There are several limestone caves on the Ile des Pins. The best known and most accessible one is the Cave or Grotto of Queen Hortense, set in verdant tropical rainforest and abounding with stalactites, lianas, banyan roots, ferns and (harmless) bats.
It was in this cave (fact or fable?) that the 16 year old future Queen Hortense, daughter of the island’s King took refuge for almost a year across 1855/56 while an inter-tribal conflict raged on the island.
The conflict arose due to the fact that the King had no sons and had named Hortense his successor. This deeply annoyed many, including the King’s brother who fancied himself as successor.
Apart from two trusted friends, who brought food and news to Hortense, no one knew where she was. To avoid giving the game away by using the cave’s entrance, Hortense’s food and other requisites were lowered down to her through a natural hole in the roof. In fact (or fable?), this is how Hortense herself had entered the cave.
Luckily a path has been cleared from a small car-park to the entrance of the cave such that to-day’s visitors do not need to be lowered down through a hole in the roof!
Eventually the tumult settled down and Hortense returned onto the scene though soon went to the mainland to study French. Some years later, to the surprise of French administrators, Hortense was able to read contracts handed to her and her father by the administrators. The contracts did not read as the French were claiming and where not signed by the King, thus saving tribal lands from falling into French ownership. As such, while the Ile des Pines is, like the rest of New Caledonia, French territory most of the land on the island remains in the ownership of local tribes, thanks to Queen Hortense. Foreigners can lease land here but not own it.
When visiting take care as the floor of the cave is damp and can be slippery. Also, be sure and take a torch if you want to venture in beyond the mouth of the cave.
While entering the cave look up to your left. Nestled in the limestone crags is a small shire to the Virgin Mary and dedicated to the memory of the Queen. It is lovingly decorated and tended to by the locals who to-day treat the cave as a sacred place. Please do likewise when you visit.
While the primary reason for coming to Queen Hortense’s Cave is to see the cave itself and hear about the Queen, the walk from the car-park is a worthy trek in itself.
Actually stroll is a more appropriate word than trek as it is a 5 to 10 minutes easy walk through lush and verdant tropical rainforest. Walking to, and from, the cave you will be engulfed in ferns, vines, mango trees, kaoris, coconut palms and vibrant exotic flowers. Do take your time and admire the rain forest.
Notwithstanding any temptation you may have to wander off the path to find the edible snails that I understand inhabit these parts, I suggest you stay on the path as you are equally, or more, likely to encounter a snake than a snail.
The path to the cave starts at the entrance hut as depicted in one of my attached pictures.A few souvenirs were on sale at the entrance hut and and a single prefabricated toilet was available nearby.
Entry to the cave costs A$4 (XPF250) – though there was no-one there to collect it when we visited and there was no suggestion from our guide that we needed to put money in the tin on site. Perhaps if you are on a guided tour the entrance fee is included in the tour cost though do not take my word for that.
The cave was one of the stops on an island tour we took from our cruise ship. While I know it is towards the north of the island in the vicinity of the airport, where exactly it is I am not sure – a bit like the young princess’ mid 19th century adversaries, as it were!
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my trip to Ile des Pins, New Caledonia. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Prisoners In Paradise – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – No Hurries, No Worries.