Friday, May 23, 2008

Nuku Hiva Redemption

We sailed out of Baie Taiohae under catastrophically low group morale. After the fact it’s hard to remember how low we got, or why. I can list the factors at work. Chronically screaming toddler. Confined space. Intractable mechanical problems. Bad feelings that bounced back and forth between Alisa and me. Despair of ever making the trip work.

All this less than two weeks after the all-time high of our passage to the Marquesas. Almost all you hear about cruising is the good stuff. We might be more prone to the downs because of the inevitable pressures of taking on such a big adventure with a completely dependent little person at the center of our lives. Whatever the case, the lows do come along. There is no magic bullet.

We sailed out of Baie Taiohae and we were instantly in the trade winds again, bounding along with the wind behind us and picturesque tropical whitecaps all around. Our next anchorage, Baie Tai Oa, or Daniel’s Bay, was only about five miles away. I went below to the head to try to get the watermaker working. Alisa stayed in the cockpit with Elias sitting in his car seat and the Monitor steering Pelagic. I came up after a fruitless forty-five minutes of sweating in the head, trying to diagnose an airlock in the feed line.

“How’s it going?” Alisa asked.

“Don’t ask. How’s it going here?”

“Not bad. I think we need to get around that point there,” she said, nodding at a distant landmark.

I went down to plot our position on the chart. Five minutes later I came back up.
“Our course is 020 magnetic,” I announced. I looked at the compass and pointed to the direction we wanted to be going, which was almost perfectly the opposite direction from where we were actually sailing. Alisa had been kicking back in the cockpit with Eli, grooving over the feeling of sailing again and being free of Taiohae, and had sailed right by Baie Tai Oa. Who knows how long it would have taken the little light bulb over her head to light up if I hadn’t intervened.

Spirited discussion then ensued about how our destination on one hand couldn’t be almost straight behind us, and yet, on the other hand, was. Reference was also made to the apparent intention on one person’s part to just sail the four hundred miles to the Tuomotu Islands without consulting the other person first.

“No matter how much grief I give you over this, it probably isn’t enough,” I said.

What ever else it was, this grotesque yet harmless navigational error was good for lightening the mood on board. We turned the boat around back into the wind, and hunted for the entrance to the bay in the imposing lava cliffs that ring the southwest corner of Nuku Hiva. The bay wasn’t obvious from the outside, and the breakers crashing into the cliffs on both sides of us didn’t make it feel like a place to bring the barky in for a closer look. But we trusted the chart, and the GPS, and pulled into the gap in the cliffs and found ourselves in, well, paradise.

Looking back at the entrance to Daniel's Bay.

The mountain wall that surrounded the southern half of the bay began as a jumble of impassable cliffs and angled plains covered with thin verdure. Further up the valley it progressed into a vertical jungle interspersed with incredibly precipitous fins of eroded lava. Towering palm trees at the base shrank into insignificance beneath the mountain wall, lending scale to the sight. Swell rolled into one arm of the bay, where a little village is located. Alisa pulled down the mainsail and I steered into the other arm. The calm water and the simple open-walled house on the beach contrasted with the overwrought splendor of the lava mountains behind us.

Looking up the valley from the anchorage.

We anchored and shut down. The jury-rigged engine had passed its first test. Elias and I fished off the bow while Alisa cooked dinner. Six other boats were anchored in the bay. After the sun set our friends from Sonsie came over in the dinghy to say hello and recommend the local walk up to the base of a 350 m waterfall, meant to be the third highest in the world. “I’ve hiked in a whole lot of places,” said Rod. “But this is the most beautiful hike that I’ve ever been on in my life. The guy who lives on the beach is named Tonga. Wonderful guy.”

The next morning we rowed ashore early, hoping to beat the tourists from Taiohae that were rumored to reach the falls every day at noon. We found Tonga outside his house, tending to his horses. Determined to do things right on our first trip ashore at a little village, we had brought along a couple of fishhooks as a gift for Tonga and asked for his permission to use the trail to the waterfall.


The hike lived up to Rod’s billing. We followed the trail to the other arm of the bay, across a river to the dirt road through the village, where we met Monette, a middle-aged woman who promised us fruit when we came back from la cascade. After the dirt road left the village it joined with an ancient Marquesan road, reputedly the king’s road, leading to the upper reaches of the valley. After we left the village the lava cliffs on either side of the valley closed in on one another. We wound our way past ruined paepae that were slowly succumbing to the jungle, memories of the past glory of this place. Paepae are lava-stone platforms that pre-contact Marquesan buildings were set upon. Marquesas swiftlets and white-capped fruit doves, both endemic to the Marquesas, fluttered overhead in the valley, as did fairy terns and tropicbirds. When we reached the waterfall, we found it shrunk to an insignificant trickle by the demise of the wet season. But the lava walls on either side of us rose overhanging above us for a thousand feet. The tourists from Taiohae never showed up and aside from the three locals we had seen on the hike we might have been alone in our own tropical paradise.

