Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tuamotus Passage and Our First Atoll

After a five and a half-day passage, we are safely bobbing at anchor in the lagoon at Tahanea atoll.

Although this was a shorter passage, it had many moods and was in some ways more wearing than our longer passages. When we left Ua Pou (our last island stop in the Marquesas) last Sunday, the passage started out with nice trade-wind sailing in a beam to broad reach under a single-reefed main and full headsail. We reached right into a windless hole. Our speed dropped to under two knots. Since we had plenty of fuel to make it to our destination this time, we decided to motor to find the wind. We motored for a night and a day, and then we found the wind: lots of it. The next three and a half days were spent sailing hard on the wind. The first two days and two nights we had over twenty knots of wind---typically in the 22 to 23 knot range---with gusts up to 28 knots. A double-reefed main and staysail combination served us well as Silhouette pounded to weather and Patrick and I tried to hang on.

We were both feeling worn down when we left Ua Pou (I was recuperating from some tropical bug), and since the passage was not going to last for three weeks, we took three-hour watches instead of our usual four. This was a good call as the wind and sea conditions were tiring.

We had several small breakages along the way. In the wind, the bimini canvas starting ripping apart and will have to be resewn and fortified. The tie to the mesh bag we had swinging over the stern exploded, and Neptune extracted two of our precious pamplemousse as toll for the passage (luckily, Patrick was able to save the rest, including one caught by the wind vane frame!) A small piece of cover board covering the deck to hull joint under the caprail was ripped off by pounding into the seas and will have to be replaced. And we discovered that our center hatch leaks when we take waves hitting the cabin top at an angle. We will have to reinforce the gasket material. We could definitely tell the boat was ridden hard during our passage to the Tuamotus.

The wind lightened up to under twenty knots (fourteen to nineteen) during the last twelve hours of the passage; the seas came down a bit; and we added a partially furled headsail to our reduced sail combination. This gave us the added speed we needed to make it to the pass at Tahanea atoll by slack water, and we flew along at six or seven knots for the remainder of the passage.

Passes in the Tuamotus are notorious for being dangerous due to strong currents that run through the narrow opening during the incoming and outgoing tides. Therefore, it is the conventional wisdom to enter the passes at slack water. If the wind has been blowing at twenty knots for several days, like when we arrived, the passes are even more dangerous, because all the water carried over the reef by the wind into the lagoon has no way out but the pass. In this case, there can sometimes be no slack water because even at slack water there is outgoing current.

We had picked an "easy" pass for our first atoll. The maximum current in the middle pass at Tahanea (Passe Manino) under normal conditions is only four knots. There are three passes in this atoll, which reduces the force of the current through one narrow opening by spreading the flow over three openings. There are no coral heads obstructing the opening of the pass.

Our best estimate of slack water using the available sources was 12:45 p.m.. At 12:43 p.m., just as we were lining up to enter our first pass through a coral reef into a lagoon, the engine died. Our engine has died on only one other occasion: when the fuel intake line was clogged by aluminum shavings left in our new fuel tank by the welder. We did what any prudent sailors would do: We put up a sail and tacked away from the pass. Damn! After all that effort to get here, we were going to miss our chance to enter the pass and have to wait.

I steered into the wind, keeping the boat going as slowly as possible, while Patrick went below to trouble-shoot. He quickly deduced that the problem was a clogged fuel filter. We had used so little fuel since leaving the Galapagos, we had only been putting fuel into one tank, topping it off with jerry cans. This violated Patrick's normal procedure of only adding fuel to our bilge tank and then transferring it to our cockpit tank---passing the fuel through a fuel filter en route---so that only filtered fuel reached the "day use" cockpit tank. Since we were purchasing fuel from a gas station, we assumed that the source was good and the fuel clean. We must have gotten some contaminated fuel in Taiohae, however, since the fuel filter was clogged. Patrick switched to the bilge tank and other fuel filter, and the engine started.

With the delay, we were an hour late entering the pass. "Late" is a relative term, however, as our estimated time of slack water was itself only an estimate. Through the binoculars, I could see white water ahead, but I couldn't tell if there were white caps in the pass or standing waves. We knew we shouldn't enter the pass if there were standing waves in the pass. When we were right on top of them, we were able to see that there were in fact standing waves in the entrance. They were only two to four feet high and were concentrated mostly on the left side of the entrance to the pass. Patrick elected to go ahead. Keeping an eye on the boat speed through the water and referencing it to the GPS speed over ground, Patrick was able to assess the amount of current in the pass and to determine whether we had enough engine speed to power against it. Once we got out of the entrance and into the pass proper, the standing waves settled down. Soon, we had entered the lagoon and looked for a place to anchor.

