Saturday, April 18, 2020

Niue gets an A-grade, but I don't

The 2019 calendar year was one packed with adventure, for Sarah and I at least.  An Air NZ "Islands on Sale" promotion provided an opportunity to start 2020 with a more inclusive holiday, and one on which our blended family of four could have a chance to relax together.  Scanning down the list, Niue grabbed - and held - our attention, and got the nod.

I knew next to nothing about "the Rock", and as the trip drew nearer, researching the holiday side of things netted various reports with a theme:  "the most incredible place you've probably never heard of."  We booked a couple of rooms at the Turtle Lodge in Makefu, and a car with Tropicana.

While my cobbers were prepping for snorkelling a-plenty, I had my eye on a couple of riding challenges.  I downloaded a topo map of the island, and spent a bit of time identifying which marked (and unmarked) tracks might be rideable, using Strava's global heatmap, and the "Highlight unridden roads" feature on  I was readying myself for two big rides:  I wanted to ride every road and track on the island in a day, and, I wanted to try to complete an Everest challenge on the island.

I regarded the two ideas as somewhat quirky, and anticipated both would be difficult, if not beyond me.  The island is just over 260 square-kilometres, almost four times the size of Rarotonga, and about one-seventieth the size of New Caledonia.  The topo map has a couple of 60-metre contours on it, but the vast majority of the island sits between 25 and 45 metres above sea-level.

The road around the island is about 60km long, and I saw various reports about the total road distance which suggested doing the lot in a day would be a stretch.  On the other hand, at least the riding would be virtually flat, which had implications for the second challenge.  The topo map suggested that at best, I'd be repeating an ascent of not much more than 40 metres.  I figured the doing the Everest second would have me fully informed about which bit of road to try - the first challenge would be a comprehensive recce ride if ever there was one...

As the date grew nearer, a bike project progressively met all necessary deadlines, though each by a whisker.  After several years of not quite having the right bike for the task, some post-Whaka100 shopping for Sarah from the fine folks at Yeti NZ, put a stunning Open U.P. into my own hands.  That in turn necessitated my first Oli Brooke-White wheel build in ages, a pair of Stan's Flow Mk3 on Hope RS4 hubs, which will no doubt be bombproof, as with every other pair of wheels he's ever built me.

No sooner had Sarah and I arrived back from our quick scoot across the Andes (a perfect ride for the not-quite-ready Open if ever there was one), than we were packing up again for our week in Niue. Sarah's Cannondale would be coming with, and didn't leave the bike bag between times.  I picked up the Open from Oli, and managed to squeeze in one shakedown ride and a bike-fit with Paul at Capital Cycles.

The international flight between Auckland and Niue is relatively short, but you end up crossing the date line, so we got to do the 6th of January all over again.  As it turns out, Air New Zealand is the only airline that goes there, and runs two return trips out of Auckland per week.  Owner of one of Niue's cafes, Ex-Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky, told us that the limiting factor is the number of tourist beds on the island - if more people were brought in, there'd be nowhere for them to sleep.

I assembled bikes at the airport upon arrival, and while Sarah drove Kaitlyn and our bags to Makefu, Khulan and I rode.  Despite being only 10km from the airport, we got to experience a few of the island's road hazards, namely potholes and dogs, but on the other hand, were treated with utmost respect and care by the few motorised vehicles we saw on the road.

The next morning, Sarah and I set out relatively early to do a lap of the island.  The road quality was mixed, but definitely worse on the eastern side of the island, and necessitated a fair bit of pothole slalom, and occasional refuge on the unsealed road shoulder.  We stopped for a coffee in Alofi which was well worth the cost of getting hit by a rain shower on the final kilometres home.

The rest of the day's family activities had me questioning the merits of a full-day ride, but in the end, I decided to eat a big dinner and go for broke on day three.

The opportunity cost

Colouring in the map isn't as clever as it seems, and is much more brute force than anything.  Nonetheless, a bit of strategising helps reduce the risk of unnecessary duplication, and the planning process also provides additional entertainment.  I'd settled on initially pushing east across the island from Makefu, before circling back around the northern perimeter for a big lunch back at base.  After lunch, I would do the same for the southern half of the island.

I rolled out just before 6:30am, and after a few seconds on familiar road, I hung a left onto Makefu Bush Road, one of a few marked cycle routes on the island. 

The aptly named Makefu Bush Road

I'd printed an A3 copy of the topo map, and had marked it up with what was showing on the Strava heatmap.  My handlebar mounted GPS unit also had the Niue basemap installed, and with the combination, I felt pretty comfortable ducking and diving around in the bush.  While I didn't expect expansive views at any point, there were nonetheless surprising treats to be seen.

