At the heart of the Marquesas Archipelago, this small island features untouched nature enhanced by a scenery of uncommon diversity. Unavoidedly seduced, the visitor will find it difficult to leave such an hospitable and fascinating place.
At about 1,300 Km (800 miles) Northeast of Tahiti, in the Marquesas Archipelago, Ua Huka offers to his visitors an extraordinary immersion into an off the beaten paths Polynesia, with a rough beauty and a preserved environment. With its high silhouette of tormented shapes, the island appears in the shape of a « crescent » widely open to the South along fourteen kilometers and eight km wide. In its center, it features a powerful mountain range, shaped like a circle arc, interrupted by crests like Mount Hitikau rising over 817 meters (2,300 ft) over the ocean. This wall of black rock and green vegetation reveals the volcanic origin of this land at the end of the world, as Ua Huka is made up of the remains of several volcanoes and their caldeira, the specialists’ term for a collapsed crater.
At first glance, this land may appear very rough, if not inhospitable. However Ua Huka, like its sister islands in the Marquesas Archipelago, has been populated by Polynesians for many centuries! The arrival dates of these first settlers, coming from Western Polynesia, are still being questioned, ranging between the year One Thousand and the 13th Century. It still to say that it is much later that European and American visitors claimed to have “discovered” the archipelago and this island. In June 1791, French Ship Captain Etienne Marchand sighted the Northern group of the Marquesas composed, of course, of Ua Huka, but also of Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Eiao and Hatutu. He called them “Iles de la Révolution” (Revolution Island), a very fashionable term in France at the time. But in fact, three months earlier, the same group of islands had been sighted by American navigator Ingraham who, on his side, had named them “Washington Islands”.
It is after giant eruptions that the island rose from the bottom of the ocean, over 3.2 million years before our time. Then new episodes of volcanic activity, erosion and variations in the level of the ocean followed for thousands of years to shape the present face of Ua Huka. A face characterized by deep valleys streaking the whole island and where the three villages of Vaipaee, Hane and Hokatu are located. Most of the 570 inhabitants are gathered there and benefit from openings to the sea, through bays at the valleys’ mouths and from a more present vegetation, clashing with the bareness and aridity of the wilderness covering a large part of the island.
This story of names illustrates the race for colonial possessions at the time. But it was France that imposed itself and annexed all the Marquesas Islands in August 1842. Today the around five hundred inhabitants of Ua Huka appear to be much attached to their island, its peculiarities and its riches, this in spite of its relative isolation. Life here has to be in close harmony with the environment: fishing, agriculture and raising semi-free horses and goats take a major place in the daily life. Little by little, tourism is developing. Due to the island’s powerful assets, first of which, of course, is its environment, but also due to the wish of its people who are willing to share its treasures, as can be seen in the many small museums and the quantity of “pensions de famille” (guest houses). Of Ua Huka, the visitor will keep strong memories and feelings as if he went on more than a trip: he would indeed have lived an unforgettable experience.
Diversity and Beauty
With the amazing diversity of its scenery and its natural riches, the island will not fail to surprise its visitors. Discoveries and excursions in a very fascinating land.
Discovering Ua Huka, means beginning a long trip that starts way back in time, three million years ago. A very remote past that reveals itself to today’s visitors who will admire the impressive mountain range that crosses the island with its steep slopes, the remains of a first volcano that rose out of the ocean in these very early times. Each evening on these spurs, the sunset and dusk lights come to offer an ever-renewing spectacle. But this is not the end of the story. The village of Hane and its valley are hiding today in a backdrop that owes everything to an ancient volcano bearing the name of that very same village. It unleashed itself inside the immense caldeira left by the first volcano. From this episode, the island inherited one its most emblematic features, the Motuhane islet, a rocky block with the astonishing shape of a sugar loaf, rising over 100 meters (300 ft) high, only a few meters from the shore. This immemorial stone guardian, thus appears to protect both the Hane and Hokatu bays.