We are not in an ideal spot as we are anchored in sand surrounded by coral heads. So long as the wind continues blowing (it is down to nine knots this morning) and we are pointed into the wind with our anchor chain stretched out, there is no danger of wrapping our anchor chain around a coral head. However, once it calms down, the scope of our anchor chain may be reduced if it wraps around a coral head, and we will have to free dive on it to un-wrap it. Many sailors buoy their anchor chains with fenders or floats when anchoring around coral or use a combination of chain and floating line when anchoring for this reason. There are many anchoring options here, and we may move to a better location today.

Meanwhile, we sit here a little bit shell-shocked, after our first good meal and good night's sleep in days, enjoying our morning coffee and the beauty of our surroundings. The high volcanic islands of the Marquesas have been replaced with the low topography of the coral reef. The thing that has suprised me the most is just how big an atoll and its associated lagoon are. You know it was a rough passage when you enter a lagoon, it looks as if you are anchoring in the middle of an ocean, and you happily declare, "The wind has almost completely died down!" when there are still ten knots. If we look across the lagoon one way, we cannot see the other side. With the wind-blown waves from the past few days, it truly looks as if we are anchored in a vast ocean, albeit one with smaller wave height than the true ocean outside. If we look to the other side, towards the edge of the tropical reef we are anchored next to, it looks as if one might imagine a coral atoll to look: white coral beach, green palm trees, and turquoise shallow water through which the coral heads bloom.

Patrick observed that the lagoon is where a volcano used to be. "Imagine how big it was," he said, "and imagine how long it took to wear it down." He wondered how many years it would be until the Marquesas look like this. The atoll is approximately 24 by 9 miles in size now.

I am also surprised at the vegetation. I had heard that the vegetation is sparse on coral reefs, consisting mostly of palm trees, but I see understory on the reef before me. It is more lush than I imagined. Since this is my very first atoll, I will have to reserve judgment on that until I've seen more of them.

For now, we are very happy to be here.

Posted from Tahanea atoll via Ham Radio.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Taiohae: Crossroads of the Marquesas

July 1-6 and 14-17, 2012

It seems that if you sit at the food tent in front of the dinghy dock in Taiohae long enough, you will eventually meet and talk to every cruiser coming through the Marquesas, as well as many of the locals. The family that owns the establishment is affable and outgoing to the cruising community, and they are more than willing to teach the interested about Marquesan culture, particularly the cuisine. So many boats come through this anchorage, that Taiohae is a big, though understated---due to few gathering places for cruisers---social scene. Here, we reunited with Torsten, whom we had toured San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos with. We also saw several of the French boats we had seen in other anchorages in the Marquesas. 

Part of Baie de Taiohae with waterfront tikis

The anchorage at Taiohae is huge:  No matter how many new sails appear over the horizon, Baie de Taiohae seems to accommodate them all without overcrowding. Rose Corser (an American who originally came to the Marquesas to do research and now runs a bar/restaurant and museum) pointed out that most of the boats in the anchorage are anchored illegally. The true anchorage is to the far left as you enter the bay. Cruisers don’t anchor there due to its lack of proximity to fuel, groceries, and the gendarmerie; however, if you plan to stay awhile, you would be much happier anchoring there or at least setting a stern anchor. A large swell comes through the bay making it extremely rolly. Caution must be taken while at anchor to keep things from falling over just as if one was underway. 

The West Sentinel at the entrance to Baie de Taiohae has some interesting stratigraphy

A familiar rock formation in Baie de Taiohae-I thought of it as "crew-cut rock"

Taiohae is the government seat for the Marquesas; consequently, there is more infrastructure there, and those who have government jobs have more wealth than in the surrounding villages. Along with “the big city” come the perks and temptations of the big city---for cruisers, namely fresh veggies and baguettes, internet access, and alcohol. We find ourselves frittering a lot of time away doing boat chores and boat errands in these more developed anchorages.

