May 17, 2014

Nuku Hiva - Back On Our Own... The Intimacy of Living in a Pension

Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

First tiki to welcome us to Nuku Hiva - Located at the market near dock
A full day sail brings us to the administrative center and the largest island of the Marquesas, Nuku Hiva.  We anchor in Taiohae Bay, a large bay that can easily accommodate many boats.  It is flanked by small islands on each side called The Sentinels by the locals.  We can see why several boaters choose to come here first.  It is an easy, safe, quiet anchorage, deep enough for larger boats, less roily than Hiva Oa and not necessitating a stern anchor.   It is blessed with cleaner water although still filled with sharks.

Tiki in reclaimed park by the bay - Mike nearby also contemplating the ocean
Tiki with head bashing weapon...
Plantation like home with huge front yard
Front entrance to church
Cross leading to church
During my night watch I saw two brilliant shooting stars so bright the whole sky was clear as day for a few seconds.  I don’t believe I have ever seen such a bright natural night light show before.  Spinner dolphins – very small dolphins were dancing all around the boat at sunup – a welcome sight reminding us to live life!

Daniel's bay - can't see ocean from here...
Working phone booths are still found in middle of no-where
River leading to waterfall
While not as green as the first two islands we visited it is very lush despite the drier than ‘normal’ year some claim.  Micro-climates are very distinct from island to island and even from valley to valley.  Within the Marquesas, Nuku Hiva supposedly has the most bugs and because of them it is looked down upon by locals from the other islands.  Nonos (sand flies) brought in the sand ballast of German boats during WWII live here and studies are being conducted to find best ways to eradicate them, especially since they are not endemic.  So far these biting critters, mostly active at sunup and sundown, have not been the problem people have made them to be.

We arrived Easter Monday and the town is practically shutdown.  We watched the locals enjoy the beach, play music and ball games, cook on the BBQ, paddle their pirogues, etc.  The population seemingly has more money than the first two islands we visited probably due in part to the government work available.  We see larger homes and yards, wider paved streets, a bigger hospital and even a college.

Our first encounter with a native happens in a revamped park by the beach.  He was born and raised here then left for 25 years working in the French Army.  This was his first time back and he could hardly recognize the place he used to call home.  When he left there was only one car owned by the mission and shared by the gendarmerie, everyone else walking, biking or using horses.  Now the horses are wasting away along roadside fields or in pastures or used during weekends by the kids around town.

The cost of living is very high, everything coming from far away.  Added to that, corporations have ensured everyone is now using credit to buy $70,000 trucks, prefab homes, etc.  Not very long ago many lived on $500/month, now it is $2,200/month.  That is a lot when you consider most grow all their own meats, fruits, and some of their vegetables and own their land and homes.

We take a beautiful hike to the Hakaui waterfalls.  Many touristic guidebooks falsely claim that at 350 meters (1,150 feet) it is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world – NOT  Thankfully our guide, Eric Bastard of Marquises Excursions, loves to research facts and figures rather than simply regurgitate what others have written and found that it is at least the 242nd highest in the world (more waterfalls get added to the list as they get discovered).  If you only include waterfalls that do not touch the ground on the way down, it is the 60th highest.  He has tried to have the tourism office correct the error for many years but they are not interested.  Truth doesn’t always sell…

The valley we hiked was called the Valley of Kings and it had a Royal Road made of large boulders still apparent today despite the rapid jungle growth.  It was the most populated valley in the Marquesas in its heydays having good water, great natural protection (cliffs and mostly enclosed bay) and a lot of food.  Here too it was said that nearby valleys would trade some of their newborn male infants in exchange for precious water. 

The valley is extremely narrow and we have to be on constant watch for rocks or coconuts coming from above, planning where to duck and hide should we hear something coming down.  Our guide has already witnessed one death from a coconut on the head (70 year old woman), a broken tibia from a rock (younger male that took 11 hour to evacuate), and a couple more bruises from smaller falling stones.  He is extremely cautious and keeps reminding us to be attentive as we crisscross the river.  Thankfully we are safe.

Few people inhabit this valley and they survive mostly from growing produce.  The bay at the mouth of the valley has been nicknamed Daniel’s bay, the name of a friendly local squatter who had set up camp there for a long time (30 years).  He was well known to cruisers who used to sign his guest book.  He was enticed to move away several years back with bribes of better accommodations while they were filming ‘Survivors’. He never returned to the valley and has now passed away.

