Published in the FT’s How to Spend It magazine November 2005
Cold driving rain and dripping pine woods were definitely not what I’d expected just south of the Equator. But Magali, a red hibiscus behind her ear, and her bare feet pumping the pedals of the four wheel drive laughed as we skidded over the ruts. “We’ll be over the mountains soon”, she said, “it’s often like this up here.”
On the northern fringes of French Polynesia I was as far away from anywhere as I have ever been. Nuku Hiva, the principal island of the Marquesas group, is a jagged collection of volcanic peaks rearing from the Pacific half way between New Zealand and South America. Jet lagged after the long flight from London via Los Angeles and Tahiti I was looking forward to my bed, just seven miles away as the crow flies on the other side of the island. But Taiohae, the capital, lay at the end of a winding muddy track nearly twice that length over mountains that soared up to 4,000 feet ( 2,500 metres). If it was Scotland outside though, the inside was definitely Polynesia, for on the dash Magali had strewn wild basil, thyme, gardenias and pungent ylang-ylang, and we floated forward in a fragrant cocoon.
With a population of 1,500, Taiohae is a scattering of small houses hidden behind rioting bougainvillaea and hibiscus in a horseshoe shaped bay. Magali dropped me off at the Pearl Lodge hotel where I was welcomed with a ‘ hei ‘, a necklace of gardenias and shown to my bungalow overlooking the bay where I quickly fell asleep to the sounds of waves washing on the beach below.
The Marquesas were first discovered by the Portuguese in 1595. Forbidding high cliffs, cloud covered mountains and steep valleys peopled with fierce tattooed warriors who sacrificed and ate their captives gave the islands a sinister reputation amongst early navigators. But Jean Pierre Piriotua, my guide next day seemed far removed from his cannibal ancestors. Driving from Taiohae in the clear morning light with a hibiscus balanced behind one ear, he knew every plant and tree overhanging the track, naming wild orchids and ferns, and pointing out the fragrant pomme jaune trees with clusters of sweet tasting fruit which resemble the loquat. We drove over the ridge behind Taiohae and came down a serpentine track into his home village of Taipivai, made famous by Herman Melville’s novel Typee. Melville had lived here briefly in 1832, and his book about life and love amongst the cannibals had become an instant best seller. Now the village is a quiet collection of small houses, with drying racks to make copra, the dried coconut meat which is the Marquesas’ main export. In the river, a group of women were sitting up to their waists, sifting shrimps from the clear water using the billowing folds of their pareus , the bright cotton wrap worn throughout Polynesia. They hailed us and said we should stop on our way home when the catch was cooked.
In the next valley, which rang with the liquid calls of unseen birds we walked through forest to an area of raised platforms made of huge stones dwarfed by a massive banyan tree. This was a tohua , an ancient sacred site of a powerful tribe. The Marquesas were first settled by Polynesians around 150 BC and by the time Europeans arrived there were as many as 20 thousand islanders on Nuku Hiva divided into tribes which were constantly at war. Behind the banyan was a narrow pit where victims were kept for ritual sacrifice on one of the platforms. Jean Pierre showed me fragments of bone still hidden between the stones which might have been the remains of some long distant cannibal feast. In another tohua further down the valley large scowling stone deities called tikis stared balefully down from overgrown terraces. It was a relief to finally emerge onto the beach at the bay of Hatiheu, where the midday sun shone on breaking surf.
Missionaries finally stamped out cannibalism in the 1840s, but brought with them measles, small pox and the common cold. The Marquesans died like flies, the total population plummeting from 50,000 in 1800 to 2,000 by 1926. Tribal traditions have not however, completely vanished. Later that afternoon, we drove into the yard of Damien Haturau, the island’s best wood carver. Beneath an engraving made in the 1800s depicting a heavily tattooed islander daintily swinging a decorated empty skull, Damien hefted a massive casse tête – the heavy war club known as a head breaker. Swinging it so that it stopped just inches from my head he smiled and said: “That left you dead but your skull intact for future use”. The club itself, in polished rose wood, was beautifully carved with wide staring eyes, but burly Damien’s warlike aspect was slightly spoiled I thought by the scholarly reading glasses on a chain around the neck of his designer shirt.
Next morning, I took the island helicopter back to the airport, skimming over the razor sharp ridges of the rugged interior to catch the 45 minute flight to Hiva Oa in the southern group of the Marquesas.
The island’s capital Atuona lies tucked beneath towering rugged escarpments and at five next morning, a heavy rumbling of marine engines filled the air. From my verandah I saw the Aranui, the 100 metre cargo ship which would be my home for the next few days nosing alongside the tiny dock.
In 1901, another traveller from Europe had come ashore here. Eugène Henri Paul Gaugin, limping and in poor health had come in search of peace and, he wrote to a friend; ‘to rejuvenate my imagination’.
Close beneath the high mountain of Temetiu wreathed in towering thunder clouds, I found Gaugin’s ‘La Maison de jouir’ – ‘The House of Pleasure’ decorated with wooden panels carved with the motif: “Be in love and you will be happy”. The two storey building with a wide studio walled with bamboo lattice is an exact replica of the painter’s original home, where he lived for 18 months until his death in 1903. Here Gaugin produced his best work and drove local French clerics to apoplexy by taking a 14 year old island girl as his mistress. Curator Jean Reus showed me artefacts he had discovered on the site. “Gaugin made many of his paints from local materials,” he said, reverentially holding a weathered ochre block of oil paint he had recently found. “That’s why his colours are so hard to reproduce”.
