Monday, July 4, 2022

Rarotonga – Everything you need to know to go in less than 5 minutes

The view at Nautilus Hotel and Restaurant
We’ve just spent five incredibly blissful days in one of the most beautiful islands in the world - Raratonga in the Cook Islands. We were there (just the two of us) to celebrate our 15 year wedding anniversary and Tim’s 40th birthday. As we were preparing to go I had less than an hour to research things to do/not do because #thatmumlife. Therefore I found myself in a right panic and desperate to find a one-stop-shop blog that told me what I needed to know in less than 5 minutes.  I couldn’t find one, so here goes.

Consider me your on-the-ground eyes and ears covering off all the main things you need to thrive during your time in Raro. And if you go/have gone and I’m forgetting anything, let me know and I’ll add it in!

Raratonga is a little island in the South Pacific (think Fiji or Tahiti- but better) and is about a 3.5 hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a beautiful circular island 32km around and a causal 45 min drive to circumvent. The main town is called Avuva and most of the tourists like to be in Muri Beach.

Before you go

The view at Little Polynesian
Remember that you are crossing the dateline. This is very confusing as you are going BACK in time by about 22 hours. SO many tourists get this messed up and it causes issues with flight bookings/hotel bookings and taking time off work etc. 

Rarotonga and New Zealand are conveniently on the same currency. Considering a lot of places only take cash, it pays to use the Kiwi ATM’s before you go to get out your cash as each time you do that in Raro it’ll cost you $5.

On the flight

If you’re flying Jet Star, pack an iPad or device to watch a show on and pack your own snacks. By the time you land you’ll be starving and the whole island is closed for food.

Where to stay
We visited countless hotels in person to check out if the photos were #reality. Here’s my steer on what was worth considering

Budget Picks
The Raratongan (cheap and cheerful and full of families. Cool pool, beautiful beach but a little tired overall as a resort. Lots of carbs on the menu…;)

Mid- Upper Range
Pacific Beach Resort (where we stayed)

High End Picks
Little Polynesian
Te Manava

Where to eat

IMPORTANT: The popular restaurants get booked out quick. If you can, try to book ahead of time via email or on the phone. If you don’t get time to do that before you arrive, simply have your hotel concierge call a few restaurants on the first day and make bookings for you.
OF NOTE: A lot of the hotel restaurants do a happy hour with cheap drinks. There were a few people walking from hotel to hotel along the main beachees to catch the best prices.

Cheap and Cheerful
Cook Islands Coffee Company (hands down the BEST croissants and coffee I have ever tasted and I’ve been to over 45 countries)
Villi’s burgers
Mooring Café
Be Fruitful Café (the most delicious real fruit ice creams and amazing Kiwi owners)

Mid Range
Manuia On the Beach Café (OTB)  -4-6pm Happy Hour and delicious food
Trader Jacks (classic Raro must do  - sells burgers/chips/pizza etc)
Charlie’s Bar (in between the two best snorkeling places) and has live music on the beachfront. Fish tacos are delicious).
Soul Café (fab smoothies)

Nautilus (the calamari and wok fried vegetables were impeccable)
Little Polynesian (go for the food, stay for the view)

You have three options and if you go for option 2 or 3 I’d highly recommend booking BEFORE you go. It took us hours of walking around to find a company that had any availability.

1)      Bus (there are two that go clockwise and anti-clockwise every 45 min).

2)      Car (rent one for about NZ $50 per day. Speed limit is either 30 or 50km/h on the whole island)

3)      Scooter (rent one for about NZ$25 per day. You can fit one or two on a scooter. BUT you have to go to the police station early that morning and set your theory (easy), then return to get your scooter and bring it back to the station for your practical test (medium) before you’re good to go. 


