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July, 2015

Passage Note #80 - Marquesas Islands: Ua Pou Island

Ua Pou Island

One of the three northern Marquesas.  Population of 2157.


The spires of this island’s skyline are extraordinary.  The iconic snaggle tooth profile of Ua Pou is strikingly visible from miles away on a clear day and has been likened to the Disneyland castle or a palace with minarets.   Lonely Planet describes it this way: “12 pointy pinnacles soar like missiles from the basaltic shield.  Almost constantly shrouded in swirling mist and flecked by bright sunlight, they form one of the Marquesas’ most enduring images.”


The sugarloaf formation overlooking the main bay of Hakahau is indeed dramatic.  We had arrived at first light on July 24 after having left from Hanaiapa on the north side of Hiva Oa at dusk the day before.  The rough cross swell made the trip pretty miserable so we were glad to round the NE corner of the island and settle into the protected Bay between our friends on svUsquabae and the concrete quay.

We were anchored bow and stern just far enough away from the wharf where the large supply ships - the Aranui and Taporo - shoehorn themselves in.  We were within easy swimming distance to the shore in 12 feet of water. 


From our patio (the cockpit) we had an entertaining view of our backyard: a stretch of black sand beach rimming the bay which abounded with daily activity.  Kids splashing on the beach, barbeques and get-togethers at the canoe house, outrigger canoes gliding past, an instructor teaching young neophyte pirogue paddlers,  swimmers, sand castle building, small fishing boats coming and going, young men exercising and bathing their horses in the water, and (some rougher days) boogie boarders riding the surf.

The only thing that marred our peaceful “pastoral” surroundings of the harbor was the construction of the new quay next to us and the noise and fumes of the cranes and pile driver.  This also rendered the old dinghy dock unusable so we rowed the dinghy in to shore to get to the village each day, leaving it on the beach by the canoe clubhouse.  


Hakahau is a pleasant village, more open and dry and not as lush and green as some of the other places we had visited.  The northern side of Ua Pou is relatively arid.  Even so, with irrigation, the flowering gardens surrounding the neat colorful houses were brimming with mango and breadfruit trees.  Extensive grassy fields for soccer and the campus of the technical school abutting the beach gave it a flat and stark appearance at first.  To the right of the beach was a pleasing complex of community buildings  - a  large “recreation” structure used for parties and weddings, the postal building and “Air Tahiti” office, the “mairie” or city hall decorated with beautiful carved wooden panels and large upright stones mimicking the island’s pillars, and the artisan fare, especially active when the tourists from the Aranui arrived,  which included the craft-display building, a patio for dancing and musicians,  library with free internet, a restaurant to serve lunch to the tourists, a small fruit market, and public bathrooms.

Further inland a few blocks up one of the main streets were several well-stocked grocery stores, a beautiful stone church where we enjoyed a Sunday morning of singing, and a large sports field with restaurants surrounding a covered concrete courtyard called the “barrack”. This is the venue for their traditional dancing.


During one of our many leisurely strolls exploring the little town, we stopped at a crepe truck for lunch and met a family who were vacationing from Rangiroa in the Tuamotus.  Tania was from Spain, Anton was French, with Paul, their 3 year old son.  We saw them on several other days and visited them at the little hotel,  Restaurant-Pension Pukuéé, where they were staying up the hill from our anchorage.  We had intended to go there anyway to meet the owners, Jérôme and his wife Elisa, and have a meal since LP highly recommended their dinners. However, they were renovating the pension and the place was under construction and in chaos.  Tania was not a very happy guest.


Jérôme is French, a legionnaire who fell in love with Marquesan culture.  Not only did he marry a Marquesan and take over her parents’ pension business, he gave himself his elaborate tattoos.  He was well versed in ecotourism and spoke passable english so we and Chris and Frances on svUsquabe went on a day tour of the eastern side of the island with him.  First we drove through Hakahau where we stopped to meet his friend Claude. Behind a black visqueen fence was an active car repair business taking place in the garage and driveway of a small white house. “Yes”, Jérôme said, “he is my mechanic but he is also a professional baker and can make you a large loaf of white bread if you order it a day in advance - great for traveling and lasts a lot longer than a baguette.” 

