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French Polynesia – The Marquesas Island of Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

The Baie de Taiohae was packed with other Pacific Puddle jumpers.  There were about 80 yachts (big and small, but mostly big) packed into the bay.  Since we weren’t familiar with the bay, the tide, current and such, we decided to anchor out on the furthest fringes of the pack of yachts, just to be on the safe side.  It’s really not that easy to anchor where we did, since the depth of the water was so deep (over 80’ deep), so we had to anchor with limited scope on our anchor chain.  Note for non-sailors: A typical scope is 5:1 or 7:1 – meaning that if you are in 10 feet of water, you would let out 70 feet of chain.

We were in 80 feet of water, so at a 5:1 ratio, we should have let out 400 feet of scope.  Well, we were only carrying 240 feet of chain and had that out all the way, so that means we were less than 3:1, which is pretty scary.

We set an anchor watch for over an hour and everything seemed well, so we felt somewhat comfortable.  We were kind of close to a really nice Catamaran but our swing left us about 50 feet away from them.

The next day, we dropped our dinghy in the water and then mounted our 6HP engine on the dink and were ready to go check in to our second country.  We gathered all of our paperwork and passports and put them in our dry pack and set off for the dinghy dock.

There really is nothing like sailing your boat over 2,800 miles in open ocean and then seeing the land your feet are going to be on in a few minutes.

As we approached the dinghy dock, we were amazed.  It seemed like everyone in the fleet was on shore.  There were dinghies all over the place and we didn’t know how we were going to make it to the concrete pier.  It reminded Melissa of the bumper cars at Disneyland.  Apparently there are only 2 good places to tie up your dinghy and they were gnarled with rolling hitches and bowline knots.

We managed to slowly meander our dink through all the others and somehow tied up.  We got ashore and talked with one of the other Puddle Jumpers and they told us what building “Kevin” was in and we walked over and stood in line to talk with him.  Kevin owns the local crew services company and was THE MAN.  We had signed up with Tehani at Tahiti Crew (in Tahiti) and Kevin works with her to help cruisers clear in when they hit the Nuku Hiva port.

As we were waiting in the small building with a few other cruisers, we started to get “land sick”.  The floor felt like it was moving and we had to reorient ourselves to keep us from getting the spins.  Eventually the feelings began to subside and we went up the road with Kevin to the Gendamaries.  It only took us about 15 minutes to clear in and it was very straight forward.  Apparently, at this port of entry, you can bring in as much alcohol as you want, as long as you note it on the Customs form.  Needless to say, due to the extremely high prices of alcohol in French Polynesia, we should have brought more from Mexico.

After all the customs and immigration paperwork was complete, Melissa and I decided to go for a walkabout around town to orient ourselves.  Beautiful little town.  It was humid and rainy off and on but we really didn’t mind, because we were on land.  The smell of the flowers and the soil and being able to walk was such a joy.  It was amazing how much we took a simple walk for granted.  When you’re on a sailboat, you really don’t get to exercise your muscles much. 

Later that night, we just hung out on our boat and went back into town the next morning to use Kevin’s (slower than slow) internet.  As we were catching up with family and friends and ensuring all of our bills were paid and up to date, a man came in and asked Kevin if he knew who owned, “Harlow Hut” because their boat just ran into his.  We immediately said, that was our boat and told him we were on our way to see what happened right away.  We were horrified that we may have ran into the million dollar catamaran and may have damaged his boat and our own.  However, when we arrived on the scene, it appeared that we actually didn’t hit his boat, he was just scared that we were getting too close for comfort.  This was the second time we thought we drug anchor and actually didn’t.

To ease his mind (and ours) we moved our boat all the way in, closer to the shore, which was in about 25 feet of water, which allowed us to let out more scope and feel much more secure.  We stayed at this anchorage until we left the bay a week or so later.

The next day we went for another hike and went up and took some pictures of the bay from one of the mountains nearby.  This was a nice climb and it felt great to be hiking in the rainforests again.  The views were spectacular.  We could see some of the nearby islands and the complete vastness of the ocean we had just crossed.  As we were walking down the hill, Melissa saw this bull and wanted to pet it.
“I wouldn’t get too close to that guy.” I warned.  She didn’t listen and went a little closer.  Just as she was about to pet it, the bull dropped his head and thrust his horns at her.  Her quick reflexes allowed her to miss getting her arm gored.  That wouldn’t have been a good way to start this trip.

