Passage Note #79 - Marquesas Islands: Fatu Hiva Island
We wanted to see if the two of us, man and woman, could resume the life abandoned by our first ancestors.....Be independent of the least aid of civilization. Independent of everything except nature. The island of Fatu-Hiva....the most luxuriant island in the South Seas....became our choice. Mountainous and lonely. Rich in sunshine, fruit, and drinking water. Few natives and no white men”.......Thor Heyerdahl, 1938
Fatu Hiva Island
The youngest and southernmost of the Marquesas Islands; it has two villages (Hanavave and Omoa) with a combined population of 650
Legend, epic. We knew that about Fatu Hiva from its reputation among sailors; they say you must earn the right to be there. We knew we were in for something special as we slid by the dark steep cliffs towering above our heads, oozing with mystery. But there is only one word to describe entering its Bay of Virgins: WOW! The phallic-looking pillars guarding the entrance are very suggestive and so it was originally called “Baie de Vergens” or The Bay of Penises. However the ever vigilant Catholic missionaries, those guardians of propriety, slipped in an “i”, renaming it the “Baie de Viergens” or Bay of Virgins and the sanitized moniker stuck. Hanavave is the village in this bay.
The southernmost island in the archipelago, Fatu Hiva is way off the beaten path and the most difficult to reach. It is sensationally rugged, visually shocking, and barely inhabited. It was the place where the original “Survivor”, Norwegian icon Thor Heyerdahl, cut his teeth on South Pacific adventure and began to formulate his hypothesis of Polynesians originating from South America, culminating in his balsa-raft voyage on the Kon-Tiki across the Pacific from Peru in 1947. DNA evidence has since refuted his theory, and today it is widely accepted that the Polynesians came from Southeast Asia.
Linda had been reading Thor Heyerdahl’s book “Fatu Hiva - Back to Nature”. In fact, it was the original paperback edition that Chuck had given to his sister and brother-in-law as a gift when they set off on their circumnavigation in the 1970’s. Now the pages were brown and crumbling, the photos still fascinating. A newly married 22-year-old Thor Heyerdahl and Liv, his young wife, arrived by copra boat in 1930 and tried living off the land for one year - not such a successful experiment. As they passed the Bay of Virgins for the first time Heyerdahl writes: “A mighty valley opened before us. It looked completely artificial, like a theater with red flats or side screens jutting into the green palm forest from both sides. These fantastic side curtains were outlined with bizarre profiles against the greenery, as if cut from plywood by an artist with a sense for shape and effect, rather than being crumbling red tuff moulded by rain and storms.” It is significant that Liv wanted to get ashore here but the captain of the copra schooner vetoed it saying: “The valley is moist and filled with vapor; the natives suffer from all kinds of diseases that may infect you too. Elephantiasis is terrible here in Hanavave.”
And indeed guidebooks from as recent as 10 years ago suggest that visitors get pills for elephantiasis which is thought to still exist (spread by mosquitos). As their copra boat continues southward to Omoa, Heyerdahl remarks that “With silent awe, we saw the mighty, theatrical rock-curtains of Hanavave being drawn as we passed by. We were never to see a more beautiful composition of natural scenery.”
We had departed Atuona on Hiva Oa 8 hours earlier and sailed the 45 miles south close-hauled in 12 knots of wind.
It was late in the day when we approached the pillared Bay. The sun’s long slanted rays lit the spectacular landscape like a stage set, bathing it in golden light with dramatic shadows. They touched upon a gossamer mist left over from a brief shower in the valley beyond and a faint rainbow arched over the scene, implying the pot of gold might just lay in the village of Hanavave tucked into a corner ahead. We thought we had been transported into a wonderland of some kind.
The sight was so imposing that after securely anchoring ourselves among the four sailboats already there, we sat in the cockpit and watched with awe as the sun sank behind us and the moon rose over the island’s jagged silhouettes before us. As if that weren’t enough atmosphere, as soon as it became dark, the beating sounds of primitive drums coming from the village reverberated around us. It was very otherworldly and a palpable sense of Marquesan “mana” (spiritual power) pulsed through the air.
Early in the morning, we picked up our friends Jean Pierre and Isabelle on svSodric and dinghied in to Hanavave which we could just glimpse beyond the little protective breakwater at the mouth of the Bay. Tying the dinghy to the sea wall under the rock pillars, we walked past a canoe house and a tiki on to a concrete ball court before reaching a narrow residential lane. On either side were small concrete houses with curtains of gaily printed tropical material filling the open glass windows and wide doors. Colorful crotons, hibiscus, bougainvilleas, ti plants and potted orchids spilled from the well-kept gardens which lined the “street.”
