Sunday, October 14, 2012

More News About Niue

September 24-September 30

In the previous post on Niue, I mentioned that there is much more to the island than its caves and family graves. We spent a week on Niue getting to know the island, and we could have easily spent more time there. The people are so very friendly, and there are a number of things that make Niue a unique and special destination.

One of the exceptional things about Niue is the depth, color, and clarity of its anchorage. Since it is a “high island” or upthrust atoll, Niue is steep to, right up to its fringing reef. Due to the lack of rivers or streams on the island and the fact that it has very little soil, there is not much in the way of surface runoff from the island. This results in water so clear, you can see right down to the bottom, whether you are moored at 50 or 150 feet. Here is Silhouette’s mooring buoy and line leading 139 feet down. 

Lucky # 13 mooring buoy

Shadow in Niue---drifting over mooring line

The anchorage is so deep, the humpback whales that visit Niue from June to September (during their annual migration from Antarctica) sometimes come right into the anchorage. Here, you have the opportunity to simply jump off your boat and snorkel with the mother whales and their new calves, if you are so inclined. It seems like you would have to keep a respectful distance in order to avoid being slapped by one of the humpback’s great flukes or fins (and also not to upset the mothers with newborns); but what a treat to be able to see the whales up close!) We arrived in Niue in late September, and most of the whales had already moved on, so we didn’t get to experience this thrill; however, whales were reported in the anchorage one afternoon while we were there (unfortunately, it was the day we were away visiting the east coast of the island.)

We did catch some glimpses of Niue’s famous gray and black-striped sea snakes. The first time we saw a sea snake, we were in the dinghy, and it was on the surface of the water. Upon being startled by our dinghy, the sea snake dove down to the depths. Later, I went snorkeling on the outside of the fringing reef. The reef was replete with life, but it was unusual in that everything was so far below you due to the great depth. I didn’t approach the wall on the outside of the fringing reef because I am still a novice at snorkeling on the outside of reefs. I was afraid I might not be able to swim against the surge and would end up dashed on the reef. I saw a few more sea snakes in the gullies and chasms on the outside of the island. The picture below showing two sea snakes following a purple fish is underexposed due to the fact that it was taken in the late afternoon on an overcast day, when the light was beginning to dim. I didn’t have a chance to return and snorkel the area in better light.

Sea snakes

I also saw another (small) spotted eagle ray.

Spotted eagle ray

Another unique aspect of Niue is that when you are hiking through the forest there, you are basically hiking over and around the former sea bed. Huge mounds and pinnacles of coral limestone are scattered throughout the island’s coastal forests:

Spider's web with egg cases

These lizards were everywhere along the coastal forest trails

Forest light

We rented a car to tour the east coast of the island. Cruisers be advised…if you rent a car to tour Niue, you are required to have a local driver’s license. This can be purchased at the police station (NZ $22.50 in 2012.) The car rental service did not advise us of this policy when we rented our car (Patrick showed them his Washington State license), and we were stopped by a police barricade on our way to return the car the next morning. After inspecting Patrick’s Washington driver’s license, we were told to stop by the police station for a local license after returning the car. We ended up having to purchase a Niuean driver’s license after the fact for the use of a rental car for one day. The driver’s license and expensive fuel on Niue brought the $50/day cost of a rental car to just over $100. 

Niue’s distinctive geography includes sea tracks, chasms, and caves. Sea tracks, in the form of small coves with coral sand, take the places of long sandy beaches found on other islands and are found inside the reef. Chasms are the deep canyons formed by limestone walls and pinnacles. Scuba divers report that the topography offshore is very similar to the onshore topography of Niue.

On the east coast, we visited Togo Chasm which was located in a landscape of tortured coral pinnacles that reminded me a bit of Bryce Canyon in the southwestern United States.

Entrance to final descent to Togo Chasm

Approaching Togo Chasm

Coral pinnacles at Togo Chasm

From the outside of the chasm, you could get a glimpse of the palm “oasis” located on the canyon floor.  

Bird's eye view into the chasm

To enter the chasm, you had to descend a steep but sturdy wooden ladder.

K descending the ladder

P descending the ladder

Once inside, you could see the entire oasis.

Palm oasis in Togo Chasm

There was also an interesting “flip-flop wall.” The picture below only shows a part of this impromptu outdoor sculpture.

