The South Pacific territory of Niue is very different to its neighbouring islands. Niue is not a developing nation. There’s first world infrastructure here, but you don’t see the usual downsides of development. You can wander into incredible caverns, swim in warm, turquoise waters and enjoy unspoilt natural beauty without traffic, retail parks or high rises.
In Britain people spend a great deal of money trying to reconnect with nature on weekend bushcraft or survival courses. In Niue it’s all around you. But like anywhere, some traditional practices are being threatened. After a few days of seeing the sights of this beautiful island, I wanted a deeper understanding of Niue’s culture, food and wildlife above and below the waterline. So I went to meet some of the people who can offer an insight into island life.
I spent a few hours with Misa Kulatea. He offers visitors a chance to learn about his forefathers’ resourcefulness in farming and bush medicine on a tour around the land surrounding his Alofi home. Misa is a white haired, pensioner-environmentalist and as he walks around, he highlights some of the practices that he says he now regrets following.
“We brought the bulldozers in to clear the forests. I just hate myself now for allowing it to happen,” he says. Misa has campaigned for an end to shooting birds on Niue and claims his own hearing has been damaged from when he used a gun. He explained how men used to hide in trees, ready to deploy camouflage nets, to capture birds and fruit bats for food. Misa produced a spear, carved from ebony. My impression of the beautifully-crafted piece of wood that Misa handed to me was tainted by its purpose. “It’s so light,” I told him as I passed it back. “It had to be. It’s a Niuean rifle,” he replied.
In the 1950s guns replaced spears and bows and Misa says he regrets how that affected the wildlife and his own hearing. “We didn’t know that shooting a gun thirty times a day would affect us,” he said. Misa was walking barefoot through the undergrowth and over the sharp coral rocks. Sensing my question before I’d even vocalised it, Misa said, “They gave me my shoes when I was born. Now it’s a disgrace if you don’t have footwear like the European man.” Misa can’t understand why some locals want to adopt Western customs. “I sleep each night on a wooden pillow,” he told me. “But when I have to spend a night in hospital, my family don’t want me to be seen using it.”
As we walked around the bush, in and out of clearings, Misa picked up plants to share stories about how each one would be used traditionally. It was clear that coconut is the most versatile crop. Misa shredded some husk in front of me to demonstrate what locals used before flannels were available. It was so soft. Later, he demonstrated how the nut offered an alternative to a pan-scouring pad. Misa’s forefathers also learned that the smoke from burning nuts would repel mosquitos.
The highlight of the tour was seeing the two injured and abandoned flying foxes that Misa had reared back to health. The enchanting animals were hanging upside down from a tree like little dogs. They showed a complete trust in Misa.
You won’t leave on an empty stomach either. As I was preparing to go, Misa produced another treat – a delicious desert of chilled papaya fruit mixed with coconut cream. “I won’t be having these any more,” Misa smiled as I tucked into the delicious fruit. His doctors had forbidden them after he had suffered a heart attack.
If you think that Niue’s traditions and customs are protected because of the island’s geographic isolation, an afternoon with Misa might give you something to think about. You can book Misa through Niue’s tourism office at www.niueisland.com.
Chamberlin Pita is two generations younger than Misa but his age doesn’t mean he’s any less passionate about his island. He lives in the northwestern village of Hikutavake and his house looks similar to any rural family bungalow, with kid’s toys in the garden and tools in the lean-to shed. But the garden has some traditional Niuean additions – three cooking pits, or ‘omu’ of differing sizes. Chamberlin can offer a taste of this centuries-old local cooking style – the sort of meals you can’t get in the islands’ cafes and bars.
“I always try and taste the local food when I go to other Pacific islands, but instead of just going to the table and eating I want people to understand where it comes from,” he explained. Chamberlin’s tour includes time at his plantation to see ingredients that might be unfamiliar to visitors.
“This is luku,” Chamberlin said, holding up a green fern. It is used to wrap layers of meat or fish in the earth oven to keep them moist. “It has a good flavour,” he told me. Apparently the cooking process adds a smoky taste and smell. “Our noses eat first,” he told me.
I also saw taro, the popular local starch food, being grown in his fields. And he took me to a large, high-fenced chicken coop. “They’re organic,” he smiled. There were chickens wandering wild all over the island. “Don’t you eat them?” I asked Chamberlin. “No, they’re too tough,” he replied.
Most meals involve fish, chicken or pork and Chamberlin will vary the menu according to taste. “The fish is like a fish pie,” he told me. “We take yellowfin tuna and wrap it in a banana leaf with onions and put coconut cream on it and cook it. The national dish is called tahiki and consists of taro and papaya, layered and baked in the earth oven with coconut cream. You have to like coconut to eat like a local here.
