Failing pirate school: Getting to Niutao

Hello blog fans!  How are you?  It’s been a while, I hope you’re well, is that a new haircut?  No…Well you look fantastic, maybe you’ve lost weight?  So I have been away for a little while, apologies for the lack of updates, but as you will soon realise the outer islands of Tuvalu are not the hotbed of technology as you might think they are, and so I have had to wait until my return to the relative metropolis of Funafuti in order to update you with all my outer island adventures – there are a few, so instead of trying to fit them all into one blog post I’m planning on a mini series of Niutao themed blogs to tell you all about the most memorable six weeks of my life, let’s get started shall we?

 Niutao after four days at sea...

Niutao after four days at sea...

We rejoin our adventurers on an old rusty ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean being beaten by a fierce swell and torrents of rain towards the end of their four day journey from Funafuti to the island of Niutao.  The wind is raging; the assembled passengers cower from the relentless rain, and pray to be delivered from the all powerful storm.  Andy, the selfless hero of our story, is not amongst the cowering passengers, no, instead he is standing on the bridge staring defiantly into the inky abyss afforded by the storm and masterfully guiding the ship towards the safety of Niutao, a feat which others had deemed impossible.  As the ship rises and falls over the mountainous waters young children gape in awe at his nonchalance, men applauded his bravery, and women could do nothing but swoon at his daring and ability to stare such fierce weather in the face.

Of course this is all a fantasy created by my hungry and sleep deprived imagination, and in reality instead of standing on the ship’s bridge taking charge, I could be found slumped over the ships railings depositing everything I have ever eaten into the sea whilst the Tuvaluan crew members stepped over me mumbling something about palagis and the sea – I didn’t ask for a full translation.

 Me swashbuckling with the best of them...

Me swashbuckling with the best of them...

I cursed the fact that I hasdn’t pestered my parents to take me to Broxbourne swimming pool more often as a child – it had a wave machine which surely would have prepared me for this onslaught?  To be fair though Loughton pool was a 5 minute walk from my house, had big floats, and a slide shaped like a frog, so it’s no wonder why it normally won – I tried explaining this to a benevolent crew member as he thrust half a dozen dry crackers into my hand, but by the look on his face I don’t think he was too concerned about the facilities afforded by various swimming pools in the Essex and Hertfordshire region during the early 90s.  Even the crackers were unimpressed and jumped ship with the rest of my stomach contents ten minutes later.  The whole scenario was quite annoying as it basically put an end to my promising career as a pirate, turns out swashbuckling on the high seas is quite tricky if you can’t even stand up without feeling like you are going to vomit.

I wasn’t the only one though, and in those brief moments when I wasn’t clinging to the railings, I lay on my mat on the ship’s deck whilst the tropical rain soaked everything around me, and watched a local woman vomit continuously into a blanket for three days – compelling viewing.  And so it was with an empty stomach and a swaying head that I stepped off the boat and onto the small launch which would battle with the notoriously difficult waves, currents, and hidden reefs, and eventually land me on the island of Niutao – an island which will forever be etched in my memory as one of the most incredible places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The instant I jumped off the launch and my bare feet hit the soft white sand, all the discomfort of the four day voyage disappeared and was replaced by the comforting warmth of the setting sun, and the equally warm smiles of the people who had come to see what delights the boat would bring.  This was the first boat to visit the island for almost six weeks and the only link most islanders have to the outside world, and as such, was quite the event.  As passengers and cargo began to disembark, the scene on the beach turned from Pacific tranquillity to Pacific chaos in a matter of seconds (not that there is much difference between the two, Pacific chaos normally just means more laughing). Families greeted sons who had been away at sea for two years or more, students were returning from university courses in Funafuti or Fiji, and everyone wanted to hear news of their families and friends in the capital or further afield, there was almost a scuffle to get to the post bag before it was taken away by a happy looking official, and a collective sigh of relief was breathed as the first barrels of fuel were unloaded – without it the island has no electricity.  However, the cargo which caused the biggest stir getting off the boat was by far the two palagis wearing Scout uniform, and before we knew it we were surrounded by inquisitive children, smiling men, and laughing women all wanting to talk to this strange flotsam.

 Not a bad welcome...

Not a bad welcome...

I had barely said talofa to the first person and shaken their hand before the crowd was parted by two men, one who shared an uncanny resemblance to the womble Uncle Bulgaria, and the other who shared the exact dimensions of a large cannonball.  Cannonball and Uncle Bulgaria did a great job at parting the crowd, and with a reassuring smile and a firm handshake introduced themselves as two of the island's Scout leaders.  The introduction was a tad unnecessary on account of their perfectly ironed matching uniforms and the gaggle of almost 30 uniformed Cubs and Scouts loitering behind them, but it added to the surrealism of the situation, and reminded me why I had undertaken the four day voyage in the first place.  Say what you want about The Scout Association, but when you find a group of Cubs and Scouts on a remote Pacific island hardly visited by outsiders, where you can’t even buy a can of coke, it’s hard to dispute just how global an association it really is.

Cannonball and Uncle Bulgaria dragged us away from the growing crowds, up the gently sloping beach, and onto the back of a waiting pickup truck which then drove us all of 300m down the dirt track which passes as the main road, to the room which I was to call home for the next six weeks.  That first night we were treated like kings and welcomed into the community like long lost brothers.  A feast had been prepared, and my stomach rejoiced at the thought of some sustenance after being empty for almost three days – little did I know that this was to begin the longest food binge I have ever been asked to undertake.  We ate, listened to speeches, and then gave some speeches of our own before collapsing into bed where I tried to convince my body that I was no longer on the boat but instead on terra firma – or as firma as the terra gets around these parts anyway.

