Travel humor writer Bob Payne’s discomfort with climbing, especially up a cliff face or down, has never caused him to freeze like a cat in a tree. Or at least not enough so that someone had to come rescue him. But Payne did get close on Niue, an isolated South Pacific island whose inhabitants claim that Captain James Cook’s visit in 1774 demonstrated that he probably knew much less about human nature than he is generally given credit for.
Cook’s crewmembers were the first Europeans to step ashore on Niue, which is about 240 miles east of its nearest neighbor, Tonga. The visit wasn’t a happy one. Cook got such a hostile reception he named the place “Savage Island,” which long discouraged later visitors and was still in common use as recently as the early 1900’s, when Niue became a dependency of New Zealand, which it remains, except that it is now internally self-governing.
But a local at the bar of the Niue Yacht Club, an establishment most notable for the fact that it could claim no members who had yachts, told Payne that far from being savage, his ancestors were enlightened enough to be worried about the introduction of disease into their isolated society.
“OK, maybe Cook met a few warriors who painted their teeth red to make themselves look like cannibals. And maybe there was some spear throwing. But probably all that happened was the usual challenge between strangers, which he didn’t understand.”
And, said Payne’s informant, further proof of how little Cook understood people occurred at his next stop, Tonga. There, after he unknowingly came close to being served up for dinner, he named the group The Friendly Islands.
Payne couldn’t argue. Partly because his informant was most likely right. And partly because it is seldom benefits a travel humor writer to contradict a South Seas islander who has been drinking New Zealand larger all afternoon. But while Cook may have misunderstood the Niueans (he himself admits he was there long enough only “to judge of the whole garment by the skirts”) he did not miss the one physical aspect of Niue that has most fascinated visitors ever since, and which would bring together an opportunity for two of the experiences that often enough make Payne wish I were safe at home: rock climbing and caving.
Niue does not fit the image of a classic South Pacific paradise. As might be expected of an island whose name, loosely translated, means “Hey, look, coconuts,” there are palm trees. But, as Payne had discovered during his first few days, after renting a motorbike from a smiling woman to whom liability insurance seemed only the vaguest of concepts, there are no soaring green peaks. No shallow blue lagoons. No white sand beaches. No ports for cruise ships. No Club Meds.
Instead, Niue is an ancient coral atoll, about 40 miles in circumference, that was uplifted some 225 feet by long ago movements of the earth’s crust. All the way around, it has a relatively narrow, cliff-girded coastal ledge. On the ledge is the coastal road, mostly surfaced, and a few small villages, including the main village, Alofi, where in the Burns Philp store Payne found a 40-page mimeographed guidebook (publication date October, 1994) with the interesting statement that “Records show we haven’t eaten a tourist for almost seven years now.”
Above the ledge, an escarpment rises to the top of the island, which is a broad plateau that was probably once a shallow lagoon. The plateau, often hot and airless, is less than awe inspiring. But beneath it, as Cook had discovered, is a netherworld of caves and chasms, many of them unexplored in modern times.
The most interesting was at Vaikona, on the rough, windward side of the island. And it was there, in an attempt to reach a chasm that has been called the jewel of Niue, that Payne found himself clinging by his fingernails (and heartily wishing all the while that he didn’t bite them) to a slight outcropping of rock high up on the side of a damp, slippery cave wall.
With another local, Richard Sauni, Payne was trying to climb down to a crystal clear pool 60 feet underground, where they planned to dive in, take hopefully deep enough breaths, and, with the aid of waterproof flashlights, swim through a submarine tunnel to another pool.
Payne remembers that their swim fins were sticking out of the top of Sauni’s backpack. And he remembers hoping it wasn’t a portent that they made him look like he was wearing angel’s wings.
“Be careful,” Sauni said from a perch just ahead of mine. “If you fall you might break your arm.”
Peering down over the heel of his right shoe into a blackness so complete he could see nothing but his life passing before him, Payne suggested to Sauni that if he fell he would be enormously delighted to break only an arm.
From the cave roof, where stalactites hung, water dripped on Payne’s head. He realized it had been some time since Sauni had moved along the wall. “Uh, Richard,” Payne said. “Are we OK in here?”
“Maybe it is better for us to be outside, having lunch.”
With some prompting, Sauni told Payne that because it rained recently, harder than he realized, water seeping through the porous coral rock had made the cave walls dangerously slick. Also, the most difficult part of our descent, around a big rock that fell from the roof in some long ago volcanic disturbance, was still ahead of them. And, hopefully unrelated but certainly not uninteresting, a tremor of respectable magnitude had shaken the island the day before Payne arrived.
Out in the sunlight again, sitting at the edge of a sea cliff, having lunch, Payne was disappointed that they’d failed to reach the pool. Still, it did mean he wouldn’t break even an arm, or have to be on the lookout for the other features of Niue that visitors most comment on — its abundance of deadly venomous sea snakes.
Travel humor writer Bob Payne is believed to be one of two lifetime members of the Niue Yacht Club, an honor bestowed upon him as the result of activity the U.S. government investigated as possibly involving money laundering.