One person's garbage is another person's art II

Togo Chasm contained a small sea-facing cave, pictured in the previous post.

Entrance to cave at Togo Chasm

Patrick topping out over the ladder

Once we exited the chasm, we clambered over the rocks for awe-inspiring views of the sea battering the shore.

We did not visit the (by all reports) magnificent Vaikona Chasm. Niueans recommend going there with a guide, and the guide was unavailable the day we were on the east coast. I’m certain we could have managed the hike and descent into the chasm on our own, but finding the underwater entrance into the cave there was not something I wanted to attempt without “local knowledge.”

After making some other stops on the east coast, we continued around to the north coast and the hike to Talava Arches. The beginning of the trail to the arches was carpeted with bromeliads. 

Bromeliads along the path to Talava Arches

Coral limestone was also a feature of this rugged trail...

....however, rest areas were provided

We had to travel through a cave and traverse the outside wall of the cave to get to the arches,
where we were rewarded with another spectacular view:

Talava Arches

On another day, we rented bicycles to tour the west coast. We spent some time snorkeling in Limu Pools...

Limu Pools and fringing reef

Triggerfish in Limu Pools

....and descended into Palaha Cave.


Along with its impressive natural history, the people of Niue are what make it such a special place to visit. Patrick and I got to experience a little more of the local color here than we have at some of the places we visited previously.

One rainy day, we walked down to The Pacific Way Bar, which has a “happy hour” from 4-5:00. Here, the owner and proprietor reminded us of the character Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific. That particular evening, the bar was hosting Bingo night, and shortly after we arrived, the place began filling up. The women from the village started trickling in, dressed up for the occasion. The Bingo players were 98% female and 2% male. As we sipped our happy hour beers (NZ $2.50), we watched several rounds of Bingo. The bartender sat near us so we could see how the game was played. Not surprisingly, the Bingo cards in Niue are a bit different from those in the U.S. There are no letters, only numbers. To get a “Bingo,” you have to fill in all three lines of numbers (at least in the game being played that evening:  we were told there are different versions.) People can play one, two, three, or six Bingo cards at a time. When people got a Bingo, they didn’t shout, “Bingo;” they just said, “Yep!”

Instead of chips or other concrete game markers, players just used marking pens or highlighters to mark the numbers called on their cards. I don’t know how they would have been able to keep up otherwise! Both Patrick and I were amazed as we watched the Bingo caller simultaneously drawing bits of plastic with numbers on them and calling them at an amazing rapid-fire pace. The patter went something like this (imagine a New Zealand accent with a Polynesian twist):

"Two, six:  twenty-six; three, four:  thirty-four; next door, thirty-five; legs---eleven; half-way, forty-five; all the two’s, twenty-two; five, eight:  fifty-eight; upside-down, sixty-nine; top of the house, ninety…"

It was creative and engaging Bingo calling, but it took awhile for our unskilled ears to catch on to the fact, for example, that the highest number on the cards was ninety.

While in Niue, we also attended one of the island’s “show days.” Niueans are obviously very proud of the show days, because we started hearing about the Alofi North (that month's hosts) show day the moment we arrived in Niue from almost everyone we encountered. The show days are part of what keep Niuean traditions and customs alive by showcasing their culture. Attending the show day reminded me in some aspects of attending a state fair. Local agricultural products were on display…

Breadfruit (green) and coconuts are in the baskets at center

Taro roots and coconut crab are island staples

Village men sitting in front of large manioc roots

Taro leaves and roots

….as well as local handicrafts.

Ebony (black tips) grows on Niue

Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of the beautiful handmade quilts, many of them featuring the island’s flora, which were also on exhibit.

The show day was held on a field at the high school, and food booths lined the outside perimeter of the commons. Niueans get up early on show days (which are held on Saturday), and food service begins around 6:30 a.m. By the time we got there around 9:30 a.m., almost everything was gone.

The morning began with speeches from the village elders, who are dressed in coordinated traditional costume for the occasion. (The theme for this month's show day was "Orange.")

This village elder invited us to the show on market day. She is 92.

After the speeches, the entertainment segment began. The female elders opened the show with some traditional dances featuring hand motions (like hula) and song.

Village elders opening the show:  the choreographer is wearing a black top

Afterwards, there were both traditional and modern acts.

