Passage Note #82 - Marquesas Islands: Around Nuku Hiva Island
Circumnavigating Nuku Hiva Island
With our initial circumnavigation and subsequent return visits to favorite bays, we sailed around Nuku Hiva about 1 1/2 times. The more frequented harbors of Anaho, Taiohae, Controller’s (Taipivi) and Daniel’s Bay (Hakatea) are popular with cruisers for very good reasons. In addition we explored a few other anchorages that not many cruisers take the time to see.
The North Coast
The north side of Nuku Hiva gets drier as you move westward and there is a marked difference in vegetation and lack of greenery as you get closer to the Terre Déserte (Desert Land) where the airport is located on the northwest corner of the island. It is still true as the 2000 Joe Russell cruising guide states: “The north coast of Nuku Hiva is a treasure of gunkholing opportunities”.
Bay of Anaho and Hatiheu
Anaho is a piece of South Pacific paradise that has been called one of the prettiest places on earth......and it is arguably the most favorite anchorage of cruisers in the whole of the Marquesas. Uniquely, it has the only fringing reef in the archipelago which is now protected as a marine reserve. But besides its beauty and its wonderful snorkeling adventures, it’s sheltered waters means it is usually flat - a most welcome respite from the rolly anchorages the Marquesas are known for. It’s often hard to find relief from the swells that wrap these remote islands, some that travel 3,000 miles across open ocean from the east, some 8,000 miles from the Aleutians in the north, some that originate from the south and west.
Anaho presents a tranquil scene: a white sand beach backed by a shaded coconut grove where several horses graze peacefully among the five small houses (one is a pension) and a sweet little chapel. Dramatic mountains rise around you. It’s no wonder Anaho became the most loved spot of Robert Louis Stevenson when he arrived aboard The Casco in 1888.
A grove of palms...carpets it...with fallen branches, and shades it like an arbour. In the hour of the dusk, when
the fire blazes, and the scent of the cooked breadfruit fills the air, and perhaps the lamp glints already between
the pillars and the house, you shall behold them silently assemble to this meal, men, women, and children."
..........................................Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888
In advising you to anchor in sand and coral, Joe Russell’s 2000 cruising guide says “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to hearing your anchor chain grind on the coral heads”. Au contraire!! Very un-politically correct these days. It further states that wrapping your anchor rode around a coral head or two will make for a complicated departure. Yes it will! Since the area is protected there is a specified anchoring area to the left of the visible dinghy channel in the reef that leads to the beach so you are NOT anchored in the coral. A local will come out and make you move if you anchor to the right of the pass.
Nuku Hiva is known for its fabulous walking opportunities and a one-hour hike over the ridge to the village of Hatiheu is one of the best, affording breathtaking views of this part of the island. Don’t stop on the upward (eastern) half because the swarms of ants on the narrow dirt track will overwhelm your feet and legs; interestingly, once you reach the crest and head downward, it is ant-free. Besides the views from the top, there is some good birdwatching for the endemic white-capped fruit dove and the imperial pigeon. By the time you cross a stream and exit the thick vegetation, you begin to spot the spectacular backdrop of Hatiheu, one of the most scenic villages in the Marquesas, located on a pretty bay also favored by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888.
We timed our hike to arrive at lunch and made a beeline for Chez Yvonne’s, a popular eatery known for its local specialties of goat in coconut milk and lobster cooked in whisky, accompanied by breadfruit and cassava. Afterwards we fed leftovers to the three-foot Marquesan eels that inhabit the rocky creek bordering the restaurant and watched them swim upstream over one another to get to the food. These fat snake-like ribbons of fish thrashed about much as the sharks that were attracted to the quay in Taiohae when the fishermen were cleaning their catch. We thought we had read that these eels were sacred but then a Marquesan told us that the black ones were better eating than the brown ones.
Mayor Yvonne is the matriarch of the village and is largely responsible for developing Hatiheu into a visitor’s destination as well as promoting beautiful landscaping along the waterfront and around the church. Her restaurant often hosts meals for large groups of cruise ship guests. After getting the key from Yvonne, we explored the small museum of archeological artifacts that she has established.
