Hollowed ground: the island of Niue

Not many tourists come to Niue. The only direct flights are from New Zealand, once or twice a week depending on the season. It is not an archetypal Pacific island holiday destination – there are no white sandy beaches edged with palm trees, there’s no lagoon, and only one resort, the Matavai, which seems to rely on the New Zealand government to keep it afloat. Stafford, our host at the Coral Gardens Motel (five little cabins perched on the clifftop facing the sea and the sunset), described Niue as a ‘niche’ destination – “you wouldn’t recommend it to everyone” he said.

When we weren’t sitting on the deck of our cabin staring out at the vast and empty, but endlessly fascinating sea, we explored the island by bike. We hired them from Mark Blumsky, former mayor of Wellington and ex-High Commissioner to Niue, who now runs a cafe with a mini-golf course. Niue is perfect for cycling – the island is practically flat and only 65km all the way round, the roads and signposting are good, and there is very little traffic. Drivers were courteous (waving is obligatory it seems), often taking exaggerated care to avoid us.

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I wondered if I would have a sense of the smallness of Niue while I was there; whether the island would feel like a tiny vulnerable outpost of rock in a huge ocean. Niue’s isolation (over 400 kilometres from its nearest neighbour, Vava’u in northern Tonga) was obvious enough from the plane as we descended to the airport. But once on solid ground, with the impenetrable bush lining the sides of the road, it felt like land feels anywhere. Unless you can see the sea all around you, it’s perhaps hard to maintain a wider sense of being on an island. It was only the obvious things, like the limited range of food and drink, mostly imported from New Zealand, that reminded us.

But Niue is vulnerable. It seems to be hit by a terrifying-sounding cyclone about every decade. Most recently, in 2004, Tropical Cyclone Heta caused the worst damage in living memory with hurricane force winds and huge waves that flooded areas that were 40m above sea level. Many Niueans left the island after the cyclone, and it seems that for the past few decades, every cyclone has seen a decrease in the population. Currently only about 1500 people live on the island and there are many more Niueans living outside Niue (mostly in New Zealand) than on the island.

There are empty houses everywhere along the main road that circles the island, in varying states of decay, buckled rusty roofs and doors hanging askew. Some are little more than a shell with crumbling walls and gaping windows, ferns carpeting the interior. Cycling past one, I glimpsed a bed through an open doorway with a huge suitcase on it, as if forever caught in a state of being abandoned.
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If I think about it at all, I have a vague idea that small islands float in the sea like giant lily pads, perhaps anchored to the sea floor by some kind of stalk. Pinned up on the wall in the ‘Sails Bar’ at the Coral Gardens Motel was a cross-sectional diagram which showed that the island of Niue is in fact perched on the top of a slender ancient volcano cone that rises more than 4500m from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The diagram showed other undersea columns nearby that may one day become islands if they reach the surface of the sea. Niue itself is a flat lump of limestone, formed from the sedimented layers of skeleton corals.

The island rises from the sea in concentric steps with a narrow reef around the coastline, and cliffs behind. The road around the island, where all the settlements are located, runs along a flat terrace at the top of the cliffs. Numerous ‘sea tracks’ lead from the road, down the cliffs to the sea. Most of them can only be explored on foot. You never knew what would be down a sea track: sometimes they took you down to the reef, or sometimes to a boat-ramp or steps leading into the sea. It seemed best to explore them at random – there were too many to go down them all.

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Near the main settlement of Alofi, we took a sea track down to a narrow cove past a couple of slender outrigger canoes covered in palm fronds to a tiny coral beach little bigger than a beach towel. As we were standing looking out through the rocks to the sea, a humpback whale leapt out of the water. We caught a glimpse of twisting, writhing tail in the foam, like some ancient sea monster, and then it leapt again, vertically, white underside brilliant in the sunlight. It felt so close and huge it was almost unnerving, but it was also deeply thrilling, an unexpected encounter with an extraordinary creature. And then it was gone and the sea was calm again.

The tracks often led to caves. The cliffs around the island are riddled with a lacework of caverns, hollowed out by rainwater dissolving the porous limestone and exposed by the action of the sea. Peering into the sudden gloom, we’d make out caves within caves reaching back into darkness, and caves that were bright windows onto the sea, and everywhere, huge stalagmites and stalactites. Where the ground was slippery there were sometimes ropes, and rough concrete steps to help you pick your way over the jagged limestone, but mostly you had to look after your own health and safety.

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There was a sea cave just below our cabin at the Coral Gardens motel. A path ran down past the edge of the deck and then disappeared abruptly into a yawning hole. A couple of steps made of logs and a rope helped you swing down to an almost circular shaft filled with ferns, edged with stalactites and stalagmites where you stood on sharp rocks and blinked up at the vegetation and the sky above. Below was another gaping hole where the sea churned, echoing up through the void. A ladder led down to the sea, but I didn’t feel brave enough to go down it.

