19:03.30S 169:55.45N. Niue. Basking with whales

Sun 11 Sep 2016 20:18

19:03.30S 169:55.45N.  Niue. Basking with whales

Following the gale the winds remained in the high twenties giving us nice daily mileages but as we approached the biggest lump of limestone rock in the world that is Niue we realised we needed to slow Zoonie down to make a first light approach, and we are glad we did as two surprises met us on turning the corner towards the west side where the mooring filed is located off the main town of Alofi.

We had heard the humpback whales from the Antarctic come to the area from May to October to have their babies and often meander through the mooring field with their newborns. But to be greeted with the not too distant view of three, of Goldilocks and the Three Bear proportions was a gasping thrill.

They took turns to breach, rising at speed from the depths nose upward into the air, their white throats with darker grooves bright in contrast to their bodies, which slowly arched downward to one side as they hit the water with a mighty splash. Wonderful.

The second surprise was a number of red fishing buoys with what looked like the floats that keep the top of nets near water level tied close to them. Either they were full with fish ready to be collected later, or they were being stored there. To arrive at night and get tangled up in one of these unlit traps would have been a sorry end to any cruisers passage.

Fishing methods appear different almost everywhere we go. Early morning and late evening darkly clad men in dark coloured piroque canoes would be sitting hunched over in their canoes around us. The sole occupant would chew something, maybe bread, roll it into a ball and drop it into the water near the canoe and then tap the side of the canoe to attract the fish. We have been told they are bait fishing but we have as yet to see them catch anything!

Concerned that as the seasons draws on and cruisers are now accumulating around the islands ready to find safe havens for the cyclone season there may not be any mooring buoys available, we were double thrilled to find only six of the eighteen buoys occupied. We would not have to move on having come so close to this unique gem of an island.

Rob looped one of our stout mooring lines through number 3 buoy, and then another so we had two separate lines running down as a bridle from both sides of her hull, and backup should one wear through.

As soon as we’d pumped up the dinghy we motored ashore to meet the Customs Officials. It was hot. Even the locals thought it was hot. I love this life and its daily new adventures. Today’s was lifting the dinghy up onto the hard, out of the damaging swell using a crane. Bah, you might say, so what.

There was first the limestone reef that skirts close inshore around the island to negotiate. Then there is a tiny channel across to the harbour wall. As Rob positioned the dinghy I grabbed the yellow hook and secured our hoisting ring to it. Then we both got pretty wet in the swell getting ourselves ashore. Rob then dashed to the controls on the upright of the crane and I held the painter to have some control over our little rubber duck.

Up she goes and once clear of the wall I pulled her in and Rob lowered her onto a little trailer. We then disconnected and lowered the hook once more for the next punter. Tenders have their own bays, so we ‘parked’ her out of the way.

Fortunately some kind person had the forethought to provide a roofed shelter, so we sat in the shade with the male and female customs officers, filling out forms on the wooden bench while watching a mother humpback show her baby how to breach, a few metres offshore.

The young male officer dashed off for a moment to deliver a fridge to a friend and when he came back told us, “Young people from the island go to University in New Zealand and then the government offers to pay their tuition fees if they will return to the islands to take up public sector jobs. We work until 4.00pm each day and have steady secure jobs with pensions etc. When you check out you must call us on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday as we don’t work weekends and we are at the airport for the Auckland flight on Tuesdays and Fridays, ok.”

“If the flight is full it takes us a long time and we may finish after 4.00pm.” (Oh dear.) “Some of the people stay at the new hotels on the south west corner near the airport. They have been built since the last cyclone in 2005. They won’t survive another cyclone and we are overdue as bad ones come every ten years. I feel sorry for the owners, the winds and tsunami will destroy their hotels.”

The cyclone season starts mid-November, by then the whales will be back in Antarctica and the mooring field empty, the cruisers having found their hurricane holes elsewhere.

Rob guided me by the hand up the steep harbour road as my head was bent over my shoulder watching the whales, passing two massive new concrete sinkers, ready to have their lines and mooring buoys attached. From the size, about three quarters of a metre square and half a metre high, we were reassured of the security of the vessels attached to the buoys offshore.

