May 10 Hanatefau Bay, Tahuata Island, Isles Marquises

Having enjoyed morning coffee with baguette, butter and jam in the cockpit, it’s now time to recount a memorable day trip we took while still on Hiva Oa, about 3 or 4 days after landfall. But first, a brief word about our current anchorage. We sailed from Fatuhiva Island back here to Tahuata yesterday; a great 40 mile romp of a beam reach with 10-12 knots apparent. That brought to a close an amazing 6 day visit at Fatuhiva – incredibly rich and wonderful experiences that we will describe soon. The anchorage here is stunning. Only two boats, plus us. It faces due west, is lined with a volcanic rock shore and a narrow band of coconut trees. Then the cliffs soar up and up and up, at least 1,500 feet about us. The steep walls are covered in verdant green shrubs and grasses. The most vertical walls are almost without vegetation. Recent rains feed several waterfalls that one can spot while gazing overhead, and hear as they enter the sea a stone’s throw from our boat. It’s one of those “pinch me, is this real?” moments.
But my purpose now is to share a unique day trip that is already receding into memory. We had heard of an impressive archeological site on the north side of Hiva Oa (Atuona, the small town where we were anchored, is on the south side of the island). After confirming there was no bus service there, we arranged through Sandra (the Tahiti Crew agent who helped us clear into Polynesia) to rent a mid-size four wheel drive truck. She made a call and a short while later, there it was, at dockside, with a full tank and key in the ignition. No paperwork, deposit, etc. needed, just climb in and go. We took off at 11:30, knowing it was a 2 hour drive each way and not sure how much of a walk/hike it was to get to the site, known as Ipona. What a drive. We climbed up, out of Atuona, past banana/mango/guava/coconut plantations and other large trees. Recent heavy rains (of the last two months) had triggered small landslides here and there, which large scrapers were clearing. We wondered what landslides, as yet uncleared, might lie ahead. We climbed out of the valley and along a ridge, along a paved, well maintained road. It was like that until we got to the airport (about 15 minutes). Then, soon after, the pavement ended. We continued climbing and traversing the main portion of the island. We drove past rows of huge mango trees, dense groves of conifer-like trees (casurina?), pandanus, guava, and hibiscus and many more trees, grasses and shrubs that I could not identify. We had the road to ourselves; fortunately there were no intersections as there was no one to ask the way along this stretch. Next began the descent to the north side of the island. We were shrouded in mist and clouds, so missed what must have been spectacular views. The first portion of the descent made the famed “crookedest street” in San Francisco seem like a regular road. It was concrete, not much wider then single lane, extremely steep (braking needed even in low gear), and carved one figure eight after another as we dropped down this steep mountain. Once through this section it became deeply rutted dirt again. We dropped elevation following a ridgeline. <> The road worked its way steeply down the ridge, at times straddling the ridge with vertical drops either side, winding and curving, until we finally made it to the beach at the mouth of a narrow valley, backed by extremely steep cliffs. Was this valley Ipona? Turns out we had to traverse three or four of these small valleys, until we reached Puamau Village, where Iipona is located. Each of these valleys opens to the ocean and is not more than ¼ mile wide, with no beach, and crashing surf on volcanic boulders. The flat portion of each valley (not more than 15-25 acres in area) is planted with coconut groves; a few homesteads and copra drying racks dotted here and there complete the picture. On the beach one or two larger (25 long with 4 foot beam) fishing boats with outriggers were stored under sheds. We climbed up the steep ridge from one valley and down to the next several times before reaching Puamau. Several times I got out and approached a homestead to confirm the route. Each interaction was quite friendly and included a brief conversation about the day, the outing, etc. These small valleys are intensely isolated, bounded by the crashing surf on rocks and ocean swells at their mouth and ringed by almost impassable cliffs and ridges on their sides and back. And the only road was an, at times, barely passable dirt track. At Puamau we turned away from the coast and headed to the back of the valley; Ipono was less than a mile from the ocean. Just before reaching it, we passed the forebay of a community-scale hydroelectric facility and then around a muddy bend we passed a young Marquesan man riding a horse bareback. He had several large machetes slung over his shoulder, a jaunty hat and a big smile. We stopped and exchange friendly pleasantries (in French of course). What a unique historical juxtaposition this all represented.
Turns out we could drive to the archeological site at Ipono, so my slight sense of urgency (due to the need to return before dark) behind the wheel was unnecessary. Unfortunately, both Kim and Anson had been pretty tense throughout the drive – given the precipitous terrain, our ever so slightly greater-than-slow pace and the very bumpy ride, and arrived slightly headachy. The site was amazing. It consisted of several (six?) large tikis (sculptures of ancestors and dieties), one of which, at over eight feet, is reportedly the largest in French Polynesia. They are carved from single blocks of volcanic rock. The site included a variety of stone platforms, for greeting, meeting, cooking and offering sacrifices. Other stone carvings, including petroglyphs, were also present. Apart from one group of tourists who left when we arrived, we were the only people there. Large, stately breadfruit and mango trees graced the location, which was tucked at the base of the cliffs at the back of the valley. The site had an excellent interpretative kiosk and the largest tikis and platforms were all protected by thatch roofed structures whose wooden posts and beamswere carved in Marquesan motifs. This work was part of a 1991 restoration effort, which coincided with one of the arts festivities held every few years and which represent a strong and vital cultural revitalization movement. We spent over an hour wandering, imagining, and experiencing the place. It was a religious, ceremonial, not domestic, site, commemorating victories of one group (identified by valley of residence) over other, adjacent groups, combined with ancestor/diety worship. The survivors of the vanquished group had fled across the island to Atuona. It was a source of wonder to imagine how groups in such small, confined valleys could mobilize the labor and resources necessary to construct such large monuments.
After a refreshing snack of peanut butter and jelly on baguette we set off on the return trip. With just over two hours before dark, we could proceed at a leisurely pace. It had been raining off and on all day, so our four wheel drive capability was put to good use, especially on one, steep, rutted, wet and muddy incline. Fortunately, the road was graded toward the inboard side, away from the nearly vertical cliff on the other, ocean facing side. As we passed the homestead of a gentlemen who had confirmed the route on our way in, we slowed and waved good-bye. He was combing his long hair, which he had let down; with a cheerful wave back he acknowledged our prior interaction and return trip. Later, I read that some of Gauguin’s descendents now live on the north coast of Hiva Oa. Was he one of them?
We arrived back at Atuona just as the coming darkness required headlights. That night it stormed and rained. As usual, I got up with each squall to close the hatches. The squalls were coming from the north side of the island. Several times that side of the island was illuminated by large flashes of lightning. One particular brilliant flash included several simultaneous bolts that lit up the sky to the north. I thought about those isolated homesteads and their inhabitants, weathering the stormy squalls in those narrow, isolated valleys, hemmed in by ocean and cliffs, so far from stores, clinics and places of employment, where people have lived for thousands of years. I also thought about the current residents of those valleys, and of how they are descended from those few who survived the horrific death and depopulation and cultural turmoil of the late 1800s. We were so privileged and fortunate to be able to visit the restored archeological site of Iipona, which is one example among many of current efforts to revitalize/decolonize Marquesan culture, history, language and identity.

One thought on “May 10 Hanatefau Bay, Tahuata Island, Isles Marquises

  1. Very transporting. Especially the rain and the lightning. It’s possible those isolated homesteaders were thinking from their snug land bases about you weathering the squalls and lightning out on the the ocean. Anyway that’s what I do living on Kauai when we get a hard storm, I think about those at sea.

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