Niue: Tranquillity at its finest hour

By Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas shares infectious enthusiasm and fishing tales from a neighbouring island.

Jeff Jeffarian, an American who visited Niue in 2007 and never left, says that after your first visit to the island you'll be back. Photo / Geoff Thomas
Jeff Jeffarian, an American who visited Niue in 2007 and never left, says that after your first visit to the island you'll be back. Photo / Geoff Thomas

I had a workshop with eight mechanics in Grey Lynn but after 27 years I left the rat race and came back to Niue. I love it here," said Willie Saniteli, as he dropped another flying fish bait over the side of his 5m tinny, Sarah. "She's named after my daughter," who lives in Auckland.

Shortly after the heavy rod bowed and the reel screeched as line was torn from the spool.

"Yahoo - it's a wahoo!" yelled Willie. His enthusiasm was infectious, and the yahoos continued to echo off the rocky bluffs as he slammed home the gaff and pulled the gleaming fish into the cockpit. "Watch your feet!" he added as the sleek, silver speedster with dark blue bars along its flanks snapped its jaws and thudded its tail.

A smart rap on the snout quietened the 32kg wahoo and we could relax.

Its head tapered to a rapier point and the razor teeth were like a metal chopping machine. The body was long and streamlined like a jet, designed to flash through the water at 100km an hour.

The wahoo attacks its prey from below, rocketing up to slice off its tail like a surgeon and returning to eat the disabled fish.

The flying fish baits often come back with the back half sliced off with the bite just missing the hook. One fisherman tells of finding the remains of a 6kg tuna inside a wahoo. It had been sliced up in perfectly symmetrical sections as if chopped with a cleaver.

Wahoo are also highly prized as a table fish and the 1200 islanders living on Niue Island go fishing at every opportunity. They sell their catch to the only large resort, the Matavai, or to one of the handful of restaurants. The rest are eaten in the villages.

They also bring in yellowfin tuna, mahimahi, bottom-dwelling reef fish and occasionally sailfish and marlin. Much of the fishing is still done from traditional wakas, pronounced vakas, which are single-hulled canoes crafted from a hollowed-out tree trunk with an outrigger fixed to one side. Islanders battle and subdue huge marlin in these frail canoes, and the story is told of one man who towed two marlin behind his waka as he returned after a day of fishing.

They watch out for each other and if a large fish is hooked on the monofilament handline others will ensure he does not get into trouble.

Such fishing feats are common because of the nature of the island and the surrounding ocean. Unlike the classic Pacific isle which is always pictured with coconut fronds waving above a sparkling sandy beach and a placid lagoon protected by a coral reef, Niue is a large rock which drops straight into the depths. There is no encircling reef, so the migratory, pelagic fish like tuna and wahoo swim 50m off the shore. Whales do, too, and this is also one of the best places in the South Pacific to engage with the huge humpbacks which turn up every year in July and August while on their annual migration from the Antarctic to breed in the warm tropical currents.

American Jeff Jeffarian visited Niue in 2007, fell in love with the island and its people and stayed. He bought the ruins of a house which had been destroyed by a hurricane in 2004 when giant waves rode over the 30m cliffs and washed away homes and buildings along the waterfront in the main town of Alofi. He built a cottage which overlooks the cliffs and the bay, and from his bed he can look out at the whales.

"I can even sit on the can and watch the whales," he added. Then he built a walkway out over the rocks to the cliff edge, where he could sit and watch the turtles and fish on the reef far below, and wait for the whales.

"In 2007 the cancer doctors gave me six months ... This place kept me going. It has given me fulfilment."

The church is very strong in this community and on Sundays everything stops. You don't work or go fishing. So you rent a car and drive around the island, go for walks and take a bathing suit - the tourism office has been busy developing the many coastal walks around the island.

These are pathways to secret grottos, caves and hidden gems. Like the swimming pools set in spectacular rocky hideaways where colourful fish float in the clear water. And Togo Chasm where a ladder takes you down the final cliff to a hidden grotto with white sand and a handful of coconut palms. The walks are well sign-posted with paths, steps and handrails to help you over the tricky, steep sections or through dark caves.

Willie also operates the Crazy Uga Cafe, a tiny restaurant with the best iced chocolate drink in the Pacific, where ex-pats gather for morning coffee. He also built the Washaway Bar where locals and tourists gather on Sundays and fill in the book for the honesty bar while enjoying the famous hamburgers and fishburgers, watching the sun dive into the ocean.

If you are lucky he may take you for an uga hunt. These are the coconut crabs, pronounced unga, which come out in the bush at night. They are hermit crabs that leave the sea as babies and live in the bush for up to 50 years and grow to huge proportions. Niue is one of the new places in the world where they can be caught, cooked and broken apart.

When you first meet Jeff he asks: "Is this your first visit to Niue?".

When you reply, "Yes", he says: "You'll be back".

If you go

Matavai Resort
Niue's premier resort Matavai is located on a clifftop with spectacular views of the sea. The unique, multi-levelled timber deck area with two swimming pools provides a spectacular viewing point to the sea, where guests are likely to see turtles, dolphins and, in season, humpback whales. The Matavai has 22 fully furnished rooms, some with ocean views.

Niue Island is situated on an atoll with crystal clear water and extensive marine life. This gives Niue some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. There are great numbers of dolphins and the island is often frequented by humpback whales, which swim within 50m of the shore. Niue is also one of the only places in the world where you can swim with them.

On land, visitors can explore Niue's extensive and impressive cave system or walk with flocks of colourful butterflies in lush, virgin rainforest.

A popular night-time activity is to go hunting for uga (a huge, tree-climbing coconut crab), which make a delicious meal.

* Geoff Thomas travelled as a guest of Niue Island Tourism and Air New Zealand

- Herald on Sunday

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