The riding was very pleasant, for the most part, though the format wasn't without its irritations.  Many tracks were overgrown, and overnight rain meant the encroaching vegetation was typically loaded with water.  It was also at times unclear whether I was welcome, with a few "roads" abruptly ending in someone's backyard.

When I wasn't in the forest, I was typically riding past crops, none of which I could identify, but I assumed taro, yams and cassava - the locally grown root vegetables.  We'd already discovered that there's no fresh dairy on the island, with all the milk in the supermarket being of the UHT variety. So, no cows, but occasional chickens and once or twice, the sound of something bigger crashing through the undergrowth. 

I stopped regularly to check the paper map, which I was colouring in in my head.  The brief pauses were a good opportunity to reorient myself, and to make sure that I wasn't about to miss something out.  One stop was both abrupt and unintended...

Fortunately, I didn't fall on anything sharp, and only my pride was bruised.  Up until that point, and beyond it, the 47mm WTB Byway tyres I was running front and rear had hooked up nicely, but something had clearly gone amiss.  Operator error, no doubt.

I pushed out to the sealed ring road a number of times, figuring it would be potentially more difficult to find the bush tracks from the main road.  That said, I was always on the lookout for an opportunity to form a loop, preferring duplication on the road rather than the rough dirt tracks.   Eventually, I'd knocked all the northern interior off, and thought things would be a bit easier on the sealed route back to lunch.

Oh, how wrong I was.

The paper map had been pretty good, with just about every track shown, and the GPS had been a fantastic backup.  Nonetheless, I missed a coastal track, and by the time I realised I'd overshot it, I decided to ride a walking track shown on the map which would take me back to the dirt road I'd missed.  First, an uneventful plummet down to the ocean on a steep driveway north of Mutalao.

The singletrack was hard riding, but a little over a kilometre long before it ended abruptly.  Faced with doubling back, not only on the track, but then again on the tarseal to find the road I'd missed, I made the foolish choice to leave the singletrack and strike out on foot.  Based on the GPS and paper map combo, I only had to bush bash for 100m or so, before I would surely find a 4WD track crossing in front of me.  I was approaching perpendicular to it, so all I had to do was plow forward, and I couldn't miss it.

Um yeah, about that.

It took about 15 minutes before I knew I'd made a bad mistake.  For some of that quarter hour I'd been able to move quickly, but my route had been sufficiently complex, that it was far from certain that I'd be able to locate the original track.  My GPS unit was struggling in the jungle, and so too was I.  My pedals and handlebars were constantly hooking up on vines, and while I considered hanging the bike in a tree and striking out on foot, the thought of losing my bike (as well as myself) in the bush was worse than my current predicament.

I could hear what I thought might be feral pigs, and while I didn't fear getting attacked, for good measure, I got stung on the chest by an angry wasp.  I sincerely hoped there were no locals within earshot to hear my complaint! 

Through trial and error, perserverance and a bit of brute force, I eventually found what may have been the remnants of the "road" I was looking for - or, it may well have been 20 metres south, across that impenetrable wall of plant matter.  Fark...

This is NOT fun.   And, it is YOUR fault!
Finally, after about an hour's huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing, I popped back out on the main road.  I was so disgusted, I didn't even bother going back for the track I'd missed earlier, assuming it was as non existent as the one parallel with it that I'd just been on.

I'd haemorrhaged both time and energy, but once I got back on my bike, I felt OK, and I anticipated easy riding all the way back to Makefu.

Um yeah, about that!

I popped to the end of a sea track just before Toi, and on my retreat, felt an incredibly sharp pain in my right ankle.  My best expletives rang out once more, both at the three wasps that had simultaneously nailed me, and at the world more generally.

At Toi, I filled my now-empty bottles from a tap on the side of one of the buildings, and sculled a whole bottle down.  I hoped the water wasn't bad, but I hadn't budgeted on being lost in the bush for an hour, and was feeling parched.

For the time being, I stuck with the plan, and looped through Hikutavake, only to stumble upon an open bar!!!  A can of coke and an ice-cream-on-a-stick were welcome, and while the kindly bartender didn't have change for my $50 note, he was more happy for me to owe him, than for him to owe me, and I left with the money in my pocket, promising to return the next day if not before.

Despite those pick-me-ups, when I reached Makefu, I was done.  I'd been riding just over 8 hours, covering a mere 122km.  The bush bashing had robbed me of precious time, energy, and inclination to continue, and the wasp stings had further eroded my enthusiasm.   The nail in the coffin was the easy out.  At 2:30 in the afternoon, I pulled the pin, without even trying to estimate whether or not completing my challenge was going to be possible in what was left of the day.

