Sunday, April 22, 2012

Circumnavigating Nuku Hiva (by car)

Car rental rates are pretty steep in this part of the world, so we decided to invite Carol and Livia, from s/v Estrellita, to join us for our excursion to the airport. They had been advised by friends (Regis and Jeanne on s/v Xe) to do this trip, and had been given a number of suggestions for the route, including taking a "back road" from Hatiheu to the airport. We were happy to have their information and their French fluency, and they were happy to share in the cost of the vehicle (a Toyota crewcab diesel 4x4 Hilux).
We got underway by 6:20AM, and started up the steep hill to the interior plateau, stopping for photos along the way. What with the pre-dawn scramble to get 4 people and a lot of luggage to shore, Vicki and I had forgotten our camera. Justin and Livia kindly agreed to share their photos with us. At the first junction, we turned right for Taipivai, and were soon descending to the bay where we had anchored a few nights before. We looked in vain for the Melville monument, and continued up the valley via a dizzying series of switchbacks to a pass overlooking the valley of Hatiheu, on the north side of the island.

The switchbacks going down were equally sharp and steep, and I couldn't keep myself from yelling in fear when we rounded one hairpin to see a Blue Land Rover coming at us from the other direction! No harm, no foul, except I probably scared the crap out of my passengers.

Down in the lush valley, we came upon one of the largest traditional village sites in the Marquesas, called Kamuihei. This was the most intriguing traditional site I have seen in these islands. We explored a veritable maze of pathways winding between stone walls, house platforms, boulders carved with petroglyphs, and several impossibly large fig trees. Some of the platforms were topped with recreations of traditional wood and thatch houses, and there were several recently carved tikis and a large "honu" (sea turtle) sculpted from orange lava.
After stopping at one more stone site, we descended to one of the most beautiful bayfronts I have ever seen,fringed with coconut palms and jagged rock spires. Hatiheu was definitely worth the grueling drive!
Carol, Livia and I had heard wonderful things about the restaurant here, Chez Yvonne, and we convinced the others that we should wait an hour until we could order an early lunch. We also got information about the "back way" to the airport, winding along the precipitous northern shoreline of the island. We were assured it was only 2 hours, and was an "easy" drive. More on that later.

While we waited for the restaurant to open, we explored the church, the bayfront, and the concrete wharf at one side of the bay. The only boats in Hatiheu bay were locals, and we watched a family of 6 carefully negotiate the loading of their possessions and themselves as the strong surge carried the boat back and forth along the quay. Step lively, granny, or you'll end up in the drink!

Back at Chez Yvonne, half of the group ordered grilled fresh fish, and the other half requested goat in either curry or coconut sauce. For side dishes, there was breadfruit, manioc, rice, and salad. Everyone's food was very tasty, and Vicki and I came away with enough leftovers for a filling dinner! We got back in the car at 11:50, wanting to be at the airport by 2:00pm. A "two-hour cruise…"

 The road started off nicely enough, and was no rougher than what we had already seen. Most was gravel or dirt, but the steep bits were paved with concrete.
In only half an hour we had reached the village of Aakapa. We stopped to ask directions at one intersection, and the French driver warned us that the road ahead was "pas bon" (not good). Hmmm.

Indeed, the tread soon got lighter, the rocks got larger, and the pitches grew steeper. But we were committed now, as there was not enough time to backtrack to the main road. We were distracted from our concerns by the scenery, which was absolutely stupendous. It was also dizzying, as we were mostly picking our way along a single-track, with cliff walls on one side, and a sheer drop to the sea on the other. We had to stop every now and again to remove boulders from the lane. Luckily we encountered no other vehicles!
As we made our way over one ridge, down into a valley bottom, and up the opposing slope, we wondered how many more valleys we had to negotiate before re-joining the main road. At one point, in a valley bottom, heading downstream toward the beach, the road petered out, and we found ourselves in the middle of a pasture, surrounded by horses and cows! Carol walked to a nearby house, and we were directed back upstream a kilometer or so. We all burst into laughter when we spotted a small handmade wooden sign with a picture of an airplane! At last we knew we were headed the right direction!
 The track got a bit more well-used and a bit less rough, but we were grateful that there was no rain, as we passed thru several patches of dried mud, with old car tracks fishtailing their way along. We did end up having to negotiate one huge mud puddle, which we did at a high enough rate of speed to coat the entire vehicle with red mud. Nothing drives like a rental!

Joseph was fidgeting, and Justin laughing nervously, as the 2:00 deadline approached. At last, at about 3 minutes past 2, we emerged onto the main road, which was under construction, but still much smoother than what we had been on. We made it to the airport by 2:10, and J&J checked in with no problems. Missing this plane would have meant a one week delay for both of them.

We said our good-byes, with hugs all round. Totally exhausted, I gratefully turned the wheel over to Carol for the relatively easy (but still steep and narrow by most standards) drive along the main road back to Taiohae. This part turned out to be pretty scenic too, with pine plantations, tree ferns, and verdant pastures reminiscent of Switzerland. A very diverse set of landscapes for such a small island!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark and Vicki it sounds like an incredible journey so safe.
M and L