On the Southwest, overlooking the narrow Vaipaee Bay, also called the “invisible bay” as it is so narrow, slopes of dark rocks, topped by a circular pit, reveal again the presence of volcanic remains, these are the remains of the Teepoepoe. It shaped this part of the island after the Hane volcano, a million years ago. By plane and on a clear day, the visitor will not fail to notice its characteristic silhouette. Finally, the story could not be complete without mentioning the Tahoatitikau, extinct for only 730,000 years. This is barely a few seconds in the past at the scale of geological time! A pleasant excursion, which lasts a few hours, amid a vegetation of barren composed of small trees and bushes, lets you hike around its old crater while discovering spectacular viewpoints on the island. By raising his eyes, the visitor will not fail to admire Mount Hitikau and its range of neighboring heights, elevated masses which hook the clouds and cause the indispensable rains feeding the island’s bodies of water.
Under the Trees…
While waiting for he rain to return, greenery still survives in narrow valleys. This is where herds of horses seek refuge until they are rounded up by their owners, but also by other island inhabitants. Higher up, we enter an area of lush vegetation contrasting with the bareness of the other part of the island. Large coconut groves spread all the way to the foot of the cliffs, an unusual layout found only in the archipelago. Well maintained and cultivated, its vast cultures allow the harvesting of copra, which after being dried, will be sold and shipped to the island of Tahiti. A difficult resource and hard work that remain indispensable in the life of many inhabitants of the island. But this part of the island is also an area of thick forests where mango trees grow, whose fruit cover the grounds (making the horses very happy!), also banana trees and majestic pandanus, called Hau in Marquesan language, whose aerial roots grow into strange shapes. Banyans, avocado trees and breadfruit trees complement all this vegetation. In its heights and in its foliage hide also one of the most characteristic riches of the island, its birds.
A “Far West” Look
Surprising land this Ua Huka, that doesn’t hesitate to change its look year after year and season after season. During dry periods, a still very mysterious cyclical phenomenon in the archipelago’s climatology, a portion of the island starts looking like the American Far West: dominating ochre colors, dust, wind and tumble weeds. Dried out rivers turn into canyons and over large areas, only rock and stones seem to grow. There a yellowish dried out vegetation clings to survive the heat and the ocean wind. A quasi-desertification where even cactuses are present, a vegetal species carelessly introduced on the island and that found itself at home in such environment, where it competes with endemic species, That phenomenon is aggravated by the voracious appetite of herds of wild goats, fearsome vegetation predators and to a lesser extent by herds of horses. These are semi-wild animals that do belong to the island’s inhabitants, even if sometimes, they wander where they want, through this scenery and accentuate the strange feeling, when you are in the middle of the South Pacific, of being right in the middle of the American West. The ocean bright deep blue that contrasts with this scenery, however reminds you that Ua Huka is an island, which is almost located under the Equator. To admire a completely different Ua Huka, more conform to the image of tropical “green paradises”, the visitor will have to return after more rainy periods when he will see the same scenery, but all dressed in green!
The visitor will have to be very careful to try and see its superb birds among which many are endemic in the Archipelago, such as the Marquesan Rousserolle or komako in Marquesan (Acrocephalus mendanae), the Petit-Thouars Ptilope or kiku (Ptilinopus dupetithouarsii), the Carpophage or upe (Ducula galeata). And for the luckiest or the most patients, the Overseas Lori or Pihiti, (Vini ultramarina), the emblematic bird of the Archipelago that has unfortunately disappeared in all other islands. Seriously threatened to become extinct, it has in Ua Huka, a preserved island, found its unique and ultimate refuge. Fortunately, all this scenery is accessible through many trails and paths. One of the most interesting and accessible hike is the one that connects the village of Hane to Hokatu, via the mountain, through a small pass between the two valleys. A chance to discover the many natural faces of the island while hiking through the coconut groves and the forest. Breathtaking viewpoints on both valleys are then offered to hikers. But of course, many other trails are also possible for many more discoveries.
Hokatu, Valley of The Arts
At the Southwest extremity of the island, the small valley of Hokatu is a high place of handicraft creation. An entire population is involved. Discovery.