This is where a few years ago a German sailor was said to be killed by a Tahitian/Marquesan (depending who you speak to) guide while hiking that area.  The full story will never be known but the trial is finally underway making headlines across French Polynesia.  Burnt remains of the German sailor were recovered and sent to Europe for identification and DNA proved his identity.  The father of the family we stayed with was part of the recovery team that searched for the guide (missing 51 days) and the body.  

Our guide was there when the lady was asking for help after the incident.  This tale had made the rounds of many sailors’ dinner party scary story telling times and we always wondered if it was true.  Now that it is in trial we know there is a kernel of truth somewhere but will it be cannibalism as some proclaim, revenge, money, sexual misbehaving, or simply someone gone crazy or high on drugs.  Most locals think it is the latter, the killer still claims he was raped (hard to believe when you see how strong and big he is). The locals called him a 'tweaker' - he liked to do drugs. The trial ended while we visited Tahiti and he was found guilty and I believe he received a 28 year sentence.
Pool at bottom of waterfall. Waterfall cannot be seen from here - sorry no pix
We pick pamplemousse to eat on the way there and as we go our guide points out various plants and pits for catching pigs that used to be either holes where locals put their garbage or where they stored breadfruits for when food would seasonally become scarce.  He also points out a couple of 300 or so year old tombs up high on the side of a difficult to access cliff.  Possibly put there to avoid being desecrated.  We are shown the paepae or sleeping platforms used by the locals of the time.  These platforms were meant to keep you dry and consisted of a simple roof and two coconut tree logs with ferns or leaves in between for a mattress.  One log was used to rest your neck/head, the other to rest your feet.  These were only used for sleep/rest.  All other activities were done out of doors: cooking, making tools, creating art, eating, etc

Peaks surrounding well protected valley
We are shown a type of nut from a tree called the bancoul (candle nut tree).  Its oil can be used in lanterns or its seeds can be burned as a candle.  Ten seeds would be strung on a coconut fiber string and burnt under the dome of half a coconut shell.  This would create soot that would then be mixed with coconut water and used as ink for the tattoos. 

They also have their version of chestnuts called mape.  They are much bigger and need to be boiled for a long time before they can be eaten.  They are rather good and filling.  We had mape and coconut bread one breakfast and it was delicious.

We see many good examples of volcanic dykes (chimney like rock formations) as we tour.  Basically Nuku Hiva has a crater within a crater – between the crests of each crater valleys have formed with their respective rivers. 

A couple from Tahiti is on the hike with us and they shared sausage and cheese one of them just brought back from France!  What a treat – this food comes from thousands of kilometers away!

We stayed with a loving family for a week while figuring out our next move.  Leaving a boat without plans doesn’t make for the easiest transition in the world of reservations, schedules, etc but we find a pension who takes us in with open arms even though they are full.  Claudine and Alvane take us under their wings and work it all out for us.  We also live with a teenage boy Mo’u (meaning Peace), two younger daughters (Ku a La – God’s Presence and Hine Ou – Desire) and their newborn baby girl.  We are truly entrenched in everything they do.  From cleaning dishes to preparing meals and setting the table to doing homework and disciplining of the kids – they don’t hide any of their ways from us.  From breastfeeding to brushing teeth or shopping – everything is in the open. 

On weekends horseback riding is very popular
While we are there a long lost uncle comes back to visit them after 32 years in Europe.  We then get to taste local foods for very special occasions and partake in a tour of the island reserved for family and friends only…  It was truly an amazing experience.  One of the islands in the Marquesas can only be visited if you have a special permit usually only given to scientists studying the island.  Our host has family connections to that island and can get us passes to visit when we get back, a treat extremely few boaters experience.

Cow hides drying in someone's front yard
Of the new foods we have the pleasure to taste are: poisson chaud froid (raw fish dribbled lightly with boiling olive oil at the last minute before serving), sashimi/carpaccio, sushi, kaku, (crushed breadfruit into dough eaten with coconut milk and poisson cru, a Tahitian specialty), popoi (manioc or breadfruit paste), pumpkin poe, boiled bananas, breadfruit fries, wild boar, local chestnuts (mape), firi firi (doughnuts), Tahitian cherry (pistas – often mistakenly called pistache) jelly, coconut bread, fermented coconut milk with either garlic or shrimp, etc.  Everything is gathered or purchased the day it is served, freshness at its best.  Marquesans do not generally eat deserts.  In most restaurants a full meal doesn’t include desert either.  Something we are mindful of when pricing out full meals at restaurants…  (thank goddess for a leftover Trader Joe chocolate bar!)

