A lonely place of dying

Michael Wayne

It's not every day the thought crosses your mind: "this wouldn't be a bad spot to die."

Yet here at Tomb Point in Alofi, a speck of a capital city on the diminutive South Pacific island country of Niue, it couldn't feel truer to me.

Tomb Point is indeed a cemetery - one of the world's most picturesque, far more so than the name suggests. A final resting place shaded by palm trees, with a dramatic view of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Across the street, Alofi's town square is as quiet as a tomb, and is so most of the time. In a country of around 1,500 at last count, opening hours are a mere serving suggestion.

The square's playground, by contrast, is full of life. Day after day, someone's chosen to make it a meeting spot, a fort to defend, or a colourful extension of childhood joy. Here, that's an achievement.

The island is a coral limestone brick sitting on an extinct volcano. There are no beaches, and vegetables are quite hard to grow in the scant topsoil (a word of advice to tourists: that small portion of thinly sliced veggies on your plate at dinnertime is a minor miracle, so eat it).

Niue's close diplomatic relationship with New Zealand means that most young people leave the country for those distant shores as soon as they're ready to study or join the workforce. The youth flight is a problem, and if left unchecked, may confine Niue to being the world's biggest graveyard a few generations from now.

The lifeline, as it so often is, is tourism. Niue's startling assortment of natural coral caves and grottoes are a big pull, as is the friendliness of its people. Quirky new ventures such as food festivals showcasing unique Niuean cuisine, heavy on the tropical fruit, fish and taro, and the bi-annual Niuekulele Festival, have also given things a boost.

A car drives by, the first in 20 minutes.

Death and the South Pacific have a thing going on. Be it front lawn graves in the Cook Islands, an island of skeletal headhunters in the Solomons, or the countless burials at sea; if you die in the region it's bound to be an eternity to remember.

When Captain James Cook first arrived here in 1774, the islanders had the good sense to tell him to sail on. Cook was unable to land after three attempts, and left "Savage Island" in a huff. Death's hand had been momentarily stayed.

A second car. It's nearly peak hour.

By 1901, the locals had changed their tune, and after fierce lobbying by Togia-pulu-toaki, the last king of Niue, the island was annexed by the British Empire.

The arrival of European explorers in this part of the world was accompanied by death undreamed of by its natives. Disease and the cruelty of power put more islanders beneath the Pacific's shores than ever before. It's only natural that the continent's customs and obsession with visualising death should have migrated as well.

Clusters of plots are a common sight in Niue, sitting like morbid bus stops in clearings along the island's coastal road. They're well maintained, and the wilderness surrounding them kept at a respectful distance by groundskeepers unseen during my visit.

Death doesn't discriminate. Here at Tomb Point, kings lie ashes-to-ashes with commoners. The Niuean royal family collapsed after the British arrived, and its final figureheads have remained here ever since. And on an island this tiny, space is at a premium, so regular folks were allowed to rest here too.

The very European visage of a graveyard does look somewhat out of place on a tropical island, and sure enough, nature has resisted the incongruous addition. One ancient headstone is split right down the centre, as if struck from on high by lightning...or a particularly weighty coconut.

The royal tombstones are suitably majestic, giant white statements that let you know that the inscribed names were big deals in their day. Recent headstones are more modestly sized, but the addition of photographs so popular in the islands add a haunting touch.

Nearby, a memorial tells the tale of Niue's involvement in the First World War. A list of 150 names were the island's bravest, sent to the Western Front in 1916 as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. For most of the men, it was the first time they'd left their isolated home.

The campaign went about as disastrously as you could imagine. Unprepared for European disease, particularly the kind brewing in the trenches, 80 per cent of the group were hospitalised in three months.

The memorial's list of World War II fighters is much shorter.

These days, an island death is usually down to natural causes, especially in a place as allegedly crime-free as Niue. I'm told that the last crime of any note was when the island's sole prisoner was beaten to death by a police officer, who then took his place.

Tomb Point isn't all gloom and doom, however. Humpback whales, those Pollyannas of the deep, bring their newborn calves to play off the coast during late winter, while spinner dolphins spiral through the waves all year.

By late afternoon, the town centre has come alive. Hungry tourists, in town for the ukulele festival, have filled the square to roll the dice on one of the local restaurants. If they're lucky, the menu will feature uga. The island's resident coconut crabs are a delicacy, and a huge drawcard for out-of-towners. As it's always been, death for life.

The setting sun bathes Tomb Point and I in a gentle warmth, so welcome in such a cold place. A brilliant light shines over the grassy park and across the street to the town centre, now set to the gentle lilt of ukuleles.

Far below, the glassy Pacific crashes into the coral coast. It's a backdrop straight out of a Victorian novel, a lovers' leap.

Don't waste your time, doomed lovers. You can achieve immortality right here.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Niue is approximately three and a half hours from Auckland. Air New Zealand fly to Hannan International Airport on Tuesdays and Fridays only. Visit niueisland.com for more details.

STAYING THERE: Accommodation is comfortable, but limited. The Scenic Matavai Resort is the island's premium option. For more info visit scenichotelgroup.co.nz

The writer travelled as a guest of Niue Tourism.