I’m standing on “a piece of Swiss cheese, floating in the South Pacific.” Or at least that’s how the tiny island of Niue was described to me by Dan, who operates the Island Dive School.
It’s a raised atoll without streams or rivers but plenty of holes – in the form of caves, chasms and coral rock pools. The scenery is the most memorable and distinctive that I’ve seen in this region. What’s more incredible, in a way, is that it’s all available for you to visit and experience for free. If this was America, Australia or even the Philippines there’d be car park charges, souvenir shops and food concessions around every natural wonder. But on this 100 square mile nation, 1,500 miles northeast of New Zealand, wildlife and beauty can be enjoyed at no cost and without any commercialisation.
Everything you need to see on Niue is easily accessible from the island’s single-track circular road. You can do the 77km circuit in a morning. All of the beauty spots are well signed but it’s difficult to know what to see. You won’t even find postcard shops promoting images that give you an indication of what lies at the end of the footpaths or ‘sea tracks.’ So I arranged to go on three special tours to gain an understanding of the scenic highlights and unique culture heritage of ‘The Rock of Polynesia.’
Sue and Keith Vial have been on the island for twelve years. They operate Niue Tours. The couple relocated from Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island and Keith says switching from 46° to 19° South took “some temperature adjustment.” Sue came to take up a maths teacher role at the school but Keith came as a retiree. That didn’t last long. He’d soon taken up diving, at the age of 65, and proudly told me that he’d logged over 150 dives.
We were standing on the island’s concrete wharf, watching incredibly colourful fish leap in and out of the water where two currents collided. It was like a huge, open-air aquarium. Keith pointed towards some moorings. “That’s the biggest little yacht club in the world,” he said, “and the only one that doesn’t have its own yachts.” Last year 176 boats and 400 crew, mostly from the Americas and Europe, made use of the twenty berths.
“Try and get some pictures in the caves,” he told me, totally unaware of my inability to take a decent picture, no matter how good the subject is. “Niue is one, huge limestone cave and they can light up in the afternoon sun,” he enthused. “Below or above the water, this is a photographers heaven.”
I’d chosen Niue Tours to get my bearings and decide which sites warranted further investigation. Like most visitors I was here for seven days and had plenty of time to explore. There are only two flights a week in the peak season and just a weekly service to Auckland in the low season.
Keith’s wife Sue was friendly and clearly organised and efficient. You could tell she’d been a teacher as her people carrier arrived at the resort laden with water bottles and energy-giving muesli bars. She meant business. As we set off driving down a lane shaded by the thick vegetation Sue stopped the car and told me and the other two passengers to get out to see what she’d spotted. She pointed out two different fruits that had fallen onto the road from the trees overhead.
One contained brown coffee-like seeds, which she told us were fashioned into jewellery by locals. I smiled but wasn’t interested in jewellery. The other fruit was egg sized and looked a bit like an avocado. This was a noni fruit. I’d never heard of it and my interest was piqued. “Would you like to smell it?” smirked Sue. I knew from the look on her face that this would be a memorable moment and not necessarily for a good reason. “It’s disgusting!” I responded after taking a sniff and resisting the urge to retch. “It’s like gone off milk, strong cheese and sweaty socks all in one.”
Noni is very popular in Asia she told me. The juice is bottled in a plant on the island where the government grow it commercially. The Chinese consider it a tonic because of its high antioxidant properties. I wondered whether the, ‘if it tastes horrible it must be good for you’ rule was being applied here. “Do islanders eat or drink this?” I asked. Sue shook her head. “They call it famine food,” she replied, “so I guess if needs must…” I hope there’s never a famine in Niue, but I think Sue has enough muesli bars to go around.
We drove on, stopping occasionally at the wooden signs highlighting historic sites or vantage points. It’s rare to have more than a hundred tourists on the entire island in any week, so there’s no need for pay and displays near the beauty spots. You just pull off the road and park on the grass verges, avoiding the coconut trees if you don’t want to pay for a new windscreen.
“Just remember to never park in front of a grave,” Sue advised. I’d noticed a number of tombstones lovingly adorned with fresh flowers in people’s gardens or the roadside. “Islanders bury their loved ones on their own land or near to their homes,” said Sue. It’s an indication of the enlightened way these Pacific islanders deal with death. Sue recounted the story of a former pupil who had told her that her grandmother was helping with the washing. Sue knew that the girl’s gran had passed away. It turned out that the family were putting damp washing on their grandmother’s black headstone, which would have been warmer in the sun. “She was helping with the family chores,” Sue said. A lovely story.
“I expect you learned quickly about the island culture, being brought in as an overseas teacher,” I said. “Well one thing that surprised me was how youngsters say yes,” Sue replied. “They don’t utter the word, they just raise their eyebrows.”
Minutes later we were at the Limu pools – the most incredible seawater swimming spot I have ever experienced. These large, coral-enclosed rock pools were just a minute’s stroll from the roadside. Walking down the short track from the lane, the pools appeared below us. They were brilliant turquoise, the colour of one of those highlighter pens. And there was white water a few hundreds metres out, where waves broke along the protecting reef. At high tide you can swim in up to six feet of the bathtub-warm seawater alongside schools of brightly coloured fish. And you could have comfortably packed three hundred swimmers into these pools. Yet at 11am, there were just three of us there.