Then we hiked back to Anaho Bay where Jacaranda lay peacefully outside the reef. Nearly at the end of our descent, we passed the local farmer and his pack horses transporting sacks of fresh vegetables to the market in Taiohae via Hatiheu. There are no stores in Anaho but you can buy directly from him - his farm is a short walk from the far end of the bay. On another alimentary note, the reef is full of octopus that were being caught in alarming quantities by some of the locals who were on holiday there; eating the fish in Anaho is not recommended because of a heavy concentration of ciguatera, a neurotoxin poisoning carried by tropical reef fish.
In lieu of extending that day to visit the nearby archeological sites up the road from Hatiheu, we decided to visit them by car from Taiohae on a separate excursion with our Marquesan guide Richard. There are several restored me'aes (ancient ceremonial sites) in the Marquesas but three of the most impressive and significant are Hikokua, Kamuihei, and Teiipoka. Frommer’s guide describes them: “Hikokua is a large open area used for ceremonies, dances, and human sacrifices. Restored for the 1999 Marquesas Festival of the Arts, it has impressive tiki statues. The Kamuihei and Teiipoka sites flank the road higher up in the valley. The expansive Kamuihei part has well-preserved tikis, petroglyphs carved into huge boulders, and a pit under an enormous banyan tree, in which human sacrifices were said to have been restrained prior to being dispatched. Dr. Robert Suggs, an American archaeologist, discovered human skulls and leg bones in the banyan tree when he excavated the site in 1956-57. The large sizes of these structures are a testament to how many people once lived in this now-deserted valley.” Richard told us that this is just the tip of the archeological iceberg - there are countless other sites like these throughout the island that lay hidden under the jungle vegetation waiting to be excavated.
Very few cruisers stop at this lovely bay. The scalloped ridges in the background come to life at sunset when they are illuminated in the waning light like a fiery stage-set for the darkened grove of coconut palms in the foreground along the black sand beach - where a huge wild pig was digging in the sand for crabs the late afternoon we arrived.
The next day we dinghied in, walking past a wide green pasture full of horses and a prolific orchard of lime trees to a low fenced wooden house set back from the beach. Chuck had stopped here on Jacaranda in 1992 and was hoping to once more find Alex and his wife whom he had met on that visit. Instead we met Germain, Alex’s brother, and his 20 year old son Alfred who were care-taking the land for the larger family. They stopped harvesting their limes and were happy to show us around. Machetes still in hand, they walked us toward the back of the valley along the river through the hundreds of pae paes (stone platforms that formed the foundations for traditional houses made of native plants and wood) that were heavily shaded by a mature grove of breadfruit trees. They pointed out the many different trees and how the seeds were used and their source of honey in a wild hive high up in a tamanu tree. Below a small family cemetery with three gleaming white crosses, we came to sit in the shade of a huge tree on the steps of a large pae pae next to a humble abandoned wooden shack. Here Germain explained that the house was his grandfather’s and the stone pae pae was his great grandfather’s and that they were descendants of the queen and royal family of Nuku Hiva who were born in this valley. For this was the “Valley of Chiefs”, tapu (taboo or forbidden) to anyone not born here. This regal valley produced some of Nuku Hiva’s greatest leaders and warriors.
They invited us to explore which we did the next day, walking through the large copra (dried coconut meat) plantation, past the three other houses that now exist (owned by family members), on the elevated dirt road paralleling the river in the rear of the valley, past pae paes........ so many many pae paes, and along the remnants of the black volcanic stone royal road leading down to the beach.
Pua is physically illustrative of the story of the Marquesas repeated throughout the archipelago. Originally it was a thriving community of several thousand people as evidenced by the number of pae paes. Everything changed with European contact. Today the valley is virtually empty. The glory is gone and only the scant remnants of today’s survivors remain, eking out a living from copra, fruit harvesting, fishing and hunting (remember that pig on the beach? He didn’t live through the night as his squealing attested to).
The West Coast
Haahopu - Airport Bay
A winding road leading from the beach up into the Terre Déserte (dry land of the northwest corner of the island where the Nuku Ataha Airport is located) and a small quay are vestiges of this bay’s importance in servicing the airport - now severely diminished with the building of the paved road from Taiohae. Passengers are no longer brought here by boat but the freighter Taporo still stops here to offload huge silver canisters of airline fuel that are transported by truck to the airfield. On Sunday, the tree-shaded beach was used by a two picnicking Marquesan families. On Monday, the Taporo arrived and a caravan of trucks slowly made their way up and down the hill with their precious cargo. An enterprising fisherman returned in his “tinny” (small boat) with a good sized catch of fish and loaded it on to the ship with precision timing.