Part of the time suckage is the sheer amount of time it takes to get things done. Groceries are a long walk from the boat, and it takes multiple trips hand-carrying bags of groceries to restock the galley. We saw one taxi while in Taiohae, but they are not common here.  For cooking fuel, you must leave your propane/butane  bottle overnight (only butane is available in the Marquesas) and retrieve it the next day (never before mid-morning.) The same is true for having laundry done, and you may only get it back the next day “if the air is dry” because the majority of laundry is line-dried. (There are no laundromats in the Marquesas. We elect to have our laundry done while in port instead of doing it ourselves on the boat, because it’s difficult to dry the sheets and towels without having them drag all over the deck. The clothing we wear is so light that it doesn’t comprise a large percentage of the weight of our laundry. ) The fuel dock is a large concrete dock with a lot of swell, and most people refill their diesel tanks using jerry cans instead of tying up to the dock. It is best to go at high tide to minimize the swell. Depending on how much fuel you need, that can take multiple trips as well. Before you know it, you’ve been in the anchorage for days and have seen very little of your surroundings!

Despite the cruiser-in-port syndrome, we saw a few things of cultural interest while in Taiohae.

We visited the artisan center which had an impressive collection of wood and stone carvings (including replicas of weapons and tools formerly used by the Marquesans) as well as a necklace made for every taste. Much Marquesan jewelery is made from the many different types of seeds found on the islands.

The site of the home of the former royal family on the waterfront was worth visiting for the collection of tikis, both old and restored. This park, like so many of the archaeological sites in the Marquesas, was restored in connection with hosting a regional arts festival. It is now used for lounging and outdoor sports activities, much like any public park. We also saw a combat scene for a film being shot in the park one day, with Marquesan actors and an actress in full warrior regalia. 

Site of former royal home

Tiki with harpooned fish

Outrigger sculpture with crew-you can barely see a more ancient version on a platform in the background

Infrequently seen female tiki

We followed a road out of town and ended up along what must have been the former village site. We saw many paepae and some old tikis. However, in Taiohae, people had incorporated the basalt walls of the old paepae into the landscaping of their newer homes.

We also saw many more tethered goat on peoples’ properties than we did on the other islands. On Fatu Hiva, pigs seemed to be the preferred animal kept for food; but perhaps people keep pigs in their yards there because (and this is pure speculation) they are unavailable for hunting in the interior like on Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva?

We visited Rose Corser’s bar and restaurant and met the couple managing it now (Kevin and Anabelle:  He is American, she is Marquesan.) We had a tasty home-cooked meal there, sampling the local wahoo and breadfruit. We returned to the restaurant for a 4th of July gathering they were holding. Only a few other Americans were actually present (the crew of one other boat besides Patrick and myself), but almost everyone there spoke English. We reunited with the brothers Bruyn (their boat is named Double Bruyn) a couple of Kiwis whom we had first met on Fatu Hiva. We ran into them again in Hanamoenoa, and were happy to meet them again in Taiohae. They and their third crew member, Zuzanna, are delightful company. Jon and Paul introduced us to a British couple, Paul and Catherine Davis, off the lovely boat Kahia. It was fun to have a social evening and to hold actual conversations with people other than ourselves.  

Some of Anabelle’s family were present (her sister was helping with the cooking), as well as some other local Marquesans, and we were serenaded with the sounds of a ukulele. It was a festive evening.

The next day, we went back with Paul and Catherine to see Rose Corser’s museum (officially titled the Te Henua Enana museum.) The museum is actually home to three collections---Rose’s, as well as two others. 

Museum display showing traditional Polynesian sailing vessel and poster of traditional Marquesan tattoos
My favorite pieces in the museum were three Marquesan figures carved from wood in various warrior poses. Their facial expressions and Marquesan tattoos were intricately carved, and accents of real hair were added.

It was at the Te Henua Enana museum where I finally saw the tapa that had eluded me on Fatu Hiva. Rose had several wall-length older pieces and was also selling smaller, newer pieces by an artisan from Omoa. 

Modern tapa design

Tapa cloth is made by beating tree bark until it is very, very thin, and in the traditional method, the only design on the resulting fabric was the imprint from the carvings on the beaters. Nowadays, breadfruit, mulberry, and banyan tree bark are used to produce tapas and block prints are added to the tapa cloth. I learned that the priests who remained in the Marquesas changed the Marquesan way of dress significantly. Marquesans used to dress in tapa cloth but because this fabric was vey fragile, they would remove it when bathing. Men and women used to enter the streams together to bathe. They would remove their tapas while bathing and then put them back on when done bathing. The priests thought this was a terrible thing and brought in fabric to the Marquesas, and that is how Marquesans started dressing in fabric clothing instead of in tapa cloth.