“Alone in our own tropical paradise,” I announced as I lowered Eli from my back and wrung the sweat out of my shirt. “So that’s nice.”

“But not quite alone,” said Alisa. “There’s no-nos.”

I looked down at my legs and saw a cloud of the tiny biting flies that make the Marquesas a famously bad choice for beach vacations. No-nos lie thick on most Marquesan beaches, and, apparently, around Marquesan waterfalls, too.

“That’s not all,” I said, pointing at the cloud of insects around Eli’s tender visage. “Mosquitos.”

“At least there’s swimming,” said Alisa, nodding at the big pool of fresh water beneath the falls.

I walked over to the pool for a closer look. “Eel,” I reported. The folks on Sonsie had passed along a rumor about really big fresh water eels in the pool beneath the falls. For once the rumor was outrun by reality. “The size of a log,” I elaborated.

“I think I’ll skip the swim,” said Alisa.

We ate cheese and pilot bread and pamplemous, the champion citrus fruit of the Marquesas. And then we ran from the bugs.

Aside from the wildlife, though, all was very good. Outstanding tropical scenery, the ruins of a mysterious culture, and the descendants of that culture, still living in the valley, still speaking the Marquesan language. And the three of us. Not a bad mix for your average Wednesday.

Dad: "This is great!"

Little boy: "What country is this?"

Fording a stream.

A ruined paepae.

The valley got really narrow.

The eel.

The boy, touristed out.

On the way back we spoke with Augustine, who was cutting coconuts for copra. He was a big man, tattooed and wearing a boar’s tusk necklace and, incongruously to our eyes, a knit hat and sweatshirt. He sat in the woods by a fire of coconut husks that gave of a pungent, disagreeable odor that I have come to associate with the Marquesan bush. He held a machete in one hand, and a pile of cut-open coconuts was by his feet. We communicated with my handful of French words and lots of gesticulation. He explained that the copra is shipped to Pape’ete, he is paid 110 CFP per kilo, and can collect 1,000 kilos a week. That works out to $ 1,500 US in a week, at the rate we got from the bank when we posted bond. Not bad, though a six pack in Taiohae costs eighteen bucks.

I also came away from our talk with Augustine with a feeling that I’ve since felt in other bays that used to be heavily populated but then went through paroxysms of violence and epidemic and cultural disintegration and are now the homes of a few descendants of the survivors. I get the impression, accurate or not, of people like Augustine crouching in the ruins of a civilization that has become mysterious to them. As my child’s children’s children might some day.

Augustine. The fire is to keep the no-nos from bodily carrying him away.
We continued down the track and came to Monette’s place. As promised, she gave us bananas and limes and pamplemous, all that we could carry. When you speak almost none of a country’s language there is great variability in how well the locals can communicate with you. Some, like Augustine, zero in on the few words that you know and pantomime up a storm so that you almost feel like you’re conversing, while others, like Monette, just repeat the same phrases that you don’t understand over and over. So we were a little hard pressed to understand her abundant gift. The kitchen of her house almost looked like a little restaurant, and we wondered if she was selling us the fruit. I guess that trade and commerce are a lot easier for us to understand than the sort of generosity that entails gifts to strangers who happen to be walking by your house. Alisa gave Monette a lighter from her backpack, and Monette accepted it, but with an indifference that said she didn’t really expect anything from us. And then we said goodbye, a little baffled by the interaction.

Monette's house.

When we made it back to Tonga’s beach we found the husband and wife crew of Backlash, a west coast U.S. boat, with their dinghy on the beach next to ours. The man was thin and frowning, with a face that reminded me of timeless advice of my mother’s.

Years ago, when I was a little lad, my dear mom said, “Never trust someone with a mouth like a chicken’s asshole.”

The man asked us about the walk. How far was it? Was the waterfall worth seeing? I explained that the waterfall was nearly dry but the walk was fantastic. He didn’t look convinced.

“The fellow who lives here sells mangoes,” he said. “Five hundred francs for eight of them. Not even fruit is cheap in this paradise.” He put the last word in finger quotes.