 Some of the local riff-raff...

Some of the local riff-raff...

The views that greeted me in the morning were story book perfect: Just outside my door three large stone steps led down to an alluring white beach which opened up to reveal the vast blue of the Pacific, only broken by the beautifully curving waves crashing onto the shallow reef which surrounds the island, and provides a fantastic playground for children surfing on planks of wood with skills that would impress the most seasoned professional.  The edge of the beach was guarded for as far as the eye could see by lush green palm trees all fighting for the prime spot at the water’s edge, and despite the early hour, young men were out fishing on the reef, or getting their traditional canoes ready to chase the flocks of birds, which were gathering in the fresh morning sky, betraying the position of the shoals of delicious yellow fin tuna below.  The scene before me was timeless, and if it wasn’t for the lurid green David Beckham t-shirt being worn by one of the fisherman there was nothing to say I wasn’t visiting this place 200 years earlier.  Niutao is simply amazing, and amazingly simple.

This wasn’t the morning to enjoy the tranquillity though; instead we were treated to a vast breakfast including all your early morning favourites – raw fish, octopus, lobster etc. before embarking on a magical mystery tour of the island led of course by Uncle Bulgaria.  The boat was due to leave in a matter of hours, and Jay had to be on it to return to Funafuti, so the tour couldn’t last long.  Luckily Niutao is only two miles long and a mile wide, so our itinerary wasn’t too lengthy.  First stop was the local community house which boasts the best collection of traditional tools and crafts of all the Tuvaluan islands.  The walls were completely covered with mats, fishing rods and nets, grass skirts, and other traditionally made Pacific paraphernalia.  All the descriptions were in Tuvaluan, which even if I could read the language would have been useless as within about a minute of entering the community house were had been ushered out again and onto the back of another truck.  It seemed that Uncle Bulgaria tours kept to a very strict time schedule.

 The largest building in Niutao by a long way...

The largest building in Niutao by a long way...

The truck trundled along the road past the immaculate, gleaming, whitewashed church which towered above the surrounding traditional houses and served as a focal point for the community.  Continuing down the main road we passed people going about their daily work, feeding their pigs or chickens, collecting coconuts, sweeping their elegantly simple houses, or weaving the mats which Niutao are famous for producing.  Everyone stopped what they were doing to wave and/or stare at us as we went past; turns out we were quite the novelty particularly with the young children, some of whom had never seen a white man before.

Beyond the village, the truck drove us into untamed jungle which flanked the roads on either side.  As the road got thinner, muddier and potholier, the jungle became denser and soon the road had become little more than a track, strewn with palm fronds, coconuts, and the remains of unlucky land crabs who had tried to face up to passing motorbikes.  From time to time a clearing would appear at the side of the road offering a glimpse of a solitary house, a canoe safely beached, or a humble graveyard.  The reason for heading into the jungle was to see the camp site which was used by the Scouts during almost every school holiday.  The camp consisted of a beautiful traditionally built house with coconut logs and palm roof, stood next to a water container, all set against a stunning backdrop of white beach and blue sea – it looked like an idyllic place to spend a few weeks and I couldn’t stop smiling when Uncle Bulgaria told me (in between the hastily taken photos) that they were planning a two week camp and I was invited.  I looked forward to coming back to the camp, particularly as once again Uncle B’s tours ensured we were only out of the truck for a matter of minutes before we were once again tearing through the jungle, this time along a newly made road towards our next destination.

 Niutao's equivalent of the M25...

Niutao's equivalent of the M25...

We burst out of the jungle, drove along the causeway which cuts Niutao’s shallow lagoon in half, and screeched to a halt at our final destination of the day, the Niutao Scout Hut.  Imagine if you will a stereotypical Scout hut in the UK, perhaps an ageing wooden shack in a church car park somewhere, or a faded building tucked away with overgrown weeds outside, inside there are likely to be some old tables, a broken window perhaps, a slight musty smell, a couple of ropes, and of course the obligatory picture of Baden Powell - welcome to the Niutao Scout hut, lovingly built by a Canadian NGO, apparently from plans stolen from the 30th Epping Forest Scouts.  If it wasn’t for the Tuvaluan school children using it for a lesson as we barged in, and the palm trees swaying outside, it wouldn’t be difficult to think you were back in the UK.  Uncle B was glowing with pride, particularly with the picture of Baden Powell, and it was only when we mentioned that the boat was supposed to have left 45 minutes ago that he relented and drove us back through the village to the channel blasted into the reef, where the last of the small launches were preparing to return to the main ship.

 Me and Uncle B with his prized photo of Baden Powell...

Me and Uncle B with his prized photo of Baden Powell...

Jay was unceremoniously hustled onto the crowded launch and managed to squeeze himself into a small gap between a couple of laughing women and a pile of rice sacks, and after another dozen or so passengers somehow managed to find a space, the launch, sitting precariously low in the water headed out of the channel and into the unforgiving waves heading towards the main ship that would soon head towards the southern horizon and back to Funafuti.

So there we have it, the boat had left, the next one wouldn’t arrive for another five or six weeks and my Niutao adventure was about to begin properly – tune in next time to find out how I offended some of the island ghosts, tried to catch my own food in the jungle, and how I ended up half naked in front of the entire God fearing church congregation one Sunday morning!

 Small launch leaving Niutao for the  Nivaga  just visible in the background...

Small launch leaving Niutao for the Nivaga just visible in the background...

© Andy Browning 2012