Our first stay in Taiohae culminated with attending a performance associated with the festival held there every July. The entire month of July is devoted to festival activities, although they seem to occur mostly on the weekends. We attended a cultural show of traditional dancing, drumming, and chanting. As Patrick pointed out, unlike other cultural shows of this nature we’ve seen in Hawaii and New Zealand, the show felt more authentic because it was attended by the local populus. People brought their whole families and kids were running all over the place together when the show was not being performed. The young Marquesan men were very strong in their poses and bass-tone chants, while the women leading the more song-like chants had incredible vocal strength. Patrick took some video footage of this (which we hope to post at a later date), but there was not enough light for good still photos.  

Male haka dancer

We followed this up with catching a reggae band outside Yacht Services. Not surprisingly, the lead singer of the band was one of the chief performers in the cultural show, and several others were in attendance. I was again reminded that while the Marquesans take pride in their culture and their past, they are also a modern people. 

After circumnavigating Nuku Hiva, we returned to Taiohae for resupplying. They were out of gasoline during out first visit---the supply ship had come in the interim---and we bought some gas for the dinghy outboard in preparation for our next leg in the Tuamotus. Our second propane tank had gone empty during the circumnavigation and, although we had just filled the first tank with butane, we decided to fill the second one too. We haven't cooked with butane before and don't have a good idea of how long a tank will last, so we decided to err on the side of caution. Now, we will definitely have more than enough to get to Papeete. 

We were lucky enough to be in Taiohae for the culmination of the July festival on Bastille Day. (I found it strange that the Marquesans celebrated Bastille Day since the French colonized them.) In the morning, there were horse races on the beach, with the Marquesans riding bareback in all their finery. The one rider who sticks in my mind the most had a large face tattoo over his bare chest, with an eye tattooed over each pectoral muscle. He was wearing a white pareu (or lava-lava, basically a male skirt), and had a long flowing black ponytail with a white feather in it. He had grass anklets around each calf. He was an excellent horseman and had a beautiful bay horse (most of the horses in the Marquesas, a smaller breed, are chestnut.) He was something to watch.

In the evening, we attended the haka dances again, and his time, the dancers utilized torches in one of the routines. 

During our second visit, we also made it to the church, which has exquisite carvings out of wood.

Church door with fisherman

Pulpit with falcon, angel, ox, and lion

Station:  Jesus being nailed to the cross

Jesus being jeered by the crowd

Detail of angry crowd-sad theme but excellent craftsmanship
 
Taiohae is the kind of place that grows on you. I didn't think I was going to like it there, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. You can tell that Taiohae started to feel "like home," since we were caught out without a camera on many occasions. That's why we have few pictures of the things described in this post. We made friends with Henri at the food tent and had several good discussions with him about everything from family to the economy. When he presented us with a stalk of bananas upon our departure, it brought tears to my eyes. He is one of the people I will remember from this journey.   

Leaving Taiohae

Baie de Taiohae in our wake

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Haahopu and Hakatea (Daniel’s Bay)



If you’re thinking that Marquesan, like Hawaiian, has a lot of vowels, you’re right. In fact, the Marquesan alphabet has just half the number of characters of the English alphabet. So many place names in the Marquesas begin with “H,” that we are constantly getting them mixed up and have to continually re-check our charts and guidebooks so that we don’t end up in the wrong anchorage!

Haahopu-July 11-12, 2012

As we left Anaho Bay behind, we continued our circumnavigation of Nuku Hiva with a short stop at Baie Haahopu. Patrick had seen this little bay on the northwest corner and had a hunch about it. Indeed, it turned out to be an extremely calm bay (the calmest anchorage yet) with excellent visibility. (Patrick was able to replace our prop shaft zinc here, which had been completely used up. Clear water---no swell---nice!) Haahopu was not the most scenic anchorage on the island, located next to a dock that had formerly been used to unload passengers bound for the airport (before the road from Taiohae was improved) and is currently still used to deliver fuel and supplies for the airport. 

Breakwater at Haahopu-part of dock shown at left

I had contracted some kind of a bug (flu or other virus) and spent most of my time at this anchorage sleeping or resting, but Patrick went in and explored the beach. He reported that there wasn’t much there to see. This low, northwest end of the island looked positively bucolic next to the temples of basalt we had just come from, and I kept expecting to see cows coming out from under the roundish trees on the hill. My strongest impression of the land here was that it gave off a wonderful herb scent like sage or lemon-thyme that I could smell strongly even from the boat.  

