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Cruising the Marquesas

May 7, 2002

Now that you have sweated with us through our Big Passage, we thought we should tell you about life "on the other side." For the past few weeks we've been cruising among five islands of the Marquesas group. We stayed first in Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa, to check in with the gendarmes, to provision and to drop our crew off at the airport. Mark and Mike have both left now, so we are back to cruising à deux.

Metropolitan Atuona

Atuona harbor is not the most comfortable place we've ever been. It's a bit crowded - usually 15 to 25 boats - very rolly and hot. The water is murky, so the swimming isn't very nice. The rumor was that there were sharks, but our Marquesan tour guide, Pepe, squashed that idea flat. The benefits are that the army base, which looks like a posh harbor-side resort, has a troop of soldiers who sing on their way to the mess hall. Quite charming. Then there are roosters crowing in the mornings, always a nice third world touch. There is even a little store at the gas station on the dock that sells the necessities of life like fresh baguettes every morning at 7:30. No one seems to sell ice, but it would be a wet puddle by the time it got back to the boat anyway. We are trying to build up our ice supply by filling small plastic containers and freezing them. So give your icemaker a hug today! When you really need one in 90 degree heat and 70% humidity, they are not to be found.

The town of Atuona is a mile or so from the harbor, up a very hot hill of course. Luckily, every time we have gone in, some kind local has picked us up. We have spent most of our shore time traveling in the back of pickup trucks, another bit of third world charm. We're just thrilled to have a ride, no matter how risky.

Atuona is pretty much a one horse, one street town with the gendarmerie, a post office, four stores or magazins, two snack bars, a mini-bank, the tiny Air Tahiti office, a museum, a craft shop, and that is IT. At first, the 4 magazins seemed pretty empty of anything remotely useful, but that was on our first foray. After we were more rested and not so picky, we were able to find most of the things we needed, except fresh vegetables. It was very nice to be able to speak French to ask where to find things. Take honey for example. It wasn't in anything recognizable like a jar, but we finally asked and there it was in recycled wine bottles without labels. The stores are very dark too, which makes it all a bit mysterious. Each one sells a mixture of food, alcohol, clothing, hardware, toys, etc. Ever hanker for some nice canned mackerel? It's a big item here, for reasons we can't fathom. Everything is expensive, but it is all brought in by ship once a month, so one pays what one must. For example, the local beer, Hinano, is twelve dollars a six-pack. No, that's not a misprint: $12/six-pack. After the Mexican beer ran out, Mike and Mark became quite partial to Hinano, so we had to keep a good supply chilled. The baguettes, highly subsidized by the French government, cost thirty cents apiece, a real deal and the only cheap thing here.

Hiva Oa Island Tour

One day just after we arrived, the four of us - Jan, Signe, Mike, and Mark - took a 4x4 tour of the island with Pepe, the Seventh Day Adventist pastor who doubles as a tour guide. There is one road around the island, mostly steep, twisty, muddy, terminally rutted, and with plenty of rock falls, washouts and construction-in-progress, which we immediately dubbed the Hiva Oa Freeway. Parts of it near three towns are paved, but the rest is amazing. And you can just forget guardrails! We were very glad we weren't driving. The islands are all volcanic and mountainous, so some of the switchbacks were overly thrilling for the seaside passengers. The scenery is spectacular, however, and the vegetation exotic. There are wild pigs and goats everywhere. They are the main supply of fresh meat, although the freezers in the stores are full of New Zealand lamb. Curried goat is very big in the two snack bars, although we haven't yet indulged.

At one point we stopped at a fruit farm owned by a man who introduced himself to each of us as "Okono" in a thick Marquesan accent. He's an extremely pale, white man with grey hair, but did not speak anything but Marquesan and a little French, which threw us for a loop. We finally figured out his name was "O'Connor." He was born here of an Irish father and a Marquesan mother, and has 24 children of his own. He was very happy to sell us stalks of bananas, papayas, pamplemousse (grapefruit on steroids; delicious), avocados, and cucumbers.

A highlight of the tour was an ancient archeological site, a series of stone ceremonial platforms used by the local chiefs until the late 1880s. The Marquesas had a population of 80-100,000 people when Europeans first arrived, so the valleys on all the islands teemed with people. Their society was highly stratified and warlike, and cannibalism and human sacrifice were very real. The site at Puama'u was mysterious and moving, nearly overgrown with tropical vegetation, and with several stone tikis for atmosphere. We'll write again and tell you more about the Polynesian people and their fascinating civilization.

There are almost zero land-based tourists here, although there is one small hotel and a couple of pensions. The only visitors are us cruisers, so tourist essentials like restaurants and internet cafes are in short supply. There are also no marine supply stores, so people are struggling to find parts to repair things that broke on the passage over. One boat broke its boom and they have a real project going to rig a temporary one. Thank goodness for Jan and his twelve big spare parts bins!

