This work aims to elucidate the factors governing the mobility of metals in soils of a lateritic nickel ore deposit in New Caledonia. The transfer of nickel and associated metals is determined along a topographic sequence ranging from a plateau to a thalweg. Mining exploration borehole data and soil pit data enabled us to define the general geochemical trends of the lateritic weathering. The homogeneous topsoil, which consists mainly of iron oxy-hydroxides, exhibits various amounts of plant available metals. Two interrelated factors control the differences in metal availability: (1) the presence of nickel-rich soil horizons underlying the topsoil and formed of silicate minerals, and (2) the biological cycling of metals from these horizons to the surface. These results have major implications for topsoil management during the mining activity where it is important to minimise metal inputs to water systems and to restore endemic vegetation after mining. (c) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.