French Polynesia

Ua Huka – Museum of the Marquesas

In the last post from this Adventures Abroad journey through French Polynesia we visited the island of Ua Pou which I think everyone in the group enjoyed tremendously, especially the display put on by the local high school teenagers. After departing we sailed overnight to the island of Ua Huka which lies northeast of Ua Pou and about 25 mikes (40 kms.) due east of Nuku Hiva. Despite its small population of just over 670 inhabitants it has no less than six museums most of which we will try to visit during our stay there. There will also be an opportunity for a hike back to the landing spot from high above Vaipaee Bay. But it all starts with a most unusual and spectacular maneuver by the Aranui 5  just to get us moored off Ua Huka. So please join us for another day of exploring in one of the remotest places on earth.

Ua Huka Map
Map of Ua Huka

This is a map of Ua Huka and looking at it you can see that the coast is very erose with one narrow bay at Vaipaee and that is where the Aranui 5 is headed. The only problem is that the bay is so narrow that I don’t see how the ship is going to get that far into it.

Vaipaee Bay, Ua Huka
Approaching Vaipaee Bay

Just when it seems like we can’t go any deeper without getting grounded the ship stops and two barges are lowered. Ropes are attached to these and they act as mini tugboats and start turning us around. We were so far into the bay that I swear there was not more than 10 feet of clearance on both sides. It was a maneuver that had all the passengers in awe and angst as one of the crewmen had to make a leap from the barge to shore where there was an anchoring bolt. The problem was that the timing of the jump had to be perfect because if he misjudged it he would be crushed between the barge and the rocks. He made the jump and slipped which drew gasps and not a few muffled screams from the passengers, but just as it looked like he was done for, he scrambled up out of harm’s way and secured the mooring line. The gasps and screams were replaced by claps and cheers.

Anchorage Barge

We were barged to the small wharf in Vaipaeee where we were once again welcomed with leis, these ones made from beads.

Ua Huka Welcome
Welcome to Ua Huka

Another creature was not so welcoming, that is if you were a rat. This terrier was on duty to seek and destroy any of these four legged pests should they seek to jump ship in Ua Huka.

Rat Patrol

Ua Huka, as far as archaeologists can determine based on the current state of affairs, may have been the first of the Marquesas Islands to be settled. Somewhat paradoxically it was among the last places on earth to be visited by Westerners with the first recorded visit that of the American merchant captain James Ingraham in 1791. That was followed in rapid succession by French and British ships, all giving Ua Huka a different name. These were all dropped when it became a French colony in 1842. Despite there being three villages on the island it has a total population of less than 700 people.

As at Nuku Hiva our group was piled into a convoy of small trucks and vans and headed up into the valley above Vaipaee to our first stop at the Papua-Keikaha Arboretum. Here is Alison at the entrance sporting her beads and sensible walking shoes.

Papua-Keikaha Arboretum, Ua Huka
Papua-Keikaha Arboretum

Our guide gave us a tour starting with this distinctive male moia. When he asked our group what we thought the name of this moia might be, one wag replied without hesitation, “A very proud man”.

A Very Proud Man, Ua Huka
A Very Proud Man

Ua Huka is a very arid island and truth to tell it showed at the arboretum which was not as much a tourist attraction as a nursery for trees and shrubs to be planted around the island. There was a small museum on site that featured a collection of the many types of hardwoods to be found in the Marquesas Islands with description of the various uses made from each species. It was actually more interesting than it looks from this photo.

 Wood Museum, Ua Huka
Wood Museum

Another interesting feature of the arboretum were quite a number of birds, many of which I could not identify, but this pair of black noddys were clearly nesting in this palm tree.

Two Noddys

From the arboretum we piled back into the convoy and headed for Hokatu passing the bustling airport along the way. Air Tahiti which is French Polynesia’s domestic airline, does have not have any scheduled flights to Ua Huka, so I presume it is used only by private aircraft.

Ua Huka Airport

The drive from the arboretum to Hokatu was one of the most scenic of the entire trip as this photo attests.

Ua Huka Coastline

The drive was not for the feint of heart as the narrow road was not only very twisty, but rose and fell in elevation with several sheer drops of hundreds of feet to the crashing waves below. However, the drivers were cautious and there was no real reason for concern.

After about twenty minutes were arrived at the outskirts of Hokatu before dropping down almost to sea level.

Bienvenue A Hokatu, Ua Huka
Bienvenue A Hokatu

The handicraft specialty of Ua Huka is fine wood carving and there were some great examples on display at the shop we stopped into at Hokatu.

