Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fatu Hiva

June 20-25, 2012

The Bay of Virgins

Although we haven’t explored all the Marquesas yet, Fatu Hiva is known for being one of the most dramatic in terms of scenery, and I would agree. 

The Bay of Virgins, Hanavave, Fatu Hiva
The spectacular Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins) at the foot of the village of Hanavave was originally named Baie des Verges (Bay of Penises) due to the phallic volcanic spires adorning the harbor. The Christian missionaries who came here were offended by the name and added an “i” to the word "verges" in order to change its meaning. As usual, the relationship between the church and sexuality took on a rather perverse twist:  If one was a virgin, I would think these verges might be a little intimidating! 

Verges at Hanavave
Wild goats on spires at Hanavave
The anchorage in the Bay of Virgins is breathtaking, and it was wonderful to just sit in the cockpit and look at the grandeur of our surroundings.

View into village at Hanavave
Sentinel at Hanavave
The Village at Hanavave

The village of Hanavave is simple, yet clean and tidy. In some ways, Hanavave is better kept than Atuona. As on Hiva Oa, we saw a sight that is rare in our hometown, Seattle:  unculverted streams running into the bay. In fact, the two grand valleys of this island each drain a large watershed and have idyllic streams running through the middle of the villages (Hanavave and Omoa.)  

A river runs through it
Polynesian home with outrigger
The people in Hanavave are extremely friendly and generally accepting. Gone are the days, however, when they would pile down any visiting cruiser with fruit. The Marquesas are visited too frequently now. Some of the villagers have learned that they can obtain desired items from foreign visitors and will ask about trading fruit for perfume, lipstick, or nail polish. However, we also had some authentic trading experiences with villagers in which our original intent was not to trade, but that’s what occurred. The villagers are eager to give something in return for any kindness shown to them. We picked up a man in our dinghy who had gotten stranded on a reef by the high tide; several days later, he brought us some pamplemousse. Patrick brought a woodcarver we met some sandpaper to sharpen his tools; his wife gave us a breadfruit. We brought a young boy we met (who volunteered to help us launch our dinghy) out to see our boat. During the visit, I gave him a piece of homemade bread. He requested a piece for his mother, so I baked a loaf of bread for his family and brought it to them a couple of days later. They returned the gift with some bananas.    

Some of the citizens in Hanavave are employed in drying coconut, which is then transported to Tahiti to be made into coconut oil and soap. (We also saw this activity on Hiva Oa.) These structures were used to dry the coconut, which is graded by size. Patrick noticed that the sheds had rails over which the roof could be slid to change its position. 

Coconut drying shed
Detail of drying shed
Other people were involved in a project on the beach employing heavy machinery. They were moving the huge lava boulders on the beach from one location to another. We never did find out the purpose of the project or its intended result.

Several of the villagers are artisans, and we met one of them who did work in fine wood and bone carving. Unfortunately, we never located the people who make tapa cloth out of tree bark to learn about that process. There was also a tiki carver whom we did not meet.  

On the weekend, all work ceased, and the villagers turned out for relaxation and recreation. The waterfront was the focus of the communal activities. Most of the younger boys and girls went swimming or boogie boarding in the surf. The older boys played soccer, while their parents sat around in small groups, chatting. On Sunday after church, the women in their brightly colored pareus sat outdoors under a roof playing a game resembling bingo; while the men played a bocci ball-like game on the grass. 

Le Cascade

We took a hike outside the village to Le Cascade, the waterfall feeding Hanavave’s stream from a source even higher up. We had poor directions and didn’t pass any Marquesans along the way, so we ended up walking too far up the paved road leading over the mountain to the neighboring village of Omoa. From that height, we could see the waterfall hanging in the valley and realized we had passed the turn-off. 

Waterfall valley
The trip was worth it, though, for the stunning views of the island’s topography along the way. 

Viewpoint on the road out of town
If you are looking for the trail to Le Cascade, take the road out of town and head uphill. You will pass a couple of dirt roads on your left before heading uphill, including one with a cement bridge over a stream crossing. These are not the trails to Le Cascade. You also do not have to hike very far up the steep mountain road, maybe one or two switchbacks. You will pass a “Hydroelectric Project” sign on your left; then you will pass a house or shack with a tin corrugated roof. Take the next dirt road on your left after you pass these two waypoints. This is the trail to Le Cascade.

The trail then takes you through a small farm, past a second “Hydroelectric Project” sign and over a stream. We continued through a tropical valley of palm and hibiscus until we came to the beginning of the forest. 

Found palm art along the trail
A banyan tree and the ruins of a platform in the forest mark the beginning of a rocky trail uphill to the waterfall. We wondered what the platform (and the lava wall extending into the valley below) had been used for but had no one nearby to ask. It could have been an ancient home foundation (plural:  paepae) or ceremonial site (plural:  me'ae.)

Remains of paepae or me'ae in the forest

Many coconut trees along the trail had notches cut into them used for climbing and gathering coconuts

Patrick and banyan tree
The forest was extremely dense and lush. I was excited about seeing different types of plants than I usually see in the Pacific Northwest. I also noticed the lack of invasive species in the Marquesan flora, compared to the Galápagos and United States, and the high level of natural forest recruitment:  There were young trees sprouting everywhere!

The view of the waterfall from its base was stunning. 

Le Cascade
We wondered about its source:  Was there a huge lake nestled in the mountain above us, or was it a river fed by all the rainfall running down the folded cliffs of Fatu Hiva? 

