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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall

Chapter 11 - The Marquesas

"This sure wasn't what I expected!" We were rolling from gunnel to gunnel. The anchorage was jammed with boats, making anchoring fore and aft a necessity. There was no water available close by, and the hungry "no nos" were out in force. Is this the paradise we had dreamed about for twenty days?

The expectations of the crew as we rounded the breakwater were far more optimistic than what was to become reality. This was no quiet and peaceful anchorage. The breakwater at Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa left much to be desired. The persistent Pacific Ocean swell barely gave notice to this little sea wall as it swirled around its slight protection. It was more like a whirlpool than a significant harbor. The tight quarters made it necessary to drag out a stern anchor just to keep Kandarik from swinging into another boat. When we asked what the water was like as we were most anxious to fill our almost empty tanks, we were confronted with the answer, "What water?" And the black swarms of obviously starving tiny bodied but big jawed "no nos" found obvious pleasure in biting our crew as much as possible. Well, paradise or not, it was still better than being at sea; and we were, after all, in French Polynesia, the land of our dreams!

Our most important mission was to clear customs and immigration so we would be at liberty to find Ice Cream! Once again our expectations of an easy check-in were shattered. It was a long walk to the little town where we could find official officers of French Polynesia. The four of us staggered ashore, our sea legs more adjusted to the swaying deck than the solid red clay soil. We walked along the foreshore watching the boats rolling in the anchorage. The beach fell away to a solid mass of coconut trees, and above the palms the majestic tops of the rugged mountains poked their heads through the racing clouds. It would have been a perfect walk if we could only have eliminated the biting sand flies locally known as "no nos". If it hadn't been for the lure of civilization and the promise of ice cream cones for the crew, we probably would have turned around in frustration. But, ever motivated to find the delicacies that are not aboard a small boat at sea, we mustered on and approached a tiny French village.

While I do not want to remember that frustrating day in the immigration office, I must relate the problems involved with entry into French Polynesia. This, along with two small children repeatedly asking for the nearest store, was another picture in paradise that contrasted to the preconceived notions we so relished. It is the bond for each person aboard a foreign vessel that must be posted that nearly kept us from those cold treats. We had to pay $1500 per person to the immigration officials in order to be able to remain. We knew of this and had purposely brought with us four airplane tickets back to the United States in lieu of the traditional money for bond. This caused a huge problem and it took hours of convincing the friendly officials that this was our "bond" should we ever have to leave their country. After much confusion, discussion, telephone calls, heads shaking, hands flying in the air, and much misery on our part, we were finally given permission to stay using the airplane tickets as our bond.

And now to the treats we had promised Sammy and Jamie!  But, where was the ice cream?  There just wasn't any here! That was even worse than the ordeal suffered in immigration. A candy bar dripping with melted chocolate would have to do. Was there no justice in this world? But, that was where the disappointment ended in the Marquesas.

The magnificent landscapes that surrounded us on this lush and almost forbidding looking island, became our friend. We hiked everyday to different places that became as familiar to us as a back yard. One day we would tramp up the twisting mountainous road to the Frenchman's Garden. This man became the equivalent of the green grocer of Atuona. And if we wanted lovely crisp green beans, or cabbage fresh from the volcanic ground, or cucumbers newly picked, or the best tomatoes I have ever tasted still warm from the sun, well, the hour walk nearly vertical up the mountain track was well worth the effort and time. Then there were the dark sand beaches with the Pacific swell thundering to an end. While these deserted beaches looked so beautiful, they were a menace to the skin! The sand flies resisted all efforts of the wind and would encompass the entire body with nasty biting little mouths. Somehow Sammy and Jamie became immune to the agony of these hungry, almost invisible beasts. But Andy and I never escaped the misery of the itching and scratching after these visits to the seaside.

The other islands of Marquesas were just as spectacular as Hiva Oa, our landfall island. Fatu Hiva to the south and east was truly awe-inspiring. We anchored in Hana Vave, known as the Bay of Virgins!  We wondered if the sailors of yore on the whaling ships found something here that made the name applicable!  This small indented bay was surrounded bytowering, rough-cut cliffs and rock formations pointing towards the sky. A forest of tall palm trees smothered a white church. All around us was the muddy brown water of the river that was fed by the tall mountains of this soaring island.

