The Cook Islands are divided both geographically and politically into a Southern Group and a Northern Group. The nine islands of the Southern Group are high enough to have hills, but only Rarotonga is mountainous. All but one of the remote, infrequently visited islands of the Northern Group are low-lying atolls, with circles of reef and coral islets enclosing lagoons. The few residents in the Northern Group earn their living fishing and growing black pearls.
The shoreline of Rarotonga consists of a slightly raised sandy bar backed by a swampy depression, which then gives rise to the valleys and mountains. Before the coming of missionaries in 1823, Rarotongans lived on the raised ground beyond the swampy flats, which they used for growing taro and other wet-footed crops. They built a remarkable road, the Ara Metua (back road), paved in part with stones. The route ran from village to village, almost around the island. It still exists, although the paved round-island road now runs near the shore. The area between the two roads appears to be bush but is in fact heavily cultivated with a plethora of crops and fruit trees. Otherwise the vegetation is typically tropical. The mountains and hills are covered with native brush, while the valley floors and flat coastal plains are studded with coconut and banana plantations and a wide range of flowering trees and shrubs.
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