It’s Ground Hog Day again as I start my journey to visit Niue on July 27 and finish it on July 26, back across the International Date Line. The flight from Auckland, coming from Norfolk Island is horrendously bumpy. The captain apologises profusely for most of the journey, I grip the seats of my chair and the crew are ordered to stay in their seats, as we career through the skies. We landed in pouring rain, of course.
Locate my Rav 4 hire car - no map provided. Proceed to become totally lost for an hour, undertaking what I’ve been told is a five kilometre journey. My wipers make the most appalling noise, like screeching parrots and I can’t demist the screen. Eventually, end up at the hospital. I suppose it’s useful to know where that is - assuming I can find it again.
Meet two more bewildered tourists trying to make their way to the same place as me. Follow them. And end up back at the hospital. After stopping several residents and begging a map off one family finally arrive at my resort, to discover I’m I’ve been allocated an apartment a mile up the road from the main building. Just as well I have a car. but it has a gorgeous view over the reef.
Niue is one of the world's largest coral islands, at ten miles by seven miles; it’s actually a coral atoll raised by volcanic upheavals, so there are caves and chasms above and below water. so, It's known as The Rock of Polynesia, or simply The Rock (not to be confused with Jamaica.)
Niue’s highest point is only 223 feet (about 68 meters) above sea level.
Niue has no recognised strategic trade significance and was not annexed by a European power until 1900, long after most other Pacific islands. It was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1774, but he was refused landing by the inhabitants, on three different attempts. He then named Niue ‘Savage Island’. Missionaries from the LMS (London Missionary Society) established Christianity in 1846. Niue chiefs took British Protectorate status in 1900, and in 1901 Niue was annexed to New Zealand.
Niue is a small island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. Niue has been in free association with New Zealand since 1974, (so the currency is the New Zealand Dollar) and government follows a Westminster-style rule with a 20 member assembly. The Premier is selected by the House and the Premier then selects 3 other members for Cabinet posts. So, Niue has the world’s highest per capita number of politicians, with one MP for every 65 people!
More Niueans live in New Zealand than in Niue: 1500 on Niue, 24000 in New Zealand.
The local literature also tells me, boasts no crime, no traffic lights, no queues and no crowds. As far as I can see this information is entirely accurate.
Niue is famous for its diving, snorkelling and coastal scenery, so I plan to take this in, driving my hire car round the island. Niue is also known for being the world’s first country to become a Dark Sky Place or 'Dark Sky Nation'. So, star-gazing is a possibility. Or it would be, if it stopped raining. Niue is one of the least visited countries in the world, but the inhabitants plan to keep it that way. There’s talk of capping the number of visiting tourists to 15,000 a year., to make sure Niue stays a place worth visiting.
However, my main reason for visiting, is to try to swim with whales.
I manage to navigate safely back to the airport today, with plenty of time in hand. It’s on the same road as the New Zealand High Commission (very plush), the supermarket, the golf club, the bowling club and the rugby club.
The airport is packed with familiar Kiwi faces from around the island, including Julia and Marion and some islanders sporting their traditional travel garb of flower garlands in their hair. There are signs up forbidding the transport of uga on the plane. Honey and coconuts are, additionally, not allowed in the cabin.
Yesterday, I flew in from Norfolk Island via Auckland to visit Niue. Today, I'm up at 6 a.m. for my abortive whale trip. As it's still raining I resolve to track down the rental car man to repair my screeching wipers and then come back to catch up on sleep. Willie works out of his cafe in the main town, Alofi, fifteen minutes north. (I went here by mistake yesterday). Realise the map is ancient and the signposts are all out of date.
Finally, locate the Crazy Uga. (Uga is coconut crab - there’s even a designated road crossing for them, there are large numbers scuttling across at night). Willie is summonsed and fixes my wipers. He’s not sure how long I’m staying for, or what price he quoted, but we agree on 40 dollars a day and he tells me to pay when I feel like it. No paperwork, no license check, no credit card deposit. Discover I’m officially supposed to get a Niue driving licence, but the police station is closed for the weekend and I leave on Monday.
Decide I might as well have a look a little further up the coast while I’m out this way. Spend the next six hours pottering clockwise round the island. The local literature tells me that Niue is known as the Rock of the Pacific, because it sits atop 30 metre cliffs rising straight out of deep ocean. It is a typical Pacific island – a potholed road runs all round the coast. The road is edged with palm trees, dense low tropical vegetation and clusters of graves. Barking dogs chase the car whenever I drive through a village.
It’s not as neat as neighbouring Samoa; some of the houses are distinctly shabby, but the interest is definitely all by the sea. It seems that the whole coast is a mass of teeny waterfalls and cobalt pools, below the steep cliffs, the tide churning in and out of the coppery reef. And there are chasms (at least one a king’s bathing place), numerous caves and arches to explore. Not to mention the facsianting creations at the Hikulagi Sculpture Park-
Most of the sights are accessed down purpose built steps - some showing signs of wear, the way hewn out of the coral. I have to slide down algae covered rocks in unlit grottoes and wade out to sea, for the view of Aikaivai Cave. The tide is coming in, but it is just stunning. It is scooped out of the duskiest pink coral, complementing the deep turquoise of the pools superbly.
