Discovering the Marquesas Islands with Uschi Ringleb, Ua Pou

August 24, 2005 Nothing prepares you for the breathtaking sight of this Marquesan Island. You can read about it, look at photos, see a documentary, listen to Jaques Brel’s famous song, or dream to the music of Rataro, native of this island ; when your eyes see it first, you will be breathless. In the early morning, shortly after sunrise, the Aranui approached the cliffs and rocky shores of this high island. Low clouds still hugged the top of spires and peaks, shooting like pillars into the sky. What magnificent and unique landscape. Fascinated I watched from the ship as we slowly approached the little harbor of HAKAHAU, situated in a little bay which lies sheltered from the otherwise uninterrupted waves. There are no reefs around the Marquesas, due to the cooler Humbolt Current, which does not allow for corals to grow. During breakfast the ship was secured with ropes to the pier and the gangway was lowered. And for the first time I engines stopped ! This morning, I had a calculated breakfast, if you so will. Not too much coffee, no pommelo slices, no plate full of juicy papaya splashed with lime juice as usual, because who knows where the next restroom was on this island. This was first drop-off stop for a package of New York photos to Toti, (one of the friends I had met in New York ) president of the Academy Marquisienne. Several pretty ladies in beautiful dresses sat by the entrance of our restaurant when I wanted to leave. And since they had come aboard already, I asked if anyone knew where Toti was to be found (as he had told me: just ask anyone ). The pretty lady told me : » I’m his wife », and happily I handed my package over to her. We talked a bit of what was going on and that she would be singing and playing the drum during the welcome ceremony, shortly before lunch time at the PaePae, a ceremonial platform of big stones. We were free until that time, but courageous ones could climb up to a cross, situated on top of a hill, overlooking the bay. I looked at the cross above us. A 40 min. walk , we were told. So I climbed down the gangway and with my backpack loaded with water bottle, camera and whatever else it was that added weight, I followed the slowest people up the street and turning off to the left onto a path that would lead you up to the look-out point. It was getting hotter by the minute. The path wound its way like serpentines around the mountain, stretching the distance longer and longer. I started to crave the first swallow of water just around the next bend. I couldn’t see the cross above me because of the shrubs and trees on either side of the narrow road. I fell behind talking all the time with people. And eventually I thought it was only me and one gentleman that were trying to hang in there, everyone in front of us out of sight. I didn’t contemplate that there were those marathon runners on the boat. I just knew one thing : I must get up there, even if I don’t come back in time for lunch ! And those that didn’t dare to do the climb were anyways still down in the village. Having a cool Hinano, perhaps ! Bend after bend opened the road to yet another long stretch of slowly rising path. The man with me stopped talking, so did I, instead we just rested once in a while under a tree that throw a little shadow, I let him drink from my bottle, and again we continued on our slow climb. Where was the cross ? Sweat dripped down my forehead. My heart started to pound, my lungs seemed to be shocked by the hot air ! But : eventually we made it to an open area with a fantastic look out over the bay and into the higher mountains of the interior, which now were cloudless , clear and magnificent; a rare sight as we were told. The cross was still above us ! But the gentleman shook his head. People were coming down and I went up alone, asking for someone to remain on the open area, just to make sure I wouldn’t remain up and under the cross by myself. I prayed those last 50 meters of steep climbing. I could hear the blood rush in my ears and there was a strange sensation in my chest. But, step by step I made the summit, set my camera on self timer at the base of the cross and pressed the button! I did it! The reward was spectacular. I rested for a while and felt sorry for the man, having come that far and not getting here. But that he perhaps was much wiser than me, dawned on me later. The walk down was just as tough. The heat still hadn’t reached its maximum by now ? Like a tired donkey I automatically set one foot in front of one wobbly foot. My left heel started to act up. And mercifully I finally dropped to my place in the shade at the PaePae to watch the unbelievable performance of Marquesan Haka dances, Bird Dance, singing and drumming, performed for us by those beautiful people during the « Mave » welcome ceremony. UA POU, I’m in love with you and your people, your songs, your mountains and scents ! And like a lover, it got me that exhausted too, on my first encounter !

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After this powerful, and for me very emotional « Mave « (= welcome Marquesan style) at the Paepae in Hakehau, Island of Ua Pou, in front of a magnificent mountain back-drop, dancers and musicians mingled with the tourists for a while, exchanging more welcome words or those of gratitude and taking photos. I talked with the beautiful lady from the boat, who had been singing and hitting the rhythm on the huge drum, and then was busy making some new little friends : children just need an assuring, friendly word, some sugarless chewing gum, get to see their photo in a digital camera, and the exchange of our names and they cling to me. I emptied all my pockets of the coin-money.

