With spectacular volcanic peaks that rise over 1,000 m above the Pacific Ocean and deep valleys studded with ancient sites, the island of Ua Pou is a destination far from ordinary. To visit Ua Pou is to visit the soul of the Marquesas. Discover this unforgettable destination.
Situated 1,300km northeast of Tahiti, Ua Pou is part of the Marquesas archipelago. Geologically the youngest island in the group, Ua Pou has an especially striking silhouette. Twelve massive columns of phonolite (a type of volcanic rock) give the island a grandiose facade not unlike a baroque cathedral. A mountainous ridge crosses the island from the north to the south, its highest peak being Oava, which at 1,232 meters is the highest in the archipelago. The oldest archeological evidence on the island has been dated at around 200 BCE and was discovered by archaeologist Pierre Ottino. The site is in a little shelter under a rock in Anapua Bay. The date corresponds with the time that the first Polynesian explorers would have been making their trans-Pacific migrations that brought them from Southeast Asia to the islands of Polynesia.
Arriving on January 15, 1840, the first Catholic missionaries had a hard time establishing themselves. The “good morals” they tried to enforce upon the locals made them forbid many forms of cultural expression. They also prohibited alcohol, and firearms which had been the root of many deaths among the local population alongside diseases, such as Smallpox and tuberculosis that had been brought in by visitors from the exterior. By 1885 the population of Ua Pou had plummeted to 400, down from the 2,500 at the end of the 17th century. It was both a human and cultural devastation and it took considerable time for the Marquesans to recover from it. Today, with 2,300 inhabitants, Ua Pou has the greatest population density in the whole archipelago. Visitors will meet a dynamic and particularly warm people who are proud of their roots and their own culture as well as the entire culture of the Marquesas.
To understand the significance of the creation of this group, think about the fact that up to 1870 all forms of cultural expression were, purely and simply, prohibited by the missionaries. Marquesan language, tattoos, dance and even perfume were forbidden. This period of colonization, when the Marquesans were pushed to adopt the culture of outsiders, deeply affected their soul. A century later at the beginning of the 1980s, after so many years of being devalued and the guilt associated with that, a true cultural renaissance began to take form throughout French Polynesia. But before the movement hit the Marquesas, this resurgence was already underway in Tahiti. Toti Teikiehuupoko was shocked: out in the Marquesas “Tahitian” culture was making a comeback but what about the Marquesan language, songs and dance? Out in these far away islands these old traditions had shone for centuries and now they were being replaced by those from Tahiti. It was time to take a stand. Toti Teikiehuupoko didn’t know exactly where to begin but he set forth to revive his culture.
And this is how, in the 1980s, the association was able to infiltrate and win over all the islands of the Marquesas. Eventually, this led to the first Marquesan Arts Festival in 1987 on Ua Pou. In 1991 Motu Haka, satellite associations to Te Motu Haka Ote Henua Enana, were created through the Marquesas to give each island some autonomy. These smaller groups continue to study and open up Marquesan traditions today and will do sointo the future. But Toti’s journey doesn’t end there: “Every part of the culture that can be saved should be saved,” he says. And the world hopes he succeeds.
Ua Pou, without a doubt was one of the high seats of Marquesian culture and one of the richest civilizations in all the South Pacific. Over several centuries the ancient Marquesans developed a society that was hierarchical and highly structured. The civilization peaked during the 15th to 18th centuries. It was much later that Ua Pou was “discovered” by European explorers. In June 1791, the French captain Etienne Marchand embarked on the island and immediately claimed it in name of King Louis XVI. This made Ua Pou the first Marquesan territory claimed by the French, fifty years prior to the official annexation of the entire archipelago in 1840. Ua Pou remained relatively unvisited by international explorers because of its lack of a secure anchorage. On top of this, the island had little sandalwood, which was extremely sought after at the end of the 19th century and was much more abundant on the surrounding islands. Ua Pou also stands out because it had a unique system of government; only one chief, Heato, ruled the island.
At the heart of the Marquesan cultural renaissance
Among the islands of the Marquesas archipelago, Ua Pou has, without a doubt, been one of the most central points of the Marquesan cultural renaissance which began in the early eighties. Also, in 1987 Ua Pou hosted the first Marquesan Arts Festival, an event that strongly contributed to the cultural movement and has since become its principal symbol. Every four years on one of the four of the Marquesas’ most populated islands, the festival brings together delegations from around the archipelago but also from other islands in the Polynesian triangle such as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter island. With over 1,800 participants, the Marquesan Arts Festival has become one of the most reputed festivals in the South Pacific. Participants as well as visitors are lucky spectators to a whole range of cultural activities such as dances, singing and sports. Returning to its roots 20 years after the first festival, Ua Pou once again hosted the festival in December 2007. The association Te Motu Haka Ote Henua Enana (meaning the gathering of the Marquesan people to uphold their culture) is at the heart of the festival. The association was created on December 31, 1978 by Georges Teikiehuupoko (AKA “Toti”), who was a teacher on Ua Pou.
