The undiscovered island of Niue


Since 2011, the Czech Mint's coins have featured the exotic word "Niue". You most likely know that this is the name of the island state that provides us with a licence to issue commemorative and bullion coins. But you probably have no idea what it's like to live there. The famous Czech adventurer Jiří Kolbaba, who has visited over 130 countries on all seven continents, has discovered this for you:

When I read in the diary of my favourite sailor James Cook about the mysterious "Savage Island", which he failed to step on, I had a beautiful goal in front of me. But there was a problem. No island, islet or even tidal coral in the Pacific has such a name. Later, I was able to identify this unknown landmass. "Cook's" island is now called Niue (pronounced nee·oo·ay). Okay – so it exists. But how big is it? Do planes fly there? Do ships sail there? Is it inhabited?

Eventually, the search was successful. Niue is a 259-square-kilometre independent state loosely associated with New Zealand. Undiscovered, ecologically unspoilt, mysterious, … – that's how New Zealand travel brochures talk about the island.

I was transported to the coral island – as part of my three-month Pacific expedition in 2006 – by the local Polynesian Airlines company. I was very excited. On the runway of the modest Hanan airport, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was there! A quick check-in followed (I was the only visitor!) and the helpful natives were already driving me to the recommended guesthouse. However, they returned a short while later saying they had a better tip for the rare guest. And indeed. The kind owner of the little hotel let me use her entire sprawling house for my stay. The very next day I rented the necessary car (there is no public transport here!) and after a while the smiling shop owner sold me some food and drink. He put it on my account: »That's fine. Tomorrow, when you exchange your money, you'll come and pay me…« So these are the descendants of bloodthirsty savages? My voyage of discovery on the mysterious island has begun more than splendidly.

"Polynesian Rock" – this is often the name of the isolated island 600 km from Samoa and Tonga and 2400 km from New Zealand. It lies east of the Date Line and the time difference to the Czech Republic is minus 12 hours. This means that when we have midnight, they have lunch here.

The dramatically shaped island was formed when the mighty coral was carried above the surface by movements of the seabed. Over the centuries, vegetation and sporadic life have taken hold. People appeared at an unknown time. It's thought they came in canoes from Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands.

James Cook, who was the reason I came here in the first place, arrived in 1774. Three times he tried to go ashore and three times he was driven off by the natives. They were enraged and had blood on their mouths and hands. That's what Cook stated in his logbook. He charted the land, named it "Savage Island“, and sailed away. It wasn't until later that it was explained how it actually happened. The local mythology spoke of a white man coming one day and claiming the land (how visionary!). So, the natives drove everyone away as a precaution. And the bloody mouth? That wasn't blood, but a special local variety of red banana – futi hulahula. The ruse was only successful until 1846. That's when missionaries from the LMS (London Missionary Society) arrived and, like all of Samoa, made a significant Christian impact on the island. Since 1974, Niueans have enjoyed independence within the British Commonwealth. They are in a loose union with New Zealand, so they own "kiwipassport".

I had repeated problems with my passport on this three-month Pacific expedition. The passport of the Czech Republic was an unknown document – from somewhere in interplanetary space. First, they always took it somewhere, then they went around looking to see if I had eyes, nose, ears, etc. They conferred at length, made phone calls, and finally took condescending pity on the extra-terrestrial.

If I got carried away some time ago and sang praises for the Samoan island of Savai'i, Niue deserves at least a symphony. I've never seen anything so amazing. The vegetation here grows not from solidified lava but from high layers of ancient coral that rose from the ocean in ancient times. Cook wrote in his logbook that there are numerous small bays, caves, stone bridges, and bizarre formations around the perimeter of the island. It's not for nothing that the island is nicknamed "the rock".

I was disappointed with the weather. A heavy downpour was replaced by a lighter shower and the longed-for rays of sunshine appeared only sporadically. Everything else, however, excited me. Fantastic rock formations made of sharp rusty coral. Eroded shores with high, foamy waves crashing noisily against them. An incredible number of breath-taking caves with many colourful stalactites and stalagmites. Blackened limestone formations that are almost frightening. Inferno in a Pacific paradise!

I crawled through the narrow crevices and marvelled at the evocative beauty. I even talked to myself. You must share an experience like that with someone. To be carried away – that's the real deal. But in this environment, it has its limits. At every turn there is a great risk of injury, which could end tragically given the remoteness of many places. The wet limestone is slippery, the weathered coral is very sharp and can collapse unexpectedly. In a coastal cave, there is a risk of entrapment by the tide.

Fortunately, everything turned out well. I made the night flight to New Zealand. The luggage from Niue was a few kilos overweight. It was all water that soaked into every thread of my clothes, shoes, and gear. Fresh water from the sky and salt water from the stormy Pacific. I perceived more of these opposites. I experienced joy and fear. I've seen nature both beautiful and terrifyingly dangerous. I've been among pleasant people, yet terribly lonely. I was happy to be here and sad to leave. But that's life. The traveling life is no different – it is perhaps just more action-packed, adventurous and fulfilling. That's what I like about it…

Jiří Kolbaba

Did you know that…

The official languages of Niue are English and Niuean. The Pacific tongue can be found in the coat of arms, which appears on the obverse side of selected coins of the Czech Mint. The phrase »Atua, Niue Tukulagi« can be translated as »God, Niue Eternally«. The emblem also features symbols representing the island's nature and culture. These include two crossed weapons. The "Katoua" is a wooden club whose edge can split a skull in two. In the past, it was used by the natives in battle and today it is a ritual object.

In 2020, James Cook, who discovered the island of Niue for the Western world, appeared on the commemorative coins of the Czech Mint. He was then followed by a number of other travellers immortalised in gold and silver – sailors Fernão de Magalhães, Vasco da Gama, Leif Eriksson, Christopher Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci or polar explorers Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, and Robert Falcon Scott. That is why we support Jiří Kolbaba, whose home is the whole wide world. He does not hesitate to share his travel experiences – his engaging lectures introduce travel lovers to both the beauty of virgin nature and the exotic faces of the natives.

Czech Mint