Tony Aholima grows about 106 kinds of taro on his plantation and a variety of banana trees.
Tony Aholima grows about 106 kinds of taro on his plantation and a variety of banana trees. Jim Eagles

Niue: Land of plenty

TONY Aholima isn't sure how many varieties of taro are growing in his gardens.

"I think I've got 106 kinds," he says with a big grin. "I'm not sure. I'm always finding new ones."

Among them is the giant taro, which certainly is enormous.

"I think I'm the only person in Niue growing that. Most people here don't like the taste. But I like eating it."

Niue is an amazingly fertile place, where it seems almost anything can grow from a cutting and Tony's 4x4 Plantation Tour is a great way to experience the lot.

Bounce down jungle tracks to the clearings where his gardens flourish - accompanied by his smiling young son, Max - and you find every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable.

How about a banana? "What kind?" asks Tony. "This is a low-sugar variety," he says, cutting down a bunch, which proves delicious.

Beside his house in Mutalau village, he's even got a banana variety whose sap produces the red colour worn by the warriors who famously scared off Captain James Cook when he tried to land in 1774.

Then there's native spinach, garlic spring onions, cucumbers, pumpkins, yams, noni - "that's a weed here" - vanilla, yams, maize, white and yellow cassava, pawpaw, mango, papaya, red, white, yellow and purple kumara, tomatoes, coconuts...

To get the best out of his land, Tony is always experimenting, investigating traditional and modern techniques.

He has made metal digging sticks, modelled on the traditional wooden ones, because they're more effective than modern tools.

As a result of his experiments, Tony plants the traditional way, by the phases of the moon. He remembers once turning the pages of NZ Women's Weekly - "I always read everything I can about gardening" - and finding, to his delight, an article about planting by the moon. "The old people did their gardening that way and now the people in New Zealand have found it's the best, too."

There's no organ or piano in the big, white Ekalesia Niue church at Avatele Village. Instead, when the time comes for a hymn, a church leader starts singing and the rest join in.

The service we went to was run by the Federation of Christian Women, most of them dressed proudly in long white dresses and white broad-brimmed hats. It was an elderly woman who launched the first hymn - pitch-perfect.

Subsequent hymns were begun by a man, with a magnificent deep voice, and male voices dominated.

But regardless of whether it was men or women who led the singing, it was magnificent. I've been to church services in Tonga and Samoa and always enjoyed them, but the singing at Avatele was the finest of all.

I was later told by locals that Avatele is renowned as being one of the best singing churches on the island, and I can well believe it.

Graves on Niue offer an intriguing commentary on island society.

Rather than being quarantined in cemeteries, they are part of the day-to-day scenery. Many people are buried right beside their homes so they can continue to be part of the family. Others are along the roadside, where passersby can share memories.

And they're usually interesting to look at. In the village of Liku, I was shown a most unusual grave, said to be very old, with the figure of a man carved on a huge rock.

But most have standard headstones and are decorated with objects intended to celebrate the deceased's life.

We saw graves glowing with windmills and flowers, apparently marking the burial sites of children. The one I found most moving was for a young man who had died recently. As well as wreaths of flowers, it was decorated with the things that mattered to him: television set, stereo, CDs, video tapes and computer games.

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