We started talking about the Tuomotus. They were going soon. I repeated Pierre’s recommendation to stay a week or more at each atoll to make the visit worthwhile.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” he answered. After a pause he added, “It’s rough that we have to go to sea again for four days to get there, right after the three weeks it took us just to get here. They should make these islands closer to each other.” He laughed briefly, a sound like pebbles rattling in a can, laughing at himself for making such an improbable complaint, but also complaining nonetheless. “We can’t wait to get to the Societies. Tahiti, Bora Bora.”

I was deriving a weird pleasure from the conversation, something like that which a dedicated foody gets from a dish that is very nearly, but not quite, revolting. But Elias chose that moment to rub a fistful of sand in his right eye, and a quick retreat to the solace of Tonga’s hose was called for.

“I think I came up with a South Pacific cruiser personality litmus test,” said Alisa as she walked next to me towards Tonga’s house. I was carrying Elias and trying to keep him from rubbing the sand further into his eye. “Beware those who look forward to Tahiti and Bora Bora.”

Tahiti and Bora Bora are famous among travelers for having all the charm of Waikiki, or the Jersey Shore.

“I know it,” I said. “Some people just can’t relax and enjoy themselves in paradise.”

We smiled at each other.

At Tonga’s, Elias submitted manfully to a blast to the face from the hose, coming up spluttering and smiling. The hose was fed by a waterline from the mountains. There is no electricity in Daniel’s Bay and many of the other sparsely settled bays that we have since visited, though some houses do have solar power. But there’s always running water, usually in the form of a standpipe in the yard, fed from a source in the hills.

Elias, the sand in his eye forgotten, checks out Tonga's copra supply.

Tonga gave us a sack of beautiful mangoes, “for the boy!” and several pamplemous. The crew of a Swedish boat was also ashore at Tonga’s. I thought of getting a good picture of Tonga but the Swedish man was already firing away with his Nikon D200, physically adjusting Tonga’s stance to highlight his tattoos. The days when only a few boats worked their way down the South Pacific trades every year are now decades past, and we often have to share our interaction time with the locals. I’ve started to call this effect the Yachtie Scrum. If you’re not careful you can find yourself surrounded by English-speaking yachties on every beach, which ends any chance of overcoming the language barrier with individual Marquesans.

Then a South African crew came ashore. It would have been fun to just hang out and mingle with the other cruisers, but Elias was operating on a very short fuse and it was time to retreat to the boat.

We were hot and thirsty after hours of walking and Alisa was starting to suffer from her no-no bites. Elias began squalling on the way back to Pelagic and Alisa and I were trapped in the little rowboat, forced to listen to every incoherent syllable of one-year-old angst. By the time we were back on Pelagic, the mood was in danger of going sour.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Let’s close our eyes and imagine that we’re anchored in a bay in some tropical paradise. In our own yacht. With coconut trees on the beach and the sound of lapping waves all around us. Maybe that will help.”

After we got Elias asleep Alisa and I sat in the cockpit drinking gin and lime juice beneath the stars. Savoring the feeling of having suddenly arrived in this sparsely occupied dreamscape. The kind of place that should be famous around the world, but isn’t. The kind of place that delivers the tropical elixir that Hawaii and Tahiti can only promise. Daniel’s Bay.

“They were so friendly,” said Alisa. “Tonga and Monette and Augustine.”

“And we’re only five miles from Taiohae.”

“Where no one will look us in the eye.”

"You always hear about the indolence of the South Pacific. But did you notice how everyone we saw today was doing some kind of work?"

“What an incredible day. Imagine how difficult it would be to get here if you didn’t have your own yacht, what it would cost.”

“A lot less than it did for us with a yacht.”

“Yep, a lot less.”

The next day we got going early and sailed around the west and north sides of Nuku Hiva to a place called Baie Anaho. We had calms and then stiff winds right on the nose and we caught a beautiful tuna. The north side of the island was a mix of vaporous mists and incredibly steep lava plugs and spires. We buried the rail of first one side of the boat and then the other as we tacked towards Anaho. We pulled into the bay just at dusk, satisfied with a great daysail and mystified at the good fortune that found the three of us circumnavigating a little island named Nuku Hiva, where the people are friendly and the scenery is beautiful and the fruit grows everywhere.

We dropped the hook in Anaho, uncertain how long we would stay. And everything that happened there is part of another story.

The north shore of Nuku Hiva.

The crew, bringing Pelagic into Anaho at dusk.

The end.


  1. WHAT a great blog you write. I am a friend of Hannah, and Tracy pointed you out. Best,

  2. Hey Mike -
    Found your story through the US Alumni website. Thanks for sharing! Besst of luck with the rest of your trip.
    Fair winds,
    Toby Bates '86

  3. ohmygawd. look at all those teeth he's got!!! :)