Archive for June 2009
The bay we’re in now – called Hakatea or Taioa – is one we could not have reached except by sail boat although it’s only an hour’s trip west of Taiohae Bay where we were previously. A look at the map will show it’s a double bay, and we’ve moored in the eastern part. Entering it we passed sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high, undercut by waves, to find a small, perfect, crescent-shaped white sand beach fringed with coconut palms. Set back from the beach are a couple of huts set under more palms and huge mango trees. It’s a postcard-perfect scene. There are about 8 other boats here, and people pootle around between them in rubber dinghies to chat or visit.
Originally we were only going to stay a couple of days, but it’s so pretty and there’s been so little wind that we’re still here. Also, The Captain has had the chance/misfortune to do some necessary oil changes and discover some more things which aren’t as they should be (the little generator is acting up, the drive belt for the water maker squeaks, and we’re having trouble accessing the internet). Before taking off for Rangiroa we’ll have to go back to Tiaohae to get 30 grade oil for the generator and use our internet cards. Otherwise all’s fine.
In the meantime we’ve also had a chance to meet a few people on other boats and compare stories. Many, it seems, regardless of whether they came from South America or the U.S., had much the same sort of passage we did – either too much wind or not enough. We were lucky (or rather, The Captain was wise enough to steer us far enough west after looking at the downloaded weather files) to miss the thunderstorms that had lurked just south of the equator in a long, menacing belt. Others hadn’t been able to skirt the storms. The people with too little wind had come up from the Galapagos and had to motor for 8 days.
One fellow in his thirties – a French Canadian with one of those wild, wiry beards that looks as if every individual hair is determined to march to a different drummer, and a slightly spaced look in his eyes that told of a few too many magic mushrooms – had a nightmare 60 day trip. His wooden boat cracked a ‘rib’ and began to leak, he lost the means to make electricity and his engine died, and towards the end he ran out of both food and water. He and the unfortunate student who’d come on board as crew – thinking it would be a cheap and interesting way to eventually get to New Zealand – had ended up bailing for more than a month. The student took off the moment they reached land!
We’ve also met a Dutch family who took their teen-aged children out of school – which is not legal to do for more than a year in the Netherlands – have been sailing for 4 years now, and don’t really want to go back; a couple on a large catamaran who run IT training centres in Africa and South America, and who seem to spend most of their time in harbour getting gently sozzled beginning at mid-day; and various other semi-nomadic folk who’ve left behind complicated emotional lives to gypsy around the warm places of the world. The Captain thinks they may all have problems. I’m not sure they’re much different from people one meets everywhere, except that possibly their idiosyncrasies may be exacerbated by what is essentially a solitary lifestyle unrestricted by the demands of community and close friendships.
The planned hike to the waterfall was a trip into a different world from that of sleepy Tiaohae. The Captain didn’t join me, because a 5+ hour hike in tropical heat is his idea of hell, but gave me a 2-way radio and dropped me off at the beach with the rubber dinghy. From there I walked to the western part of the bay, where a valley and largish stream meet the shore.
Initially the valley was wide, and I walked through the outskirts of a small village along a sunny, grassy lane bordered by hibiscus bushes covered with bright blossoms, ti plants with colourful leaves, small banana plantations, coconut palms, lime, lemon and papaya trees and noni bushes. I passed a few small houses set slightly back from the lane, some of which had copra drying on racks in their gardens, and stopped briefly by a tiny chapel which consisted of no more than a thatched roof on wooden pillars and a crucifix set behind a long, low table covered with a white lace cloth, in front of which stood an enormous vase of shocking-pink ginger flowers. The small fires we’ve seen from the boat since we arrived were everywhere, most of them burning coconut husks. Later I found out that they serve a two-fold purpose: the smoke keeps flies and mosquitoes away and, traditionally, a smoking fire means someone’s at home.
There was also a scattering of dwellings that were no more than pavilions made of wooden pillars and corrugated tin roofs, with floors of pounded earth (neatly raked), and almost completely open to the world except for waist-high walls made of wood or matting. The sleeping/lounging quarters consisted of a platform raised a few feet off the ground and floored with matting and futons. The walls were slightly higher here, to provide semi-privacy, but still didn’t go all the way to the roof, presumably so as to catch the breeze. Tables, chairs, fire, sink, cooking stuff, generator, etc. were in the public, open part of the pavilions. The general lay-out seemed to be rather free-form, and in some cases the structures I was looking at had obviously been built on the stone foundations of much more ancient dwellings and probably look much the same as those did. Since the temperatures are well in the 80’s and this is the ‘cold’ season of the year, this kind of shelter seems perfectly designed for the climate!