Beach at Haahopu

With such clear water, I couldn’t resist going in to check out the snorkeling. There was very little to be found in the center of the bay, which was mostly a sand bottom, but there were small rock reefs and fish on either side of the bay. It was difficult to approach the good snorkeling areas due to the surge, and the best time to snorkel (like most places) was at low tide when the water was slack. The best snorkeling was actually found next to the man-made breakwater which had less surge than the opposing rocks on the other side of the bay.

Hakatea (Daniel’s Bay)-July 12-13, 2012

If anyone out there is a Survivor aficionado, you might recognize some of the following landscapes from the T.V. show. Neither Patrick or I ever watched the show, but now we were here in real life! (We heard that during filming, the French gendarmerie was stationed at the entrance of the bay to insure that the participants/contestants on the show actually received no outside help or contact.)

Anchorage at Baie Hakatea (Daniel's Bay)

After clearing the rough entrance to the bay (which apparently is typical even if the weather isn’t bad), we anchored in the right-hand, more protected lobe of Baie Hakatea (Daniel’s Bay.) Looking around, we saw an amazing illusion:  It looked like we were surrounded by land in 360-degrees! Being anchored in Daniel’s Bay is like being in the center of a donut! We had heard from other cruisers (who had escaped from Taiohae to Daniel’s Bay just so they could get a good night’s sleep) that this was a very calm anchorage. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true when we were there:  The wind was blowing hard from the southeast, and the anchorage was very rolly. 

The entrance to Daniel's Bay as seen from the anchorage

We anchored late in the afternoon but had time to do a little reconnaissance before it got dark. We took the dinghy over to the other lobe of the bay, where we hoped to land it for a trip to Vaipo Falls the next day. Breaking surf on the beach made the approach seem tenuous. It looked like if we hugged the rocks to the right during a calmer time period (it was high tide then,) we might be able to make it in. We returned to our lobe of the bay, where we had seen returning hikers board the speed boat bound for Taiohae, and landed the dinghy there. We found a path along the top of the basalt intertidal zone forming the north edge of the anchorage that the hikers had used to access the other lobe of the bay. This was our “Plan B.”

The next morning we started out early, about 8:15. The surf was still breaking, though not as strongly, but we headed in cautiously, staying close to the rocks on the right of the bay. Unfortunately, the river entrance was beyond the breaking surf, so we couldn’t go directly from the sea into the river. We beached the dinghy on a level spot of beach and then hand-pulled it along the surf zone to the river entrance. We rowed upriver and found a shallow lagoon where we could leave the dinghy, tying it to a palm tree in our absence.

We started out along the obvious path through the village of Hakaui. Shortly, we passed the home of a Marquesan who called out to us with a friendly greeting. This turned out to be “Teki,” a guy we had read about in the blog posts of the cruisers who came ahead of us. Since we were heading to the waterfall on a rainy, windy day, Teki warned us to be careful of falling coconuts, which the rain tends to bring down.

The beginning of the trail took us through beautifully landscaped Marquesan gardens.

Banana archway

We also passed some ruins and ancient tikis along the way.


Then we traveled through a lush tropical jungle of sandalwood, palms, ferns, and cycads. We always kept looking overhead and tried to move swiftly through the areas of coconut-laden palms. There were two stream crossings requiring wading before the waterfall and two more in the waterfall valley itself. (The number of stream crossings along this route probably depends on the amount of rainfall.)

Our first view of the waterfall came when we were still quite a distance away. Vaipo Falls, the longest waterfall in the Marquesas, is a bit of a tease:  you can never see the entire waterfall from anywhere on the trail because part of it is blocked by basalt columns at its base. 

First view of Vaipo Falls

Tallest falls in the Marquesas

A low wall made of lava boulders extended along the trail almost all the way to the waterfall. Deep in the valley we found more ruins:  paepae and possibly meae.

Ruins along the trail

When we came to a sign warning us of falling rocks, we knew we were getting close. 

A warning in the forest

If I hadn’t read about the hardhats found along this trail in posts from other cruisers, I probably would have failed to turn over a green basket along the side of the trail. But I saw a heavy tarp-like white bag peeking out, and inside, were the hardhats. Patrick and I each donned one, wishing we’d had them earlier when we were going through the coconut groves. 

Two hard-headed people with hard hats

The waterfall was located in a steep rocky canyon. 

Waterfall canyon

Everything in the waterfall valley was lush and green.

Final section of path to the waterfall

From up close, all we could see was the base of the waterfall, peeking out from behind basalt boulders. 

Base of Vaipo Falls

The muddy pool did not look inviting, so for once, I did not go swimming. There was a route behind the boulders to the waterfall’s “inner chamber,” where it might have been less muddy, but in the current weather conditions, I doubted it. With all the rainfall, we probably would have had to swim, rather than wade, into the inner chamber, so we left it unexplored. 

