August 1 - August 17, 2007

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HIGHLIGHTS

Scary medical crisis

Whales under boat

Caves in the jungle

Last of the Mohicans

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August 1 - August 3, 2007

Medical Mystery

During our stay in Beveridge Reef, Beth experienced a sudden loss of visual acuity in one eye -- strangely her vision was worse in bright light and her color vision was impaired. We conferred with several doctors via email over our satellite phone, and possible diagnoses ranged from corneal abrasion to detached retina.

We were pretty concerned, since a detached retina is a medical emergency, and we had no way to get help quickly. We decided to head for Niue, 120 nm to the west, hoping a doctor at their clinic could help sort it out.

August 4 - August 5, 2007

Passage To Niue

Humpback whales come north to this part of the world in the winter to breed.

Spot where a Humpback whale used to be

We saw more whales on this little run than we'd ever seen before. Whales spouted, breached and slapped their tails.

Unfortunately, our attempts to capture them with our digital camera were pathetic.

We weren't tempted to fish in the boisterous conditions. But as we got close to Niue, the winds calmed down and we threw out a line. Within an hour we had a beautiful mahi mahi on the hook.

Ken with big mahi mahi At 49" long, this was the biggest mahi mahi we'd caught yet! We processed the whole fish (filleted, vacuum sealed, and into the freezer) within an hour of landing him. Ken efficiently processing fresh catch

Niue (pronounced New- ay) is a coral atoll just like Beveridge, but you would never guess by looking, since its cliffs tower 90 feet above the water. Pressure from the earth's crust pushed Niue up out of the water, leaving the coral high and dry.

At 10 miles long and 13 miles wide, Niue is both the largest raised coral atoll, and the smallest independent country, in the world.

Rugged Niue coastline Caves and inlets honeycomb Niue's rugged coastline, and thick vegetation covers the interior. We looked forward to exploring. Lush landscape near mooring field

Niue lacks a natural harbor, with only an open roadstead sheltered from the prevailing trade winds. If the winds go west, as they often do at this latitude, boats caught in the exposed mooring field get in trouble fast.

Exposed wharf can be a challenging place to land

With no breakwater to shelter the bay from the west, cruisers and locals alike have to hoist their small boats out of the water at the local wharf using a large crane.

Visit to shore requires hoisting dinghy onto wharf

If the wind goes west while you're on shore, the waves will prevent you from re-launching your dinghy to get back to your boat!

We knew we couldn't stay here long.

August 4 - August 14, 2007

Old And New Friends

Almost before we picked up our mooring, Piet Hein and Tory from "Double Dutch" hailed us. We had first met them in Curacao in the Caribbean. How amazing to meet someone you know in an obscure place like Niue! Piet and Tory from Double Dutch

While Niue is "independent", it has a very strong relationship with New Zealand. New Zealanders can come to live here if they want, and Niueans have full NZ citizenship.

This deal has created a strange situation -- there are over 20,000 Niueans in the world, but fewer than 1000 still live on Niue. Meanwhile almost of a third of the island's roughly 1500 inhabitants are "Palagi" (white), mostly from NZ.

Consequently we met many friendly and helpful New Zealanders, but relatively few Niueans, during our stay in Niue. We joined the Niue Yacht Club (whose resident members have no boats, since there is no harbor!). Guests hang out and enjoy delicious ice cream or meals at the Club's cafe.

Relaxing at Washaway Cafe Meeting with old friends (Piet and Tory on left) and new (Keith and Sue on right) at the Washaway Cafe, another popular hangout.

Violent Nature

In 2004, Cyclone Heta sent green water over THE TOP of Niue's 90 foot cliffs. Standing way up on top of the cliff, we had trouble imagining how the water could get that high. Those waves and the 200 mph winds that pushed them, destroyed homes, the hospital, the hotel and other businesses.

Damage from cyclone Heta

This house, on top of the cliff, was wiped off its foundation by green water.

And the winds stripped the trees bare, leaving the islands birds and bats to starve. People fed the birds and bats out of their own limited supplies. Niue is slowly recovering, with the help of a lot of foreign aid.

 

On a calm day, you'd never know what the ocean can do. Tranquil ocean on a calm day

Visit To Hospital

We went right to the hospital to sort out Beth's eye problem. The Hospital's director and chief doctor -- a Niuean woman trained in NZ -- listened to the problem and suggested a diagnosis of "optic neuritis". (She couldn't examine Beth because the hospital lacked eye drops.) Some quick research convinced us that she was spot on. (It was great to have the internet again.) We were very impressed.

The usual treatment is a course of IV steroids. However, that not being an option in Niue, we were comforted to learn that the condition usually clears up on its own after a few weeks. The hospital visit cost us $18!

Whales Under The Boat

In Niue, humpback whales have their babies near shore and swim and rest nearby while they nurse the baby whales. We had a front row seat right in the anchorage during the day. At night we could hear them breathing and snorting.

Whale surfacing in the anchorage Humpback whale (black object in the water in lower center of picture) hanging out in the anchorage.

