The Wonders of Fatu Hiva and Ua Huka (Despite the Goats and Horses)

Sarah and I have embarked on our final tour of Marquesas before we head off over the blue yonder once again in search of unexplored lands (unexplored by us anyway). We set sail from Hiva ‘Oa having bidden farewell for a time to some new friends and pointed Bob’s bow toward Fatu Hiva, 45 miles to the SSE. It was a little tight on the breeze but we made it without having to tack and pulled into Hanavave Bay (Baie Des Vierges) for the second time with the intention of giving it a proper opportunity to impress us. I have to admit I was a unenthused by the prospect of heading 45 miles upwind in order to visit a bay that we’d been to before, but Sarah persuaded me and I’m very, very glad that she did. It really is spectacular – towering rock structures loom imposingly over the village of Hanavave, jutting from the face of a cliff that must be at least 1000 feet high. I can’t help but wonder if the tradition of ‘tikis’ (google for an explanation) may have been originally inspired in the first Polynesian settlers by these very same cliffs. They seem to be almost alive with the faces of giants seemingly carved into the rocks themselves. Very cool.

Determined to make the most of it I think we did Fatu Hiva justice in the short time we were there – we explored a cave that we learned about from a fellow cruiser, walked the remains of an ancient village that was buried by a catastrophic landslide, undertook a 17-kilometre hike over the mountains from one bay to the next, visited one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever had the pleasure to visit and generally enjoyed ourselves. There were, however, a couple of hiccups.

Our dinghy, Numpty, is incredibly versatile. It’s by no means the best-looking, or even the safest on account of it’s distinct lack of stability, but it’s light-weight, motors economically, rows well and, we hope, sails well. In Galapagos I measured, bought and cut some seasoned bamboo for a mast and boom. In Taravai I built a dagger board out of plywood and fibreglass, and figured out a system for a steering oar. Finally, about 6 weeks ago, a fellow cruiser gave us an old genoa that he was going to throw away and I was able to commence work on cutting it down to make a sail. I finished it in Hiva Oa and took it out for the first sea trial, but there really wasn’t much wind at all. I could tell that she’d sail well in a decent breeze but the wind was so fluky that it ended up being a frustrating experience overall. In Fatu Hiva one afternoon a land breeze sprung up so I decided to give it another go. Sarah and I both climbed in this time, but of course as soon as we got into the boat the breeze died and we were back to paddling. Never mind. Perhaps tomorrow. “Should we take the mast out overnight?”, Sarah sagely suggested. “Nah, it’ll be fine”, said silly me.

Hanavave has a strange quality. Those same spectacular cliffs of which I spoke earlier have the effect of compressing and concentrating any breeze from the East and spitting it out across Hanavave Bay with storm-force ferocity. 60-knot gusts are not unheard-of. At night, the added effect of the cooling landmass and the cold air coming down from the mountains makes these gusts even stronger than they are in the day. Unfortunately, this was our first experience of this phenomenon and we weren’t ready for it. More precisely, Numpty wasn’t ready for it thanks to my lack of foresight and planning. I got up for a pee during the night and was dismayed to find Numpty capsized astern of Bob. Goodbye two pairs of flip flops, one oar, one paddle, an anchor, a decent line and the centreboard. Two good things came out of it – we didn’t lose the mast and sail because I’d lashed them down and, more importantly, I learned a lesson in humility. It could have been much worse – we could have lost the dinghy, and that would have been a distinct inconvenience.

The second hiccup came as we were leaving. Internet access and therefore weather information are not easy to come by, but we’d managed to get a wind forecast for the local area and decided on a good day to sail the 40 miles up to Tahuata, where a pod of very playful dolphins is said to be in residence and manta rays are veritably prolific. We’d decided we had plenty of time, that we could have a coffee, some breakfast and then set sail at about 10am with plenty of time to make it to Tahuata before dark. This was, in fact, to be our most leisurely departure to date, since we usually find ourselves having to set sail either very early in the morning or late in the evening. We knew it sounded too good to be true. As we were pulling up the anchor a friendly French sailor shouted over that today there would be ‘un horreur!’, a storm.