Hokatu Wood Carving, Ua Huka
Hokatu Wood Carving

Since I had already purchased my Marquesas Island keepsake, the flower stone sea turtle, on Ua Pou, I decided to walk down to Hokatu Bay where I had this view of the shoreline.

Hokatu Bay, Ua Huka
Hokatu Bay

There was also a small moia looking out to sea.

Hokatu Moai, Ua Huka
Hokatu Moai

Across the way two young men in bare feet and a dog were making the way down to the shore along a path that was strewn with razor sharp lava rocks. I can barely walk on those with shoes on let alone without them. They had fishing rods and I wished them good luck.

Two Young Men & a Dog Going Fishing

From Hokatu we began backtracking toward Vaipaee stopping at the village to Hane to visit the Sea Museum which had an interesting display of very old wooden canoes and fishing paraphernalia.

Alison Examining Canoes at the Sea Museum of Hane

Waiting for us outside was a gaggle of small children determined to show that they were not that impressed by this sudden horde of foreign visitors.

Children in Hane, Ua Huka
Children in Hane

There was also this apparently impromptu gathering of musicians and singers who once again showed us that French Polynesians of all ages love to sing and play music.

From Hane we proceeded back towards Vaipaee with the scenery even prettier from this vantage point, arriving at the largest museum on Ua Huka.

Community Museum of Ua Huka

Before going inside I walked the grounds to inspect the largest pestle in French Polynesia.

 Giant Pestle of Ua Huka
Giant Pestle

The interior of the museum contained an excellent collection of Marquesan war clubs or U’us, each of which was unique to the owner. Made from ironwood they could kill an enemy with one well struck blow.

Marquesan War Clubs, Ua Huka
Marquesan War Clubs

A closeup look reveals minute details.

Detail of a War Club

Also on display was a collection of paddles and harpoons. Up until quite recently these were used to kill creatures as large as a manta ray.

Paddles & Spears

The most interesting exhibit to me was the collection of boat models which explained which ones were used for inter island traffic and beyond and which were for inshore use.

Marquesan Boat Models, Ua Huka
Marquesan Boat Models

Lastly there was an interesting display of local tikis.

Marquesan Tikis

For a community this small in numbers to have a museum of this quality was truly something. Note the intricate wood carving around the windows and ceiling.

Tiki Exhibit, Ua Huka
Tiki Exhibit

Back in the convoy once more after lunch at the Community Centre we were given the option of hiking back to Vaipaee from a point just past the arboretum which Alison and I jumped at along with a few others. It was almost all downhill on a paved road with next to no traffic.

Alison Walking Back to Vaipaee

Despite being an arid island this small valley on Ua Huka was quite tropical with a great variety trees and shrubs. We passed a number of houses and small farms along the way all of which didn’t look much different than you might see walking in some of the remoter valleys of southern France. Once again I was greatly impressed at the standard of living the Marquesan Islanders were able to maintain in such a remote and sparsely populated area of the world.

The Walk Back

A reminder of why these high standards of living were made possible came just outside of Vaipaee with this French election poster of Emmanuel Macron and the realization that the people of Ua Huka were also citizens of France.

Vote for Macron

In Vaipaee we made the obligatory stop into the Catholic church.

Vaipaee Church, Ua Huka
Vaipaee Church

Once again the interior was decorated with fine wooden carvings.

Church Interior

Here, for the first time, I picked up on something that is quite different about many of the churches in French Polynesia that sets them apart from most Catholic churches. Instead of organs they have a large drum that serves as the musical background for the singers.

Not an Organ, but a Drum

After a very full day we arrived back at the pier and boarded the barge back to the Aranui 5.

Returning to the Aranui 5 from Ua Huka
Returning to the Aranui 5

The ship set sail shortly thereafter and we got this wonderful view of Ua Huka in the late afternoon.

Leaving Ua Huka

However, we were not going far. The ship anchored just off three small islands or motus as the Polynesians call them and we stayed there for the night. With my binoculars I could see that the flat motu and the one on the right were absolutely covered with nesting sea birds.

Three Motus off Ua Huka

This is a closer look and if you strain your eyes you can just make out hundreds of specks over the motu that make up this sea bird colony.

Sea Bird Colony off Ua Huka
Flat Top Sea Bird Colony

Likewise on this red volcanic pinnacle.

Red Volcanic Pinnacle.

Looking at the third motu revealed the distinctive feature of a human face.

Red Head

In the next post we will head to Hiva Oa where we will visit the grave and studio of Paul Gauguin. It should be one of the highlights of the trip. Hope to see you there.


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