Mike White turns off his phone and wears out his camera on the Rock of Polynesia.
In the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of nowhere, the island gradually turned into a relief of cliffs and coconut palms as the plane chased its shadow and swept down to land. The crew had handed out Post-it notes for everyone to write messages of well-wishing and wisdom for Amanda and Caleb – quips and tips from strangers, that might end up in a scrapbook somewhere, among the souvenirs of their trip and a lifetime together. They’d holidayed here a year ago and liked it so much they decided to return to get married, a family entourage in tow this time.
Mike and Meaw-Fong came from Wellington and 25 years ago they’d also gone to Niue to get married. Eloped. Stayed at the Damiana Motel above pretty Avatele Beach and had their wedding witnessed by an old couple living next door. And here they were, coming back to Niue to celebrate a quarter-century together. Staying at the same motel. This time with their daughter. It was lovely. It was that kind of place.
It’s 2400km north-east of New Zealand, 260km², and the road around it stretches 64km. The permanent population of about 1500 is augmented by two Air New Zealand flights a week, meaning there are maybe only 200 tourists on the island at any time. You keep meeting up with each other in a convivial club of good fortune and good moods.
Those bi-weekly planes also bring back locals living abroad, some of the 20,000 Niueans living in New Zealand, for family gatherings or to refresh their roots. While Niue is an independent territory, with its own 20-member government, it uses New Zealand’s currency, and all Niueans are New Zealand citizens. This diaspora has long been a source of benefit and concern. Generations of young Niueans have left the island for education abroad but only a fraction return to live, leaving its population almost static.
Jinnam was about to become the newest emigration statistic. At 21, most of the kids he’d gone through school with on Niue had already headed to New Zealand, while he’d stayed on, working in construction and on a dive boat. He stood high on a cliff with his fishing rod and cast a lure far out towards the horizon he’d disappear over, when he went to Massey University to study industrial design. Did he think he’d come back afterwards? Perhaps. But how could he tell? Thousands before him had left Niue with similar thoughts, only to remain away.
In Lakepa village, Johnson Efalaimo knew how difficult the pull to return to Niue was. He lived in Brisbane now, working as a stonemason, and had come back this time with his 91-year-old Nan, to let her visit family and familiar places. He’d also brought his daughter, Aaliyah, who’d never been here before. She admitted she’d freaked out that first night, surrounded by bush and not far from the roaring coast, and wanted to go home, to the city, but was gradually getting used to island life.
Johnson had built a pyramid-shaped war memorial for the village, was intent on filling in the potholes along the road before he left next week, and had ideas of coming back to live here. The family had several houses – perhaps they could set up a B&B. Or maybe life would have to remain spread over an ocean, between two countries.
For Poitoa Toamio, the decision to return to Niue was emotionally easy but financially fraught. For 29 years, he worked as a cleaner in Manurewa. It was a hard life, he said, work mixed with raising five children. But when he retired in 2010, he and his wife decided to come home, with the security of still receiving their New Zealand pensions.
Standing in his taro patch with white gumboots and a 2m steel digging pole, 75-year-old Poitoa wiped sweat from his face with the corner of his shirt. He’d come back for this, for the land, where he also grew kumara and tapioca. His children remained in New Zealand, so each year his wife would visit them for a few months, while he stayed on Niue with their three dogs. He sat down on the stump of a coconut palm and looked up to the sky.
“It starts to be rain now. That’s finished – that’s enough for now,” he said, content to stop work. “You have a good day, eh. And have a good time in Niue.”
Most tourists come from New Zealand, and most come during whale season, when humpbacks travelling between Antarctica and their Tongan breeding grounds rest off Niue’s coast. You can swim with them, but the viewing from land is spectacular too, given how close they come.
One morning, a humpback breathed and arched and fluked and dived barely 100m from my hotel room. By the time I saw it, my neighbours, Ross and Sue, were already on their balcony with camera and binoculars. Sue was in her dressing gown and Ross was in awe.
“Look at that! Look at that!” he cried as the whale gently rolled over, exposing the white of its belly, a fin pointing skyward. “What a show! It’s better than the bloody circus!”
Soon the whale was joined by dolphins, which cruised around and ahead of it. “It’s massive!” said Ross, as this monster from the not-so-deep idled on the surface. “Like Donald Trump’s sent one of his submarines down here.”
We stood and watched. Sue wondered when she could drag herself away for a shower. Ross started worrying about missing breakfast. In the background, people were moving out of their rooms, catching their flight back to New Zealand. “Imagine if you had to leave today,” said Sue, with the smile of someone who knew she had another week on Niue.
But you suffer these stories with grace and a weak smile, while harbouring jealousy for the teller’s good fortune. You can’t understand why they were so much luckier than you, but can’t blunt or blame their enthusiasm. So you hear them out, because you want them to keep that almost surreal memory fresh for as long as possible, to replay it frame by frame, the explanation always far longer than the actual encounter. And the reality is you’ll have stories that will make others envious, times when you got lucky, when you were in the right place, when you saw incredible things. It’s just a matter of patience.
Sue had plenty of that. She would stand on her balcony with her new camera, a birthday present, which Ross coveted a little. He thought it should be their camera. But Sue was having none of that and wasn’t giving it up. When her view of the whales became obscured by coconut palms, she’d walk to the hotel’s main deck and resume the vigil.
One morning, she and Ross saw several humpbacks moving across a bay, diving briefly, then bashing through the surface chop. “It was amazing,” marvelled Ross. “Three flukes in a row, all lined up, boom, boom boom.” That shot would be a keeper, without doubt. Sue stood beside him, beside a low wall at the lookout, the whole ocean spread beneath her, camera clutched firmly in her hand.
Phone numbers only have four digits. So do car number plates. The dogs are well fed and happy, chasing cars but having no idea what to do when they catch them. Government employees work only four days a week. It’s welcoming, unstressed. You can’t help but be affected and slip into step, into the island’s relaxed rhythm. There’ll be plenty of time to rush when you get back home.
On Sundays, there’s church: fine hats and fine singing drifting through louvred windows. Small gravesites dot the edge of every road, family plots with floral decorations, and thoughts of heaven etched into granite headstones. On one tiled grave surrounded by coconut palms sat a small trophy. Its base was broken and the metal had been oxidised white by salt spray. The plot belonged to Frey Head Snr, who died in January 1996, aged just 54. He had a proud head of curly hair and wispy moustache in the oval photo on the headstone. The cup was inscribed “The Boys Brigade, Niue.” Then underneath was a word obscured by weathering. I wet my finger and rubbed it. “Drill,” it read.
So they Googled “best snorkelling places in the world”, and then their travel agent asked if they had considered Niue. “Where’s that?” said Steve. The travel agent showed them a map and said her parents had just come back from there, and she was heading to Niue soon herself. “That’ll do us,” said Steve.
So here they were, and they thought it was fabulous. They’d been to Rarotonga in the past but felt there were too many tourists, and the locals had stopped being friendly. Niue was the total opposite – the ideal place for grumpy buggers who didn’t want too many other people around, joked Steve.
Earlier that morning they’d trekked out to a miraculous freshwater chasm and a wild coral coast where the swell threw sea mist a hundred metres high. Now they were in a charming cafe, chatting with new-found friends.
And that was the thing about Niue. You didn’t have to struggle to find an isolated cove or cave, or clifftop solace. But you could find easy company and conversation whenever it suited you. It was ideal. It was that kind of place.
This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.