Many of these pavilions enjoy a style of decoration – strange to European eyes – that could be described as ‘early Sword & Sorcery’: a liberal scattering of skulls, bones, tusks and lethal weaponry; the last mostly machetes and the odd spear. From what I could see, the skulls used to belong to boar, goats and the occasional horse, and they’re nailed to pillars, stuck on top of posts and just randomly displayed in likely corners. It’s a somewhat disconcerting effect, especially as there were also piles of old coconuts in the shadows and at the edge of the forest which look, when seen from the corner of one’s eye, almost like human skulls.
As I walked on, the lane got narrower and occasional ruins began to appear: long, low walls, platforms and steps of dressed black volcanic stone. Some were decorated with weathered stone tikis.
Then the lane ended and I had to ford the stream to continue, now along a path that plunged into the forest. The temperature and humidity rose immediately and suddenly there was the overwhelming, oppressive smell of vegetation sprouting, growing, dying and decaying. The path became rougher, narrower and steeper and was now covered in brown leaves and the carnival whorls of red and yellow hibiscus blossoms that had fallen from high above. More ruins appeared, and it soon became obvious that the beautifully built-up stone sides of what was now a rough trail were very old indeed. In fact, they had been built hundreds of years ago to provide access to the long abandoned villages 2 hours’ walk further up the valley.
The trail skirted small rivulets and cascades and was well marked with cairns where there might have been some doubt as to the way. The stream side was dizzyingly steep, though there was so much tangled vegetation that a slide resulting from a mis-step would have been broken immediately by something seriously spiky.
The cliffs were almost vertical on the opposite side of the rapidly narrowing valley, and so high that the sun no sooner arrived overhead than it was time for it to leave again. As a result, to reach the light, the coconut palms were taller than any I’ve ever seen, trunks of the saw-toothed pandanus stretched almost as far, and hibiscus bushes had become trees. Vanilla orchids (not the season for blossoms, alas) garlanded palms and bushes in the occasional clearings, and at least half a dozen varieties of ferns carpeted the ground. A ruined village almost the size of a city block was impressive and somewhat sinister, the walls being torn apart at a glacial pace by the fingers and roots of giant fig trees which cast a sombre gloom over the whole site.
After climbing 2 1/2 hours and fording that stream a few more times (I’d cut myself a walking stick by that time), I came to the end of the trail in a deep slot canyon carpeted in creepers and ferns, and where the small waterfall tumbled down through an intricately carved grotto. It was, in fact, a bit of an anti-climax, because the waterfall is only spectacular during the rainy season. I stayed a while, dangling my feet in the cold water and watched tiny crayfish nibble my toes, then walked back down to the outskirts of the village, where I had a long chat with one of the locals. His family still owns the entire valley, and has for hundreds of years, and the inhabitants of the village consist mostly of relatives. His pavilion – built on the foundations of his ancesters’ home – was decorated not only with the obligatory skulls, spears, machetes, etc., but also with a large collection of the beautiful ancient stone tools he finds during his perambulations of the valley. He doesn’t give them to a museum, as he says they belong to his family anyway!
On the way out of the village I stopped at one of the pavilions and bought some fruit: ‘pamplemousse’ (which look like lumpy green, thick-skinned grapefruit on steroids, large as a man’s head and very sweet) and a bunch of bananas. Getting the last was an interesting new experience. The man walked over to his banana grove, scratching his side meditatively with the business side of his machete, chose a likely-looking bunch, gently moved his tiny son aside and chopped the whole plant down! The bananas – 70 odd of them – are now hanging in the forward cabin ripening…
And that’s it for now! I’ll try to send some photos (the upload speed here isn’t what it could be) so it might be worth checking…
Love to all,
We spent only one night in Hatiheu Bay, then moved on to the main port of Tiaohae to complete the obligatory check-in procedures for foreign vessels. This was as painless and pleasant as the check-out procedure had been a pain in the arse in San Diego. It helped that we speak reasonable French – in fact, that’s helped during our entire stay. The next day the police boat came alongside our boat and we were all ready to face a bureaucratic nightmare: what had we forgot to do?! But they only wanted to know if we had made off with their big blue sign-in book by accident! We checked our briefcase, but had to disappoint…
After clearing, we were able to move freely on land once we’d moored the rubber dinghy to the old quay, amidst a flotilla of the wretched things all tangling their mooring lines and rubbing up against each other and the side of the quay, which is paved with a kind of mosaic of flattened oyster shells. The black spiny sea urchins below them are less innocuous and we try to keep the dinghy well off them.
