Island of contrasts, where the volcanic vestiges are still clearly seen, this far-flung corner of the earth gives the visitor an opportunity to discover a Polynesia that is way off the beaten track, with its raw beauty and preserved environment.
Discovering Ua Huka is guaranteed breath of fresh air. Lying near the Equator, around 1,300 km Northeast of Tahiti, fourteen kilometers long by eight wide, it is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Marquesas’ so-called “northern group”. About a 20-minute flight from Nuku Hiva the archipelago’s main island, you can get there on board a small fifteen-seater aircraft.
You land at the airport that was built in 1972 –the oldest in the Marquesas – situated between the villages of Vaipaee and Hane. Quite different from the Land of Men’s other islands, Ua Huka is known for the arid soils of its plateaus, the sparse vegetation grazed by the many semi-wild horses that are found there. This is also why it is sometimes called « the island of horses », as it is said there are more horses than people. Relatively young – in geological terms – it was formed by several distinct periods of volcanic activity, that occurred between 3 and 1 million years ago. Shaped a bit like a giant croissant, facing the South, Ua Huka is lower than the other main islands of the archipelago.
A complex geological origin
The geological process that formed the island, with its highest point Mt. Hitikau reaching 884 meters in altitude, also created the current landscape. The northern part of the island, called the Terre déserte or no man’s land, rolls gently to the ocean forming small valleys while the southern coast, is deeply cut by the largest valleys. Formed around 3 million years ago by a shield volcano, similar to those found in Hawaii, the southern part of the island gradually collapsed towards the end of the volcano’s activity, creating a large oval caldera (depression) bordered by a vertical cliff. Within this caldera, two smaller volcanos grew. Finally, around a million years later, volcanic activity started again, at the island’s western tip. The two craters Tahoatikihau and Teepoepo, with their characteristic circular forms remain clearly visible today, and can be visited on a spectacular hike.
An interesting natural and human environment
Relatively isolated for a long time, up until the 1970s, when the small aerodrome was built, the island has been cushioned from the changes that have impacted other destinations. For this reason, Ua Huka will seduce travelers looking to find a preserved environment and a population that have maintained the tradition of hospitality and kindness. The inhabitants, (678 according to the 2017 census) live mostly in the villages of Vaipaee, Hane and Hokatu, clustered along the South coast. Today, the islands economy rests on three types of activity: the primary sector is craft and tourism.
This is one reason why it catches fewer clouds. Which gives it a drier climate, characterized by the yellowish plateaus that contrast strongly with the darker and more lush greenery found in the protected valleys. Huge coconut groves also climb up the hills. For its part, the coastline offers an attractively rugged mineral landscape, the rock grading through shades of ochre, set against an ocean in a symphony of deep blues. Thousands of birds wheel around their nesting sites in the cliffs and rocky islets that surround the island. Thirty-five different species have been recorded, both marine and terrestrial, 8 of these are endemic. The island also overflows with archaeological treasures, you find me’ae (sacred sites, called marae in Tahitian), tikis and petroglyphs engraved in the rock at some point in the past. Despite its small size, Ua Huka has several museums and a botanic garden, the famous Papuakeikaa arboretum. It is also renowned for the quality of its handicrafts.
The sixth island of the land of Mankind
It was only much later, at the end of the first millennium of our era that Ua Huka was colonized by humans, during migrations that reached across Eastern Polynesia and particularly the Marquesas. There are many archaeological sites on the island; evidence of the ancient population that inhabited the South coast, as well as some small areas in the West, up until the early 19th century. For around sixty years now, several archeological expeditions have documented the remains, whose traces are mainly stone structures: foundations of walls, agricultural terraces, tohua (communal meeting places), paepae (paved dwellings)… Traces of this period have also remained within the Marquesan oral tradition, starting with the island’s name. According to the creation legend of the six main Marquesan islands, Ua Huka was the final piece that finished god Oatea’s house, each of them being assigned an architectural role. Ua Huka was the hole (ua) where the remnants were placed (huka) during the construction process.