As we chat, Chamberlin hacked at a coconut with the confidence of someone who regularly uses a machete. Seconds later I had a very refreshing drink in my hand. “Most locals will have an omu every couple of weeks,” Chamberlin told me. “And when an islander returns home, they’ll be taken for this special meal.”
Chamberlin is aware that visitors have different expectation and he offered information about his food hygiene assessment. He told me with pride that his home kitchen passes an annual examination. “That offers guests peace of mind,” he said.
Once the food is prepared and in the oven, cooking takes two to three hours. Chamberlin uses that time to guide visitors to the nearby natural wonder – the Talava Arches. “They’ll work up an appetite,” he laughed. He also promises to share the location of a special swimming pool, which coats the bathers’ skin in white minerals.
On the way back we stopped at the small concrete wharf where villagers launch their boats. Chamberlin uses his canoe to catch his own fish including yellowfin tuna and even barracuda. He chopped down a tree for the wood, similar to mahogany, and hand built the beautiful vessel himself. If you’re interested in how a busy dad with a regular civil service job juggles twenty first century living with traditional techniques, I’d recommend that you spend a Saturday morning with Chamberlin. You can book at email@example.com
If you’ve got good night vision, Willie Santelli can take you out into the bush to see the island’s unusual coconut crabs. They’re called ‘uga’ locally and they get rather large, some reaching a metre across and weighing up to four kilograms. You’ll occasionally see them walking along the side the road. The Sails Bar has added a tongue-in-cheek road sign cautioning drivers that they are approaching an ‘Uga Crossing.’
Willie leads hunting tours. The land-based crabs eat seeds and berries but the best bait is coconut – they climb the palms to get to their favourite food. Willie says his guests either let captured crabs go free or ask him to cook them. “I used to drop them straight into boiling water but I’ve lived in New Zealand for a long time and now I put them in the freezer to send them to sleep first,” he told me. So what do they taste like? “It’s really rich,” said Willie. “Some people say they are better than crayfish.” You can arrange a tour with Willie through his Crazy Uga Café in town.
As you’d expect from an island in the Pacific, there’s a lot to see underwater too in Niue and the biggest attractions are the humpback whales. You can swim or snorkel alongside them. Local Keith Vial told me the 15m long, 40 ton giants can come to within a couple of arm lengths away. “It’s amazing but scary,” says Keith.
Dan Fitzgerald operates snorkelling trips and whale watching at his Niue Dive School next to the Matavai Resort. “The whale season runs from July to October but they have been earlier and last year they were in the water in November,” he told me. He recommends August to September as the best period for swimming with whales. Dan uses land spotters. “I have a crew with binoculars at lookouts searching for signs of the mammals. We have four hours in the water to do the tour so we try every opportunity. Some days we’ve been in for thirty seconds and they are there. It’s one of those things when you just have to be in it to win it!” he said.
Dan is from the North Island of New Zealand and has lived in the US, Canada, Australia and other Pacific Islands. He came to Niue two years ago to visit a friend who operated the dive shop. Dan was captivated by what he claims is the best diving in the world, so he stayed and now runs the business. “Visibility is up to a hundred metres. Remember, five metres is fantastic in New Zealand,” Dan told me. The water is a crystal clear blue because the runoff is filtered through the limestone. It’s also warm.
“The water sits at around 27°C in April and by winter, that’s July, it’s 24°C.” Those temperatures encourage colourful sea life. “There are thousands of different varieties of reef fish and invertebrates as well as hard coral,” Dan told me ”A lot more light is reaching the coral so it lights up on a sunny day.”
Something you might not want to see are Niue’s sea snakes. They are endemic to the island and whilst they are highly venomous, they are harmless to people. Dan assures me that their mouths are so small, they can only inject venom when they dislocate their jaws to swallow prey. We’re too big! “They are very curious and they’ll end up following you because they see the movement. They are a very strange creature that you can pet, like an underwater puppy,” Dan said. There are also underwater caves and caverns very close to shore. You can book Dan’s dive trips at dive.nu.
I spoke with Scott Salisbury who was on holiday from Australia. He has dived at around 2,000 sites around the world. He rates Niue highly for the variety of marine life and visibility. “Whether you’re a person who wants to see colour, coral, the caverns or caves there’s something from across the entire dive spectrum here,” Scott enthused. He says he enjoyed seeing the sea snakes and found a cave where there were dozens inside. He laughed as I visibly reeled back in horror. “It’s certainly not for the feint hearted,” he warned.
I think that you can gauge a great holiday from the memories you take home with you. Whether you want to discover Niue’s natural beauty or learn about life on a remote tropical island, the local experts I met will shares stories and experiences that you’ll never forget.
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.