I’ve explored the town a bit, and it stretches along the crescent of the bay and then back several streets and uphill before attenuating into scattered, pastel coloured houses between which many chickens wander at will. Come to think of it, the chickens – especially roosters – seem to be everywhere: pecking around the post office, peering out of drainage ditches next to the refuelling jetty, doing sentinel duty next to the Gendarmerie…
On the eastern side of the bay there’s the old quay with a few buildings on it: 2 cafés, a dive shop, and a boutique-cum-laundry-cum-internet café-cum-refuelling service, as well as a public loo under a sort of pavilion. There’s a mobile restaurant-van from which are sold freshly made crepes, and another selling huge quantities of fried rice and fish. People hang out there much of the day – mostly old boys, but also yachties and the odd local teenager, as well as a few younger men who are looking for odd jobs.
A couple of small fishing boats come in every afternoon, and the fishermen eviscerate, decapitate, fillet and sell their catch from wooden tables. They catch mostly fish that look like red snapper and yellow-fin tuna. The latter are magnificent creatures 3-5 feet long with round staring eyes and yellow scimitar-shaped fins, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly they’re dispatched: whack, crack, snick, snak, slash, slice. The huge fillets are then flopped onto the scale and buyers take their fish home after paying only about $7 a kilo. The carcases are unceremoniously thrown into metal dustbins next to the tables from whence they’re often taken out again by other people who want them for soup.
Further along the waterfront are 2 pretty new wood and stone pavilions. In one there is information for tourists in the form of rather sophisticated pamphlets (mostly in French) about the local culture and art, and in the other one can buy handicrafts as well as freshly dried vanilla pods. The vanilla orchid grows wild here, and I’ve never seen such fat, luscious pods. The Captain says, rather crossly, that my interest perks up when anything to do with food comes up – but why not?!
Further west are an ancient – now restored – ceremonial platform built of dressed basalt blocks, on which many equally ancient and also modern traditional stone carvings are displayed, and the small local church, from which the thunderous sound of hymns being sung emerges on Sunday mornings. That’s pretty much it for the town!
The landscape, however, is spectacular. Vertiginous, deeply corrugated mountainsides, covered with dense, lush vegetation, rise up behind the town and all around the shores of the island. The centre is supposed to be quite dry and barren, though I haven’t seen it. High up on are patches of bare, black and brown volcanic rock that look like huge burst blisters with jagged edges. There are almost no coral reefs here; the cliffs fall straight into the sea. Many thousands of people used to live in the mountain valleys – one can still see the remains of their houses and ceremonial platforms – but contact with Europeans brought all the diseases – physical and spiritual – of civilization, and at one point the native population on the island was reduced to less than 500 people.
The local people are wonderfully friendly, especially if one smiles first and says hello or waves, and they’re also rather attractive. By this I mean that if you took 25 people off the street at random, 20 of them would be considered above averagely good-looking, albeit mostly ‘generously’ proportioned once they get older. It’s interesting that most of them have tattoos, especially the younger generation from about the age of 13.
It seems tattooing has had a resurgence in popularity during the last 2 decades, partly as an expression of cultural pride. The girls have delicate patterns on their hands and shoulders, and sometimes on their wrists and on their lower backs. The men are more extensively decorated, and one often sees them with a tattoo that begins behind one ear, curving around to the jaw. The designs are exquisite, and as different from European tattoos as one can imagine: geometric, stylised, complicated, curved to enhance the slope of a shoulder or placed to emphasise a calf or bicep. I saw one man who could have come straight from an etching of Captain Cook’s era. He had a hawk-like face that was heavily tattooed, a hairline that had been partly shaved back from the forehead and long hair in heavy, braided locks. I wished I could have taken a photo of him, but one can’t simply treat people as curiosities.
