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Tokelau Islands

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Want to get away from it all? Head off to Tokelau, where there's no capital city, no airport, no harbour, no cars, no banks, no guns and no tourism. There's plenty of islands - 127 of 'em - fantastic lagoon diving and Polynesian culture at its most untouched. 

It's not the easiest place to get to: only one boat a month travels there from Samoa, its nearest neighbour. Once there you'll find life is simple, the social traditions are complex, and there's little shaking but the coconuts in the palms. But with the seas rising fast, you'd better get to know Tokelau while you can.

Tokelau is made up of three classic atolls - Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu - each a necklace of tiny islets surrounding a central lagoon. The islets are the built-up remains of coral reefs which once encircled submarine volcanoes, now submerged by the lagoon. Roughly speaking, Tokelau lies midway between New Zealand and Hawaii. Its nearest neighbour is Samoa, 480km (300mi) away to the south. The three atolls themselves are by no means close neighbours: Atafu and Nukunonu are separated by 92km (57mi) of lonely South Pacific Ocean, and it's another 64km (40mi) south-east to Fakaofo.

The low-lying islands measure only 5m (16ft) at their highest point, and 200m (656ft) at their widest. As with all coral atolls, the soil is thin, infertile and poorly drained. Each atoll has its own special blessing: fresh water is plentiful on Fakaofo, Nukunonu has plenty of pandanus trees (used for weaving) and Atafu has stands of kanava trees (an excellent building material). Wildlife is limited to rats, lizards, mosquitoes and bugs, visiting seabirds, and domesticated pigs and poultry.

Tokelau's tropical climate brings average temperatures of 28C (80F) year round and heavy but irregular rainfall, often up to 80mm (3.5in) per day. Tropical storms are becoming more frequent, and cyclones have caused extensive damage in recent years. Global warming is a major concern for low-lying Tokelau: there's a very real risk that the atolls could be uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century.

Other than lazing under a palm tree, snorkelling all those coral reefs rimming the atolls or persuading an accommodating local to take you fishing, there's not a lot to do in Tokelau. Surprise! All three atolls have community discos every now and then, as well as weekly bingo, and you shouldn't miss watching a game of kilikiti - better yet, as more seems to be the merrier, join in. You'll get a confirmed six if you can hit the ball into the water with the wonky, three-sided 'bat'. If you decide to go diving in the lagoons, take extreme care as there are no lifesavers to rescue you, and the nearest decompression chamber is in Fiji. Ask the locals for advice about the safest diving spots.

Getting there
Tokelau has no airport - so flying is out - and there are no safe harbours to dock in. A monthly cargo ship, the Fetu Tokelau, travels from Apia in Samoa; the trip takes around 36 hours to reach Fakaofo. The ship anchors offshore while passengers and cargo are transferred via small boats and dinghies - a truly hair-raising experience if seas are heavy.

Yachties will find Tokelau a challenge - there are no harbours, anchoring offshore is difficult and the low-lying atolls are easy to miss. You'll need to get a visitor permit in Apia before sailing off to Tokelau.

Getting around
For safety reasons, modern Tokelauans are forbidden to travel independently between the three atolls. The fortnightly run of the boat Tu Tolu is the only means of inter-atoll travel. Travelling between islands within an atoll is fine by aluminium dinghy or the more-traditional kanava outrigger canoe, the preferred choice on Atafu. Once there, walking is the best and only way to get around.

When to go
The best time to visit Tokelau is April to October, when the rain eases off a little and the easterly trade winds bring some relief from the heat.

Holidays & Events
Tokelau observes New Zealand's public holidays (notably New Year's Day, Waitangi Day on 6 February, Anzac Day on 25 April, the Queen's Birthday in June and Labour Day in October), as well as the standard holidays of the Christian calendar. Two village holidays are designated by the three island councils annually.

Money & Costs
The local Tokelauan coinage is largely aimed at the collector market. There are no banks on Tokelau, so bring cash (NZ dollars or Samoan talas).

Accommodation must be arranged before you arrive in Tokelau, either with a hotel or local family. There are two places to stay on Nukunonu, and one place each on Fakaofo and Atafu; facilities are unsurprisingly basic. You could camp on the atolls' more remote islets; get permission before you visit though, as all the islands are owned.

Each atoll has a small co-op store where you can buy processed food and basic supplies. Otherwise, you could negotiate the purchase of fish, vegetables and coconuts with the taupulega; if you're staying in accommodation or with a local family, meals will be provided.

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We have included Samoa in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Bounty Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage.

Another option is to create your own package to Samoa by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, carrental, flights and excursions on the islands.


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