“Today?”, I shouted back.

“Yes!”, said she.

“Here?”, I shouted again.

“Yes!”, said she.

Now, this didn’t agree at all with our weather forecast. A storm? Here? In Marquesas? Surely we would see that on our weather forecast? They must be mistaken. Besides, after our experience with the wind gusts the last place we wanted to be if it got really windy was in Hanavave Bay. We set sail towards a beautiful sky and picked up a lovely 15-knot Easterly breeze, just as forecast, as soon as we’d cleared the headland. But there was something else visible as we cleared that headland – an impending wall of nasty, dark, wet and occasionally flashy doom. Of course, they didn’t mean a storm storm. Not a tropical cyclone or even a depression. Just a very active thunderstorm. After all, the declination of the sun at the moment is right around our latitude – it makes perfect sense. How stupid of me not to realise. We’d only managed to download the wind forecast but they had the full picture.

We took some consolation from the fact that we weren’t the only idiots out here and decided to press on. A French catamaran had left the bay about half an hour before us and we could see them clearly about 4 miles ahead of us. The storm front reached them first, and the last thing we saw of them was a massive bolt of lightning striking the water right next to their boat.

There are few situations less appropriate to be in during a lightning storm than at sea in a sailing boat. You’re surrounded by a relatively flat plane with zero features, and you’re bobbing around in a silly artificial hole-in-the-water with a 50-foot metal spike sticking straight up into the air. On the very top of that spike is a collection of antennas and other stuff that make the perfect lightning-attraction apparatus. We’d shoved all of our electronics into the oven (including the radio, which I’d disconnected from it’s usual mounting) and were attempting to rationally decide what to do next about this considerably-less-than-perfect situation when a powerful bolt of lightning struck the water approximately 2/3 of a mile off our starboard bow. You could see the water erupt and vaporise where the bolt had struck. Well, that decided it! About ship! We turned straight around and raced back toward the blue skies and relative safety of mountains and land.

Now, I want to have a bit of a gripe about some of the information that is published online about these islands, and about cruising advice in general. When we headed back to Fatu Hiva that day it was going to be too hard to make it back to Hanavave, so we decided to give Omua, the other town in Fatu Hiva, a try instead. The literature is lacking for feedback on this bay as an anchorage but we’d heard from another cruiser that it was fine so long as there wasn’t a big swell running. We found that to be the case – in fact we preferred it to Baie des Vierges as there were no violet gusts from the cliff faces and the bottom where we were anchored in 10 metres was unobstructed sand and gently-sloping. By contrast, in Baie des Vierges our anchor was in 44 feet of water but Bob (with 250 feet of chain out) sat in 100 feet – a steep slope. There is a document called the ‘Marquesas Compendium’ which is available on line and which I would recommend to any future visitors to this area, but I would advise caution when using it to decide where it is and isn’t good to plan your stops. There is only one entry in it concerning Omua Bay, and the writer states categorically that ‘it is not suitable as an overnight anchorage’. Poppycock! They never stayed because they didn’t want to and weren’t comfortable with the weather at the time that they visited. It is my firm belief, however, that any anchorage with good holding and an unobstructed bottom is an excellent anchorage under certain weather conditions. To state that any such anchorage is always ‘unsuitable’ is short-sighted in my opinion. We loved it at Omua.

