Deep in the frozen Antarctic wastes, the Ice God stirred, yawned hugely and woke up. There was a cat sitting on his chest, purring and dribbling. It was so cold in the Ice God's bedroom that the saliva dripping from the cat's mouth froze as soon as it hit the icy air and the icicles hanging from the cat's mouth gave it the appearance of a sabre-toothed tiger. One of its ears was ripped and bleeding.
The Ice God scratched his shaggy armpit and said, "What are you doing here, Greymalkin? Why did you wake me up?"
"I've just come back from a trip to New Zealand," said Greymalkin. "I was having a talk with my cousin Harpo The Devil Cat."
"I remember him," said the Ice God and he shuddered with fear. "He's the utterly evil master of delayogami who lives with Alan and Robin."
"That's him," said Greymalkin, and he too shivered with fear, though he pretended it was just from the cold because he was a cat, and that's what cats do. "Harpo told me that Alan and Robin are about to go for a holiday on Rarotonga, a beautiful Pacific Island, and that means that he and his adopted sister Bess will have to go to the cattery at Purrville. They don't want to go, so Harpo suggested that perhaps you might want to help them out."
"Suggested?" queried the Ice God.
"That's right," said Greymalkin. "And he lashed out at my ear, just to give me a reminder."
"Delayogami?" asked the Ice God.
"Indeed," said Greymalkin gloomily. "It didn't start to bleed or hurt until I was almost back here. He's good, that Harpo. Very, very good indeed."
"Well," said the Ice God, "I suppose we'd better do as he asked. I wouldn't like to get on the wrong side of Harpo."
The Ice God struggled out of bed, and with Greymalkin at his side, he walked down the corridor to the control room where the storm rheostats were kept. Starting from the left, he moved every rheostat up to its maximum setting. Outside the control room, the Ice God and Greymalkin could hear the rumbling birth of a huge winter storm. The Ice God adjusted the directional vector control and the storm headed North, straight for New Zealand.
"That should do it," said the Ice God.
"Crude," said Greymalkin, "but probably very effective. I think I might go to Rarotonga myself, just to keep out of its way." He slowly faded from view like a Cheshire Cat, but instead of leaving his smile behind, he left his icicle sabre teeth. They tinkled to the floor and the Ice God swept them under a bench. Then he went back to bed.
* * * *
By Saturday I was starting to worry. We were due to fly out of Wellington at sparrowfart on Tuesday. The flight from Wellington to Auckland connected with a flight from Auckland to Rarotonga at sparrowfart plus two. There wasn't a lot of leeway in the schedule. A delayed flight out of Wellington would be catastrophic. And it was starting to look as though delays were going to be inevitable. The weather forecasts were predicting blizzards throughout most of the country, and by Saturday morning the bottom of the South Island was completely covered in snow. All the airports in the South Island were closed and so were all the roads. The storm was heading inexorably for Wellington and was predicted to reach its peak ferocity on Tuesday morning. The view from my window was not looking good.
"Robin," I called, "come and look out of the window."
Robin was knitting something mysterious, seamless and tube-like on a circular needle. "Just let me finish this row," she quipped. After a few minutes of serious knitting she said, "OK. What can you see out of the window?"
"Nothing," I said. "It's snowing and the visibility is zero."
"Snow is falling out of the sky in fluffy lumps and covering the lawn."
"But it doesn't snow in Wellington."
"It does now."
For the first time in living memory snow was falling on the capital city. The hill suburbs were soon white and shiny and there was even snow all the way down to sea level. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. It dominated the front page of the newspapers and it was the first story on the television news. Who cared about trivial things like the financial crisis or wars in far off sandy countries? There was snow in Wellington. It was unprecedented.
Our lawn quickly vanished under several inches of snow and I could see cars slipping and sliding up and down the road. There would be black ice on the road by tomorrow as the overnight temperature plummeted. If the snow kept on falling, the road would soon be impassable.
"Even if the airport stays open," said Robin thoughtfully, "the taxi might not be able to get up the hill to our house. It won't take much more of this to cut us off completely."
I checked the airport web site. Flights to and from Auckland were still taking off and landing but there were long delays. All our travel arrangements were teetering on a knife edge.
Sunday lulled us into a false sense of security. The day was bitterly cold, but the morning sky was clear. Most of the snow had gone from the road and buses and cars appeared to be travelling up and down it with minimal skidding. However it didn't last. By the late afternoon the sky had clouded over again and more snow was falling.
