"Tokelau telephones" are actually public toilets. As the sanitation system in Tokelau is pretty basic, most people use the Tokelau telephones - long drops over the water - to conduct their motions. These conveniences double up as meeting points where the locals stand outside and catch up on the gossip of the day - hence the nickname.
As with many Pacific islands, the churches are the best maintained buildings. The churches in grey Fakaofo inject some much-needed colour to the village centre.
Tokelauan society is deeply Christian and you will be expected to attend church on Sundays if you are staying on shore. Even if you're not religious, you might as well go - activities are in short supply in Tokelau, and typically of Polynesia, the singing is beautiful.
Sydney Island lies on the opposite side of the atoll to Nukunonu island and is tiny and uninhabited. It is owned by Mr Luciano Perez, who also owns the Luana Liki Hotel, and he can arrange for you to visit his little gem, whether you want to just for lunch or if you want to go all-out and stay there.
For the former option, you can visit Sydney Island as part of a boat trip around the atoll (see earlier chapter). This includes stopping at Sydney for a swim, snorkel and lunch of freshly-caught fish.
For the latter, Mr Perez will transport you over to the island, give you sleeping material - including a two-berth tent - drinking water, a radio to contact him on, and show you where to catch lobsters. You may then stay for as long as you want (obviously you will have to be back in time to meet the MV Tokelau returning to Samoa). Most people stay a token night, but Mr Perez told me a honeymooning couple loved it so much, they ended up staying for three weeks!
I only went on the lunch option, but the honeymoon trip sounded infinitely seductive - your own, uninhabited island, where not a soul will bother you unless you request it, where you collect and drink rain water, catch and eat lobster every day, and can get an all-over tan ;)
Sydney Island is also utterly beautiful, and the sea around it perfectly clean, clear and thriving with marine life.
Tokelau is not named after Tokelau Island, it is just a coincidence they share the name. The word means "North" in the local language (which is very close to Samoan), and so Nukunonu atoll's northernmost island is therefore called "Tokelau".
The island is uninhabited, but then none of the country's islands are inhabited save for one per atoll. There is plenty of room for people to live elsewhere, but Tokelauans are very social and communal, so they prefer to all live in the same place. However all land is owned by somebody, so you are not allowed to go ashore on any of the uninhabited islands without prior permission.
I saw Tokelau Island as part of a boat trip arranged by Mr Luciano Perez, the owner of Nukunonu's Luana Liki Hotel. The trip shows you around the atoll, but you are only allowed to go ashore at the Perez family's island, called Sydney.
Tokelau Island is the biggest in the Nukunonu chain and is a unique sight - it is very thickly smothered in jungle vegetation, and curves around a bright green lagoon within the bigger - and bright blue - main lagoon. The colour changes gradually, but near the shore the green water is vivid.
I would have liked to have gone ashore - the island looked like the sort of place you might find dinosaurs! - but unfortunately it was not allowed.
Mr Luciano Perez, the Luana Liki Hotel owner, will take you on a speedboat trip around the atoll if you pay for the petrol. You don't have to be a hotel guest. His family owns Sydney Island on the otherside of the atoll and he will take you there for lunch as part of the trip. It's beautiful (see later chapter). The boat tour will also show you around the outside of some of the other islands, but you can't go ashore because they all belong to somebody and Pacific islanders are very strict about land ownership and usage. The biggest island in the Nukunonu chain is not the main one, but actually one called Tokelau (imaginatively enough) and this is quite a sight - thick jungle-clad land bobbing atop bright green waters.
Nukunonu is the middle of Tokelau's three atolls, although it is the last one you will visit on the round-trip. It is the country's administrative capital and where you can find the government buildings and Tokelau's only post office, hotel, restaurant and bar.
This is the only one of Tokelau's atolls where you can stay on shore without a pre-arranged homestay. The Luana Liki Hotel and the government building both have visitor accommodation available. If you don't want to stay on shore overnight, you can stay on the boat and visit the island in the daytime.
Only 400 people live in Nukunonu, making it the least populous of the atolls, and the main island is much bigger than Fakaofo (although not as big as Atafu), meaning there is lots of breathing space!
Nukunonu is very attractive and colourful, both at ground level and beneath the sea. It has the best snorkelling in Tokelau, with the lagoon boasting vibrant coral and marine life. There is a smaller 'pig city' in the same style as Atafu and just walking around the island is a very pleasant pasttime.
Tokelau's waters are warm, brilliant blue and completely clean. There is no industry, a very low population and next-to no motorised boating. Swimming and snorkelling in any of the three lagoons is safe and beautiful.
