Ever heard of Niue?

There are a couple of islands in the South Pacific that I knew I wouldn’t get to. Some of them are nearly impossible to reach, either because of location, geography, or just lack of travelers. They’re usually the islands you’ve never heard of, and survive off their colonial dependents. One of these is a country called Wallis & Futuna, a French territory that you can only fly in or out of through Noumea or Nadi a couple times a week. Another is Pitcairn Island, a British overseas territory in the South Pacific lost somewhere between Tahiti and Easter Island.

"the rock"

“the rock”

I never thought I’ make it to Niue, “the rock” island near Tonga and Samoa. It’s technically a self-governing state, but relies heavily on New Zealand for support and subsidies, and the only way in or out is a very expensive seat on the once or twice weekly flight from Auckland (at 3 hours flying time, it’s hardly the closest port but that’s really the only flight!). Its essentially big coral island, raised out of the sea and perched ontop of an extinct volcano. Top soil isn’t so bountiful, and it was strange to see graves scattered all around the roadside and front-lawns. It was eerily fitting with all the deserted houses, devastated by Cyclone Heta in 2004 and other big storms before then.

a common sight in Niue, houses half blown away

a common sight in Niue, houses half blown away

Niue’s 1500 Niueans live on an island that’s 64km around, but only have a couple beaches and no mountains (the highest point is 65m above sea level). Their official work week is only from Monday-Thursday, so its the first country I’ve ever been to with a 3-day weekend and that ain’t bad. The only thing I could complain about were the nasty looking yellow hornets that were always flying around everywhere… but they never got me so it’s all good. All around the islands’ cliff edge is pretty blue water, living coral and an abundance of fish and sea life. I went snorkeling with some spear-fishers, and after seeing a turtle, barracudas, parrot fish and dozens of striped sea snakes, they shot a parrot fish and a coronation trout that we had for dinner.

I stayed at Niue Backpackers, which is the upstairs apartment of the Niue Yacht Club. It only has 4 rooms, but I was the only guest, so for $25 a night, I had rented my own sea-view penthouse. I also adopted my own pets: Lucy the dog who followed me to the beach for protection, and Misty the cat who I gave milk to but stopped being my friend after she shit in the shower and I kicked her out of the penthouse for a night. One morning I woke up with a crab in my bed. I had the sensation that something was tickling down my back, but assumed it was my hair. Then when I rolled over, I felt a tickle run down the back of my leg, and when I threw the blanket off expecting the worst, I first saw a massive grey spider. But, with further inspection, it was only a small silver crab, looking lost and exposed from what he was hoping could have been a safe cave to hideout in.

photo 4

the local beach and snorkel lagoon

The only radio station in Niue gave an interesting, unique blend of songs. The sound of gospel songs was replaced by offensive rap and old school hiphop, followed by poppy Christmas songs that were replaced by Polyensian hula-dance songs. Then the cycle would repeat itself, pulling my emotions along with it, not sure if I should be feeling reverent, gangster, festive or drink a pina colada.

The phone numbers are only 4 digits long, so I could easily reach the hostel owner Brian by dialing 4567. But he was always downstairs, so it was easier just to walk down and talk to him. He took me on an island tour, driving all the way around and stopping at a few caves and chasms and perhaps the only real beach. There was one sand patch down the sea-track path beside the hostel, but it was only exposed at low tide, which I managed to time perfectly for two days of beachside reading. I finished Dan Browns Inferno and learned a lot about Dante and Florence, and hung out with an old American hippy named Charles who loved to talk about the theory of ecotourism.

Niue's sculpture garden, made of rubbish

Niue’s sculpture garden, made of rubbish

There’s another island I’m not sure I’ll make it to, called Tuvalu. Its just a series of 3 tiny sand atolls between Samoa and Kiribati, and theres no piece of land big enough to make an air strip. The whole country is a less than 10 square miles, and probably shrinking with the rising sea levels. Since its surrounded by a coral lagoon, cruise ships cant come there either, so the crowded population of 10,000 people only get served by a twice-monthly cargo ship that sails from Samoa. Im going to Samoa next, so I’ll be the first lined up for a ticket on that cargo ship. I’ll hang my hammock on deck for the 5 day return trip, and hope the cyclone season won’t make the sea too rough.