Reflections in muddy water

 For some reason, Patrick took a lot of pictures of me during this hike. Here are three of my favorites:

In the waterfall valley

Stream crossing

Me and a mape tree

The hike was marked by many cairns in the more difficult-to-follow areas, so it was easy to find your way. Some of the cairns were works of art in themselves and looked like small tikis. Here are some more typical cairns along the trail, with Patrick leading the way.

Along the trail

On the way back down the trail, we passed both a couple from another boat and a large group of day hikers from the speed boat (between Taiohae and Daniel's Bay), and were glad we had gotten an early start.

We saw an ancient tiki we had missed on the way up. Patrick though it might be tabu to sit on the wall next to it, so he posed by it very respectfully. 

Patrick with tiki

We also saw this pair (one old, one new) of tikis on someone’s garden wall (a former paepae):

Garden tikis

Beautiful flower

We had experienced several downpours throughout the hike, and as we returned to Daniel’s Bay, the weather was deteriorating. We decided there was no point in spending another rolly night there, so we pulled up anchor and headed the four or five miles back to Taiohae. 
We weren’t really thinking about it at the time, but it was Friday the 13th (of July.) The next day was Bastille Day, and it was going to be the high point of the festival activities that had been taking place in Taiohae all month.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How the Haka was Born and other Tales of Human Sacrifice

July 9, 2012

Warning:  This post contains descriptions of historic practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism which may be disturbing to some readers.

Haka platform (tohua) at Hikokua

I gave an account of walking over the mountain from Anaho Bay to the village of Hatiheu in the previous post. Our intention was to visit some of the archaeological sites in the valley. Although they were within walking distance, and given a few directions we could have visited them on our own, we were hoping to find a local guide to give us more insight into what we were seeing. Hatiheu is linked to the rest of the island by road, and we knew tour groups from Taiohae routinely came to see the ruins. We didn’t know if we could hook up with one of these tours in Hatiheu or find a separate tour.

After asking around, we were directed to one of the houses near the church, where we found Hiohka---I'm not sure if I've spelled that correctly---whose French name is Alphonse. The locals call him “Ru-ah,” but we learned that this was actually a hated nickname. We were told he did tours of the sites. Hiohka was tired and was doing his laundry; he clearly didn’t really feel like doing a tour that day. But when he heard we had walked to Hatiheu from Anaho Bay, he invited us in, and after thinking about it for awhile, he decided to take us. When asked the price for his time, he said he would take us for free. We were caught off guard. The tours out of Atuona and Taiohae were given for cash, and we assumed that would be the case here. It turns out that (in my opinion), the individual we were dealing with in this case would have responded better to a meaningful gift (something personal) in trade in exchange for his time. In the end, Hiohka did accept some cash from us---but only to get out of a meal we offered to buy him at the restaurant in exchange for the tour. He could tell it would be difficult for us to accept the tour without giving something in exchange, so he took the cash in order to get back to doing his laundry! ir

Hiohka took us to two archaeological sites within walking distance of the village:  tohua Hikokua and tohua Kamuihei, both gathering grounds containing meae, or platforms where human sacrifice was performed. He told us there were actually five or six archaeological sites in the valley.

We were impressed by the sheer size of the sites at Hikokua and Kamuihei, both much larger than the site we had previously visited at Puamau on Hiva Oa. Hiohka toured us around Hikokua first, identifying various things we were seeing. While pointing out places used for sleeping, we believed he sometimes used the term “sleeping” for actual sleeping and other times for a final resting place, as in coffin. These were some of the places identified for sleeping that we understood to be tombs where the remains of chiefs were located:

A barely visible rectangular pit in the platform behind the tall stones

Five rectangular spaces outlined in lava boulders

We learned that the same platforms were often used for both human sacrifice and dancing, indicating the highly ritualized nature of human sacrifice in ancient Marquesan culture. 

Front wall of haka platform

Detail of ancient tiki in wall of haka platform

Hiohka related to me a legend about how the haka dance was born. Haka is a Polynesian dance form practiced in the Marquesas that is similar to hulu in Hawaii. Keep in mind that this legend was told to someone (me) with very little Marquesan/French language skills by someone with very little English language skill. But as I understood it, the legend went something like this:   A son was born to a woman from Hiva Oa and a man from Hatiheu (on Nuku Hiva.) The woman took her son to Hiva Oa and raised him there. After a time, the son wanted to find his father, so they returned to Hatiheu. There, they were treated as outsiders and captured by the valley’s tribe. They were imprisoned in this pit (now collapsed), awaiting sacrifice.