One major issue that we are now facing is a lack of laundromats or nice ladies to do a fluff-and-fold like in Mexico. As Jan said, "We spent lots of time doing maintenance on the boat, but forgot to maintain the washing machine," which has now packed it in. So I did three weeks worth of laundry for four by hand in the galley sink, and hung it on the lifelines to dry. This is what everybody else is doing, too, so it's quite colorful around here. One friend said he had just bought his wife a new washer - a plumber's plunger that she uses to agitate the laundry in a bucket. There is also a big rock and a faucet on shore, but I haven't sunk that low yet!

The Marquesans are very large people, the men being descendants of warriors, as Pepe would say. The women are often quite plump, but usually have arrangements of flowers in their hair, making the whole effect quite lovely. There are flowers everywhere, in the bank, in the Air Tahiti office. It's great and smells fabulous. The whole island has a very different smell from Mexico, very lush, verdant and clean.


Another favorite anchorage has been Hanamoenoa on an island called Tahuata (there'll be a quiz later). It is the opposite of Atuona, an idyllic paradise with crystal clear turquoise water, no swell, a white sand beach (unusual in the volcanic Marquesas) with palm trees, but no civilization. We loved swimming off the boat, did some repair projects in the calmer water, and hung out with friends. It was a great place to recover from the passage.
We are meeting many more international boats now, many on circumnavigations. There are Dutch, French, British, Italian, and Australian boats galore. The Americans and Canadians are now in the minority. It makes for interesting gatherings.

Today we were going to leave for another island, Fatu Hiva, but it has been raining horizontally all night, so we thought better of it. We're making cookies and collecting rainwater in our water tanks instead. We're also sitting in the pilothouse watching the rain and reading, very much like we used to do on the screened in porch in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. It's kind of cozy.

Fatu Hiva

We finally struck out for Fatu Hiva, an upwind sail. It took us about six hours and was pretty wet and unpleasant, but worth the voyage. Hanavave Bay is at the base of some rather spectacular and peculiar volcanic spires. The story goes that the Marquesan name for the place was Penis Bay, or Baie des Verges in French. (Check the photo to see what they meant.) When the missionaries arrived, they really didn't approve of the name, so they added an "i" and changed it to Baie des Vierges, or Virgins Bay. Anyway, it is the most dramatic place we have ever anchored. There is lush vegetation all around, waves crashing on the shore, gusty winds blowing through a gap in les verges, etc. Our Canadian friends aboard By Chance had just arrived after a 23 day passage and were eager to set foot on land. So we took the dinghy into a very surgy concrete ramp and scrambled ashore.

We were immediately adopted by several large women, who took us on a tour through the town. Then they asked if we would like them to prepare a Marquesan Feast for us. We organized the other boats in the harbor to join us for the feast the next night. Meanwhile, we visited one of the best-known local carvers, Temo, and bought a wonderful rosewood manta ray from him. There are some very talented artisans in these islands. On each island we visit, the carvings are a little different. We can't resist and keep buying carved turtles, manta rays and dolphins. Jan fell in love with a beautifully carved canoe paddle and we have that stashed in one of the aft cabins. Who knows where it will all end up?

The town is hilly and shaded by fruit trees of all varieties. Chickens with baby chicks, pigs in their pens, horses and even a cow were part of the scenery. There were heavily perfumed flowers all around us. It was truly a tropical paradise. The children all wanted to tag along on the tour with us, so we started feeling like the pied pipers.

We asked our lady guides if there was anyone who could drive us over the top of the island to the other town of Omoa. Moana, the technician for the telecom company and owner of one of the only two motor vehicles in town (Toyota has a lock on the 4x4 pickup business here), had a day off so he became our driver for the day (for a fee, of course). Moana turned out to be a very knowledgeable guy in his thirties and a great driver on the amazingly bad roads, worse than on Hiva Oa - steep switchbacks, big boulders and wheel grabbing ruts. The views from the tops of the peaks were worth every squeamish moment, however. The tops of the mountains are full of immense mango forests, guava trees, lemon trees, etc. On the way home we picked up three huge plastic bags full of mangoes. I kept thinking that each one of those mangoes was worth at least $3.00 at Queen Ann Thriftway, and I had three bags full! (Ariana of By Chance and I spent the next day making an immense quantity of mango chutney.)

Omoa is a larger, more sophisticated town, lacking some of the remote charm of Hanavave. The day that we were there, the supply ship, the Aranui, was in town with its 60-odd passengers. The passengers are strictly an adjunct to the main purpose of the Aranui, which is to pick up and discharge freight to the islands every month. The benefit to us when the Aranui is in town is that the restaurants and craft shops all have their best stuff available for the passengers. As soon as the Aranui departs, it all gets packed up again. So we did some fast shopping in Omoa - the canoe paddle, some tapa cloth and a pareo for me.

