Niue, the coral is­land where visi­tors are like fam­ily

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST My favourite ex­pe­ri­ence is snorkelling in­side a cave in crys­tal-clear depths and I’m bowled over by the beauty of the coast­line

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - DO­MINIC DUNNE

THE­most en­tic­ing thing about Niue is that so few peo­ple have heard of the is­land, let alone seen it on a map. But there it is, some­where near Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Is­lands.

This, in turn, means Niue is not over­run with tourists. Not even the travel agent ap­pears to know about it, which does make me a lit­tle con­cerned, par­tic­u­larly when he sends me my itin­er­ary for Niue Is­land, Al­ba­nia.

Al­ba­nia? Re­ally? I sug­gest he tries a bit closer to home, like 2400km north­east of New Zealand.

Ama­jor ho­tel book­ing site is no bet­ter in­formed. It says the place where I’ll be stay­ing in the cap­i­tal, Alofi, of­fers ‘‘easy ac­cess to the city’s must-see des­ti­na­tions’’. City? The pop­u­la­tion of the en­tire coun­try is about 1400.

And, as sus­pected, when I do get to Niue (pro­nounced ‘‘nue way’’), tourists are lim­ited to a few New Zealan­ders and a hand­ful of Aus­tralians. We’re all on the weekly flight from Auck­land and, I guess, we’ll all be on the re­turn flight in a week.

The same tourist faces keep bob­bing up — lit­er­ally. By the end of the week, it feels like we’ve all be­come one big fam­ily. I de­cide that tourists re­ally can be the pleas­an­test of peo­ple.

Our fo­cus be­comes the chasms, rock pools and sea caves that fringe Niue, one of the world’s largest coral is­lands, a raised atoll of lime­stone that gives the coun­try its moniker of the Rock.

The ocean is a bril­liant, pale aqua­ma­rine. Oc­ca­sion­ally it looks oddly pix­e­lated through a dive mask — it’s the re­frac­tive ef­fect of fresh wa­ter mix­ing with salt wa­ter. My favourite ex­pe­ri­ence is snorkelling in­side a cave in crys­tal-clear depths and I’m bowled over by the beauty of the coast­line.

If tourists are scant, the lo­cals seem to be even more so.

As I drive around the 260sq km is­land, I pass vil­lages with­out see­ing a sign of life, bar a dog or two loung­ing in the sun or the oc­ca­sional hen scur­ry­ing into bushes.

While it’s hard to see a live per­son, it’s easy to lo­cate the dead. In the ab­sence of a ceme­tery, and in keep­ing with tra­di­tional cus­toms, is­lan­ders are buried near roads on fam­ily-held land. So Niue is pep­pered with burial plots, some fes­tooned with flow­ers and bunt­ing, oth­ers marked sim­ply with a large lump of coral.

The graves are brim­ming, but nearby houses are empty. I pull off the road and poke my head into one of the old build­ings with its walls made from a rough mix of coral and ce­ment. There’s a wooden bed, meat safe and ta­ble, all dusty and aban­doned. The pop­u­la­tion was much higher un­til 1974 when the coun­try pro­claimed self­gov­ern­ment in free as­so­ci­a­tion with New Zealand.

When the Ki­wis granted ci­ti­zen­ship to Ni­ueans, al­most ev­ery­one took ad­van­tage of the newly opened air­port and moved to Auck­land.

In 2004, a cy­clone tore through Niue, re­sult­ing in more empty homes and another wave of mi­gra­tion. I’m told the sit­u­a­tion causes no end of dis­putes when Ni­uean ex­pats re­turn to find that other fam­i­lies have moved into their houses.

Hav­ing heard enough de­press­ing de­tails about Niue’s econ­omy, I de­cide to head down the near­est track for another swim. No doubt I will be joined by some of those friendly Kiwi and Aussie tourists.

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