If the Pacific Ocean is the haystack, then the island of Niutao has to be a good contender for the needle.  Measuring a single mile across, with a population of only a few hundred, Niutao is one of the nine islands which make up the Pacific nation of Tuvalu – the world’s fourth smallest country, and one of its least visited.

To say the islands of Tuvalu are remote and difficult to get to is a bit of an understatement, but then I’ve always loved a challenge, so when I was offered the chance to visit this mysterious island in the middle of the largest ocean on earth, I of course jumped at the chance – but how do I get there?

If you live in Tuvalu, then the fishing-trawler-turned-ferry The Nivaga II (don’t ask what happened to The Nivaga I!) is your slow, temperamental, and rusty umbilical cord connecting you to the outer islands.  As the only way to get to Niutao, I bought a ticket, and settled down for a four-day voyage across the mighty Pacific, leaving the relative safety of Tuvalu’s main island behind, and heading towards an ominous looking greyness on the horizon…

Much to my disappointment, I spent most of the voyage either hiding from tropical storms, or slumped over the ships railings depositing everything I have ever eaten into the sea, whilst Tuvaluan crew members stepped over me mumbling something about palagis (foreigners) and the sea – I didn’t ask for a full translation.

I wasn’t the only one though, and in those brief moments when I wasn’t clinging to the railings, I lay on my grass mat on the ship’s deck, watching a local woman vomit continuously into a blanket for three days – compelling viewing.

After over 100 long hours at sea, with an empty stomach, and a swaying head, I finally stepped off the boat and onto the small launch which battled the notoriously difficult waves, currents, and hidden reefs, eventually landing me one of the most remote islands in the world.

This was the first boat to visit Niutao for almost six weeks 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.

The warmth of the tropical sun matched the warmth of the smiles of the expectant crowd.  Families greeted sons who had been away at sea for two years or more, and everyone wanted to hear news of their families and friends in the capital.

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 rolled onto the beach – without it the island has no electricity.

However, by far the cargo which caused the biggest stir getting off the boat, was the pale and slightly confused looking palagi, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by inquisitive children, smiling men, and laughing women all wanting to talk to this strange flotsam which had washed up on their island – I was the first palagi to visit Niutao in over 8 years.

As my bare feet hit the soft white sand, the discomfort of the four-day voyage disappeared and I tried to convince my body that I was back on terra firma – or as firma as the terra gets around these parts anyway.

My toes explored the fine-grained beach which was edged on one side by the vast blue of the Pacific, and on the other by lush green palm trees stretching the length of the island, all fighting for the prime spot at the water’s edge.

Beautifully curved waves crashed onto the colourful shallow reefs, providing both a fantastic playground for children surfing on old planks of wood, and a staging area for strong young men who carefully prepared their wooden canoes ready to chase the flocks of birds on the horizon, betraying the presence of 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 fishermen there was nothing to say that my voyage hadn’t been one through time as well as distance.

As I watched The Nivaga II turn and head towards the horizon, I reflected on my new surroundings and concluded that Niutao is an island which is equally amazingly simple, and simply amazing.

It would be six weeks before The Nivaga II returned, and I couldn’t wait to begin my Niutao adventure for real.

  • Andy Browning
  • : Andy Browning is an expedition leader, geographer, explorer, writer, speaker, and part time teacher with a full time passion for travel and adventure. Andy has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to off the beaten track exploration, seeking out adventures and experiences wherever they might be lurking, often with unconventional and embarrassing outcomes! By travelling with a purpose to the less visited corners of our planet, Andy hopes to break down preconceptions, and make people laugh, whilst hopefully also proving that exploring the world isn't something which is limited to the rich and famous.
  • : http://www.andyexplores.com/
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  • : Andy Explores is a website dedicated to seeking out adventures and experiences wherever they might be lurking. Unconventional and often embarrassing, these are the stories which Andy hopes will serve to inspire others to have their own adventures, break down preconceptions about the less visited corners of our planet, and make people laugh, whilst hopefully also proving that exploring the world isn't something which is limited to the rich or the famous.
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  • : This is an edited version of a blog post I posted in 2012 - http://www.andyexplores.com/tuvalu-blog/failing-pirate-school