Fatu Hiva is famous for being the only island in the Marquesas to still produce tapa - a non-woven cloth traditionally used by the ancient islanders for clothing. We listened intently for the thwack thwack thwack of women pounding the bark of the mulberry tree into this fine tan material which today (since the 1960’s) is painted with designs for sale to tourists as wall hangings and other marketable items. But we heard nothing.
Past the small white church and green elementary school building we came upon a small grocery store that carried a decent selection of items for such a remote place. The two women in the shop cheerfully answered all our questions:
Q: “Is there any bread here?” A: There was no bakery in Hanavave; you had to order your bread in advance from the other village of Omoa, 17 km. south by mountainous road across the interior or 3 miles south by boat.
Q: “What about the drumming in the evening?” A: There were 3 groups practicing for the Fete the following month (July) - one was children, one young adults, and the third was adults. Dancing began at 7 pm, lasted until about 8:30, and we were welcome to come and watch....just follow the sound of the drums.
Q: “Are there any tapa artisans nearby?” A: Yes, but most of the tapa articles were already taken to Tahiti to be sold in Papeete and the women are busy now making costumes for the Fete instead of tapa.
Q: “Which way to the waterfall?” A: Cross the bridge over the river, continue up the paved road (there’s only one), and take a left on to a dirt track.
We set off to hike to the 200 foot Vaiéé-Nui Falls as the day’s activity. Armed with a hand-drawn map Chuck had gotten from a friend’s blog, we got lost after an hour. In hindsight we could have arranged one of the village children to show us the way but we thought we knew where to go. Intrepid Isabelle wanted to push on into the interior to try to intersect the path but cooler heads prevailed.
We returned to the road and hailed a white pick-up truck approaching us. The driver and his wife motioned to get into the back with their son and they would take us to the correct turn-off, which was marked by cairns, and as far up the path as the car could go. We thanked them profusely. From there we walked about an hour in the dense jungle, following a stream and passing lots of cairns on the path and volcanic stone platforms called pae pae's, remains of ancient houses. We finally reached the cascade, shared a lunch of cheese, paté and crackers, and jumped into the pool at its base for a refreshing swim. The clear water was cold and refreshing but not freezing; we saw tiny neon blue fish darting over the rocks and freshwater shrimp a few inches long, but didn’t come across any resident eels we understood to exist there.
The next night we were invited to svSodric for dinner after Jean-Pierre and Isabella returned from the 8 hour round trip hike to the village of Omoa following 17 km. along the steep road. “Nothing like a great meal that cost nothing” Isabelle exclaimed as she served fresh sashimi from the tuna they had caught, and sliced into the breadfruit cooked on the barbeque that they had been given by some locals. Bananas were for dessert.
Two catamarans pulled into the Bay and rafted up to each other - which is a bit unusual to see out here - boats rafted up. They were svSpace and svOrion...pretty rough looking boats owned by a young Australian adventurer named Jeff and his girlfriend, Emilie, a French doctor. The skipper of Orion was Carlos, a handsome young Spaniard. Rounding out the motley crew was a diverse ever-changing group of 8 or 9 young backpackers/travelers that they had picked up along the way. Jeff had purchased the boats in the Caribbean, did some work to make them seaworthy, and now was taking them to Australia to sell since catamarans fetch high prices there (in any condition). This was one of the most adventurous group of sailors we have met...and a lot of fun! They were always having some crazy experiences (like the goat they had on board when we met them again later in Tahuata (Passage Note #77) when Emilie’s mother and sister came to visit from France. Or the time they let their dog, named "Doggie", swim to the bank of the Bay to do his thing and then later found him being led off on a rope by one of the local kids in Hanavave. “That looks like Doggie!” she exclaimed and was able to repossess him just in the nick of time. One night we feasted on the fresh water shrimp they had caught in the river and fish they had caught in the area. Their departure was delayed by Jeremy, a young American who went back and forth from Omoa by “water taxi” to have his leg tattooed by Tedi, a tattoo artist there. What was supposed to be a one-day procedure was stretched to three days - each night he returned sore but with a goat leg Tedi had given him for dinner since he was sorry it was taking so long. It was one of the most spectacular tattoos we had seen to date. Fong, a crew member from Taiwan, got a similar tattoo later when the boats reached Hiva Oa.
For the week we were anchored in Hanavave we went ashore every evening to watch the dancing, chanting and drumming. The youngest group - aged 8 to 12 - practiced during the day and sometimes in the early evening on the concrete ball court by the quay.