I have the same gripe about the information that is published about our current anchorage here in Ua Huka. We arrived here a few days ago after a beautiful, excitingly fast overnight sail from Fatu Hiva and are currently anchored by the village of Hane. Ua Huka may be my favourite island so far, and I regret that we have not visited here earlier and spent more time here. Two days ago we enjoyed a lovely day frolicking among an area of rock pools known as ‘the swimming pools’, yesterday we had the good fortune to be introduced to a wonderful lady who dropped everything to spend the day driving us all over the island and taught us more in one day about Marquesian culture than we’ve learned in our entire time here to date. Today Sarah spent the afternoon with that very same lady and her family talking and learning how to cook traditional Polynesian cuisine over an open fire. It’s been phenomenal for us. The only account of Ua Huka in the Marquisas Compendium is from a boat that turned up, found the anchorages untenable due to a large swell, left immediately having never been to shore and complained that the large numbers of goats and horses spoil the landscape, as they were sailing away! In fact, I am informed by a reliable ecologist that the goats and horses maintain a unique habitat (in the ‘early-successional stage’) which promotes diversity of certain species. The locals here have also managed, through intense hard-work and dedication, to thus far prevent invasion by the Black Rat, which is so damaging to ecosystems on other islands. The coconut trees on Ua Huka are twice as lush as on other islands, native bird populations are able to thrive and it is the last remaining refuge for the endemic Ultramarine Vini Bird. It pains me that hundreds of cruisers will have read those short-sighted and uninformed accounts in the Marquisas Compendium and pre-formed judgments about these locations based solely on those accounts. Of course it is true that one must always be alert to the weather (it’s currently calm where we are anchored but we are told that in May, June and July we might be amidst breaking waves) but if one were to anchor only in the bays and locations that are recommended by the guide books* they would miss out on a smorgasbord of experiences.

Tomorrow the swell is forecast to be from the South, so I’m going to take the dinghy and practice surf-landings under oars (well, one paddle and one oar…….) and then maybe we’ll go for a snorkel. I don’t hold out much hope for it being enjoyable though – I’m sure the view will be spoiled by all the goats and horses.

 

While I was running around trying to minimise our chances of fiery death, Sarah was occupied trying to get photographs of the lightning bolts that were crashing down to the sea right next to us. It was worth it, because as it turns out we didn’t die and she actually succeeded!

 

The spectacular cliffs around Hanavave. Don’t they look like faces in the rocks? Or have I been at sea too long?………

 

 

‘The Swimming Pools’, with model, Ua Huka

 

Sarah Frolicking (well, in a very broad sense of the word. I just like saying it. Try it. Out loud. Frolicking. It’s a wonderful word don’t you think? Rolls off the tongue nicely.)

 

 

A beautiful picture of one of the many bird species that are numerous on Ua Huka (don’t ask me which species!)

 

 

Sarah learns how to make some traditional Marquesian cuisine. Here we see Silvain pounding baked breadfruit with a ‘stone penis’ while the family looks on. It’s really very tasty stuff.

 

 

* Warwick Clay’s ‘South Pacific Anchorages’ is another one that I would recommend, but with caution. They missed out the best and most protected anchorage in the Gambier Islands because in order to get there you have to sail through un-charted waters.

The ‘South Pacific Crossing Guide’ is another one to use with caution, but at least in that book they make it clear that it is not to be used as a comprehensive guide.

‘Charlie’s Charts’ are old but still very valuable.

We have found the collection of google earth imagery and the scanned charts and notations posted via the ‘Soggy Paws’ website to be particularly useful in the Marquisas Islands. I expect they will be even more useful when we venture to the Kingdon of Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu, which are notoriously poorly-charted. Download them before setting sail into the Pacific!

Fatu Iva or Fatu Hiva?

Most of the charts we’ve seen and relevant books we’ve come across always seem to refer to ‘Fatu Hiva’ as the southernmost island of the Marquesas. However, when we first arrived in Baie des Vierges (or Baie des Verges if we’re to use its original name) all those months ago, I saw a large signpost to welcome sailors and other tourists which clearly referred to the island as ‘Fatu Iva’. Since then I’ve got it in my head that it’s called ‘Fatu Iva’. As the locals clearly refer to it as this, I will continue to use ‘Fatu Iva’ opposed to ‘Fatu Hiva’, but to save any confusion I want to make it perfectly clear that I am, in fact, talking about the same place – Fatu Iva.

