South Pacific

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Last call on Niue

The Air New Zealand flight from Auckland comes in tonight to whisk me away (supposedly) at 2:40 in the morning. I’m sad to go. When I arrived here two weeks ago—in total darkness, with no electricity at the Matavai or anywhere else on the island—I was thinking, Christ, I’ll never be able to stand a day here let alone two weeks.

Not so. I’ve rather fallen in love with this disheveled Garden of Eden. Even though it’s hotter than hell, the food is awful, and my hotel room—the best on the island—wouldn’t meet decency standards for a Motel 6. I don’t know why, but being on Niue has made me happy. Actually, happy isn’t the right word. More like serene. And I am not a serene person.

At first things like the only market on the island being closed on weekends drives you crazy. And then somewhere along the line…you let go. Maybe the little dumpy place with two computers in a stifling hot room—the only place to do e-mail on the island—will be open when it’s supposed to. Maybe it won’t. No matter. Maybe the Katuali coffee house will actually have coffee tomorrow. But probably not.

You stop expecting things to be the way they are at home. You take a shower not knowing if there will be any hot water or not and realize it doesn’t really make any difference. You go to bed wondering if the air-conditioning will go off in the middle of the night for lack of electricity. You realize that the dolphins will show up when the dolphins want to show up. And not a minute before.

Such is life on Niue. And that’s just fine.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I’ve circumnavigated the island at least a dozen times now and, as I’ve mentioned, every time I drive around it, I see something I didn’t see before. Or I see something differently. Or feel differently about it.

For instance, there’s the Sharissta Café. I can’t tell you how excited I was to come across this ancient, faded Trail*Lite trailer on the outskirts of Alofi and how I planned my entire day around having a lunch of donar kebabs as this fascinating looking eatery. Only problem is that, despite what the wooden sign in front always said, every day I went by Sharissta and every day it was closed. For two weeks. Had Sharissta packed up and moved back to Samoa or something? Was he or she on vacation? I’ll never know. At first, it all really annoyed me. Especially the “YES WE OPEN” sign. Then, for some odd reason, I started taking comfort in the fact that it was just there. And closed. I’d drive by it every day and think to myself, “NO WE NOT OPEN.” And I’d laugh about it.

Then there’s the Niue Gym. Unlike Sharissta’s, I never had any expectation of the gym being open. And it never was. Instead, it just became a repository for my wicked imagination as I tried to imagine just what sort of equipment might be in this odd little shack in the jungle and who, exactly, its customers might be. The church ladies from Tamakautoga doing pilates? Bare-chested fishermen pumping weights? Taso Tukunou, the church bell toller, riding a stationary bike while listening to rap music on his iPod?

And then there’s the Coconut Stop, a little thatched hut on the north end of the island near Matapa. There were a couple of things I liked about the Coconut Stop. First, the idea that on an island where coconuts seemed to plop heavily to earth no matter where you were, someone had the entrepreneurial spirit to open a stand and try to sell these giant nuts. Perhaps because they were free and easy to find everywhere I went, I badly wanted to buy one here. I wanted to meet the man or woman that was optimistic enough to set up a roadside coconut stand. But, alas, there was never anyone there (though if you walked two minutes into the jungle you could pick up all the coconuts you wanted).

I also liked how professional the sign was. Like maybe they’d gotten support from the Niue government or something. “Hey, why don’t we open a coconut stop on the north end of the island and get John Halapalapa to sell coconuts there to tourists? All in favor, say aye!”


Obviously it didn’t work, but, hey, they tried. Which, it seems to me, should be the island’s motto: It May Not Work—But We Tried.

I’ll take that spirit off with me to Lanai where I’m headed next. In search of more island culture. 

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Swimming with Annie and the dolphins

Annie tells me I just missed the humpback whales, which breed and calve around Niue roughly between July and November. Last year, she said, some yachty tried to ride one of the humpback whales. Which really pissed the Niueans off. Riding whales, Annie says, is very bad form.

