By Professor Peter Oettli
Tour Manager – Calder & Lawson Tours
In my bookshelf there is a small volume about the Marquesas Islands. It is a description of this remote part of French Polynesia as well as a guide for tourists. On one of its pages there is a photograph of a stunning Marquesan beauty standing beside a large ancient stone tiki. A handwritten dedication graces the page. It reads, ‘To Peter. Come back again. Maururu roa. Vai.’ Vaihere gave me her autograph when in May 2007 I went as tour leader with a Calder & Lawson Tours group of travelers to the Marquesas on the Aranui III, the ship that supplies the islands from Tahiti once a month and also takes passengers. Vai was one of the multilingual team of guides on board.
I did come back to these enchanted islands 1,500 km northeast of Tahiti two years later and I am still under their spell. When you think about the Marquesas, don’t imagine low-lying atolls with placid palm-fringed lagoons. Think craggy cliffs rising out of the deep sea, or steep pinnacles of basaltic rock, some of them up to 1,000 metres high, forming the backdrop to villages nestled in shady valleys or sheltered bays along the coast.
I was up early on the day we entered Vaipaee Bay on Ua Huka in the Marquesas Group. The bay is so narrow that it is only a few score metres wider than the length of our ship. Until 1987, the supply ship used to anchor offshore shifting cargo by whaleboat provided the weather played along. It often didn’t!
So in March 1987, Captain Théodore Oputu decided that with care and seamanship it was possible to enter the bay. He anchored just inside the entrance and then, with cables attached to the cliffs by his intrepid Marquesan sailors, swung the ship around 180 degrees and the whaleboats were able to transfer cargo and passengers in calm water to the wharf.
On this morning, more than 20 years later, we repeated the difficult and daring manoeuvre, the Marquesan captain ‘ice-cool’, while the excited passengers walked forward and aft on the side-decks, thrilled by the spectacle. Other spectators included quite a number of wild goats and horses which watched us from the high barren cliffs – barren because these introduced animals had destroyed most of the native vegetation of the island. The population of Ua Huka is approximately 570, but there are more wild horses and goats than humans.
The programme for the day on Ua Huka had us travel in a convoy of privately owned four-wheel drive vehicles from the wharf to a reception by the enterprising Mayor in the grounds of the museum. This was to be followed by a visit to his pet project, an arboretum designed to restore the former lush vegetation of the island. After this we were going to have lunch in a coastal village of Hane. One of the featured dishes was roast goat.
Our instructions were that on landing we were to look for four-wheel drive vehicles that were decorated with flowers. I ended up in the front seat of one of the flower-bedecked Land rovers. Our driver was a very attractive young woman wearing (post-missionary!) traditional dress. Fortunately I speak some French so we exchanged a few pleasantries on the way to the museum. We drove along a paved road, part of the total of 15km of road on the island. Nevertheless, Ua Huka has the highest number of motor vehicles per head of population in French Polynesia.
Like almost every occasion in the Marquesas, the mayoral reception at the museum involved a dancing display in front of the building. To my surprise, our driver was one of the dancers, extending a most graceful welcome to the small realm where we were to spend barely a day.
After the visit to the arboretum, with its beautiful lush vegetation, we carried on to our lunch stop. On the way, I complimented our guide and dancer on her multitasking skills. ‘I suppose you will also cook our lunch’, I joked (feebly, I admit).
‘Oh no’, she laughed. ‘My grandmother is doing that. – But I shot the goat up in the hills yesterday’.
The goat, by the way, was delicious.