Taiohae, Nuku Hiva
After 8 days at sea with nothing to look at but water everyone was glad to finally reach the beautiful island of Nuku Hiva on the morning of January 20. The sail-in was under gray cloudy skies and it was foggy in the beginning. The island is quite lush & green & is topped by craggy mountains, so it’s quite a sight.
The front deck was opened again for the sail-in, with coffee & Nuku Hiva rolls (same as the Panama rolls) served. There was also a traditional welcoming ceremony from the Polynesian group that had been on board since Panama, teaching the music, language & dance of the islands. We had seen them perform previously, in colorful costume.
Taiohae is the main port & biggest town on Nuku Hiva & is the capital of the Marquesas Archipelago. It is the second largest island in French Polynesia, a vast area comparable to the size of Europe but with a small scattered population in what is mostly ocean. Nuku Hiva was settled by Polynesians more than 2000 years ago, and it was explorers from here that discovered & settled Hawaii & Easter Island. The island originally became well known in the West during the 19th century, when it was claimed by several western countries & ended up French in 1842. During the war of 1812 an American ship captain claimed it for the United States, but when stories made it back about the island women’s (shall we say) extremely welcoming attitude toward the sailors, Congress refused to ratify the claim. Herman Melville’s book Typee (more on that later), based on his experience as a guest/captive of a tribe of cannibals on Nuku Hiva, contributed further to its notoriety.
Back then Nuku Hiva was a lively place with a population of about 80,000 divided into warring tribes. Ultimately, as with most, if not all, Polynesian islanders, some 90% of the population was wiped out by diseases brought by western sailors (and by some slaves returned to the island by order of the church because they had become Christians). Today the population of Nuku Hiva is only about 2,600; there are more Marquesans living on Tahiti than on Nuku Hiva. As we sailed into the harbor the distinctive landscape come more into view.
The Amsterdam was anchored in the bay, just beyond the many yachts near the shore. We were part of a small group that had arranged for an island tour, and we were on the first tender to the port. There were local drummers and handcraft vendors near the dock, and a nice view across the shorefront of the bay. We saw a man bathing his horse in the water there.
We piled into the van and headed up into the mountains. Our guide, Jocelyne, spoke English well, with a heavy though understandable French accent. She moved here from France some 20 years ago when the roads were unpaved and you could count the number of cars on the island on your fingers. She told us that Nuku Hiva receives about 15 cruise ship visits a year. Our first stop was on top of a mountain overlooking the bay (Mount Muake?), where we could see our ship anchored among the yachts in a fairly spectacular view.
Next we went to the Taipivai valley. This is where Mellville spent a month after jumping ship from the whaler on which he was a crewman. He and another deserter fled into the mountains to avoid recapture & ended up with the Tai-Pi tribe (whom he called Typee). They treated him well, nursed him back to health & he even had a girlfriend (called Fayaway in his book). But they wouldn’t let him leave and, suspecting he might soon be on the menu, he managed to escape (at least that’s how the book portrays it). This valley became famous all over again in 2002 as the site for a season of the TV show Survivor. Jocelyn told us that the show’s producers occupied all of the island’s tourist facilities for several months, and the best part of it for Nuku Hiva was that they established cell phone & internet facilities on the island for the first time. Today the people in this valley cultivate coconut palms. We stopped on the side of a mountain overlooking the lush valley.
We drove on through the mountains to an overlook of the bay where Taipivai valley lets out into the ocean. While here we also saw a green pigeon, a beautiful bird that is bright green with white head and breast and bright red on its belly. I couldn’t get a picture while it was flying, but managed one of it sitting in a tree (a bit fuzzy because it was quite a ways down the mountainside & I used a long lens & then enlarged it several times). Throughout the mountain roads we saw cattle, horses, pigs & lots of chickens, most roaming free but some horses tethered. Jocelyn told us that the rule with the chickens is: if you can catch one you can eat it.
After viewing this spot we tried to re-enter the van, but the door was stuck. It turned out that a seatbelt had gotten entwined with the handle; after 10 or 15 minutes someone climbed in through the back & freed the door. As soon as we all got back into the van the skies opened up & there was a downpour. It was over by the time we reached our next stop, so luckily we did not get wet.
Our next stop was overlooking beautiful Hatiheu Bay. It is distinguished by tall basalt spires & shining white sand beaches. This was one of the favorite spots of Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent the last part of his life in the South Pacific. On the way there we passed some very tall waterfalls.
We went back down in the valley (possibly Taipivai) and visited a Marae, a sort of platform made of stones that the ancient Polynesians used as temples and meeting places. This one was reconstructed, possibly on the site of an ancient one, as a venue for the Marquesas Festival. Held every four years since the 1980’s, the festival is part of an effort to preserve & revive the ancient traditions of the islands. I don’t know if any of the tikis (carved stone idols) here are old.
Notable here was a huge banyan tree. We had seen several around the island. We were told that these trees were planted on the outskirts of each village, and the skulls & bones of people sacrificed (& eaten) were placed inside its many trunks.
That was the end of our trip through the mountains & we headed back to Taiohae. So this is a good place to show some the variety of beautiful flora we saw in the mountains. As usual, we don’t know their names but thought these worth seeing. Jocelyne told us that Nuku Hiva was pretty much barren when the first people arrived, & all the animals & most of the vegetation (including palm trees) were brought here by settlers & conquerors.
Jocelyn dropped us off at the cathedral in town. It is a modern building on the site of earlier churches; the entry gate was part of an earlier one. It includes stones from all of the Marquesa islands & is notable for the beautiful wood carving, notably in the entrance, the pulpit & the stations of the cross, where religious symbols are adapted with Polynesian faces & occupations.
We walked along the waterfront to the elaborately carved wood memorial to Herman Mellville & his book Typee . . . the only one of his book that had substantial sales during his lifetime. It was erected in 1992, the 150th anniversary of Mellville’s stay in the Taipivai valley in 1842.
We walked back to the tender dock along the waterfront, most of which was a nice park with stone sculptures. We saw kids swimming in the surf, a kayaker & the city hall for the Marquesas.
There was additional flora & fauna in town, including several kinds of birds and more beautiful flowers. And with a selection of those, we will leave you until next time.