After six days the rose-coloured orb of the sun ascended as if out of the sea, we glimpsed Motu Iti, with its steep black volcanic cliffs, satanically erupting from the grey waves. We knew we were close to Nuku Hiva and then the eerie outline of a sleeping giant on the horizon materialised. Slowly the west coast of Nuku Hiva loomed in the early mists. We followed the coastline with gaping bays and the backdrop of the huge mountains, brown from lack of rain until we reached the familiar Motu Nui at the mouth of Taiohae Bay. Anchoring back in our spot from two years ago, it felt as if we had closed a circle. We had forgotten how beautiful and majestic this island is. The bay had many boats anchored but because of the size, it didn't feel cramped and everyone had masses of swinging room.
After a good night’s sleep we visited ashore, paid a courtesy call to Kevin at Nuku Hiva Yacht Services, checked in with the Gendarme producing our cruising permit for the islands and then bought masses of fresh fruit and vegetables from the elegant ladies at the market. Stephen celebrated with his favourite “jus d’pamplemousse” at Chez Henri (also known as Cafe Vaeaki, the cruiser’s open air cafe) with Henri sitting nearby, regally welcoming his punters. Henri is a respected character in the community with many roles, one of which is a registrar.
We were determined to explore the island on this visit, starting with some memorable hikes. A gentle one which meanders up to the site of the abandoned French Fort Collet with the imposing Tiki Tuhiva (2016), expressing the Marquesan culture. The female tiki represents the ancestral strength from the woman and the male warrior Tuhiva represents the warden of tradition and knowledge using it to master the future. Many tikis adorned the path, with various sculptures and engravings on stones and paving slabs. Flowers, plants and trees added to the peaceful atmosphere with dynamic views of the bay and the ocean
An early Sunday hike found us walking the Tehaatiki trail which followed the eastern side of Taiohae Bay, ascending a steep zigzag trail until we reached the viewpoint overlooking the east sentinel, Matauapuna and Teanapakiu bays and towards the west sentinel, Motu Nui. Looking back towards Amelie, the caldera of the volcano Taiohoa is very noticeable. The beach of Haetapatu is a steep path off the trail but we had done enough in the heat and it was time for that ice cold aperitif in the cockpit. This hike was repeated throughout our forced stay in the bay.
The hike which was almost not a hike due to its confusing cruiser description was a delight and not to be missed. Many of our American neighbours suggested this hike to the “tikis” as a fat buster but worth the exertion. We followed their instructions to pass Larsons shop, ascend and follow the retaining wall by the recycling centre on the right and at the tree with many roots take a left up a small steep path. We met a policeman in his 4X4 and asked if we were on the right track. He looked at us with bewilderment and suggested that the Tikis were in the next valley, Taipivai. After some time he stated that further up was a marae (arena for festivities, dancing, celebrations and games) and with a smile he wished us farewell. We eventually came to a clearing with a trail and there we discovered an overgrown but spectacular vision. Tikis were nestling in the vegetation, thatched roofs on the various dwellings surrounded a marked area that suggested an arena. We walked amongst these historically significant delights, discovering many more tikis and a roughly hued pirogue protected in its own dwelling. The only noise came from the various birds in the trees and the imagination went wild. You could convince yourself of the roars of the crowds as the warriors displayed their combat skills, the beating of ancient sharkskin drums, with the masculine tones of the Hakka and the melodic high pitched singing of the women, melded with the aroma of the pig being slowly cooked over an open fire. One minute you were in the early 1700s and then the next, back in 2020. Atmospherically the area was humming with history and culture, a magnificent experience.
The opportunity arose to do a tour of the island, which was on our list. Our tour guide and driver was Mate (pronounced Mar-Tay), who was an enormous twenty-eight year old Nuku Hivan who claimed his English was poor. It was brilliant and his knowledge was vast. Stephen and Mate became great friends on this journey and we regularly see him around the village. Stephen had the best seat in the house as he was sitting in the front of the truck, constantly able to quiz Mate on all matters. Mate loves his island and wouldn't want to live anywhere else but enjoys his holidays to Las Vegas with his family. Mate is a gentle person, with a shy smile, knows everyone we come across and states that he is related to many of them.