There are heaps of great activities you can do on Raro but here’s my non-exhaustive pick of the best five.
1. Swim with the Turtles  - this is a MUST do if you are a confident swimmer.  It’s expensive ($150pp but it’s worth every cent)
2. Snorkeling  -You can snorkel anywhere but here are two really good options 1) Captain Tama’s or Lagoon Cruises for a paid tour OR 2) DIY and go off the coast at Fruits of Raratonga or out the front of the Raratongan hotel.
3 Kayak/Paddleboarding – most hotels offer this equipment for free and doing this around the lagoon area near Muri beach in crystal clear waters is spectacular.
4. Buggy’s – a lot of people really seemed to enjoy getting muddy in the buggies. I’d give this a go next time.
5. Saturday markets in the main town – an awesome relaxed vibe with live music, delicious food and fair prices on souvenirs.
6. Tim would like to add, Whale watching tours and fishing charters and the night markets in Muri Beach (Sunday is the main night) for cheap eats.

Ok, I’m hooked –I want to go. But how can I save money?

Flights – we flew in with JetStar and flew out with AIrNZ saving hundreds.
Luggage – it was significantly cheaper to go with just hand luggage and pack light.
Hotel transfers – instead of spending $100 EACH WAY for a 25 min car ride, we hired a local taxi for $40. If your hotel is also trying to charge you $200 return, call Ronald 73223 is his number (and he’ll hook you up.
Half board –A few of the hotels offer full board/half board options. You’ll want to eat out so go for the half board or no board and eat out!
Instead of using the big car companies (Avis) for hiring a vehicle, we went local and saved a fair bit.
We brought Kiwi snacks with us to keep us going during the day in between main meals.

What would I do differently next time?

Three things. First, go for longer. I wish we had brought the kids and I wish we had gone for 2-4 weeks. Secondly, gone for an Air BnB. Now that I know how EPIC Raro is I’d feel confident in booking a beautiful Air BnB for the family to enjoy. Thirdly, brought a GoPro with me for the incredible underwater safari that greets you wherever you swim.


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Why mental health? An insider’s insights eight years on


t the end of this week, I’ll be finishing up my time working with Tutapona- an organisation that provides mental health support for war affected people. I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the last 8 years of service with them and share some of what I’ve learnt.  

I first heard about Tutapona’s work in 2010 when my wife, Helen and I were doing a short 5-month project in Uganda, working at Watoto’s Suubi High School.  Some of the students at the school had been abducted by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and escaped, and were receiving group therapy from Tutapona’s co-founder Carl Gaede and a couple of Ugandan staff.  Through my relationship with these kids, I got to hear about how critically important this support was for them and it had a profound impact on me.

A few years later I had the privilege of joining Tutapona’s staff. By then the focus had shifted to refugee response work. Helen and I lived in Mbarara in South West Uganda for a year and I spent most of my time in East Africa’s oldest refugee settlement, Nakivale, with Tutapona’s team of mental health workers. Most of the refugees living there had fled from the Eastern DRC or the Rwandan genocide and the depth of suffering that they’d experienced was horrific. Murder, rape and torture. Separated families. Children without parents.

I soon became more aware of the vast scale of the refugee crisis. Nakivale hosted about 100,000 refugees from nearby countries. But in early 2014, Tutapona also launched field offices in two other refugee settlements. One in Rwamwanja to support Congolese refugees and one in the far north in response to an emerging crisis. Civil war had broken out in the newly formed nation of South Sudan and huge numbers of people were fleeing. Over the next three years about a million South Sudanese people (10% of the entire population) crossed Uganda’s northern border. Tutapona opened a new office in the far-north district of Adjumani to support some of these people.

Trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk states: “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.... It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” The World Health Organization regards mental health support as one of the most critical development issues of our time. Particularly for displaced people. Yet available services are typically totally overwhelmed.

I believe the old axiom that successful organizations have a laser-like focus. This is certainly true of Tutapona. Mental health is the space in which Tutapona exclusively operates. Services include group and individual therapy, tailored to different age and linguistic groups. And the quality of support is world class. Program participants report an average reduction in trauma symptoms of over 55% and an increase in wellbeing of more than 52%.


I can remember many conversations with people who have attended Tutapona’s programs that bring the above stats to life. 