First stop was the yacht club to sign in as they provide the moorings, so we will pay them before we leave.

Then we went to tourist information as usual and gathered lots of info to read at our leisure back on board.

Lunch was novel. The chef was also the fisherman, and the Falala Fa Restaurant had been recommended as the best place for fish and chips in town. The chef also believed in ‘first come first served’ because even before he opened up on the day he had sold all the fish and chips as ‘take aways’ to some builders.

Nuie boasts a unique cuisine, which is clearly much harder to find than the whales. The menu was mostly burgers or chicken and chips. Ah but hey they have a vegeburger. “That will do nicely,” I said.

We happily supped our canned beer and laid plans for our stay. The lady in tourist information advised us to book our car soon before they are all booked for the week by the passengers on the Friday flight. So we decided to do that after lunch.

Which duly arrived. ‘My vegeburger’ consisted of a burger bun stuffed with salad and a salad on the side. Well I couldn’t argue it wasn’t vegetarian but the literal translation of vegeburger went a little too far for me. Too astonished and amused, I just ate it and pinched a few of Rob’s chips to add variety.

Around in the commercial centre are all manner of tiny but useful businesses from art gallery to internet café, Indian restaurant, PO and bank, hair salon and beautician (all the same lady, Sala), boutique and supermarket.

“Would you like an appointment or shall I cut your hair now?” Sala said.

“Now would be great,” I replied and Rob went off to book the car. Time management is important even in retirement you know!

As she made a lovely job on my hair our conversation ranged from her recent trip to London and Paris, the former she loved and the latter she found the people unfriendly, to why there are fewer whales in the bay this year, “Nature” she said when I asked her why.

We’re still getting used to everyone speaking English (and their own Niuean tongue which is often interspersed with English and makes it hard to eavesdrop!) The last time the locals spoke English as their prime language was in……..England!

Back on board we read the pamphlets and brochures and came up with a few ideas. There were small vanilla plantations all over the island before the 2005 cyclone Heta destroyed many of them, and, disheartened some farmers burned their own ruined acres. However in 2011 Niue Vanilla International was established to encourage farmers to revive this lucrative industry with its global markets.

Great, we thought, at last we will get to understand the complex process of processing vanilla legumes into products. Bees don’t know how to pollinate vanilla flowers, so the farmers must do it in the 12 hours only of each flower’s blooming time. Due to climate change the vines now flower all year round, so the potential market is very strong.

However the lady that shows visitors around her plantation was away, as was the man who is starting a new plantation and also owns our car hire firm. So we were thwarted in that plan.

Similarly many of the beautiful cave formations around the islands with colourful rocks and stalactites and stalagmites are privately owned and the only access is with the owner as guide. One such owner was taking two months off to help his family to build a restaurant, so a rethink was needed there.

Disappointed so far we turned around to find our Austrian friends we met in Bora Bora, Christina and Verne from their Catamaran Wind Dance standing behind us. They had taken a more southerly route than us and missed most of the gale. After a short chat they showed an interest in joining us for our two days of hire car. We had managed to book an afternoon with a group who take folk to snorkel on the sheltered outer reefs at the south of the island and to swim with Spinner Dolphins (unless they aren’t around that is) and left it with Chris and Verne as to whether they wanted to do this with us.

The lady had marked on our map all the best sights where we could walk on reefs and snorkel in caves around the island, so that would do for day two of the car hire. Unfortunately the Huvalu Forest we were advised was not accessible by walkers and forestry workers were constantly busy in there, but we spotted a bike route through it so surmised we might be able to walk that track aways.

It has rained a lot since we have been here so we thought the tracks might be muddy, but as the only veg on the island is grown hydroponically there would appear to be little soil depth. Humanitarian aid, tourism, the usual government and service industry jobs and government aid seem to be the main income of the island, along with the many small businesses and a few farms and plantations. I will know more after our two day tour.

