This is the story of a six-week island-hopping journey in French Polynesia during COVID-19. In this post, we wrap up the tour of the Marquesas Islands with a visit to majestic Nuku Hiva before getting a traditional Polynesian tattoo to remember this voyage in Moorea.
In the previous post, we began the tour of the wild Marquesas Islands with stops in Hiva Oa and Ua Pou. In the last part of the series, we’ll spend three days in Nuku Hiva and wrap up the visit to French Polynesia with a visit to Moorea.
COVID update in French Polynesia: this was my fifth visit to French Polynesia, this time traveling during September and early October. Infections were few when I arrived but the numbers gradually rose by the time I had left. After a sharp spike in confirmed cases and deaths, the increase seems to have leveled off. An evening curfew is still in effect in both Tahiti and Moorea but the government has affirmed its intention not to return to a second lockdown. French Polynesia’s borders are still open for tourists under specific conditions.
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The northernmost inhabited island in the Marquesas Islands, Nuku Hiva is also the largest in the chain and the second largest island in French Polynesia after Tahiti. With a population that barely tips 3,000, there is plenty of empty space on the island and endless opportunities to get lost in its diverse and dramatic nature characterized by deep valleys, jagged basalt cliffs, and wild beaches.
Nuku Hiva was one of the last stops on my first trip to the South Pacific islands. Even five years later, I can still feel the excitement that took over me as I explored the island. I couldn’t wait to return to this special place and share some of the magic with my friend from Tahiti, Dricia, who joined me on the leg to the Marquesas Islands.
Nuku Hiva’s topography apparently posed a great challenge when authorities finally came around to constructing the island’s airport. The only suitable land was over an hour’s drive from the main village, Taioha’e, in a dry area called Terre Deserte (Desert Land). The flight from Ua Pou was only twenty minutes long and the view as the small Twin Otter made its approach, left no doubt as to why Nuku Hiva is often referred to as the “real Jurassic park”.
Usually, the drive from the airport to your accommodation is an uneventful affair. But on the most dramatic island in French Polynesia, even this errand can be considered an excursion. From the arid Desert Land, the only road to Taioha’e quickly gains altitude and snakes its way through a thick forest of pines, imported to Nuku Hiva many years ago in an effort to supply wood for the global furniture industry. Every few minutes, we pass by herds of cattle and wild horses who are free to roam the land.
It’s quite cold and windy at this altitude but we nonetheless stop to fully absorb the views. Our first official stop is at a lookout over what the locals call the “Grand Canyon”. We then catch a view of the Toovi Plateau before plunging to its floor. This lush plateau is home to cattle ranches and fertile agricultural land. The change in altitude as we drive through the plateau reminds us how diverse Nuku Hiva’s microclimates are. I mean, this is a tropical island after all but in certain spots, a thick jacket is necessary.
Downtown Nuku Hiva
Rising out of the plateau, we reach another spectacular lookout, the last one on the ride from the airport. The main village of Taioha’e is nestled along the shores of a perfectly-shaped horseshoe bay, a favorite anchorage for yachts that have just completed a long passage from the Panama Canal.
Home to the majority of the island’s population, Taioha’e is kind of a happening place and quite well-geared for tourists. On my last visit, there was always some action at the pier and during the evenings there was even a local bar with live music. COVID has seriously changed things now that the first case on the island has just been reported.
Fear is understandable in such situations, especially when you consider darker periods in the island’s history when the majority of the native population perished due to imported diseases by European explorers and whalers. Having visited Nuku Hiva in better times, I can feel that something is different now. On the one hand, locals rely on tourism and remain friendly, but on the other hand, their rightful concern and distance are felt, at least in Taioha’e.
With a few hours left until sunset, we set out to explore the village on foot. The scenery from the waterfront is spectacular. The village is hugged from all sides by the lush mountain range from which we just descended. Its brown sand beach is revealed as waves come and go; ecstatic yachties are busy with either stocking up on fresh produce or going for a jog on solid ground for the first time in weeks.
It’s an early rise on the following day as we must catch a boat from Taioha’e. At the pier, we meet Alvane Alvarado from Pension Kukue’e. Alvane and his wife Claudine run an authentic pension just above Taioha’e and they hosted me during my first visit in the kindest possible way. Alvane even took me hunting and camping over a weekend, an experience I’ll never forget. Unfortunately for us, the pension was currently full, so Alvane waited for us at the pier to invite us for dinner.
The plan for the day was to explore Hakaui Valley, one of the iconic sites in all of the South Pacific. Like so many places in Nuku Hiva, the valley is only accessible either on foot or by boat. We took the “easy way”, though the short boat ride can be challenging for those with a soft stomach. In the calm seconds between waves, we admire the views of the island’s wild coastline. As the boat inches closer to the sea cliffs on its course, you can clearly distinguish the different geological stages Nuku Hiva went through over the eons, layer upon layer of nature’s masons building this incredible island.