Right in the north of Niue, down a winding track is Matapa Chasm, a gorge, with crystal clear water, where kings, apparently, used to bathe. Adjacent, the path to the Niue signature tourist poster picture (see above), Talava Arches. This is an even more treacherous slippery assault course, over sharp and spiky coral; the final descent involves rope and very slimy rocks. Fortunately, I’m chaperoned by three young Kiwi ladies, Jo, Emma and Holly, who turn out to be outdoor instructors. Ideal for me, though I’m feeling they might have gone a little faster on their own. The reward is several interconnecting caverns, complete with stalactites and some very impressive arches forming windows of different shapes onto the reef. It’s a bit like Playschool. What can we see through the triangular window today children?
The rain hasn’t relented all day.
Tomorrow is Sunday. Monday is my last chance to swim with whales.
Arrive to visit Niue, from Norfolk Island, flying with the rain. Pockets of hardy tourists, mainly Kiwis are out walking and diving, but considerably larger numbers are huddled in the cafes in the main town, Alofi. And I discover I have brought the wrong underwater camera. This one doesn’t work and I've left my lovely Olympus Tough at home. And I’m booked to swim with whales tomorrow. Niue is famous for being one of the few places in the world where you can do this. Eventually, I persuade a diving company in a hut down the road form my hotel to rent me one. Initially, they say I can only borrow one if I go out with their boat, but then they relent. At a price.
A very early start, so I can’t sleep, what with massive jet lag now - 12 hours behind - and concern at having to be ready at six a.m for my trip with the whales. It’s rained all night. Go pick up my rental camera. Find the correct dive shop some five miles up the coast with some difficulty. Tour is cancelled because of the bad weather. It won't be fun, they say and there is little chance of encountering the whales. Rami, the boatman, says that the whales are elusive this year. They are six weeks late in arriving from the Antarctic and there have only been a few spotted so far.
The first dive shop is still venturing, out, but it seems they didn’t ever have a swimming spot available, just a watching slot (only six swimmers at a time are allowed near the whales). Ask for a refund.
Today, I can see patches of blue sky out of my window. And there is a hump backed whale blowing and cavorting with some spinner dolphins, just off the reef.
I’ve made the mistake of trying to boil eggs for my breakfast. I discovered the absence of a saucepan too late. Things are not going well in the shallow frying pan - I don’t have any oil either. I could be here all day.. ....
It is Sunday and everyone on South Pacific islands goes to church and relaxes on Sunday. (The ladies are wearing their special hats). All the shops in Niue are shut (I’m not convinced they were open yesterday) and no boating is allowed. Even the dogs are taking it easy.
The place to be seen today is Willie’s Sundays only Washaway Café down on Avotele Beach. The island’s biggest smiliest entrepreneur is busy setting it up when I arrive – he just leaves the fish, salad and burgers out and relies on people to pay for what they take and write it into the book - prices on the wall. I venture into the water in the shallow bay here. It’s chilly, but incredibly clear and the coral and reef fish epitomises vivid. It looks as if someone’s ratcheted up the brightness filter on the television. There’s a really nasty current if you swim to the wrong side of the break in the reef though, and I beat a hasty retreat.
. I decamp to safer waters up at Limu Pools, with Kiwis Julie and Marion. Here there are natural swimming pools, again one with an arch, and a few iridescent fish tootling around. I swim in the biggest lagoon and scramble around the various viewpoints admiring the scenery.
The azure skies have tantalisingly come and gone several times. The whale has been taunting everyone, motoring up and down the coast, groups gathering to look out to sea, timing the gaps between his dives to try and predict his next appearance. And it hasn’t rained once
I’m making a last attempt to swim with the whales in Niue. It’s pushing things timewise, as my plane leaves at 2.30. We go in pursuit of yesterday’s sightings, but to no avail. I have to confess to being slightly relieved after Rami has warned us about not provoking mothers with calves, told us not to scream and instructed us to tear back to the boat pell-mell if they start to breach. ‘You don’t want one to fall on you’. However, there is snorkelling outside the reef. There are caves and channels dotting its length, and we weave in and out of one in single file. The water is still quite choppy. Turtles meander gracefully past and there are clusters of banded sea snakes. These are unique to Niue, very poisonous, but not remotely aggressive. (I’m told). They drift aimlessly past.
The bays are teeming with dolphins and we get to swim with them instead. You jump in and grip a rope tow at the prow of the boat. It’s one of those unforgettable experiences – 30 dolphins jumping and diving effortlessly around me in the clear blue water. They are definitely inviting us to join in, peeling off and returning, though it's not very easy to take photos with one hand.
Now, I have to race to the airport for my flight to Melbourne.
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