Saturday, October 08, 2011

Niue - The South Pacific: The Dolphin Chase

It began with a map, a postage stamp and a strange story.

Several years ago, I became fascinated with maps. I used to walk into Travel shops to gaze on their Wall maps. What attracted me especially were the small remote islands scattered predominantly in the South Pacific. When I was a child I would watch the old Jacques Cousteau and WW2 Pacific documentaries - and that area has fascinated me for the longest time.

With names like Bora Bora, Tahiti, Glibert Ellice islands, Phoenix Island, Truk, Caroline, Palau, etc.. my mind would wonder over these tiny specks of sand and coral.

What would I see there? Would I find magnificent sea creatures? Perhaps a hidden (abandoned) naval base? Or uncover some other beautiful object not seen by human eyes? (I'd also settle for a gorgeous Pacific Island mermaid...)

I also noticed that the International Dateline cut across the Pacific Ocean like a child's pencil mark. And due to that quaint artificial construct, we have on one side one day, ie. "Sunday 20th September", and on the right side of the line, the last day ie "Saturday, 19th September". So in a manner of speaking, if you travel Eastward far enough you'll be heading West!!!

And there was this island called Niue (spelt New-Ay) which was sitting right on that side of the Dateline.

(I also started collecting stamps a few years ago and found that Niue also produced some of the most beautiful stamps in the 1950s -1960s. I kept them as reminders that i had to travel to this place one day.)

And thus: To get there, you fly from Auckland on Saturday morning - cross the ID line - and land a few hours later on FRIDAY lunchtime. Congratulations you've just gone back in time!!!!

Wow, the thought amused me so much that I had to tell as many people as I could about it - boring many of them to distraction no doubt. But the idea also bemused my friend Spencer so much that he caught the fever too. And he then read up on it and found that it had 80m water visibility and humpback whales frequented the bay from July to September. There was also schools of dolphin to be found and incredible limestone caves above and below the sea.

Whales! We get to swim with HUMPBACK WHALES!!!!

Damn we had to go.

I found that its relatively "cheaper" to get there from Melbourne. Fly Air New Zealand to Auckland - then to catch (the one and only) flight on Saturday morning to the place. By-force you have to stay there for one week until the next plane arrives next Friday... so that you can fly back to Auckland on Saturday. Got it???

Niue is a coral island - its foundation are ancient coral reefs now dead. Only a small layer is top soil - which accounts for the exceptional water visibility (no soil erosion runoff)

The small nation is still recovering from a cyclone which not only leveled parts of the island but also destroyed its coral reefs. Its making a comeback - and you'll see plenty of table top corals, mostly hard corals... and the sort of marine fish life you see at Dayang, Maldives, Manado, but not in great numbers. You probably can see more fish further out in the blue - the fishermen hunt for Wahoo and the other bigger fish in the deeper waters. But we didn't dive there.

The divemaster pointed out nudibranches and moray eels for me to see - but frankly, its was the common stuff we find in the Malayan Archipelago, and I gave them only cursory glances. The corals are mainly hard corals. I saw practically no soft corals at all. Fish life wasn't that abundant as in Raja Ampat or Komodo or Sipadan. I briefly glimpsed a shark, a turtle... ho hum.

The weather has carved out a series of spectacular limestone formations on its coastline. They look gothic looking. There are arches, lookouts, cave with cathedral ceilings, rock pools. Some of the caves are so huge you could fit a WW2 Japanese submarine inside or a scout biplane complete with crane and docking facilities. That would have been awesome to see.

Due to a storm, we did not witness the breathtaking 80 metres visibility underwater. I'd say its more like 30m on our diving days. One dive group saw a Manta Ray sailing by gobbling up plankton. Our group saw nothing of that kind.

Nonetheless the diving experience was still very good. Jumping into that clear sea water and swimming around is still an amazing experience. In the water I cannot sin. I am at one with the ocean. And I am at peace with God. I tumble down into the ocean depths, baptized yet again by the Neptune's hand. My troubles, my fears are forgotten, beneath the blue azure sea.

On land, there were a couple of subterranean passageways that took you to underwater caves where you could snorkel through - but the guide was on holiday and so we did not go. We did climb down one of the labyrinthine staircase which led to a natural vault with a freshwater stream. It was really amazing to see. Truly.

But honestly what I really came for was to dive with whales, big freaking humpback whales. And there were none to see. Unfortunately the whale season ended earlier than expected. A big herd of them came to the bay in late August, early September. One dive group did see a mother and calf on Monday but we weren't with that group unfortunately. I felt like a child who goes to Disneyland but didn't get to go on any of the rides; I was that keyed up, my bad.

We went in the last week of September - but by then the whale sightings had been so subdued that the Dive Operator had cancelled all the whale "hunting" expeditions. If I went back I'd go smack in the middle of the season in August to get a better chance of more whale encounters.