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The Cook Islands

French Polynesia and the Cook Islands are really far from everything, even eachother, but they’re the closest neighbours. Still, there’s only one (expensive) flight between them per week (Thursdays with Air Tahiti). I landed on the island of Rarotonga, a place I’d never heard of til now, and just started walking from the airport towards the bunches of hotels and hostels and resorts on the west coast. Its only 32km around, so you could almost walk around the whole thing in a day, but I was lucky enough to be picked up by a big Polynesian woman on her scooter, and we squished me and my backpack on behind her just in time for it to start POURING rain.

my only dry, visible sunset from Rarotonga backpackers' beach

my only dry, visible sunset from Rarotonga backpackers’ beach

She dropped me off at Rarotonga backpackers, one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at. It had a pool, bungalows on the beach, and sea-view apartments where some crazy partying Kiwi birds (a.k.a. women form New Zealand) stayed. In my hostel was a mix of Americans, Kiwis, Brits, Canadians and Japanese, and we all became family after a few days, cooking dinner together, pairing up on our rental scooters and exploring the island and its nightlife together.

One night we creepily (and soberly) followed the Rarotonga party bus to 5 or 6 different night clubs, and I danced my hiny off with this British-Kiwi guy who you woulda thought was way to mature and serious to break out his moves like Jagger. He showed me up (and everyone else on the dance floor), and he instantly became my favourite person on the island.

The next day was pouring, thundering rain, all day long, and we ran around on the beach like crazies, wondering if the lightning could really electrocute us in the sea. We played games and cartwheeled around like noone was watching (noone was watching – the beach was empty for miles) and stayed soaked to the bone until finally the clouds broke and we could scooter down to a waterfall I wanted to see.

Muri beach

Muri beach

Polynesian dancers

Polynesian dancers

Wigmore’s waterfall is uusally a trickling stream with a wading pool below it, but now it was an angry, brown, rushing flood screaming its way down the hillside. Other highlights were watching little Polynesian girls dance in their grass skirts at the market, getting lost and then finding the start of the hiking trail through the middle of the island, and wading in waist deep water to islands off Muri beach while avoiding stepping on one of the gazillion sea cucumbers on the way. The local people eat their guts, which apparently grow back, so I guess if I did accidentally step on one, it would just gush out all its guts and then grow it all back.

We barely saw the sun in the few days I was there, but when it did come out, it was hot hot hot, so I didnt mind the shade and rain. On my last night there, the clouds finally parted a bit and I finally saw the sunset, but that just made it harder to pack my bags and leave for windy, rainy, 15 degree Auckland.

Tahiti, the black pearl of French Polynesia

dreamy Tahiti ...in real life at the Beachcomber

dreamy Tahiti …in real life at the Beachcomber

I carried on the French theme in Tahiti, a name synonymous with Polynesian paradise. Tahiti is just one island in the French Polynesian archipelago, the most populated one, and hosts the country’s capital Papeete. All the towns and islands have cute, alliterative names like that, and the Tahitian language was always entertaining to listen to. There are dozens of other (more scarcely) populated islands, but flying to them is almost as expensive as flying to Hawaii or the nearby Cook islands. The spaces are huge here, with the Polynesian islands scattered around a sea boundary nearly as big as Brazil, but each island is only a few kilometers wide. And just imagine that Polynesians used to cover these distances with manpower, rowing their canoes across the open sea, and happily and successfully settling the most remote, isolated islands along their way. I was happy to stick with planes and only explore 2 islands, but I did manage to couchsurf an anchored sailboat.

the Karaka sail boat

the Karaka sail boat

You can drive all the way around Tahiti in a day, including Tahiti iti, the little bubble of land on the southeast. The bottom right of that is the only part of the circle that’s not connected, and instead there’s more than 20 km of walking track through a totally wild, undeveloped area that probably looks the same as it did 300 years ago. Somehow this was my expectation of Tahiti, plus a few nearly-nude Tahitian women lazing around in Gaugin style, but I also expected to see the complete opposite – touristy resorts of bungalows reaching far out into a shallow, blue lagoons. That contradiction existed, but I ignorantly forgot there’d also be hundreds of thousands of local Polynesians living normal, modern lives there, in everything from shacks to apartments to hilltop mansions, and they drove around in lots of cars and buses and scooters and fishing boats. It’s a bustling little island, with lots to do and see, and I started to notice that although my imagination hadn’t quite painted the right picture, Tahiti was beautiful exactly they way it was, and the Polynesian people, very handsome.

