Getting Lost: Rarotonga Cross Island Walk

Being avid hiking fans, our Cook Islands trip wouldn’t have been complete without a trekking experience. The most popular hiking track on Rarotonga is the Cross Island Walk, leading from one side of the island to the other.

Despite of the heat, 10 kilometres sounded like a reasonable distance; after all we knew we would spend most of our time in the shadow of the lush forest, and we were going to end up right at the beach, ready to jump straight into the turquoise lagoon if needed.


On the first kilometre of the island crossing in South-North direction.

On an almost cloudfree morning we therefore took the clockwise bus – yep, only two bus directions exist on Rarotonga; clockwise and anti-clockwise – and asked the bus driver to drop us at the beach where the track for the island crossing starts.

As we decided to cross the island from the South to the North, the official starting point of the hike was at Wigmore’s Waterfall, which we reached after a 15 minutes walk along a small road for cars leading in-land.

Till now, we had deliberately ignored all travel guides mentioning that it would be easier to do the crossing in the North-South direction since the way would be better marked. Can’t be that difficult, we thought; and so we shrugged once more our shoulders as we passed a warning sign that it’s strongly recommended to begin the hike on the other side.

The first kilometre went fine.


Crazy rock and tree formation along the path. This could almost be out of a movie scene, don’t you agree?

Then we reached a point where many people before us must have gotten confused and formed tracks in all possible directions. Even the stream that we had followed seemed confused and separated into two rills.

We decided to follow one of the “caved paths” and regularly turned around watching out for the little orange triangle marking the track from the North-South direction.

Spotting no triangle after 200 metres we thought we took the wrong junction; but how to be sure? Mr ae.i headed forward in the hope he would find the treasured plastic marker signaling that we were on the right track.

He told me he would be back in 5 minutes. He wasn’t.

I followed his path before I had the brilliant idea to call his name. No feedback.

I followed his path a little longer, but when the track became dodgy I tried calling him again. There he was, yelling he is on his way down.

Yay! Not!!

He must have made a wrong turn. At the end of my tether I started calling him again 4 or 5 times before I realized I had lost him again. I honestly started to panic a bit. And my imagination ran wild.

What if he had slipped and needed help?, I thought just the moment when I heard someone screaming my name from far behind me. Well, how did he do that? He clearly left in the other direction.

It didn’t matter. I was surely relieved when we were finally reunited a couple of minutes later and I made the Mister promise not to explore any path without me anymore (!).

After returning to the point where path and stream seamed to separate in all directions we finally spotted an orange triangle that we hadn’t passed yet. After crossing the stream and climbing a steep slope we were back on track. Only 30 minutes lost.


Back on track, which became so steep that it would have been tough to climb uphill without a rope. See the little orange triangle on the photo? These markers exlsuively indicate the correct path in North-South direction; there are no markers at all the other way around.

We didn’t lose sight of the track markers for a second time that day, although there would have been more occasions. Not everyone was as lucky that day though; more later.

We reached The Needle – the highest point of the hike (413m) – during  a sunny moment and enjoyed the view over the surrounding green mountains of dense forest down towards the lagoon, reef, Pacific Ocean


View towards The Needle, the highest point during the island crossing.

While descenting on the Northern side we met a bigger hiking group led by Pa, a local tramping guide who knows these mountains like the back of his hand. There is surely no way getting lost with him.


Steep descent over big roots and rocks.

After 2.5 kilometres we reached a narrow road, the official starting point of the track when doing the hike in North-South direction. Another 2.5 kilometres along that road – and many taro fields and papaya orchards later – we were back in town, jumping right into… no, not the lagoon… the clockwise bus, bringing us back to our guesthouse and a well deserved nap after our 4 hours adventure.


Sunbeams made visible by a small (controlled) fire in the woods.

As mentioned earlier, not everyone got that fortunate that day!

As luck would have it, the same evening we met 3 tourists who started the South-North island crossing two hours after us. After having a chat, we believe they got confused at the very same spot like us a bit earlier that day, but they didn’t remember where they had gotten off track or seen the last orange marker.

So they continued and probably created a new path through the forest which might confuse more people in the future. Oups! Eventually they reached the top of a mountain, but they couldn’t tell which one. All they could tell for sure was they were clearly off track.

Instead of trying to find a way down to finish the crossing they simply walked the same way back. It took them 8 hours – twice as much as what we needed for the complete crossing. Their worried host had called the police in the meantime.

Each year, several hiking groups face the same problem. They need to be guided out of that tree maze by local guides or police men.

Now we – and you – know why it’s strongly recommended to do the Cross Island Walk in a North-South direction.


Rarotonga island crossing profile from my GPS watch. We needed 4 hours for 10 kilometres, including an involuntary 30 minutes detour through the wilderness.

I honestly find it a pity that this popular track causes so much trouble and requires local search groups when it would be an easy thing to simply add more track markers in the South-North direction.

And here is the thing: If I would ever do that walk again, I would chose South-North over North-South, simply because the Southern side of the mountains is so wet and slippery that it’s easier to find grip climbing uphill than sliding downhill. Remember, the sun moves from East to North to West in the Southern Hemisphere, which makes the Northern side of the Rarotongan mountain chain much drier and perfect for a non-slippery descent.

For a description of the track conditions and quality please read all image captions. Click any photo to see it in big and better quality. Enjoy – and don’t get lost!

If you like this post you might also like Photo Essay: Rarotonga, Cook Islands



4 thoughts on “Getting Lost: Rarotonga Cross Island Walk

  1. Nice trip! :-)
    My german soul was instantly asking:”Why don’t they mark the way up from south to north too?!”
    It must be annoying and expensive to permanently search the foolish tourists, that cannot listen! :-) ;-)


    • Ahhh, these tourists who believe they know better than the locals. Shame on them! ;)

      If I ever have the chance to get back to Rarotonga I’ll have a few dozen plastic triangles in my luggage to mark that track myself. Now that I know the way :D


  2. Pingback: So Far Away | ducksoftheworld

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