when I left him had attempted to climb up the steep section and got stuck. When I came past him on the way back down he seemed distressed and I couldn’t leave him there. I had to hold on to the rope with my right hand and reach out as far as I could to grab his scruff with my left hand. I was unsure if he would try to bite me, but I carried him back down the slippery rocks in the rain. He knew I was helping him. I also got off the trail at one point and felt seriously lost for about 10 minutes. I kept going down, but the trail became obscured and every mistake meant an exhausting hike back uphill on loose footing to try to find the trail. I went down one part until I reached a cliff, and there was no way to keep going. I imagined myself having to spend the night up there because I only had limited daylight at this point. At least I had the dogs. Then I spotted an old blue ribbon on a tree branch in the distance, and I was very thankful that this got me back on the right track.
This dog is a level 10 mountaineer.
Even though I didn’t make it to the summit, I was happy to have made it down in one piece. I wanted to keep these dogs.