Adventures on the atoll

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:30 01/06/2014

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The rental car fails to find a radio station, but Bob Marley sings in my head as I drive down Niue's main and peripheral road.

Life is good. The sun is shining, and the weather is sweet.

With two flights a week in peak season and one the rest of the year, the number of tourists in Niue at any one time is limited. Someone drives past and waves. I wave back, before realising I don't even know the person.

This becomes a regular occurrence while driving the 40kmh through villages, and swerving slalom around potholes at 60kmh on open roads.

There are many derelict homes, left behind when international flights were introduced and the population dropped from more than 6000 to less than 1500. This is why failure to wave back could be seen as a personal affront.

Fast forward to night, and I am clambering through rocky bush terrain with blood pouring down my leg and a hunter coming at me with green gloop dribbling out his mouth. Luckily, it is the local coconut crab - or uga - he is hunting. And I am just the clumsy palagi who tripped over one of his dogs and gashed her leg open on coral rocks.

Tony, who runs A5 Tours taking tourists through his family's land in search of the land-based local delicacy, emerges chewing vegetation which he convinces me will help stave off tropical infection.

As the dreadlocked Mutalau local spits the concoction over my wound, I am reminded again of the Caribbean crooner. Don't worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be all right.

"My saliva should be safe enough," Tony jokes.

Seeing the colourful uga in the wild is an authentic way to see the ways in which Niueans live off their land. I just wish someone had warned me about the importance of getting medical attention for any run ins with the jagged coral rocks.

I visited the island's only hospital a few days later to get a course of penicillin when a relatively minor wound turned septic.

But there is too much to do on the island to sweat the small stuff. The alarm blares at 5am and I am off to meet one of the island's true gentlemen, Hima Douglas, at the wharf so I can try my hand at hauling up fish on a charter boat.

Using a crane, his runabout is plonked in the water and we race other early birds to the best spots, dragging rods as we go. It is a different kind of fishing, and I am unsure about the level of skill required when it seems the boat and lures do all the work.

I enjoy the ride and Douglas' humorous banter until three hours later we hit big swells and sea-sickness kicks in. Dropping me back at the wharf appears to lift the curse on the boat and the remaining crew snag two large wahoo.

Niue, it appears, already has a name as a fishing destination. A group of Waiuku men were up at the crack of dawn to try their hand every morning, and another from North Canterbury came to attempt to catch the elusive marlin.

Forget white sand beaches packed with globetrotters. This island is for the adventurous, the curious, and the open-minded.

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A couple on holiday from Nelson joked they were disappointed to discover there would not be any long walks hand-in-hand down a sandy beach. They did not do their research.

The unique and rugged shape of "The Rock" offers plenty of sea tracks, bush tracks, and caves to discover. Just 100 metres from shore, the reef drops to about 100 metres deep, providing the most accessible snorkel and dive spots teeming with kaleidoscopic coral still regrowing after Cyclone Heta, tropical fish, and inquisitive sea snakes.

Divers can experience all this with 30 metres of visibility. The position of Niue within whales' route to Antarctica means it is the ideal stopover for mating and strengthening their young before the long commute. And the depth of the surrounding waters means you can hear them, or see them coming up to the surface next to shore.

Director of tourism Vanessa Marsh says whales, mainly humpback, are the island's biggest attraction. But they are seasonal - from June through to about October - and there are no promises.

"You need to keep in mind that these are completely wild creatures and it's up to mother nature whether they're here one year, and not the next," she says.

Locals often come to work tired and complaining of whale singing keeping them up at night, but there is a concerted effort to protect their annual visitors. I was too early for the whales, but I would travel to Niue just for the diving, without question.

The team at Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive had me raring to get out in the boat. The water is warm, and if not for the swell moving you around within the reef, you would think you were in an aquarium.

For a Kiwi, the thought of sharing the space with sea snakes is quite daunting. But you soon learn, after being assured the black and white striped snake's venom is too far back in their throat, that they are harmless and really quite charming.

During a dive at the aptly named Snake Gully, a tickle on my neck turned out not to be a strap hanging off my tank, but a cheeky snake curled around my neck to peer into my face. On land I would have flapped my arms and run, but down there soon enough I was holding one in my hand and stroking his surprisingly leathery skin. Don't worry, be happy.

During the commute between dive sites we are joined by not only flying fish, but the largest pod of dolphins I have ever seen. The spinner dolphins are known to put on displays for people watching from land, spinning upright up to five times before landing gracefully back in the water.

Jumping out of the boat with my snorkel and mask on, I am towed along as one of the pod. Some brush up against me, and the rest span for about a kilometre in the hundreds. I am in heaven.

While the island's small community is what makes Niue special, Marsh says, it also puts limitations on how it can derive its income.

Both New Zealand and Niue would like to see the island become self-sufficient, but it is about six years away from being able to achieve that goal, she says. Tourism is most important, but I noticed its growth is in the hands of just a few entrepreneurs.

Chicken farmer Willie Santelli also runs the popular Washaway Cafe that opens in Avatele on a Sunday, and owns Crazy Uga cafe. Former New Zealand High Commissioner and current resident Mark Blumsky is responsible for a successful hydroponics garden that provides vegetables and herbs to the island. His wife's family own Falala Fa Cafe, while he is building its first mini golf course set amidst coral rocks, and will soon open a bike hire outlet.

And Israeli businessman and Chamber of Commerce chairman, Avi Rubin, has put Niue on the map with its gourmet sushi restaurant, Kaiika, in the top 20 Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. Marsh says supporting the private sector is crucial to getting the island on its own two feet. But it is important not to become too commercial.

"I think for us, because we're so small and unique, there's a fine line we need to walk."

There are many wonderful people in Niue, and by the time you leave, you will have made friends with many. Nonga Bray, at Vanilla on the Rock, is an older local with impressive tenacity and initiative in planting and exporting vanilla to Australia and Austria. Keith and Sue Vial offer tours that explain the island's quirks, the best sites, and how to navigate them.

Former detective and police commissioner for the Pacific Ross Adern's skills may not be best utilised in one of the world's safest countries. Cars are left with keys in the ignition, and the UN once described Niue as the only completely drug-free country.

Adern - the current New Zealand High Commissioner - recalls the only time a car was taken on the island. An elderly lady accidentally took a local pastor's car after she mistook it for hers of the same make and model. It was returned 10 minutes later when she realised her broken radio had not miraculously started working.

Adern is one of the island's biggest fans. His fondest "picture perfect" memory is of being out fishing having just pulled in a wahoo, when a whale swam up beside him just as the sun was going down.

So if your flight fails to arrive on time, it's OK. I think even Bob would agree with Phil when he said, it's just another day in paradise.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Niue every Saturday and Wednesday from May to October and on Saturdays from November to April.

STAYING THERE The island has a wide range of self-catering cottages and chalets. Matavai Resort is the island's only full service resort and is priced from around $220 per night.

MORE INFORMTION see niueisland.com

- The writer travelled courtesy of Niue Island Tourism.

- Sunday Star Times

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