At the back of the Hakahau valley we began our ascent up to the high ridge line and drove along it past the nearby Valley of the Kings.  Jérôme stopped at a viewpoint overlooking a beautiful bay and we could see the whole eastern shore of the island.  We drove on for a short while until we reached a major archeological site - Tohua Mauia - above the village of Hohoi on the southeastern part of the island. A tohua is an old ceremonial space (in contrast to a me’ei which is a religious site).  It consisted of a large L-shaped open grassy area suitable for dance and cultural performances, framed by an L-shaped stone platform and numerous pae pae (stone platforms) around the main complex.  Some open-sided buildings in the original style had been reconstructed for a Marquesan Festival that had taken place in 2007, as well as some contemporary stone tikis.  Jérôme explained the significance of much of what we saw - taboo (sacred) red stones, the chief’s area as opposed to the commoner’s area, flat stones for the chief to lie on to display new tattoos,  pock-marked stones where the wells were used to mix medicines or tattoo ink, and stones with long deep indentations which had been used to sharpen their tools.

From the Tohua we visited a stone sculptor who worked with the local unique rock called “Flower Stone”,  pieces of phonolite that have crystalized and contain inclusions which resemble light yellow flowers.  There are two background colors - brown and green - and are found nowhere else in the world except on Ua Pou and in Brazil.  This carver had an unusually huge boulder sitting on his front porch and was in his “workshop” under a covered carport shaping a smaller piece into a traditional phallic-shaped pestle used to grind breadfruit into a dish called poi.  We drove to the nearby rocky beach of Hohoi to search for our own flower pebbles and found a few small ones before returning the 12 km. to Hakahau.

As on all the Marquesas Islands, the main occupations here are copra, fishing, and handicrafts.  According to a French Polynesia website, Ua Pou has “kept its strongly anchored traditions and is well-known for the artistic qualities of its wood carvings, flower-stone carvings, tattoos, its musicians and dance artists.  From this cultural dynamism was born the Marquesas Festival, Matava’a, a biannual event amongst Marquesans and a real meeting ground for  the artistic talent in order not to forget this  beautiful culture”.  Indeed, the artisan building was packed with all sorts of beautiful crafts and everyone was poised for the arrival of souvenir-buying tourists from the Aranui - a major market for sales. 

The day the ship arrived, Linda went in early to scope out the preparations.  She was drawn to several displays of seed jewelry, carvings, tapa, seashells, and palm weavings.  A woman sat behind a table with lovely Tahitian pearl necklaces and bracelets as well as some intricate carvings made of wood and marlin bills, signed by an artist named Hapipi.  Linda recognized the name from two places:  this was the family name of Augustine’s husband, Lucien, from Fatu Hiva and Lonely Planet had touted a carver called Eugene Hapipi as Ua Pou’s best.    The woman at the table was Rose, Eugene’s widow, and Lucien’s cousin.  Eugene had died several years ago but the carving tradition was being carried on by his sons. Rose was excited to hear her husband had been mentioned in a book, that Linda knew who he was by reputation, and that she had met Lucien.

Linda met her second Marquesan sister when her attention was drawn to another table that exhibited some large carved mother of pearl shells.  Marguerite, a jovial woman with an infectious smile and bright eyes welcomed her in english.  She was wearing a beautiful dress typical of the adult women in the Marquesas - tropical patterned material down to the knee with short cap sleeves and a scoop neck all trimmed in eyelet lace.  Around her head was a beautiful flower crown.  They spoke for some time, Linda bought one of the shells,  then they went outside to buy cold drinking coconuts with straws and sat sipping them on the wall of the shaded patio.  Her english was pretty good because her husband was Australian.

Here is Marguerite's story:  Originally from Ua Pou (but from another village on the island called Hakahetau), Marguerite had married and, unable to have children of her own, adopted three.  She was very proud of them now that they were grown, especially her one son who was the mayor of a town in Tahiti.  She left her first husband when the children went away to school in Papeete in their teenage years because he drank and was abusive and she got a job as a cook on the Aranui (cargo/cruise ship).  One day, a Marquesan co-worker on the ship approached her and asked if she would be interested in an Australian husband -  her sister had died a year ago and her brother-in-law was wanting to now find another Marquesan wife.  Marguerite thought about it for a while and told the woman she would be interested in at least meeting the man.  So Marguerite was introduced to Keith, the Aussie widower.   They got along well and he was willing but Marguerite wanted more time and told him if he still felt the same way in a year, she would return, marry him, and come to live with him near Sydney.  Which is just what happened.  But after ten years, she grew homesick for the Marquesas and convinced Keith to return with her to her native island of Ua Pou.  She was happy to be back and he was adjusting well enough.  She opened two general stores for a time until her family obligations of “sharing” became too financially burdensome - it is the Marquesan way to help family members out if requested.  And everyone in the Marquesas seem to be related to each other - there is no “six degrees of separation” here - it’s more like 1/4 degree of separation.  In fact, the first thing Marquesans do when they meet each other is figure out how they are related.  Since Marguerite’s “bottom line” was being so negatively impacted by an overabundance of requests for loans or inventory that she could not decline, she could not be bothered and closed the stores.  Now she happily makes dresses and sells them and some other items in her stall at the artisan market. 

