The Banyan tree was gigantic, a magnificent one hundred and fifty feet high and forty feet in diameter, the aerial prop roots are so numerous and thick that nobody can find the original trunk but it is estimated to be about six hundred years old. These trees were sacred to the Polynesian people and as with this one were frequently planted near the high priests platform at the highest point of the ritual gathering places. A couple of years ago, during the dry season, one of these huge trees burnt down revealing hundreds of skulls concealed within its tangle of prop roots. It is thought that the head of a person was considered the centre of the body and resting place of the soul, the heads of the enemy were prized bounty (and supper) and when a chief or priest died their head was placed in the sacred Banyan tree to help facilitate their souls reaching the spirit world.
As we walked, crunching below our feet were nuts that when boiled produce the blue black ink that was used for tattooing, rocks can frequently be found with hollows that have been created as ink wells and fragments of sharpened bone and shell have been discovered that acted as the needles. Everyone within the tribe was extensively tattooed it seems to have been a way of story telling and recording ones personal history and achievements.
Then above our heads, high in the canopy, we were treated to a view of the endangered Upe, a large type of dark pigeon that survives only on Nuku Hiva, there is thought to be only about two hundred individuals left on the island, so a rare sight indeed.
The architectural site near Hatiheu Bay is immense and has been partly restored so local people can again gather for festivals of song and dance and to encourage the current Marquesians to rediscover their ancient culture which was almost completely crushed in the 19C by catholic missionaries. The Marquesians are still 80% Catholic but now in more enlightened times the language is taught in school and traditional crafts, dance and music are being revived.
We discussed with our guide Richard, the future of his country, he said there is a lot of strong feelings as to which direction the country should take – more or less autonomy from French Polynesia, modernisation and increased tourism or an inward looking return to parts of their old culture. At present they are economically dependent on France, the young are leaving through lack of employment opportunities and their subsistence life style is under threat from the desire for a more modern western existence. He would like his children to beable to have a future in their homeland, his hope is that the Marquesas can learn the lessons of other small communities in the world that have tried to balance the old with the new and that they can successfully modernise and attract the tourist industry without losing the uniqueness of this incredible place.
Nuku Hiva is slightly more tamed than Hiva Oa and Fatu Hiva, there are more paved roads and large coconut plantations but still the landscape is mountainous and dramatic and the views as we wound around the steep, tight hairpin bends were remarkable.
We had been invited on the tour by Bob and Heather. When we arrived in Taiohae Bay unusually there was another Oyster 56 anchored, Crazy Daisy, we popped over to say hello and they invited us aboard. This is their second time through the Pacific and they have had Crazy Daisy for ten years, Bob knows his boat inside out. We had a pleasant evening together talking Oysters and South Pacific islands and agreed to help each other refuel, at yet another Marquesian dodgy dock, the next day. It was good for us to do this tricky manoeuvre on somebody else’s boat first and after a hot, high stressed couple of hour all tanks were full. Well almost, the fuel gauge was across the dock so couldn’t be monitored, an airlock formed in the hose as we were filling and so we thought we were full when we in fact still had a few hundred litres to go. Still better an airlock than what happened to the unfortunate boat yesterday whose fuel pipe leaked and filled thier bilges with diesel as they innocently continued to top up from the deck.
We should have plenty of fuel to keep us going, we plan to spend another week or so exploring Marquesas then we will be swapping these dramatic volcanic islands for the low lying coral atolls of the Tuamoto Archipelago.