The tour starts with a drive along the airport road, with staggering views across the many bays, into valleys adorned with trees and flowers of every description. Naturally we ended up in an artisan market in Taipivai, displaying the various carvings, jewellery, stonework and beading. Over the past two years we have seen many examples of Polynesian craft and it becomes very similar. Prices vary hugely in the many markets over the islands with the Taiohae one being the most expensive to date. We witnessed Norbert (a well known carver on the island) carving alas using a Dremel. His companion was roughly carving a coconut shell beside him by hand but the Dremel left us with mixed feelings. No wonder the designs are symmetrical, beautiful but after seeing the wood carvings in Ua Huka, we know which ones we prefer. Taipivai is proud of its modern marae called Te Ai’tua, which was constructed for the 2011 Marquesas cultural festival. The dwellings are topped with plastic woven roofs, which was a huge disappointment to our group. The reason for this is the natural product only lasts 3-5 years before being replaced and the plastic roofs last much longer. We suppose this is one way of recycling disposed plastic. The tikis are made out of cement and then given an aged appearance. The paving and low walls of the arena are symmetrical but overall the effect is impressive. Some of the cruise ships use this area for al fresco dining for their guests. Taipivai is described as “a charming village that carpets the floor of a river valley”. Most of us have heard of the author Herman Melville who is famous for writing “Moby Dick”. Earlier in his life (1842), he jumped ship (the American whaler, Acushnet) in Taiohae Bay and with a fellow crew member escaped into the bush and ended up being captured by the tribe of Taipivai. His book “Typee” is based on his one month residence with his captors who nursed his injured leg, fed and treated him like a King until he was returned to the bay. Later historical analysis suggests that his writings were based on other individual’s experiences, some facts were fictional and little was based on his actual time in the valley.
Mate gathered us together and we continued our drive through beautiful valleys, along cols, plateaus and mountains heading to Kamuihei archeological site. Here we saw a real marae ( we had visited this one two years previously with the crew of Manatee) with a massive Banyan (Ficus Prolixa) tree that is over 600 years old and with a circumference of 50 metres. Banyan trees start their life by lodging on to a “host” tree, dropping aerial roots to the ground, sucking up nourishment and growing, the Banyan circles its host, killing it over time. The host rots, leaving a deep hollow. This hollow was used by the tribe to keep their prisoners until they cooked them ritually. Banyan trees were sacred and today in the thick vegetation, the existence of an ancient Banyan tree often suggests the ruins of an old village. Mate took us for a climb behind the towering tree to view the petroglyphs on two large boulders, depicting marine life, warriors, cattle and pigs. The dating of the petroglyphs is unknown. This site is vast and thankfully everything is as it should be, historically and culturally. It is suggested that the site exudes Mana (spiritual power), we can believe this.
Mate was keen to show us the beautiful pinnacles and shoreline of Aakapa towards the north of the island. Despite being hungry and looking forward to a hearty lunch at our favourite Marquesan restaurant, Chez Yvonne, we were mesmerised by the breathtaking views, silence descending on the group as the vista astounded us. Chez Yvonne once again was a treat with the smiling Dora looking after us and Yvonne sitting in her chair to one side. Yvonne is the Mayoress of Hatiheu (she has maintained this position for nearly 40 years) and is tickled pink when you approach her, shake her hand and ask after her health. Debbie almost curtsied as Yvonne has a regal air about her. We found out later that Yvonne is Mate’s great aunt.
We have described this area in detail with historical content in our blog “Magic Marquesas”(2018). A correction to that blog dispels the myth that if a family has too many male children, then one is chosen to be brought up as a girl. The choice is totally the individuals and fully accepted in this caring community.
Mate drove us to one of the long fingered inlets in Baie du Controleur, Hooumi, following a tranquil estuary until we reached a sandy beach. Ponies were grazing on the grass and a few yachts were bobbing on the flat water of the bay. Allegedly there is a Manta Ray cleaning station here and the previous day, snorkelers had witnessed twelve Mantas dancing in the shallows.
Alas our day had come to an end, returning to Taiohae late in the afternoon with the added joy of not preparing food that evening.
During our time in the bay we met some great people, particularly several South African boats. Kevin on Opela, a solo cruiser who helped us enormously with our communications issue and then introduced us to John and Bev on Dandelion. We shared our stories of South Africa, discovering that John and Kevin are members of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. It was a delight that we knew mutual people from Durban. Bev makes beautiful jewellery and Debbie was presented with an aquamarine sea glass pendant, simple but unbelievably stunning. Her website is “All-at-Sea”. John (who is part fish, one of the most natural divers we have ever had the privilege to dive with) took us diving in the bay, predominately to see the Manta Rays but the teeming life along the walls of the bay kept us focused. Eventually two giant Mantas graced us with their presence, one of which danced so close to Stephen, that you could clearly see it’s markings and cephalic fins. Words cannot describe the feelings when this happened, a remarkable life experience. We continued to dive various sites pointed out to us by John with more Manta sightings, the Hammerhead sharks being more elusive.
