Friday, September 6, 2013

Alofi, Niue

The mooring field in Alofi, Niue.
On Thursday, August 22nd, we picked up our anchors and left Aitutaki heading for Niue. The weather window was favorable and while we enjoyed our stay in Aitutaki, it was time to move on.  The passage from the Cook Islands to Niue was decent, meaning that we didn't encounter any major squalls (or as I like to call them...bonus bathing opportunities) and the winds were from a direction that allowed us to sail some of the time.  Calico Jack also picked up their anchors and we buddy boated most of the way to Niue.  Throughout the passage we were pretty much in radio contact and when we finally reached Niue on the morning of August 27th, they chose the southern approach to the island while Osprey took the northern route.  The distances were comparable and we both reached the anchorage at roughly the same time.

Customs and immigration met us the next day and we cleared into Niue without any problems, adding yet another passport stamp to our growing collection.  With customs cleared, we were ready to explore and started at the Niue Visitors' Centre where we were able to begin exploring Alofi.

Niue is the world's largest uplifted coral block and is nicknamed "the Rock" for obvious reasons.  The entire island is a giant limestone chunk and the shoreline is inundated with caves, some of which are exposed at all times and others are only exposed at low tide.   But the first thing I had to do was get myself a Niuean driver's license.  Luckily, there was no driving test involved because I was a little intimidated about the possibility of having to not only remember to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, but also to negotiate a manual transmission which would have required me to shift with my left hand.  When we got our rental car I was relieved to see that it was an automatic transmission, alleviating at least one of my concerns about driving in Niue.

Traditional Niuean dancing after our Niuean Feast.
While we were at the Niue Visitors' Centre we made reservations to attend a local Niuean island night with the crew of Calico Jack.  The walk to the family run restaurant took 30 minutes and when we got there we found a full bar and the the family setting out platters and platters of traditional Niuean food, including uga, the most coveted coconut crab.  Uga is a terrestrial crab that lives on a diet mostly of coconuts.  The meat is very sweet and quite different from the dungeness crab that we are used to and in abundance in our corner of the world back in the Pacific Northwest.  In addition to the uga, there was the Niuean version of poisson cru (raw fish marinated in coconut milk), pork sausage and spinach, a couple of different curries, traditional salads and other tasty treats.  After dinner, the owner (Talo) and her daughter performed traditional Niuean dances for the diners.  All in all it was a perfect dinner with great food, good company and traditional entertainment.

The coral reef off the mooring field in Alofi, Niue.
Our first snorkeling was right off of the mooring field.  We took the dinghy to the end of the field, tied it up to a mooring ball and then swam towards shore in about 80 feet of crystal clear water.  Closer to shore, we were surrounded by coral islands, chasms, and an abundance of sea life.  Our first encounter with sea snakes was a surprise; these highly venomous sea snakes actually have to swim to the surface to breathe air and then they can return to foraging for small crustaceans and fish on the bottom.  We made sure to keep our distance but the most important lesson was this:  When snorkeling, you are usually looking straight down towards the bottom, where all the action is, and not really paying attention to the surface.  I quickly learned that when highly venomous sea snakes are swimming around you it's a good idea to keep your eyes constantly scanning your surroundings, lest you inadvertently find yourself bumping into a sea snake.  And even though the guidebooks say that you practically have to stick your finger down their throats in order to get bitten, I decided to err on the safe side and informed Richard that I would not be sticking my fingers down any sea snakes' throats. 

The next day we picked up our rental car and started touring the island.  The weather, however, was not very cooperative as it felt as though we were hiking in a typhoon. While in the Marquesas, Sarah of Kyanos, coined the term "swiking" which describes hiking through torrential downpours (it's actually a combination of swimming + hiking = swiking). We're still waiting to see if Merriam Webster will accept "swiking" into the English nomenclature.