Marquisienne Bay - Anse Vea
It was a grey and drizzly day when we arrived after a heavy downpour in the back valley which swelled the river emptying into the bay into an angry torrent of brown water. The water turned from dark blue to brown; we anchored for the night and decided to move on the next day since it was still rainy and the water was not going to clear while we were there.
We poked our heads into several other bays to take a look around but decided not to anchor - Tataia, Tapueahu, Haatepuna, and Matatekouaehi. Maybe it was due to the stormy weather, but the black lava rock landscape seemed gloomy and ominous in the low hanging mists. Green tufts of vegetation were scarce. What a contrast to the tropical beauty of the other sides of the island! Later we flew over this area on our way from Nuku Hiva to Tahiti and recognized it from the air.
The South Coast
Hakatea (“Daniel’s Bay”) and Hakaui
Taioa Bay at the southwestern part of the island consists of two lobes: Hakatea (“Daniel’s Bay”) and Hakaui. A narrow entrance leads past towering dramatic cliffs along the west side and opens up into a protected bay, a segment of a collapsed volcanic crater.
Daniel’s Bay, so named by American yachties after a friendly Marquesan who had a house at the south end of the sandy beach who was a great friend to cruisers and supplied potable water. Chuck met him on his first voyage in 1992. Daniel lived there for many years until falling victim to American pop culture - he relocated when the TV show “Survivor: Marquesas” apparently made him a deal he couldn’t refuse in order to stage the show in this bay. With the TV cameras, a cruiser institution went by the wayside. Near the site of Daniel’s old house presently stands a new house with a Marquesan caretaker.
The biggest attraction here is the Vaipo waterfall, the highest in French Polynesia and one of the most popular sights on Nuku Hiva. The four hour round trip hike up the magnificent Hakaui Valley is a not-to-miss experience.
From Daniels’ Bay, we took the ancient footpath along the water past a small cemetery to Hakaui and forded the river to get to the “residential” area where a few families still live; this is the first of three places where we had to cross the river. We followed the remains of a royal road as the trail climbed upward. Along the way we encountered a large shaded space filled with stone pae paes, evidence of a once-flourishing community. Midway along the trek we got a splendid view of the top of the 350 foot waterfall where it begins its plunge from vertical stone walls. After crossing the river a third time and ignoring the sign in a narrow cut that warned of falling rocks, we reached a green meadow that opened on to a pool at the bottom of the waterfall. At this point, you can only see the last hundred feet of the torrent since the upper reaches are obscured by the narrow canyon.
By 2 p.m. we were back in Hakaui, sitting at simple table in rustic surroundings at the home of Teiki and Kua who live diagonally from the phone booth (!!) at the edge of the river. We had met them them the day before and had arranged to have lunch there. Kua fixed a delicious meal and told us that their land was owned by her father, an agronomist, who had planted strains of trees that fruited all year round.
One day the superyacht VAVA II - 314 feet with a fold-down beach club, 6 decks, swimming pool, and helicopter - anchored against the backdrop of the dramatic cliffs forming the western side of the Bay. Owned by billionaire sailing enthusiast, Ernesto Bertarelli of America’s Cup fame, the floating mansion cost 100 million pounds in 2012. Its silouhette was quite massive against the rock towers and several times during the day it launched its helicopter from an upper deck. What a way to check out the waterfall!!!
Controller’s Bay, Taipivai, and Hooumi
Controller’s Bay is a huge inlet with four lobes at the southeast corner of Nuku Hiva. Hanga Haa is the actual name of the main anchorage known as Taipivai which sits in front of the village and valley of the same name.
Taipivai Valley was made famous by Herman Melville in his tale of four months with the dreaded cannibalistic tribe here called “Typee” published in 1846. In his time, he was actually more well known for this story than for Moby Dick. His actual experience after he deserted the whaleship Acushnet was only 3 weeks long and he was treated very well by the tribe before escaping from them on another ship bound for Tahiti. While much of his novel is exaggerated and fictional, it is based on his real situation and remains a partly anthropological text. (As an interesting aside for word lovers, such deserters were known as “beachcombers”). It is a fascinating account that should be requisite reading for any visitor.