"I didn't want to go to a tropical Pacific island paradise anyway," I said. "One and all, they are grossly overrated."
"There's still a couple of days to go," said Robin encouragingly. "It might have all blown over by then." She didn't sound convinced.
On Monday, Robin had a brilliant idea.
"Let's see if we can reschedule our flights and go up to Auckland today instead of tomorrow morning. That gives us a lot more leeway and a lot more chance of actually getting to Auckland before the Rarotonga flight takes off."
I hunkered down with a telephone and my Air New Zealand Koru Club card.
"Welcome to Air New Zealand," said a robot. "Please enter your Koru Club membership number."
I pressed buttons.
"Thank you," said the robot. "I see you are an important customer. I will transfer you to an operative immediately"
I said a silent prayer of gratitude as I imagined all the unimportant customers sitting in their never ending, never answered telephonic queues and loudly cursing my name as I elbowed my way to the front.
I heard a ringing sound and then an actual human being said, "Hello, this is Tanya. How can I help you."
I explained my predicament.
"No problem," said Tanya and I heard the clatter of a keyboard. "There you are -- I have you booked on flight 428 at two o'clock this afternoon."
"Thank you Tanya," I said. And then I started ringing Auckland hotels. If we managed to get up there at all, we'd need an overnight stay before our flight out on Tuesday morning. Thank goodness I have huge allowances on my various gold credit cards.
Because of the change of plan, we now had about four hours to get the cats to the cattery, pack our cases, and arrange with the neighbours to empty our mail box while we were away. Step one: find the cats. Ah! There they were, curled up asleep on the bed which still retained a certain warmth from our occupancy. I closed the bedroom door so that they couldn't escape while Robin got the cages out of the garden shed. I donned a pair of leather welding gloves that went all the way up to my elbows, grabbed Harpo and poured him head first into the cage that Robin was holding vertically. Years of bitter experience have taught me that this is the only safe way to get him into it. By the time he re-orients himself and attempts to tear me to shreds, the cage door is closed and he is helpless.
Shrieks of rage filled the air. "You bastards! I'll get you for this. And just wait until the next time I see the Ice God. Incompetent fool! I'll tear him asunder."
Bess went relatively quietly. "Oh no, not again," she said, doing her world famous impression of a bowl of petunias.
I bundled the cages into the car and we drove up the road to Purrville, our favourite cattery. There were snowmen lining the road, one outside almost every house. All the neighbourhood children had obviously been having a wonderful time with the snow.
Now that the hardest part was over and done with, we did the easy things. Two suitcases were hurriedly packed, I left a message on the neighbour's answering machine about the mailbox and then I called a taxi. Snow fell steadily as we drove to the airport. The Ice God was still trying really, really hard to keep us at home.
There were long delays on almost every flight into and out of Wellington. The airport was marginal at best and the air traffic controllers were making the most of the very brief windows of opportunity afforded them by the ever changing weather. It was a miracle that the airport was operating at all. All flights to the South Island were cancelled of course. The departures board announced that fights to Dunedin were cancelled because of "...DUD weather conditions". Someone behind the scenes appeared to be enjoying themselves. I was surprised that they hadn't finished the sentence with a smiley face.
Our Auckland flight took off shortly after 3.00pm on Monday 15th August just ahead of another flurry of snow. Our flight to Rarotonga was due to take off from Auckland at 9.30am on Tuesday 16th August. Because of the vagaries of the international date line, it would arrive in Rarotonga after a three and a half hour flight at 3.00pm on Monday 15th August. Who says time travel is a physical impossibility?
* * * *
We arrived in Rarotonga exactly on schedule, just as we were taking off from Wellington. Monday 15th August was brilliantly sunny and warm. We walked across the tarmac to the arrival hall feeling sweaty and overdressed. Customs and Immigration stamped our passports and welcomed us to Rarotonga with big smiles. Then we were met by the lovely Kimi, our shuttle bus driver, who would take us to the Sunset Resort Hotel where we would be staying for the next ten days. Kimi hung garlands of heavily scented flowers around our necks. She gave us each a chilled bottle of water and a cold cloth with which to wipe away the sweat. Then she drove us to the resort with all the windows open. "Air conditioning," she explained.
