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Articles Blog

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

Karyn Planett

“I will never go back to the Marquesas—ever!” –Jeff Probst, Host of Survivor, the wildly popular reality TV series.           

So… what was HIS problem? Actually it was a combination of the sand flies (the show was there out of season) and the “purple rock” controversy. Those of you who aren’t fans of the show will no doubt find all of this to be complete gibberish. Fear not. Other cultural icons such as Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Paul Gauguin have found the Marquesas and Nuku Hiva very much to their liking.           

Melville’s haunt was the Taipivai Valley, about ten miles by boat from the port town of Talohae. His novel Typee was set among its lush landscape and waterfalls. It boasts one of the best preserved archaeological sites in the Marquesas.           

Stevenson hung out at Hatieu Bay on the north coast. A statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the bay and several pre-Christian meeting places from a 1000-foot peak 

The Land of Men 

Historians report that the Marquesas Islands were known long ago as The Land Of Men. But this mattered not to the endless parade of seafarers who found their way to this bit of paradise. According to Claude Nigel Davies in his 1979 Voyages to the New World, “Polynesian women were notoriously uninhibited, and early European visitors were quick to take advantage of their easy-going attitudes. The people of the Marquesas advanced the ingenious notion that the white race consisted solely of men, who had to travel all the way to the Marquesas in order to have relations with the women; only their voracious sexual appetite could account for repeated and otherwise inexplicable visits by Europeans.” 

Well, perhaps that’s too much information! 

The Marquesas count ten major islands in their group though only a half dozen are home to any permanent population. And few outsiders make their way to this neck of the seas unless they’re sailing from one place to someplace else. And here’s where that is.

On the very eastern boundary of the collection of islands scattered across the sea between Indonesia and, well, the open waters off South America, these islands are found at approximately 9 degrees 30 minutes south latitude, 140 degrees west longitude. The closest neighbor of note is Tahiti, found some 800 miles beyond the Tuamotu Archipelago to the southwest. In fact, the Marquesas Islands now belong to the larger group of islands known as “French Polynesia.”

The Land Of Fewer Men 

The Spanish, led by Alvaro de Mendaño, claimed the southern portion of the Marquesas Islands for Spain in 1595. This occurred during his voyage of discovery from Peru. Yet, it was not until 1791 that the northern Marquesas were “discovered” by men under the command of Joseph Ingraham while sailing aboard the Hope, an American trading vessel. Following in his wake were actors in a dark chapter in Pacific history – blackbirders (slavers), whalers, disease, alcohol, and firearms.

Hence, these early visits from foreign sailors during the 19th and 20th centuries brought a decline in numbers for the Marquesans. The harsh landscape has also been a factor in lack of development over the years. Reefs, which create protective and productive waters, do not form in this area where waters wash relentlessly ashore from the south equatorial current. 

Long ago, some 80,000 islanders called the Marquesas home. But at one time their numbers had plummeted to a mere 2,000 and, even by today’s count, there are still fewer than 10,000 Marquesans in these islands. 

Nuku Hiva 

Nuku Hiva is by far the most populated and important of the Marquesas Islands. And, Talohae is its most important town. Fewer than 2000 people reside in Talohae, this administrative capital that flanks the bay that is, in fact, a submerged volcanic crater. In these waters are found yachts and yachties from around the world, bobbing their way across the Pacific. Sights ashore are modest though presented with pride. Muake Hill just outside town and the Vaipo waterfall in Hakaui Valley offer pretty views.           

And visitors will note that this is no longer the “Land Of Men.” Nor are the women still engaged in the welcoming activities of their ancestors. Yet, Nuku Hiva is an important destination for those wanting to roam the haunts and hideaways of the Pacific. Nuku Hiva is a traveler’s find.