By Dave Moran
The flaming orange sunset silhouetted the South Pacific Sunrise as she lay at anchor off Sir Robertâs Wharf in Niueâs Alofi Harbour. The ocean passage from Beveridge Reef had been calm and peaceful. Now it was time to unload our gear and experience the hospitality of the biggest resort in the South Pacific: Niue Island.
I first experienced Niue in June 1996, and it blew me away (see issue #35, August/September 1996). It was pleasing to see that little had changed in the past two years. The pace of life is still tranquil, the people open and friendly. We were booked into the Matavai Resort, which had been under construction during my previous visit. Congratulations must go to the architects and builders of this five-star resort in such a remote corner of the Pacific – 2,400 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, on the other side of the international date line at latitude 19Â° south. The Matavai has been chiselled out of the coral limestone rock that was thrust out of the central Pacific Ocean in prehistoric times, pushing Niueâs 259 square kilometres of limestone rock 70 metres above the ocean waves. Its nearest neighbour, Tonga, is 380 kilometres to the west.
From the resortâs enormous deck and the two freshwater pools that straddle and burrow into neighbouring coral cliffs, you are exposed to an uninterrupted 180Â° view of the fringing reef and the open ocean. No other manmade structure is noticeable – the only life is on the water. The resortâs panoramic menu of water life on any one day might feature Niueans fishing from traditional wood-hewn canoes, the gymnastics of spinner dolphins, or the protruding neck of an inquisitive turtle. From June to November the waters glisten and foam as the singing humpback whales break the South Pacificâs ocean silence. Many a diver has experienced the absolute awe of swimming with these migrating families as they visit Niue on their way back from R&R in the Antarctic. I had to chuckle as Kevin Fawcett of Niue Dive related his annoyance at being woken during the night by the huffing and puffing of whales below his clifftop residence – oh, to be so lucky!
Kevin and his wife Carrie are members of the PADI International Resort Association. Niue Dive operates two RIBs, a seven metre powered by two 80HP outboards and a 4.8 metre powered by a 40HP outboard. They provide PADI training up to Divemaster, although you need to book in advance to ensure that your stay on Niue is long enough to complete the course. Resort certification is not a problem. When diving with Niue Dive you can hire any equipment you require.
I love diving in the tropics. Besides all the usual advantages, such as not having to clamber into a restrictive rubber encasement, every time you dangle your toe in the water there is a feeling of excitement and anticipation amongst the group of divers, which adds the spice of adventure to the dive being contemplated. When youâre diving on an underwater mountain-top in water that is as clear as the outer reaches of space, you never really know what might be passing by.
The parallel lines of gorgonian fans stretched into the mists of the deep water below. We were at 40 metres off Tepa Point. The subdued sunlight from above was stabbed by the flash of camera strobes, splashing the two-metre high lace tapestry with interwoven threads of magnificent yellow and orange fans. The ideal time to dive these fans is in the morning or afternoon, to trap the sunâs rays at the perfect angle for silhouetting hovering divers framed in the vastness of the 50 metre visibility.
Niue must have the cutest, most fearless, couldnât-care-less banded sea snakes (Laticauda colubrina) in the world. Even Captain Cook would have been impressed if he had seen them in 1744, when he sailed away after three attempts to make contact with the inhabitants, whom he described as having âthe ferocity of wild boars.â Niue seasnakes have the ferocity of wild mice! Snake Gully, just out from the Avatele Wharf where Kevin launches his RIBs, is home for hundreds of these graceful swimming creatures. Sleeping is a favourite pastime of theirs, or just hanging out all tied up with your mates. Many nooks and crannies resemble a black and silver bowl of wet spaghetti. Itâs hard to work out whose tail belongs to who! For the photographer, this snake pit is an absolute delight, as the snakes show no aggression and can be photographed from any angle the photographer desires. While diving Snake Gully, however, keep an eye out for the tricky ribbon eels and families of lionfish, for they also call this place home.
Kevin has established numerous dive locations along the western side of the island. The grotto-pitted cliffs continue their honeycomb network of caves and crevices below the reef edge. One such dive that allows you to explore these systems at a depth that is unaffected by the wave action above is The Chimney, just below the Namakula Motel which is owned by New Zealanders Robyn and Joe Wright. Twin interconnecting stacks ascend from 23 metres to just a few metres below the surface. When the sun is at its zenith is the best time to dive the site if you wish to capture your dive buddy silhouetted or lit by the sunâs rays. The blackness of the stack sides acts as the perfect frame for that prizewinning photo. The Toilet Bowl also sounds like an interesting dive. Kevin assures me it has nothing to do with drinking too much red wine the night before. Iâll have to check this dive on my next visit to Niue.
Once the diving is done, or if you just need a day to dry out, check out the many shore activities. If a game of golf is a little too relaxing, or mountain biking a little too energetic, grab some old clothing and go caving with ever-smiling Tali, of Tali Tours. As we did back in 1996, itâs a great way to learn about the early culture and lifestyles of the early Niueans. On this visit we went on the bush tour with Misa to learn more about how Niueans lived off the land. Misaâs family had nurtured their land and the food it provided for many generations. Misa is obviously proud of his heritage. He longs for the uncomplicated way of living in a perfect handshake with Mother Nature – a life that holds a balance between Godâs greatest hunter, man, and the fragility of the birds of the bush.
Misa showed us how they built small rock cave traps for catching the coconut crab, and the very cunning method of capturing small birds by attracting them to feed from a hole cut in a pawpaw. When the bird finished feeding and withdrew its head, a twine noose captured its neck feathers. Besides food, the forest provided the building materials for homes and meeting houses, and supple timber for fishing rods. The ways of the past were many, and I encourage you to experience this journey back in time, with this bare-footed bear of a man whose heart is firmly held by his beloved Niue. If you get lost on Niue, you donât need a compass – all the large trees that have crashed earthwards into the undergrowth point south, as the hurricanes all come from the north!
Legend tells us that the name Niue is derived from the words âKoe Niueâ, which meant the two coconuts that were given by a king from a faraway land to two early adventurers who planted them on Niue to provide everlasting sustenance to its people. Time has changed traditions, and the majority of Niueans now live in New Zealand and Australia. The 2,000 remaining residents cling precariously to their past and to their future. Niue gained independence in 1974 in free association with New Zealand. The Niue government is strongly determined to maintain their cultural links with their past, while carefully accepting some of the benefits of the modern world. I am sure if I return to Niue in 20 years, I will find little has changed. I hope that is how it remains – not too dominated by western culture. For me, and for visitors to Niue, the Niuean culture and way of life is just fine the way it is.