She invited us to lunch the next day.  At 11:00, we entered the beautiful garden of their simple blue house across from the gendarmarie.  Keith greeted us from the front patio, screened from the yard by open white latticework walls, where there was a seating area and a lovely table set for our meal.  A large radio at one end was tuned to a station from Papeete playing Polynesian music.  Marguerite joined us from the kitchen and we sat down together for several delicious dishes of entirely too much food - she had made shrimp, poisson cru (raw fish cooked in lime juice with coconut milk), a salad, chicken, coconut rice, and a mango cake for dessert.  Keith was excessively talkative which Marguerite had warned us about so while he dominated Chuck’s attention with stories about Australia, Marguerite showed Linda around the house.   Facing the TV and entertainment center in the spacious living room were several couches covered in colorful hand crocheted afghans she had proudly purchased from second hand stores in Australia for a song.  There were two guest rooms, one of which doubled as a shop for the display and sale of her dresses,  her sewing room piled high with bolts of fabric and eyelet laces, and a large but spare kitchen.  Every room was filled chockablock with framed photographs of family. 

At lunch, she invited us to be their guest at the last traditional dance performance of the Fete with an accompanying dinner that would be taking place in three more days - Friday, July 31.   This  - the last - was going to be the highlight of the month!  July is Fete in French Polynesia - which means “Party time!” traditional style and we had already seen the dancing and music practices and displays on several other islands.  In fact, we had already seen a dance performance by a group from Hakahetau (a village on the northwest corner of Ua Pou) the previous Friday when we first arrived on the island.  We had gone to the “barrack” to have dinner at the restaurants located there with two other cruising couples and had arrived at the open but roofed courtyard just as the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.   The dance performance went on as scheduled even though the dancers from this village had to crouch and gyrate and leap and twirl and groove to the drumming and ukeleles on a flooded concrete patio. 

Of course we accepted their invitation to attend the dinner and dance. Marguerite then took Linda by the hand into her sewing room and wanted to make her a special Marquesan dress.  In the end, she gave Linda one of her favorites from the display room. 


Friday night arrived and we walked to their house early.  Linda changed into her special dress. Marguerite had made her a traditional Marquesan flower crown from heavenly-smelling tiara (gardenia) buds and gifted her with a beautiful seed necklace.  She gave Chuck a shirt with a tiki motif.  Appropriately attired like local Marquesans, the four of us drove to the “barrack” where Marguerite had reserved a dinner table with a great view of the performance area.  The place was packed with all of Hakahau in attendance as well as with other villagers from around the island.

The dancing and costumes were indeed the best we had seen thus far and the troupe performed for almost two hours - an amazing amount of time considering how much energy is expended in the athletic choreography.  The food was delicious - poisson cru, pork, lemon chicken, sashimi, coconut rice.  The evening was a lot of fun and we returned to the boat quite late.

Linda’s flower crown perfumed the boat with its glorious gardenia fragrance for several more days until just about the time it was time to leave Ua Pou. We walked to Marguerite and Keith’s house to say goodbye and brought them some gifts which included some new and stronger reading glasses.  We plan to return to this island to visit them again later in the cruising season.


One of our Cruising Guides written in 2000 had this to say:  “On the island of Ua Pou the people typify the graciousness of Marquesan society.”   Our Marquesan friend Henri in Nuku Hiva was later to remark to me: “It’s not the flower crowns.  It’s not the gifts of fruit, or the tattoos or the dancing that is our culture, it’s the giving from the heart.”


That was exactly what we learned from Marguerite’s friendship and overwhelming generosity.

MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #80

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