Sunday 5 April 2015

Marquesas, Nuku Hiva

We are on a broad reach, champagne sailing at 8 knots towards the Tuamotus, 500 miles to the southwest. The sun is already high in the eastern sky as the Marquesas fade behind us; the towering cliffs and emerald forests just a faint silhouette in the haze of the rising sun, the lens of proximity no longer in focus.  A pod of twenty dolphins plays in our wake; two pups swim in tight formation with their mother while energetic adolescents playfully leap high out of the water before sprinting ahead to the bow where they weave and jostle for position in the surf.  Curiously, this captivating sight barely raises a glance on board Juno. Caroline looks up briefly from her book, Andrew pokes his head up the companionway but that is all. We have become blasĂ© about the bountiful marine life after our experiences of the Marquesas.
Nuku Hiva is the capital of the 13 volcanic islands that make up the Marquesas.  It is the second largest island in French Polynesia, but sparsely populated with only 2,000 inhabitants. After an overnight sail from Tahuata we arrive at dawn, anchoring in the natural harbour of Taiohae Bay; a sunken volcanic crater open only to the south, it gives us good protection from the pacific swell.  Manta rays roll lazily around the anchorage, their white undersides gleaming, they wave their giant wings and glide away into the depths.  Ashore behind the breakwater is a stone quay where we tie up the dinghy. It is uninspiring.  A white marquee serves as the local cafĂ©, strung with bananas and furnished with plastic chairs and tables. Yet as with every port we visit, first impressions are often misleading and here too, the island slowly reels us in.  Henry is the proprietor of the Vaeaki Cafe, shuffling around in flip flops and a grubby white vest stretched over his ample mid-drift, he offers fresh juices, delicious ceviche and chips on paper plates and the most delectable dish of all, fast wifi.

Nuku Hiva is famous for its large pods of melon-headed whales, so early in the morning Caroline and Andrew join the crew of Makena to try and track them down while I stay on board Juno to deal with fridges. They motor up the east coast just after dawn where the water is calm and empty as the sun rises.  Ahead they notice what appear to be overfalls on the surface of the water, but as they get closer it is in fact full of life. What initially appears to be a huge pod of dolphins turns out to be a school of melon-headed whales; hundreds of them that have congregated in this patch of water to socialise.  They come to the surface, puffing water from their blow holes then slowly dive again, swimming just below the surface.  Some of the crew snorkel behind the boat holding onto a long line and from beneath the surface they can hear the whales communicating in high-pitched squeaks. Some smack their tails on the surface of the water; others lift their heads and appear to be scanning the horizon before they disappear with a puff of air. Bacon sandwiches on deck round off an amazing experience that I am sad to have missed.

Caroline and Andrew go on a tour of the Island to visit the archaeological sites at Teiipoka while I stay on the boat again to try and repair our disobedient fridge.  Kevin Ellis is the only American on the island. Married to a local girl, he owns, runs and is Nuku HIva Yacht Services. Operating out of a little office on the quay next to the cafe Kevin patches up boats after their long pacific crossing with a handful of tools and no spare parts.  However he does have a valuable canister of R145 refrigerant so we spend the morning adjusting the gas levels on the fridge and by evening it is cooling nicely. However this recalcitrant fridge has let me down too often so I have decided to fit another in the cockpit table, but this will have to wait until Australia for installation.  When Andrew and Fatty return from their tour we raise anchor and motor four miles down the coast to Daniels Bay, arriving just as darkness falls so that we can make an early start in the morning to hike up to the Vaipo waterfall, reputedly the third highest in the world.

We team up with the crew of A Plus 2 and share a dinghy ashore to the beach where we swap flip flops for hiking boots, wearing socks for the first time in months. The trek to the waterfall runs along the banks of the river that we cross several times as we make our way up the Hakaui valley. The vegetation is dense jungle, the sound of birdsong echoes through the heavy foliage and the high walls of the ravine tower above as we climb up into the hills.  There is a loud crack nearby and we ruefully read the sign by the path that warns of falling rocks. Subconsciously I reach for my sun hat although it will provide little protection from rocks that fall from the cliffs, over three hundred and fifty metres above our heads.  Eventually the path opens out to a water meadow and we realise that we have arrived. The waterfall cascades down the rocks, mostly out of sight, filling a dark pool strewn with huge boulders, heavy with moss and alive with fresh water shrimps.  We cut open a grapefruit and laugh at the echo of our voices that bounce off the walls of the canyon.

