Savage Island: Niue

James & Amelia Gould
Sun 24 Aug 2008 23:59

07 - 19 August 2008: Niue


As we left Maupiti the wind was still quite light, but we had a pleasant sail drifting along the calm sea.  We settled into a watch routine quickly, and Steve cooked his first meal at sea onboard Rahula.  All was going well until the pressure cooker got blocked, and when he opened the lid the bok choi which was steaming inside exploded and coated the galley in green goo!  The meal was tasty despite the explosion, but we are still finding green bits in hidden corners of the galley…  On the second day the wind picked up significantly, stirring up a very confused sea which made the boat's motion very uncomfortable.  There were lots of squalls all around, and another boat sailing near us decided to duck in to Mopelia atoll and seek shelter.  We decided to stay out at sea and had an uncomfortable 24 hours running downwind with the steep swell.  The wind and sea soon calmed down again and we were back to steering towards our destination, doing some great sailing and having the occasional sun down beer in the cockpit.  Unfortunately, though Rahula was doing her best to go fast her progress was marred by a 1-2 knot counter current which reduced our daily miles covered significantly and frustrated James and I.  As if to compound the slow progress on the forth night at sea the drifter (our big light wind sail) came tumbling down straight into the water.  James was on watch and immediately called me to help recover the sail.  Luckily conditions were fairly benign, so we managed to pull in the big sail out of the water with no damage.  We thought that the halyard had parted (which would have really pissed me off as I was planning on bringing it down the following day for it's regular 'chafe check!  J), but soon discovered that it was the shackle attaching the sail to the halyard that broke.  The halyard was still stuck at the top of the mast, so there was no way of hoisting the sail again.  We had to make do with the Mainsail and the Genoa, and when we became brave enough (bravery has nothing to do with it, maintaining a healthy 'faff to fun' ratio has everything to do with it!  J) we got the spinnaker up and did some great sailing again.  We wanted to stop in Beveridge Reef along the way, but the slow progress and Steve's flight home looming ever closer meant we had to press on.  We amused ourselves with the usual at sea distractions of reading, playing games and fishing.  James and Steve did not have much luck again on the fishing front.  During the eight day passage to Niue we managed to lose four lures to big monsters of the sea, as the fish fought hard and snapped the 100KG line.  So yet again we had to do imaginative things with corned beef (we had fritters, shepherd's pie, chili) or eat vegetarian food for dinner (I'll be growing my hair long next…J).  To supplement the tinned food diet I baked fresh bread, cakes and biscuits nearly every day.  And still the boys complained they were hungry!  We were becalmed for one day, and had to motor to keep up our progress.  We stopped the engine for lunch, and James and Steve jumped into the water for a refreshing swim.  Steve put his goggles on and tried to see anything below, but all he saw was 5000m of water stretching far below the boat.  I stayed on Rahula to watch out for sharks!


On the morning of our ninth day the island of Niue appeared before us as dawn broke.  It is one of the world's largest raised coral atolls and from a distance it looked like a large flat table, with no features or undulations.  As we neared we saw that the whole coastline was made up of solid rock cliffs towering 30m out of the sea, topped by a flat plateau above.  The cliffs had been carved by the ocean swell to form caves, arches and blowholes, giving the island a dramatic stormy appearance.  The flat land above was covered in lush vegetation, and apart from one aerial mast there was no sign of any human habitation.  We sailed around the north coast, keeping about half a mile from the island yet still sailing with 1000m of water below us; the contours on the chart became so close together as the island rose out of the sea you could barely distinguish the individual lines.  As we turned into Alofi Bay we were treated to the majestic sight of Humpback whales swimming in the harbour, exhaling big plumes of fishy smelling spray and descending into the depths with a graceful flick of their tail.  They come to Niue every year to mate and calve their young, and provided a fitting welcome to this wonderful island.


