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Sunday, September 09, 2012

Niue - The Rock of Polynesia




A few months ago, my friend and travel buddy Daz suggested a trip to Niue.  "Where's that?"  I said.  After the year I've had, I thought it would be good to get away for my birthday.  So the trip was booked.  It was a welcome reprieve as  I've been quite stressed with all the work I've been putting in to expand my well-being centre.  It's been all work work work.  Time to play.

Here are some facts about Niue:

Niue is a tiny island in the South Pacific close to Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. The name Niue means "behold the coconut" because the island has so many coconut trees.  It is the largest uplifted coral atoll in the world - so for that reason Niue doesn't have sandy beaches.  It is otherwise known as The Rock.  It is 250 square kilometres and has a 68km ring road which makes it very easy to get around the whole island.  Niue sits on top of an extinct volcano which has been thrust up 3 times in 25 million  years.  There are billions of litres of fresh clean water in a lens under the limestone cap which makes it safe to drink.  The population is approx. 1,250 consisting of 200 elderly citizens, over 200 pre-schoolers, 400 children in the school system (up to the age of 18), 450 adults in the working age group and 20 members of Parliament which makes it the smallest democracy in the world. 40 years ago Niue's population was approx. 6,500.  There are over 20,000 Niuean people living overseas, mostly in New Zealand and Australia as Niueans are NZ Citizens. Niuean people are quite possibly some of the kindest people on the planet.  It's a very safe country, crime is virtually unheard of.  There's only one airplane in each week flying from Auckland (this is going to change to two per week in 2014).  So you can leave your stuff in your car or on the beach and go off snorkeling and know that it won't get stolen.
Smashing coconuts on the sharp rock

Climbing down into the chasm


My motto for the week was:  "Do something every single day that scares you".  I understand the meaning of that statement after my week in Niue.  Not because Niue was scary, but because there were opportunities to challenge myself each and every single day.   When you feel the fear and do it anyway, you are allowing yourself an opportunity to grow.  You are challenging your limits and stretching your potential.  I thrive on adrenaline.  That's a fact.  My body loves it.  The higher my adrenaline, the better my body seems to function.  I realize that this is not healthy for most people but I've already established that I am not normal.

Up close and personal with a Humpback in Niue
Watching her descend
I wanted to spend my birthday swimming with Humpback whales - the most exhilarating and surreal experience I've ever had.   It took us some time finding the whales that day.  A small part of me would have been happy to just swim with dolphins but I knew I'd be incredibly disappointed if I didn't get my whale experience.  In the morning before we left, I meditated out on the deck at the hotel chanting AUM's to the whales.  There haven't been as many whale sightings this season and of course as they are wild creatures, there are never any guarantees that you'll spot them.  But I was telepathically drawing them in so they could celebrate my birthday with me.  I knew they'd turn up.  We spotted one almost instantly as we set off out into the bay but as soon as we'd figure out where she was, she'd dive down and we'd lose her.  Then she'd surface about 10 minutes later somewhere else.   Our boat slowed down, we cut the engines and it was time to get into the water and wait.  When we slipped in, my heart was pounding in my chest and my head was telling me, "GET BACK IN THE BOAT!"  It was irrational fear because the conditions were perfect.  The water visibility in Niue is about 80 metres which is some of the best visibility in the world.  When  you look down into the deep blue sea, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust.  At first I wasn't sure what I was looking for or where exactly to look.  The sea scares me, there's a lot of scary creatures in there!  I wasn't sure I WANTED to see.  But there I was, focusing my gaze on two massive creatures about 80 metres directly below. My adrenaline started to pump through my veins as my heart pounded. To calm my nerves I hummed a song hoping they might be drawn to the vibration.  It's hard to gauge where they are in relation to you. All I could hear was the sound of my Darth Vader breathing through my snorkel.  I was hovering somewhere above but was I in the right place? Then gracefully they began their ascent just meters in front of me.  It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever watched. I continued to hum (which you'll hear in my video - I didn't actually consciously know I was doing it). There's nothing quite like looking a whale in the eye and humming songs to her.  I felt so tiny out there in the deep blue ocean in that moment.  My own personal connection with a whale.  One of our most misunderstood creatures.  The Humpback whales come to the warm waters of Niue and Tonga to give birth to their calves.  The mother doesn't eat during this time, she feeds her calf to get it as fat and healthy as possible and as a result she loses nearly half of her own body weight.  They will encounter many dangers on the long journey back to the Antarctic.  Their main predators are sharks and many humpback calves don't make it.  The sharks attack their fins so that eventually they are defenseless and unable to swim.  When you are up close to them, you'll see the scars from the attacks they've had to fight.  Rest is crucial to their survival.


Here's my video... just remember about the adrenaline... it's a bit shaky.  You can watch the experience from my eyes.

That's me to the left blowing bubbles.
I'm the one on top with the split fins.








Matapa Chasm - Great snorkeling


























Later that day I went on my first ever night dive.  I conquered more fears - sharks and the dark.  The adrenaline was pumping when I jumped in from the wharf that night.  Once again it was a heart pounding moment with my head telling me not to do it.  The team were phenomenal and once I gave the "ok" under the sea, I knew I was going to be just fine.  I didn't see any sharks that night but maybe that's because I didn't want to see any.  Just navigating around in the dark was enough for me.  The visibility in Niue is incredible, a great spot to attempt a night dive.

The following day I did a double dive at Limu Cavern and the Maze.  It's been a number of years since I did my last dive and I made a promise with myself to get back into it this year.  The feeling of utter peace and calm one feels when diving is inexplicable.  Under the sea you are weightless and the sounds of the ocean are so serene.  It's just the sound of your own breath and if you're lucky you might hear whale song.  Diving is meditation in action. 