Taiohae Bay is a haven for boats escaping the cyclone season with a collection of nationalities, cozied up together. In our experience the French cruisers on the whole tend to keep to themselves, rarely participating in activities and the radio net, sometimes ignoring Debbie’s exuberant wave as we pass by. Nevertheless the overall feel is friendly here, slightly clique but that hardly bothers us. Brexit passed uneventfully, in fact we forgot about it, far more interested in some close friends buying a boat in Trinidad and continuing their life on the ocean wave.
Happily anchored in a bay in paradise, the last thing you would imagine is watching the Super Bowl game on TV! Stephen, John and fellow cruisers congregated on Kevin’s (Nuku Hiva Yacht Services) veranda to watch the defeat of the San Francisco team by Kansas City. Stephen is more aware of the rules now but detests the constant adverts that interrupt play. Rugby remains his sport passion.
Each morning at 8am there is a cruiser's radio net on VHF channel 68. The radio operators are volunteers from the various boats, sharing information, mostly serious but the trivia section brightens the early morning. One of the notices brought to our attention was an upcoming masked “Valentine Ball”, held in the festival hall where we had a fabulous Oyster World Rally party seven years previously. A chance to dress up, sample the local food with music and dancing. A talented twelve year old girl named Amelie from S/Y September am agreed to make us some masks for part of her art project. The result was staggering and they now adorn the area above the chart table. Amelie and her brother, Eddie are home schooled on board. Eddie provides the trivia for the net (he is also a natural handling our powerful dinghy) and both are accomplished musicians. We spent an evening listening to them playing the harp, violin and piano. Yes, they have a harp and a piano on board!
Another notice was a gathering to discuss lithium ion batteries and their management. This was one occasion where Debbie found something else to do. The guy who ran this seminar was sensitive to Stephen’s limited knowledge of this system and kindly agreed to visit us on Amelie. This was the start of a fantastic friendship with him and his family. We spent many hours enjoying their company, having a similar sense of humour and overall we plainly had unadulterated fun and laughter with them.
We attended another gala dinner at the local hotel with local musicians and dancers entertaining us. A group of us were encouraged to join in, which was daunting at first but the “real” dancers were so patient, kind and fun that we overcame our early reticence and went with the flow.
Stephen and a good friend (who wishes to stay anonymous) organised a barbecue ashore. This friend made the most wonderful Margaritas on one occasion causing huge confusion on how we were getting home. Fortunately for the three of us, a cruiser in the bay heard our pleas over the VHF and delivered us safely to Amelie, albeit Stephen falling out of the dinghy in his efforts to get on board. Growing up is not an option.
A slow start to the week with a dehydration problem, but then we received the wonderful news that Jaz and Liam had got engaged earlier that day whilst having a break in York. Stephen celebrated with a beer (hair of the dog) but we’re going to seriously celebrate when we get together in the UK with the loved up pair and Anne and Mick, Liam’s parents. The day has been an excited blur with the ‘phone pinging continuously. One thing for sure, Debbie will not be purchasing or wearing a hat, her Mum can have that honour! Over a period of time, the numbers increased and the third barbecue was a great gathering together with Kevin, his wife and children plus some of their extended family.
Stephen celebrated another tropical birthday with greetings over whatsapp from the UK, Antigua, Trinidad and many others by message. In true
“Amelie” style we partied late on board with Bev, Roland and Liz playing games, eating and drinking well. Alas John was travelling so we missed his company. Laughter was the name of the day.
Another excitement for us was welcoming Bubbles into the bay, us bearing a platter of tropical fruits. Leo, David from Serendipity and Steve (Leo’s colleague and friend) arrived just before Karin. Frank and Sophie on Anastasia appeared in the bay, so lots to celebrate and several of us had suppers, drinks, lunches and games afternoons on board.
Debbie was determined to attend a traditional Polynesian dance class and the opportunity arose, held in Kevin’s front garden. The teachers of various ages were full of energy and their enthusiasm with a sense of fun poured through the group. The dance classes resumed after the restrictions were eased.
