Whittled by Mother Nature: The ancient sea tracks of Niue

August 2016

“The Conduct and aspect of these islanders occasioned my giving it the Name of Savage Island.”

It was 1774 when James Cook inscribed those word in Resolution’s logbook. The Niueans had managed to intimidate the explorers onward from their tiny island. And it would not be the last time they would succeed in doing so.

The Niueans’ tenacity to scare Captain Cook away with their hostility and red, painted teeth was intrepid, even self-preserving, given the scourge of colonization (e.g., disease, oppression) in other parts of the South Pacific (e.g., Gambier Archipelago in French Polynesia). Indeed, establishing a fearsome reputation as “Savage Island” enabled Niueans to remain relatively undisturbed by European explorers and missionaries for another 75 years.

Around 1,500 people—most of whom are descendent of Tongans and Samoans who settled the islands more than a millennia ago—reside in small villages that dot the perimeter of the island, which stretches just 13 miles north-to-south and 9 miles across at its widest point. Hardly of the ferocious nature Captain Cook described, we experienced Niueans as gentle, friendly people who embody the warmth that epitomizes the South Pacific.

Getting to know Niue
Despite translating literally to “behold the coconut tree,” we were to discover that it is Niue’s topography, not its flora, that makes the island remarkable. Mother Nature’s interminable handiwork has created a tiny masterpiece in the middle of the big blue ocean, arguably one of the best kept secrets in the Pacific.Scattered between the villages are more than two dozen “sea tracks.” Sea tracks are boneyards of hard corals accumulated layer-upon-layer over tens of thousands of years. The resultant limestone was sculpted by undersea elements (e.g., currents, storm surge) until it was eventually forced above the water—the birth of Niue. Thenceforth, the uplifted atoll has been continually whittled by winds, sun, salt, sea, and storms. Each sea track is uniquely beautiful; some are exquisite, even breathtaking. Not a shabby place for Neil to celebrate his 35th birthday.

We rented a gigantic van and put boat bums on every seat, cramming the vehicle with happy mariners who were delighted to spend a day on land. We were joined by Mike and Gill from s/v Romano; Jude, Richard, and Katya from s/v Sarita; Brian and Carol from s/v Prince Diamond; and new friends, Mark and Ursula from a catamaran called s/v Anahoa.

Avaiki Cave
Our first stop was Avaiki Cave. At low tide, the reef that juts perpendicular from the base of the cliffs is exposed, and we sloshed through ankle-deep water to the edge of coral shelf to look back upon the hulking precipice that is Niue. We arrived at the perfect time of day!

Small turquoise pools filled with little fish and sea creatures appeared out of nowhere, glimmering in the warm sunshine. My imagination plunged into the submerged labyrinth hidden beneath our feet.

The blues of the pools and the sea and sky were made more marvelous by the contrast of the earthy tones of the limestone and gray-green shadows cast beneath the cliffs and between the serrated teeth of the exposed reef. But it is the cave that draws people to this sea track…

Avaiki yawns open toward the sea, and colossal stalagmites dangle like the uvula of an awakening giant. According to legend, the first Polynesians to reach Niue landed their canoes at Avaiki. It was also the site where Jude had slipped and fallen a day earlier, breaking her arm. Most folx would probably have spent the day after snapping a bone relaxing. Not Jude. No, she was as spunky as ever as we descended the series of stairs and ramps toward the cave!

Accessible only at low tide, this sacred place was once a private bathing pool for Niuean kings. Yet here we were, a motley crew of seafarers from around the globe, enjoying it as if we were royalty ourselves! The cave was dank with the aroma of salt and stone. Some of us snorkeled. Some of us scrambled up the rocks and dove into the pool below. Some of us searched for treasured among the tide pools. Some of us, including me, just stood back and tried to take in magic of the scene.Boysenberry hues stain the cavern walls at the waterline, a magical artifact of minerals in the limestone. The lightest chill tickled my skin. Well aware that an injury smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific would add an extra layer of difficulty to the already-arduous task of ocean sailing, I was more mindful than I would have otherwise been as I placed my feet on the damp, slippery limestone. I am perpetually clumsy and was careful not to add another injured sailor to our fleet!

