Nuku Hiva, the Mystical Island

The magnificent Hatiheu bay in the north-eastern part of Nuku Hiva. © P. BacchetHakaui Valley with its deep canyons and immense waterfall. © P. BacchetThe peaceful village of Hatiheu. © P. BacchetMatateteiko point on the west coast. © P. BacchetThe end of Hakaui valley viewed from the sea. © P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet© P. BacchetTikipaeke archeological site atop of Taipivai valley. © P. BacchetKamuihei site at the entrance to Hatiheu village. © P. BacchetThe island’s southern coast with its spectacular volcanic rock formations is a geological laboratory under the open sky. © P. BacchetSunday ambience in the main village of Taiohae. © P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet©
Nuku Hiva, the Mystical Island
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With abrupt cliffs, several bays cut into ancient volcanoes and mountainous landscapes, Nuku Hiva’s wild beauty leaves an imprint on all visitors. This unique land is also rich in archeological ruins from an ancient Marquesan civilization. The island is a port of entry for hundreds of yachts that visit the waters of French Polynesia every year on their way from Panama Canal and the Galapagos Islands. Here is a discovery.

Located 1,500 km/932 miles north of Tahiti, Nuku Hiva is the most populated of the Marquesan Islands. As the main island of the northwestern group of the archipelago with a land area of 387 km2/ 240 sq. mi., it is also the second largest island in French Polynesia after Tahiti. Its rugged landscape is home to fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in the main village of Taiohae on the southern coast. The island is not at all dedicated to mass tourism, and this is what makes it so attractive. About 7-10° south of the equator, the Marquesan archipelago is one of the most remote. The closest continental coast is California at some 5,000 km/3107 miles away. The relief map shows an arch composed of ancient volcanoes split into two distinct groups in which the youngest range from the northwest (the island of Eiao at 5.5 million years) to the southeast (Fatu Hiva at 1.1 million years). Younger than the other islands in French Polynesia, the Marquesas were formed in a fairly recent era on the geological scale.

An ancient primordial culture

Due to its isolation, Nuku Hiva – like the other Marquesan Islands – stayed uninhabited from human occupation for a very long time. Austronesians settled in the first millennium AD following a wave of migrations of people from Southeast Asia. An indigenous culture developed up until the end of the 18th century. The entire archipelago shared myths and legends in common. The six inhabited islands of Te Henu ‘Enana—the Land of People in Northern Marquesan—comprise the elements of a house that the god Oatea built for his wife Atanua. The two central columns are represented by the island of Ua Pou. The long column placed on the two columns is the island of Hiva Oa. Nuku Hiva signifies the frame. Each island was autonomous due to rivalry between valleys on the same island, usually war-related. The numerous archeological sites on Nuku Hiva reveal the organization of a very structured society, as evidenced by the construction of impressive ceremonial platforms. Some of them, as seen on the Hikokua complex just before arriving at Hatiheu village, have been restored by archeologists in charge of identifying them.

From virtual disappearance to a cultural awakening

This legacy almost disappeared. The northwestern group of the Marquesas was “discovered” in 1791 by an American, Joseph Ingraham. Later that same year, Frenchman Étienne Marchand arrived. Over the following decades, whalers, merchants, missionaries, deserters and people on the hunt for precious sandalwood made irregular stopovers. During the 19th century, there was a devastating wave of mortality from diseases brought by Europeans, accompanied by the introduction of alcohol and firearms for tribal warfare. In addition, long periods of drought and economic deprivation emptied populations from the valleys. Until 1925, when a successful health intervention reversed the downward demographic trend, the archipelago was dangerously depopulated. At that time, there were just a few hundred inhabitant son the island of Nuku Hiva, compared to the 12,000-30,000estimate at the end of the eighteenth century.

Nuku Hiva, the largest of the northern group, has steep mountainous areas and has no protection from a barrier reef except for some areas such as the fringed reef in Anaho Bay. This particular feature gives it the wild aspect that makes it so beautiful. The coasts are like high walls sliced with deep crevasses with some beaches visible from the sea. Today, a road allows access to bays where magnificent landscapes overlook the island’s four villages. This road also crosses a vast tree-filled plateau that separates the airport from Taiohae, the main village. The narrow, remote valleys that slit through the mountain chains—the highest peak is Mt. Tekao at 1,224 m/4016 ft—are only accessible by sea or footpaths, which is an opportunity for memorable treks on foot or on horseback.

Numerous other sites throughout multiple valleys on the island still remain to be uncovered or revealed. Places (tohua) for dances, singing and feasts, foundations (paepae) of old houses, majestic stone-sculptured tikis, marae (places of worship called mea’e in Marquesan)… these structures composed of immense blocks of stone indicate an elaborate social organization. Traditional Marquesan culture, of which Nuku Hiva has many ruins, emerged from elsewhere in the Pacific. Today, it is believed that the Marquesas were populated later than Hawai’i—with whom the Marquesas share linguistic similarities—and perhaps also Easter Island.