As in every paradise, there’s at least one worm in the apple. I was able to learn a bit more by talking with some of the younger people, and life here isn’t easy. To get a decent education they have to leave the island and either go to Papeete or to France, and even if they do, there are no jobs here once they return. The young men, especially, are in a bad way. One of them – a talented artist who specialises in stone and wood carving and went to a prestigious art school in Paris to refine his work – can find almost no market for his work, having already done most of the contemporary decorations on the local buildings. They’re intelligent, articulate, aware of contemporary politics and world events, and intensely frustrated. Most of them spend their time hunting wild boar in the mountain valleys, and make necklaces of of the tusks (pretty savage-looking accoutrements, those!) There are also people who live in those valleys permanently, much as their ancestors did. They’re supposed to be rather shy and speak no French or English, and tourists don’t meet them.
The local cuisine is fairly basic and on the heavy and starchy side. The fresh fish is good if grilled (we made sashimi of that yellow-fin tuna from the market) but if one reads books of traditional recipes it’s all coconut milk and more coconut milk. One recipe was for banana pudding, which consisted of banana, sugar, an unseemly quantity of starch, and coconut milk, baked for a hour. Burp!
We’ve spent most of our time recovering from the passage and doing chores. We have washed the boat; changed the oil, fuel and water filters; repaired bits and bobs; re-stowed and re-arranged clothes and food; and tut-tutted over work done badly by the yard (there’s plenty of that, but I’m not going to go into it any more as it’d be as boring to read about as it is to have to deal with!). I haven’t yet managed to scrape off the crop of pendulous, inch-long goose-neck barnacles that have sprouted from the hull at the stern, right at the waterline, as I’m reluctant to snorkel here. The water in this bay is mixed with run-off from the small rivers that go through the town and which are polluted due to the many pigs and goats living in the valleys upstream. Moreover, there are supposed to be sharks, attracted by refuse from town and boats. We have also refuelled, which has been an exercise for which we could have sold tickets.
The refuelling dock is very high, to accommodate the ferries that stop here to offload supplies and travellers, and the nozzle of the diesel pump is too big for the opening of our fuel tank. So we motor over in the rubber dinghy with plastic jerry cans. The Captain comes alongside the heavy, rusty ladder reaching from the top of the dock about half-way to the water. From it, some rubber tires hang off manky, heavy old ropes. Holding the painter I clamber – barefoot, so as to be able to get a grip – up onto the rubber tires and then onto the ladder, then onto the concrete jetty high above. I make the boat fast, then he throws me another line from the stern of the dinghy and I make that fast. Then he hands up the jerry cans one by one, then he comes up the ladder in a somewhat more sedate manner as befits his age and dignity. Once the jerry cans are full, we reverse the process.
What else….Ah! Birds! Because I was unable to find a good bird book for this part of the world, I’m seeing birds I can’t identify. One species is large, with about a 2 foot-plus wingspan, black on top, white under the head and midway down the body, with a long black swallow-tail. It spends most of its time soaring. Another of that type also has a patch of red near the head. Another species is small and pure white – maybe a tern? – and always seems to fly in pairs. There’s another species which is mostly black with a big, light, almost blueish bill and a short, blunt tail.
So far, the weather has been perfect. We need no sheets or blankets at night, but it’s not too hot or humid either. There’s always a breeze, often blowing from land and bringing with it the sweet smell of wood smoke and something else aromatic – perhaps roasting coconuts? In the afternoons clouds gather and sometimes there are a few drops of rain. In a day or so we’ll be moving off again. First west to Hakatea Bay for a couple of nights, and from where I’m hoping to hike to a spectacular waterfall inland (2 hours each way). We’ll be leaving for Rangiroa a day or so later. After that we’ll pull into Papeete for repairs on the mainsail, though we’ll probably be staying there as little time as possible. After that we’ll be going west…
That’s all for now!
Love to all,
Hurrah! We motored into Baie d’Hatiheu on Nuku Hiva at about 3:30 this afternoon and, yes, it looks like Paradise after Purgatory. Dark brown volcanic rock in many layers – like chocolate millefeuille – piled into fantastic turrets and peaks, steep sided, deeply corrugated cliffs, all covered with luscious green vegetation. There’s a tiny town – only a few buildings and a church – painted in white and pastel colours, at the foot of the mountain. Tomorrow we go to another bay – Taiohae – on the other side of the island to check in officially, but tonight it’s peace and quiet for the first time in so very long!
More in a few days.
Love to all,