I did manage to swim with the dolphins on three separate trips. On route to the dives the boat might chance upon the dolphins and the divers would get into the water and hang onto the zodiac speedboat while it followed the dolphins. The ones I met were a school or rather a nursery of dolphins, roughly 10 adults and their calves, protected by 2 adult dolphins acted as a decoy group. They were shy though and would swim away from the boat upon being sighted. I wish we had something to feed them to make them stay. It wasn't easy holding onto the speedboat rail rope as it moved with speed.

Accommodation was fairly cheap - roughly NZ$100 a day to rent an entire self-contained bungalow at Lanutahi. It had cable TV, a living room, a kitchen, fridge, cooking utensils, hot water and a personal organic alarm clock, ie. the wild rooster(s) that start croaking at 6am. They woke me up a few times and I went out to greet them with a couple of coral rocks.

Anyway its good to wake up early. The diving started at 7.45am (due to the lack of whales). There were only two dives a day. No night dives. The water temperature was about 26C. I'd recommend a 7mm wetsuit if you have one. I had a 3mm/5mm wetsuit and that was OK.

There is only one dive shop on the island - run by Annie and Ian Gray who are the most nicest of people. Google "Niue Dive". The divers are split up to two or three zodiac dive boats and often go to separate locations. If one of the boat sights a whale or a school of dolphins, the DM radios the information to the other boats. Radio transmission was patchy which made it difficult for the dive boats to communicate.

There are a few grocery shops on the island - and they sell quite a few things, including frozen pork ribs, beef mince, very very delicious NZ apples (which I'm still thinking about), Kikkoman soya sauce, (sadly, no wasbi) etc.. If you want a coconut drink, just pluck one from the nearest tree and borrow a parang to hack the top off and drink the water. You won't find anyone selling it cut though. Paw Paw also grows wild on the island - eat it with fresh lime and you'll think you're in paradise.

If you do intend to bring some food into Niue - just make sure that it is packaged together with your check-in luggage. Air NZ the only carrier into the country only allows ONE check-in luggage. You have to pay $75+ for every additional piece, even if it comes within your permitted 23kg amount.

If I'm going back there again - I would buy my groceries from New Zealand - stuff like fresh mushrooms, dried herbs, earl gray tea bags, and spices, fresh lime, pasta, jelly beans, shortbread biscuits, ... mainly small small stuff easy to carry, not fragile. You cannot bring fresh fruit into New Zealand - to do so would risk a hefty fine.

Israel Mart stocks the most wonderful ice-creams (Movenpick) - it was creamy, fresh (no doughy or icey texture) and for $2 a scoop- I thought it was one of the best treats on the island. I had at least 4 everyday. I swear it was one of the best ice-creams I have ever had before in my life.

They also stock fresh fish caught on the day - including Wahoo and Mahi-Mahi (Coryphaena hippurus). Pretty good, but you had to descale it. I took the expeditious route by (descaling most of the scales then) slicing off the skin - and frying the skin to a crisp.

Great ice-cream and fresh ocean fish... yum!!!!

Niue is a rather sedentary place. Most shops close by 5pm. And on Sunday everyone goes to church or stays at home - even the Radio Station shuts shop. Scuba diving and most active sports are forbidden on Sabbath.

One thing you do notice is the number of wild chickens running all over the island. Other nations have seagulls and pigeons- Niue has chickens. I just couldn't understand it. Why weren't they caught and housed? But the people there seem to prefer to import their eggs and chicken from New Zealand, strangely enough.

The other thing that caught my eye was the number of abandoned buildings and homes - there must be been hundreds of these derelict structures, some quite substantial buildings made out of brick, carved limestone, others made of corrugated iron or wood - all of them all slowly rotting away in the warm climate, eaten by the jungle. You would have thought that the land and house would have been auctioned off to be made into something more productive than an awful testimony to the number of Niueans leaving the country by plane, boat or death.

And the other thing you will notice are the number of graves scattered around the island. Niue does not have a public cemetery, instead the people are buried on their property - which might seem a quaint idea but it does lends an unsettling look to the place.

It seems that most of the island is uninhabited. You'll find wild paw-paws (unsweet papayas) growing wild in various places. It all looks like a scene out of the TV series, LOST. Drive around long enough and you'll come across the Dharma Initiative village I bet.

Niue has a great deal of trade-protection - the Movenpick ice-cream man told me that his import tax is 40%. But this does not stop Niue from relying on foreign aid from New Zealand though. Foreigners are not allowed to purchase property on the island - and even the long abandoned buildings are protected, in the hopes that their residents whether dead or alive will return to claim their ancestral homes. Many islanders have left- seeking employment in New Zealand. The NZ ambassador has a really nice house on the island - great life too - he spends most of his time playing golf.

Postscript: When I got back to Victoria, I went to Westfield Doncaster to try the Movenpick ice-cream being sold there - it tasted horrible, it tasted like dough mixed with lard. So disappointed. I guess I have to fly back to Niue to try their ice-cream again! :)