Last November, we arrived in the Marquesas Islands for the first time and our very first stop was here, in Fatu Iva. We we’re in a bit of a rush to pick up my friend, Charline, who was coming to visit and flying in to Hiva Oa. As a result we only had a quick pit stop in Fatu Iva before heading off to our next destination. Now we’re back to see the island properly. As the maintenance work on Bob is finally done and we’ve left the boatyard, we have some time to simply enjoy the places we’re visiting without having to worry (too much) about boat work.

People often refer to Baie des Vierges as one of the most beautiful anchorages in the world. It certainly is stunning with towering rocks protruding out of the ground like skyscrapers and lush green forest as far as the eye can see. Many people arrive here after sailing for many weeks, sometimes months, from Panama or Galapagos and I can completely understand that after so long at sea, arriving here could really take a person’s breath away. We first arrived here from the Gambier Islands where the mountains, whilst not as grand, are just as lush, the white sandy beaches are deserted and the water is crystal clear with the colours of the reef shimmering proudly in the sunlight. Whilst I can still appreciate the beauty of Baie des Vierges – the cloudy water, black sand and the beginnings of a new breakwater combined with a bright yellow crane was a little underwhelming. It was difficult getting Alex motivated to come back here to visit an island that we’ve already been to, and moreover, is a complete detour to where we want to go next. I’m really glad we did though, there are so many hidden gems that we would have missed if we had bypassed this place.

We spent a day trekking 17km from the bay to south (in Omoa) back towards Baie des Vierges. This is one of the stunning views we saw on the trek. If you look really closely (and have excellent eyesight) you can just about see Bob anchored in the bay.

After 4 hours hiking up hill, we were greeted by this picnic bench. This bench not only marked the time to have lunch, but also the highest point of our trek. After 4 hours of steep uphill walking – this is the best picnic bench I have ever seen in my life!

There is nowhere to buy sandwiches, salads or any lunch materials in the one shop we found in Omoa at the beginning of our trek. This was the best we could do. Luckily we were hungry enough to enjoy it.

Another day we took a much shorter hike (less than an hour this time) through some tropical jungle to this beautiful waterfall. What a lovely place to take a nice, cooling swim.

We also took the dingy to explore some of the coast. We came across an ancient settlement that was flattened by recent landslide. We also found this cave hidden by rocks about 2 miles north of the anchorage. There’s a small beach inside with water you can swim around in.

On our final night in Fatu Iva we decided to anchor in Omoa, a bay to the south of Baie des Vierges and where the main village is located. We had originally planned to sail to Tahuata, but a very large lightning storm prevented us from doing so. Instead, we anchored in the safety of Omoa bay and waited out the storm before leaving. Although the sea swell meant we were rolling around a bit, the bay is scenic, the village lovely and the people very friendly.

While we were on shore in Omoa we stopped briefly to talk to some fellow sailors, and when I looked down at my feet, to my horror I saw a dark cloud of tiny blood sucking midges – ‘nonos’. I’ve been bitten by the black nonos in Nuku Hiva and the result was hundreds of large, itchy, angry red lumps all over my body on any ounce of flesh that I had foolishly not covered with clothing. I looked like I was in the primary stages of small pox and would not have been surprised if people turned and ran in the opposite direction for fear of catching some contagious disease! Given that past experience, I started doing the hysteric chicken dance in the middle of the street whilst frantically trying to pull the insect repellent out of my bag to lather my legs in. It may have looked strange to everyone else, but I considered it absolutely necessary! Unfortunately, I knew that I’d been bitten a number of times before I got the insect repellent on (despite my dancing efforts). However, to my delight and amazement I hardly noticed the bites over the next few days. It turns out that the species of nono in Fatu Iva are different and nowhere near as nasty as the ones in Nuku Hiva. So luckily, I didn’t have to suffer another week of itchy skin welts. Thank. God.

There’s one shop in Omoa with good supplies and a bakery open in the early mornings. Like with many of the islands in French Polynesia fresh food is difficult to come by, but there are many mango trees growing at the side of the road towards Baie des Vierges which you can help yourself to. I had also heard that the dancing here in Fatu Iva is the best in the Marquesas. Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any performances, but if anyone else is thinking of visiting, it sounds like it would be well worth checking out.