Talava Arches
As noon approached, we were clamoring downward into the earth, our second sea track. Moisture glazed the walls of the cave, which accentuated the colors. Rust. Green. Gray. Gold. We steadied ourselves on ropes affixed between stalagmites and stalactites. As I emerged from the passageway, light stung my eyes.Tavala Arches is a gargantuan structure that squats over the reef, creating a window to the sea beyond. We crouched in the shade to eat our lunch, to share stories, and to marvel about the scene before us. The tide was incoming, but there was still time to explore some of the crooks and crannies. Matapa Chasm
By the time we arrived at Matapa Chasm, a dramatic cleft a short distance south of Tavala Arches, we had missed our chance to see the sea track in its full glory. It was still lovely, but when the sun is directly overhead, the light is said to illuminate an underwater seascape that is a snorkeler’s delight. Nevertheless, our crew was not discouraged. Some climbed right in, bobbing with wide-mouthed grins as they swam through shimmering layers of warm and cool water, an effect created when fresh water seeps from the earth and into the salty sea.

Limu Pools
Our final stop was Limu Pools, where turquoise waters lap at nubby limestone walls that poke out of the water like mushrooms. Unlike Tavala Arches, where the grand doorways arc from the island to the edge of the reef, here small windows were just large enough to swim through. Had we not already gobbled up our lunches, Limu Pools would have been a picturesque picnic spot. In any case, it was time for a beer to toast the birthday boy. We made a final stop at Sails Bar, a clifftop cash-only pub where cats rub against your legs and mozzies feast on bare skin at dusk. A pair of humpbacks surfaced in the distance, making me smile, as I reflected on the days prior with Oma Tafua.

By the end of a glorious day in which we had hardly scratched the surface of what Niue had to offer, there was no question that we were smitten with “Rock of the Pacific” and were eager to explore more of her cracks and crevices. Lucky for us, our new friends Mark and Ursula, had reserved a car the following day and invited us to join them for more exploring!Anapala Chasm
Our first stop with Mark and Ursula the following morning was to a chasm called Anapala. One hundred fifty-five steps appeared at the end of a short forest trail and descended to a freshwater pool where Niueans once retrieved water for drinking. The crevasse was so narrow as if the limestone had been split by a hatchet. I felt uneasy, a bit claustrophobic even. What if the two sides of the chasm decided they wished to be parted no more and snapped back together, crushing us. Unlike my intrepid comrades, I wasn’t about to get in the pool at the bottom. Togo Chasm
The next sea track began not unlike the ones before it. We walked a well-trodden path over fallen leaves beneath overgrown trees. And then the ocean appeared before us, the land fell away, and there were no more trees.

Before stretched a sea of jagged teeth gnawing at the sky and biting at the sea. The trail wound between a maze of bizarre shapes, and coconut crabs crept in the shadows. This sea track was unlike any of the others.

It was an otherworldly landscape that reminded me of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, my homestate. I was awestruck by the uniqueness of the landscape, both in relation to the other parts of the South Pacific that we had explored but also compared to other parts of Niue!

Here, however, instead of lively, orange rock spires, the hoodoo-like formations were devoid of color—gray, soulless cousins to the high desert hoodoos of Bryce half a world away. It was incredible.

We were an hour into our bewildering trek before we reached the actual entrance to Togo Chasm.

We stood at the top of an oversized ladder, and climbed down into yet another world. Palm fronds decayed in a balmy oasis, and the heavy odor of damp vegetation and still water replaced the aromas of sea and sunshine. We were surrounded by vertical cliff walls, a secluded haven, where spindly palm trees reach skyward. The air was still but ocean could still be heard. We trod on white sand toward a cave. As we moved between rocks the size of Volkswagens and climbed over boulders, the roar of the sea grew louder.

The sand was wet. King Neptune inhaled heartily, sucking the water from the boulders and with each forceful exhalation, waves gushed forward splashing over, under, and through the limestone. WHOOOSH!! ROAR!! The bass of the waves thundered in my ribcage. Here, more than any of the other sea tracks, the ongoing chiseling of the landscape was apparent. Palaha Cave
Our last stop was Niue’s largest cave, Palaha. Moisture made it tricky to find stable footing in some spots, so we steadied ourselves with cables bolted to the cavern walls. Minerals tinged the limestone with gold and green, and stalagmites and stalactites appeared as molten rock dripping from ceiling to floor. The mouth of the cave opens to the ocean, and there were tiny tidepools at the water’s edge. It was a calm evening. I could have been quite happy to stay perched in that giant cave on that tiny island, cradled inside Mother Nature’s limestone womb. Alas, dusk would close in soon. Back to the town of Alofi and to Niue’s infamous dock crane we went.



4 thoughts on “Whittled by Mother Nature: The ancient sea tracks of Niue

  1. Pingback: Sea serpents and engine gremlins | s/v The Red Thread

  2. Pingback: Blue sea, blue sky, blue spirit | s/v The Red Thread

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