Once we were settled in, we took a little walk to explore our surroundings. There was a beautiful reef-enclosed lagoon just outside the hotel. There was deep blue, slightly angry water outside the reef. Waves crashed against the reef, and broke in roaring bundles of spray and surf. But inside the reef the lagoon was calm and green. Sunshine danced across it in sparkles of dazzling light. I've never seen a reef around a lagoon before, but it was just as I'd always imagined it from reading "Coral Island" when I was a child.
There was a big black dog fast asleep on the clear, white sandy beach. He woke up and blinked at us as we got close to him, but he was really far too busy to pay us any prolonged attention, and he went straight back to sleep. The beach was so clear and clean because every morning seven maids with seven mops came out to sweep the sand for half a year. And Lewis Carroll was wrong -- they got it perfectly clear and smooth each and every day.
The sea inside the reef was shallow and full of multi-coloured fish which were obviously quite accustomed to having portly pakehas splash around them. They swam and shoaled so thickly that you almost felt you could walk on a living carpet of blue and yellow and stripy fish.
We left the coast and wandered up the road a little. A signpost pointed up a dilapidated side track. "Prison," it said. "And Craft Centre."
We walked past the Kikau Hut Restaurant. 200 metres further on we came across another sign. "Kikau Hut Restaurant", it said. "200 metres back".
We walked further along the road until we came to a dilapidated, tumbledown shack. A huge sign hung from it: "Ministry Of Infrastructure and Planning".
I think Rarotonga must have been settled by surrealists. I could tell immediately that I was going to enjoy myself here.
For many years, the Cook Islands (of which Rarotonga is the largest) were a New Zealand protectorate, and they still use the New Zealand currency. This makes Rarotonga a very convenient place for New Zealanders to go for a holiday of course. However the Islands also mint their own coins and print their own banknotes. As you might expect, these domestic coins and notes are extremely odd and also very attractive at one and the same time. They have a $3 note with a picture of a bare-breasted lady riding a shark. They have a $2 coin which is silver and triangular and a $5 coin which is a golden dodecahedron. And, uniquely as far as I am aware, they have both a $7.50 coin and a $2.50 coin.
All these domestic notes and coins are so weird that if you ever receive them in your change you immediately squirrel them away and refuse to spend them because they make such lovely souvenirs. Consequently shopping in Rarotonga becomes a much more expensive experience than it otherwise would be!
The island of Rarotonga is almost circular, with a circumference of just over 30 kilometres. The coastal road goes all the way around it, and two buses drive along the road, stopping to let people on and off wherever the whim takes them. The buses are known as the clockwise bus and the anti-clockwise bus. However, in the evenings there is only a clockwise bus. You can't go widdershins after dark. Cthulhu doesn't allow it.
We took the clockwise bus into Avarua, the capital city (indeed, the only sizeable settlement on the island). We could tell it was the capital city; it had two roads, two banks and a supermarket. It also had a most magnificent courthouse which was built for Rarotonga by the People's Republic of China. Unfortunately they built it to accommodate Chinese criminals. The Rarotongans, like all Polynesians, are very large people and they cannot get into the toilets in the courthouse unless they shuffle sideways through the door. I gather they have similar problems with the dock and the cells as well. Never mind -- once they get sentenced to time in prison, they can do lots of craftwork.
We took the clockwise bus back to the resort, which meant that we got to circumnavigate the island before returning. We got back just in time for happy hour. Cook Island Lager (brewed locally, of course) is $5 a bottle during happy hour. Outside of happy hour it is $6 a bottle. Happy hour is not hugely happy, but it has its moments, not least of which are the free peanuts.
There are nine breaks in the reef that surrounds the island and one of these, the largest, opens into the lagoon from which the original seven waka that colonised New Zealand sailed nearly a thousand years ago. None of the waka ever returned home and it wasn't until almost seven hundred years later, when Europeans first came to the islands, that the islanders finally learned how successful their colonisation had been. There are still close ties between the Maori and the Cook Islanders, though the language has mutated slightly with the years. The Maori say kia ora as a greeting; the Cook Islanders say kia orana. The Maori refer to the original seven canoes (and canoes in general) as waka; the Cook Islanders call them vaka.
