Niue: Hunting the uga

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles comes face to face with a terrifying but tasty monster in the forests of Niue.

Jim Eagles with a cooked coconut crab on Niue. Photo / Jim Eagles
Jim Eagles with a cooked coconut crab on Niue. Photo / Jim Eagles

The monster was waiting for me in the darkness, eyes alert, body armour gleaming, massive claws poised to crush any unwary fingers.

We stumbled towards its lair, the black of night broken only by the dim light of our torches, brushing our way through Niue's dense rainforest, desperately trying to avoid the razor sharp chunks of coral which protruded on all sides.

Finally, there it was, an enormous uga -pronounced "unga" - or coconut crab sitting aggressively on the coconut bait we had laid two mornings ago.

Willie Saniteli, our guide, grinned demonically and said the words I didn't want to hear, "Jim. There he is. Do you want to try picking him up?" Eek.

Earlier Willie had shown us how to hold a crab without getting caught by those enormous claws. Just hook two fingers over the top of the back plate, the thumb under the bottom of the plate ... and sweet as.

But he had also told us about how his brother had got a finger caught by one such crab.

"It was hurting so much he ripped the claw from the body but it stayed locked. So he told his mate, 'Crush the claw, crush the claw.' His mate crushed the claw ... but he crushed the finger as well. So now my brother's got a wonky finger."

And a few minutes before I had seen what happened when another intrepid uga hunter tried to put a big crab into a sack. The crab caught the top of the bag with its claws and wouldn't let go. Someone tried to prod the claw loose with a stick and the crab caught the stick and cut it in two. Imagine if that was my finger.

This uga was even bigger. With its legs extended it must be at least half a metre across. And those claws were huge.

On the other hand my fear of being thought chicken was greater than my fear of the crab. "Okay," I said, "I'll give it a go."

Two fingers at the top, the thumb at the bottom ... and sweet as. The crab was bending its claws backwards trying to get at me but I had a firm grip and my hand was out of reach. Soon it stopped struggling and I felt confident enough to hold it up for a photo. Yeehaa.

Coconut crabs are found throughout the Pacific but Niue is one of the few places where they are still common enough to be hunted.

However Willie reckons if they keep being taken irresponsibly - catching crabs that are too small or harvesting females while they are laying their eggs into the sea - the numbers will fall to unsustainable levels.

During our earlier daytime trek through the forest to lay crab baits he had explained that he only hunts on his own land, only harvests from a particular area every six months or so and only takes the biggest ones.

To get to the hunting area we crammed into his beat-up old van and bounced down an overgrown track, which looked as though no one had been there for years, then walked deep into the forest, to an area full of the caves and crevices where crabs like to hide.

Laying a bait involved chopping a hole in a coconut with a machete, to make it easier for the crabs to eat the sweet meat inside, then using strips of husk to tie the nut to a root or small branch to stop it being dragged off into a hole.

In between showing us how to do this Willie offered a non-stop course in Niuean bush lore: the bark of that tree was stripped off and used to make skirts or ropes; the web of this spider made a perfect bait for catching piper; the young shoots of that fern were delicious cooked in an umu; this fruit was good for upset stomachs.

It was quite humid under the forest canopy and towards the end he asked if anyone felt like a drink. Can a duck swim?

No sooner said than he stripped some bark off a sapling, made a climbing rope which he tied round his feet, used it to shinny up a lofty palm, sent down a pile of green coconuts and a few quick chops with his machete had us quenching our thirsts with coconut juice. Mine fizzed like lemonade.

Between us we put out about 25 baits which Willie reckoned should be plenty. "We'll check them out tomorrow night," he said. "I'll let you know what time. Depends on the weather and the tides."

Two nights later we were back, this time in darkness, to see what our baits had attracted. The answer turned out to be a lot of crabs, about 20 altogether, though Willie reckoned about half were legal size and - practising what he preaches - he only allowed us to take home four or five.

The one I got was a real monster. When I carried the sack into the Matavai Resort, where I was staying, the waitress drying glasses in the empty restaurant-bar was highly enthusiastic. "Oooh, you've got an uga," she said, before I could explain anything. "Let's see. Oooh, it's a big one, very nice, you can have him for dinner."

The crab was popped into the deep freeze where, according to Willie, "it just goes to sleep". Then the chef cooked it, according to his own special recipe, and presented it to me in a huge steel pot.

I took it to a cabin on the other side of the island where some friends had invited us to a barbecue. The shell proved surprisingly tough to crack but it produced a mountain of delicious meat: a bit like crayfish, quite rich but not as sweet, maybe a little smoky. It must have been good because we scoffed the lot.

When Kiwis think of taking a winter break on a sunny Pacific island, Niue tends to be overlooked though it's actually about the same distance away as Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and the Cook Islands.

That's probably because it has a tiny population - the vast majority of Niueans live in New Zealand - and a promotional budget to match.

Niue also lacks the sandy beaches and sheltered lagoons we tend to associate with holidaying on tropical islands.