When Captain Cook visited Niue in 1774 he tried three times to land and was repelled by the islanders each time.  He named the island "Savage Island", and continued on his way to more hospitable locations.  The name could not be further from the truth, and the world's smallest independent nation proved to be the most friendly and welcoming people we have met so far.  Niue became a British colony in 1900, and in 1901 was handed over to New Zealand.  In 1974 Niue achieved self government in "free association" with New Zealand, and has been fiercely independent ever since.  The island has the dubious record of the highest per capita number of politicians - one MP for every 65 people, and is an active member of the South Pacific nations council.  The day after we left the island was hosting the 39th South Pacific Nations forum, and politicians and dignitaries from many countries (including the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers) were taking part, resulting in increased security on the island (why we don't know: there is only one flight a week and one harbour that is not even close to tenable. How secure does the place have to be to satisfy self important, paranoid politicians!! J), filling all the 100 available hotel rooms and booking out all the vehicles available for hire.  We had heard that many islanders redecorated their house and were renting it to visiting delegates for extortionate fees while they went on holiday to New Zealand.  Locals also started lending out their private cars to yachties who wanted to tour the island, agreeing a price as they handed over the keys.  Niueans hold New Zealand citizenship and many have emigrated to NZ to find better work opportunities, resulting in a steep decline in the island's population, from over 6000 in the 1960's to 1300 today.  We heard that there are around 20,000 Niueans living in New Zealand, while their homeland is left forlornly empty.  Many moved after Cyclone Heta devastated the island in January 2004.  It was one of the biggest storms ever recorded in the Pacific with winds reaching 300 KPH and 30m waves pounding the island.  The villages along the main coastal road that surround the island were destroyed.  The waves broke above the island's towering cliffs, flooding the road and destroying the houses.  Only those that lived inland still had a house to sleep in.  As we toured around the island we saw signs of the wreckage wrought by the storm everywhere: houses with mangled roofs and baths lying outside, upturned cars and uprooted trees.  Many of the coastal villages were abandoned when the villagers could not afford to make repairs, and are now ghost towns, giving all the appearance that their residents have just popped out for the afternoon if it wasn't for the signs of the jungle slowly creeping over the houses.  It was a sad place, eerily empty for such a big island, but the residents who remained behind were still always cheerful and talkative.  (The villages were only established on the coast after the Christian missionaries built churches there and insisted the population moved close to them.  Otherwise the villages would probably have survived like they did for hundreds of years, God bless them… J)


We arrived in Niue on a Saturday, and once we had cleared customs we wandered through the main village of Alofi.  We had been told the bank was shut at the weekend, and there was no ATM on the island, so our main priority was to get some cash so that we could enjoy ourselves.  The tourist office informed us that the Matavai Resort Hotel may give us a cash advance so we started the long walk in the heat of the day towards the out of town hotel.  When we got tired of walking we tried to hitch hike, and the first car that passed us stopped to give us a lift.  The driver was a young Fijian who was working on the island doing some construction work.  His brother was in the British Army, and he was considering joining as well.  At the resort we sat and drank some cold beers on a beautiful balcony overlooking the sea.  The hotel reluctantly gave us a small cash advance, which we hoped would last us until the bank opened on Monday.  We considered eating at the hotel as they laid on a "traditional Niuean buffet" on a Saturday night, but then we decided it might all be too pretentious and false, and decided to try one of the cafes in town.  Yet again we managed to get a ride as soon as we stepped onto the road, this time with a large Australian guy who managed the power distribution on the island.  As he was the only resident engineer he ended up getting involved in fixing lots of other things too!  He gave us a guided tour of Alofi, going out of his way to point out the various eating establishments.  Most were closed, so in the end we opted for a small fish and chip shop with some pool tables.  We played pool while the fresh Wahoo was cooked, and then sat down to eat the delicious fish.  We had been told there was a fashion show and a party going on at another bar down the road, so after dinner we walked back out of town to the bar.  On the way we found an open fishing shop and James decided to replenish some of his lost lures (and buy some steel leaders to avoid more tragic losses of my chaps… J).  A friendly women was serving behind the counter and while Steve bantered with her over the NZ vs. South Africa rugby match she was watching, James pondered over the array of shiny fishing gear.  When we told the lady that we had no luck catching fish she took pity on us and gave us half the stuff we were buying for free!  It turned out that we had missed the fashion show, but when we arrived the disco was in full swing and resembled a wedding rather than some trendy nightclub. The old were dancing with young to loud and terrible Pacific Pop.  The young girls who took part in the fashion show still had beautiful flower decorations in their hair and giggled and posed around the dance floor.  One middle aged lady spotted us sitting on the side and dragged Steve onto the dance floor, where his matelot shuffle obviously impressed the island's teenagers and all the girls wanted the photos taken with him (or it could be that he is tall, thin and blond, in complete opposite to the short, fat and dark Polynesian men).  James and I were soon dragged onto the dance floor too, and strutted our stuff until it all became too much.  We left, happy that we have taken part in the crazy nightlife of this small island.