Annie and her husband, Ian, own Niue Dive. They’re good-hearted people but I think they’re probably a little nuts. Trying to run a business on an island like Niue (and raise two little kids at the same time) has got to be challenging. Particularly when you’re dealing with stuff like having no electricity. Or cyclones. I asked Annie if she and Ian thought about moving after Heta hit the island in 2004, destroying a good chunk of the island. 

“We did,” she admits. “But then we decided to stick it out. Not sure why.”


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I think that sums up the attitude of a lot of the people on the island. Yes, it’s incredibly rustic, but it’s also stunningly beautiful. So your head tells you to go but your heart says stay. You know what Woody Allen says about irrational desires—the heart wants what the heart wants.

The first day I met Annie and Ian they suggested they take me swimming with one of the pods of spinner dolphins that hang around by the Matavai. When they say “swim with the dolphins” that’s exactly what they mean. You hop into the water with snorkel gear and a diving glove and then hold on to the side of the Zodiac while Annie guns you around the cove. With your free hand, you point out where the dolphins are heading. And you do this while trying not to drown.

The only problem is that the dolphins have been hanging out somewhere else all week. Every morning I walk through the jungle to Annie and Ian’s house and every morning they tell me they haven’t spotted any dolphins that morning. “I reckon they’ll be showing up soon, though,” Annie always says. “They always do.”

You’ve got to love her optimism. I wonder if she also thinks the parts for the generator are going to be arriving soon and we’ll get the electricity back?

Yesterday I was sitting out on the deck of the Matavai drinking my coffee when Annie popped by to say the spinners were down in the cove and she was taking a couple of the other guests out in an hour or so and did I want to join them. Hell yes.

So I got my snorkel gear and met her over at the dive shop. We loaded the Zodiac and drove down to Avatele Beach where there are the sad remains of a small fishing wharf largely destroyed by Heta and a rusty winch, that looks like it’s going to fall apart at any minute, that Annie used to lower the inflatable into the water.

Five minutes later we were in the middle of a large pod of spinner dolphins. They rode the wake beside the boat and, just for the hell of it, launched themselves out of the water, leaping five or six feet in the air and doing acrobatic twists and turns that would make a 13-year-old Chinese gymnast proud.

 I put on my snorkel gear and quietly slipped into the water, not wanting to freak out the dolphins. There were like 20 or 30 of them all around the boat. I grabbed onto the side of the Zodiac and pointed straight ahead with my free hand and we were off—zipping off with the dolphins. Not to get all anthropomorphic here, but it sure seemed to me that the dolphins were getting as much pleasure out of this encounter as I was. They’d intentionally let me get just a few feet away and then zip off, do a flip or two, and then come back to stare me in the face as if to say Wha’ cha think of that, mate? Every so often a dolphin would come and swim with me (instead of the other way around), sidling up right next to me and adjusting his or her speed so that we were in sync. Almost as if inviting me to let go of the boat and grab ahold of him instead. Which, of course, I would never do. Mostly because I know it would piss Annie off. Bad form and all of that, you know.   

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Bats and lobsters at Avaiki

The pools and lagoons around Niue have the most shockingly crystal-clear water I’ve ever seen. It’s not unusual to have 100-feet visibility. And the colors are so dramatic you feel the fish swimming around you can’t be real. They must be plastic or something, like in the submarine ride at Disneyland. There are anemone and butterfly fish and Moorish idols and brightly colored wrasse—some with yellow tails, others with bands of blue or red. And even lobsters. Look at this guy.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

He moseyed over to me when I was standing in about two feet of water in the Avaiki pools. I don’t know if you can tell from this photo or not, but this sucker was big. Like maybe four or five pounds. I was tempted to reach down and grab him, bring him back to the Matavai and let Levu cook him up for my dinner. But it just didn’t seem right. I figured it would be like having Bambi walk up to you while you were hiking in the forest so you put a noose around his neck to lead him home and roast him. What fun is that?

