Once again we traveled through geological time, for Niue was once an atoll similar to the idyllic Tuamotos, but now it sits as a rock in the midst of a vast ocean. For instead of continuing the slow journey into deeper waters, Niue was uplifted so that her thriving coral reefs were launched far above the sea. The coral animal life died, along with the algae that dyes it rainbow hues, leaving behind the imprints of life in bleached out limestone. Having snorkeled the reefs and passes of the Tuamotus, and having imprinted the shapes and textures of diverse coral formations in our memory, we simply shifted our gaze and added flesh to the skeletal remains of coral gardens, painting an image of their thriving underwater past.
Away from the shore, tenacious seeds grew roots in this hostile environment, and their decaying remains paved the way for all subsequent plant life. After thousands of years of this process, the soil is still a shallow layer atop the limestone base; tree roots lie partly embedded, the top half boldly rising above the life-giving soil. Many plants grow directly out of ancient coral heads, their roots anchored inside the caverns and holes. No rivers course through this rock island, and the thin layer of top soil is held firmly in place by intertwined roots of trees, ferns, vines, shrubs and grasses. All rain run-off is filtered through limestone crevices before washing to sea, creating a crystal clear meeting of ocean and land. In contrast, the waters around the Marquesas, rich with soil, covered in waterfalls, streams and rivers, became muddy pools with each downpour. Even the coral sand of the Tuamotus, aided by the disruption from pearl farming, and when churned by seas washing over the outer reef and strong trade wind blows, would mix with the ocean water, reducing visibility from 60 feet to a murky 30. Here in Niue we sit in 120 feet and can see the ocean floor.
The main attractions of Niue are along the edges of the island where processes of uplift and erosion interact to create magical enclaves, hidden pools, caves, caverns and chasms. We rented a van and followed the “Key Attractions” pamphlet from the Visitor’s Center, each site paired with a tantalizing photo urging us forward. Crossing the island to our first cavern, we journeyed through the Huvalu Forest Conservation Area, within which villages continue their customary farming practices. All signage in this region referenced sustainable land management, sustainable communities and customary rights. Taro fields, papaya, coconut groves, banana and pineapple emerged within clearings in the forest, with the slashed shrubs and branches serving as mulch to sustain the crops. Behind were younger trees with old growth forest framing the background.
Popping out of the trees we found ourselves on the east coast of the island, at the town of Liku. Had another cruising couple not shown me photos of the “road” to Tautu, we would never have found this site. Their directions were to spot the church with a stone wall in the shape of the bow of a boat and then drive across the expanse of green grass to find the car tracks to the hiking trail (‘track’ in NZ English). It was hard to drive by that church over pristine looking grass, especially since it was Sunday and people here are serious about church. No stores are open, and no immodest clothing is allowed in sight of a church, but with no prohibition against driving in front of one, across we went and stumbled upon a road.
The track wound down through a limestone cavern, and it was Anson who remembered that the stalactites hang down and the stalagmites grow up. This dripping limestone smoothed out the sharp remnants of coral, so we could climb and explore the caves without being poked and sliced. Devon clambered around, exploring the crevices, poking his head through holes that fish once swam through. Down below, the ocean waves crashed against the shore. Knowing we only had one day to explore the island, we hiked back up the path, through the dripping limestone and packed ourselves in the rental van.
We drove around the north side of the island, passing historic sites where Christianity was introduced in 1846 (by a Niuean who had been converted in Samoa and returned to save souls; this required an armed guard of over 60 Niuean fighters, as the gospel wasn’t universally welcomed) and where in 1863 a Chilean boat enslaved 109 young men to work in the guano mines of Chile. Our presence here is yet another intertwining of always, already intertwined worlds, hopefully one which is more life-sustaining for all involved!
Our next stop was Avaiki Cave on the northwestern shore, a low tide destination, and the site where the first canoe landed on the island. Hiking down this path we emerged on a coral plateau where water barely covered the bleached remains of a deep water garden. To the north a large cavern framed a shallow pool, with live coral tenaciously reproducing in the crystal waters. Brightly colored algae covered the walls of the cavern, reminding us of Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. Across the coral shelf, towards the breaking ocean waves, deep pools enticed us for a snorkel. Entering was easy: we found a spot of bleached coral to stand on and jumped over the edge. We swam like tuna, exploring the edges of the pool, following the fish that make these pools their home, and reveling in the live coral and its color giving algae, while sadly noting the profusion of bleached coral in these warm waters. The second pool we entered was slightly larger, and it was here we first swam with the beautiful ringed sea kraits (a type of sea snake). These curious creatures swim up from the depths, seemingly taking stock of each newcomer to its neighborhood, then turn and swim back down, their lithe bodies twisting gracefully in small curves towards tiny limestone caves. (Two varieties of crates live here: an endemic one whose bands are variously spaced and a species common throughout the region with evenly spaced bands of white on a bluish black body.) If only our exit was so simple! Clambering out of the pool, framed by live and dead coral, proved a bit tricky. Devon slipped and tumbled back in, but fortunately his slices weren’t deep, although painful. The dead coral spots provided poky toe and hand holds, which ultimately served their purpose, but we relied on those on land to exchange fins for flip flops. Ideally we wouldn’t have been wandering around this fragile ecosystem. For even those of us who can identify live from dead coral, and who care to avoid that which is living, knowing it takes decades to regrow, probably are doing harm inadvertently. (If, like us, people have a hard time staying away from such beauty, ideally a raised walkway with ladders into the pools would be erected to minimize the harm.)
Our next spot was Limu pools, just north of Avaiki. This track was popular with New Zealand tourists of a certain age. Doughy bodies lounged under the sail-shaped canvas erected for shade, while others swam languorously in the pools, as if at a hotel. We journeyed beyond and over a steep incline to find ourselves alone at another pool, fed by fresh water on one end and salt water from the waves pouring through the ocean pass on the other. Entering the pool we were shocked by the cold water, and swimming quickly towards the ocean edge, we found ourselves looking through our masks as if through old, wavy glass. A lens of cold, fresh water lay over the warm, salty ocean waters which drifted like long, clear tendrils below, not mixing until churned by the waves at the pass on the far end. We dove down and were immediately rewarded with soothing warm waters and a clear view of butterfly scythes, sergeant majors, box fish, parrot fish, and sea kraits. Here we swam under a limestone arch and explored until the cold drove us back to shore. Upon our return to the first pools, we joined the crowd (of 8) and explored the more accessible waters. These were warmer and gentler, and it was only our tight schedule that sent us scurrying out and up the path to the van.
A fellow cruiser, Dan, a singlehander from Kirkland, WA (yup, Costco’s home), joined us on this outing. By this time most of us were getting a bit tired, although Dan seemed ready to hike the 30 minute trail to view the Talava Arches. With Devon’s cuts preventing a hike we proceeded down the short track for a view of the Matapa Chasm. Here the ancient coral faces rise straight up for 100 feet on both sides, framing a narrow pool which was once the bathing site for Niue’s royalty. If this had been our first stop we would have donned fins, mask and snorkel and explored its length and depths. Instead we tested the water with our toes, declared it cold, and decided to retreat for a snack at the whale overlook. It was clear that more than food was needed, so we drove to one of the few establishments open on a Sunday for caffeine. Even after re-feuling we admitted defeat and realized we didn’t have the energy or time to tour the sites on the southern half of the island. So back to our boats we returned, feeling endlessly fortunate to have landed upon this magical island of Niue.