On 21 March the world changed in Nuku Hiva……….for many weeks we were confined to Amelie, with one person per week going ashore to buy essentials. The various shops had plentiful supplies and the fresh fruit market remained open five mornings a week. All inter island travel was forbidden, including changing anchorage on the same island. Cruise liners disappeared, flights discontinued, inter island ferries stopped (apart from medical emergencies) and the fleet became the main consumers on the island. The police patrolled the quay asking for ID and a self declaration of good health. Water activities were denied. Shop etiquette was similar to Europe, limited persons in store staying a safe distance from one another. Alcohol sales ban for several weeks was slowly lifted together with nightly curfews. The VHF and whatsapp became our communication medium; most of those horrible “put off” jobs were completed and various characters in the fleet organised radio shows, trivia nights, kids and women’s nets together with the informative net first thing in the morning followed by the daily BBC World Service five minute news update. Stephen became involved in the repatriation organisation for some cruisers. Although this wasn't wholly successful, several individuals continue to make contact with Stephen, giving updates and well wishes. S/Y Beluga organised a bread run several times a week for cruisers. Various cruisers offered their skills to help the local community in the event of an outbreak on the island. Days passed quickly and conditions were eased after five weeks due to the low number of infected cases being contained in Tahiti and Moorea. Throughout the confinement boats continued to arrive in Nuku Hiva from Panama, Galapagos and mainland America despite the borders being closed and many leaving the Americas after this was announced. Some boats were moved swiftly on to Tahiti, many had “boat issues” which allowed them to stay in the bay, some anchored in uninhabited Eiao Island, while others moved off towards Hawaii and one to Alaska and then some like us were legally in FPI with various visas etc. The bay had over a hundred vessels anchored at one time and most of us strived to reduce the impact on the environment i.e. sewage from our black water tanks. As a whole the boating community worked well with the island’s residents, respecting the fact that we were guests in their country and abiding with the decrees that were put forward. At times a few individuals ignored the regulations or queried/argued against the rules put forward which did cause some stress in the fleet but overall the floating community were well behaved trying not to cause waves.
Kevin put out a notice that a charity for poor families on the island needed some financial help particularly during this tough time. The cruising community alone managed to raise over $1,300 in a week to feed families who were struggling.
Many friends and family members ask us how we coped, it wasn't difficult and probably we are in one of the safest areas of the world. Yes, the uncertainty has caused some worry at times but looking back it wasn't a hardship. Our concerns were with our loved ones back in the UK and other countries. Jaz being a paediatric ICU nurse is on the frontline most days and one day that dreaded call came, to say she had been tested positive for Covid19, fortunately she recovered well and is now back at work.
The very best news that we received literally days before the lockdown in the UK was that Stephen’s son Tom and his wife, Katie collected Oscar, a little four week old from his foster carers and has joined the Gratton family. Oscar was a ‘failure to thrive’ baby but is gaining weight as if it is going out of fashion. We receive loads of photographs and videos of him with additional “live” times on whatsapp. We are longing to meet him in safer times.
We organised a huge barbecue on the beach after lockdown with many left in the bay attending. The kids could frolic in the surf while the beer and wine were chilling in the ice boxes. Voices we heard on the radio became faces and once again we realised how small the world was, by meeting a vibrant couple from S/Y Lucid who are great friends of Claire’s son from Sotto Vento. Kevin arranged for his niece to traditionally dance for the group in celebration of Annabella’s birthday plus a huge birthday cake, shared amongst us.
The restrictions were slowly eased and then lifted for boats to explore the islands. We spent a few days in Hooumi Bay, near Taipivai with several other boats, enjoying the hiking to Taipivai village, visiting one another’s boats for drinks, lunches and sundowners. We were entertained by a huge pod of dancing Melon-headed Dolphins and constantly surrounded by Manta Rays. The last day together was spent on the beach having another barbecue and then onto Bubbles for the after party. We danced, sang and drank until gone midnight before returning to Amelie, only to help another boat anchor in awful weather who had dragged and hit us several times. Fortunately we sustained superficial damage, thank goodness for a strong boat and no human injuries.
The following day was quite flat as we had to say goodbye to the family who we had become very close to and haven't got a clue when or whether our paths will cross again.
We pulled up our anchor only to be greeted by a ginormous inquisitive Manta Ray who glided slowly by the bow of Amelie until we had the anchor on the boat. Debbie could have reached over and touched this majestic creature but instead, trying to concentrate on the job in hand, looked on in awe. Returning to a sleepy Taiohae Bay with fewer cruisers and distractions, we fired up our energy and started to plan for the future months. We plan to explore the southern islands before returning here to provision and if the weather predictions are correct and if the Canadian border is open, we will attempt to sail there in the fall.
Click here if you want to see the video of the Marquesan Dancer at our BBQ