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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Niue – the forgotten Pacific island

Stepping ashore in Niue felt like stepping back in time; back to 1960s New Zealand when life was totally relaxed and completely informal.  On this island, which is utterly overlooked by tourism, everyone waves to each other and says hello; no one locks their cars or houses.  It’s all refreshingly different from anywhere else we’ve ever been.  People are genuinely friendly and the island itself is absolutely beautiful.  It has a wild and rugged coastline, astonishing limestone caves and the most amazing diving and snorkelling with stunning water clarity up to 80m visibility.  Oh and I did I mention the whales?


Our sail from Suwarrow was a mixed bag of not enough wind to too much as we slid through the pesky South Pacific Convergence Zone.  On arrival in Niue we picked up a mooring buoy and contacted authorities to announce our arrival.  Of course it was Tuesday – the day the Air New Zealand flight arrived from Auckland and everyone official was at the airport.  No one rushes here so it was a few hours before we got the call to go to the wharf.  That was no mean feat given the bay of Alofi is an open roadstead and exposed to the swell.  Dinghies are winched onto the wharf which can be hair raising and our first attempt was rather hilarious but we came through unscathed! 

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 A rickety old white van turned up and a couple of friendly chaps jumped out and introduced themselves as customs and immigration;  check in was done in the back of the van, casual as you like, and it set the scene for the rest of our stay on this wonderful island. The lack of stiff formality extended to the Matavai Resort where I spent an afternoon while David was diving. They happily let me use their pool and wifi without even buying a drink.  The Matavai is Niue's only resort and its wide decks were the perfect spot to whale watch.  I was treated to a wonderful show as two played outside the reef.  Niue offers fantastic walks through petrified coral forest to remote and spectacular coastlines.  Limestone rocks have produced some wonderful caves and we enjoyed exploring without the hassle of having to buy tickets or fight the crowds.  Refreshing stuff.


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Niue totally relies on aid from New Zealand – about $8m a year.  In recent years the population has plummeted to fewer than 1300 as many head to greener pastures in New Zealand, where 20,000 already live. That has caused anxiety especially amongst the elders and Niue is pockmarked with hundreds of abandoned houses; entire villages have been left.  Some were damaged in hurricanes but most have been simply shut up and left.  Hurricanes have destroyed factories and crops including coconut plantations and lime and passion fruit crops and sadly there seems little enthusiasm today when it comes to horticulture. The local market disappointingly only offered bananas and papaya.   We couldn’t help but feel it was a lost opportunity but NZ govt handouts obviously reduce incentive.



At the Lakepa Village Fair- a fantastic day out attended by the entire island - an elder took a crack at Air New Zealand for “taking all our people away.”  It’s a sad fact that after our government funded the airport extension to the tune of some $6m it only encouraged more people to leave the island.  Unfortunately outsiders aren’t able to buy land and so properties are just left.  It’s a shame as Niue would be a great winter bolthole for Kiwis and we certainly eyed up some cliff-top properties with huge potential.

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During our week in Niue we fell in love with the laid back lifestyle.   Where else would a rental car agent turn up barefoot waving away any paperwork or money – “do it later”, he said.  There isn’t much in the way of five star cuisine but we found the fresh fish (wahoo) and chips and flat whites at the fantastic Uga cliff top cafe as good as any in NZ.  A bonus was the panoramic view over the bay.  Niue is a great spot to pack a picnic lunch and head to the deserted east coast and sit and watch the surf roll in.   We were overwhelmed at the water clarity – Bandit was sitting in 39m and we could clearly see the bottom.


Niue’s main attraction are the migrating humpback whales that appear in August and September.  We had a mum and her calf in the anchorage most days playing but, of course, the one afternoon we went ashore for an ice-cream (Hokey Pokey trumpet…it’s been a while) they decided to play around Bandit.  Our neighbours gleefully told us of the magnificent show they’d had in our absence!  We made up for it when a humpback breached just behind Bandit – leaping right out of the water four or five times.   By the time I raced below to grab the camera he’d almost finished his magnificent act – all I captured was the gigantic splash.


