Last night I tumbled into bed with that contented feeling of having had a full and fulfilling day. We’re slowly getting back into cruising exploration mode and it feels so good.
We started the day with a 5:15 a.m. visit to the Saturday morning market, only to find we were too late for lettuce. We’ll have to do without for a week, as we are planning today to begin our circumnavigation of this island of Nuku Hiva (if the rain ever stops), which should take about 8 days. We’ll then pop back into this bay (Taiohae) for reprovisioning before moving on to Oua Pou for a few days and then the Tuamotus, which lack fresh vegetables altogether. That’s not to say that the produce in Taiohae is varied, or that the vegetables are abundant. Because it’s the government seat for the Marquesas islands, however, it’s likely the best we’ll get until we arrive in Papeete (Tahiti) in over 6 weeks. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that as we go.
Our map consisted of somewhat of a relief-based picture, but only showed the main road that runs along the western and northern edges of the island with a diagonal cutting across. The rest was up for speculation. Equipped with our non-descript map, our guide book and plenty of food and water, we set out to to explore, not really certain of what we’d find. We hit some surprising hairpin turns, gorgeous look-outs, several dead-end trails in search of a waterfall (but none the less fruitful in other ways), and fascinating ruins.
On the topic of ruins, it’s hard to escape them, which is very much a testament to the dense and active civilization that once lived here. An estimated 18,000 inhabited the six populated Marquesan islands, according to our guidebook, at the time that France claimed them in 1842. Thought to be 600-800 years old and abandoned about 200 years ago (the population of Marquesas was believed to have dwindled to less than 3000 by 1926), the remnants of this civilization is literally everywhere – hidden and in plain site, but mostly overgrown with weeds. Only a very few areas are actually maintained, and even then there are no explanatory signs. Many homes have been built atop the stone foundations of their original pae pae.
The most fascinating ruins are the me’ae or temples, usually surrounded by tiki, or statues and usually in the vicinity of the massive banyan tree believed to contain mana or spiritual power, where worship, burial and human sacrifices took place. It’s no surprise that we have been most intrigued with this latter ritual. Our imaginations run wild as we come across deep foreboding pits into which human remains were allegedly deposited.
One of the best parts of travel is staying open to whatever comes around the corner. We happened upon a group of men preparing coconut meat for its milk in order to make poisson cru, raw fish marinated in lime juice and – you guessed it - coconut milk. We came across a large group of children gathered for catechism where a woman was creating a head piece out of flowers. We learned about the island’s copra production, a main source of income for many in which the coconut meat is dried and used for its oils for the cosmetics and food industry. We watched a local man and his young daughter catch mangoes from a tree using a tool resembling a lacrosse stick made out of a coke bottle (reminding me of the movie These Gods Must Be Crazy in
which a coke bottle fell from the sky to turn an isolated African tribe upside down with the bottle’s new uses). We experienced the mystery of ancient Polynesian civilization, fascinated by the aforementioned human sacrifice and cannibalistic traditions. And the scenery was simply breathtaking notwithstanding the mostly overcast skies. Our return trip was shrouded in fog, adding to an exhausted but happy and contemplative mood 11 hours after our departure.
While the day was mostly about incredible scenery, spectacular natural beauty and intriguing ruins, the thing that stands out most for me is how friendly and welcoming everyone is, from the horse-riding cattle ranchers atop the mid-island plateau to the residents of the smaller villages deep inside the valleys. Everyone greeted us with broad smiles and a hearty ‘Bonjour’.
Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva, Iles des Marquises