Tahiti (and New Caledonia) has some special type of men called rei-rei’s, a sort of cross-dressing or feminine male, which are totally accepted into society and modern culture, and act even as a source of pride for their families. The more well-off families will spend a lot of money making their rei-rei a “true” female, with hormones and plastic surgery and the whole shebang, and then its nearly impossible to tell them apart from other females, or believe that some of them were really once men.

my hammock on deck

my hammock on deck

The boat I stayed on was anchored outside of Vairao, a tiny village near the end of the road in Tahiti iti. I woke up each day and jumped into the sea for my morning spruce up, and we bought fishes off the neighouring boats to barbeque our dinner. The buses were few and irregular to this corner of the island, so hitchhiking to get anywhere was almost a daily affair; otherwise I didn’t mind staying on the boat for hours, lazing around in my hammock, cat-napping and reading about Tahiti’s history.

The only transport I paid for my whole week there was from the airport to the Beachcomber hotel, which is only a 2km ride but it was late at night and I was tired, had just lost a day in my life (the international date line is a sneaky little thing), and I was already splurging on a night there. Staying at the InterContinental can put you back a few hundred euros, but its nearly worth it. I had to do it, it was Tahiti, and I wanted to wake up with the sea underneath me, then jump off my bungalow balcony for a salt-water bath. I’d highly recommend the same therapy to anyone else that makes the long journey here, all the way to the middle of the Pacific Ocean… unless you can manage to find Captain Tom and stay in his big, beautiful, black sail boat – the Karaka.

A Glimpse of normal in Brisbane

I lived in Brisbane for 5 months in 2007, and I’ve literally been homesick ever since. I had’t been back yet til now, and only one of my Australian friends ever came to visit in Iceland, Brooke. Seven and a half years is a long time, and things have changed, but only slightly, and all for the better. All my barefooted student friends are now flip-flop wearing doctors. Brooke lived in Dubai and worked for Emirates, and now returned to Brisbane to become a teacher. I used to work at Mazda and most of those friends still work as car salesmen, but now for Mercedes-Benz. Then there was me, the unemployed traveler who’s barely changed at all, crashing back into their lives and making them party like we were all still 19. And so we did.

James mischievously pouring some champagne at the Regatta

James mischievously pouring some champagne at the Regatta

I took a few walks down memory lane, visiting all my old favourite spots. The University of Queensland campus was a lot greener, since I had been a student there on the 6th year of drought. There was a new swimming pool I splashed around in, and the food court was nearly the same, so I had my usual – a Thai chicken curry meat pie and Bundaberg ginger beer. And once again I could eat uncut sushi rolls…. A genius invention that should have gone worldwide by now.

I went to the races, all pretty in a flowery dress with a fluffy purple fascinator in my hair. Brooke came with me, and together we managed to win money on every race except one. We picked the 1st place winner on one race, and that basically paid for our whole day.

me and Brooke at the races

me and Brooke at the races

We went to our old watering holes, the unclassy Royal Exchange and the much prettier Regatta (it was rebuilt after the 2011 floods). We had a “Sunday sesh” at the Regatta and drank cheap bottles of Moet & Chandon, but mostly stuck to our daytime house party mixes of Bundaberg or Cracken rum with gingerbeer. My host James was always on night shifts, so daytime cocktails were excusable.

look at that hail!

look at that hail!

Southbank has totally changed, although I never actually made it there, since a hail storm hit the day we wanted to go lie on the man-made beach. And it wasn’t a small hail storm, it was like the end of the world kinda winds, breaking trees, torrential downpours, flash floods, and hail the size of whiskey ice cubes falling from the sky. Bunches of the city just shut down, with roads underwater and electricity out in entire neighbourhoods for more than 2 days. Broken tree branches were slowly collected and piled up on the side of the roads, and eventually the weather was just fine again. But then it was time to fix the roofs that blew away, the windows that had been smashed into a million pieces, and all the cars whose hoods and windshields had been dented or cracked.

I only spent one day on the beach, at the Gold Coast. Its like an Australian Miami, with dozens of skyscrapers growing up into the sky from a sandy yellow beach, while beautiful half-naked people dip into the turquoise blue Pacific. The water wasn’t as warm, and the feeling of being on an isolated island was long gone, but this visit to Australia made me feel slightly normal again, with normal functioning cities and people to call friends.

the Gold Coast behind us

the Gold Coast behind us

When it was time to go back to some far away Pacific island, I tried to get the help of some travel agencies. The company Student Flights has this price beat guarantee, which I managed to book since I found an airfare $100 cheaper than what they found.  So a couple days later I got a pretty cheap one-way ticket to Tahiti, only to realize it was still expensive to be there, and a lot more expensive to leave.