A shower, and the company of my wife and daughters were as wonderful as they were tempting, and I had no regrets at stopping.  While the thrill of the chase generates its own fun, I ride a bike inherently because I enjoy doing so, and while from time to time I'll willingly flog myself, this was not to be one of them.

That night, we went for dinner at the Matavai Resort with a lovely young couple who were at Turtle Lodge with us.  They'd been to Togo Chasm, and had raved about it, so the next morning after breakfast, we out to see it.  A rough fifteen minute bush walk ended with a ladder down into a wee spot of paradise.

Togo Chasm's sandy beach - a rare sight on Niue

The ocean was accessed via an impressive cave, and when we were out admiring the swell coming in, Kaitlyn dropped her sunglasses at an inopportune moment.  They looked tantalisingly retrievable for a few seconds, but the next wave pounded in, and with that, they were gone.

That was a bummer, but what really took the shine off the walk for me was growing discomfort in my ankle.   By the time we got back to base, it was swollen and sore, and having previously had a bad experience experience with cellulitis following a bee sting through my sock, Sarah and I decided a trip to A&E was in order.

Angry ankle
The staff at the hospital were amazing, and it was very cute how apologetic they were about our 20 minute wait to be seen.  The total cost included a non-local consultation fee and the prescribed antihistamines and antibiotics, and was trivial despite apologies for that too.  It was a great relief to have been seen at all, and I spent the next 48 hours or so on the couch in the lounge, since elevation seemed to have the most positive effect on the swelling.

After a couple of days' rest, things seemed to have settled down quite a bit, so I chanced a gentle ride with Sarah.  While there was no obvious swelling, the pedalling motion generated a strange sensation - almost like I had a bag of fluid under my skin that was wobbling about as my foot spun.  Other than that, things felt OK, and we managed to get across the island and back.

It was a good thing that we didn't spend too much time on the ring road, since the island was celebrating the takai drive-day, whereby every village decorates vehicles old and new, and drives slowly en masse around the whole island, tooting horns and throwing lollies the entire way!  Apparently it is the only day of the year where inebriated drivers are tolerated, perhaps because at least everyone is headed in the same direction (and at a snail's pace).

One of a whole fleet of "cars" which appear to be kept running just for this annual event!

As well as being a test ride, it was also an opportunity to do some more colouring in.  We passed the island's power station, which consisted of a large shed with a bunch of generators lying idle.  We imagined there was currently very low electricity demand on account of the parade, and presumed that the large solar panel array we'd seen by the hospital was providing sufficient oomph.

Interior of the Tuila Power Station

After a short off road loop behind the power station, we headed back to Makefu, but not before doing a quick lap of the wharf, where the monthly cargo ship unloads by barge (the next one was due soon, which had the locals looking forward to replenishment of the potato supply).  It was only out of sympathy for my drive-train that I didn't celebrate the successful 70km ride with a bomb into the ocean.

Before knocking off, we popped by the Hio Cafe, and in conversation, was told that I should have pissed on my ankle to prevent it from getting angry.  What fascinated me about that advice was that it was exactly what Sarah had told me when I got home a few days earlier.  It struck me as remarkable that two cultures that really couldn't have been more different and distinct, Mongolian and Niuean, nonetheless had the same traditional strategy for dealing with wasp stings.

With three days left on the island, and still a chance of the ankle flaring up, I decided there was no chance of mounting a half-successful Everest challenge, let alone a full one!  Nor was I able to go back in time, but I was still keen to colour in as much of the island as I could.

From what I could tell, I'd done everything I could in the top two-thirds of the island, bar a couple of sea tracks that I'd missed at least twice, and guessed were probably overgrown.  Sarah was keen to join me for the leftovers, so we headed for the south eastern corner of the island.

Stumbling upon another large solar array

While it was nice to have Sarah's company, it did change my experience considerably.  Because we'd done the ring road together, much of what was left was unsealed, and I fretted that she wasn't enjoying riding off-road on the bike she had.  We were also both nervous about wasps, and sure enough, Sarah got nailed by one on her upper arm.

Luckily, the necessary natural remedy was available (and this time, well known), and I felt like a proud husband being able to produce some urine on demand.  Sarah did the splashing on the site of the sting (pissing straight onto it would have upped the weirdness level far too much), and as advertised, it didn't bother her for the rest of the ride.

I'm used to the ridiculous format of riding down every bloody dead-end bothering Sarah whenever she accompanies me, but was surprised to find I began to lose patience with it too.  The sea tracks were hard, since the routes were not well used, were rough and occasionally steep, and the perceived risk of getting stung again was high.  On the up side, the views at the end were spectacular...

... even if the retreat was hard won.