 

At right, a swimmer approaches a mother whale and calf about 100 meters off our stern. Swimmer in water with whale

 

Suited up for whale watching expedition

We hired a local operator to take us swimming with the whales, since it's illegal to do it on your own.

Ironically we would have had better luck in the anchorage, but we saw great coastline scenery. We also did a little cave snorkeling (right).

Snorkeling in a cave

Exploring The Caves Of Niue

People come to Niue for its unusual and beautiful geography.

Honeycombed cuts in the coral Intricately carved coral faces (left) and reefs (right) encircle the coast. Reefs surrounding Niue

Caves honeycomb Niue. In some caves, fissures allow light to flood in, illuminating the eerie formations within.

Cave by the sea Healthy stalagmites Huge stalagmite formation

 

Checking out all the nooks and crannies Ken exploring cave Exploring cave complex

Niue has many, many miles of caves. Some contain bones and artifacts from the island's past, when the Niueans used to bury their dead in caves. Many have never been explored. With the right equipment a person could spend years exploring.

Talava Arches at high tide

Erosion creates spectacular arches (like Tavala at left) and chasms (like Matapa at right).

The kings of old used Matapa Chasm as a private bath.

Matapa Chasm looks inviting for a swim

Late on one day we made our way to the difficult Vaikona Chasm trail which leads to a deep cave and the windswept eastern shore.

Bizarre plant and root structures create natural tunnels and the trail is a lattice work of porous coral. You really had to watch your footing -- it was easy to step in a deep hole or cut yourself on the razor sharp coral.

Even the tops of our heavy leather hiking boots got cut by the coral. Track shoes would have been torn apart. Beth's pants were shredded by the time we were done.

The tunnels and coral spikes combined with spider webs to create an eerie "Indiana Jones" atmosphere in the fading light.

Big spider webs crisscrossed the trail Plant tunnel through the woods Impressive root structures wound their way around rocks and trees

 

By the time we got to the cave, the sun was low. The cave seemed to go straight down a dark, narrow shaft in the ground.

This sign gave us a good excuse to take a pass.

Falling rocks warning

 

Big waves crashing on eastern shore

So instead we pushed on to the east edge of the island and back into the light. The waves crashed and thundered onto the sheer ledges below.

In New Zealand we had met a sailing couple who ran into this coast at night last year and lost their boat. They scrambled in the dark up the razor sharp coral (the woman was barefoot), making their way through miles of woods to a village. This is a very unforgiving place.

We returned another day and pressed further down the east coast to the Togo Chasm. Ken took pictures of all the different fungi growing on the decaying vegetation.

Tree fungus along trail Nature wastes nothing -- out of death comes more life Even fungus can be beautiful!

The rugged, jagged spires (below left and right) reminded us of the Pinnacle formations in New Zealand. Except, if you look closely, these rocks are the skeletons of living creatures (below middle).

Jagged coral spires Coral skeletons Imposing coral sculptures

 

Peering down into secluded sandy oasis The Chasm has its own ladder for easy access. Ladder down into chasm and oasis

 

Togo Chasm felt lonely and isolated, a place where time stood still. No animals or birds -- just the crashing of the surf outside. If the whole world had imploded and we were the only ones left, we wouldn't have known the difference. We were glad to climb back out. Oasis complete with palm trees and sand

Last Of The Mohicans

Niueans have a proud history. They chased Captain Cook away by chewing on local red bananas and then hurling rocks and arrows at the English from the top of the tall cliffs. The sight of these tough warriors, mouths foaming with "blood," was enough for Cook, who decided to let them alone. He named Niue "the Savage Isle."

We took a tour with Misha, one of the oldest Niueans remaining on Niue. Misha had a slightly melancholy air -- he reminded us of the Indian chief in the "Last of the Mohicans". He is about the only one left on the island who still practices some of the traditional customs. When he was a boy, the Niueans lived in caves!

Misha describing how to catch birds

Misha describes how Niueans caught birds in times past. They would build a platform at the top of a tree, far up in the rainforest canopy, and lie in wait with a net.

Now they use shotguns.

Misha described how the Niueans used to plant sweet potatoes in the jungle as a backstop against crop failure. When food got scarce they would sneak off to gather their secret crops, careful not to let their neighbors follow them.

Each family had a cave from which they could get drinking water (since Niue has no surface fresh water). These caves were closely guarded.

Misha also said that the old medical and herbal traditions were tightly held secrets, and that much of this knowledge was lost because people died without telling anyone!

In general, Niue sounded about as cooperative as New York City.

Coconut crab ascending small tree We also learned about "uga" (coconut crabs) and the best way to catch and hold them. All of the women on the tour got to pose with a crab. Beth with subdued crab

 

Starting a fire by rubbing REALLY HARD and REALLY FAST

The guys, on the other hand, got to start a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together.

It took a lot of rubbing.

The girls definitely got the cushier job.

