Cheshire Cat in the Marquesas

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Islands of the Marquesas after 28 days at sea

Wonderfull landfall after 28 days looking at the sea!

Our approach to Fatu Hiva was made in the early morning – rain squalls provided poor visibility and although we knew we were right beside the island we didn’t see it until the clouds suddenly lifted and we found ourselves sailing alongside the high volcanic hills that rose almost vertically from the sea.

The miniature harbour at Fatu Hiva is one of the most spectacular that we have ever seen.

Green covered basalt volcanic cliffs dipped into the sea, the edges lined with tall coconut palms growing above the fringe of white water crashing on the steep shore line. We coasted into the small bay surrounded by tall hills and with a black sand bay at the head just in time for breakfastTall, black pinnacles and spires of rock stood sentinel over us and beyond those we could see the green slopes of yet more steep hills. Clouds crowned the highest point (960m). The first travelers to stop here named it Penis Bay, as the tall rock formations would infer, but naturally enough the more devout latecomers changed the name to the Bay of Virgins. The Island is about 80sq Km and there are only two villages.

Tall outcrops of particular shape overlooked the bay
We dropped anchor amongst about 10 other boats, accompanied by a welcoming fanfare of shouts, air horn and whistles – what a marvelous feeling to be so greeted! Back at anchor and amongst friends – with the added bonus of having successfully if somewhat slowly traversed 3,000 miles of ocean. The bumpy ride, the stresses and arguments (of which there might have been one or two when we ran out of ciggies), the worry over the water maker failing and the wind vane being obnoxious soon faded to a distant, if somewhat disagreeable, memory.

Poor CC was very travel stained – we were amazed at the amount of growth under the water line (those sticky little goose neck barnacles soon fell of in the brackish water of the bay) and the green and brown scum on her waterline reached over halfway up her hull. She was clean and pristine before we left!

Cheshire Cat was travel stained and weary after 28 days at sea

Recovery took a couple of days – washing to be done, cleaning up and restoring order on the boat, catching up with sleep and more importantly catching up with all the stories from the other boats about their passages. We all commiserated with the gear failures- it seemed that every boat had things go wrong. Things still go awry despite all the hard work we cruisers do for the boats before we set off. Many boats had water makers that stopped making good water. Wind steering played fast and loose in the lumpy seas. Rigging developed strains and breaks. Spinnakers fell down, sails were torn, halyards got lost, engines overheated, fuel pumps packed up, generators developed faults. The list was endless, but one thing was for sure – not one of us turned back!

The tiny village of Hanavave has only one short paved road, and about six street lights. We explored, passing the tiny church, the school and the shop.

There were several wood carvers, each one displaying their carvings on a table in their houses – I must have visited at least six and there were probably several others. They all made approximately the same carvings, although it seemed that each had a specialty.

One had a beautiful wooden ray, intricately patterned all over and with a small box in the body. Another made Tikki spears using the beak of a swordfish at the end. Another made giant masks and yet another crafted fine wooden bowls. These obviously get shipped out for sale in one of the larger islands or in Tahiti. I also saw decorated Tapas cloth – made from the bark of Mulberry, breadfruit or Banyan trees. It’s actually more like paper as it doesn’t have the flexibility of cloth.

Gardens were ablaze with coloured shrubs and tropical flowers

Passing the school at the end of a school day we were surrounded by children of all ages clamoring for ‘bonbon’ – sweets. Luckily I had read about them and had a stock of goodies to hand out. The little ones were very cute, the bolder ones tried to talk to us in English. Just like all children everywhere we go, they all loved to have their pictures taken, and enjoyed seeing themselves on the digital camera screen.

Some of us went to find Vai’e’enui waterfall – a hike up the mountain and through the semi wild tropical forest followed by a tough scramble over rocks and roots in the heat of the day. Our reward was a swim in wonderful cool, fresh water. I went with Molly from Kauila and Toya from Cheers – both somewhat younger than me. They were having a great time posing topless under the falls when they suddenly screamed and dived back into the water. A young Frenchman had suddenly appeared on the rocks beside us.

We hiked in the lush mountain forest

A few days later when there were over 20 boats in the anchorage (it was busy when there were six in there!) we left for the next island, Tahauata (70sq KM). Here we found a beautiful white sand bay, fringed with palm trees, called Hanna Moe Noa.

There were no houses here, just a small coconut plantation and a few lemon trees. The tallest point on the island was 1050m, and again seemed perpetually hidden by clouds. No wonder the Marquesas have a reputation for being mysterious and possibly haunted! Anchoring here for a couple of days gave us a chance to relax in the quiet and swim in the warm clear water. We found a few colorful fish on the nearby rocks when we went snorkeling.

I needed to replace a sail slide in the mainsail, and when I went on deck to prepare to get the sail down I noticed that the boom had parted company from the mast! That was a bit of a shock, but I suppose the constant banging in light airs caused the damage. I know that we made sure it was good before we left Galapagos. Lucky for us it happened when it did and not on passage or in strong winds. We'll get a decent gooseneck made when we get to New Zealand.


Entrance to Daniel's Bay

We left in the adternoon and headed for Nuku Hiva, the administrative centre for the Marquesan islands and a port of entry for the cruisers. A coastguard boat had stopped and logged us into the country but we still had to make an official report and get our passports stamped. Using our UK passports meant that we didn’t have to pay the bond. The bond is equivalent to the price of an airfare home for each individual – pretty costly. Luckily it is refunded (less a conveyancing fee) when you leave the country. Actually, if you use an agent to clear in, you avoid paying the bond and benefit by getting a duty free fuel. As the price of fuel is expensive this can be quite a saving.

