Thursday, August 28, 2008

Behold! The coconut!

The name ‘Niue’ translates as ‘Behold! The coconut!’, a reference to the fact that this rocky island could sustain the coconut palm, thereby making it a land worth inhabiting. Polynesians benefit immensely from this plant and have ingeniously evolved innumerable uses of it.  As stated in our previous log, Niue is basically one large limestone and coral rock and it is commonly called The Rock.

Unlike its neighbors Nuie avoided adapting the traditional Polynesian power hierarchy of priests and chiefs; and instead, relied on family or clan based units united under a ‘democratically’ elected monarch. This made Niueans very independent, both of each other and from their neighbors, and they remain so today.  Remember, smallest independently governed country in the world – except they can only survive with about NZ$5,000,000 annual contribution from New Zealand

We rented a car one day and visited several points of interest around the island.  During this excursion we also noted the extremely high number of abandoned homes dotting the island.  We drove through one village where only 2 of the first 13 homes were occupied; the rest were abandoned.  You can’t blame these people for leaving their homeland and going to New Zealand in search of jobs.  There are almost no jobs available on Niue except employment in the government sector.  There are very, very few businesses or open restaurants on this island.
We think that the final blow to the inhabitants of Niue was when the island was struck by Typhoon or Tropical Cyclone Heta on January 6, 2004.  Heta was either a cat 4 or cat 5 when she struck Niue.  Because of the intensity of this storm there was a tremendous storm surge that caused very significant destruction on Niue.  One woman and her baby were killed when the storm surge suddenly rose more than 40 feet up the steep-walled western coast.  The sea actually came inward on the island for a distance of 275 feet.  If you could see how high up the coast is from the sea on a normal day, you would realize just how extreme this cyclone must have been.  Heta really wreaked havoc on this island and we think a lot of the residents looked at the destruction and decided, “why rebuild?” and moved away to New Zealand to start a new life.  The population today is estimated to be down to about 1350 inhabitants.  The population is shrinking rapidly.  It is sad to see the island dying off. 

First on our self-guided island tour was Togo Chasm.  This is pronounced “ton-goh” with the emphasis on the first syllable.  I do not know what causes some Polynesian words to include the “N” sound when the word contains no “N.”  The town of Pago Pago in Samoa is one of these words.  It is pronounced Pan-goh Pan-goh for some reason.  Wish I knew more about Polynesian phonetics.  Our Polynesian phrasebook does not elaborate on phonetics.

Let us continue on with the description of our tour.  The paved road ended and became a rutted sand road several miles before reaching the walking path to Togo Chasm.  First there is a long walk through the forest.  The forest floor is covered with very thin soil and sharp jagged limestone sticks up everywhere.  It felt sharp even through our hiking shoes.  The odd thing was that there were thousands and thousands of bromeliads growing straight out of the limestone, with no soil at all.  I know that bromeliads obtain nutrients from the air, but it still looked strange to see huge healthy plants growing straight out of rough stone.

The trail exited the forest and we beheld a large field of tall limestone peaks in all directions, some 20-feet high, all the way to the drop-off down to the ocean.  Someone had used concrete to make a very narrow path through and over the jagged sharp limestone peaks.  They had also installed poles and hand ropes in the most dangerous areas.  It was quite a hike across and down the limestone and I cannot imagine how anyone possibly got through this area without that concrete pathway.  Seems like you would be cut to pieces.

As we neared the drop-off down to the ocean, the path did a sharp double U-turn and changed into a sand pathway.   At the end of the sand path we found a very tall ladder leading down to a pretty pocket beach filled with palm trees.  Bill climbed down the ladder to check it out, but my legs were already quivering from the strenuous walk across the limestone and I opted not to climb down to the pretty little sandy spit surrounded by high stone.  I fell and hurt my knee when we were at Ahe in the Tuamotos 2/12 months ago and am still having lots of knee pain.  So this walk was stretching my physical limits.  Bill took a few photos and we reversed and hiked back out of there.  We had been complaining to each other that we needed to get off the boat more often and get more exercise.  Today we got all the exercise we could have wanted.

We checked the map and decided not to continue farther northward on the eastern road since we did not know if it became paved again or if it remained unpaved sand all the way up the eastern coast.  We located the only road that crosses the island and made our way back to the main town of Alofi and headed north up the western coast.  There are a half-dozen caves along this coast and we wanted to check out a few of them.  Until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the mid 1800’s, Niuean lived within the many caves found around the island, most along the shoreline.  

Palava Cave is a double-decker.  It is actually a 2-story cave, with the larger lower cave opening right out onto the sea.  If you had to live in a cave, this one would be perfect.  We wanted to visit the double arches and the cave near the arches, but it was too long a walk after having already hiked the Togo Chasm.  So we missed out on the arches but here is a link to some photos on the Nuie tourism website:

We also visited the New Zealand High Council to apply for 6-month multi-entry visas.  Our guide books state that this visa should be obtained before arriving in New Zealand.  As US citizens we can arrive in New Zealand without this visa and then deal with extensions, but it is supposed to simplify things and be less costly if you obtain this visa prior to arrival in New Zealand.  We are supposed to return and pick-up our passports (hopefully with the visas enclosed) this afternoon. 

Heavy weather is predicted to start arriving in the area on Saturday afternoon and winds to 30 knots are predicted through Tuesday; so we hope that our passports and visas are ready this afternoon so we can depart very early tomorrow morning.  The passage to Vava’U Group of Tonga is about 247 miles.  If we depart Niue by 0500 Friday morning then we should arrive in Vava’U around noon to 1400 on Saturday, which will actually be Sunday.  We cross the dateline when entering Tonga so we jump forward one day.

Internet access in Tonga is limited so do not be alarmed if we do not update often.

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