The following morning James treated us to pancakes for breakfast, with a generous helping of Rahula-made banana jam.  To work off the calories James and I decided to go for a cycle around the island, and Steve went to play Golf.  As there were no bikes for hire (all taken up by the conference delegates to show their "green" credentials to the press, even though they all flew to the island!) we got out our folding bikes and hoped that they would be up to the job.  We set off north along the coastal road stopping at interesting sites along the way and to admire the view when the trees opened up enough to provide glimpses of the coast and the ocean.  Every so often there were sea tracks that led from the top of the cliff down a gully to the water's edge.  On one of these we found a handful of traditional wooden dug out canoes, with sticks bracing the outriggers held together with carefully tied fishing line.  On an inaccessible island like this when everything has to be flown in it was interesting to see that the islanders still relied on using the natural resources around them.  We stopped at the Avaiki Cave, which is where Niue's first Polynesian settlers landed.  A narrow gorge and path through caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites led to a small rock pool inside the island's surrounding reef.  It was fun to crawl around the rocks and admire the scenery.  Next stop was another cut in the cliff, where a series of steps led to a small white sand beach called Hio.  We donned our snorkelling gear and waded into the water, welcoming the cool relief.  The water was only knee deep for about 100m from the beach, and we walked across hard compacted dead coral until we reached the edge of the reef where it drops off into the ocean bed below.  We couldn't get right to the edge because of the breaking surf, but just before the end there was a series of deeper rock pools filled with beautiful tropical fish.  It was like a mini aquarium, and all we had to do was sit there and watch the underwater life swim by.  At the north western corner of the island another path led over sharp jagged coral through thick jungle and dark caves to a huge arch on the coast.  The arch was formed by erosion, and stood majestic over the dead coral rock below.  There was a channel in the coral rock that was about 5m deep, with gin clear water and more fish and young coral.  We had heard that much of the marine life on the island was killed by the cyclone, but here we saw plenty of evidence that it was recovering well.  Unfortunately we only managed to cover a small section of the island before it was time to head back, but we were left with a lasting impression of an island filled with secret coves and chasm leading to beautiful secluded beaches teeming with life.


That night one of the yachts in the anchorage had arranged for transport to take us to the Washaway's Café on the south side of the island, famed for its burgers and great location on the water's edge.  When we arrived to wait for the transport we realised that word had got around, and from the original 7 there were now about 20 people waiting for a lift!  As usual, the islanders obliged and did shuttle runs to deliver all the hungry and thirst yachties to their chosen watering hole.  We were a little concerned that Steve hadn't arrived at the meeting point, but figured that he probably managed to find his own way to the café.  As we arrived at the bar, we were approached by a couple of cruisers who said they had come across Steve on their way down, and he was sitting at the side of the road having just fallen off his bike (apparently it was a spectacular flying over the handlebars stunt, complete with full scrape along the road).  Their driver had taken Steve to the hospital, and brought his bike to the bar.  We immediately set about trying to find a phone to call the hospital to find out if Steve was all right.  We found the village at the top of the cliff deserted but the sounds of singing indicated that everyone had gone to church.  There were some kids playing outside the church and we asked them if we could use their phone.  One of them went inside the church and came out with his father who turned out to be the local Bobby.  He called the hospital, and we were informed that Steve had been discharged and taken back to the jetty.  The policeman offered to take us back to Alofi, but we were concerned that we would miss Steve coming the other way (we knew he wouldn't miss out on a beer & burger! (And I was concerned that I would miss out as well!  It's not as if he was at death's door or anything… J).  So we headed back to the bar and decided to have a drink and wait for our injured friend.  Sure enough, 20 minutes later he appeared, stepping out of a car all bandaged and bruised.  He was the talk of the bar that evening and kept getting sympathetic glances - he milked the sympathy for all it was worth (the big girl's blouse…J)! 