But it does have its own attractions, including fantastic fishing, great snorkelling, an interesting culture, quiet villages and empty roads, impressive caves, intriguing coastal canyons, huge areas of tropical forest filled with walking and cycling tracks, friendly people ... and giant crabs.

I arrived for my week-long stay - that's the standard stay because Air NZ flies there once a week - dubious about how I would fill in the time. And left having not been able to fit in all the things I wanted to do.

Locals call Niue "the Rock" because that's what it is, a 269 sq km chunk of coral thrust out of the sea by a series of tectonic plate movements, making it entirely unlike the typical Pacific island.

It leaps straight out of the ocean, with sheer limestone cliffs 20m high, and then rises to a central plateau 60m above sea-level.

But, while there aren't any beaches, there are several points around the perimeter where gullies, chasms or caves provide access to the sea. This is where the Niueans launch their vaka - small outrigger canoes - which are usually stored in the caves also found all along the coast. Larger boats have to be lowered into the water by crane at the main wharf in Alofi or the landing area at Avatele.

Thanks to a recent signposting programme, it's now easy for tourists to find these seatracks which usually lead to great places to snorkel, explore and have a picnic.

During our time on the island we didn't get to all the seatracks but we did visit several of the best known.

Our favourite spot was the Matapa Chasm, reputedly the bathing spot of the Niuean kings, where a track between towering coral cliffs leads to a magnificent mini-fiord. It's a great place to snorkel, full of colourful fish, and thanks to a freshwater spring near the entrance you can wash off most of the salt on the way out.

Another fascinating site is Avaiki, according to tradition the place the first Polynesian canoe landed, where you reach the sea through a large cave. A short walk over the rocks leads to a smaller cave containing a beautiful pool which is also a fine place to snorkel.

Almost in the middle of the capital Alofi is Opaahi, a rocky landing area where Captain James Cook apparently tried to come ashore in 1774 only to be chased away - as locals proudly relate - by ferocious warriors painted with red juice from a banana plant, hurling spears and shaking clubs. I was a little taken aback to stroll down the track and find two Niueans waving axes but fortunately they were only using them to chop seafood off the rocks.

Perhaps the most remarkable seatrack leads to the Togo Chasm, Niue's Grand Canyon, a tranquil oasis of golden sand and shady palm trees protected by towering stone cliffs. Just getting there involves an intriguing walk, first through peaceful tropical rainforest, then along a boardwalk through a moonscape of ferocious coral pinnacles, and finally down a giant ladder about 25m high. At the bottom is the island's only sandy beach, a pool where you can bath and a cave which leads through the rock to a coastline which - at least when we were there - was being pounded by spectacular waves.

I think perhaps there may be too many fish in the waters round Niue. So many fish, in fact, that it's difficult to get one you've caught into the boat before another one has eaten it.

That's not something I've seen for myself, I have to admit, because on the two days I was due to go out fishing the wind came up and it was deemed too rough. But it's certainly what some friends found when they got out with local operator Les Saunders in his boat Snoopy.

In the course of their trip they saw a huge whale shark, had a marlin play round the back of the boat, caught lots of fine fish and watched while a big yellow-fin tuna was hauled in only for the entire body to be swallowed at a gulp by a whopping tiger shark, leaving only the head to be brought on board (there's a videoclip of the incident on youtube if you'd like to see for yourself - or see the embedded video at the end of this article).

But if I didn't get to catch any fish I did eat a fair bit - mainly tuna and wahoo - and it was mostly fresh and delicious.

Having tried most of the island's eateries I'd say the best places to eat fish are Falala Fa, Matavai Resort (where I stayed) and the remarkable Washaway Cafe (owned by crabhunter Willie Saniteli) which only opens on Sundays, runs an honesty bar and serves a great fish panini.

The Alofi North Hall is a hive of quiet activity on Monday afternoons with women of all ages busy making table mats, baskets, quilts, bags and floor mats.

Similar gatherings take place in other village halls around the island on most days, as part of a revival of traditional craft, and tourists are welcome to stroll in and admire the skills on display.

Just inside the door at Alofi North Hall two elderly women were putting the finishing touches to superbly made baskets. On the floor a younger woman was adding tassles to a floor mat.

At a trestle table in the corner a young girl was working on a table mat and an older woman was giving a recent returnee from New Zealand a refresher course in weaving. Two more women sitting on chairs were completing a pair of magnificent quilts. The local MP bustled in and promptly got to work on a finely woven table mat.

Niue has long been famous for the quality of its weaving and pieces are usually on sale at the twice-weekly market in Alofi, a shop in the commercial centre and some of the weaving sessions.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has a weekly service to Niue, which runs on Saturdays. Airfares start from $329 per person, one way from Auckland.

Where to stay: The 22-room Matavai Resort is at matavai@niue.nu.

What to do: Crab hunter Willie Saniteli is contactable at sarah@niue.nu.

Further information: See niueisland.com.

Jim Eagles visited Niue with help from Air New Zealand and Niue Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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