 For anyone looking for a soft adventure tourism destination, a place where you don’t have to escape the crowds (there aren’t any), an island with fantastic hikes and some of the best snorkelling and diving we’ve had – head for Niue.  You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Island almost to Oneself

“Why on earth would you go to Suwarrow – it’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing there.”  So said cruising friend Chris Evans from Tulu when we told him we were going to the remote Pacific Atoll made famous by Kiwi Tom Neale.  Neale lived there as a self sufficient recluse in the 50s, 60s and 70s and became an icon amongst cruising sailors who were his only visitors.  His classic book, An Island to Oneself, written about his time on Suwarrow inspired David when he read it many years ago.   Our visit was to pay homage to Tom as well as break the long passage from French Polynesia to Nuie.  And of course to visit a place Chris summed up so succinctly – an island so beautifully remote with absolutely nothing there.  Few cruisers visit as it is, fortunately, off the beaten track.



It’s easy to see why Tom loved Suwarrow – it really is an unspoilt paradise with its azure lagoon overflowing with marine life and sandy motus full of birds.  Tom lived on Anchorage Island for three extended periods between 1952 and 1977 until stomach cancer forced him to seek treatment in Rarotonga where he died.   When he first arrived by boat, the then 50 year old was overwhelmed by the beauty of Suwarrow.  In his book he wrote  “I’ve never seen so many colours as the vivid blues, greens and even pinks – no painter could have imitated those patterns formed by underwater coral at different depths.  I know this is the place I’ve been looking for all this time”.  Back then very few yachts visited and the crew off one, that blew onto a reef during a storm, ended up as castaways, staying with Tom for several months until they flagged down a passing ship to rescue them.  Another couple who visited in 1954 found Neale in agony having injured his back and nursed him back to health.


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Nothing much has changed since Tom’s day except the island is visited by far more yachts.  When we arrived there were seven boats in the anchorage but they slowly left and for the last two days there were just three of us – bliss.  Suwarrow remains an idyllic haven and we felt very privileged to be able to spend time there. Tom’s house still stands as does a statue in his honour.  Suwarrow is looked after by caretaker Harry Papai and his wife Vaine.  They spend six months on the island and are kept busy dealing with the official paperwork for visiting yachts, monitoring the rat eradication programme, keeping an eye on the nesting birds on the outlying motus and keeping their house and grounds tidy.  It’s a lonely life, especially when the trickle of cruising yachts tails off but one they thoroughly enjoy.  In typical hospitable Cook Island style, Harry swung by one afternoon to offer the cruisers a freshly caught fish for dinner!  Another night the couple hosted a pot luck dinner onshore where Vaine’s corned beef casserole was the star – it was absolutely delicious!


The Suwarrow lagoon is full of sharks but Harry assured us if we snorkelled on the marked reefs near the main island we would be fine.   We were happy to follow his orders and had a wonderful time snorkelling with a manta ray who seemed oblivious to us floating above him while further below white tipped sharks slept on the sea bed.  We also snorkelled on reefs with some of the nicest coral we’ve seen.  Of course we were always accompanied by inquisitive black tipped sharks even when we swam off the back of Bandit.  David couldn’t resist hand feeding the sharks on the other side of the island.




It’s forbidden to land at any motus other than Anchorage Island due to the numerous birds who nest and lay eggs there.   A rat eradication programme has proved successful – we didn’t see one during our stay.  Apparently previous cruisers reported having rats join them for drinks on the beach.  As always there were jobs to do – repairing our genoa and bimini damaged during our rough trip to Suwarrow.  But at the end of each day there was always a cold beer to be had!