Taiohae Bay in Nuku Hiva was busy with about 20 yachts anchored around the shore line. There is a wharf where we were able to tie our dinghies although it was a bit of a scramble to surmount the concrete wall at low tide.

The large circular bay has a small village stretched around the periphery, and is overlooked by tall hills. The tallest Mt Tekaol is 1224 m high and from our vantage point on the boat we could see the long cascade of two waterfalls. Exploring, we found at least two shops that were relatively well stocked and bought baguettes – the local specialty. We do get tired of my homemade bread, and I take every opportunity to avoid making it in port. We set the alarm to wake up early one Saturday morning so that we could go ashore to find the fruit market which started at 4.30 am. It was exceedingly strange walking around the few stalls in the dark, but wonderful to be able to buy fresh tomatoes and lettuce, aubergine, peppers, pineapple and pamplemouse. Later in the day, after a hot uphill walk we found a hardware store that filled our propane bottles – and an internet place, although the latter was rather expensive.

The Marquesas Islands are incredibly beautiful, and the native people are very attractive. They say they are descended directly from the spirits, and have an extensive mythology. Some say they can trace their heritage back to their gods, although Christianity has taken precedence everywhere by now. With the advent of the white man came the diseases and the virtual elimination of a fine-looking society, eradicating the traditions and mythologies that had stood for hundreds of years - including human sacrifice and cannibalism. The population of 80,000 went down to 2,500 in a matter of a few years, although better living conditions and medicine is ensuring a renewed growth. Only six of the thirteen islands are populated.

This ancient meeting place is paved with large stones and has special stone statues to watch over everyone.

Tattoos are very popular – local artistry abounds. We saw young men with fully decorated bodies, others with ornate necklaces, decorated backs and arms, and one youth with half his face tattooed. I think I’ll pass on that, although some of the designs are very tempting!

Cheshire Cat in Daniel's Bay

All the islands are very fertile – there is an abundance of pamplemouse, lemons, oranges, bananas, breadfruit and mangoes growing everywhere. We are warned though, that we cannot just pick the fruit – every tree has an owner. We also saw the noni fruit which apparently has therapeutic values and is exported to make soft drinks. Bartering is welcomed and the residents look forward to acquiring treasures from the cruisers. We were asked for perfumes and toiletries by the women, gun shells and lifejackets by the men. T-shirts are no longer popular. The children asked for pens. The carvings were not available for barter – hard cash was the only answer here.

Hanging out the fish to dry

Coconut is grown mainly for copra, and there are several little drying huts filled with coconut pieces and burlap sacks filled with the copra waiting for shipment. Gardens overflow with flowering bushes and trees – bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus. Many of the islands have wild goats, horses, pigs and chickens and we are asked for bullets for the guns they use to hunt in the hills. Water is abundant and each island has a series of waterfalls.

Everything is delivered by sea - here is a delivery being ferried ashore - even a nice new car is arriving for somebody.

Everyone seems to be accustomed to a very decent lifestyle- we didn’t see any poverty in the villages we visited, and assume, as the standard of living is very high, that there are substantial subsidies coming in from France. Eggs cost 6.00 US a dozen; lettuce 2.00; a bunch of carrots was 2.00. A small quiche cost the same, but the long baguettes are a great bargain at 45 cents each. When we found some of the trucks that serve sandwiches from the back and enjoyed a snack at lunchtime, each item was 2.00.

Transport is mainly by boat – short runs are made in outrigger canoes, powered now with outboard motors. There is a ferry that brings tourists and large supplies in, and a smaller inter-island passenger ferry. We were in the village in Fatu Hiva when the supply ship came in. They were very efficient and unloaded the goods into two barges. The ship carries tourists as well and they were also ferried to shore where they meandered around for a couple of hours. As soon as the little shop unpacked the supplies the villagers arrived with their wheelbarrows to collect their shopping. Everyone was in good spirits for the occasion. Larger freighter supply ships come in from Papeete and some islands have small airports. There are numerous 4 wheels drive motors on the islands – necessary for the steep unmade roads. Nearly all the cars are newer models – no rusty buckets for these people!

Travel from village to village is by outrigger canoe

Sometimes out at sea we caught sight of bottlenose dolphins and we are told there are spinner dolphins around. There is always some birdsong on land, and strong looking noddy birds fish out at sea, but the main bird attraction are the white tropic birds. I have read that when they leave the nest they apparently spend five years at sea maturing before returning to land and mating. The bane of the islands are nono’s – like Canadian noseeums they are tiny little biting insects that create bothersome sores, similar to a mosquito bite but much more irritating as the effect lasts for days.

Our last stop in the Marquesas was in Daniel’s Bay.(Hakatea on the chart) We couldn’t get good drinking water in the town on Nuku Hiva, so sailed a short way down the coast to a small well protected bay hidden behind tall rock formations. The guide book told us that Daniel enjoys meeting cruisers and accepts small gifts in return for water. When we got there however, Daniel was nowhere to be seen. We were lucky to catch the family that lived on the shore nearby before they left after the weekend and did get our water. We donated a bottle of wine and some bonbons for the children and they returned the favor with a large pamplemouse and some lemons. We heard later Survivor was filmed here and Daniel was moved into a new house around the corner.

After this brief pause we were on our way over the 700 miles or so to the atolls and coral reefs of the Tuamotos. Unfortunately for us, there is another low over the horizon to the south of us which is sucking all the wind away from our area. So we are using all our expensive fuel up – CC just doesn’t move very fast in 1 – 3 knots of wind. We could sit and wait as the water a beautiful blue and flat calm, the skies are blue and it’s lovely and warm, Nights are filled with brilliant moonshine and the stars come all the way down to the horizon. But the weather forecast says that we will soon get over 30 knots of wind– on the nose of course, so we would rather find a nice anchorage to wait in.