Next stop was the Avaiki Cave, clambering over incredibly slippery boulders and rocks inside the cavern. Sunshine poured into the chamber from the seaward side and highlighted the sharp stalactites hanging from the roof and the incredibly blue waters of the cool, inviting pool inside. This magnificent cave would be an attraction people would drive for miles to see elsewhere in the world and yet it’s free to view here.
“Those iridescent blue fish make it like swimming in an aquarium,” said Sue. “The beauty of swimming here, especially in the morning, is that you are not in the sun and don’t have to worry about coatings of sunscreen – you can just swim in the shade and enjoy it.”
Another amazing natural attraction was just a few minutes away down the quiet main road. On the rare occasions when a vehicle approached, I noticed the peculiar Niue wave. You acknowledge oncoming motorists with an almost imperceptible lift of a few fingers from the steering wheel. So ten minutes and one set of finger-raises later we reached the Matapa Chasm. Here you’ll find a narrow, twenty-foot wide channel of cold seawater, shadowed from the sunlight and kept cool by the vertical thirty-foot cliffs either side. It’s another safe place for a paddle again alongside fish. There are more caves to explore nearby too. One tip – if I revisited I’d take shoes with better grip. The rocks are slippery and although guide ropes have been installed in some places, I wished for a bit more traction on my trainers.
Nearby, at the end of a 45-minute trek, you’ll find another impressive cave system that opens out to spectacular views of the natural stone bridges – the Talava Arches. Captain Cook noticed this landmark when he plotted the island. I felt privileged to be able to walk into this incredible, hidden-away beauty spot without a soul in sight and without having to pay a penny. There’s something that seems naughty about popping down into a cave, too. I suppose Briton’s are so expectant of health and safety briefings and regulation. In Niue, you just go for it.
After I said goodbye to Sue I headed to the southeast corner of the island, passing through a couple of villages made up of well-maintained, single storey bungalows. The sense of order and civic pride struck me. I’d not seen this tidiness elsewhere in the South Pacific. Businesswoman Pauline Blumsky later told me that Niueans value their environment and it’s important to maintain good standards. It shows. Many homes had beautiful, floral gardens. Each village has its own church and most are set around a recently mowed village green. One or two houses were clearly unoccupied, the impact of the significant depopulation the island has experienced as numbers have fallen from around 5,000 residents in the 1980s to less than half that amount today.
I was heading for the Togo Chasm, on the southeast coast. Again this was a bit of a trek from the main road through the dense forest vegetation – following the beaten path and clambering over rocks to stay on the route whilst trying to avoid tripping up on roots and vines. The path was well marked with orange arrows nailed onto the trees.
At various points the strangely shaped coral rock formations resembled abandoned stone cottages. There was something ‘Indiana Jones’ about this trek. I was starting to doubt the wisdom of thirty minutes of picking off bugs, swatting flies and getting sweaty until I experienced the payoff. I walked up a series of natural stone steps to leave the forest behind and reveal the amazing, other-worldly sight of sharp, grey, needle-like coral rocks stretching down to the blue ocean with breaking white waters 300 metres ahead.
Concrete had been poured to make a narrow passageway between the mighty rocks and boulders. I was grateful for the rope railing to clutch onto at times, too, although it’s not very reassuring when you feel it go slack in your hand! I reached a plateau between the massive boulders and another path led off to the top of a steep wooden ladder. At the bottom rung a small sandy beach stretched ahead. It was penned in by the 100-foot high cliffs. And at the end of the sand there were palm trees. It almost looked like an oasis – incredible and unreal. This natural wonder was so revered by local tribes that for centuries, it was reserved for the personal use only of the island kings.
More natural wonders awaited me twenty minutes down the road. It wasn’t easy finding the Anapala Chasm, which was off the main road. I had to stop and ask for directions, as there were no signs. I was told to drive diagonally across a village green, which really felt wrong, in order to pick up the lane leading to the chasm path.
The road was very narrow, poorly surface and with foliage sprouting through cracks in the seal. I realised it was also very steep. Part-hidden by the thick green foliage I noticed a mildew splatted road sign featuring the black outline of a car seemingly sliding down one side of a triangle! That worried me. Road conditions aren’t good in Niue. If they had to warn of a steep gradient, how bad could it be? I chanced it and gingerly descended the twisting road to find the nearest thing to a Niuean car park – a small field adjacent to the lane.
Perseverance paid off. I hauled myself down the steep concrete steps, again nervously holding onto the chain rail, and stepped down the narrow ravine. At the bottom was a fresh water spring of icy cold water lining the bottom of the cave, which lay at the foot of the sheer cliffs. As I mentioned there are no rivers on Niue and locals used to fetch water from this site, believing it was suitable for local kings.
The thing that I really like about Niue is the lack of man-made, commercial activities. There are no duck boat tours or hop-on, hop-off buses. The day’s cave, coral pool and chasm experiences would have easily cost £30 or more in many destinations. Niue is rich with unusual, surprising and special scenery. And it’s heartening that nobody is getting rich by profiteering from it.
Getting To Niue
The only way to reach Niue is by plane, travelling on Air New Zealand from Auckland. I stayed at the Scenic Matavai Resort. There’s lots of useful island information on the tourist board’s website at www.niueisland.com.