The other thing you notice about the water, besides how impossibly clear it is, is that it isn’t very salty. That’s because Niue is made up primarily of limestone, which is quite porous, and when it rains, the water literally disappears on contact, seeping straight down into the ground and then percolating into the sea at spots like the Avaiki pools. So the water here is a mixture of fresh and ocean water.

This is true all over the island. You can actually see the fresh water pouring into the sea from the porous limestone rock. Yesterday I spent all afternoon at Avaiki where a large deep natural pool has etched its way into an open-mouthed cave, facing the sea, that is overhung with giant stalagmites. I swam back into one of the caves where the water was so clear and fresh that I felt like I was swimming in a resort pool. Like an exotic, but artificial, pool at Club Med or something. But then I let out a shout, just to hear the echo, and a hundred bats came swarming off the roof of the cave, scaring the hell out of me while making me realize just how real this environment is.

If you look at this shot I took of one of the Avaiki caves I’m talking about, you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see all those intense colors—the turquoise pool, the purple rocks—and you’ll think, God, he must have Photoshopped the hell out of that. Nope. That’s just the way it is. Untouched (except for a slight increase in contrast). No filters, no special settings. Nothing. And the only other person that showed up during the two or three hours I was there was this Polish woman who was crewing on a sailboat moored offshore (which brings up an interesting point: As far as I can tell, I’m the only American on the island at the moment). While she was paddling around in the cave (I didn’t tell her about the bats), I explored the shoreline a bit to the south, walking through fairly shallow water, and found a private little beach—no more than 20 feet long—where I took a snooze.

Which leads me to Rule Four on Niue: Pay attention to the tides. By the time I was ready to leave the sandy cove at Avaiki where I’d fallen asleep, the tide had come in over the outer reef. Which made it difficult to keep my camera dry while I dog-paddled back to the sea track. 

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Cow etiquette

I didn’t really have anything to do today so I decided to drive around the island. Again. I think I’ve already gone around the island 9 or 10 times, but what the hell. The thing is, even though the road around the island is only 30 miles long, you always see something new. Like last time I came across these bee hives in the jungle. And when I got out to check them out, the bees, which were the size of hummingbirds, chased me back to my car. Jungle bees on steroids.

This afternoon I came across two things I hadn’t seen before. The first was a cow that was tethered to a rope that was strung out across the road. I’m not even sure you could call this beast a cow. I don’t know what it was. Except that it had horns and was cross-eyed and did not seem happy to see me. Here it was, in the middle of nowhere, tied up in the jungle, with absolutely no interest in letting me by. So I stopped the car in the road, got out, and made some ridiculous noises to get it to move. Which it eventually did. After giving me the cross-eyed stink eye.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Then, a few minutes later, I came across this boulder beneath some coconut trees in the jungle. As first it caught my attention because of its weird blue color. Then I realized that someone had actually carved a relief on the boulder. If you squint and look carefully, you’ll see that the figure on the rock is a Polynesian superwoman (it has small boobies). Sort of leaning back and staring defiantly at the sky. As if she’s going to take off into the wild blue yonder any minute now. But the black lichen growing on her suggests she’s been thinking about this for some time now. And flying ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

So that was my day. After all that excitement, you can understand why I was anxious to get back to the Matavai in time for cocktail hour. And to sit on the deck with the handful of other guests and watch the sun fall into the ocean. 

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Warm rain barbecue

I don’t know why, but I was really nervous meeting Mark Cross ( His gallery is just this tiny little office space next to Tavana’s Café in a small horseshoe of shops they call the Alofi Commerical Centre. Mark, dressed in ragged green shorts and an old dingy t-shirt, was sitting on a stool cleaning his paint brushes. We chatted a bit and he told me he was just about to close up and head home because he was hosting a little barbecue at his place in Liku. “Why don’t you join us if you like?” he said. I asked him what I could bring and he said maybe some beer, so I walked over to Swan-son Supermarket, the only real market on the island (which, just to be honest, would be called a Quickie-Mart if it were in Orlando or Santa Barbara) only to find the store closed.