I didn't actually get in the water in Fakaofo, but from the surface the lagoon looked gorgeous.
I swam in Atafu, which had the nicest-looking lagoon at sea level, but unfortunately the coral was dead where I swam - presumably the result of a storm - and so not much to see when snorkelling. Still, the sheer colour and tranquility of the water makes it extremely inviting.
The best snorkelling was in Nukunonu, which has lots of healthy coral, fish and shellfish to mingle among. There are some pillars of coral which you can dive off and swim down the sides of, where you will find lots of brightly-coloured specimens. If you take a knife, you can harvest some of the many clams which live in the coral rocks.
Fakaofo is so crowded that there is no room for the pigs, which are kept for ceremonial feasts. The pigs have been forced out of the village and live on the reef and shoreline, where they have learned to catch fish - an unnatural but necessary diet. Sometimes, at low tide, the pigs swim between islands to look for food.
You can kill time simply watching Fakaofo's pigs and their bizarre activities. As foraging animals, they apply this technique to the water, basically burrowing around to search out edible vegetation. As for the fishing, they seem to have perfected a technique - they stand in the shallows with their open mouths dipped in the water and wait until a fish swims between them. At this point, the pig snaps its jaws shut and secures a meal.
I can't imagine there is anywhere else in the world where this happens. There is no organised "accommodation" for the pigs, so they are left to roam free - except the only place which is open to them is the sea.
Unlike in Fakaofo's cramped conditions, the pigs in Atafu are well taken care of. The island is comparatively very big and a huge 'pig city' has been created, with pens stretching as far as the eye can see (bearing in the mind the land is completely flat). Literally hundreds of pigs live here - they probably outnumber the people - all neatly departmentalised based on ownership. They are curious and friendly and well fed on coconuts and scrap. A nice life until the next birth, death or wedding - when they end up on the dinner table!
Atafu is the northernmost of Tokelau's three atolls, although it is the one you will visit second on the MV Tokelau's round-trip, heading north from Samoa.
As with Fakaofo, there is no accommodation available on Atafu, although you may be able to pre-arrange a homestay. The MV Tokelau stops there for most of a full day, though, offering plenty of time to look around.
At ground level, Atafu is the most beautiful of Tokelau's islands. It has the largest population of the three at 600, but a great deal more space for the people to live in. The lagoon is big, bright and beautiful from above, but unfortunately the coral is dead - at least it was at the place I stopped to snorkel. This must have been the result of a storm, because there's no industry and not enough people to cause pollution.
Walking around outside the village centre, you get a feeling of just how far away from civilisation you are. The ferocious open ocean pounds one side of the island relentlessly, and the total tranquility of the lagoon sits on the other side, and there isn't a soul to be seen or heard.
I found Atafu's people to be the friendliest of Tokelau's residents, and there is a relatively decent shop where you can buy snacks, simple provisions, drinking water and, crucially, alcohol. I say crucially because if you plan to stay in Nukunonu (the last stop on the round trip), sale of alcohol is strictly limited.
This is the first of Tokelau's three atolls and it's historical "capital". The ship will arrive here about a day and a half after leaving Samoa. Unless you have pre-arranged accommodation with a host family, there is no opportunity to stay overnight.
You can, however, go on shore while the MV Tokelau offloads cargo and people to the island, by catching a ride on the metal dinghy which commutes between ship and shore. There is no natural harbour anywhere in Tokelau, so the ship drops anchor offshore and uses a crane and manpower to transport goods.
Fakaofo's population is just 500 but despite this small number, suffers badly from overcrowding. It seems unthinkable, doesn't it? But you see why from when you first spot Fakaofo. As with the other Tokelauan atolls, Fakaofo is a chain of islands, but only one is inhabited. For social and administrative reasons, everybody piles on to one piece of land. In Fakaofo's case, the land is tiny and the houses are virtually squashed together, sometimes so closely that you could reach between rooms with an outstretched hand if the windows were open.
Due to this overcrowding, Fakaofo's main island is not very attractive. There is a grey feel to the place, since the houses are made of concrete, and there are no beaches.
But what is amazing and unique about Fakaofo is its pigs.... see my later chapter on this!
Nukunonu also has a 'pig city', as described in the Atafu section, although nowhere near as big. Still, worth a look around and making friends with the amiable creatures.
Mr Luciano Perez, owner of the Luana Liki Hotel in Nukunonu, has a fishing boat which you can charter. Ask at the hotel for prices and details.
Why not lend a hand to the locals to help them unload their supplies from the boat? It gives you something to do in a very sleepy part of the world, and you might make friends, too.