Prison in which victims intended for sacrifice were held

Around this time, the father also began thinking about his son and went to seek him out. He found his family held captive in the pit.

At this time, the father performed a haka dance so compelling and distracting that all eyes were on his dance. When the captors’ attention returned to the prisoners in the pit, they were gone. (The story was a little vague about whether the family escaped or whether a third party rescued them while the father was distracting their captors.)

Hiohka also told me that as a result of this legend, haka is performed by different genders on Hiva Oa and in Hatiehu (Nuku Hiva); however, I could not find any information to corroborate this. It may have once been true but does not appear to be true today, as members of both sexes participate in some form of haka dance on both islands. 

At Hikokua, we also saw this chilling sculpture of a chief holding an infant and a weapon. It is not clear to me if he is holding an ‘u’u---ancient club weapon used for combat---or one of the neck-breaking devices described later in this post. (Our guide said it was an 'u'u, but I have seen it recorded elsewhere as the latter.) When I asked if it was typical to sacrifice babies, our guide responded that the chief in question was a “bad chief,” indicating a level of cruelty that was perhaps not typical. 


We moved on to Kamuihei. This site had been partially reconstructed when it hosted a Marquesan arts festival. Here, we saw these reconstructed lean-to-type shelters of pandanus walls and roofs, which were used as sleeping platforms. 


Coconut trees were employed to make ladders to access the raised sleeping platforms

Some of the artwork on the site was not Marquesan, but had been created during the arts festival. For example, this basket of skulls (depicting the Marquesan custom of keeping the skulls of both enemies and ancestors) was created by an artist from Rapa Nui. 


Dominating the site at Kamuihei was an ancient banyan tree, which our guide estimated to be seven-hundred years old. 

Testimonial:  Tree of sorrow

A picture does not do justice to the girth of the tree, which was almost 50 feet in diameter. If trees could speak, this ancient tree would have a lot to say because it witnessed untold suffering. Here, at the edge of the banyan roots, was another pit in which people were imprisoned prior to being sacrificed. 




This pit was much deeper than the one at Hikokua. 


Our guide told us that the skulls of sacrificed victims were also thrown into the pit, and that the archaeological expedition that cleared the site recovered many skull caps from the pit. Imagine what it felt like to be a prisoner in that dark pit, about to be killed, cooked, and eaten, and seeing the skulls of former victims surrounding you:  terrifying.

Perhaps the ancient tree lives on so the stories of those victims are not lost. 

To keep things in perspective, however, I must relate the story our friend Henri told us when we returned to Taiohae and heard we visited Hatiheu. He said he could take us to a place where tens of thousands of skulls could be found, those of Marquesans whose bodies were burned in mass graves after they died from diseases brought to the islands by Europeans. In an earlier post (Initial Impressions of French Polynesia), I mentioned that the population of the Marquesans had declined from an estimated 20,000 to around 8,000. It turns out that original figure was a gross underestimate, and I have since corrected it. Estimates of the Marquesan population at the time of first European contact range from 60,000 to 80,000 (by the Europeans) to over 100,000 (by the Marquesans.) The old story, witnessed in the Americas, in which native tribes were decimated by diseases brought through European contact, played itself out in the Marquesas as well. While their own practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism affected relatively few victims, the impact of European diseases on the Marquesans had a much larger impact.  

It is also important to note that Marquesans did not always practice human sacrifice and cannibalism. Their early history in the islands shows no evidence of this. A poster outside the archaeological museum at Hatiheu indicated that the large-scale tohua and meae were constructed during the 1600's and 1700's---and although cannibalism persisted on some islands until the early 1900's, it no longer exists today. When you put that in perspective with the arrival of the Marquesans on these islands---between 100 AD and 300 AD (estimates also vary)--it is a relatively short time period. 

At Kamuihei, we gained an appreciation for the full scale of the archaeological sites and the activities held there. We did not even see the entire site, Hiohka told us it extended ever further back into the valley. As we mentioned in the post on Puamau, the meae were constructed in levels, in a series of plaforms or terraces. 


Two photos showing terraced construction of meae

Only the priests had access to some levels, which were “tapu” (or taboo) to normal people. This higher platform was relegated only to chiefs, who would watch the spectacle of human sacrifice on the lower platform below.