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But by then all Aranui tourists were thinking of Hinanos, food and a restroom, not necessary in that order. I saw Mr. Australia and brother « Rainman » : « Wonderful day, isn’t it? » strolling out of one alley, direction « Tata Rosalie’s  » restaurant. I followed the good smell in the air and arrived at Rosalie’s. Most people had found seats already and tables filled with glasses and bottles. It was a hot day and I sat down on the first single chair I could find, at the table with New Zealanders. They filled my glass before I ordered. There was a big Polynesian buffet spread out for the hungry tourists. I drank 2 Hinanos and plenty of water just to make up for the lost liquid. From the buffet table I chose a little bit of my favorites, sea food always on top of my list ; but I love banana po’e with coconut milk as well. With full bellies and in slow motion all arrived back on board by 2pm, and the Aranui 3 ‘s ropes were pulled in to sail to Hakahetau, another bay of Ua Pou. After a cool shower in a shower stall where you can’t fall down, (don’t drop your soap either) I just went on deck to observe the island’s shore-line passing in front of me. Rocks, caves and slopes, the little airport’s runway, built like a ski-slope ramp in the Alpes, took our interest. Then the beautiful bay of Hakahetau.

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From the crane’s ropes the whaleboats were lowered into the ocean, 3 sailors already aboard ! By now we felt like pros, getting up and down this narrow gangway to the heaving sea-level. Some even got carried away, going barefoot or in flip flops. The rocks to either side of this bay were most amazing. I thought I could make out faces in the steep washed-out walls. Who’s hand had been carving here ? And God’s spires crown this bay like one gigantic mountain cathedral ! I’m at a loss for words ! I tried to capture it as good I could and regret very much, that it all went by so fast. I walked through the little village, refusing to climb to any further look-out point of an old copra drying place. I found a telephone booth instead, made some quick phone calls to surprised friends in different countries, then I visited the church with it’s wooden sculptures. Artisans, in their little place, waited for the Aranui tourists and I bought a black & red seed necklace, 2 seed bracelets and a flower stone, a dark stone that is sprinkled with little orange-brown stars , resembling flowers. I ventured by myself over the bridge of an almost dried out riverbed, saw a huge pig in the bushes, went past the road to the right and came to a place high above the river, finding a perfect spot between some trees to take a picture of the Aranui out there in the bay, a little mirror like lake in front. I got closer to the banks of the river. The best spot for a picture would be just a little step forward. There were 2 big rocks in front of me. I stepped onto the first one. What a sight. But more perfect would be if I stepped onto the second rock. It was about 3 feet away, I didn’t pay attention to the gap in between. Well, one foot out would be enough, I thought and planted my right foot onto the farthest rock. My weight shifted now to the « in between ». I set my camera. I didn’t want to mess up this pic. When I was satisfied I wanted to step back and be happy. But I was standing, legs almost 3 feet apart above a gap that didn’t look so good. My backpack all of a sudden bothered me. I threw it to the ground I thought I could so easily reach again. I’m stuck, it went through my head. How do I shift my weight and jump onto this one rock on my left side, then reach the safe embankment ?I tried to rotate my body to the left. Just one chance, my friend, and you can’t mess it up. The ship won’t wait after the third blast of its horn. The pig will find me in the river ! That did it! I jumped, rotating with all the effort I could muster. How lucky I was ! What kind of silly stones ! Why was this so difficult? I collected my back pack and found my way back through the village. The pig was still there, munching away and not interested in me . Near the pier I sat exhausted on a pole, quenching my thirst with the water of a cool coconut. It was all a bit overwhelming for me until I was lifted into the whaleboat by one of the friendly strong Marquesan sailors . As we arrived on the side of my ship, I waited for the « ok » signal of the sailor on the 2×2 ‘ platform , then stepped through the air to be guided onto same and safely gripping the railing, I climbed up to the boat. Ahhhhhhhhhh, UA POU ! No picture was taken this evening, the girls in the Aranui Restaurant didn’t have to bring out the boom box to remind our table of the time. I vaguely remember downloading my photos, taking a book under the light behind the curtain of my bunk bed. The little lamp was still on by morning. I had fallen asleep right away.

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