At the place where the road stops, as if it renounces to go further in front of the cliffs, there is the Hokatu Valley and its small village of 160 inhabitants. It is an attractive place, a little outside of time and out of this world. The place emanates some particular energy. A few meters away from the edge of the small creek where the fishermen anchor their boats, is the artisans’ fare. Some village young women are busy maintaining the surroundings as, here, beats the heart of one of the village’s key activities: arts and crafts. In this small house, that looks like an astonishing Ali Baba cavern with an entrance bordered with tall Tiare Tahiti, are accumulated the objects produced by the work of dozens of artisans: sculptures, mostly wood, decoration objects and adornments. “Among the 160 inhabitants, there are over 40 artisans” proudly explains Delphine Rootuehine, President of the Hanakatahi Association. An Association, which brings together the artisans of Hokatu and manages the place, which acts as a consignment shop where everyone brings his/her own production. Delphine continues: “Hanakatahi, in Marquesian means “young growth” but also “stand up”. A strong message that we wish to get through to our youth!” We can only approve the objective of Delphine, a respected and listened to personality of the island. This former school teacher with communicative energy, also manages with her husband Maurice Rootuehine, the “Maurice et Delphine” “pension” (guest house), the only pension in Hokatu village, and an address well known by those who visit Ua Huka. Maurice is also one of Ua Huka’s main personalities as he is considered one of the best sculptors in the entire Marquesas Islands.
Behind the building and in the cool of the shade, young Association women are busy. There, everybody works in teams to better exchange their knowledge and their techniques. The most experienced – namely the elders – who master traditional handicraft know-how, teach the youngest and the beginners. Delphine feels strongly about this exchange within the Association and its 27 members. Two young women, Heiana and Vaehina make necklaces with bright color seeds, one of the archipelago’s and the island’s greatest specialties. One of them pierces them. It is a most delicate job, as she has to avoid bursting the seed. These seeds are minuscule, and are barely visible between her fingers. The raw material necessary is, of course, supplied free by the island’s nature, but long hours are still needed to find these precious seeds whose colors are totally natural. A few steps away, Anne-Marie, one of the senior members in the Association, shows us how she makes dried out bananas, another Marquesan specialty.
After being left in the sun, the fruit is delicately wrapped in dried out banana tree bark, then everything is tied together with fibers of burau, H’au, in Marquesan. Then Anne-Marie begins to assemble a costume made of coconut fibers, a fiber which comes from inside the coconut. This is a weaving technique called puukaha in Marquesan that only a handful of Marquesans still masters in all of French Polynesia. Further, Antoinette, weaves a small basket made of coconut tree fronds. Everything is done in a few minutes. A 100% natural and biodegradable basket to replace stores’ plastic bags! Less ordinary, Cindy, one of the village’s young women works on the creation of a carved coconut with great precision, she skillfully handles a small gouge. She proves that sculpture is not only the domain of men and carves delicately patterns, which are her own personal creations.
A few steps away, Calice finalizes the making of a superb paddle. A piece that she has been working on and on again, chiseling complex patterns. The rosewood she uses is the miro (Oceania rosewood, thespesia populnea in its scientific name). Little by little, the object takes shape under her skillful hands. Wood sculpture is the great specialty of Hokatu and of its artisans who create magnificent pieces: umete (a type of typically Marquesan long tray), jewelry boxes, sea turtles and rays figures, paddles, decoration pieces and of course reproduction of ancient adzes and ti’i (tiki). The creators are inspired by the fantastic heritage left by the ancient Marquesan civilization which brought the arts such as sculpture to a high degree of refinement. This art is unanimously renown at the International level. But the past is not the only guide and new generations re-create and update this precious heritage. Once the work is done, they have then to ensure its marketing and sale. The arrival of the Aranui, a passenger-freighter that ensures both freight transportation and cruise activities, is more than impatiently awaited. It sails from island to island and from valley to valley and brings tourists from all over the world about every three weeks. Its visit has a key importance for the Hokatu artisans. “When the Aranui arrives, people’s lives come to a stop.” As Delphine describes it very well. Many sales are done then. The income collected is very important for the islanders. Handicrafts are a key activity and its gives new perspectives to new generations, and perhaps avoids for them the rupture of an exile to more economically developed islands. Other major moments, the salons and exhibitions regularly organized on the island of Tahiti. As a good missionary of the Association, Delphine then goes there with the creations of the Members of the Association to reveal the arts and crafts of her country, of her island and of this valley where it is hoped that the “young growth” will return excellent crops in the future.