Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Nuku Hiva Island - Hakaui Valley & Hakatea/Daniel's Bay

[Kyle]We had a light wind sail, which morphed into a very rainy passage around to the south side of the island - but since we were planning a trip to a waterfall the following day - I guess we should expect it to be on great display!

During the sail, we came across 2 dolphins simply floating on the water (We’ve never seen them so still before) – as the boat approached them, they simply swam off so we assume they were quite healthy.

Along the coast the rain and mist clouded our arrival and made for quite eerie scene. Arriving in Hakatea Bay, we were expecting it to be quite crowded as it is pretty much the main attraction on Nuku Hiva. There were seven boats in the anchorage when we arrived, making us the eighth, with room for another two or three before any of us would start having to resort to stern anchors – the surrounding mountains are very dramatic. After anchoring, the sun finally came out and slowly cleared up some of the mist and improved the view.

We knew our first full day in Hakatea Bay was going to be a long one. The hike to the Vaipo waterfall was said to be about two hours each way from the nearby village of Hakaui, which itself was a thirty-minute walk away. Experience has taught us that such estimates are usually made by people who do these walks all of the time. As first timers, we are almost always slower because we are stopping regularly to enjoy the views of all of the stuff we’ve never seen before and because there’s usually one or two places where the trail gets hard to follow because it’s overgrown or passes over rock, requiring us to scout around looking for its continuation. It seems like it had been raining a lot lately, so we were expecting lots of mud and boggy bits to slow us down as well. So, loaded down with all of our day hiking gear, we landed the dinghy on the beach as soon as it was light out.

A little history: Until just a couple of years after the turn of the twentieth century, the Marquesas were ruled by a King and Queen from their palace at Hakaui. In its heyday the village housed over 30,000 people. Now it’s “up to” eight houses from a low of one. A main thoroughfare, known as “The Royal Road” was built to connect various parts of the community. Since the valley at Hakaui was filled with dwellings, most of their food was grown in the next valley over at Hakatea.

It was from the beach here that we joined the terminus of the Royal Road to Hakaui. At this point, the “road” looked like any other dirt (and mud) trail, albeit a well-established one with a nice stone border. The first thing we learned was that, at this time of morning, it was necessary to have a good, long stick. The path was fine, with only a few narrow spots. The stick was for taking down the many spider webs constructed since the last passersby. The spiders seemed to be all the same species and were small and non-aggressive, but nobody likes an unexpected spider web in the face. As I walked along, waving it rhythmically in front of me, I kept feeling like I should be saying, “Bless you, my child. Bless you, my child.”.

At Hakaui, the path widened to become a wide, tree-lined strip of grass that looked similar enough to the many beautiful gardens in the village that we were worried for a moment that we had inadvertently cut across somebody’s property until we saw the markers leading right through the river and to the other side.

This is where we learned that I should have selected a stouter stick. All of the runoff from the rains had turned the river the color of chocolate milk, making it hard to gauge the depth. The current was pretty strong and it would have been useful to have something with which to brace against the force. As such, our stick was only useful as a depth finder like a blind person’s cane. The bottom descended alarmingly to waist height before decreasing again. After a first pass, I was able to brace myself firmly in the deepest, swiftest spot so that Maryanne could have something secure to hold onto as she crossed. {Maryanne: I'm not sure we were aware of what we were signing up to}

Across the river, the road took a sharp right at the village’s only telephone booth, which is solar-powered and only works in the day. There, we saw a notice posted about a new 1,000CPF fee for visitors to the valley and falls. We had brought 3,000CPF with us just in case we would be able to buy a meal or some produce. There’s supposed to be a place here where you can order your lunch on the way up to the falls and they will have it ready for you on the way back. We had a few granola bars as backup, but we were kinda looking forward to that.

The path / Royal road

A little while further, we encountered two men tidying up the path. One was Paul, who it turns out was responsible for intercepting hikers and collecting the fee, and giving visitors a general introduction to the area. He introduced us to the other, his Great Uncle, Mathias. Mathias and his wife would be happy to prepare a Marquesan meal for us when we got back for only 1000CPF each. It sounded great, but Maryanne explained that while we had been hoping to dine ashore, with the unexpected fee, we wouldn’t have enough. Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow. They seemed disappointed but understanding and wished us a good hike.

A little while later, Paul came up and offered to lend us the money for dinner if we would like. So this is how people get involved with the Marquesan mob! He dug out 1000 francs from the fees we had paid him and handed it back to us. We accepted his offer and thanked him profusely and he ran off to put in our order.

The Royal Road kept us under the shade of tropical foliage as we passed by the overgrown foundations of the great village that once was. We crossed a couple of shoe-sucking muddy bits and I remembered my need for a better stick. We each selected several that snapped in two when we gave the ground a good test stab. Hmmm…must find a good, non-waterlogged stout stick.

At the next river crossing, which looked more energetic than the previous, we retraced our steps until we found what we needed. Mine was a bit heavy for general walking, but it was strong enough take my full weight if I needed to plant it with both hands.

On the other side, the “road” narrowed back into a normal-looking footpath and gradually climbed the jungle on the valley floor as the steep cliffs on either side slowly converged. After an hour or so, we came to a clearing, which gave us a view of the most of Vaipo Falls that it is possible to see without a helicopter. With an uninterrupted drop of 350m (1,048’), it is the highest in French Polynesia, but it falls into such a steep chute that the whole thing can only be seen from the air. The trail we were on was supposed to take us to where we could see the top 1/3rd and feel the mist at the bottom.

