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The TEAL Story – The Coral Route Flying Boat Era Seen Through the Eyes of Queen Manarangi Tutai of Vaipae – Aitutaki Island.

 

Solent Flying Boat "Aranui" at Akaiami Island – one of two Solents on the TEAL Coral Route.

Queen Manarangi Tutai - Paramount Chief of the Eastern side of Aitutaki Island, is the owner and your hostess at Gina’s Garden Lodges, and also at Gina’s Akaiami Beach Lodge, located on Akaiami Island in Aitutaki’s beautiful blue lagoon, site of the terminus for the TEAL Coral Route.

 

Queen Manarangi Tutai in Traditional Dress surrounded by her Chiefs

Gina’s Akaiami Beach Lodge is situated on one of the reef islands at Akaiami Island - 5 miles across the lagoon. On beautiful Akaiami Island, Tutai offers visitors a true Robinson Crusoe holiday experience at her substantial beach lodge – Ginas Akaiami Beach Lodge. Accomodation is provided in three large studio rooms, with separate shower and toilet facilities. Only one booking accepted at a time assures total guest privacy. On Akaiami’s pristine white beach visitors find the Polynesian paradise that they have been searching for. Enquiries to her at : queen@aitutaki.net.ck

Akaiami Island is the site of the Aitutaki Island terminus for the TEAL flying boat service ( TEAL stands for Tasman Empire Airlines Ltd) – the original Coral Route, which between December 1951 and September 1960 ran between Auckland, Laucala Bay in Fiji to the fabled island of Tahiti, via refueling stops at Samoa and Aitutaki. TEAL owned two Solent flying boats – the "Aparima" and "Aranui". At the time, it was the only air service available to both the Cook Islands and Tahiti, which did not then have an airport. Flying at only 150 knots, the giant four engine Short Solent flying boats were extremely comfortable, with luxurious cabin accommodation , and the food was of gourmet quality.

View Inside a Solent Cabin

The vast distances between landings and the slow speed meant that travel by this means took a long time. The flying boats came to Aitutaki twice a week – Thursdays and Sundays – once on the way to Tahiti, and once from Tahiti on the return leg back to Samoa and Fiji. They landed on a water landing area marked out with buoys, and then anchored in Akaiami Bay. TEAL had a small fuel depot at Akaiami , and aviation fuel was pumped out to the plane using a refueling barge.

Solent Taxiing and a Map Showing the Sea Landing Area in the Lagoon

The remains of the old passenger wharf are still there. Passengers were ferried ashore by means of the TEAL launch, welcomed on the wharf and bedecked with sweet smelling flower eis, and they then sojourned in the small TEAL guest house, until the time came to board the plane again. Many swam, went for walks along the pristine silver sand, and marveled at the multihued turquoise of the Lagoon. Travellers were enchanted with the isolation, and at the opportunity, even if only for a few short hours, of being able to explore an exotic uninhabited coral island.

Many travelers, famous and otherwise passed through Akaiami, on their way to and from Tahiti. Marlon Brando passed through twice. So did Crown Prince Tupou of Tonga, son of Queen Salote. All savoured the experience, and cherished the memory in future years. In it’s own sweet Polynesian way, it was one of the world’s great classical travel experiences – like a voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, or a journey on the Orient Express.

 

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View of a Solent Galley

Truly it was better to travel than to arrive. In this case, both were enchanting , the voyage through the air in a gigantic arc across thousands of miles of Polynesia, the landing at the uninhabited island of Akaiami, and finally, the garland strewn, exotic, out of this world welcome at the South Seas spiritual heart– Tahiti Island.

The night before the plane arrived the TEAL manager and staff would arrive at Akaiami in their launch to prepare for the arrival of the plane. In the earlier years the manager was Lt Col. John Harrington - a US Marine who had first come to Aitutaki in World war II. He had returned after the war and married a local girl.

Those young girls and boys who added pareu wrapped, flower bedecked enchantment and mystery to the passenger’s experiences , are now in late middle age. They too have sweet memories of these, the days of their youth.

TEAL Ground Hostesses at Akaiami Island - My sister Ina is on the right.

Queen Manarangi was only a small girl when the big sea planes first came to Akaiami. She reminisces on those years.

" My father was a small man, but wiry and strong. He was a true Polynesian, a planter of many varieties of food and cash crops, and good with all kinds of animals. Although he was all of these things, he excelled in fishing, and was a fine sailor. He also built beautiful sailing canoes. I had an older brother and an older sister – I was the youngest in the family - and I was Papa’s favourite. Sometimes we lived in our big coral lime house in Tautu village, but I liked it best when we moved to our Coconut thatched house deep in the forest of Taravao, where my Papa and our small family collected coconuts and made Copra. Even though I was only a small girl, when I was there in our hidden forest world I could feel the mysterious and powerful forces of nature moving through this green and watery canopy of life.

