“The mountains loomed up black; and I could have fancied I had slipped ten thousand miles away and was anchored in a Highland loch”
- Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas
Hakatea, also informally known as Daniel’s Bay, in honour of the friendly local who used to welcome cruisers there, is just round the corner from Taoihae, but another world. It is famous for access to the fabled Vaipo Waterfall in the Hakaui Valley, which, at 350m high, is the tallest in French Polynesia.
It is magnificent here. Breathtaking, and almost as impressive as arriving into Virgin’s Bay at Fatu Hiva. We were sheltered in calm waters surrounded by imposing mountains, on one side a mossy mass of green velvet and shadowy crags, the other covered in shrubs and trees growing from rocks, home to wild goats and cattle, while ahead lay the beach at the foot of a slope. Maybe it was all the Robert Louis Stevenson I was reading (even if he were writing about Anaho Bay, on the other side of Nuku Hiva, in the north, according to Paul Theroux "the loveliest spot in the Marquesas") but I was struck by how we too seemed to be anchored in the dark waters of a Scottish loch. Instead of Nessie concealed in obsidian waters though, according to local fishermen, there are a good dozen tiger sharks lurking in the depths, each up to 5 metres long. I wasn’t tempted to to go for a dip and find out, but rowing Catherine in the kayak, I saw my first shark surface next to us, either a baby tiger or a small reef shark, I was too much of a novice then to distinguish. Either way, it was exciting to see so close up, not remotely threatening, and a gentle introduction to the sharks of Polynesia…
The following morning I awoke to find Francis, Isabelle and Xavier all struck down with a pretty virulent stomach bug, so I kayaked ashore with Catherine, the SHAWINGAN crew (afamilyafloat.com), and Bajka (http://sailing-bajka.ch), armed with a ton of insect repellent. Ella from BAJKA had warned me that on an earlier trip ashore they had been devoured by the dreaded “no-nos” or “no-see-ems” - invisible insects whose nasty bites only show up a few hours after the damage is done. This was the first time I had heard about them, thanks to the joys of not having done too much research in advance. Forewarned is forearmed, but in retropsect, sailing round the Marquesas until then, oblivious to the existence of these critters was bliss!
There was a couple whose house overlooks the beach and we introduced ourselves to Natasha and Michèle, who gave us the low-down on life here. There has been a drought this winter that has hit them hard. Natasha gave me a tour of her garden, pointing out the withered pineapples that should be blooming. The waterfall has completely dried out. The land leading to it belongs to their family and Michèle’s brother, living in the next door bay, charges $10 per person access (note: back in St Lucia it was $5 to see the “waterfalls” at Soufrière, a stream over a few rocks!) With the family poorly, a good two hour hike was not on our agenda anyway, but still we were interested in taking the hidden coastal path round to the other residences, and Natasha gave us directions.
While BAJKA, with the couple’s permission, and delight, rigged a couple of sea swings in the trees for the boys to stay, attracting SHAWNGAN’s Ellamae, and Catherine as well, Josie, Nina and I went on a reccie, to see also if we could find the couple that apparently would cook lunch for cruisers on request.
It was a fun walk to talk, wending our way through the trees. Before we got to the other habitations, there was a fresh water river to cross. Natasha had warned us of snail-like sea urchin creatures that lay in the fresh water river we would need to cross. Forewarned is forearmed, but in a gesture of sisterhood with Josie, who was barefoot, I slipped off my sandals. The path looked clear, but no sooner had I taken a couple of steps one embedded itself in my foot and, as predicted, was a bugger to remove. It took a good couple of hours, several times over the following week to remove it all. Josie, meanwhile, was absolutely fine!
As we started to cross the river, dogs started up, barking, warning, Keep Out! Tapu! I imagined. Maybe it was dig of the urchin spike making for a thorny reception, but I was starting to get the hereby jeebies about the place. The dogs appeared to be tethered, but in this remote location my experience in Fatu Hiva sprang to mind, time to gang warily. We called out to say hello to the owners, but no-one was around. A dozen habitations, eerily deserted. We walked further along. Being so acclimatised to the colours of bluewater sailing and verdant mountains, it was a novelty to see vibrant reds and roses, all in exotic bloom. A wild horse lazily chomped the grass by the river. There was a simple outdoor chapel, an alabaster Mary, belonging to the Southern Irish convent classrooms of my childhood, on the centre of the altar. She stood demurely on a piece of cloth, arms stretched out towards the pepples and shells in a rectangle pattern in front of her.
We never found the couple we were looking for, and it was getting late, time to head back, and to be honest, we were all relieved. As we headed to the river, the face of a dog, rather belligerent, looked out at us from a car window. We called out to his owner that had slipped into his home. No answer, so we carried on. Just as we were half-way across the river again, the dog ran to the edge, and barked at us. Friendly, right?!
It was a case of bad timing and bad luck from what we heard from other cruisers, who’ve subsequently had an amazing experience, trekking to the fall (now the rain, and the waterfall, has come back) and feasting with the locals. On the radio later I heard some Italian cruisers joking about surviving the trek and not getting eaten by cannibals, which I thought was in very poor taste. It turns out later there was a story doing the rounds about a cruiser, *many* years ago, who went wild pig hunting with a local there. His guide returned later to the boat, telling the wife something dreadful had happened and she had to go with him immediately. He raped the wife, she escaped, the bones of the man, eaten, were later found, the culprit caught and imprisoned. I find that last titbit particularly hard to swallow, purely sensationalist. Anthropophagist customs died out long ago in the Marquesas. I wonder, though, if a temporal echo of that gruesome history in part accounts for the goosebumps we had on that walk. I can see why traditionally in Polynesia there is such a superstition and terror, even still apparently, about revenants and the walking dead. Still, it didn’t diminish my appreciation of the beauty here. I spent childhood holidays in the Highlands of Scotland, drinking up awe-full landscapes along with the awful history of the Glencoe Massacre, and the politics of the Appin Murder. My paternal uncle had a hotel on the shores of Loch Leven where we stayed, and we would visit ancestral graveyards in Appin, where my mother’s clan was from. Maybe it was this familiarity that explains was why Hakatea caught my imagination and held such magnetism, from which it was hard to drag myself away. I wonder what Stevenson would say. Wha’s like us?!
Back on the boat that evening I got out my Celtic harp, for the first time since New Year, and began to play from the heart out, beginning with “Havana Gris” (Grey Havana), and working my way through other nostalgic Latin American melodies. After about an hour I stopped, and then over the waters came the sound of an ethereal flute, as though in response. I later found out was Josie on a Native American recorder. There was something about the lyrical nature of the place that was called out our music, and enhanced our spirit harmonies.