Deep into the valley

After a bit more mud and rocks, we came upon the confluence of two fast-moving rivers and a “Falling Rock, Access Prohibited” sign on one side of the trail with no obvious route beyond. The cliffs overhead were mostly obscured by the jungle canopy. After a lot of unsuccessful searching, we finally gave up. Before we left, though, I decided to take my stick and wade into the rapids in the middle to see if I could get a photo clear of the trees. I was standing there with my feet wedged between stones, one hand on my stick and the other on my camera, when Maryanne shouted over asking if I could see any signs of a trail on the other side. Well, no, but since I’m already halfway across, I might as well go take a look. Sure enough, through a break in the trees that wasn’t visible from her side, there looked like something that might be a path. I scrambled up the shore, climbed the bank, and, yup – there it was.

We thought getting her across was going to be a challenge, but by the time I joined up with her again, I had already been across twice, so I had figured out the easiest route. The cliffs encroached further until they were right at the edge of the trail. We came across another “Falling Rock” sign at another set of rapids. We knew what that meant. We splashed in and started picking our way across.

At the third sign, the trail came to a conspicuous ending at a sheer wall of rock. Through a gap in the cliffs could be seen the top third of the falls and the bottom edge of the mist, which had the really cool effect of shooting upwards at the opposite wall almost as fast as it had been falling just a few seconds before.

Paul had warned us not to linger too long at this spot because the rains had made for a lot of falling rock, “and some trees”. We beat a hasty retreat back under the jungle canopy, where the coconuts on the ground served as reminders that nowhere around here is perfectly safe. We had expected to see people on the way up who had started after us, but no one came.

Since we knew the way by then and had seen most of it, we arrived back in Hakaui almost exactly two hours later. Paul met us and told us our dinner was ready.

The large table was set just for us and then bowl after bowl of food was placed before us.

We had:
Poisson Cru (raw tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk)
Roast chicken (Timmy!) in a rich brown gravy
A salad made from the shaved rind of what I think she said was cassava, with a dressing that tasted pretty close to honey mustard with a hint of raspberry vinaigrette
Steamed Rice
Coconut Gnocci
Fried bananas
Homemade lemonade

There was enough food for six people. It was all dee-licous, so I called them on their bluff and had seconds and thirds. They seemed pleased. I suppose that would be better than picking at it lightly to be polite and then pushing my plate away. They said I was a true Marquesan.

Maryanne and I only know enough French to make about five or ten minutes of small talk before exhausting our repertoire, which meant we spent most of our meal conspicuously in the center of their home as the two cooks watched us eat their food. It was hard not to not feel self conscious. Am I eating too fast? Too slow? Am I supposed to be eating this with utensils or my fingers? Am I making too big of a mess or are they hoping I’ll let loose and really dig in? They offered no feedback other than polite, Mona Lisa smiles.

We were so relieved when Paul came by. He is lees stoic and his English is good enough that we only had to dig out a French word or two every now and then when he looked confused. We learned from him that no one in the village has a boat, so most people collect things from the main town of Taiohae by going three hours each way on horseback. He said it was about a five-hour walk, but most of them preferred to run, which only takes two hours. Two hours – each way! And the terrain around here has a flatness quotient of, uh, zero. He said if they needed to haul a really big load, they would all pitch in and rent a boat, which, of course, they have to go into town to retrieve. Mostly, they try to not need things from town, which explains why our whole meal, with the exception of the rice, came from pretty much where it was cooked.

Once back at Begonia, I grabbed some more money and rowed the dinghy around the point to the river landing at Hakaui to pay Paul back his 1000 francs. While I was there, he showed me around the rest of the beautiful village that we had missed earlier, including the massive foundation of the old palace, upon which now sits a regular sized house and a giant inner yard, where his uncle now lives. We made introductions and somehow in the process, I had agreed to buy 5 pamplemouse for 500 francs. The next thing I knew, I was standing under a pamplemouse tree as Paul handed freshly picked ones down. After the fifth, he handed me another. This seems to be pretty typical Marquesan fruit math. He said it was because two of them weren’t very big. So I ended up with a sack of four basketballs and two soccer balls that weighed fifty pounds.

The village and the row over were so pretty that I decided I just had to come back with Maryanne. The beach is way too surfy and the river is only accessible at high tide, the next of which was at sunrise. By then, there was only one other boat left and they looked like they were preparing to leave. We left before I’d even made coffee!

Most of the villagers were up by then and we were greeted with waves of recognition. We stopped at the house of a couple who we had seen working in their garden the afternoon before and chatted for a bit. They were very nice and, of course, we left with an armful of fruit and even a few vegetables. As we were leaving, I noticed a pepper tree of the same type I had found way up at the falls the day before. It produces tiny little jalapeƱo-shaped peppers with a big kick. I would guess that if the little things were as big as habaneros, they would be just as hot. I must’ve let out an involuntary squeal of delight, because the next thing I knew, a whole branch was broken off and given to us to take home. We had been given the bouquet from our table the night before and the pretty little peppers fit right in. Mmmm…an edible bouquet!

Bountiful food provided by beautiful people at this beautiful village
oh and us enjoying it all

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