Exploring the Magnificent Marquesas


The Marquesas Islands would have to be one of the most remote locations I’ve ever visited. Not too many tourists here! And being untouristed is surely one of the most appealing aspects of the area. When I visit far flung places I can’t help but wonder how people ever came to be living in such a remote location. These islands were settled by Polynesians who most likely came from Samoa and Tonga. Depending upon what you read, it’s thought that the great Polynesian migration happened between 900-1200AD, but it may have been much earlier than that. Boy, those people must have been exceptional seafarers, travelling vast distances in their outrigger canoes along with crop plants, pigs and chickens! Las Marquesas were named by a Spanish sailor in 1595, in honour of his patron, the viceroy of Peru. Captain Cook dropped by in 1774, but it was the French that claimed them after becoming concerned about the growing English presence in the Pacific. The more regular European contact unfortunately led to a massive devastation of the local population due to various diseases. It is estimated that the population was once ten times greater than it is today. The natural beauty of these islands is quite astounding. The islands’ coastlines are often dramatically punctuated by magnificent jagged peaks topping spectacularly soaring mountains, covered in lush vegetation. These islands are largely untamed and undeveloped, which in many respects makes them all the more attractive. There are few roads, and for some people the main mode of transport from village to village is on horseback.

The remoteness has preserved a fairly simple way of life with many people making a living from copra production. Everywhere we go we see copra drying. This is an important part of the local economy. The white coconut meat is hacked out of the husk by hand then spread out to dry in the sun before it is shipped off to Tahiti and thence on to whichever food, pharmaceutical or cosmetic company turns it into one of the everyday products that so many of us use (skin lotions, shampoo & conditioner, soaps and detergents, cooking oil, and medicinal creams). Another island fruit that is cultivated is the noni (Morinda citrifolia), which is easy to grow, abundantly available, and doesn’t require much care and produces fruit all year round. This knobbly fruit about the size of a potato, apparently contains antioxidants and is rich in vitamin C. The juice from the noni has been widely used by the Polynesians as a traditional medicine since ancient times and is said to contain assorted health benefits including: improving skin quality, lowering risk of gout, reducing arthritis pain, boosting immunity, reducing stress, etc. I read that some fermented noni ends up being shipped to Salt Lake City, and turned into Morinda health elixir.

The locals are very friendly and hospitable and we were made to feel very welcome, even with our almost non existent French and complete lack of Marquesan language. At a number of locations we found the locals are very used to having cruising yachties in their bay and a few enterprising ones will put on a meal in their home for a local food experience including “poisson cru” (lime-marinated fresh fish in freshly squeezed coconut milk) and goat curry. The architecture is an interesting mix of Polynesian and European influence, with most locals’ homes being very humble. Everywhere you go, the islanders have a great civic pride. Each village is as neat as a pin, with a complete lack of rubbish in the streets. Not a chocolate wrapper, plastic bottle or chip packet in sight.  We noticed that the tattoo is a very visible part of the Polynesian culture often drawing inspiration from creatures such as sharks, manta rays, fish and birds that have probably had significance since first settlement, but unlike a few of the other yachties we weren’t tempted to get a souvenir.

The southern-most island, Fatu Hiva, is famous for the “Bay of Virgins”. Rumour has it that this bay was originally named by the locals as “Baie des Verges” (Bay of Dicks), due to the large phallic shaped rock formations thrusting skyward on either side. Apparently the missionaries didn’t approve so added an “i” to make the word “Vierges” (Virgins), which they deemed more acceptable. A walk to the top of the hill provided a good view down over the anchorage and along the coast and showed us how lush and green the inland area is. Another lovely anchorage we spent some time in was Baie Hanatefau on the island of Tahuata. It seemed to be a dolphin nursery as every morning tens of dozens of dolphins would turn up, with the little ones leaping out of the water with great exuberance, as if they were learning new tricks. One of the French cruisers, Sil, was very good at getting us all organised. Having someone who spoke one of the local languages was very helpful. During a long walk over to the next village he was able to arrange for the local beekeeper to give us a lift back to the anchorage.

It seems that various adventurers, artists and writers have been drawn to this part of the world and been captivated by the Marquesas over the last couple of centuries. Well before Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick” he jumped off a whaling ship in 1842, and spent some weeks living with the natives on Nuku Hiva, later writing the book “Typee”, which drew on his experiences during this time. Paul Gaugin was influenced by the tropical colour palette of the landscape and, having made these islands his home, is buried on Hiva Oa. Robert Louis Stevenson also spent time here (perhaps some inspiration for Treasure Island?) and Thor Heyerdahl, famous for the Kon Tiki raft voyage also paid a visit. Baie Hakatea (Daniels Bay) hosted the fourth season of “Survivor” some years ago, but happily it doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result and still looks largely unspoilt. Modern day tourism is very limited, but we did come across the “National Geographic Ocean”, a small eco-friendly cruise ship that has the dual task of monitoring both plastics and plankton in the water. Also the Aranui 5, which is a hybrid cruise ship/supply vessel and a fairly cost-effective way to visit the region.

You don’t have to wander far out of a village to find one of the numerous archeological sites, with large carved stone tikis and ruins of sacred sites, or maybe some petroglyphs. In ancient times Marquesans built their houses on stone platforms called pae pae. You can still see the stone ruins strewn about when walking through the jungle, suggesting the much larger population that once inhabited these  islands. Near such ruins there will usually also be the remains of a tohua, which was an open air public meeting place and centre of community life, social events, etc and perhaps a marae, an open-air temple made from huge stone blocks, used in times gone by for religious ceremonies, burials and occasional human sacrifices.

At Taiohae, Nuku Hiva we welcomed Alan W & Paul H aboard. This port is most memorable for the precarious negotiation required at the dingy dock. Each morning the local fishermen would clean their catch, throwing fish scraps into the harbour, right next to the steps where dingys come in. The ensuing shark frenzy going on right beside the dingy as we were disembarking was just a little nerve-racking to say the least! Having seen a lot of the coastline, we hired a car to be to appreciate the wonderful scenery from the interior.

At Taiohae we finally retired the old mainsail and the #2 jib. We knew that the main wouldn’t get us all the way to New Zealand, but we were pleased that we managed to get an extra 4,000nm out of it. As we were consigning the sails to the dump bin one of the locals very enthusiastically indicated he’d like to have them. The guy looked a bit fierce with his half tattooed face and was very animated. No problem, fine by us. Off he went with the sails to his kayak! Five days later we were a few bays around at Baie Hakatea, chatting with Koa and Taeke, a couple who had an immaculately maintained organic market garden. They were happy to sell us some of their wonderful produce, which we later picked straight from their plants, including fresh mint, basil and turmeric, amongst other things. Paul & I arranged to have a delicious lunch of langoustine (local lobster) prepared by them for us when we came back from our four hour walk to the Vaipo waterfall (which unfortunately wasn’t flowing – but the walk was really lovely, complete with river crossings).  Well, blow me down if Taeke didn’t turn out to be the same guy who’d taken our sails! Great to know that Loki’s old sails are being repurposed to help grow organic fruit and vegetables. Perhaps we should have left him our solar panels also? But that’s another story you’ll need to ask Fitzy about.

We are now back in civilisation again (Tahiti), so enjoying some real wifi at last! We’d love to hear what’s been happening at your end and will be able to respond to any emails you might feel inclined to send. Hope all is good with you.