Taipivai village is a charming hamlet located in a broad green valley with a scenic ambling river. Since Taiohae doesn’t have a ready source of potable water except from a few designated cisterns, many of its residents fill all kinds of plastic containers with the sweet river water when they drive to Taipivai. We visited Taipivai twice - once with tour guide Richard on our way to Hatiheu and the nearby archeological sites, the second time with Eric and Leslie (and Leslie’s parents) from svKandu when they appeared in Hooumi in a rental car one day. We walked in the large grassy tohua where a farm once stood (ceremonial space used in the last Marquesian Festival) with its collection of new tiki sculptures. We stopped to admire the wood carvings in the beautiful Taipivai church (always Catholic with a Marquesan twist) and Leslie, a professional opera singer, treated us to a rendition of Ave Maria in the empty hall that gave us goose bumps.
We anchored briefly in the westernmost lobe called Kapuvai in a narrow spot between two extensive coral areas so that Linda could go ashore and go shelling.
Hooumi is a narrow, shallow finger-like bay in the easternmost corner of the huge Controllers Bay and we anchored here several times. The second time we were there was on the weekend of an island-wide church festival on the beach. Singing and religious-themed dancing took place under a makeshift tent and good food was available for sale. It was similar to our first experience at a religious festival in Hapitoni, Tahuata when we first arrived in the Marquesas last June. To our delighted surprise, we recognized a dozen people from around the island - Yvonne, Germain, and several folks from Taiohae.
The third time we anchored there, we were enjoying a lazy late afternoon reading in the cockpit, near sunset, getting ready for dinner, and listening to the goats braying on the hillsides above us when all of a sudden a Marquesan man in a small power boat zoomed past us with some urgency to the house near the shore. As he sped away, we waved a hello and he abruptly turned around and came over to our boat. He was animatedly babbling something in French which we didn’t understand - except for the word “tsunami”. Shortly thereafter we heard an announcement on Channel 16 on the vhf from Ua Pou, a neighboring island. We heard nothing from Taiohae.
It was time for the Pacsea Net so we tuned in and inquired of any news. Sure enough there had been a severe earthquake in Chile and a tsunami warning was in effect. The wave was moving 3,000 miles across the open ocean and was expected to reach the Marquesas at 11 p.m. that evening. It was projected to be in the magnitude of 1-3 meters. Since we were anchored close to shore in 12 feet of water, we were not safe. Our strategy was to move into deep water. We identified an area having a depth of 150-200 feet in the middle of the bay under the lee of the cliff where we would be protected from the ocean swell and the winds. We spent all night motoring back and forth within this rectangle until daybreak because they never cancelled the tsunami warning. Our track looked like an Etch-a Sketch drawing. We never did notice the tsunami but there was damage in Taipivai (the wave moved up the river destroying some boat houses) and Atuona on Hiva Oa (water came up over the quay, sweeping over the wharf). Luckily, all sailboats were safe because they had moved out into deeper water wherever they were.
The East Coast, between Tikapo Point and Cap Matauaoa, is spectacularly rugged. Large pods of melon-headed whales (also called electra dolphins) have been known to congregate in the hundreds in the often choppy deep blue sea not far from the pounded sea cliffs. We did this trip twice. The first time in August we only saw a handful of them but the second time (in October) we were escorted by a frolicking party of at least 30 for several miles from the southern tip of Haatuatua Bay until the northeastern point of Cap Matauaoa when we turned westward. Melon-headed whales are an outstanding treasure of the Marquesas’ marine wealth.
Toovii Plateau by Horseback
With friends from Maluhia and Mezzaluna, we explored the inner reaches of Nuku Hiva on horses with Sabine Teikiteetini who has a lovely ranch and good looking horses in the heart of the island on the Toovii Plateau. According to Lonely Planet: “ Toovii used to supply the whole archipelago with meat, dairy produce and timber, but serves now as a playground for various activities including horse riding and hiking.”
Linda brought some carrots and apples, a favorite treat of the horses at her Aunt’s farm in the U.S. “They won’t eat them” Sabine said as Linda tried in vain to offer the goodies to her Marquesan horses. “They don’t know what they are - they like mangos and bananas”.
We rode for a few morning hours through the mountain setting (800 meters altitude) with its extensive green pastures dotted with grazing cows and towering shady pine forests in invigorating cooler temperatures. Sabine’s dogs accompanied us. With no sea or muggy beach in view, it felt like we were on vacation somewhere else in the world. For a moment in our minds we had stepped outside the Marquesas Islands.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #82