Sailing the South Seas ; Reaching Tokelau in Polynesia Is a Difficult Task but the Journey Is Definitely Worth It, Says Terri Judd
Judd, Terri, The Independent (London, England)
The men on the small boat performed an awkward dance as they tried, in their flip-flops, to maintain their balance amid the bouncing waves. Roaring with laughter, the islanders ducked as the rusty oil drums were lowered precariously down from the ship. Next they turned to us, offering outstretched hands as we leapt onto their craft and crouched between the sacks of sugar and crates of Vailima beer. As we did so the rotund captain of our ship leaned over the edge and uttered an order. "He is not coming back for you tonight," translated one of our new companions casually. And with that we watched our only link with the outside world, not to mention our passports and money, sail away.
Without a word of explanation, we had been abandoned in one of the globe's most remote spots - halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii and 36 hours from the nearest port or airport. In fairness there can be few more beautiful locations to be stranded with only snorkelling gear and a few Samoan notes to your name. We were in Atafu, the most distant of three South Pacific atolls which make up the territory of Tokelau.
Each atoll - a necklace of coral islands encircling azure lagoons - boasts an average population of 500 Polynesians who live in simple, palm-shaded homes. The last territory on earth to get telephones, Tokelau is so small that the CIA simply describes it as "about 17 times the size of The Mall in Washington DC". It has no capital, no cars, no banks, no jails, no fast food joints and no nightclubs. What it does have are swimming pigs, phenomenal blue waters and a tangible atmosphere of serenity.
Just five metres above sea level at its highest point and with its coral base slowly sinking, Tokelau is one of the most obvious victims of global warming. Pessimistic estimates suggest it will be submerged by the end of the century. With insufficient land to build an airstrip, the only way to get to the islands is to book passage on the MV Tokelau, which departs fortnightly from Western Samoa to deliver essentials and any locals who venture abroad. It takes approximately 26 hours to make the 480km trip to Fakaofo, a further four to Nukunonu and another six to Atafu.
Without the time to stay on one island for weeks, we chose to stick with the MV Tokelau as it visited each atoll in turn. Standing in monsoon rain amid the cargo containers at Apia dock, our first sight of our home for the next eight days was somewhat daunting. Dwarfed by the surrounding freighters, the gunmetal-grey-and-rust- coloured vessel groaned under the weight of oil drums, crates of food and sacks of onions.
The following day we arrived to find the rest of the deck strewn with mats on which two dozen locals were already stretched out. We were shown to our cabin, the only one not occupied by crew and usually reserved for visiting government officials. Just large enough to contain bunk beds, a tiny table and sink, it boasted one recently installed luxury - air conditioning. On the door the letters "VIP" were painted just above a notice warning passengers not to drop litter.
What began as a means to an end became an enchanting part of our trip. Once we had got used to the swell and conceded that our many- legged cabin mates could scuttle back into their crevices too fast for our flying flip- flops, we savoured the journey. Coffees in hand, we perched between the crane and the crates at dawn watching flying fish, dolphins and whales. In the evening, we enjoyed chilled glasses of wine from our stash as armies of clouds marched into the blood-red sunset or searched amateurishly for the Southern Cross. In between we dined on simple meals prepared by Ropati Savelio, the gentle Samoan giant of a chef.
The locals demonstrated an uncanny ability to sleep even through the highest of seas. While awake they gathered round the small television near the galley and roared with laughter at WWF wrestling videos, sang and chatted. …