Nuku Hiva is also known as “the mystical island” and today, like her sisters in the archipelago, she is rising from the ashes. Since 1987, a festival with the goal of reviving Marquesan culture has been held regularly on one of the three islands in the Archipelago. In 1989, 1999 and 2011, the festival took place on Nuku Hiva. It will be Nuku Hiva’s turn again in 2020. Moving beyond the old colonization wounds, this cultural revival expresses great vitality. The island is also inscribed within the archipelago as a whole as a tentative candidate for the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The archipelago has indeed exceptional natural ecosystems, i.e. a land rich in extraordinary marine and land biodiversity due to its isolation. In addition, its natural and cultural landscapes are of unquestionable aesthetic value. Already, the Marquesas meets six criteria as a World Heritage site—three for its cultural components and three for its natural attributes.

A source of inspiration for writers

Hiva Oa, the largest island in the southeastern group of the archipelago, is renowned for having sheltered the painter Paul Gauguin during his final years. Nuku Hiva was not left out as far as the attraction it had for famous writers. It inspired the American novelist Herman Melville. His experience deserting a whale ship became the basis for two autobiographical novels, Taïpi (Typee, in English) and Omoo. Interestingly, he described the living conditions of indigenous tribes during the first half of the 19th century before French colonization. In July 1842, taking advantage of land leave, Herman Melville escaped into the mountains overlooking Taiohae Bay. After five days on the run, he was peacefully welcomed by a tribe of cannibals, the Taïpi, yet kept captive. The Moby Dick author managed to escape in August and meet up with an Australian whale ship heading for Tahiti. His escape route was identifiable, and in the future, it became organized as a hiking trail. Almost 50 years later in 1888, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson arrived on Nuku Hiva with his fellow countryman’s tales in his head. The author of Treasure Island and In the South Seas was voyaging on the Casco with his wife, and it remained anchored in Taipivai Bay for several weeks.

Spectacular natural surroundings

With its high canyons and basaltic ridges that cut through the landscape, Nuku Hiva offers many opportunities for hiking and horseback riding. This is a chance to explore unique settings inhabited by friendly people and free range horses, cattle and goats. There are several waterfalls. Vaipo and Ahuii, at 350m/1150ft in Hakaui valley, descend into a grandiose setting within the deep fault of the Toovi plateau. Anaho Bay is just as spectacular when seen from the ridge overlooking Hatiheu village. Although the plateau is arid desert and home to the airport, the southern frontage has several fruit plantations (mostly lemons), which are the wealth of the island and exported to Tahiti.

Remarkable archeological sites

In Taioahe, the Temehea tohaa (ceremonial site) by the sea was restored for the second Marquesan Arts Festival. The Koueva site located towards the interior of the island was restored for the fifth festival which took place in December 1999. Artists from various archipelagoes created sculptures and traditional homes were reconstructed. Taipivai valley, the setting of Melville’s famous novel Taipi (Typee), is home to an exceptional site due to its stone tikis. Shortly before arriving at Hatiheu Bay, there are several restored tohaa and reconstructed traditional houses. Also worthy of a visit in this village is the “Maison Patrimoniale” (Cultural heritage house), a small museum dedicated to Marquesan culture.

Taioahe church

With its sculpted columns, the church symbolizes the union between the Marquesas and Catholicism that was endorsed in the middle of the 19th century. Today, the population is more than 90% Catholic.  

The amazing story of tattooed Kabris

Joseph Kabris was forced to enlist on a privateer ship contracted as a warship when he was 13. When he was 16 in 1793, Kabris embarked on a whale hunting expedition. At 17, he landed in Nuku Hiva, the Marquesas. This is when the most surprising aspects of an adventurous life began for this young sailor from Bordeaux. He ended his days as part of a freak show, displaying his tattooed body from head to toe. He adopted the habits and customs of the tribe after he washed up on shore after deserting a ship 30 years before Melville. He married the daughter of a chief on the island where he lived for about ten years. Held against his will on a Russian vessel that must have cast off after a storm, he found himself in Vladivostok, crossed all of Siberia on foot and became a lifeguard to the tsar…as well as a spy for Napoleon in Saint Petersburg.

Nuku Hiva, the Mystical Island
With abrupt cliffs, several bays cut into ancient volcanoes and mountainous landscapes, Nuku Hiva’s wild beauty leaves an imprint on all visitors. This unique land is also rich in archeological ruins from an ancient Marquesan civilization. The island is a port of entry for hundreds of yachts that visit the waters of French Polynesia every year on their way from Panama Canal and the Galapagos Islands. Here is a discovery.
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