The speckled rocks indicate the area where the chiefs would sit

Eating table on chiefs' terrace


Here was an area of the site in which human sacrifice occurred. This level was directly below the level on which the chiefs were seated. Thousands of spectators gathered in the lower level.

The stone area near center is where victims were sacrificed

The site is surrounded by mape trees, and our guide demonstrated how the mape tree was used to gather the tribe (an alternative to blowing on a conch shell). When a rock is pounded against the base of a mape tree, it results in a large, hollow bass tone.  

Mape tree

At large tohua, like Kamuihei, there are actually sub-sites within the site, so there may be more than one area where these activities take place.

Thousands of people would gather to watch the spectacle. Patrick remarked that the level of cruelty involved in that reminded him of the Romans, who would gather to watch people being fed to the lions as if it was a sporting event. Our guide did not tell us about it, but we heard from others who had visited the site, that victims of human sacrifice were subjected to some level of torture before sacrifice. These victims were primarily enemies from rival tribes, and intertribal warfare was common in the Marquesas during the time period when cannibalism was practiced. 

If a victim was not already dead at the time of sacrifice, the head of the victim was cut off. At the Te Henua Enana museum, we saw a stone that the priest was said to place on the head of the intended victim. The stone was believed to absorb the enemy's power and mana (a sort of accumulated spiritual wealth, something like karma.) At the same museum, we also saw a tool that was said to be used to break the neck of a victim before sacrifice, so apparently more than one method was used to kill victims intended for sacrifice. 

I believe (but don’t know for sure) that human flesh was cooked in earth ovens like roasted pigs are today; in fact, the Marquesan term for human flesh was “long pig.” However, there were also shallow pits on the sites that may have been used for cooking other dishes or fermenting breadfruit.

Shallow pit used for food preparation

It was difficult to tell tombs, ovens, and areas used for cold storage (like our root cellars) from each other, and I think their location in the sites was one of the primary indicators of their use. 

Tomb (grass clippings due to maintenance being performed on site)

Former "root cellar" for cold storage

Here is a sharpening stone that was present on the site.


Along with human sacrifice, other rituals and ceremonies took place at the meae. We were finally told that the purpose of the rock mortars we had been seeing everywhere was not just to hold tattoo ink but to grind medicinal compounds as well. 


Hiohka also showed us the Marquesan nut used to make tattoo ink. 

This nut was burned to create soot, and its ashes mixed with water or oil to make tattoo ink

Here is a second site used for human sacrifice at Kamuihei. Here, the large rock was used to decapitate the victim. Again, the platform on which the rock rests was also used for ritualized dancing connected with the sacrifice. 


On a brighter note, there was also a rich legacy of petroglyphs preserved at Kamuihei. 


We learned that the wide-eyes we had first seen on Smiling Tiki were called matas. I had to take this picture upside down because the rocks on which the petroglyph was originally carved had been disturbed.



There were also some very large scale scenes carved on boulders.



Here is a detail of the human figures from the above petroglyph. 


I found the Marquesan petroglyphs easier to relate to than some highly symbolized petroglyphs I’ve seen from other cultures. In this case, the symbol was very similar to the creature or object it represented in real life. Here is another large-scale petroglyph:


The dominant figure in the scene is the large fish or mahi mahi near the top. 

Here is a detail of an outrigger canoe or pirogue.


The eight circular figures represent the eight rowers in the canoe. In the top right corner, you can see part of a sea turtle or honu (its head is not shown in the photo.)

As we toured the two sites, I noticed Hiohka displaying stewardship. He picked up a piece of trash at the first site, a beer can probably left behind by local youth. From time to time, he would also stop and pull up young saplings that had sprouted between the stones in the meae at Kamuihei. As we neared the end of our tour, we approached a platform where three women were working, weeding between the stones in the platform. Hiohka introduced one of the women to me as his sister. I got the impression that Hiohka’s family maintained this particular site. I don’t know for sure, but I inferred that maintaining their cultural legacy is a volunteer effort on the part of the Marquesans and that none of the French governmental budget is allocated for this. 

Marquesan Pride
On the way back to the village, Hiohka indicated an area where there was an even larger site than the one at Kamuihei. He explained that the site used to be maintained by the school children, but since there are now fewer school aged youth in the village, it is no longer maintained and the jungle has grown back over it.

Our visit to the archaeological sites in Hatiehu was both sobering and illuminating. Even with the language barrier, I was really happy we’d elected to go with a guide. We got much more out of the experience than we would have on our own.  

Follow by Email