Ironically, it was Father Le Cléac’h, bishop to the Marquesas at that time, who advised Toti Teikiehuupoko to start an association for the protection, conservation and promotion of the Marquesan culture; and thus Te Motu Haka Ote Henua Enana was born. But the hardest part was still to be done. Getting the older people of the island to talk about stories that had previously been considered to “pagan” and tabu, was not going to be easy. “I realized that the elderly people of our islands held with them huge stores on information about our culture but they didn’t want to talk about it,” says Toti Teikiehuupoko. “Throughout their whole lives they had been witness to the eradication of their culture and here we were asking them to tell us all about it because we wanted to bring back out ancient culture and traditions!” “‘You will awaken paganism,’ the old folks told us. Father Le Cléac’h was the honorary president of the association and I have to say that his presence, even if it was only symbolic, was a great help to us when we went to visit around the islands. That really helped un-freeze people’s tongues! We were able to tell the old people: ‘if we are pagans then Father Le Cléac’h is a pagan too because he is the head of our association.'”
The stone Catholic church in the village of Hakahau is home to some remarkable sculptures. Made and designed by local artists, the pieces are perfect examples of the absorption of the religion into Marquesan culture as well as reflecting the artistic style of the island. The Virgin and her Infant is the most striking sculpture, the baby holding a large breadfruit in his hands. The sounds of pahu and haka can be heard in the distance at a nearby community center where a group practices their song and dance for the “Mini Arts Festival” in Tahuata. We walk along the beach from the church and follow the road towards Pukue’e pension. After walking a few minutes more we come across a white cross on a hilltop and a magnificent view of Hakahau Bay and Anaho Beach, awash in white and turquoise.
Hakamoui, or "Chief's Valley"
Hakamoui Beach is at the bottom of “Chief’s Valley,” often misnamed “King’s Valley.” Lobsters and octopus flourish here along the sea cliffs while manta rays glide about, on their guard for black tip reef sharks who come out looking for an easy meal when locals come out to fish. On our return we visit a meae (an ancient temple, called marae in Tahitian) at Temenaha. At three tiers high, it’s the tallest in Ua Pou. The meae was built by in ancient times and served as a place for spiritual exchange for village chiefs. The site is only accessible if you are with a local because it’s located on private property. We admire the anthropomorphic sculptures and a big tiki that’s in good condition. Unfortunately, this site was pillaged many years ago and the tiki that once graced the platforms were taken. European collectors of the time doted on these “pagan” trophies, which they showed of with their other treasures. For some of the Marquesan people who had converted to Catholicism, these ancient symbols were nothing more than merchandise that they could use to make a bit of money.
We leave Hakahau by 4X4 for Hohoi on the east coast of the island. The entire length of the road is lined with turbulently lush vegetation made up of teak, kauri, coffee, avocado, guava, mango, noni and, especially, acacias. The acacias, like miconia on Tahiti are veritable pests and cover the hills that were once covered in endemic plants. Brought in to feed the goats, acacias proved to be particularly happy in this climate and have now managed to nearly completely take over and monopolize the ground water reserves. Also along the road are lots of archaeological sites. In particular, pae pae, the foundations of ancient houses, are everywhere and are being slowly eaten up by the surrounding vegetation. These sites were witness to ancient times that we now unfortunately little about. There are many interpretations of the pae pae and everyone seems to have his or her own version of stories that have been orally passed down through the ages. Ultimately, it’s not the search for the truth behind these vestiges that has become important, but how they can help us commune with the past, the islander’s ancestors and help people better chose their path towards the future. On the beach of Hohoi, if one looks closely, you can find the island’s famous flowering rocks, which are extremely prized by sculptors. These rocks are formed by phenolites, which make a flower form when they crystallize.
Shark Bay, also called Hakahani Beach, is found nearby between the island’s airstrip and the village of Hakahetau to the west. With its crescent of light sand, limpid waters and its backdrop of stunning cliffs, this beach is one of the loveliest in all of French Polynesia. Meanwhile, the peaceful yet playful village of Hakahetau feels like the ends of the earth. The church is not far from the beach, has a picturesque red bell tower, is surrounded by tropical flora and was home to Bishop Le Cléac’h. The Bishop, who was one of the main players in the Marquesan cultural movement with the Motu Haka Asociation, is now retired. Hakahau is also fertile ground for artisits of all genres: sculptors, jewelers, traditional artisans and more.