Niue was the perfect holiday destination for me.  There was a lot of opportunities to explore and play.  You don't really go to Niue to sit around by the pool. I guess for some people that's what a holiday is, to sit around a pool drinking cocktails and relaxing with a book.  But I have that life in New Zealand.  I love exploring and meeting the locals and learning about the culture.  Niue is all about raw beauty.  The rugged landscape make for interesting treks and the coral chasms make for hours and hours of snorkeling exploration.  It's hard to choose a favourite spot because they're all special.

The rugged landscape at Togo Chasm. 
My new Czech friends
We spent the week exploring this amazing giant fossil.  It was a tough choice whether to dive or snorkel all day.  Snorkeling is free but diving is second to none.  So I decided to go out on 4 dives and one swim with the whales.  The rest of the time was for hiking and snorkeling.  Time went fast!  One week was not enough for this beautiful tropical paradise.  You need at least 10 days, but even our friends who stayed for 2 weeks said it wasn't long enough.  It's so easy to navigate around the country and to meet friendly people who are happy to go wherever you want to go.

Looking down into Avaiki from the cliff
Avaiki Cathedral
Daz and the Blue Flame
 It is so friendly in fact that we even considered hitch hiking rather than renting a car - only because it was such a great way to meet others!  On our third day, as we were walking to church, a lovely couple from the Czech Republic stopped to ask if we wanted a ride.  They were perhaps the nicest people I have EVER met.  There is something so incredibly special about them, they have good energy and are just very good people, they emit goodness and graciousness and they attract it in return.    After church they drove us back to the hotel so we could change and pick up our snorkel gear and then dropped us off at Avatele.  A few hours later they came back to pick us up and we all went up to Limu Pools.  They were happy to chauffeur us anywhere we wanted to go.  They'd already spent a week on the island and had seen everything and I think they just liked our company.  We didn't want to take advantage of their kindness so ended up renting a little Blue Starlet which we affectionately called "The Blue Flame".  The boot rattled when we drove, the paint was peeling but it was great on petrol, was quite zippy to drive and it had working A/C and even electric windows!  We were determined to ride our bikes around the island but the Blue Flame helped us get around much quicker. An even cheaper option would be to rent a motorbike.  I'd do that if I was traveling alone.

Coconut crabs bound up ready to buy
We got up EARLY to get to the local market in Alofi by 5am on Tuesday and Friday.  There was a lady there who sells the most delicious banana bread,  it's worth the early rise.  You can find fresh bananas, paw paws (papaya) and handmade crafts.  You can also buy a coconut crab if you wish to eat this beautiful creature. There was a coconut crab night (also called Uga Crabs) at our resort and I decided to try it.  I felt pretty guilty about it.  It was something to try but to be honest, I'd never do it again.  They were tricky to eat, similar to lobster, and not a heck of a lot of meat.  I think they should be admired, not eaten.

There are no cows, sheep or goats on the island so all milk and red meat is imported from New Zealand.

There are chickens everywhere and I was amazed that the dogs and the cats don't chase them (or each other for that matter) constantly.  Even the animals were laid back and chilled out!

Congratulating the achievers at Niue Primary
The outstanding students of the week

And finally, on the day we were leaving we dropped in at the Primary School for their Friday morning open assembly.  A personal experience for me because there are Canadian flags painted all over the school property.  The Niueans are grateful for the financial help the Canadian government sent after the cyclone in 2004.  It's great to see old fashioned values still being taught in school.  The children sang and performed with their ukelele's (which you can watch in my video).  I brought some little items for some of the children which I passed on to the school principal Itzy (her name).  I was so taken by the school that I asked Itzy if I could send something every month for a special student who achieves high marks.  She invited me to speak to the children and asked me to hand out the certificates of achievement for the week.  I was honored.  It was such a simple thing to do but one of the highlights of my week.

I'm homesick for the place.  By the end of the trip, I got to know so many people.  Because it's such a small place with only one flight per week, you really get to know people and it begins to feel like a little holiday family.  Every evening at dinner people stop to ask how your day was and what you got up to.  The only thing that took the sting out of leaving was knowing that there would be so many new "friends" on the airplane traveling back to NZ.  I happened to sit next to a woman who owns a Vanilla Plantation on Niue.  She was traveling to Wellington for a conference.  We got to talking about the art of growing vanilla and I was fascinated!  It's painstakingly precise.  She told me how she hand pollinates each flower!  Then she told me how she has a special way to dry out each vanilla pod.  However she does it, she is the main exporter of vanilla from Niue to all around the world.  It takes 5 years for the plants to mature and after the cyclone in 2004, she had to start all over from scratch.  But this is her passion, she loves it.  This is why her vanilla is so good.  It's grown out of love.  By the end of the 3 hour flight back to Auckland, I'd adopted her and she had offered me a job on her vanilla farm.  So who knows?  Perhaps one day I'll be traveling back and forth growing and harvesting vanilla.  Crazier things have happened in my life.

Niue is well worth a trip. If you love camping, seafood and trying new and different cuisine, diving and snorkeling, want to get to know the locals and hate constantly complaining tourists then you won't be disappointed with Niue. If you require luxury, pampering, getting waited on hand and foot, big buffet dinners with Western food and lying on sandy beaches baking in the sun then this is not the holiday destination for you.

If you decide to go, let me know and I'll give you some ideas of what to take with you, who to contact  and what to see while you're there.  If you don't want to travel alone, I think I can be easily convinced to be a travel companion.  :)  Leave a message and let me know when you want to go!

Fakaaue lahi mahaki.
Niuean Sunset from Matavai Resort

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