Cultural center Lucien Rookimitete - Where they have special events
Geckos and chickens are everywhere – both eagerly eating bugs; geckos mostly at nights, chickens during the day.  Roosters are prominent and although hardly heard when sleeping on the boat, are very loud once on land.  It takes us a while to get used to their crowing at all hours of day or night. 

Just like the paepae of ancient Marquesas, most activities are done out of doors even if under a roof.  There are no locked doors or windows on any of the homes we visited.  Kitchen, dining room, and living room are all on veranda-like areas of the home.  Only bedrooms and bathrooms are closed and private.

Nearly everywhere there are archaeological treasures there are huge banyan trees
More of the cultural center
We have a rainy weekend and decide to walk around town regardless enjoying the coolness the rain brings.  Everywhere we go we are reminded that rain means someone died and indeed that weekend a relative of the family we are staying with died.  It is part of a belief on these islands.  Many people invite us in their homes to dry off, to visit or to give us some pamplemousse, etc.  We meet so many open and friendly people. 

Alvane cooking urus (breadfruits) on coals
Urus are ready when the black skin starts turning white
Urus have a very tough thick skin - difficult to remove

Once removed the cooked center is pounded into sticky dough.  
Hands are kept cooled off with water (in the green bowl). 
I think the best way to express how the Marquesans think of us foreigners can be represented by this question I posed to our host family one night:  “How do you keep some family intimacy while always having strangers in your house?”  The instant reply came from the 7 year old who said: “We don’t know any strangers…” 

View from Pension Koku'u when eating
Beautiful peaks along old crater's crest

Archaeological site with same crest background
Bougainvilleas everywhere
Church by the beach
   “Haere mai, haere mai ra”
Come, you are welcome
“Haeru mai, haere nua mai”
Come, come as you are

More steep crests


  1. Hi Niki,

    great reading about your adventure in Nuku hiva. Did you also go to Hiva Oa and Ua Pou? My partner and I are heading to the Marquesas Islands early June and will be staying there for 7 days in total. Just wondering if you have any advice in terms of accommodation? We are backpackers and obviously the trip has already been rather expensive so we were thinking about staying with families and obviously pay for accommodation but not as much as you would find on the traditional booking websites. Also my partner is a chef so we thought we mid exchange experience. It's just that I have no idea on how densely populated the islands are or what the traditions are like... Possibly we might be sleeping in a tent...

    Thank you for you advice,


    1. Dear Coralie,

      Camping may be tricky in French Polynesia (FP) since the land owned by the locals extends from the top of each mountains/hills to the ocean (somewhat like pie pieces), beaches included. It is often difficult to know who owns the land to ask for permission, even more so if you don't speak the language. I speak fluent French and even then there were times my Canadian 'accent' made it difficult to be understood.

      The upside however is that there are nearly no dangerous animals to fear when camping. The only ones to be aware of are the centipedes and millipedes. There are chicken all over the islands and the locals say it's to keep their population down. There are also some wild pigs around in the remote areas.

      We have only been to Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva but didn't make it to Ua Pou. Of these three islands we noticed very little in terms of either flat or open land. Most areas are steep or covered with plants. The few areas that are flat usually are used communally (churches, parks, touristic areas).

      We have lived in 'pensions' throughout 4 of the 5 archipelagoes of FP and only in Moorea, Tahiti, and Fakarava did we see campgrounds. They looked quite unkept and dilapidated... Camping doesn't seem big over there.

      Since everything is expensive in FP, we have not found cheap pensions (akin to B&B). The average price per night depending how many meals you eat with them is anywhere from $100-150 US.

      What you should perhaps try however is to ask permission to set up your tent at a pension for a reduced price. We never had reservations and only once in 90 days, the length of our Visa, did we find a full pension and we were there from April through July. This makes me think there is a little bit of room for bargaining.

      We normally travel by sailboat and always look for trades or cheap accommodations but didn't find any in FP.

      As for your question about population density, it is rather sparse but it doesn't mean the land in between is not owned by someone and news travel very fast on the islands.

      Of all the FP islands we visited, the Marquesas were by far our favorites for they have been the least influenced by religion and the outside. They kept tattoos and dances alive while other islands are just now re-discovering their culture thanks to the help of the Marquesans.

      One thought perhaps would be to connect with some cruisers in sailboats. They would probably enjoy good cooked meals in exchange for a place to stay (not sure how many will be left there at that time of year).

      We have seen locals use hammocks not tents...

      I wish we could be of more help. You may want to look at the blog by Valerie and Laurent. They have been there for nearly two years and may have connections. They are good friends who fell in love with the place and decided to stay a while.

      Good luck,

      Mike, Marie-France and sailing dog Nikki


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