“Very often when lost in admiration at its beauty, I have experienced a pang of regret that a scene so enchanting should be hidden from the world in these remote seas.” – Typee, by Herman Melville.
The land of men, Te Henua ‘Enana, or Te Fenua Enana in the south are more commonly known as the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. These islands were known throughout the Pacific Islands for their intertribal warfare, human sacrifice and cannibalism, yet the immense beauty of the island’s nature, the savage beauty of its people and extremely intricate traditions of woodcarving have inspired some of the worlds greatest artists.
After the first Polynesians arrived around 200 BC, most likely from Samoa, the islands quickly became a population hub in the Pacific. Within the islands, tribal warfare was rife. Many Marquesans migrated elsewhere, such as Hawaii, Rapa Nui and the Society Islands.
The first European to discover Te Fenua Enana (he only saw found the southern islands) was Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra. He was actually searching for the Solomon Islands, which he had discovered on a previous voyage, he was well off! He named them the Islas de la Marquesa de Mendoza after the wife of the viceroy of Peru, and patron of the voyage. Because there was no gold, the Spanish weren’t too interested in the islands.
In the early 1800s, the largest island, Nuku Hiva tried to establish a monarchy with a royal family, but witn too many chiefs throughout the island’s tribes, it wasn’t well respected as a monarchy. Baron Charles de Thierry, a nobleman in exile after the French Revolution sailed the Marquesas en route to New Zealand. He decided he was the King of Nuku Hiva. His reign lasted a few weeks. Not much is written about this, but you can imagine how it must feel to have some fancy as Frenchman turn up and claim dominion over your home.
In the mid-late 1800s, France took control of the entire archipelago, built settlements and incorporated it into French Polynesia. With the introduction of settlers came the introduction of disease. The population declined from a booming 78,000 in the mid 1800s to just 2,255 in 1926.
Traditionally, tribes populated every crevice of the Island. Today, with a population of about 9,000, most live in towns near the coast.
The invention of the haka coincided with the discovery of Te Henua ‘Enana. A group of five Polynesian explorers looking for a suitable port to land became shipwrecked in a storm off Nuku Hiva’s south coast. With their vessel now in pieces, each of the men grabbed a piece of the boat to help them stay afloat as they try to reach shore. Wet and cold, Teakautu was the first man to arrive on the island, climbing up rocks overlooking the Jurassic-Park-esque Hakatea Bay. The bitter coldness got to Teakautu, some say he was so cold, his testicles were like rock. Fighting hyperthermia, Teakautu starts shaking his arms, jumping and hopping around on the spot, and trying to warm himself with his breath. “Hooo! Haaa! Huha!” his mates heard from the water. Looking up at the strange noises, they could see Teakautu dancing round on the spot, making aggressive panting noises. It was at this moment, the man with rock-hard testicles performed the world’s first haka.
Things to Do
Hiking is the top activity of the islands. Through the many tracks on the island, you can discover stone tikis, sacrifcial sites, and the sacred banyan tree which was the centrepiece of any Maohi settlement. If you’re more of a nature lover, look out for the Vaipō waterfall on Nuku Hiva, it’s the tallest in French Polynesia (bring sandals), or you can discover one of the many, almost deserted beaches.
Horse Riding is still an important mode of transport as many towns are cut off from road access. You will probably come across locals on horses on your hikes, but if you’d prefer to ride, your pension host or local information centre should be able to organise.
Follow your favourite artist through history. Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame) spent time on Nuku Hiva and wrote a book called Typee, about the Taipi tribe he associated with. Post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin live out his life on Hiva-Oa, these islands are depicted heavily in his later works. You can visit his tomb in Atuona.
The Marquesas cultural festival is held every four years rotating through the three largest islands, Nuku Hiva, Hiva-Oa and ——-. Here you can witness their world famous carving styles, enjoy traditional music and dance, and see a local haka. Deligates are invited from all over the Pacific and the event is held during the school holidays. A mini cultural festival is held on the opposite four year cycle, rotating through the smaller islands.
Although there are only a handful of restaurants, make an effort to try some of he island specialties like the fresh fish (raw tuna is amongst the most popular), honey, breadfruit, wild goat, Polynesian chestnut, and coconut.
How to get there
Sailing is a popular way to access the islands. Taiohae, the administrative capital is 8.9065°S, 140.1035°W. Several of the islands, such as those in the very north are uninhabited.
The larger islands each have regular flights to Papeete. Air Tahiti use a fleet of ATRs on these routes at almost full range, this means all flights are weight restricted, so chack your baggage allowance and pack light! Flights between the islands are on even smaller aircraft and can be booked via Air Tahiti.
The Aranui is the major cruise ship servicing these ports. There are no ferry services.
Typee, by Herman Melville