Truck Tour of Nuku Hiva

We decided we wanted to see as much of the island as we could, since we most likely would never step foot on this part of the planet again.  We rented a truck from Kevin and he gave us some great ideas of where to go and what hikes to take on our excursion.

We first drove up the mountainous road out of Taiohe and were rewarded with beautiful views of the valley and bay.

We then drove over to the Taipivai Valley were Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick and other books) lived for a while.  This side of the island is dramatic with rugged coastline and mountain spires.  As we drove through the little villages, we noticed that most of the locals did not keep their livestock in pens or tied up.  We saw several pigs running free.

We stopped for a few minutes in Controller Bay and met up with some other cruisers that were getting water for their sailboat.  It was a nice little bay but still lacked the snorkeling visibility that we were looking for.

Kevin had given us a crude map of the island and drew a dot where there was a great little hike to a marae (archaeological site).  Finding this little trailhead is one of the things I love about traveling.  You may hear a sliver of information from one person, so you go forward with hardly any information and you end up finding something incredible.

The hike up was hot and muggy to say the least.  We were both drenched in sweat when we finally found the site.  Kevin said to continue past the site to see something else, so we persevered for another ½ hour and then finally gave up, since it was so sticky.  We walked back down the mountain and eventually cooled off in the river at the base of the mountain.  It was wonderful.  The little crayfish that swam by our toes didn’t seem to mind us one bit. 

It seems like some notable authors loved Nuku Hiva.  About 20 miles away, in another little village named Hatiheu, Robert Louis Stevenson lived here back in 1888.  We had a nice lunch at the little beachside restaurant, Chez Yvonne.  This is a truly unique place, since either before or after your lunch you can feed the freshwater eels that live in the stream right next to the restaurant.  It is great to see these eels swimming and sliding all over the rocks.  Some of them get up to 6 feet long and if you swim at any waterfall, stream or any other fresh water, you are mostly likely going to see them close by.

After lunch we decided to check out some other maraes.  These are right off the road and the only hiking you need to do, is an exploration hike, since the maraes of Kamuihei & Tiipoka are so large.  These were perhaps our favorite maraes in all of French Polynesia.  The locals have done such a great job at preserving these sites, it is truly like stepping back in time and being an active participant.

We could have stayed there all day, but we had to keep moving to see the other sites of the island.

We decided to drive over Mount Muake and see the grandeur of the Hakaui Valley.  This valley is so large, it looks like a
mini-Grand Canyon.  The winds and rain swoop up the valley and it seemed as if the rain probably never stopped there.  As with the pigs, the locals here let their horses and cows run free and we had to slow many times as somewhat wild horses walked along the road. 

We eventually made our way all the way to the only airport on Nuku Hiva.  Since there is only one flight a day, we missed the crowds.  It is a very small airport and there were more cats (2) walking around the airport than people.

We decided we had seen enough of the island and started our 2 hour journey back to town.  Although this island is small, it is very diverse.  We drove through desert areas with cactus, continued on through pine forests, went through cloud forests, dodged animals in rainforest and ended up on tropical beaches all in one day.

The next few days are a blur.  I do recall getting up at 5 am to be at the local market (on the dock) to buy fresh fruit and veggies at 5:30 am, where the cutest little puppies would meander around your feet until you stood still long enough, where they would lay on your feet for warmth.

Also, on the docks in the early morning, all the fishermen would have their local catch of tuna and other fish that you could buy.  You tell them how many kilos you want and they would cut it off the big fish right there and hand you the freshest fish.  It was unnerving because they would throw the fish scraps into the water and instantly the local lemon sharks would thrash in the water, fighting each other for the food.  The bay water is so murky, you really can’t even see the sharks, you just saw their fins splashing about.  It is really strange, because only a few hours later, the local children are swimming and playing in the same area that these sharks were having a frenzy at, just a short time before.

We wanted to explore another bay via our sailboat, so we asked around the local cruiser community, which bay was the best.  Our friend, Sylvia on Cinnabar suggested that we talk to a local named Paul, she had just met the day before.  She told us that he had taken her and her husband on a wonderful hike.  Luckily we met Paul who was walking by shortly thereafter and we talked to him about the hike.  He said that he was currently working on catering a local wedding, but if we could sail him over to the next bay in two days, he would be more than happy to take us on the hike.  We jumped at the chance.  We told our friends on Batu, that we were sailing over to “Daniels Bay” in a couple of days, if they wanted to meet us over there.

