Behold the coconut!

John & Susan Simpson
Tue 18 Jul 2023 04:03
Niue (pronounced new-ay) is a self-governing island state in the South Pacific between French Polynesia and the Kingdom of Tonga.  The name Niue translates as ‘behold the coconut’ and there were indeed certainly plenty of those to behold.  It might also have been named ‘behold the feral chicken’ or ‘behold the wild dog’ as there were plenty of those too!  The island is a raised coral atoll which gives it an unusual appearance.  Unlike the Tuamotus islands where the volcanic centre has filled with sea water leaving only the outer reef visible, Niue has a central plateau which sits on top of the reef, rather like a huge iced cake sitting on a decorative plate.  Erosion has created stone inlets, pools and chasms around the edge of the island rather than sandy beaches.  We enjoyed scrambling through caves full of stalagmites and stalactites and swimming through a chasm to where the ocean surged through the rock channels to form a natural water playground. 
Palaha Cave

Matapa Chasm, said to be the bathing pool of Niuean royalty in times gone by

Getting ashore from Casamara was quite a challenge as there was no beach for a nice sandy landing.  Instead the Niueans have come up with an ingenious craning system whereby the dinghy (complete with captain inside) is winched ashore and wheeled along the quayside for storage.  We became quite adept at the craning in and out process by the time we left. 
Craning the dinghy (and John) ashore

Dinghies stored ashore after lifting by crane

We hired a motorbike for a couple of days and explored as much of the island as we could see, using the main perimeter road and venturing inland where the roads had some tarmac remaining.  Dodging the potholes provided a bit of excitement, as did riding on the sections which had been repaired with loose sandy gravel.  John was delighted to discover that the motorbike we’d hired was brand new; it had only 1km on the clock and still had some of the protective film covering the shiny chrome work attached.   We returned it with 112 km logged - not bad on an island with a total coastline of 64 km!
John with our trusty steed in Niue

Dense green vegetation crowds either side of the road so that there are only a few viewpoints from which the sea can be seen.  Because these are perched on the top of the plateau the viewpoints are great places from which to see the humpback whales which are here from July to September.  We were lucky enough to see them several times, including one which came close to our fleet of boats moored by the town quay.
Whale off Alofi town quay

As we approached each settlement the treelined road opened out onto a beautifully kept grassy ‘village green’ in front of an equally well kept church of one of a variety of denominations.  Around the greens were low single storey houses, many constructed of concrete with corrugated iron roofs.  However, in every settlement we estimated that 80% of the housing was derelict.  We learned that a cyclone had devastated the area in early 2004 and many of the houses had been abandoned rather than repaired, but that wasn’t the whole story.  The population of Niue has fallen from 6,000 in the 1970’s to only 1600 today.  As most of Niuean land is owned by local people and cannot be sold to outsiders, once a family has left the island their property sits and rots until someone decides either to return or to share it within their wider family.  Now the chickens and dogs have free reign.  Several times we had to accelerate away with dogs barking and nipping at our ankles, and twice we had to swerve to avoid a chicken.  Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To unseat us from our motorbike!

The vegetation at the roadside is cleared every few hundred metres for family grave sites and some of these are quite elaborate with marble headstones, vases of flowers and protective canopies.  Because the majority of the land is family owned, there is nowhere for a community burial ground and families bury their dead on their own land.  For some families this would be away from their housing but for others the graves were in the gardens around their houses, including one we saw with a full size marble sarcophagus right outside their front door.

Niue roadside graves

We were hosted in Niue by Keith, the Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club - a yacht club in name only as Keith kept reminding us it is the only yacht club in the world with no clubhouse, no yachts and where no-one knows how to sail.  They do, however, have a small number of yacht moorings and we were very grateful for that as the water was  too deep for anchoring.  Keith is originally from New Zealand but he and his wife, Sue, had lived on Niue for 20 years since arriving as teachers.  There is still a close association between New Zealand and Niue despite the island becoming independent in 1974.  It’s hard to see how the island can be truly independent given the size of the population and the challenges faced due to isolation and severe weather.  We saw many signs indicating where foreign aid had been used from infrastructure projects, from Japan to the European Union, and while we were there the main road was being resurfaced by Chinese workers in a project funded entirely by China.  It is remarkable how often we have seen Chinese investment in these remote places. 
Niue Yacht Club moorings

We were sad to leave Niue and could happily have stayed on longer.  It was such a peaceful place with an aura of calm and the people were so friendly and welcoming.  However, it was time to leave and we set sail looking forward to discovering another area about which we knew very little - the Kingdom of Tonga.