On Sunday we went to church, obligatory when you cruise the South Pacific islands. The three-part singing is not to be missed. It was really beautiful and yet another moment when we had one of those "What are we doing here?" thoughts. The ladies were all dressed in their best tropical flowered dresses with black pearl earrings and necklaces and the traditional flowered hair ornaments - and flip-flops, the dress shoe of choice. It is all very exotic.

We stayed about three nights in Hanavave and Jan climbed up to waterfall with a cruiser group one day. On the last night the williwaw winds from the mountains hit thirty knots, so we decided it was time to move on.

We sailed up to Tahuata to have a workday - laundry, engine oil change, etc. -the necessities of life to a cruiser.

Ua Pou

The next morning we left at dawn for Ua Pou. The seas were pretty rolly and we had 20 knots of wind most of the time, but didn't have any difficulties. The wind picked up just as we were coming in, so getting the sails down and into shelter while being chased by a French Navy ship heading to the same harbor was our bit of excitement for the day. Then Jan had to translate for a boat from Oregon who was being hailed by the French. The Aranui was in the tiny port, too, so things were a trifle chaotic. We were happy to just sit quietly at anchor for the night, even though it was rolly and very crowded with about 20 boats anchored bow and stern to save room. It made for some interesting anchoring maneuvers.

The next day we did the obligatory check in with the gendarmes, then wandered around the town to the four minimally supplied stores. The best part of all was the craft display and kai-kai (picnic) booths that just happened to be set up that day. The island was preparing to celebrate the arrival of a big inter-island outrigger canoe race. So of course, we had to stay and see what that was all about.

The finish of the race was right next to Raven, so we watched all the guys pulling for all they were worth with whatever strength they had left after 40 miles at sea. It was pretty impressive stuff. Hard to imagine that they averaged over eight knots under paddle power for five hours in big waves at sea. They are even allowed to change three of the six paddlers at sea - one guy jumps out and another pulls himself out of the water and into the canoe. Whew! When they got to the beach they were greeted by young girls putting leis around their necks and a matriarchal type giving the official greeting, a very loud shrieky Polynesian sing-song. There was a lot of similarity to a canoe arrival we saw in Alert Bay, British Columbia - same large woman giving the sing-song welcome, same leis around the neck, only they were cedar leis, not sweet smelling flowers. Sorry, I'm beginning to sound like a PBS series.

Later that night, again behind our boat, there was a concert on the beach, which we got to enjoy from our cockpit. Actually, we couldn't avoid it anyway because the speakers were immense and LOUD. Our favorite piece of music was "Hotel California" in Marquesan. I had to retrieve our Mexican earplugs, but we still had a great time.

Nuku Hiva

The next day we decided to leave for out last Marquesan island, Nuku Hiva, which is the administrative capital and The Big City. It has quite a bit of French history and some nice old buildings and a fort dating from the 1840's, but Big City is pushing it. This time there are three stores, again, not well supplied. The good news is that there are restaurants!! We've gone out for dinner twice!! What a treat!! (Yes, Jan is way behind his quota for taking me out to dinner, so he's trying to catch up.) Tomorrow we're going on another island tour. We hope we can find someone who sells vegetables and fruits, because we still haven't found any. We're headed next to the Tuamotus where we already know there are few stores and no fresh supplies, so we need to pack it all in.


The Marquesas, Part 2

Whew. A lot has happened since we last updated this page, so we have plenty to report.

Nuku Hiva Island Tour

Our guide for the 4x4 tour of Nuku Hiva was Richard, a young Marquesan who knows all the history of his island, and can also drive on its abominable roads! It doesn’t seem possible but the roads here were even worse than those on Hiva Oa, but at least the scenery was even more spectacular.

Richard drove us over the mountainous spine of the island to two other major bays, Taipivai and Hatiheu, which were major population centers in the centuries before European diseases wiped out 95% of the population. Everywhere we went we saw pae pae – ancient stone house platforms – hidden in the tropical jungle, most of them unused but a few holding up modern houses. It was almost eerie to see so much evidence of the former glories of these islands.

Herman Melville’s Typee tells of his escape on this island, from a brutal whaling captain while the ship was anchored in Taioha’e in the early 1800’s. Melville and his friend Toby climbed on foot over the same ridge we drove over (hey, it was tough enough in a 4x4!), and were captured or adopted (depending on your viewpoint) by the tribe of the Taipivai valley. Melville says he was given a concubine and lived happily there for several months, although since these were avowed cannibals he could never be quite sure of their good intentions . . . Both he and Toby eventually escaped and got home to tell their tale. Now, Taipivai is a beautiful, sparsely-populated, peaceful farming valley ending in a gorgeous black sand beach on a protected harbor. No sign of cannibals, just a few guys in the youth group of the Catholic church making banners for an upcoming pilgrimage to a church on another island.

