Niue: Ocean and Rocks

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The Talava Arches on the northwest coast of Niue are accessible by first hiking inland through the center of a cave. Photography ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Ocean and rocks are a yin yang of nature. One is soft and the other is hard. A boat floats on one and wrecks on another. But, when the fluid element of water meets the solid and seemingly immovable entity of rock, the two forces interact to form a dynamic system. That dynamic system defines the island of Niue–both geologically and socially.

Niue is the world’s smallest independent nation. It is situated in the Pacific Ocean triangle formed by the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga. There is no harbor. Boats anchor in an open roadstead exposed to the south, west, and north. Niue is very different from other South Pacific islands. There are no mountains or barrier reef and lagoon system. Instead, the terrain consists of steep limestone cliffs along the coastline with a central plateau rising to about 200 feet above sea level. Heavy swells from the Southern Ocean crash against the cliffs forcing water through chasms and caves creating blowholes that shoot spume 100 feet into the air.

The water surrounding the island is exquisite. There is no sediment flowing into the sea from rivers or streams and rainfall is naturally filtered through chambers of limestone. This makes for amazing nearshore water clarity. Some divers have reported 300 feet of visibility. From the deck of Flying Fish I can see the coral at 120 feet below the hull. Spinner dolphin welcome me into the anchorage. Offshore, a migrating humpback whale and her newborn calf rest on the surface of the water in the lee of the island.

Captain James Cook was also enchanted by this island (or at least by the idea of possessing this island.) In 1774, he made three attempts to land on Niue but the inhabitants here proved to be an immovable force. The Niueans were the yin to Cook’s yang. Cook came ashore with guns and the Niueans, fearing disease and slavery, successfully defended themselves with stones and spears–and bananas. They painted themselves with the sap of the red hulahula fe’i banana, and when they chewed the hulahula it gave the effect that they were spewing mouthfuls of blood. Cook fled in terror and later charted Niue with the epithet of “Savage Island.” No European explorers visited Niue for nearly a century after Cook. The name Savage Island survived on maps for almost 200 years. As late as the 1980s, the United States Postal Service still required the use of the name Savage Island for mail being addressed to Niue. Some locals are still bitter about it.

“We had a tradition,” one resident told writer Tony Horwitz. “Warriors painted their lips and teeth with the juice of the hulahula, the red banana, to frighten people off,” he said. “Cook called Tonga the Friendly Isles, probably because he had so many girls there. Tahiti he called the Society Islands, same reason. But because we throw a few stones and spears, we’re savages. No one likes Cook much in Niue.”

I first attempted to anchor Flying Fish inside the submerged atoll of Beveridge Reef located approximately 130 miles from Niue and 1,000 miles from Bora Bora. No land at all is visible at Beveridge Reef. These concealed rocks have been the cause of several boats running aground including the Nicky Lou of Seattle, a fiberglass hulled fishing vessel that can still be seen on the reef.

According to native tradition, Beveridge Reef was once “a fine isle, with many coconut-palms growing thereon but it was swept bare by a fierce cyclone which carried away both trees and soil leaving nothing but the bare rock.” And then sea level rise covered the bare rock.

The Beveridge Reef I encountered aboard Flying Fish en route to Niue was no “fine isle.” It was an explosion of ocean meeting submerged rock on an otherwise empty horizon. Days of sailing had shown only water and sky until the morning I sailed into the coordinates of Beveridge Reef and it looked as if the world was ending at sea. From the cobalt blue depths of nearly 5,000 feet enormous swells were crashing from every point of the compass into the shallow water of an aquamarine lagoon. It was a wild spectacle of nature. Despite the siren call of seeing what might live below the surface of this bizarre open-ocean reef, I decided it would be prudent to sail the additional 140 miles to Niue.

There is also a siren call on Niue. Walking amid the hard fossilized rock there exudes a softness about the island that is alluring. The vegetation hums with life. Butterflies and orchids are everywhere. The scent of wild vanilla is in the air. The population is about 1,500 people, and declining, but those who remain embrace visitors with warmth and kindness. At the Catholic church for a Sunday service, where I had arrived early, a Niuean first grader took my hand and led me to where the children are having Sunday School before mass.

On the southeast corner of the island I joined Narumi Saito for a hike through old-growth trees. Bathed in shadow and light, it was like a cathedral within a forest of fossilized coral. At the Togo Chasm the trail abruptly drops away into a fissure between the rocks, accessible only by ropes and a makeshift wooden ladder. At the bottom of the chasm there is a small patch of sand (rare, on this island of rock) and four or five coconut palms. A pool of spring water collects in a basin of rock on one side of the sand and the roaring ocean swells shoot through a rock cave at the other side. Later, Narumi climbed a palm to take a green coconut for lunch. In the crown of the tree she cried out in exuberance, “I am monkey!”

This is Niue, a rock island of surprises and contradictions that blended together form a rare jewel in the Pacific. Back on the deck of Flying Fish, the breeze off the island signals that the weather is returning to the prevailing winds. It is time to prepare the boat for the passage to Tonga.

I like to breathe in the scent of land under the beauty of a night sky before I leave an island like Niue. As I stand on the deck of Flying Fish under a riot of stars on a moonless night, I watch the bright streak of a meteor etching across the sky. This time it is rock and air, two additional opposing forces that interact to form the dynamic system that is our earth.

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Togo Chasm, roaring ocean swells fill this sea cave with water and light. Photography ©Jeffrey Cardenas

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