Niue: Uga hunters, go through

By Andrew Louis

Andrew Louis brings his island prize of whole cooked crab back through Customs.

Coconuts are bait for uga, which open them using their powerful claws. Picture / Andrew Louis
Coconuts are bait for uga, which open them using their powerful claws. Picture / Andrew Louis

Anxiously, I walk towards the Customs officer at Auckland International Airport.

My declaration form reads like a copy of my holiday itinerary in Niue. In the past week I have been: fishing, snorkelling and hiking in a forest; I touched a sea snake in the wild and visited a farm with wild pigs. These Customs guys are going to have a field day with me. But what's really worrying me is the attitude of the Australians with a lazy banana in their flight bag.

"Are you bringing into New Zealand any food?" Yes, I declare.

In my backpack - carefully wrapped in a plastic bag and newspaper - is a whole, cooked coconut crab the Niueans call "uga" (pronounced "unga").

My uga is a large one, about the size of a crayfish, and it's still warm. At the counter I slowly unwrap the newspaper to reveal the uga in a plastic bag. The officer stops me before I even take it out of the bag and says, "Oh, that's an uga - that's okay." He sends me on my way.

Eighteen hours earlier in a forest in Niue, my father and I were clambering over razor-sharp rocks and ducking under low branches in the pitch-black of night.

We were hunting uga. Our guide, Bev, showed us how the crabs use their powerful claws to eat coconuts, their food of choice.

The locals prepare bait the night before, a coconut with a small hole cut in the side and tied to a tree. The uga come out of their caves to feed on the bait, which takes three to four hours. The hunter then grabs them and either puts them in a sack or, more traditionally, ties them up with luku leaves and vines.

Bev handed me the biggest one up for the camera. I grabbed it with a death grip but still felt it able to move its claws. The bigger crabs (they can live up to 60 years old) are strong enough to break a coconut in half.

Even the smaller ones can take your finger off. Hunting them is a serious business - you want to do it with the assistance of locals.

We found five uga that night, including a rare and elusive red uga. Most crabs are blue, green or a combination of blue and green. But they all turn red when boiled.

Once cooked, the taste is a crab-crayfish-coconut sensation.

As long as they are cooked, uga are safe to bring into New Zealand - unlike the two jars of Niuean honey I see confiscated from the couple in the line next to me.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand runs a twice-weekly service from Auckland to Niue.

Further information: See niueisland.com.

Andrew Louis travelled as a guest of Niue Island Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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