The girl in the cave – Queen Hortense’s Grotto
I love places that can tell a story. You see, history is not just a series of numbers and facts, it’s the story of people and their hopes and their fears and things they care about.
You may think that places like palaces and antique ruins might qualify best for my investigation into human fate, but there is a more improbable place I’d like to talk about in this post, a place which I find spectacularly beautiful in an eerie kind of way. A place that will give you the shivers and that will open up to you like pages of a children’s picture book.
The place I’d like to introduce you to is a grotto in the centre of the Isle of Pines. A tiny speck of an island belonging to the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. There’s just around 2,000 people living here, most of them native, which is probably why it’s so easy for them to relate to the history of this beautiful grotto.
It was back in 1855 when tribal wars erupted on the island. Now, there are different stories to this, but I will tell you the one that I love best.
During these tribal wars, the king of the island decided to name his daughter Hortense the successor to his reign. However, in particular the king’s brother, Hortense’s uncle, didn’t quite agree with the decision and fancied himself a fine future king. So, young Hortense had to go into hiding, fearing for her life, while the tribes fought the battles on her behalf.
Her followers and helpers pushed her down a hole in the ground into a wide open cave. A grotto with a little stream trickling in its middle and a high ceiling from which long and mighty looking stalactites were hanging. Here, Hortense spend the next couple of months. Provisions were lowered down the hole, and the thick New Caledonian jungle outside the cave kept intruders out. It was a successful scheme, and Hortense’s patience was rewarded with the title of Queen once the wars had been fought and things had calmed down.
But there’s more to Hortense. Legend has it that the young Queen would spend some time on the mainland with the French nuns to learn not just the French language but also how to read and write. Important, modern skills that she then passed on to the women in her tribe.
True or not, it makes Hortense a progressive spirit, ready to embrace the changes in her world and fighting her battles with the weapons of her enemies. A couple of years later, Hortense was able to read the contracts the French handed out to her and her father, she understood that they were different from what the Frenchmen were claiming, and this ultimately saved the tribal lands from French annexation – a legacy that is still alive today, since most lands on the Isle of Pines are still owned by the local tribes.
Visiting the grotto these days is easily done. You will find it’s included in most day tours and that locals are proud to show the foreigners the beauties and cultural background of their island. Check with your guide whether they are related to the royal household in some way or the other – chances are that they can confirm some blood line connection.
Luckily, these days you won’t need to be lowered down a hole to access the cave. There’s a path through the jungle that connects the car park with the entrance of the grotto, a very easy five-minute walk that not only leads you up to the cave but also past the wonderful tropical vegetation with its colourful oversized flowers that come in all shapes and shades.
Arriving at the cave is mind-blowing. The mouth is gapingly wide and vast, the massive stalactites hanging from the ceiling like teeth. There’s ferns dotting the sandy cave floor in the most brilliant shades of green, and the little freshwater stream gives the grotto an almost homely feel. Looking out from inside the cave, the jungle covers the mouth like a green curtain. Try to find the hole that Hortense might have climbed through on her adventurous escape – do you see the long arms of the native banyan trees? These are native trees that are dubbed “upside-down” trees – a parasite in the New Caledonian jungle that strangles its host tree to the point that it is strong enough to survive on its on, discarding the host plant eventually.
To the side you will spot a little shrine with the statue of St Mary, lovingly decorated with tropical flowers, colourful local cloth and maybe even other gifts. The locals certainly recognise that it’s a special place, as you can see.
And if you listen very closely you might hear the buzzing of the bees high above your head, some 10-15 metres up to where the overgrown roof of the grotto is. It’s a safe place for these busy animals, and not quite unlike Hortense’s friends, family and followers they take care of their own queen by supplying her with food and a secure shelter.
If you plan a visit to the Isle of Pines, I’d like to encourage you to consider a day trip that would include a visit to the grotto of Queen Hortense. It’s a beautiful, magical place, steeped in history and local legend.