We finally enter the calm waters of a bay and make landfall on a beach that hosted one of the tribes in Survivor Marquesas back in 2002. The walls sheltering the bay offer our first glimpse of what’s to come, Nuku Hiva’s signature jagged basalt cliffs which are best seen in Hakaui Valley.
A Tropical Love Story
Our hosts for the day are Tangy and Ana Bakran. I’ve been corresponding with Ana for a couple of months to book this day as I had a feeling it would be a special experience. Little did I know just how special it would be.
Croatian-born, Ana had a dream of visiting Bora Bora so she decided to hitchhike from her home country. It took her several years but she did it. Upon returning home, she decided to write a book about her adventures and traveled once again to French Polynesia, this time taking “the other side”. She completed writing her book in Nuku Hiva, where she met Tangy and the rest is history.
Ana taught Tangy to speak English and she’s currently brushing up on her French. Recently engaged, they live completely off-the-grid in a traditional Marquesan house that Tangy built on a family plot. They live off the land, hunting, and growing fruits and vegetables. Whatever they can’t get from nature must be bought in Taioha’e but sometimes, they must hike over the ridge and back into the valley. It’s not an easy life but it’s certainly a magical one, proof that “the one” is really out there for you to find. Ana and Tangy currently run Cannibal Art. If you ever come to Nuku Hiva, be sure to book a tour with them but if not, you can purchase online authentic Marquesan art made with lots of mana by Tangy.
The King’s Road
We hit the road with Tangy leading the way. I’m saying “road” because there’s actually a road that runs through the valley. It’s not the type of road we know but rather one painstakingly constructed with rocks at the order of one of the valley’s former kings. In pre-missionary days, Hakaui Valley was home to thousands of residents. On either side of the king’s road are reminders of this forgotten period, peapea (stone platforms) used for anything from temples to homes for the noble class, tiki statues, and breadfruit fermenting pits. These days, banyan and mape trees have taken over but the evidence is still easy to spot.
At a small clearing in the thick rainforest, we stop for rare unobstructed views of the valley’s signature jagged basalt cliffs. So inaccessible, caves on the cliffs were used by natives as burial chambers for chiefs. Few people have visited the caves but those who have reported they are no place for the soft-hearted. It’s a perfect day in the valley with hardly a cloud in the sky. Ana and Tangy point out to a waterfall cascading next to one of the caves but our mission is to press onward and splash at the base of Vaipo Waterfall, the tallest in French Polynesia.
Hakaui Valley ends in a narrow creek. Getting mobile reception or a GPS signal is out of the question. It’s just us and the waterfall at this point. Even though it’s the height of the dry season, water is still gushing down from a height of 350 meters. The sun is shining straight above our heads and there’s absolutely no breeze. The only thing to do at this point is to navigate our way through a maze of boulders and splash in the pool at the base of the waterfall.
We hike back to Ana and Tangy’s cabin for lunch. A special day calls for a special meal and the couple has really outdone themselves. We chat about life, each person’s dreams, and the secrets of preparing the delicious dishes we just ate. It’s a sad goodbye as we hop on the boat for the ride back to Taioha’e, waving back and forth between the beach and boat until we clear the protected bay. We wish we had more time together.
In times like this, you need to be around someone who can lift your spirits and I just happen to know the right guy. Alvane from Pension Kukue’e picked us up as planned and we joined the other guests for a traditional meal cooked in an underground oven, just like in the old days. For me, it was quite an emotional reunion with Claudine and the family. As I roamed the simple pension’s ground, warm memories from my last visit resurfaced.
Over dinner, Alvane is his usual self. Some people are meant to fulfill certain roles in life and Alvane is such a person. He absolutely loves spending time with his guests and over dinner, he shares his life stories with a captivated audience, animating them with hand gestures and endless laughter.
Road Trip to Anaho Bay
It was Saturday morning on the last day of our voyage to the Marquesas Islands. We woke up at 5 am to check out the fishermen’s market. It was a lively scene at the pier. Groups of fishermen had just returned from a night at sea, unloading coolers filled with fish of all sizes and colors. It’s all about timing at the Saturday fish market. If you snooze, you lose, literally. The fresh stock is prized by residents, especially ahead of multiple family weekend meals. The fishermen are busy cleaning the fish, quickly disposing of their interior by tossing the unwanted parts to packs of sharks who are apparently accustomed to the weekly tradition.
The plan for the day is to road trip in a rented 4X4 to Hatiehu and from there hike to Anaho Bay. Our first stop is at a lookout over Comptroller Bay and Taipivai Valley. In 1842, whaler and later renowned American author Herman Melville (Moby Dick), jumped ship with a mate and spent three weeks in this area. Based on his experience, he published Typee in 1846 with exotic accounts of Nuku Hiva. Seeing this view, I can absolutely understand why he would abandon ship.