The archeological ruins Richard showed us at Hatiheu were spectacular: massive constructions of volcanic stone that must have been the scene of huge ceremonies by the local tribes. Richard even did part of the famous pig dance for us, just like the ones that are still done here annually. The largest temple is built around a banyan tree hundreds of years old, so it must have been sacred to the tribe at the time. Richard said skulls were imbedded in the tree when the site was re-discovered and cleared late last century. By a happy coincidence earlier in the day, we had met Robert Suggs, the American archeologist who had discovered the site in 1957 and sponsored its restoration. He was easily identified by the way he chatted happily away in fluent Marquesan with Richard and the other locals! We asked about the island’s original population and Suggs said he felt vindicated these days, as all the scientists have come around to the then-radical viewpoint he stated in the ‘50’s, that there were at least 100,000 people on these islands. Now there are only 8,000, up from 2,000 in the 1920’s.

Our lunch stop was at Chez Yvonne on the north side of the island, for a delicious Marquesan-style meal of lobster and fish with breadfruit and poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk). On the way back over the mountain, Richard told us stories such as how, soon after the French took control of the islands, one of the chiefs went to France and received some education, which he put to good use on his return to Nuku Hiva. It seems he had the other (still illiterate) chiefs sign papers he said confirmed their land ownership, but in fact the papers did the opposite. They turned the lands over to the scoundrel! This is still a current source of much anguish because the descendents of that chief – named Stanislas, oddly enough – still own enormous tracts of land, while the other chiefs’ descendants remain landless.

Anaho Bay

We heard good reports on the radio nets about a bay on the other side of Nuku Hiva, about 28 miles away, so we motorsailed upwind to get there one day. Anaho Bay has the only coral reef of any size in the Marquesas (probably because these volcanic islands are so geologically young), and is also an excellent anchorage.

We met Leopold, a Marquesan living ashore who was busily clearing brush to make pasture for his horses. He spoke very good English and we asked him if he had learned it in school. “No, I learned English from reading American surfing magazines.” We wished we had had some to give him. We traded a T-shirt, a copied Bob Marley audio CD-R, sunglasses and a few other things for an enormous quantity of fruit of all kinds, some of which we had never seen before. He told us that there was never a Marquesan village in his bay, but that a large colony of slaves lived there to supply Hikokua, the archeological site we had visited, with the breadfruit essential to Marquesan life. There was only one small pae pae, so slaves obviously didn’t merit houses with stone foundations.

Daniel’s Bay

After a quick trip back to Taioha’e to restock with fresh vegetables (only modestly successful), we moved to the next bay, nicknamed Daniel’s Bay by the cruisers. That’s because Daniel and his wife Antoinette have lived there since the 1970s, welcoming cruisers with fruit and fresh water each season. Daniel has five large notebooks filled with photos, drawings, and writings from hundreds of boats. All of us can look through and find plenty of our friends. They’re both getting on in years, and Antoinette especially has severe arthritis so we all were contributing the ibuprofen she wanted from our medical supplies. And everyone drops off tools, rope, clothing, Ziploc bags, and other useful household items too. They were a very sweet, very welcoming couple.

This is also the bay where the Marquesas episode of the Survivors TV show was filmed a few months ago. In fact, the TV people bulldozed Daniel’s original home and removed all trace of it so that the beach could appear pristine for the program. Not to worry, though. They also built him a new and much nicer home in an adjacent bay less than a half-mile away, where there are a half-dozen other homes. Daniel and Antoinette said the TV crowd behaved wonderfully, spent lots of money, treated all the locals well, and everyone is happy. (On a side note, one Australian TV technician got into a minor bar scuffle with our guide Richard. He was flown home the very next morning, in spite of Richard’s embarrassed protests that they were really friends!) That beautiful white sand beach is also the home of zillions of the notorious Marquesan sand flies, called no-nos, whose bites raise big, intensely itchy welts. The TV crew fumigated the beach every night, lest the Survivors roughing it on their desert island get their tender skins bitten!

Hakaui Valley, where Daniel and Antoinette now live, was formerly the site of another large population center. We walked a few miles inland following the river up the valley on an ancient royal road, made of huge volcanic stones raised a foot or two above the valley floor. We passed pae pae after pae pae hidden in the trees and brush, which again gave us that eerie feeling of lives cut short by warfare and disease. But the site is still beautiful, the river water cool on the skin after a sweaty hike, and the people delightful as always.

And so . . . on to the Tuamotus . . .

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This page was last updated on 04/13/04.


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