For the world travelers as well as for us Polynesians, the Marquesas Islands are probably the most fascinating and intimidating islands throughout the 5 Archipelagos. Located more than 4 hours by plane from Tahiti, very few of us have had the chance to discover them. But even if they are located more than a thousand kilometers away, their grandiose geography, their fascinating history and their striking culture calls for a certain respect.
As far as I am concerned, it’s an unexpected stroke of luck during a sweepstake that took me to the Marquesas. I was far from imagining that a lottely ticket would take me to the illustrious Fenua Enata, Land of Men.
It’s in Nuku Hiva, on the first day of this amazing journey, that the most beautiful adventure of my stay in the Marquesas will take place: the discovery of the Hakaui Valley! I knew very little of this valley. I had only heard about the Vaipo waterfall that can be found there. Measuring more than 350 meters, it is the highest waterfall in Polynesia. A must see of the Marquesas, some travelers even make the trip only to see it.
It is on a boat, in a bay south of Nuku Hiva, that we begin our expedition. Our guides of the day, Maria and her husband Mai, share with our group many anecdotes while we travel along the coast between Tapivai and Hakaui. They tell us about the life on their island, the village of Tapivai, the Manta rays that can be very easily found in the area, the jellyfishes we notice under the boat, local fishermen, and even the horses we see on a hill in the distance. This crossing gives the tone of our adventure. The wild beauty of the Marquesas makes a dazzling entry from the first moments of the day through the steep cliffs that stand in front of us to end directly into the ocean. Above the sea, vegetation, soil and rocks mix to form a colorful and harmonious picture. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, in Polynesia as well as elsewhere!
After a thirty minutes crossing, we finally arrive at the Hakaui Bay. It is clear that the show, until then, was just beginning! The decor is breathtaking. As we enter the bay, basalt giants stand before us, guardians of this incredible place they watch tirelessly. It is in front of this incredible scenery, in the middle of the bay’s calmer waters, that we cast anchor! Before setting foot on the ground, Mai tells us that several hundred years ago, the valley sheltered the main village of Nuku Hiva. This is where the royal family lived. Today, it’s like time has stopped. Almost desert, only a small dozen inhabitants makes the heart of this captivating place beat. Here there is no school, grocery store, port, infirmary, or even car. There are only a few very simple houses, harmoniously placed in the greenery. Those who still live here regularly commute by boat from the more populated villages. Now that we know a little more about Hakaui, it’s time to leave the boat and get back to earth! Two dogs from the village welcome us on the beautiful black sand beach. A few meters away, a boat is moored in the small cove that marks the valley’s entry and next to it a horse is looking at us from the shade of a coconut tree. After some recommendations and a few mangos picked for the road, we start our walk towards the Vaipo waterfall!
We follow a path of stones meticulously arranged and partially covered with greenery, attesting to the many years that have passed. We learn that it is actually the royal road that the queen used to go from the mountain to the sea. As we move through the vegetation, we meet a few Tiki that we shyly thank on our way. In the Polynesian culture, these stones carved in the image of gods or ancestors are very respected and even feared for some of them. May explains to us that Tiki carved in reddish stone have a particularly important place. Often set up in sacred places, these stones were once arranged to mark the limit not to cross in a space reserved for a privileged few. In Hakaui, one can only feel like one of those!
On the way, the flora all around us is invigorating. The little botanist hidden within yourself marvels at so much wealth! After forty minutes, once out of the dense vegetation, we pause on a tree trunk placed facing the imposing cliffs. What a view! Maria and Mai explain to us that in the hollows of the cliff that we can distinguish sarcophagi carved in trunks of Uru (breadfruit). They were left there a very long time ago, before the arrival of Europeans. These three canoe-shaped sarcophagi are intended to transport the soul of the high priest, a warrior and the king to the paradise that was believed to be under water for the people of the time. They were placed this high and out of sight to prevent the warriors of the enemy to get their hands on them, which would have been a humiliation for the village. Today the trail is so steep and dangerous that only wild goats could have access.
On our road we arrive at a point of view overlooking the gigantic cliffs and we finally see, between the abundant branches, the Vaipo waterfall! We do not distinguish it entirely but we understand very quickly what makes it famous. Imposing, it stands proud among the rugged mountain ranges and lush vegetation. Looking forward to seeing it more closely, we continue through the mape forests (Tahitian chestnut), which were a means of communication of ancient times. You just needed to hit a large stone against a hollow trunk to indicate your position or to warn the village of an enemy approaching. It is at the heart of this lush vegetation that we notice many archaeological remains. In the past, homes were located inland, less exposed to external threats, natural or otherwise. It is therefore deeper inside the land that we find the priceless imprints of this distant past. Among these remains, an old “pantry” dug in the ground and made of volcanic stones collected in the river. This type of construction preserved the ka’aku, a Marquesan dish obtained with the breadfruit used to feed the population during the seasons when harvests were scarce. Once disposed at the bottom of the pantry, the ka’aku was covered with leaves and branches to ensure its conservation. Surprising story: During the first festival of the Marquesas in 1986, one of these remains was found and the ka’aku it contained was intact. It was distributed to all those who participated. It was a privilege for the Marquesans, a true gift from their ancestors. On our way we will have the chance to see also mea’e (open air temple), place of sacred ceremonies, and paepae, the areas paved with volcanic stone used as a foundation.
After crossing a river and other small streams, we finally arrive at the foot of the waterfall. We must remain silent! Wild goats at the top of dizzying cliffs regularly cause rocks to fall. It’s perfectly fine with us, as the place is easy to be observed in silence. We touch for the first time the feet of cliffs we admired for hours. We can only feel small in the face of such a spectacle. We will not go to touch the waterfall but its freshness comes to us. The trip was worth it! After a good while staring at the sky to observe the giants of Hakaui from below, we slowly return to the village. It is time to discuss the highlights of this morning in front of the tasty 100% local lunch that awaits us in the village of Hakaui.
In just a few hours, we had the privilege of experiencing an immersion like no other in this Garden of Eden. Pleasantly combining nature, culture, history and archeology, this adventure in the heart of the Hakaui Valley has allowed us to observe and experience the essence of this intriguing archipelago. The Marquesans proudly bear their roots. They have a strong attachment to their land. In addition to being fundamentally rooted in their daily lives, it is a dedication that can be read in their looks, in their words and on their skin. We leave the Hakaui Valley grateful for this amazing day and curious to delve deeper into the memory of these lands and men.