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As well as caves, the island was fissured with chasms. Some of these were in miniature, snaking lines of clear turquoise water across the reef, edged with corals, where brilliant fish darted and nibbled. In other places there were pools in the reef big enough for snorkelling. At the Limu Pools, just up the road from our motel, we snorkelled among banks of coral and shoals of silvery fish. You could snorkel through a tunnel, navigating the graduated blues of darkness out into the sunlight beyond.

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A little further up the road, was the Matapa Chasm, a narrow sliver of cool water in a deep cleft in the rock where the sea floor suddenly fell away. While we snorkelled, a group of Niuean youths clambered up the cliffs and leapt off into the water.

On another day, we cycled to the Togo Chasm, on the other side of the island. We took a road across the island, cycling up a low hill to the wide shallow depression at the centre of the island. At one time, the top of this rise was a reef and the centre of the island was a lagoon before Niue was further uplifted from the sea. We cycled through low level bush, some of it burnt and cleared for taro patches, while in other places abandoned patches of cleared ground were being reclaimed once again by the bush, the ground thick with lime-green ferns. The road took us through the Huvalu rainforest conservation area, where the bush was dense with slender close-growing trees, interspersed with huge multi-trunked trees hung with liana, patches of sunlight glinting on glossy leaves.

When we heard roosters we knew we were near Liku on the other side of the island, a village that seemed even more empty than most, the village green with its huge church ringed by ruined houses.

IMG_1243We turned off onto the coast road, lined with tall palm trees. At the car park for the Togo Chasm, we left our bikes and followed a path through rainforest studded with huge pockmarked rocks, like asteroids fallen from space. The air was still and clammy and I had to stop because I was finding it hard to breathe in the hot humid air. Everywhere in the forest there was movement: lizards skittering across the path, papery dead leaves falling to the forest floor, tree trunks rubbing together. The path led out of the rain forest and through a landscape of miniature pinnacles of sharp limestone. I was still feeling a little strange, and the bleached and pock-marked limestone was making me think of eyesockets in skulls. The landscape of pinnacles stretched all along the coast, as far as we could see in either direction. There was something lifelike about it, as if there was movement in the myriad rock forms, the way that Cambodian temple sculptures seem to move. It made me think of the Terracotta Army.

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The chasm itself was a sand-filled hole in the rock below sea level, reached by a long ladder. We stood in still air watching swallows weave between the palm trees, listening to the booming of the sea on the other side of the cliffs. It felt unreal, like a stage set for a desert oasis.

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We took a different route back. At Hakupu Village which felt altogether more lively and prosperous than Liku, a man pulled over in his car and asked if we were lost. He looked horrified when we said we were cycling back to Coral Gardens. We needed to be out of the forest by 4.30, he said. I looked at my watch: it was 3.45. I asked why, still thinking of the enchanted landscape of the Togo Chasm and hoping he would tell us there were evil spirits in there. But no, it was because it gets dark early in the bush. (In the event, we cycled back to Alofi, ate a curry, and still got back to Coral Gardens before dark).

I found out that any sense of solid ground on Niue is an illusion. There are caves all over the island, not just around the edges, although they are hard to find. Stafford, our host at Coral Gardens said he had gone round some of them with an archaeological expedition in the 1970s. I found the report from the expedition when I was back in Wellington. The survey had found 59 caves and the author surmised that there were probably many more that had been forgotten and lost in the bush. The caves branched out into passages that could lead for hundreds of metres underground.

The caves were often used for burials, before Niueans buried their dead in Christian- style graves at the side of the road. We passed a burial cave on the road south of Alofi, with a sign telling you not to touch the bones, as if you would.

Below the level of the caves is further hollowness, where rainwater works its way down to a layrinth of channels and pores in the rock to form a freshwater aquifer, just above sea level. There are no rivers or streams on Niue, and this is used as a water supply, along with rainwater tanks. Presumably, over time, the limestone of Niue will be dissolved away completely as rainwater continues to hollow out the caves, gradually increasing their size and merging them together, eventually leaving only a few solitary stalagmites to be washed away by the sea. By which time perhaps another of those underwater columns will have reached the surface of the sea to form a new island, long after all traces of humankind have gone.

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References

Dr J Floor Anthoni (2004) Geography and Geology of Niue 
D L Forbes (1996) Costal Geology and Hazards of Niue 
Internet Niue 
G Jacobson G and P J Hill (1980) Hydrogeology of a riased coral atoll – Niue Island, South Pacific Ocean, BMR Journal of Austrlaian Geology & Geophysics, 5, 1980, 21-278 
Trotter M M (1979) Niue Island Archaeological Survey