Keeping budding fire alive

Misha lamented the lack of interest by young Niueans in preserving their history and culture. The island feels a bit lost as the young people leave, taking their energy and ambition to New Zealand.

As we traveled around the island, we saw many abandoned houses -- testament to the declining population here. Abandoned houses dot the island

We also saw graves everywhere -- the dead outnumber the living on Niue.

Single grave by the sea

Niueans have stopped using caves, but they still bury their relatives in very small family plots -- often on some of the best coastal real estate (left).

Other people put the graves right next to their houses (right).

Well tended grave in front yard

Niue lacks formal laws about land ownership -- occupancy is 9/10 of the law. And with so many people leaving, families have great trouble holding on to their traditional land. Turns out that the graves are actually a form of property marker.

It's hard to argue about who owns the land when one fellow has his grandmother buried there!

Pigs are an important part of Niuean culture Here's one Niuean tradition which seems alive and well -- roasting pigs for special occasions, like a "hair cutting" (a coming of age ceremony).

Festival Day

We finally found some lively fun on Niue when the village of Tamakautoga held a festival. People from the surrounding villages came to compete for the best handicrafts and the biggest and best taro, yams and coconut crabs.

Some of the items on display included woven goods (below left), yams (below center), and taro (below right).

Locals proudly display woven baskets, hats, and colorful dyed cloths Yams on display at festival Taro on display

The agricultural products were grown in secret places, with secret techniques. Do you see a trend here? (Actually, it's just like the big vegetable competitions in the midwest.)

Checking out the coconut crab But the coconut crab competition was the most fun. Giant coconut crab

 

Fido on a leash

Crab raising is a he-man's sport.

We got a kick watching these big burly guys walking their pet crabs.

Heel! Heel!

 

And we watched another very traditional Niuean practice. Aerobic workouts to disco music! Aerobic workout

 

Martial arts demonstration Karate isn't exactly a Polynesian tradition, but they're good at it. Breaking bricks with bare hands

But we like the dancing competition best.

Performing for the crowd

The dance steps were sort of improvised.

But the girls were captivating.

Dancers wowing the crowd

 

Niueans and visitors show their appreciation by putting money in a basket or directly into the hair/clothes of the dancers. Most kids seemed pretty oblivious to the money and bills were flying all around as they fell off the dancers. Showing appreciation with cash

Not everyone was oblivious...this little tyke had it figured out.

Liberating the till Not so fast! Unhappy result

Selling The Resources

We have to close by mentioning a disturbing trend. The government on Niue is pretty broke, and government officials have been cutting deals to sell the island's resources (fish and timber) to foreign interests. Unfortunately, the foreign companies take a "slash and burn" approach -- they want to mine the resources as fast as possible, before somebody changes their mind.

Foreign fishing boat The Reef Fishing Company operates several large boats from Niue. (They keep crew on board 24/7, so they can move in bad weather.) A dumptruck full of ice for packing fish

The government cut a 50/50 profit sharing deal with the company. So far, after several years -- lots of fish (mostly mahi mahi) but no profits.

Brand new fish processing plant employs many people -- few of which are Nuiean

Reef Fishing built a plant on Niue to process the fish, which they fly out to New Zealand. (This says something about how scarce and valuable fish have become. The fish out here used to be safe, because they were so far away from big markets.)

Theoretically, the plant provides jobs for the locals, but it turns out that Niueans don't want the messy work, so Reef has imported Samoans to clean the fish.

Ken swapped refrigeration repair stories with one of the engineers who maintains the boats. This fellow explained that the boats and their Aussie/Kiwi crews had just moved from Australia, when the coastal long line fishery there collapsed after about seven years of heavy fishing.

We catch and eat tuna, mahi and wahoo ourselves, and we don't want to be hypocrites. But this is crazy. These fellows know that they are taking the fish faster than they can breed.

The problem is that fishermen don't own the fish, so if one guy doesn't take the last fish, somebody else will. (No cattleman would kill his breeding stock, so cattle aren't going extinct.) Economists call this problem an "externality" and it's why there aren't any cod off Cape Cod anymore. (Or halibut or blue fin tuna.)

It just hurts to see it first hand.

Anyway, after only a stay of 10 days -- a whirlwind by our standards -- we decided to push on to Tonga.

August 15 - August 17, 2007

With ballistic conditions -- 25-35 knots out of the east -- we flew to Tonga.

Big waves on passage to Tonga

We had wind gusting up to 39 knots, and our biggest waves yet -- maybe 16 to 18 feet.

Sailing with the staysail and three reefs in the main, Eagle's Wings handled the conditions just fine.

Big wind fueled big waves

 

Rigging a preventer for safety downwind Going downwind, we rig a double preventer system. This really locks the boom in place and eliminates the potential risk to the rig in an accidental jibe.

 

Some squalls have a silver lining -- the sky lights up with a beautiful rainbow. Beautiful rainbow paints the sky

Tonga

And so we arrived in Vava'u, Tonga. We'd end up spending almost four months in this very nice but very different place. More on Tonga next time....