Unlike waterfalls in Washington this one was fed by rain, not snow, and the water was cool but not frigid. I went for a refreshing swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall and could feel the power of the waterfall pushing me toward the rock wall opposite the fall. 

It was a rarity to see such a beautiful, unspoiled watershed so close to a population center.

The Walk from Omoa

Part of the obvious environmental health of Fatu Hiva stems from the fact that it is almost unpopulated. There are only two villages on this island, Hanavave and Omoa. They are linked by a 17 km long road (a little more than ten miles) over land, or about five miles by water.

I thought the hike from one village to the other would be a wonderful way to explore the interior of this island paradise. We arranged with a local man (Philip) to take us to Omoa in one of the small aluminum boats fitted with outboards that the villagers use to fish, crab, and go back and forth between villages.

On the way to Omoa, we saw a keyhole arch. 

The coastline wound in and out of convoluted folds that led to deep, steep valleys.

We also inspected Philip’s wahoo rig and were amazed by the size of the monofilament, wire leader, and swivels! 

Philip and Patrick with wahoo rig
As we arrived at Omoa, the first thing we noticed was the surf. Omoa is a poor anchorage compared to Hanavave:  It is very rolly, with huge breaking surf on the beach. Nevertheless, there were two sailboats at anchor there. 

Arrival at Omoa
The second thing we noticed was that Omoa had a newer waterfront than Hanavave, with solar panel-lit lighting and modern tiki sculptures. 

Waterfront at Omoa
 (I actually preferred the older tiki on Hanavave’s waterfront, but again due to language limitations, I never divined the significance of its long tongue or the reptilian spine along its back.)

Waterfront tiki at Hanavave-front

Tiki at Hanavave-backside
There was a lot of public art along the waterfront in Omoa. 

Double tiki

Modern tiki at Omoa
On our way through town, we stopped outside a church. It is amazing and perhaps sad at how efficient the missionaries were at converting the Marquesans away from their ancient spiritual beliefs into Christianity.

The largest church at Omoa

Services were in progress and we listened to the beautiful Marquesan voices singing hymns and choral responses to the minister. We could hear ukeleles as well as other instruments. We didn’t want to go inside, because we hadn’t arrived at the beginning of the service and were dressed more for hiking over the island, so felt it would be rude. However, attending a Marquesan service would be a wonderful experience.

While listening to the service, we saw these huge pamplemousse, the gigantic grapefruit of the Marquesas.

The villagers in Omoa seemed to have more pamplemousse than in either Atuona or Hanavave. By the way, the largest pamplemousse are nearly the size of soccer balls! There were also a plethora of breadfruit, banana, and mango trees on this end of the island.

On our way back to Hanavave, we once again took a wrong turn. (I had thought that Philip, who dropped us off in the boat, said to take the main road out of town.) We took the main road through Omoa, which became a dirt road a little ways out of town. 

Shadows and light:  Polynesian gate designs

Just another day in Paradise

Paepae along the river on the wrong road out of Omoa

After hiking uphill for two hours, the road petered out to a dead-end. It took us an hour to get back to town, where we asked directions for the correct road.  

The road from Omoa to Hanavave begins just off the beach. Take the next left turn after the beach, right before you come to the large church building. Cross the stream and head uphill. You will soon come to a fork in the road (no one mentioned this to us.) Stay right. We did, but we still weren’t sure we were on the correct road until much later, when a car passed us and we could ask. Only two cars passed us during the entire trip. Again, the cement road turns into a dirt road shortly after leaving town, and for much of the journey, we hiked in red volcanic clay soil. Some parts of the road are “paved” because they are hewn directly out of the volcanic rock. The road definitely requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to negotiate.

Valley of Omoa
Above Omoa

Red dirt road out of Omoa
 The trip afforded spectacular views of the island’s interior and some views of the coast. 

Halfway between the two valleys, we came across a set of large covered picnic tables up on the ridge. We wondered if this was where families met for reunions between the two villages.  The GPS in our camera indicated that this ridge was about 2,200 ft. above sea-level.

Halfway point

Tree with epiphytes

Epiphytes on tree limb

The descent into Hanavave was much steeper than the gradual climb out of Omoa, and we were glad we had followed the advice of some other cruisers to do the trip in reverse.   

The road to Hanavave
Above the Bay of Virgins
Silhouette (farthest boat out) in the Bay of Virgins as seen from above
The road ahead
The descent into Hanavave
I was sad to leave Fatu Hiva. I had the realization that if we were to stay longer---a month to six months, perhaps---we would become more incorporated into the life of the village and get to know it on a much deeper level. The village might not seem so idyllic after such an exposure; yet, I’m sure there were cultural and spiritual learnings left undiscovered there as well.   


  1. What a great write up on this area. The pictures are fantastic! You two are living it, being there. Breath some of that fresh air for us please.

  2. As always, fantastic photos and footage! The tikis are really something. The faces are kind-of fish like, but the old one with the tongue seems definately more amphibian than fish. I've seen those medallians (on the backside of the Hanavevese one) tattooed on the butts of men in old Polynesian photos. It's interesting to see something of that sort on the tikis as well.

  3. I believe the medallions are a form of the Marquesan cross, an emblem of the Marquesas. We also see versions of this emblem on the ornate woodcarvings done by artisans in the Marquesas. The artwork here is truly amazing. As with many other aspects of Marquesan life, they are modernizing, and power tools are replacing hand tools in some cases. However, there are still artisans working in the traditional ways.