I didn't bother heading out to one track which was way out on its own, and Sarah sat out a couple of dead-ends.  After a connecting track didn't connect, Sarah had had enough of the silliness, and we split up for the final run home.  I bailed on another short (but surely wasp-laden) track, but otherwise enjoyed blasting down the Makefu Bush Track to arrive a couple of minutes before Sarah with a successful 80km logged.

We celebrated our last night on the island with a traditional banquet, courtesy of the Hio Cafe, joined again by our lovely housemates, Hannah and Jarrod.  We had some ceviche, and tried uga for the first time (coconut crab), but my favourite was the takihi - layered papaya and taro, baked in coconut cream.  Delicious, but probably not good for the waistline!

I set off on my own the next morning, just before 6:30am to do a lap of the airport, and more importantly, pick off the various deadends in the vicinity.  The island doesn't appear to have many strava segments, but there was one from Makefu into Alofi, and so I gave it as much of a nudge as I was willing to, given my porridge was still settling and my legs were cold.

At the northern end of the airfield was the island's quarry, and I dropped down a rough track as far as the ring road before riding and walking back up.

The weather was a bit dreary, with light rain on and off.  I'd marked on my map a few bits of track I'd missed, but found in all cases, I'd missed them for good reason - there was no sign of them on the ground.  Nonetheless, it was fun poking around the airfield

The ride was fun, and as usual, I found myself noticing stuff which had escaped my attention at the wheel of the car.

A loop in the bush later, the 54km ride was done, bringing my total riding on the island to almost precisely 400km.  It was time to quickly clean the bike and pack it up for our return to NZ.  Our landlord Dave offered to put the bike bags on the back of his ute, but it was pissing down by this stage, so we tried successfully to squeeze them into the back of the station wagon.

My pipe dream of seeing 100% on the Nuie leaderboard was not realised, with the tracking website notifying that I'd ridden only 216.5 of the 247.8 unique kilometres in its database.  Of the 30km that eluded me, I'm certain that at least half of it is overgrown, and am equally certain that I could have scored at least 90% with a bit more care!  Maybe a good excuse to go back to Nuie.

Red = unridden

An Everest attempt on Niue would be bloody hard.  I thought there were three candidates:  a 44m ascent over 600m up to Hikutavake village in the north, the climb from the ring road south of the airport ascending 39m over 670m, or the first 670m on the Alofi-Liku Road, ascending 34m.  The first and steepest would be a tough 240km ride, while the other two would be 300km and 350km respectively.  The road surface in each case would be lousy, and I'm not convinced Strava has got the vital statistics correct (the gradients seem too low, to me).  Probably just as well I got stung...!!!!

Despite not pulling off either challenge, I had great time riding in Niue.  The full week gave ample time to explore, both on and off the bike.  There were swimming opportunities aplenty, and while I didn't sample as many spots as Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan did, the ones I saw were absolutely stunning.

What we saw of island life was inspiring.  Dave told us we could leave our bikes leaning up against the lodge ("they'll be safe there"), and I'm sure he was absolutely right.  We never locked anything, and every person we interacted with was lovely.

Prices were interesting:  petrol was about 50c per litre more expensive than in the big smoke, and there were some things you simply couldn't buy (e.g. fresh milk), but by and large, we weren't paying too much extra to cook at home.  We survived with the local WiFi setup, though chewed through an outlandish amount of data between the four of us (which didn't come cheap), despite only having connectivity at Turtle Lodge.  The Go! Niue app was fantastic, and didn't require you to be online.

Travelling with our beautiful adult children was a nice change, though interesting to observe the need to snap out of our traditional roles a bit more.  It is always such a delight watching Kaitlyn and Khulan together, and when they interact with others.  Family holidays will get tougher to fit in as their lives complexify, but hopefully we can keep finding opportunities.

I'm baffled that Niue doesn't have a better reputation as a holiday destination, especially for couples and families with older kids.  And while I wouldn't describe Niue as a riding destination (unlike the few other Pacific Islands Sarah and I have been to: New Caledonia, Maui or Taiwan), I'd encourage any cyclist travelling there on account of the laid back vibe and incredible interface between land and ocean, to take an off-road capable bike with you (something like an Open U.P. would be perfect!).

Photo by NASA!

Thanks for the memories, Niue!  I may yet see you again.


  1. Thanks, John! I went to Niue three or four times and the pictures you paint seem both familiar and fresh (my trips were almost 30 years ago). A nice story, very well told.

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  3. You're taking the piss, surely? :D Great read bro, cheers!

  4. Great posting John. So good to see the photos and bring back memories of our time there. As a kid Dad was posted there for 4 mths, so we travelled and experienced much of what you describe. It’s like time has stood still ��