We met Paul early two days later on the dock and we took him on our dinghy, back to our boat Harlow Hut.  Paul really enjoyed the sail over to his village by the bay.  He told us that it usually took him about 8 hours to hike or 5 hours on horseback to traverse the mountains to from his bay to Taiohe.

Paul’s Valley

The sail over to Daniels Bay (formally known as Baie de Taioa) only took an hour or so but Paul was so appreciative.  The entrance to the anchoring area looked really primitive and remote.  There were a couple of other boats already in the anchorage but there was still plenty of room for us.  We set our anchor quickly and had our dinghy ready to go.  We had a light snack on the sail over and had our backpacks ready to go for the extended hike.

We stopped by Batu, which was already anchored in the bay and the family was all ready to on the hike too.

We loaded up everything and made the 10 minute dinghy ride into Paul’s Valley.  What an amazing site!  We felt like we had stepped back in time once again and were on one of the most primitive areas we had ever been to.  The entrance through the outgoing river into his protected area made us feel like we had just landed on Gilligan’s Island. 

We tied up our dinghy and the Batu family tied up next to us and then we were off to make our hiking journey.  I recall hearing from Sylvia that the hike was about 2 ½ hours so I mentally prepared myself for that time element.

Paul walked us down his narrow village path past the first home, which was his cousin and her family’s home. We then walked past the second home which was his Aunt and Uncle.  Next to their home, they had built a small shrine that was beautiful.  As we continued down the path we passed by a trail that led up to Paul’s home.  All said, this entire valley only had 9 residents.  As we continued on our hike, Paul told us that this valley used to have over 30,000 inhabitants and now there were only a few.  Apparently, all the villagers had died due to disease and other European influences.

We could see that the trail actually was an ancient rock paved road that the indigenous people hand laid over the centuries.  It twisted and turned up into the jungle and became wider and better formed in some areas and in other areas, the rainforest claimed it back into the foliage.

After about a half an hour walking in the heat of the rainforest, we began to cross a small river.  We all jumped in and began to cool down.  Melissa and I used our LifeStraw to drink straight from the river to rehydrate ourselves.  We brought bottled water with us, but we wanted to save that for later.

We continued on our hike and it began to get a little more challenging and the trail kept going and going.  Eventually a couple of hours later we came to an area where Paul said most tourist that “self led” their own hikes, usually got lost and he had found a few people in this area just wandering around until someone came by.  In this area there are several old village ruins and lots of places where they used to do human sacrifices.   Paul also pointed to an area high up in the mountains and told us that the King was laid to rest high up in the spire of one mountain.  The King was so revered that his bodyguard stayed with him at this burial chamber, until he, himself died, so he could protect him for all eternity.

We crossed one more stream and this one held a particular animal that I had met on my previous trip to French Polynesia.  The sacred freshwater eels.  I knew they were harmless to us, but they look so freaky that no one else wanted to get close to them.  I took some video and everyone hurried across the stream.

We continued on for another half an hour while Paul told us more stories.  I had heard from another local that the waterfall we were going to visit was really dangerous and he wouldn’t swim to the falls himself because he was afraid of falling rocks.  This waterfall is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world.  The actual falls that we were able to get to, however was the bottom section of the falls and only dropped 100’ or so.  The cliffs rose up to over 1000’ feet though.

Everyone on the hike was so happy when we finally arrived.  I thought the hike was going to be 2 ½ hours round trip, not, 2 ½ hours just to get there.  I guess it always pays to ensure you have all the information.

Well, we were all hot and sweaty from the hike, so we were anxious to get in the waterfall pool.  Paul went in first and swam over and hung out under a rock ledge.  The Batu family slowly got to the pool edge and Shawn (the son) swam over and hung out with me in the middle of the pool.  We talked briefly to each other and then I motioned for Shawn to follow me over to where Paul was hanging out, closer to the falls.  We moved about 10’ feet from our previous positions and then we heard a, “crack, smack, ca-thumping SPLASH!!” Wholly shit!  A giant bolder from the rock cliffs had broken loose from possibly a thousand feet up and landed with a huge splash, right were both Shawn and I were sitting 10 seconds ago.  We would have been killed instantly if we had stayed there.  It was a very sobering experience.

