Niuafo'ou & Niuatoputapu
Niuafo'ou is an example of the determination of mankind to persevere, cling to their ancestral homes through large risks and inconveniences. Niuafo'ou is prone to volcanic eruptions, and there have been at least ten major recordings since 1853, as well as getting a fair share of the cyclones in the region.
Niuatoputapu is 167km north of Vava’u. The forest – covered central hill 157m high is an eroded remnant of a large volcano, which erupted about 3 million years ago. The flat land is an old coral reef, which grew around the old volcanic core. It was later uplifted by a few meters, and covered with ash. The island was called Keppel by an English captain in 1767.
Niuafo’ou (50, but only 33 is land) is the most northerly island of the kingdom, 337km NW of Vava’u, nearer Samoa and Fiji than to Tongatapu. It is a volcano on an underwater ridge 190km west of the line of all the other volcanoes of Tonga.
The island is a steep-sided calderas; the rim is over 120m high, rising to Mokotu 250m. The coastline is rocky and steep with no reef, and the few beaches are stony with some black sand. The only landing place is the end of a lava flow at Futu, in the west. All the villages are in the east.
The island ring encloses two lakes. The largest, Vai Lahi, is 23m above sea level, 4km wide, and 84m deep. It has three islands plus a low one which appears when the water level drops. Vai Lahi is separated from the smaller Vai Mata’aho by a wasteland of sand hills and opines. The inner walls of the main Crater Lake and the eastern slopes north of Tongamama’o have dense forest. Forest is also growing slowly over the lava-covered western slopes. Coastal vegetation is found on the entire southern coast. All the rest of the island has coconut palms, trees and mixed agriculture.
Niuafo’ou has been an active volcano for thousands of years. It is a most unusual volcano because there have been two types of eruptions.
In 1853 the village of ‘Ahau was destroyed, killing 25 people. Lava flows from eruptions in 1912 and 1929 destroyed all bush and gardens of the western slopes and the village of Futu, and cut off the harbor.
There were eruptions in 1935, 1936, 1943, and the most violent was in 1946.
Sister Mary Julia, of the Catholic Mission at Angaha, wrote this describtion in 1946:
“The tragic event occurred on Monday, September 9th at 7:30pm after an hour of earth tremors and quakes and shakes. We had counted 27 really good ones.
Father was making kava on his verandah with a few natives who, looking towards Piu and ‘Ahau where the 1943 eruption had occurred, unanimously declared that there was no danger. Had they glanced northward and noticed how the sky looked over the rocky coast, they would have let the kava bowl drop down at once.
A crash and a boom-boom was heard behind the house towards the sea. All the while the “atomic bombs” were popping out at a distance. The noise of the sea, the detonations from the rocky coast – all were deafening.
We went to our rooms and got busy pulling a mat from the bed …. A blanket … all was tumbling down in the rush. While we were packing, the heart was getting to be unbearable. The fire had jumped and was running our way. There was no time to lose or we would be buried alive.
When we passed the corner of the church, I happened to turn my head towards the landing. What I saw was enough to turn anyone into an icy ball …. A pillar of fire and clouds of smoke with pieces of fire bouncing up and falling on every side. All seemed to be running full speed towards us.
Lightning flashed and muttering thunder sounded through the air and continually grew louder. The atmosphere was heavy with the odor of sulphur - a mouthful swallowed while jumping over the fence was choking me. We followed Taipaleti up and up the steep, sheer perpendicular slope, as difficult to climb as a coconut tree.
Next morning from Piu heights we had a view of the village of Angaha. Horrible to see – the town had turned into a lava field. The radio station – no trace of it! The post office was a belching crater; the postmaster’s house a piece of molten lava. Copra sheds were burning slowly. Where was the Government school? – gone too under the iled-up lava. Scattered along the coast from Pulei to Kekei were craters shaped like Christmas puddings, fire and steam still puffing out of them. But miracle of miracle, the Catholic Church was still standing untouched, surrounded by craters and smoking lava fields.
We ventured into the town to try to rescue our belongings, walking stealthily and in great trepidation, fearing at every step to disappear into one of those wide-open fiery mouths belching on every side. At every detonation the earth opened somewhere …… I paused in front of the church..
Suddenly, a deafening noise and a stream of red, overwhelming fumes spewed in the air…. Behind the church another crash was heard and the ground opened at my feet. We were in real danger.
That memorable night of 10th of September was to be still worse than the night before. Up on the heights of Piu we all slept on mats on the ground.
All of a sudden there was a noise like half a dozen cannon roaring at the same time and then monster volcanoes buried under the sea began to pour out tons and tons of red-hot stones, sulphur, and lava. What a sight it was to see fire coming out of the water! A dozen big mouths spitting out fire from midnight until 7am Wednesday morning. From my ringside seat at the sinister performance, I watched all night.”
“The Fire Has Jumped” compiled by Garth Rogers in 1987.
The Governmetn decided that it was to dangerous for people to continue to live on Niuafo’ou, and by December 1946 all 1300 inhabitants were evacuated and resettled on the island of ‘Eua. Only in 1958 was the first group of 200 allowed to return. In 1985 the island was shaken again, and steam came from the ground over the southwest quarter.
The volcano seems dead today, but the sand at the lake bottom is 60 degrees Celsius, and the springs in the little inner crater are hot. These show that magma is close to the surface. The malau bird uses the heat by laying its eggs in deep holes near the lake edge to hatch in the warm sand (32 degrees Celsius)
[ref: Norman and Ngaire Douglas, Tonga a Guide]
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