Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands
We are standing on a raised stone platform, once the home of a chief, looking down at a pit.
“Some say it was used to keep prisoners for human sacrifice.” says our guide, John.
“Just kidding,” he grins. “Really it was used to store breadfruit in case of famine.”
We look around at the lush green landscape.
But rainfall in the remote Marquesas Islands is unreliable and periods of drought can cause sometimes catastrophic famines.
In fact the Marquesans did practice human sacrifice during major ceremonies, for example when asking their gods to end a drought.
We are at Tohua Kamuihei on Nuku Hiva, the first Marquesas stop on the Aranui 5 cruise to some of the most isolated islands in the world.
Te Henua Enana – the Land of Men – in the local language, are rugged volcanic islands to the north of French Polynesia.
Tohua Kamuihei is a huge site that has been excavated and restored by French archaeologist Pierre Ottery.
A huge banyan tree marks the entrance and on a stone platform at its base tattooed warriors greet – or challenge – us but today our biggest challenge is avoiding the nono – tiny biting sandflies also known as no-see-ums.
The Marquesas cruise
The two-week cruise delivers supplies to six inhabited Marquesas islands and collects copra, dried coconut meat, to be made into coconut oil in Tahiti.
Our shore excursions on each island are varied and include archaeological sites, hikes, cultural shows, museums and delicious lunches of local delicacies: roast meat and vegetables cooked in an umu (underground oven), poisson cru, fish, salads and fresh fruit. Yummy.
Ua Pou, Marquesas Islands
Ua Pou, our second Marquesas island, is a lively place.
We tie up to a wharf at Hakahau village where an outrigger canoe regatta is underway.
In the community centre (all the islands have them) we taste delicious tropical fruits and check out the handicrafts before heading to a paepae (stone platform) to watch dancers perform the famous Marquesan bird dance.
The local children use our mooring lines as makeshift tightropes and diving boards and they are having so much fun that some passengers join in.
As the sun sets we sail to a sheltered bay, Hakahetau, while the crew prepare the Pool Deck for a BBQ night. Frigate birds swoop around the radar mast as we slowly cruise into the bay, a magnificent sight.
We visit Hakahau a second time and the Aranui guides organise canoe lessons for gung-ho groups of ten. While the outriggers paddle to the harbour entrance the rest of us lounge about in the warm water and wave at a drone operated by a film crew on the cruise.
Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands
On Hiva Oa we visit Paul Gauguin’s tomb.
The cemetery is perched on a hillside overlooking Atuona town and bay. It’s usually very peaceful except when cruise ships call.
Gauguin lived on Hiva Oa for a year and a half but wasn’t popular.
The police and church particularly disliked him but nevertheless he was buried in consecrated ground in the Catholic cemetery.
He painted most of his famous pictures while he lived in Tahiti but the Gauguin museum in Atuona has very good reproductions. There is also a reconstruction of the notorious Maison de Jouir (House of Pleasure) where he lived and died, either of a heart attack or an overdose of morphine just before beginning a prison sentence.
Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands
As a young man, in 1937 Thor Heyerdahl lived on the island of Fatu Hiva with his first wife Liv.
This is where he developed the idea that South Americans settled in Polynesia in pre-columbian times that lead to the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.
His stay on Fatu Hiva started idyllically but he was glad to escape some eighteen months later.
We take a barge from the Aranui to Omoa on Fatu Hiva. This is much more interesting than walking down the gangway onto a concrete wharf.
The barge alongside the Aranui rolls up and down with the waves. Burly tattooed Marquesan sailors stand ready to toss passengers, one at a time, from boat to barge. The sailors judge the waves expertly and we all land safely.
Today there is a ten mile hike – for some. The rest of us walk to a culture centre where a local mama shows us how to make tapa from mulberry bark and artisans display carvings and tapa paintings.
We buy a war club from the man who carved it but it is all very friendly, no fighting needed.
The Aranui then sails from Omoa to Hanavave. The hikers walk over the hills to get there and later tell us the views are magnificent.
Hiva Oa again
On our second visit to Hiva Oa we land on the northern side at the village of Puamau.
4WDs take us to another archaeological site, Te I’ipona.
About the roads and vehicles
4WD SUVs and pick-up trucks are everywhere in the Marquesas. The Aranui brings them up here and watching sailors load vehicles onto motorised rafts for the journey to shore is a popular pastime.