On Saturdays Papa would go fishing in his big tamanu wood outrigger sailing canoe, and if the weather was not too rough, he would take me along for company, and to teach me how to fish and the ways of the sea. To a small girl, his canoe seemed huge – it must have been 30 feet long. At the Tautu harbour he would roll her into the water, set the sails, and away we would go. That canoe was fast. I can still see the mighty cotton sail billowing out as it caught the wind, and the hiss of the water foaming at the prow. Papa was expert at this – I would sit on my little padded seat in the canoe and marvel at his skill. He would balance so that the outrigger would just skim the lagoon surface – and our canoe would fly. My vivid memories are of the whiteness of the sail, set against the bright azure blue of the sky, and the beautiful turquoise shades of the lagoon, with the wind singing in the sheets. Such is the fabric of my memories. Pearls woven on the silver strands of childhood.

Once at the fishing grounds, Papa would anchor the canoe, and set about catching some fish. He would give me a handline , some hooks and bait, and sitting there, with my wide brimmed pandanus hat to shield me against the sun, I would while away the hours until Papa returned with his long string of fish – caught with his big spear on the outer barrier reef. In later years I was to see and marvel at how good he was with a hand spear – sometimes throwing it – javelin like- to impale the huge green parrot fish in the barrier reef channels – but that is another story. Then we would return homeward with our catch – his long string of huge blue parrot fish and silver grey Trevalli, and my much smaller one of rock cod and snapper.

On school holidays, Papa would sometimes like to go out to Akaiami to see the seaplane land. He liked to travel the day before, and spend the night there on the island. Often our whole small family would go – Mama, Papa, my brother and sister, and myself. We have land on Akaiami, and we would anchor our big canoe just to the Northern side of the TEAL wharf – where we had our property and a small thatched Coconut hut. Mama use to pack some food and water and we would have a lovely picnic under the stars. I remember still those nights, sitting on a coconut log besides our little camp fire, with the old black billy hissing and bubbling on the tripod. We seemed so isolated, so remote, and yet, for a brief instance the next day, Akaiami would be the only place in the whole Cook Islands where we would be so very close to the outside world. We were, for a very short time, an international airport.

The TEAL Wharf at Akaiami Island, Aitutaki - 1952

I used to sit there, beside the fire, looking out at the lagoon. I can remember one particular evening – it was late – maybe 11 pm and I should have been in bed. I remember reclining on a pandanus mat that Mama had set on the beach for us to sit on, listening to the gentle lapping of the wavelets on the shore. The magic of the night kept me awake. The air was warm and balmy – not hot, not cold and each breath of wind was like liquid silk as it brushed your skin. The lagoon was lit by a dying moon, in the last days before rebirth. The stars seemed unusually bright, and I could see a haze over the mainland of Aitutaki – four or five miles to the West. I can remember thinking then of all those people in the cabin of the flying boat – rushing towards us in the night in their wonderful machine – suspended in the dark between the sea and the stars. Are they thinking of us here on Akaiami ? They will come.They will land – and for a few, brief sunlit hours, they will see and experience the exotic beauty that is our home. Then, with a reluctant step, they will once again board their big sea bird, to travel onwards – this time into the bright blue sunlit vault of the sky that has become the new day, to Faa lagoon and the bigger romance that is Tahiti island. Such is the stuff of dreams.

The big seaplanes usually landed early in the morning around 9 am not long after sunup. They had been traveling through the night from Samoa. The TEAL staff would be on the alert. And when the first radio contact was made with the aircraft a shout would go up, and everyone would man their stations. We all would strain our eyes to see her, vying to be the first. Then, there she was, a speck , gradually becoming larger and larger – then a huge seaplane lining up with the water landing area in the lagoon. Lower and lower she would come, until she appeared to be just skimming the wavelets. Then, like a big graceful swan, she settled on the water and gently losing speed, taxied up to the mooring bouy. In the peace of Akaiami, I can still remember the deafening roar of those big engines, and the silence that followed when they were stopped. It just seemed to make the stillness much greater somehow.

TEAL Solent Taxiing on Aitutaki Lagoon - circa 1952

The TEAL launch would ferry the passengers to the wharf. As children we would stand on the beach, to see the passengers, and if we could recognize anyone who was famous. Some famous film stars did come through sometimes, although as children we were so isolated in our Aitutaki world that we would not recognize them. I do remember how big a man Crown Prince Tupou was . To us children , he seemed huge. I also remember a very small man – a dwarf. We in Aitutaki had never ever seen a dwarf before, and we were fascinated. Us children followed the dwarf along the beach, so he stopped, and made us line up and sing while he conducted, much to the amusement of the other passengers.

Later my Auntie, who worked for TEAL told us that the airline had to put in an especially large seat for Prince Tupou, at the rear of the plane. The dwarf was no problem!

Gina's Akaiami Beach Lodge - Akaiami Island

Now, on the site where our Coconut House used to sit, just by the old TEAL wharf, I have built my visitor accommodation lodge, where my guests can experience the beauty and peace of Akaiami Island, just like those passengers on the seaplanes did over fifty years ago.

Come stay with us at Gina’s Akaiami Beach Lodge, Let us make your Polynesian dreams come true.

 

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Owner:  Queen Manarangi Tutai - Mrs Tutai Clarke

               P.O.Box 10, Aitutaki Island, Cook Islands, South Pacific.

               E-Mail: queen@aitutaki.net.ck

               Phone: (682) 31-058   Fax: (682) 31-058