When we returned to the jetty late that evening we found that the swell had increased again, and large waves were rolling over the reef and crashing into the cliffs with a thundering roar.  The jetty is a large concrete wall built out on the reef, with a couple of landing steps and tire fenders.  Alofi bay is very exposed to the west, and often has a swell rolling in from the open sea.  There is nothing to break that swell, so it builds as the seabed becomes shallower, finally being stopped by the wall of cliffs forming the coastline.  This means that there is no safe place to leave a dinghy in the water, and the jetty has a crane to lift the dinghy out of the water whenever we went ashore.  On our first few days on the island the swell was quite large, and some of the waves crashed over the jetty and landing steps.  This made coming ashore an interesting and often soaked experience, as we had to drive the dinghy up to the landing steps, drop off the passengers and clip on the crane hook before the next wave came rolling in and threatened to splatter us against the cliff.  We tried all sorts of techniques of hoisting the dinghy out, and in the end we got it down to a fine art.  However, on the night we visited the Washway's Café we had had a few drinks, it was dark and we didn't have Steve to help us launch the dinghy (as he was injured he hitched a ride in our friend's larger dinghy).  So as usual, I lowered the dinghy into the water while James guided it into position.  Then once it was in the water he unhooked the crane and started the engine, while I ran down the steps ready to leap onboard.  However, this time the engine wouldn't start, and a wave rolled in, raising the dinghy back up level with the crane hook.  The hook managed to somehow snag on something in the dinghy and as the wave receded the dinghy flipped over, hanging by one line now attached to the hook and throwing James in the water.  Luckily James managed to grab hold of the dinghy, and as he held on for deal life I hoisted the dinghy and a dripping wet James back out of the water and onto the jetty.  We recovered our composure, watched the waves rolling in, and this time managed to launch the dinghy and escape the surf without an incident.  I would say that having to lift the dinghy out of the water every time we go ashore and risking life and limb every time we launch it again was the only thing that marred our great visit to Niue.  Some would say this is all part of the adventure… (I thought it was quite fun really….J)


On the Monday Niue came to life and all the shops opened again and people milled about in the street.  We wandered through the small shops in the centre of Alofi, all stocking various souvenirs for the South Pacific Forum.  We bought a few items and made small talk with the ever chatty locals.  We met up again with some fellow cruisers in the yacht club (another good stop for a cold beer after a long day provisioning!), then headed back to Rahula to prepare her for the small gathering we were hosting onboard that night.  We had a pleasant evening with John and Fran from Palmask (the Australian boat we did the Panama canal transit with) and Hanse & Georgie from Arbuthnot, another Australian boat.  Conversation flowed as freely as the wine/beer, but all too soon it was time to say goodnight, as Rahula and Palmask were sailing the following day. 


I got up early on our last day in Niue to visit the fresh produce market (and so did muggins here to drive her in…J).  I had been warned everything is sold out by 8am, and when I arrived I realised that was because there wasn't much for sale!  The market was run by a few local women selling surplus produce from their allotments.  They were all gossiping away to each other and munching on an interesting looking coconut porridge (it looked like hot semen, I'm sorry but that is exactly what it looked like! J)  but all stopped to chat to us when we looked at their stall.  We got what we could, then checked out with customs and prepared Rahula for sea.  By lunchtime we let go of our mooring ball and sailed off into the blue, performing the whole maneuver under sail and not even putting the engine in gear.  We had two days to make it to Vava'u in Tonga to pick up our next guest, Ben.