To everyone’s credit, the rest of the hiking crew swam gingerly over the pool (looking up constantly and nervously) and we all made it over to the falls itself.  The water was coming down so hard that it created a wind about 30 knots, which made it even harder to swim against.

We all took our pictures and video and then decided we had tempted fate too much and it was time to get out of there.

When we all arrived back on shore, I asked Paul what he thought knocked the rock down.  He said a lot of mountain goats lived higher up in the mountains and knocked rocks down all the time.  I then asked him if anyone ever got hurt or killed there.  Looking down at the ground he said, “Yes, a few people.”

Needless to say, we finished taking pictures and mentally prepared for our hike back.

Two and a half hours later we made it back to the family village. 

Paul took us past his home and walked us under a large tree where he gathered us all around.  He told us to look up and we all did.  The entire tree was plentiful of Starfruit.  He plucked a few down and told us to eat.  We did.  Oh my, it was soooo good.

Earlier, Paul had told us that his Aunt Monet would cook us lunch for $10 each (a bargain in the Marquesas) if we wanted.  We had all put our orders in before the hike and a grand lunch was awaiting us when we arrived.

It was wonderful.  We all sat around Monet’s dining room table and she served some great food.  We ate; chicken, deep fried bananas, dumplings, dried fish, French pancakes, and much more and topped it off with a limonaide drink.  Magnifique!

When we concluded the lunch, Paul asked if we all wanted to come the next morning for breakfast for the same price, not one of us hesitated.  We were in.

We went back to our boats happily fed and grateful that we were all still alive.

The next morning we arrived on time and had another great meal.  Midway through the meal, we could see the rain coming and noticed that Monet’s husband, Matisse was trying to gather his copra (dried coconut meat) up off the cloths outside and bring them under the shelter of the work area.  We all ran out to help him and within a minute all of his copra was saved and under protection. 

Copra is one of the ways that the locals make money.  They harvest the coconuts off the plentiful trees and dry the meat and package it up in burlap bags and sell it off to distributors.  Not much money for the work they do, but it is something.

The Batu family went down to the beach and Melissa and I went to Paul’s house to check it out.  During our hike the previous day, Paul had his two dogs go with us and they were adorable.  Paul said that one of them had just had a litter of puppies a few weeks before, but he didn’t know where they were, except that they were in the jungle somewhere.  When we got to his house, the puppies were there and clumsily walking around his feet.  They were so cute.  It really made us miss our pets that we had to foster off to family and friends, so we could go on this journey.    

Later that day, I brought my longboard surfboard to the beach and taught Paul and Shawn how to surf in the small rolling waves.  It was a lot of fun.  Melissa sat on the beach and played with the puppies and later realized that she was eaten alive by sandfleas and/or mosquitos.  Melissa and Sarah (Batu’s daughter) had a thousand bites all over them.

We had such a good time meeting with Monet & Matisse that Melissa wanted to do something special for them.  Since we had brought fresh water filters with us as part of our Safe Water Sabbatical, we asked Paul if they would need any filters.  He said that the water there was fresh and pure spring water and it really wasn’t necessary.  Melissa decided that she would make Monet some jewelry and we would give Matisse some work gloves.

Every morning from 7am to 10am millions of very small black flies litter the decks of our boat and got into any and every opening that they could find a way in.  Seriously, at 10:01am they would all instantly die and cover the decks with their corpses.  Needless to say, we had to clean every morning.

When we gave our new friends their gifts, they were completely overwhelmed with emotions and so appreciative.  Melissa made Monet a beautiful volcanic rock earring, bracelet and necklace set.  Monet immediately ran into her garden and gathered orchids, angel hair (a type of moss) and coconuts for us.  It was so nice to see her smile and know that she was happy.

Later we went to Paul’s home to give him a monetary gift and some working gloves too.  He too, was so grateful that he took us out into his garden and asked us what we wanted.  We were in shock.  Paul and his family were so nice and giving.  Paul’s Uncle was also there and he was intimidating looking with a necklace made of tusks and his face and body covered in tattoos.  Of course, he was the nicest guy in the world too.

We ended up leaving Paul’s valley with so much fruit, our dinghy was bogging down.  We had coconut, pomplemousse, limes, papayas, starfruit and a bunch of bananas.  We were ready to depart for our next voyage to The Tuamotu Archipelago.  We didn’t know it at the time but this would be one of our fondest memories and the most authentic place we found in all of French Polynesia.