We took a trip on a four wheel drive jeep into the thickly jungled interior of the island. Bananas and paw-paws grow wild, free for the taking. Once you leave the coast, the island quickly becomes very steep and rugged. The guide took us up a track to the largest waterfall in the world. Unfortunately there was no water falling down it; someone had turned off the tap.
The jeep struggled up a steep incline and stopped on a plateau. We got a perfect view of "The Needle"; a thin spire of rock that stands tall at the top of a mountain, looking for all the world like the Tower Of Orthanc. Robin positioned me very carefully and took a photograph of me with The Needle growing out of the top of my head. It was a perfect partner to the photo she already had of me with a coconut palm growing out of my head. I think she might have a new hobby...
The guide showed us how to husk a coconut. "You need a special tool," he explained. "We call it a ko. In English, that translates to sharp stick."
He stuck the stick in the ground, pointy side up. Then he rammed the coconut down on to it so that the point came right through the husk and out of the other side. He prized off the husk as he pulled the nut off the stick, turned it round and jammed it down on the point again. He did that four times, splitting the husk each time so that it could be peeled easily away from the nut. Then, with the blunt side of a machete, he cracked the nut in two. He passed around the lower half which was full of clear juice. We all took a sip. It was warm and sweet and very refreshing. He carved the flesh from the nut and passed that round as well. I found it rather tough and chewy and a bit tasteless. Robin had two helpings. "It's food, isn't it? It's been a long time since breakfast."
Saturday was cloudy and there was a breeze. The temperature dropped to slightly below the boiling point of lead. We visited the open air market in Avarua. The tourists were out in force, all dressed in t-shirts and shorts, enjoying the freshness. The locals were huddled deep into fur lined anoraks with the hoods up because they were freezing cold.
The market stalls sold local produce, brightly coloured shirts, pareus (sarongs) and jewellery made from black pearls. Lovely ladies wearing coconut bras and hula skirts danced seductively to the pounding, hypnotic rhythms of the drums. In the intervals between dances the sound system played traditional island music at skull splitting volume. CDs were for sale. I was tempted to buy them all so that silence would descend. I resisted the temptation. If I took the CDs home I might have to play them one day, and that would never do.
We went to Muri, about 20 minutes anti-clockwise from our hotel, and took a boat trip across the lagoon. The boat was glass bottomed and large curious fish peered up through the glass at the tourists. We stopped at a small island for a barbecue lunch of freshly caught yellowfin tuna. It was the most delicious fish I have ever tasted in my life -- partly because it was so fresh and partly because it was marinaded in a secret island ingredient known only to the chef, who referred to himself as Captain Cook. He well deserved the name.
His Co-Captain, Captain Awesome, dressed in full Rarotongan warrior regalia, climbed a coconut tree and dropped several large nuts to the ground. He climbed the tree so fast that Robin, who was blinking at the time, completely missed it. He too was well deserving of his name. Again we got to drink the fresh coconut juice and we learned how to use fabric made from the husk fibres to squeeze out the cream from the grated flesh.
Then it was time for the crab races! First prize a coconut, second prize $20,000, third prize $10,000. We all chose a hermit crab from a cup and let them wander over our hands for a time. We each gave our crab a name. Mine was called Harpo because it nipped me as it staggered across my palm. Then Captain Awesome drew two concentric circles in the sand. We placed our crabs in the inner circle, and Captain Awesome woke them up with a blast from a conch shell. The crabs scuttled hither and yon, cheered on by the crowd. The winner was the first crab to reach the boundary of the outer circle. Harpo came fourth; a valiant effort, he was only a small crab. Captain Awesome awarded the lady with the winning crab a coconut fresh from the tree. Unfortunately there are no pockets in a Rarotongan Warrior's costume and so he hadn't actually brought the second and third prizes with him. Oh, what a shame.
* * * *
All good things come to an end. Our flight home was scheduled to depart at 2.10am on 25th August so we had to be at the airport just after midnight on the 24th. That evening, we wined and dined for the final time at our local restaurant which was decorated with old posters advertising cruises on Cunard and White Star Line ships. The poster advertising The Titanic was hidden behind a pot plant so that you had to squint to see it at all. The clock was dated 1879, and it came from Kensington Station in London. It ticked away our final hours in paradise.
The delightful Kimi took us to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. She hugged us both and made us promise to come back; an easy promise to make and one we hope to keep. A few hours later we were home. The snow had vanished and the day was cold and crisp and clear.