Niue Adventures: Part 1 – Paradise, Lost?

Since the cancellation of this year’s Ancestral Health Symposium in the U.S. Jamie and I decided to go crazy and actually take a holiday. Something warm in the Pacific beckoned but we weren’t keen to join the brigade of pasty NZ and Aussie tourists resembling beached whales on the shores and pool bars of Fiji and Indonesia. So we went to Niue, a tiny island 11 degrees south of the Equator.

South Pacific

This isn’t going to be a traditional travel post (or, as I suspect, posts) and if you are after some advice on tours and attractions, I will leave a few reviews on TripAdvisor. While we enjoyed the R&R we turned out to be quite incapable of turning off the “health professional” part of our brain. In a sense, we were given a unique snapshot of what happens when a traditional culture encounters Western influence and the resulting positive and negative outcomes, and we absolutely relished that opportunity to sink our teeth into the remaining cultural knowledge.

Disclaimer: these articles are based on our impression over the course of one week. There is a good chance a bunch of our observations are totally off the mark. We tried to supplement them with the knowledge from the locals and a bit of independent online research. I am sure there are gaps and misinterpretations but we shall try to keen those to a minimum. I also hope that our impressions of Niuean traditional culture will be seen as respectful and considerate, as they were sincerely meant.

A bit of background…

Niue is a rock in the ocean and is actually frequently referred to as The Rock by the locals. This coral atoll was thrust up above sea level by a combination of volcanic and tectonic forces and has a fascinating geology with razor sharp limestone cliffs on the coast, central plateau (presumably an ex-volcanic crater), spectacular limestone caves, radioactive soils containing aluminium and mercury (yikes? however, according to Wikipedia, unlikely to cause major health effects in population – hmmm) and a shallow surrounding coral reef shelf – a major diving, fishing, and snorkelling attraction for tourists.

Tradewind side: poor soils and rough terrain. Spot the path.
Tradewind side: poor soils and rough terrain. Spot the path.
Talava arches in the West: tidal reefs, shellfish hunting grounds
Talava arches in the West: tidal reefs, shellfish hunting grounds
Spectacular limestones caves
Spectacular limestones caves

It was first settled by Tongans in 900 then Samoans in 1400. For many centuries Niue did not have a central government or, seemingly, a strong national identity, with the majority of the island’s population living in villages governed by influential families, and reportedly perpetually at war with each other. It was annexed by New Zealand in 1901 and remained so until 1974 when Niue became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand. Niueans are officially New Zealand citizens and New Zealand provides aid to the extent of 14 million dollars annually.

The People

I know it’s typical to hear this about a Pacific island but everyone was really friendly. There was a quaint custom to wave at everybody on the road whether in cars, or passing houses, or pedestrians (not many of those, as I will explain later). We were trying to constrain our inquisitiveness but still ended up pumping questioning many locals for information about the island. They were only too happy to chat. Many thanks for your time and conversation, Commodore Keith, who took us on a fantastic orientation tour the day after we arrived, our helpful hosts Teressa and Bryan at Namukulu Cottages, and Mark Blumsky, the former Mayor of Wellington and NZ High Commissioner who moved to Niue and managed a lovely café with real coffee (!) among his many other business ventures.

There were 2 interactions with local Niuean people which left an especially deep impression. First is Misa, a 66 year old Niuean man who generously shared his knowledge of ancestral bushcraft with a couple who he deemed “too young to be inquisitive about this sort of stuff”. We were blown away with his description of what life was like in Niue in the 1950s: a hole in the ground for a dwelling, bush medicine, hunting for native birds (a dangerous occupation for little reward; Niuean pigeon is significantly smaller than NZ Kereru), slash’n’burn style of agriculture (Misa shook his head in shame describing the widespread clearing of land), and the devastating cyclones of 1959 and 1960. We are incredibly grateful to Misa for the experience and only hope that he will continue to pass on his knowledge to the new generation of Niueans.

Misa making traditional rope
Misa making traditional rope
A typical dwelling prior to
A typical dwelling prior to “hurricane housing” in 1960: a hole in the ground, protected by palm leaves. Misa grew up in one of these!
Jamie picking up some bush skills
Jamie picking up some bush skills

Another memorable experience was traditional umu (earth oven) feast preparation with a Niuean couple, Chamberlin and Amanda. In the course of husking coconuts (bloody hard work), grating coconuts, squeezing coconuts, arranging taro and papaya in layers for a local takihi dish, wrapping fish and taro in banana leaves, and other umu preparation rituals, we managed to cover all topics from the viability of Niuean language to soft drinks, from car-dominant transport culture to why locals don’t eat local chickens. While umu was cooking Chamberlin took us on a walk to the reef to see Talava arches and a secret swimming waterhole unknown (and unaccessible!) to most tourists. Returning from the walk to start pulling the food out of the oven, eating off traditional woven plates that Amanda casually prepared while we walked, and sampling delicious food was incredibly rewarding. Chamberlin and Amanda gave us half of their Saturday and were incredibly gracious and generous hosts.

Shredding coconuts: a lot harder than opening a packet.
Shredding coconuts: a lot harder than opening a packet.
The fish with fern leaves about to be wrapped up in a banana leaf
The fish with fern leaves about to be wrapped up in a banana leaf
Packing the umu. They didn't used to use foil in the olden days...
Packing the umu. They didn’t used to use foil in the olden days…
Umu is served: takihi, taro, fish, pork, shells
Umu is served: takihi, taro, fish, pork, shells

To be continued…

Niue Adventures: Part 2. Traditional Food

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