The roads are magnificent concrete constructions that twist and turn through the rugged hills from one side of an island to the other.
Various Aranuis that have plied the seas here since the early nineteen-fifties also transported the cement for the concrete. It is subsidised by the French government and played a big part in the success of the shipping line.
We visited I’ipona in 2010 when it involved an uphill walk on a dirt track. Back then the site had been cleared but not beautified. It looked impressive and mysterious, hinting at its past – it’s about 300 years old. The major tiki statues now have thatched roofs to allow them to dry out so chemicals can be used to preserve them. They eroded quite badly since the bush was cleared. Necessary but not romantic.
Tahuata, Marquesas Islands
Tahuata is the smallest of the inhabited Marquesan islands but when the Aranui calls it’s a hive of activity.
We’ve already dropped off cargo here at night when we left Atuona.
Tahuata hosted a mini Marquesan Arts Festival a couple of weeks after our visit so the Aranui brought extra supplies.
These included a 4WD truck, and watching the sailors unload that in the dark onto a floating raft in a swell was even more exciting than the usual offloads.
This island is well known for its bone carving.
Once upon a time the bones might have been human but nowadays they are cow or possibly goat.
Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands
At 6am the upper decks are crowded as we watch the Aranui manoeuvre into a narrow inlet between barren hills of Ua Huka.
We need to make a 180 degree turn and the sailors have to carry mooring ropes to the wave-lashed sides of the inlet and leap onto rocky ledges to tie up. Spectacular.
The Arboretum at Vaipaee was started by an ex-mayor of the area as a place where the local people could get fruit and learn about the trees. They used to help maintain the place but apparently they don’t do very much these days.
There’s a lot of driving today from Vaipaee to Hokatu and Hane, all villages on the south coast.
Ua Huka is a rugged, barren island with more horses than people but the scenery is spectacular.
Hokatau is tiny but it has a remarkable handicraft centre, a two-room building full of wood carvings.
The variety is amazing, the quality excellent and the prices the lowest we have come across. Cash only, there are no ATMs here.
We bought a spear and an adze, beautifully polished rosewood, and then had barely enough money left for an ice-cream.
A small museum has photographs and reproductions of petroglyphs from Vaikivi archaeological site but there is no chance of visiting it. It’s a tough three-hour trek through thick vegetation.
Ua Huka hosted a Marquesan Arts Festival in 2013 at a specially build culture centre, Te Tumu, overlooking the airport.
It must have been a thrilling sight when the festival was in full swing.
We have lunch at the restaurant there and then have a guided tour the museum.
It’s a thought-provoking place because almost every exhibit is a reproduction carved by one of the best Marquesan craftsmen.
That’s because all the originals were carried off by European and American collectors.
The reproductions had to be made by copying drawings and photographs because there was nobody left alive who knew the old traditions.
The Marquesas once had a population of 80 to 100,000 but western explorers, traders and missionaries brought diseases, particularly smallpox and measles, that killed thousands.
By the early twentieth century just over 2000 Marquesans survived.
The number now is approaching ten thousand in part thanks to the French government and subsidies to encourage people to stay on their home islands.
But Marquesans are having to relearn their lost culture from pictures. And this applies to tattoos as well as carving.
Dora the dog
Back in Vaipaee we board our barge to rejoin the Aranui 5 and here we see one of the more unusual local characters.
Dora is a small brown and white terrier who’s job is to check all the incoming cargo to make sure that no black rats come ashore. This is necessary to protect the native bird population.
She obviously enjoys her work, judging be the wagging tail.
Itinerary for our cruise
The Aranui 5 is a custom-built, dual-purpose passenger/freighter that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas, Tuamotu, Bora Bora, and Society Islands in French Polynesia on a 14-day all-inclusive cruise. The itinerary of our cruise was as follows.
Days 1 to 3: Tahiti, Fakarave (Tuamotu Islands), at sea.
Day 4: Nuku Hiva
Day 5: Ua Pou
Day 6: Hiva Oa
Day 7: Fatu Hiva
Day 8: Hiva Oa/Tahuata
Day 9: Ua Huka
Day 10: Nuku Hiva/Ua Pou
Day 11 to 14: At sea, Rangiroa (Tuamotu), Bora Bora (Society), Tahiti.
Depending on the starting day, cruises may visit islands in a different order.