The long walk back to the beach takes us through a small village by the side of a stream with beautiful landscaped gardens of tall coconut palms that cast their dappled shade over trees laden with fruit and the tropical colours of Hibiscus, Poinsettia, Frangipani and Bougainvillea. Following the path we are greeted and welcomed by members of the resident family who have lived here for seven generations. A young man with a wide handsome face and a broad smile shakes our hand and offers us fruit. His name is Paul and he tells us that he spent several years as a barman in the Four Seasons hotel in Bora Bora but has now returned to live with his extended family in this remote setting.  These islands were once home to over 60,000 inhabitants, but decimated by disease imported by sailors in the nineteenth century the population fell to around 2,000 and is only now slowly increasing.  The legacy of this sad history for those who survived and remained on these islands, are crops that were planted over generations by a large population and are now so bountiful that no one ever wants for food and the Marquesans are magnanimous to a fault. Paul picks heavy grapefruit, papayas, mangoes and bananas from the trees using a long bamboo pole with a net and he urges us to help ourselves to limes and oranges that abound on bushes and trees. We stagger back to the boats, our bags laden with fruit, touched by the generosity of these wonderful friendly people.

We sail back overnight to the island of Tahuata for the rendezvous with the rest of the fleet; the scene of our lost anchor and soon to lay claim to another victim.  We are invited to dinner on A Plus 2 with Jean and Christianne where we are treated to a French epicurean treat followed by the rather alarming sight of Jean playing Chuck Berry on his electric guitar. As we prepare to return to Juno we realise that our dinghy is no longer attached to their yacht and we look around in disbelief.  There is a brisk offshore wind and we imagine our precious dinghy floating off across the pacific.  Galvanised into action we go in search in Jean’s dinghy, heading downwind out to sea and scanning the horizon but after an hour with no success we head back very dispirited.  The prospect of not having a tender will have huge consequences for us and I start to make plans on how to replace it. Back at the yacht, Jean has an idea to look for the dinghy on the radar and as the scanner warms up we see a small but steady blip on the screen, around a mile offshore, further north than we have been searching. The blip seems to be moving slowly, consistent with something drifting in the wind. We hurriedly go aboard Juno, weigh anchor and motor fast towards the signal, hoping that this isn’t just a passing fishing boat. Caroline and Andrew are on the bow and to my enormous relief they shout and point; our rib is bobbing in the moonlit water, far offshore and drifting slowly out to sea. We recover it and stow it safely back on the davits, returning to anchor in the bay and a celebratory drink with our neighbours.

Moored near the village of Vaitahu for the rendezvous, we are anchored in deep water at the foot of high mountains and today the katabatic winds are howling off the hills. Many yachts from the fleet are already anchored, their crews ashore for the welcome celebrations that are being organised by the villagers. I am reluctant to leave the boat despite our anchor locker being empty; almost a hundred metres of chain weighing a quarter of a ton lying on the seabed holding us in position. Thunderbolts of wind fly down the hillside, whipping up waterspouts that race across the bay and hammer into the moored yachts, their chains straining as they start to tack at anchor under bare poles. In our cockpit the gusts are over 45 knots and Fatty notices that one of the catamarans is dragging its anchor, heading for the rocks. Andrew and I jump into our rib and climb aboard the cat, starting its engines while we call Barry, its Australian owner on the VHF. Help soon arrives but while we are resetting the anchor we notice that another catamaran is dragging and again we dinghy across in the white water and start the engines, calling for assistance. We decide that the anchorage is far too dangerous in these conditions and we move Juno to a slightly more protected bay around the headland. Our windlass has overheated through overuse and the thermal cut-out has tripped so we winch the anchor up by hand, allowing the windlass to cool before it will operate once more.  It is good to meet up again with all the other boats but we are exhausted after the stressful morning and the events of the night before so we opt for a quiet night in Stephens Bay with our friends on board Aretha.

After the drama and beauty of the Marquesas we are looking forward to the beautiful atolls and sheltered lagoons of the Tuamotos, the stuff of South Seas fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful pics and descriptions and a few dramas, but all safe and kit complete.