A Tale of Two Waterfalls

A brisk sail in twenty knots of wind and six foot seas brought us to the island of Nuku Hiva, administrative center for the Marquesas and the most leeward of these ancient volcanic islands. We departed Tahuata island at 7 a.m. on May 15, with reefed main and full jib on a broad reach for this 84 nautical mile jaunt. With the occasional breaking wave on the stern quarter, veering Anthea’s bow into the wind, we needed more than the ¼ turn of wheel afforded by the windvane to bring her bow back down and on course, so Mark, Anson and I took hour stints at the wheel, surging forward at seven to eight knots. Even so, we arrived at Taihoae Bay after dark.
The Bay has an easy approach with no shallows or hazards, and our electronic chart and AIS agreed perfectly once again, showing boats in the middle of the anchorage exactly where we would expect them to be. This alignment gave us the confidence to proceed cautiously forward, spot light ready, all hands on deck. Once in the lee of the land we doused the sails and motored ever so slowly forward. Slipping into a slot between well-lit boats and ghostly hulls illuminated only by our lights, we happily anchored, stowed the chaos from the mini passage and slipped into berths.
Our days at Taihoae Bay slipped by. We savored the abundance of town, devouring baguettes, pastries, fresh fruits, vegetables and fish; we met up with Bella Serena’s crew, folks we met in La Paz, and helped them negotiate life without a dinghy (sadly lost at sea) and assisted with an engine repair; and we hiked to sites both old and new – ancient ceremonial grounds reclaimed for contemporary Marquesan arts and cultural festivals. The promise of internet ashore was also enticing, but ultimately frustrating. Several late night dinghy jaunts to the café by the wharf in hopes of higher speeds enabled a few more books to be downloaded and the most recent batch of photos uploaded, but the internet only trickled and never reached the elusive 512 kb (not Mb!) per second stream we were hoping for. The next batch of photos will wait for Tahiti where internet speeds should align more with our needs.
But town life is only good for so long when there are quiet anchorages calling, so on May 20th we set sail for dramatic Taioa Bay (aka Daniel’s Bay), just 5 nm from Taiohae. A 1600 foot cliff, rising steeply from the sea, frames the western side of the bay. This wall of volcanic rock cloaked in lush green growth undulates like an accordion or the pleats of a sari, as wind and sea have eroded canyons – some narrow, a few mysteriously deep- along the length of the massif. The showers of spray against its walls, as ocean waves crash to create the fireworks of the sea, appear only as decorative lace, so dwarfed are they by the sheer wall of volcanic rock. Turning sharply southward into a small lobe of the bay, we anchored in protected waters, with land visible on all sides.
The water here is not very clear, but filled with marine life. Each morning we witness the thrashing fury of a shark catching her breakfast, schools of juvenile fish (tuna perhaps?) swimming around our boat, and the occasional manta ray gliding soundlessly by, wing tips gracefully piercing the surface of the water. With sharky, murky water, the land is the main attraction for us. On May 21st, with clear skies on the horizon, we dinghied ashore for a hike to Vaipo waterfall (aka Ahuii waterfall), reported by one guide book to be 1150 feet high and the third highest in the world (really??).
We set out on the journey with fond memories of a hike on Fatu Hiva to a two hundred foot waterfall. That hike began as a stroll through the village, an amble along a dirt road, and then a short hike on muddy paths, across shallow streams, and over small boulders to reach a magical cascade of water plunging into a pool. We swam to the base of the fall, forged the current to find narrow spots between the sheer rock face and the torrent of pounding water to experience the power of the falls. Small rainbows danced across the cliff face where sun refracted in the mist and spray. Our hike back was just as wet as the swim, as one squall after another dumped its rain upon us and the increasingly muddy trail. For this Fatu Hiva waterfall excursion, we hiked with fellow cruisers, getting to know Diego (life-long sailor from Italy) and Marina (a journalist from Brazil), as well as Jack (from Houston) and Monique (with roots in Peru and Germany), while slipping in the mud and winding our way back to the harbor.
With visions of a waterfall six times higher than the one on Fatu Hiva, we eagerly set out on our second waterfall hike from the beach landing at the small settlement of Hakaui (at the head of Taioa Bay, Nuku Hiva). After a hearty welcome from Teiki, who lives with his wife Kua at the first home and garden along the path, we journeyed along a beautifully tended path, bordered by a meticulously maintained hedge on both sides. The valley is narrow, framed by the sheer cliff on the west side and a river flowing down to the beach on the east. The homes and gardens of several extended families extend northward up the valley, and we journeyed through contiguous gardens of bananas, guava, starfruit, coconuts, breadfruit, limes and oranges, scattered through closely cropped grass lawns dotted with hibiscus, a lily like plant used for regalia for dances, and a variety of tropical plants reminiscent of overgrown California houseplants. A few chickens and pigs free ranged, while horses were tethered. The families in this valley created an association, and since the beginning of this year started charging a fee for a month pass through their land. (More later on the many strategies of interweaving subsistence and income generation in the context of tourism.) Mark made the trip back to the boat for the cash, while Anson, Devon and I continued on the 2.5 hour hike to the falls.
Soon we left the carefully cultivated land and began our hike through ancient gardens and home sites. The radical depopulation of these islands – due to the violence of colonialism, the ravages of disease, and the intracommunity violence that surged with the divide and conquer strategies of colonial rule, alongside the social dislocation from the maelstrom of whalers, beachcombers, sandalwood traders, and missionary condemnation of worldview and lifeways – was evident throughout the hike. While it would be easy to imagine we were walking through uncultivated jungle, a careful glance through the dense growth revealed stone walls and platforms overgrown with shrubs and vines. We were walking through house foundations, alongside ceremonial plazas and sacred sites, and the isolated homesteads of prophets. Ancient mango trees towered over stonework and coconut groves proliferated.
The path to the falls was well maintained by the community and easy to follow as we criss-crossed the small river, wading thigh high or leaping from boulder to boulder. Mark caught up to us after the first river crossing, and we proceeded up the narrow valley. Looking across the river and above the near ridge, we saw a powerful torrent of water cascading down sheer cliff, with the majority of the fall disappearing behind a canyon. The trail became less well-traveled after passing the warning sign of falling rocks, and it soon became apparent why. The box canyon with towering walls leading to the falls was a danger site. With no rain for several days, the risk was mitigated, but we were still cognizant that falling rocks from such perilous heights, no matter how small, could be lethal. We walked purposefully forward, eager to reach the falls and pass through the danger, only to see the tail end of the cascade plunging into a chocolate brown, murky pool. Had the water been clear, the fact that the main height of the fall was invisible from the base would not have seemed so disappointing. We would have frolicked in the water, explored the current and the force of the cascade, looked for rainbows and smiled at each other with delight. Instead we turned quickly around and walked to an indentation in the canyon wall. There we sat and ate pomplamous, sitting on three logs carefully placed under a protective overhang. We hiked back, appreciating the beauty of the long abandoned homesteads overgrown with fruit and flower, and the emergence into manicured gardens with life abounding.
While the distant view of the falls was dramatic, the waterfall itself was not the gem of this outing. Rather it was the hike through time: gardens and stones ancient and abandoned, merging into the manicured present with life abounding and survivance (resistance through survival) so evident.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Waterfalls

  1. Wonderful writing, Kim.Wow, you made it so visually real to me- of course missing you mucho but so very happy that you are having these wonderful experiences. Much love, Mother.


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