In the internet age, are we ever really alone? A week on an isolated island nation forces Kirsty Johnston to ruminate on the value of silence and solitude.
It was the silence that frightened me. The darkness I could bear, and the eerily still water, and the creatures scuttling away underfoot as I descended the slippery rock stairs - but not the dead quiet. It was too much. But, I thought, I've come this far, and began to undress into my togs.
When's the last time you took your life into your own hands? Mine was at Anapala Chasm at Niue, a freshwater pool in a deep limestone crack. Against advice, I'd arrived in the early morning, when the sun had yet to climb high enough to reach into all the corners of its vast crevasse. The first half of the walk there was through humid, sunny bush. The second half was a sharp, dark descent to the grey-green water, with vines brushing my face as I tried desperately to calm down.
I stopped at the last step down to the pool and looked around. Nothing but rock, and an oppressive hush. I peered down the length of the chasm, where I thought I could see light reflecting off something at the end. Was I really meant to swim here? I went to pull out my phone to Google it, before remembering there was no 4G on Niue. There was barely Wi-Fi at the hotel. And the map and guide were in the car.
I slipped into the water, praying that if I died the newspaper would use a flattering photo. It was cool and deep. As I paddled along, my eyes adjusted to the light. The limestone sparkled white through the gloom. It was beautiful. I lay on my back at the cavern's end and watched the sunlight far above, and felt my breathing slow. My mind slowed too. I felt calm.
When's the last time you were truly alone with your thoughts? That day in Anapala was the first in a long while for me. I mulled it over as I floated in the cool water. Even though I live alone, and frequently run alone, the internet is a constant noisy presence, always available, cluttering my mind. I scroll Twitter and Instagram endlessly, mindlessly. I outsource so many of my functions and decisions to my phone - I use it as external memory, as a constant guide. The day before I'd left for Niue I'd even Googled a review of a cafe while I was seated and looking at the menu, unwilling to leave even this smallest of choices to fate.
At Anapala, I resolved to wallow in a week without Wi-Fi, to use my map and experience only what I could find. Niue - large for a coral atoll but tiny compared to any other nation in the world - was perfect for the experiment. Even I, a person who goes nowhere without Google Maps, could hardly manage to get lost, I thought. The island, a lush expanse of rainforest dotted with limestone caves, was only 260sq km, a ring road around its outside. The worst that could happen was to run out of petrol, and that seemed unlikely. I wanted to have time not just to explore, but to think.
My first destination was Togo Chasm, a 40-minute walk through tropical jungle and fossilised coral pinnacles. At the end of the trail the sea crashes into huge blowholes, the water soaking anyone trying to get a picturesque selfie (yes, that was me). To the right is a path through a narrow canyon, stopping at a high ladder. A careful climb led to a small sandy beach, surrounded by coconut palms. It seemed surreal - this expanse of sand on an island of coral. I took my shoes off and walked in it, and then regretted it as the tiny white grains filled my socks.
The rest of my trip felt just like this - discovery. Instead of excessively Googling and planning, I drove along the pot-holed road in my rental car, windows down, radio on, stopping where I liked. I walked down sea tracks to find hidden picnic spots. I took photos of abandoned houses reclaimed by forest. I swam in caves and chasms and pools. I walked around the reef at Tamakautoga to find a secret beach and swam in a sun-warmed pool in solitude. I ate at cafes without reading reviews. One day a restaurant had an hour wait for lunch - the staff had gone to a funeral, the owner said. It didn't matter. I drank a Corona and stared out at the sea, scanning for Humpback whales, due to arrive soon for breeding season.
Nothing was a worry. Sometimes it should have been. I was lucky to escape a flat tyre on my journey through the Huvalu Rainforest, home to some of the largest potholes ever seen. I read later it was recommended to go 30km/h, not the usual 60km/h at Huvalu. Live and learn. It also pays to go slower-than-recommended on the inland road to Alofi. At one point, a white dog with a nice brown face ran in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and it looked up, startled. I was equally startled when I read "New Zealand High Commission" on the sign behind it and had to later confess to the High Commissioner I'd nearly killed his pet.
I spent hours snorkelling, revelling in the silence of the ocean. At Avaiki Cave - site of the first canoe landing - I swam through arches, watching tiny mudskippers. I walked out to the edge of the reef, and watched the swell, before leaping in and floating high above the 100m drop-off, teeming with fish. It was a calm day with no current.
The next day at Limu Pools I wasn't so lucky. While snorkelling near the edge of the reef I felt a wave crash over, and then the familiar sucking feeling as it swept back out. I'd forgotten about the gap in the rock. I swam, as hard as I could, lungs burning, to the side of the channel, my togs almost scraping on coral. I remember thinking, "how embarrassing to come from New Zealand and forget to look out for rips." When I finally reached the rocky shore again I collapsed, panting, and resolved not to tell anyone.
The only interruption to my thinking time was other visitors. Although Niue's size means only a handful of other tourists are on the island with you, its few amenities mean you'll almost certainly bump into each other at some point. I saw Tony, the star expert from Hawaii, at lunch, and he came to Avaiki with me. I saw the nice couple from Marlborough at Matipu Chasm, where fresh water meets salt water and does funny things to your eyes. I saw Environment Minister James Shaw. "Are you working," he asked, when I walked into the office of Magical Niue Sea Adventures for a snorkelling tour. "No, are you?" I said. "No." He looked relieved. We later snorkelled together into a cave called "The Belly of the Whale", where I pointed out a sea snake writhing upwards, just a metre from his face.
Most of the interruptions were a welcome break from my solitude. My tour with Explore Niue Tours' Vanessa Marsh was an excellent insight to the culture and history of the island and one of the highlights of my stay. At the Scenic Matavai, the island's one resort, I revelled in hearing the local gossip. One couple staying there had eloped, getting married on the restaurant deck. Another couple had just become engaged. Two more had won their trip. My only disappointment was discovering the adorable couple I'd assumed were gay (risque in a deeply Christian nation) were actually auditors from New Zealand Treasury.
By the day of my departure, I deleted both Instagram and Twitter from my phone and resolved to limit my heavy internet use to work hours, to take up swimming again, to stop worrying so much and go more with the flow. Disconnecting should be compulsory, I decided. My mind felt clear, my heart light.
On my last day on the island, after enjoying a coffee at Crazy Uga's, I drove past some works on the side of the road. "What's that," I asked at the resort later. The answer made my heart sink: an undersea broadband cable, planned to bring fast internet to the island by 2020. As I got on the plane, I thought about the changes it would bring to Niue - better education, surely, but also a huge change. And then my eyes lit on something else - the plane had Wi-Fi! I connected right away, eager to post my pictures from my week away online.
Air New Zealand flies a twice weekly direct service from Auckland to Niue.