Breeding free roaming horse, coprah and fishing are another economic base. There is also hunting feral goats, the gathering of shells and crustacea (lobsters, crabs …), seabird eggs, as well as fruit. So many culinary riches that you will find on the menu at your guesthouse who propose a local cuisine that is simple but tasty. The island’s artists are master wood-carvers (war clubs, lances, bowls and bracelets…) (casse-têtes, lances, récipients et bracelets…). But others also work stone (tikis, pestles…), bone (hair pins, pendants), feathers (body ornaments), or produce monoï, preserves or other fruits products. Tourism allows the population to sell their craft products, particularly to the passengers of the mixed cargo and cruise ship Aranui 5, that passes every 2 to 3 weeks.
With its four museums and three craft centers, Ua Huka offers beautiful examples of domestic, ritual and war objects, once used by the population and now continue to inspire the pieces made by the craftsmen today, who are reputed for their skill. You can also visit the Papuakeikaa arboretum, a collection of endemic Polynesian plants and more than a thousand species of trees from across the world, including a large collection of different types of citrus trees.
A “different” destination
Less well-known than Hiva Oa, once home to the French painter Gauguin and Belgian entertainer Brel, or Nuku Hiva, the administrative center of the Marquesas made famous by the writings of the American novelist Melville, Ua Huka is nevertheless worth discovering. A short stay of two or three days will allow you to visit the coast, cliffs and rocky islets, overlooked by the tortuous road that links the island’s three villages. The view over the bays is impressive, as is the often rather precarious operation of unloading freight from the cargo boat the Taporo, which provides Ua Huka with a sealink to the rest of the world. Visiting Meiaute, an archaeological site above Hane, with its tiki carved in red tuff, will give you an idea of traditional architecture. The cross-island trail that links Hane and Hokatu, after leaving the site, makes for an easy and pleasant hike between the two bays.
A longer stay allows you to really explore the fascinating aspects of this island with its grandiose scenery shaped by the elements, far from the hurly-burly and noise. Take an outing to visit the perfectly circular craters of Tahoatikihau and Teepoepo, with a guide or the owners of your guesthouse, it is a hike in the mountains that lasts several hours and offers a unique Polynesian panorama over these ancient caldera, reminders of the volcanic past, with spectacular viewpoints over a jagged coastline. A walk through Vaikivi park, a protected nature reserve in the island’s center allows you to journey through vegetation that has been preserved for centuries, hiding archaeological treasures, notably petroglyphs. With its rich bird and marine biodiversity, Ua Huka, still free of the black rat, is also the island home of terrestrial bird species endemic to the archipelago. As for seabirds, they are found nesting on the many cliffs and rocky islets. Motu Hemeni and Teuaua, one flat and whitish in color, the other steep and red, are particularly valued by the locals, who visit them to harvest eggs, in a sustainable manner. Getting there is rather arduous and can be done (if the sea conditions allow) by those who are interested. At the same time, you can also watch the majestic forms of Manta Rays feeding in the rich coastal waters below.
In each village (Vaipaee, Hane, Hokatu) there is an arts center where objects are exhibited and sold by the islands art and craft associations. Every year in June, a competition where ancient objects are copie dis held between Ua Huka’s craftspeople. The winning objects are put on show at Te Tumu, in a hall adjoining the archaeology museum. Here the craftspeople of Hokatu busy themselves making traditional ornaments and leis, engraving coconut shell, carving wood and stone, making fragrant monoï or weaving nape (cord made from coconut husk fiber).
The municipal archaeology museum
Previously situated in Vaipaee, it moved to Te Tumu in 2015, above the airport. It presents ethnographic documents about different subjects (wood, stone…) in an interesting and clear manner, precious accounts of the Marquesan culture: familiar traditional objects, anthropomorphic wooden posts, tikis…
Museum of the sea
Located in Hane. You can find an exhibition about traditional fishing techniques, a collection of canoes from different periods, made by Joseph Vaatete, the archaeology museum’s curator.
The house of pertroglyphs
This small museum, on the edge of Hokatu’s beach, contains moulds of the petroglyphs found on the island, many of which are located in inaccessible areas now.
Te Tumu Center
Ua Huka a accueilli en 2013 une édition du festival des Marquises regroupant des délégations des six îles habitées de l’archipel. Un site de spectacle, Te Tumu, a été construit pour l’occasion et il accueille depuis lors le musée municipal.