Niue: How to nab a giant crab

By Graham Reid

With help from a local, Graham Reid goes in search of an elusive meal on Niue

Graham Reid holds a giant land crab on Niue. The crustaceans make delicious eating. Photo / Graham Reid
Graham Reid holds a giant land crab on Niue. The crustaceans make delicious eating. Photo / Graham Reid

There's a simple phrase for what Tony Aholima does. It's "sustainable living", but for him it's more complex than that.

As a young man he left his homeland, spent three years in New Zealand, then moved to Australia. As best as I can understand it between the laughter and sudden bouts of homegrown philosophical seriousness, he ran a company and employed quite a few people. But then there were problems. Someone didn't pay the cheque so he couldn't pay his workers.

"It just started to mess with my thinking," he says, "and I had all these ideas going around and it was confusing me."

Basically he burned out, so in 2002, with his Australian wife, he moved back home - after 22 years away - to live off the land. Except his homeland is the island of Niue, a three-hour flight from Auckland, and they don't call it The Rock for nothing. It's all rock, jagged limestone, which makes the idea of a vege garden of any size just laughable, and dangerous.

So Aholima concentrated on indigenous plants, or those that have successfully adapted already - varieties of banana, mango, pawpaw, taro and so on - although in his own sprawling yard he also has lemongrass, chilli and pumpkins. And a dozen pigs.

We drive to his various gardens scattered around on family land near the village of Mutalau, most of which are well hidden from tracks behind a wall of dense bush. Wild pigs and chickens are a constant problem - as are people who sneak in to steal the odd vegetable and health-giving liquor from his noni fermenting tanks - although tomatoes and large white cucumbers grow wild when you throw them on the ground. It's a struggle on land that is mostly bleached white, and merciless if you fall over.

Aholima loves it though. He moves from one plot to the other if he gets bored and tries to keep the workload to a minimum: "Maybe just an hour in the morning before it gets too hot, then maybe two hours in the late afternoon. Don't want to work to hard, huh?"

At one remote plot he has set up, for his own amusement and that of visitors, an outdoor office complete with desk, computer, ergonomic chair and other accoutrements. None of it works, of course, but it makes a good picture.

Interesting though all this is, the reason I'm in the sweat-inducing humidity is to hunt uga (pronounced oon-ga), the coconut-eating land crabs that can grow to have a claw-span of a metre.

We've been out in the cruel heat of noon and my shirt is sweat-soaked when Aholima says 3pm is a better time. Or night. But within minutes he's snuck up on two decent-sized creatures and hauled them out for inspection.

They use one serrated claw to cut through partially opened coconuts he's left outside their lairs in the rock, but they are skittish and can disappear at any movement.

However, now we have a couple - you hold them by the shell while they try to get a claw on to you so powerful it could take your thumb off before you can scream.

They are, however, delicious.

After a fruitless hour clambering over slippery limestone with no further success other than a few sightings, we slump down outside his place and he offers more homegrown philosophy about the dangers of fast food (although he's not averse to it when in Auckland), how animals are like us (stupid, smart), how people prefer to work for someone else than themselves and ... Time to go, I don't want to keep him from work.

"Work? Nah, just feed the pigs and that's it. Don't want to work too hard, huh?" says the man who seems to work very hard indeed, yet also hardly at all.


Niue Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand runs a twice-weekly service from Auckland to Niue, crossing the dateline along the way.

ONLINE: niueisland.com


Graham Reid travelled to Niue with assistance from Niue Tourism and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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