Our next stop was at the Taipivai artist market to stock up on exquisite local art. Though my luggage is already full, it’s hard to resist the opportunity. After all, Marquesans are renowned throughout the Polynesian Triangle for their craftsmanship. The narrow road then led us through groves of coconut palms, revealing distant waterfalls and our first glimpse of Hatiheu Bay and its iconic basalt peaks. This lookout is so special that it’s often used to promote the archipelago in global marketing campaigns.
The only way from here is down to Hatiheu but before pausing for lunch in the village, we took a detour on the dirt road to catch a distant glimpse of the A’akapa Cliffs. I wish we had more time to head down to the bay and explore the area but I was thrilled to see this place for the first time. Locals say the cliffs resemble a giant dinosaur and I certainly agree with that.
Back in Hatiheu, it was time for lunch. We used the break to also explore the village and relax on the beach which is another iconic spot in the archipelago. It was Saturday afternoon and children were playing in the field next to the main church. Hatiheu is one of the most picturesque villages in the Marquesas Islands but also the starting point for the climax of our road trip.
The hike to Anaho Bay is short and rewarding, but a bit arduous. We started with a climb through a grove of mango trees, picking the best ones from the ground to quench our thirst. After a short climb, we reached the ridgeline. This spot is one of the most memorable from my first trip. Anaho Bay is revealed in all its glory, perfectly sheltered by surrounding cliffs and backed by a thick blanket of coconut palms. At one of its edges is a short patch of coral, an extreme rarity in this young archipelago.
We head down and explore the tiny village which is completely cut off from civilization. Like in Hakaui Valley, it’s either a hike or a boat ride to get your groceries. Few families live here but their church is quite charming. We would love to hang around but a trail to nearby Ha’atuatua Bay is very tempting.
Ha’atuatua Bay is as beautiful as they come. Soft golden sand, coconut palms, jagged onlooking cliffs, and not a soul around. However, hundreds of tiny blue jellyfish and invisible nono (sandflies) by the thousands make the trip out here memorable in all possible ways. We learned the hard way and also ran out of water, but like a mirage, we thought we spotted Alvane chilling with the pension’s guests on a hill overlooking the beach. Just like an angel, Alvane pulled out a bottle of water and we all walked back to Anaho Bay to crack open fresh coconuts and swim in the sandfly-and-jellyfish-free waters.
This Place is Freaks me Out
After a very sweaty climb back to the car, the pack headed to visit a couple of ancient temple complexes. At Hikokua, Alvane explained to us the details of the various statues and displayed his dance moves in a Marquesan Haka (check out his 2016 performance). By the time we reached the Kamuihei archeological site, it was starting to get dark. I remember feeling a strange tingle on my first visit to this ancient ceremonial site and this time was no different.
Crows were returning to nest after a day’s work, causing much commotion among the chickens and horses roaming the grounds. The breeze turned into a light wind and swayed the coconut branches and the banyan trees from side to side. Ancient tiki statues and petroglyphs that likely witnessed a thing or two in their life seemed to come to life. You can really feel the mana of this place! Some locals never enter these ancient sites after dark. I can understand why.
A Traditional Tattoo to End the Trip
My six-week adventure was coming to an end with a final stop in Moorea. I spent a month in Moorea on my first trip to French Polynesia and this was a fitting way to end this trip. Before parting ways with Dricia, she arranged for us to take a scenic flight from Tahiti to Moorea with her aspiring pilot friend, Bernard. You never get tired of seeing Moorea’s twin bays, but from the air, they are even more spectacular.
The weather in Moorea was turning sour as the days passed but I managed to sneak in a challenging hike to the summit of the Pierced Mountain and revisit some of my favorite spots. The real task, however, was to finally get a Polynesian tattoo after five visits to the region. My friend from Tahiti introduced me to Purotu who, through some miscommunication on my part, thought that I wanted to get it done the traditional way. Sometimes, you just have to “go with the flow” and this was one such occasion.
Purotu is one of the few artists who still practice tautau, manually tapping the tattoo into your skin (tautau means “tap tap” and is the origin of the word tattoo). Purotu thought long and hard how to translate the life story which I had written the night before on a piece of paper, perfectly bringing it to life on my forearm for posterity. It took four hours to complete my tattoo and it hurt much less than I expected.
This particular visit to French Polynesia was the type of trip I had always dreamed about. I had a lot of time on my hands, I wasn’t leading a group as a tour guide, and I wasn’t traveling on a budget. I felt liberated after months of confinement at home and felt extremely lucky to be welcomed to a place where I now feel almost at home. Will there be a sixth visit? Hell yes! But I am not sure when the stars will perfectly align once again for me. The experiences from this trip, both positive and negative, are forever frozen in my soul.
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