One lady had escaped from the war in South Sudan and was living in a refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. Her son got in a fight at school and was killed by a boy from another tribe. She said, “After my son died, all I wanted was for the one who killed him to remain in prison for ever and ever. My boy was gone, and I wanted the other family to lose someone too.  When my relatives heard the news, they set fire to the houses of the tribe who had killed him.  But I remembered what I learned from Tutapona – that revenge would only hurt more.  This type of fighting couldn’t go on – no more violence. I asked my parents to take action to call Madi and Lutogo tribes together for a meeting so that we could say “Let not that fighting continue, let them stop fighting”.

A Congolese man in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement told me that before attending the GROW program, he had largely given up. Didn’t see a point in setting goals or striving for anything much. He was existing, but largely stalled. He said this came out of so much disappointment and struggle in his life. The program had challenged this cycle of thinking, and he’d subsequently made the decision to fix his leaking thatch roof and to plant out the land around his home in crops.

Most memorably, I can remember attending GROW (an adult group therapy program) in Northern Uganda. On the last day an older woman got up to speak. She said, without much emotion, that a few days earlier she had been making plans to hang herself. Her problems were ‘too much’. But she testified that participating in Tutapona’s program had given her a new perspective and her troubles no longer overwhelmed her. She also said that the message of forgiveness had an effect on her. After forgiving some people who had hurt her, she felt freedom for the first time in many years.

I’ve seen that good quality mental health support has the ability to awaken motivation. It can improve relationships, support better sleep, reduce alcohol abuse and dependency and curb violence. It can also bring hope to people with suicidal thoughts.

Each year Tutapona’s local, trained mental health workers support about 5,000 people across Uganda and Iraq. The total number of people supported has now ticked well past 50,000. A remarkable number none of us could ever have imagined all those years ago when we first began. It’s also been encouraging seeing Tutapona become the leading mental health actor in the Ugandan refugee response, with another significant footprint in Iraq. Active partnerships include Save the Children, Medical Teams International and War Child Holland with previous projects run in conjunction with Lutheran World Federation, Food for the Hungry, Alight and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


As I step out of this work, I plan to continue to advocate for the mental health needs of war affected people in general, and Tutapona’s work in particular. I look forward to seeing how God continues to use this incredible organization to bring healing and hope to many people who have experienced the horror of war.

On Monday, I start a new job with Tearfund and Compassion in New Zealand as their International Programmes Director. I look forward to getting stuck in to this new project! But as I finish up I want to say thank you to all of Tutapona’s supporters. I hope this serves as an encouragement to continue to support this important work. To Carl and Julie and Tutapona’s wonderful teams in the US, Canada, Iraq and Uganda thank you for your service to war affected people.

Afoyo matek! 
Tim Manson


Monday, January 31, 2022

Five reflections after 10 years at Tearfund/Compassion

This month marks a significant milestone for me. Therefore I want to take a brief moment to slow down and celebrate what God has done. It continues to be one of the greatest privileges of my life to serves as the Creative and Communications Lead at Tearfund/Compassion New Zealand and I stand in awe and amazement that I get to do this.  

Work wise, this has been the place where I’ve grown up… I moved into this “house” a decade ago when I was 27, explored my creative gifts here, was eventually given a voice at the management table and encouraged to step up and lead in new ways here. But first let’s take a brief moment to talk about Day 1 on the job because it really does deserve a mention.

My first day at Tearfund/Compassion was in Kolkuta, India visiting a small fraction of the 2 million children in our sponsorship projects. Later that afternoon I headed to a florist in the middle of the city. I was told on arrival to ask to use the florist’s phone and to call a certain number. Then, two men would escort me to a secret location down the street so that I could learn more about Tearfund’s partners work in the city to fight sex trafficking. Seemed legit. #bestmeetingever.

That night my boss had a family emergency and had to race back to New Zealand. Before she left she looked me up and down and asked if I would be willing to go into Bangladesh in the coming days to capture some stories and images for Tearfund’ s next campaign. The next day I found myself on a flight to Dakar where I landed into a country that was mid coup and swarming with UN peacekeeping troops before being driven 8 hours into the depths of the jungle. Health and Safety/ Security Measures were a wee bit lax at Tearfund in those days.  In Bangladesh I showered with a cup and a bucket, slept in a house with no door and was the only white person most of our 30,000 beneficiaries had ever seen.