Our first stop was Togo Chasm on the eastern shore of the island.  The chasm is located near the shore and it's a relatively short hike through the forest to the beginning of a moon-like terrain complete with limestone pinnacles punctuated with tropical vegetation.  Once you get close top the shore, there is a turnoff that leads to a ladder that goes down about 30 feet to the actual chasm.  The chasm is a long, narrow track of land that looks somewhat like a beach, complete with sand and coconut trees, with towering limestone walls on either side.  We explored the chasm and then headed towards the shore where we climbed through a small cave that opened up to the roaring coast.  The tidal surge was immense and at one point I was standing on a limestone block watching the waves crash through an opening in the cave.  The only problem was that I misjudged the force of the wave and before I knew it, the wave had raced through the cave and threatened to sweep me away!  I quickly looked around me and noticed that there were no hand holds to be found so I hunkered down, expecting the worst.  The wave reached me and with a considerable amount of surge, swept past my feet, about half way up my shins (see video above).  I turned to look at Richard who was quietly motioning for me to return to the safety of the cave entrance...good advice.

We trekked back to the rental car and headed along the coastal road to our next stop, hoping to find a place to have lunch.  At this point it was still raining hard.  We arrived at the Tavala Arches and waited in the car for the rain to subside, but this never happened. So we ate our lunch in the car and decided to call it a day and return the next day to visit the natural arches, caves, and snorkeling pools.

The Tavala Arches at low tide on the northwest coast of Niue.
The next day, we got an early start and headed north towards the Talava Arches and Matapa Chasm.  The arches were spectacular!  You start by hiking through a forest (and we were hiking this day and not swiking), then you climb into an immense cave complete with stalagmites and stalactites.  The cave opens up to the coast and the coral reef is dotted with small pools cut into the limestone and mini-chasms that are surprisingly deep considering how close to shore they are and depending on how much tide is running over them.  We could have spent an entire day here exploring all the various caves and snorkeling pools, but decided to go and check out the Matapa Chasm where we could snorkel.

Crystal clear waters in Niue.
Now, it should be mentioned that when you are snorkeling in Niue, rainwater that runs off of the island, and through the limestone that comprises the island, enters the coastal waters and is much cooler than the seawater surrounding the island.  In addition, the waters are crystal clear, but the top few feet of freshwater have a shimmering effect that actually makes visibility a little less than perfect.  And did I mention that the fresh water is cold?  I found myself doing more free diving, trying to get below the fresh water in search of the warmer seawater.  This was especially evident when we were snorkeling in the Matapa Chasm.  The chasm was about 20 feet deep, 100 feet long and 30 feet wide and the top few feet of runoff were cold.  But being the trooper than I am, I braved the cold and dove deep and was rewarded with sighting a few fish that I had previously not seen.

Our next stop were the Limu Pools which are pools of various size cut into the limestone reef with caves that you could swim into and surface on the other side and channels cut into the reef.  We spent quite a bit of time here snorkeling and again saw sea snakes, still poisonous, as well as a wide variety of fish.

Richard and me at the Limu Pools.
We visited a couple of other caves, and while I'm not dismissing them, I fear repeating myself as they were quite spectacular as well and provided hours of gunkholing fun.  Each cave boasted numerous "rooms" with ceiling to floor limestone columns of differing colors, and tide pools at the edges where the cave met the sea.

One of the interesting aspects of visiting Niue is how you "land" your dinghy at the dinghy wharf.  The dinghy wharf is a concrete structure that is about 15 feet above sea level. Once you arrive at the dinghy wharf, you attach a crane hook to your dinghy via a bridle. There are a set of stairs that you climb and a control box to operate the crane.  Once the dinghy is lifted from the water, you swing the crane over the wharf, lower the dinghy, and use the "dinghy spatula" to move your dinghy into a parking space on the wharf.  I have to admit that I liked this method of parking the dinghy as you didn't have to worry about incoming or outgoing tides that could either float your dinghy in several feet of water or strand it "miles" from shore.   I have added 7-ton crane operator to my resume as I am sure that this newly acquired skill will open numerous employment opportunities should I decide to pursue this line of work in the future.

The crane at the dinghy wharf.

On our last day in Niue, we met up with friends at the Washaway Cafe on the southern tip of the island for an "honor system" happy hour.  Our friends Heidi and Joe from s/v Huck were there and it was great to catch up with them and make plans to meet up down the road.

We really liked Niue and wished we could have spent a bit more time there but again, the weather looked favorable to make the passage to Tonga so we had to take it.  So after a couple of beers at the Washaway Cafe, we piled 6 people into the rental and headed back to our boats where Calico Jack and Osprey each prepped our boats for the passage to Tonga.