Compared to some of the South Pacific islands we’ve visited, Niue has a more multicultural population, and this was reflected in the acts on the program. 

This dance possibly had an Indonesian influence

...and this....

Eligible bachelors and bachelorettes perform a chair dance

Niuean hip-hop act
I was transported back to my teaching days at Denny Middle School in West Seattle (now Denny International School) and reminded of my former students in the talent shows we held there.

Watching a show like this, it was difficult to escape some of our cultural biases.

For example, one of the ways in which adults encouraged these tots was to come up to them while they were performing and stick money down various articles of their clothing. In the picture, you can see one girl wearing some Niuean currency under her leaf crown, and another girl with some currency sticking out of her blouse. It turns out that the adults did this for performing youth of all ages, but since this was the first youth act on the program, the behavior seemed a little odd by our Western standards.

Another way in which male youth were encouraged/supported was that whenever someone got up to put money in the boy’s costume, the giver remained on stage for a few minutes, dancing alongside the performer. I didn’t have my camera ready to capture these awesome moments. The picture below was taken just after the man in the orange T-shirt (at left) and the man with the rainbow mohawk had left the stage after individually dancing with the adolescent pictured.  


At the end of the program, the MC said, “Don’t go away. Now, since you did not participate in the entertainment, we have something for the visitors!” The “something” turned out to be a coconut-husking contest and the “now” meant that now it was the Niueans turn to be entertained!  I volunteered to participate, because I have been almost all the way across the South Pacific, and I still have not learned how to husk a coconut, drink the milk of a coconut, or grate the meat of a coconut. It seems like those are essential survival skills in this region, and I would be ashamed if I completed my entire South Pacific cruise without knowing how to access the innards of a coconut. I was the only woman who volunteered in a line of men.

Well…I did learn how to husk a coconut….eventually. During the contest, however, I kept beating a dead horse:  My strategy was to pound the coconut repeatedly against the sharpened wood stake (stuck in the ground) that was provided for husking. It wasn’t working, but I kept doing it. Thus ensued much hilarity when I penetrated the part of the coconut holding a liquid similar to water, and the coconut water spewed out all over the place, including all over me! In my embarrassment, I exclaimed, “I’m killing this coconut!” A few minutes later, the MC (a humorous sort) passed by me and shouted, “That is one dead coconut!” The Niueans were videotaping all this, of course (as was Patrick), to be aired on their local T.V. station, furthering my humiliation at the hands of a seed.

During the contest, I kept looking around to see what the other contestants were doing. (It’s not cheating when you’re in a foreign country and don’t know what the heck you’re doing.) I saw them peeling the husk off the coconut with their bare hands (but did not see them first prying the husk against the pointed tip of the stake to get it started.) I tried to peel off my coconut husk where I had created a hole with the stake, but it was too tough. I couldn’t budge it. We were each supposed to husk two coconuts, and by the time most people had husked their two, I still hadn’t managed to remove the husk from one coconut! Finally, they called time, and I was spared from continuing.

The winner of the contest (who had previously husked coconuts on Huahine, where a local showed him how) patiently taught me how to get the husk started by levering it with the pointed stake, and then removing it with my hands. Thank god! If I am ever stranded on a tropical island, I will survive!

Husking a coconut the right way after the guy to my left showed me how

After the visitors had their go, the locals showed us how it was done. The winner of the women’s contest husked her two coconuts in 30 seconds. The men had to husk three coconuts, and the first place winner did it in 25 seconds!

One of our group of cruisers refused to give up on his coconut and had taken it back to where we were all seated on the field, where he continued to try to husk it. The MC came by and said, “Still working? Let me go get my coconut crab to help you!” There’s always gotta’ be a comedian…

It was all good fun and we gave our hosts on Niue a lot of laughs. The show day was an enjoyable culmination to our stay on Niue, and---after a quiet Sunday spent preparing the boat for departure---we sailed for Tonga the following Monday.  


  1. Kirsten, I lost you! I've been looking for you for several years to find out what you are doing! This is your favorite Kudo partner teacher that taught at Denny with you and had to move on due to life changes! Cindy Nyenhuis-Miller.....Please email me so I can make contact with you. We both have so much to catch up on!!!!!!!

    1. Cindy,

      So great to hear from you! I don't have your email. If I publish mine on here, our blog will get spammed. Are you on Facebook? Kirsten