There is only a small elementary school on Fatu Hiva and the children are sent away to school after that. They stay in dormitories on Hiva Oa for middle school and then go to high school in Papeete, Tahiti. The older teenagers had recently arrived back to Fatu Hiva on the Aremiti from their high school in Papeete and would remain with their families for about a month for school vacation before returning. It is difficult for the families to be separated from their children like this, but it is an accepted fact of life here in the Marquesas. Afterwards, some go on to university in France or do a stint in the French military. Their dance troupe practiced a bit later under the stars on the same concrete ball court.
A small stream flowed through the village on to a boulder beach in the center of the Bay. On one side what had once been a thick grove of coconut trees had been cleared in recent years to make way for a large grassy soccer field at the back of which stood a recreation building with a roofed concrete patio. Here is where the adult dancers assembled.
Each group had a “chief”, or leader, who walked among the performers making sure everyone was in synch and positioned where they were supposed to be. The woman who was the chief of the younger kids was particularly stern looking. Drummers were grouped off to one side and “chanters” often led the singing. There were some onlookers at the sidelines, usually members of other groups who were not performing at the moment or women and men holding babies. There were always a few 4-5 year olds rocking out and dancing in their own version to this music of the ancestors.
One evening, a woman “chanter” who was sitting at the head of the group paused from the activity and struck up a conversation with Linda, moving her to the sidelines so they could hear each other talk over the drums. Augustine was a former teacher, school principal, mayor of Hanavave and now director of this celebration for the entire village. After 40 minutes of sharing stories and getting to know each other, the two formed a bond that resulted in our change of plans.
We postponed our departure scheduled for the next day in order to spend a day with Augustine and her family. She enticed us with a trip to Omoa and dinner at her home if we stayed longer but we had to decline - we were meeting our friends on Tahuata to welcome them from their Puddle Jump and the timing meant we could only spare the one day. At the end of the dance practice, Augustine joined her husband Lucien and son Iki (both of whom were drumming) and hopped into their white pick-up truck to go home. Chuck recognized it and exclaimed: “You’re the ones who took us to the waterfall!!” They all smiled a knowing smile.
We rendezvoused with Augustine in town the next morning and followed her to the orchard where her sister Karin and brother-in-law Temo and family were picking oranges for a shipment to Tahiti on the Aranui. Since Augustine had to attend an administrative meeting for the celebration, we went with Temo to his home to see his carvings and meet Augustine’s mother. His wood carvings were intricate and of very high quality so Linda picked out a bowl and Chuck a traditional adze. Their home was simple, the covered patio being the staging area for the crafts production and display - Temo’s carvings and Karin’s seed jewelry. Augustine’s mother reclined on some furniture draped with tropical-patterned pareus (sarong cloth used to wrap around the waist worn as skirts). On the wall was a sign that read “Je Suis Charlie”” in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
After her meeing, Augustine she took us around the town to meet some other craftspeople and community leaders. We were still hoping to watch the women make tapa but had to content ourselves with watching them make the traditional costumes out of feathers, seeds, leaves, and plant materials. Among them was Kati, the austere looking “chief” of the younger kids who was busily making headdresses for the children. They were made anew every year with a different design and materials.
We ascended a steep dirt path off the main road and arrived at Augustine’s house sitting atop a high hill with a breathtaking view and cool breezes. Lucien was napping on a mattress on the patio while her two young grandchildren Maniki and Little Augustine amused themselves playing with the rambling chickens and tiny kitten tied with a yarn leash whose name was Agata (after Augustin’s favorite author, Agatha Christie).
Augustine made fresh lemonade for all of us which we drank out of bowls. All Marquesans have large plastic encased photos (in varying states of condition) of their families and children on their walls. Augustine brought out photos of her family to proudly show us her four children and some images of her as a young women at the time she first met Lucien, who hailed from the island of Ua Pou. She was raising her two grandchildren and it is very common for women to have babies while they are in relationships but not necessarily married. Many times a wedding will happen years later after a relationship has been established for a long time, often for practical rather than romantic reasons. Before we left she went into the house and returned with a friendship gift for Linda - a beautiful large Tahitian pearl.
We returned in the evening to watch our last dance practice and said a tearful goodbye to Augustine, Linda’s first Marquesan sister. We exchanged email addresses and promised we would see her again - either on another trip to Fatu Hiva or perhaps at the All-Polynesian Festival (held every four years) this December in Hiva Oa.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #79