Niue: Ancient skills still float the boats

By Jeff Evans

Niue is best experienced with eyes and mind wide open. Photo / Supplied
Niue is best experienced with eyes and mind wide open. Photo / Supplied

My trip to Niue is a working holiday of sorts. I'm here to learn a little about Niuean vaka (canoe) making from master canoe builder and fisherman Taumafai Fuhiniu.

Niue, with little more than 1200 inhabitants, is fighting a battle familiar to many indigenous groups, to preserve traditional knowledge before it is irretrievably lost. Vaka construction is one such tradition.

Almost lost in the 60s and 70s because of imported dinghies and their outboard motors, the skills required to build the sleek one-man vaka have received a significant boost over the past 20 years due to the dedication of a few men, and chief among the current generation is Taumafai.

As arranged, I'm met at the airport by Taumafai's wife, Carmen, an expat Australian who looks after guests staying at the family rental property - Bella's Guest House - my accommodation for the coming week. The guesthouse is a 10-minute drive from the airport and along the way Carmen points out a few landmarks, including the track down to Opaahi, also known as Cook's Landing. It was here that Captain James Cook and his men faced a mass of warriors when they landed in 1774, with Niuean spears and British musket fire being exchanged.

History tells us that Cook's reception was so inhospitable that he named the place Savage Island.

We arrive at the guesthouse - a clean and cool refuge on a hot day - and after a quick tour I'm left to my own devices for the rest of the day, with the promise of meeting Taumafai after his early fish next morning.

By late afternoon the temperature has dropped a little and a few fishermen are making their way out to the fishing ground 100m or so off Sir Robert's Wharf to target uluhenga, a delicacy which is either eaten or used as bait when fishing for tuna and other large fish offshore. Interestingly, tradition has held firm into the 21st century and individual fishing grounds are still linked to groups of families.

After a pleasant hour enjoying the onshore breeze on the wharf, it's time to make my way back up to the main road, past the Ekalesia Church and over to the commercial centre of Alofi. This, the hub of the island's business community, houses perhaps a dozen businesses including a fabulous art gallery, an internet cafe, Niue Tourism, Tavana'z Cafe (which, by the way, has the best deep-fried fish I have ever eaten, hands down) and a few others.

It's around 7.15 the next morning when I park my car on the grass verge above Cook's Landing. The streets of Alofi are alive with locals buying freshly baked bread and other breakfast supplies as I drive through and, predictably, the temperature is on the rise and the sky clear. Beside the path in the shelter of trees and scrub sit a couple of vaka, one partially covered by a sheet of corrugated iron, another relying on coconut fronds to help keep out the rain and the sun.

The water at the foot of the landing is a brilliant turquoise - it's already warm enough for a swim, even in the shade of the cliffs - and schools of small fish dart about with the surge of the tide. Sitting in the early morning quiet, it's easy to imagine the scene as Cook's men stood here, facing an overwhelming number of hostile warriors at the head of the narrow, steep path. No wonder they took the sensible option and beat a controlled retreat.

With no immediate sign that the fishermen are coming in, I head back into town and stop to pick up some supplies of my own, before retreating to the shade of the guesthouse for a refreshing drink.

When I arrive at the Fuhiniu homestead, Taumafai's already back and cutting up a sizeable tuna, his youngest daughter Bella standing close by spraying water to ward off marauding flies.

This is a canoe enthusiast's paradise, with upwards of a half-dozen vaka sitting under and around the house, including one part way through construction.

Taumafai prefers to work with freshly logged trees and the fragrance from chips of the moota tree fills the air. Beautifully made and detailed, the finish and construction of these vaka has been lifted to an art form.

Later, after the tuna is cut and refrigerated, we sit and enjoy a cool drink in the shade of his workshop. Taumafai explains although his father was a noted vaka builder, it wasn't until he returned to settle on Niue as an adult that he began to learn the required skills from his father. "During my childhood on Niue I saw my father craft many canoes, but because we were forbidden as children to touch tools - they were treasured in those days because they were very hard to get - I didn't get any hands-on experience."

Now acknowledged as a master craftsmen by his contemporaries, Taumafai has brought an attention to detail in his craft that was perhaps missing on earlier vaka, and has sought to refine some of the traditional design features, like the thinning of the hull to as little as 3-5mm thick.

"In the old days, hulls were probably closer to 10mm thick. That is the only part of the design I have really changed - everything else has basically remained the same - other than we are now utilising some of the modern materials for repairs, like fibreglass, resin, and nylon for lashing. But fundamentally the vaka is the same as those used by our ancestors."

Because Niue lacks the flat water of a lagoon, vaka design and length has been honed over countless generations and is perfect for the open waters. "Our forefathers have been making canoes for hundreds of years and they learnt that if the canoe is too long the following sea gets in from behind, and if it is too short the head-on sea will bounce over the front and flood the canoe.

"The optimum length for vaka on the western side of the island, where we have the better weather, is about 15 to 15 feet. On the eastern side of the island, where the trade wind comes in and they don't have good landing areas, canoes are shorter, down to 13 feet long."

Taumafai is a fount of knowledge as expected and after a pleasant couple of hours talking vaka we make plans to meet at Opaahi later in the week for a paddle. Time on the water is part of the accommodation deal for everyone booking the guesthouse and I'm looking forward to the experience.

When the appointed day arrives, I'm thankful that the sky is blue and the winds non-existent. Down at the landing the ocean is calm, which is just as well as launching a vaka off the rocks is not for the faint-hearted: you wait for a healthy swell to roll in, push the vaka out from the rocks with a hand on each side of the hull and leap into it.

Well that's the routine for the locals. Taumafai has other ideas for me as I eye up one of his precious canoes. The front end of the vaka faces into the channel while he holds the back end up off the rocks, ready to push once I'm in position and a decent swell rolls in. Admittedly it's not a heroic sight, but I haven't flipped, and I'm under way, paddle in hand.

My guide follows and is soon beside me smiling as I struggle to control direction: I'm proud to advise that continuous under- and oversteering is surprisingly easy to master. Taumafai for his part handles his vaka with consummate ease, skipping across the water like a greyhound chasing a rabbit. My vaka, while sitting appreciably lower in the water than my guide's (due no doubt in some way to my sedentary lifestyle) is actually a pleasure to paddle once I get the hang of it.

I manage to stay upright and in a straight line long enough to start feeling confident and, in the end, I have a wonderful time.

This has been the perfect climax to my stay in Niue. Time spent with Taumafai on land and water has broadened my appreciation of a man who has dedicated his life to preserving traditional knowledge, and I'm thankful for the opportunity.

My stay has been an adventure of sorts.

This isn't a luxury destination, but rather a destination to experience. Like many holidays away from five-star resorts, it is what you make of it. The locals are open and genuine, the landscape intimidating and beautiful, and the opportunities to learn about another culture are everywhere. Niue is best experienced with eyes and mind wide open.

Air New Zealand flies to Niue once a week. See

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