Since then I’ve had almost every immunization on the planet for every possible tropical disease. I’ve travelled to countless countries photographing, interviewing and helping write up campaigns and appeals for the people that will benefit.

A few of my most memorable moments on the job:

  •         Hosting TV3 for the one-year anniversary of the Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh. With over 1 million people living within 10 square kilometres, it was incredible to see them bring this story live to New Zealand TV screens and raise hundreds of thousands.
  •          Entering into Mosul on the border of Syria and Iraq with one of Tearfund’s partners and being told to stay within 200 metres of the vehicle at all times and carry a chemical gas weapons mask with me.
  •          Being tracked and chased out of Sri Lanka’s war torn North by the local FBI and having to send our photos and videos back – by post.
  •          Flying into Vanuatu three days after Cyclone Pam decimated the island for the Integral Alliance whilst 9 weeks pregnant.
  •         Spending 6 years of my time at Tearfund living and working out of Uganda.
  •          Watching in amazement the work of Compassion to stop child slaves working on Lake Volta in Ghana.
  •          Collaborating with New Zealand’s largest NGO’s on a national campaign called Live Below the Line that brought in just over a million dollars for our work to end modern slavery.
  •         Helping launch New Zealand’s first Ethical Fashion Guide
  •          And most recently, leading and working alongside the most incredible Creative team of passionate, crazy talented people on countless campaigns, appeals and disasters to bring desperately needed help to those that need it most.

Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve been genuinely scared for my life, cried buckets of tears with the people I’ve interviewed, and thanked God every time for the privilege.

There’s a quote that reads;
“Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it. But, I’m afraid he’d ask me the same question.”
I think about this quote all the time.

What has kept me doing this kind of work is primarily my faith in a God that asks us to be his hands and feet on the earth. A God that cares deeply for this heaving mess of humanity.
I’ve never taken one photo, story or campaign for granted and I am prayerful as I try my hardest to preserve dignity whilst showing tremendous human need. It is one of the greatest joys of my life to offer my humble skills and watch him bring to living colour the things He holds close to his heart.

In a world full of plastic and throw away’s, in a world full of “If it doesn’t work for me, I’m out”, I find there’s something really beautiful about longevity. About sticking it out. Investing one’s life in a cause. Pouring out your life for something, for someone.

I feel like there’s a rocket on the inside of me and it burns fierce. I am deeply passionate about this work. Ann Voskamp says “Compassion isn’t merely a vague sense – but a feeling so strong it causes you to bend. It shapes your body, your whole life, into a response”. There’s nothing I would rather do. I am humbled beyond belief to be entrusted to do it.

This is what I know after ten years.

  1. Those of us that have a front row seat to the devastation will one day have a front row seat to the restoration. I believe that with all my heart.
  2. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. The longer I’m in this work the more I realize just how difficult some people have it.  I stand in awe at what the poor have to carry.
  3. Just because I work for a charity doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Who do you think pays for charities to stay afloat and help people? It’s the bankers, the stockbrokers, the teachers, the doctors, the truck drivers and retail staff. Solving big global issues takes all of us.
  4. God sustains this work. Not me, not my team. God.
  5. I’ve never seen a situation where there was no hope. Truly, I tell you. In every country I’ve ever been to and with every story I’ve ever heard, there is always something to be hopeful for.

Under the Tearfund roof I’ve experienced things I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. And even though I’ve been “grounded by a pandemic” these last two years, perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that during this season we’ve been building a strong foundational team from the ground up filled with young people that are going to shape this organisation moving forward. We’re growing, sharing the load and, Lord willing, soon we’ll be back out there telling the stories that need to be told.

I can’t promise I’ll work here forever. But I can tell you, no matter how long I’m here or there or everywhere, Tearfund/Compassion will always be home for me.

Onwards and upwards,