At Magasin Gaugin, where Abba blared from the radio, I bought a bottle of mineral water from a beautiful girl who could have come straight from one of his paintings, and headed up the hill to the cemetery. Here, under flowering gardenia and a gnarled hibiscus tree, Gaugin’s grave lies a few metres from the tomb of Jacques Brel, the Belgian poet and singer who had come here in the 70’s, terminally ill with cancer. I found Lena Kaimuko, an island woman, who had known Brel when she was a little girl tidying his grave. “Jacques played me a song once”, she said, ” … and I told him he didn’t sing well – it made him roar with laughter”. She smiled too now a little sadly at the memory. “He was a kind man – and we all liked him.”
It was time to board ship, and rucksack in hand I threaded my way through the chaos on the dockside where all kinds of cargo, from wheelbarrows, to babies’ nappies and crates of beer were being craned out from the holds.
The Aranui is a working cargo ship, but life for the sixty passengers is a leisurely affair. Once at sea we lolled on deckchairs, bathed in the tiny pool, or chatted to the crew. The ship is also the only comfortable way of reaching the outer islands, and at dinner I found myself sitting next to the newly appointed administrator of the Marquesas, Marc-Henri Béguin. On a flag showing tour of his domain Béguin was enthusiastic about the continuing French presence in Polynesia: “At the very least we are needed here to police the four million square kilometres of sea, especially as fish stocks are being poached everywhere”; he said, adding though that his was one of the very few civil service jobs where good sea legs were an absolute necessity.
Next morning I got up at 5.30, watching from the bridge as Captain Jean Voirin took the Aranui as close as he dared to the high mist shrouded cliffs of Fatu Hiva, the southern most island of the group. Barely had the roar of the anchor chain ceased, than whale boats were swung out and we went ashore, crew members carefully handing up older passengers in the surging swell. Island women, wearing pareus and a fragrant sachet of mint, basil and gardenias in their coiled black hair sat waiting on sweet smelling sacks of copra at the small dock. They showed us over through Omoa, their tiny village, and its museum of old Marquesan carvings, and then demonstrated the painstaking process of making tapa , a fine paper made from beaten mulberry bark.
Today the Aranui sailed without us, for I and a small group of walkers had decided to climb the spine of the island to meet the ship at her next port a few miles along the coast. For three hours we toiled upwards under sudden drenching showers, startling wild horses on the empty track and pausing for lunch at the col with magnificent views of the Pacific far below. At four in the afternoon, footsore and sunburnt, we came at last into the village of Hanavave where islanders stacking copra on the beach laughed when I asked for the village shop and cold beer. “It’s empty – nothing to sell,” they said. “We’re waiting for next month’s supply on the Aranui.”
That night, at anchor off Hanavave there was a party for the ship’s entire company, and wearing fragrant heis and pareus, we danced on deck under the stars to the music of ukuleles. Jived off my feet by the plump laundry woman ten years my senior, I took respite on the stern where Julien M’Basaldella, a young travelling salesman from Tahiti was drinking beer with two deckhands. He sailed on the Aranui every three months, selling clothing to small island shops. “I couldn’t go back to La Metropole,” he said, nodding northwards to a distant Europe. “Every day here feels like a holiday”.
The Aranui made two stops next day and then steamed overnight to the northern group of the Marquesas. As she pitched in the Pacific swell, the prospect of dinner suddenly became unthinkable and I retreated quickly to my cabin. At dawn, awoken by the now familiar rumble of the anchor chain I looked out through the porthole to the rolling dry hills of Ua Huka, one of the smallest inhabited islands. At the dockside, some sturdy ponies with wooden saddles covered in hessian sacks stood tethered to palm trees. I joined five other riders to jog gently along the high cliffs, passing groups of wild horses, who galloped away, manes blowing out in the fierce trade wind. Our escort, a serious young bareback rider called Xavier told us the horses never fell from the sheer cliffs. “They are born here,” he said emphatically; “and know every inch of my island”.
At 2 we dismounted stiffly at the village of Vaipee, to a waiting island feast of lobster, breadfruit, pork, yams, chicken, papaya salads, marinated fish, breadfruit and other delicacies which lay piled on tables in the village hall.
That afternoon, as other passengers retired replete for a siesta on the waiting Aranui, I stayed on the beach, body surfing in the warm sea or watching three island girls practising their undulating dance steps under a palm tree. Nuku Hiva lay just over the horizon, and that night I would leave the ship, her Marquesan tour complete. Too soon, it seemed the final stick of bananas was loaded onto the whale boat, and wading into the sea, I helped push the laden craft out through the surf for the last time.
FACT BOX INFORMATION:
Nick Haslam flew to Tahiti c/o Air New Zealand. (tel: 020 8741 2299). A return fare from London Heathrow to Papeete via Los Angeles costs GBP 754 including tax .
The return ticket Papeete to Nuku Hiva with Air Tahiti costs GBP 250.
For information about the 15 day cruise on the Aranui from Tahiti to the Marquesas contact the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (CPTM), PO Box 220, Papeete, Tahiti
Tel: (689) 42 62 40 Fax: (689) 43 48 89 e-mail: email@example.com
For further information on Tahiti and Her Islands: Tahiti Tourisme ( 020 7771 7023, email firstname.lastname@example.org.).
Guide Book: The Marquesas Islands: Mave Mai Available from Wandering Albatross, 724 Laurel Ave., # 211San Mateo, CA 94401, Fax (650) 342 6507. ISBN 0-9638511-8-7