A highlight of our time was having two humpback whales swimming through the anchorage – right beside the boats.   We were in the tender on our way snorkelling and by the time we went back to get the camera they were swimming away.  It was a very special experience being so close to them in the tender – they were only a few boat lengths away.  By the way – Chris (and wife) Sara took our advice and visited Suwarrow and loved it.  When they come to New Zealand in February we’ll lend them our copy of Tom Neales’ book.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tragedy in Suwarrow

It was every cruiser’s nightmare – a middle of the night gale with howling winds and torrential rain in a confined anchorage strewn with coral heads.   We’d only just arrived in Suwarrow after a  rather scruffy and tiring five day/night passage from Maupiti and all we wanted was a good night’s sleep.  After an early dinner we crashed into bed at 7pm but were rudely awoken at midnight when the gale tore through the anchorage.  Instead of sleeping we, and everyone else in the anchorage, spent a long night on anchor watch…terrified of dragging.  Australian friends Liz and Steve on Amiable, anchored behind us, had the worst stroke of luck when they snapped their anchor chain on coral and were blown onto a reef in a 40knot gust.
They spent a terrifying night waiting for rescue as conditions were too atrocious for any attempt to be made before daylight.  Cruisers maintained a VHF vigil to support them and try and nut out a rescue plan.  At first light Suwarrow caretaker Harry Papai was roused and he lifted an unhurt but shattered Steve and Liz off Amiable using his aluminium dinghy.  For the next five days cruisers did what they could to help and support the couple particularly with the salvage of items from Amiable.  It was a very tough time for everyone.
The tragedy marred our time in beautiful Suwarrow and our thoughts are with Steve and Liz whose cruising time in the Pacific has been cut cruelly short.  The cruising community showed its depth and dozens of offers of support and help flowed in.  Liz opted to leave on another boat heading to Samoa so she could deal with the aftermath with decent internet and telephone facilities (there is nothing in Suwarrow) while Steve stayed on to wait for his friend Franz on Vela to arrive.   A terribly sobering reminder of how things on yachts can, and do, go wrong so very quickly. 

Majestic mantas in Maupiti

Maupiti is the French Polynesian island tourism forgot and it’s all the better for it.  The locals say it was how Bora Bora was 30 years ago – before it was overrun with hotel complexes and tourists.  Such activity was vetoed on Maupiti so there is little development - no  hotels, jet skis, tourist shops, helicopter tours or parasailing operations!  It’s all very villagey with a wonderful laid back feel and a perfect place for us to end our time in French Polynesia.

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Maupiti had always been on our radar but it was totally weather dependent due to its narrow pass which has a fearsome reputation.  If the weather cuts up from the south boats have been known to be trapped there for some days.  With northerlies blowing when we arrived the pass was safe and perfectly straightforward with clear channel markers so we entered and spent three magical days enjoying the island with its beautiful deserted sandy motus and turquoise lagoon.  We’d been told there were no supplies available but given the lush vegetation ashore we couldn’t believe it and sure enough we stumbled across local women selling beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants.  We also filled our backpacks with mangos, papaya and banana and Kiwi friends delivered us a delicious fresh loaf of bread – not a baguette either, but a proper loaf – divine!


Once again the Bandit bikes were dragged out to cycle around the island and what a beautiful ride it was.  At one point the road went up a steep hill so up we biked to enjoy the breath-taking views over the lagoon across to Bora Bora, Raiatea and Taha’a in the east.  After a refreshing glide back down we came across a local wedding and enjoyed watching that before heading on around the island.  Imagine our despair when the road ran out and we were forced to go back up that damned hill again!  We were tired bunnies at the end of the day.



 The highlight of our time was snorkelling with the majestic manta rays.   In Maupiti the mantas hang out at the anchorage in the south so after a few days anchored off the village we headed down.  The water was crystal clear and as we slowly picked our way in through coral heads we could see dark shapes in the water.  We jumped in and were delighted to find about 12 graceful mantas just cruising around – amazing.  We spent about an hour just gliding along with them and again the next day.  A memorable experience.


The weather looked good to head west to Suwarrow so after a wonderful few days we reluctantly upped anchor.  With brisk south easterlies blowing the pass was far more tricky to exit than enter and we were relived to be through and into deep water – these reef entries and exits are hard on the nerves.