When it rained-- and boy did it ever rain-- Andy would take Sammy and Jamie out for a row in the swirling chocolate water. It was almost frightening to be anchored under these jagged cliffs, but when the sun would come out after the downpour it was like being in heaven!

Our favorite anchorage of all was a tiny wind blown bay on the north side of Hiva Oa. We had been told about Hana Menu bay, but when we sailed in there we were not so sure this would be a good place to anchor for the night. The wind was blowing with a vengeance right smack into the bay. Any anchored boat would have its stern to the beach. The chop was formidable and we just could not understand why anyone would recommend this place! Too late to sail to any other protected cove; we dropped the anchor and hoped for the best. An anchor watch was set for if we dragged we would be on the beach in a minute! Then, all of a sudden, as the sun was setting a miracle occurred.

The wind stopped dead. A whisper came off the green damp land, and suddenly Kandarik's bow swung around to face the beach and our nostrils were filled with the most delicious smells of the land of the Marquesas. The sea breeze had dropped, the land breeze came flowing in from the mountains, and the anchorage was as peaceful as we could desire.

But, it was when we jumped into the dinghy and went ashore, anchor watches unnecessary and forgotten, that the magic really began. Up from the tiny beach, a short walk to the right of the sandy shore, up into the palms and other lush vegetation, we came upon the raison d'être for the popularity of Hana Menu Bay. There, feeding from a small stream of water pouring out of a hole in the rocks, was a tiny pool of the clearest freshwater. Walt Disney could not have created a more perfect tropical setting! Into the cool water we all fell, laughing, and looking around in amazement, not really believing this was real. Andy hurried back to Kandarik and brought back our jerry cans to fill with this delicious fresh water. Shampoos and baths, and swims, and joy for the crew of Kandarik filled our evening hours ashore here in Hana Menu!

The next day Andy and Sammy and Jamie filled up a backpack with food, water, binoculars, and machete. They were on a hike of exploration to a village long ago abandoned. Andy had read in his old pilot books of an abandoned town up the river valley. It was finding this village that would be the challenge as it was deep inside the strangling forest. I stayed aboard Kandarik because once again the sea wind came howling directly into the bay. It was my turn to keep an anchor watch while the intrepid explorers went inland! They found a mass of ruins; flat table like rocks, obviously a huge population had once lived in this deserted valley. The pilot book of 1880 described a small village being the only building left of a once thriving population. From 1800 onwards the Marquesas were decimated by disease brought to the islands by the whalers, merchant ships, and missionaries. Our crew did not find anyone living there; just the ruins of what had been a very impressive civilization.

Fete, or July 14th, Bastille Day in the Marquesas should be a must for anyone traveling the Pacific. We were so lucky. We were able to witness the celebrations on two islands. As the festivities last for well over a week, we participated first in Nuka Hiva and then later in the week in Ua Poo. The Marquesans go all out to celebrate this well-known French Holiday of Liberation. The natives practice for months for all the contests that take place. There are rowing races, running races, singing competition, drumming competitions, and most fantastic of all, the dancing challenges. If I close my eyes and put on the haunting cassette music that I taped on those wonderful evenings of Fete, I can see the brown glistening faces of the natives grinning at each other as they compete for the title of best dancer. The green skirts on the girls, and the leaves swishing around the madly moving legs of the men, and the wonderful drums beating the fast and wild-- well it is just too much for me, I must return. The smell of Frangi Pangi, and tiare, and roasting meat and steaming vegetables, and huge women in long flowery dresses, fresh blossoms covering their heads and enormous breasts, all smiling and happy and singing!

Our two small very blond children were fed, and danced with, and adorned with flowers, and they became the fair-haired spoiled children of the native Marqueasans.

I just read a letter from a friend of mine who just got to the Marquesas. She is in Ua Poo and wrote to me that here she could truly settle for the rest of her life. I understand what she means. These majestic islands that seem so dark and mysterious as you approach, become, on acquaintance, a magical scene of unmatched beauty.

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!