22nd July, The End of a dynasty.
The End of a dynasty.
22nd July Friday. End of a dynasty and a concrete signature.
On Tuesday we went on a day long tour with Eric in his Dacia 4x4. During the night right up until we went ashore it had rained hard and violent gusts of wind repeatedly fell from the mountains onto the waters of the bay. But for the tour we had fine weather as we ascended the steep valley towards Taipivai.
Eric came from Grenoble 15 years ago having planned and saved for his exit from his home country for many years before. He is here for two more years when he will move to Tahiti with his 13 year old daughter so she can complete her secondary education there.
We ploughed through deep fords and wound our way around the recent avalanches of mud and rocks, past groups of wild horses and luxuriant undergrowth.
Ragged basalt ridges laced the uprisings of the long extinct volcano and we pulled in to the first of many stops. Eric mentioned Herman Melville and how his fame had grown on the basis of not only his literary talent and the subject of his book being a local tribe but also on the fact his stay was for a mere month at the most.
He also talked of the strange case of the German couple aboard their catamaran who anchored in Hakaui bay a few years ago
The man apparently went off hunting with a local and disappeared. Police descended from Tahiti and eventually found his charred bones in a fire. It was all a bit of a mystery but the local was apparently charged and is now in prison, the girlfriend returned to Germany and wrote a book about the events and the family came and retrieved the boat.
We continued upwards and came upon some new road laying. “There is a machine that grinds the rock to make the gravel and sand so all we have to import is the cement,” Eric commented as a masked and white overalled road worker tipped a bag of cement into the mixer in a cloud of white.
The industry on the island is dependent on fruit. Coconuts are cut in half at small roadside ‘factories’ the white flesh is extracted and dried, sometimes over fires, before being sent to Tahiti. It is called copra and is then pressed and the resultant oil has many uses.
A grey/white fruit called Noni is harvested and fermented before being sent to Tahiti from where it is then shipped to the Morinda juice factory in Salt Lake City Utah where the Mormons make it into a fruit health drink. Although other localities now produce the fruit on a more commercial basis, the Mormons remain loyal to these islands and still buy the raw product.
It reminded me of the pre agricultural revolution days in the valleys of Cornwall that used to be heavily populated and busy with agricultural processes. Not so long ago there were 60,000 to 70,000 people in French Polynesia but diseases from Europe drastically reduced the population so that a century ago the ancient cultural and religious traditions of this area were almost lost. It is thanks largely to the interest of a few Europeans and Americans that there is now a healthy revival in the population and culture.
85% of the people are seriously Roman Catholic but this does not prevent them from valuing their past history and all it contains.
Over the ridge and we are descending down the concrete road with fine views of the bays on the north shore of the island, to a fully restored tribal habitation site at Hatiheu set beneath a giant Banyan tree. The last reigning monarch here was a queen, her great grand-daughter, Yvonne, owns and runs the restaurant where we would have lunch in the bay a little further down the road, so I guess she is a princess.
The site has an open paved area (Tohua) where 5000 people still gather at festival times. The typical homes are highly pitched roofed shelters built on two levels of laid rocks, (paepae). The lower level is outside, for daytime activities like cooking. There is a large hole to one side in which fermented bread fruit could be stored for a few years for eating. At the back of the roofed shelter is a sunken area that was filled with soft foliage in which the people laid alongside eachother to sleep.
The more sacred areas are up hill from the human activities, rock platforms where the dead were laid out and oiled, then their bones may be taken into the home or hidden inside the aerial roots of the Banyan Tree. At the back of this arboreal monster was a hole, 10 feet diameter and 14 feet deep where prisoners from the latest tribal clash were held awaiting the pot!
Near the tree, on large rocks, Petroglyphs of men, fish, turtles etc tell of their history and are still deemed as sacred.
We continued along a dirt track to Baie d’Hatiheu, the favourite island location of Robert Louis Stevenson. When the locals were suffering from diseases and seeing their relatives and friends dying the local priest told them that if they erected a statue to the Virgin Mary at the top of the nearest basalt ridge then the disease would finish and it appears it did. That must have reinforced their faith in the new monotheistic God!
Meeting Yvonne we felt in the presence of someone special, this petite lady with dyed black hair and an inch of white roots lost her husband when they were young and has no children – the end of a dynasty. Eric did not hold out much hope for the future of her restaurant with her present partners, but who knows.
The food was good, Rob had goat, Eric had pork and I had fish. We were the only customers in this big restaurant, but every three weeks the local supply ship sends around 100 visitors along for a meal and with the population of 4x4s on the island I have no doubt they are busy at weekends.
Next to the restaurant and beside the old primary school (the new one has been built further up the hill to keep the children safe in case of a tsunami) is Yvonne’s museum full with ancient artefacts, stone machetes, spears, head crushers, headdresses and grass skirts, stone anchors and pictures of natives covered in tattoos, amazing.
On our way back we came upon the road works once more. Work had finished for the day. But there was no cordon to keep traffic on the hard concrete side of the road and off the fresh, virgin cement. Not sure whether it was my hushed “No”, or Rob’s “Oops” or the shlushing sound of the fresh cement under the tyres that alerted Eric to his error but there is now permanent evidence of our passing left in the new road!
Our New Zealand friends Jane and Paul, had told us that when they arrived here a few months before us there were 60 – 70 yachts in the bay. This was because there was a 90% chance of a hurricane warning in the Tahiti area so they all evacuated here, out of the area. Then there was no hurricane, but the threat of course is very real. At present there are around 30 yachts which is more typical.
We need to refuel and so are waiting for our tax exempt certificate then we have the choice of backing up to the concrete quay, having anchored the front end of Zoonie off first, or anchoring in the vicinity and transferring the fuel in jerry cans. I think we might end up doing the latter.
A couple of days ago we had just the rear underneath of Zoonie’s hull left to clean. In the fresh light of the morning Rob went into the water and I sat on the transom, boathook in hand, ready to poke out the eye of any black tipped reef shark that might come Rob’s way for a nosey around.
After that it was ashore to find the internet was down island wide so instead of getting in touch we set off to explore the far end of the bay.
There is an area by the shore just like the habitation I described earlier, but this one, on our doorstep, was where the first island contact was made with visiting Europeans. They must have been tense times, meeting what would have looked like warlike warriors, covered in tattoos, wielding beautifully carved clubs and sling shots.
We found Rose Corser’s small restaurant/hotel (8 rooms) and museum and took a seat on the veranda overlooking the bay. Rose is an inspiring, elderly Californian Professor of Art and Cultural history who has always been interested in the history of this island.
Forty years ago she sailed here with her husband and they started their first hotel. We were privileged to talk with her, firstly in French before she realised we were English, but she left us in the little museum, with the de-humidifier running, while she went to welcome her latest European group of guests.
The contribution she has made to the perpetuation of the ancient way of life here is immeasurable. We bought from her a fine Tiki (human faced representation of one of the old gods) in rosewood, carved by a local craftsmen and carefully selected by her for the contrast between the light and dark grain. Tiki has become our lucky mascot and is attached to the mast by the dining table.
Last night here was typical. It rains a lot in July and with it comes wind and swell which sets us all rolling and makes sleeping a spasmodic affair. However the night before was clear, with a full moon casting its silvery light all over the bay, a bright satellite sped across the sky and what can only have been the International Space Station rose after the moon in a bright blue and red light.
During the day flesh footed booby birds compete with the frigate birds and sharks for their fish.