The islanders all have dual nationality, New Zealand and Niue but are self- governing with strong links to NZ. The local govt has its own cunning ways of raising a few extra dollars. To drive on the island one must have a Niue driving licence ($20) which is only obtainable on week days. Visitors can drive without one at the weekends as long as they trundle down to the police station on Monday and buy one. All in the interests of road safety, I don’t think.

There is also an exit tax of $34 per person, they’ve got you there as everyone has to clear out officially, so must pay then. If clearing in over the weekend there’s a surcharge of $20 to get the guy out of his house!

More of the people we met in Bora Bora have arrived, Austrian Haanes and Sabine, who was astonished we swam with the lemon sharks, have arrived and more of the buoys are being taken up. We’re so glad we arrived when we did. We are now in the company of the Swiss, Swedish, French, Austrian, German and Australian, the latter coming from Bahia in Ecuador like us with their own stories to tell of Tripp and his family.

There is a market on Tuesdays and Fridays, so we were speeding towards the harbour before 7.00am one morning with a short shopping list in mind. Bread, tomatoes and fish.

The market is a fine new roofed building with open sides. Locals sat around in happy groups chatting and smiling at us, their home grown produce on the tables in front of them. “Is there any fish for sale?” I asked one lady.

“That lady over there has flying fish.” She replied. We noticed coming over how enormous are the local flying fish, obviously skilled at eluding their predators. The lady showed us her collection in a portable freezer. The size of a medium trout and at £1 each we bought five. “How you going to cook them?” She asked.

“Em’, poisson cru and maybe fried after filleting?” I ventured, she nodded. “How do you catch the flying fish?” I asked.

“With big nets.” Sounds obvious but I wondered whether that would be with big nets under the water or as they fly through the air. We had ‘caught’ some of their massive scales on board but the fish had all managed to get back into the water.

I made the poisson cru the day before yesterday by soaking raw bite-sized pieces in lime juice in a pot in the fridge overnight. Just before serving I added chopped colourful veg, this time some of the tasty baby plum tomatoes we had bought in the market and cucumber to the mix and tossed it with coconut milk. We had it for lunch served with white rice flavoured with some of the vanilla paste bought in the Chinese supermarket in Bora Bora.

In the evening we had the rest of the fish in a tasty sweet and sour sauce Rob had made beforehand with toasted garlic butter baps. The weather all around was grey and dreary so we thought we’d have some cheery food on board.

A few days ago I started up my patent washing system. Two big buckets, one for coloureds and the other whites. Half-filled them with Zoonie’s always blisteringly hot water and some wash liquid and then the washing. Crammed on the lids and left them overnight as Zoonie gently rocked them on an oceanic wash cycle.

The next day we hung it all out on deck and went off ashore, firstly to tourist information to confirm the car would be big enough for four. It started to rain but in this temperature we were not worried about the washing as it would dry quickly anyway, so we visited the yacht club and used the wifi and then had a delicious lunch of wahoo fish and chips at the Crazy Uga Café overlooking the bay which came and went in vision in the rain showers. Then along to the Bonded Warehouse for some duty free gin and brandy, the first since duty free at Panama! Wonderful.

Back on board we moved the washing to under the bimini roof but during the night the wind got up so before 1.00am we rallied ourselves and brought it inside. I was curious of a torch light making its way along the shore inside the reef. Every now and then the holder shone it up into the overhanging limestone cliffs and in so doing revealed the silhouette of his lanky form. Intriguing. Smuggling I dismissed, more like looking for bats, or Rob suggested birds eggs, but it’s a mystery and I like to solve them, so watch this space.

Awake now we sat in bed drinking a cup of tea and nibbling on digestive biscuits, well we were going to change the sheet in the morning so I didn’t think the crumbs would matter.

And what a morning. We hadn’t been up long when a family of humpbacks, possibly our reception committee, came close to our side of the mooring field and gave a fantastic display of breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping (elevating far enough out of the water so the eyes can see around) and fluking the tail before a dive.

My Canon was set on repeat so I was able to get a sequence of shots including the calf copying its parent. I will get them to you eventually. The chap from the boat next to us was returning in his tender and just stopped and watched in awe at the wonderful sight.