Mangaia – the oldest island in the Pacific

Posted on June 24, 2016

Mangaia is widely recognised as the oldest island in the Pacific with geologists estimating that the island is at least 18 million years old. Mangaia is also the southernmost of the islands that make up the Cook Islands and second only to Rarotonga in size. With a population of around 700, Mangaia is similar in appearance to Rarotonga with a large peak in the middle of the island and a high ring of cliffs of fossil coral.

Communities on Mangaia

Mangaia’s population of 700 are based around three main villages on the island. The capital is Oneroa where around half of the island’s population are based and the other two main villages are Tamarua in the south and Ivirua in the northeast. As with all of the Cook Islands, Mangaia is also subdivided down into districts (Puna) and sub-districts (Tapere) which are controlled by Pava (district chiefs).

History of Mangaia

Mangaia has a rich history – an island that is over 18 million years old has seen its fair share of change over that time. Before the settlement of missionaries, Mangaia was ruled by fierce warriors who were in a constant struggle over land and crops (Source: Wikipedia). Unsurprisingly, like many of the islands of the South Pacific, the first recorded European to arrive at Mangaia was Captain James Cook in 1777.

It is also reported that Numangatini, or ‘King’ John of Mangaia was received by Queen Victoria on a trip to London and presented with a Union Jack flag that still exists today, albeit in two parts – one in Oneroa and the other in Tonga.

Mangaia Trade

The economy of Mangaia relies on its shell neckbands or ‘eis’. These are made from the shells of the tiny yellow snail, the pupu and are made by the women of the island. They are very time consuming to make and are often presented as a treasured gift to friends, family and visitors from other islands. The neckbands are highly sought and much in demand in Tahiti and Hawaii.

Other items that help the economy of Mangaia include coconuts – a staple of the island for both food, coconut milk and fibre. Taro is also a popular crop on the island and Mangaia is thought to grow some of the finest in the Pacific. High in both vitamin A and C, taro is a great vegetable that is low in fat but is often considered low on flavour too! An acquired taste!


If you are lucky enough to make a visit to Mangaia, keep an eye out for the Mangaia kingfisher, a bird that can only be found on the island and therefore considered a ‘vulnerable’ bird by Birdlife International. If you are visiting the island though you should still have plenty of opportunities to spot one – there are reportedly 400-700 Mangaia kingfishers on the island and they add to the stunning wildlife to be found across the island.

Lake Tiriara

To the south of the island you will find Lake Tiriara – a natural fresh water lake. As you would imagine, this is a place that is teeming with wildlife and plant life and thanks to an environmental charity, the lake is now getting the protection it needs as well as the addition of boardwalks for people to be able to go and enjoy the surrounds.

Getting There

If you are looking to get off the beaten track and get out to explore some of the other islands in the Cooks, Mangaia is a great place to visit with regular flights leaving from Raro to Mangaia. The flight takes just 40 minutes and will cost around $450-500 return.

Once you arrive, there are a variety of accommodation options including the Mangaia Villas, a lodge, a motel and chalets.

Find out more about the other islands that make up the Cook Islands and follow our blog. You can read about Tongareva (Atoll of Penrhyn) here.

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