Mark Cross

Mark Cross

A young boy was sitting in the shade of the store licking a popsicle and I asked him when the store would be open.

“Monday,” he said.

I’m not quite sure what the logic is here, but evidently the only market on the island closes at 5pm on Friday and doesn’t open back up until 10am on Monday. Because, heck, why would anybody need to buy something at the store over the weekend, right?

The kid asked me what I wanted to buy (like maybe he had an extra something or other in his baggy shorts) and I told him beer. He shook his head. “They don’t sell beer anyway,” he said.

Well then where do people buy beer on the weekend? I asked him. He told me to go to the Pacific Way Bar, across from the fish processing plant, just outside of town. So I drove out to Pacific Way, a blue-collar saloon with a couple of pool tables and an ancient TV hanging from the ceiling. I think there was a soccer game on, though the image was so washed out and buzzing with interference that they could have been televising a moon landing for all I could tell. I bought a six-pack of Lion Red, a cheap New Zealand beer, and then drove to Liku on the other side of the island.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

It was raining a bit but it didn’t really matter since the temperature hardly ever fluctuates on Niue (whether it rains or not, it’s always about 85 and, because of the humidity, feels like a hundred; the same is true whether it’s day or night). I guess the best way to describe the setting is to say that it reminded me of something you might come across in the Louisiana countryside. There was an old rusted tractor, a coconut crowning the exhaust pipe, permanently residing out front of the house and dogs and chickens running around. Mark’s house was a small concrete structure, painted a pale blue, with a corrugated tin roof. A clothesline hung just outside the front door and some t-shirts and towels were getting a second rinse in the rain.

Mark gave me a cold beer and we stood sort of awkwardly out on his patio, me admiring the coconut and banana trees all around. “Don’t need to go far to get your fresh fruit, do you?” I said trying to make conversation.

“Nope,” Mark said. “Nor your protein.” And with that he used his beer can to point out a dark creature looming in the shadows of some jungle overgrowth. “There are more wild pigs than people on Niue,” he said, and then he picked up a small coconut off the ground and threw it in the direction of the pig, which snorted and casually lumbered off.

Shortly, about 5 or 6 people showed up, everyone bringing a salad or taro casserole or a plate of chicken. While Mark cooked up some sausages and pork chops on an old rusty charcoal grill, I wandered around his house looking at his paintings. There was this one painting that really shook me. It was a straight-on portrait of a young Polynesian woman holding a palm frond in front of her. Like it was a gift–which was the name of the painting. Or maybe the young girl was the gift. 


painting of Mishca by Mark Cross

painting of Mishca by Mark Cross


Mark came in from the patio and stood behind me. Neither one of us said anything for awhile.

“Is that your daughter?” I said, still looking at the painting and not at him.

“Mishca,” he said. “The year before she died.”

He didn’t say anything else and I didn’t either. The rain had picked up. It was pounding on the corrugated roof like rubber mallets. The room lit up from a distant flash of lightning. A while later there was thunder. I turned around, smiled at Mark, and left him alone in the room with the painting of his daughter. Back on the patio, everyone was sitting on the stoop just watching the rain. No one said anything. After a few minutes, the storm stopped and the sky quickly cleared. Steam rose up off the glossy green leaves of the banana trees. A wild chicken and a couple of baby chicks came out from their hiding place in the jungle and started picking at the thick grass. After awhile, I got up and went inside to get another beer. When I did, I snuck a look in the room with the painting of Mishca. Mark was sitting in a chair next to the painting. Looking out the window much the way his daughter did in the painting. I left the two of them alone. 

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