The Marquesas Islands, land of adventurers

Iles Marquises

Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London: these 3 authors lived for the sole purpose of discovering the world around them. In the course of their many peregrinations, each had the good fortune to set foot on the Marquesas Islands. But what is it about the Polynesian archipelago that attracts so many?

Lost in the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Marquesas Islands were never intended to be discovered. In the 16th century, a Spanish conquistador by the name of Álvaro de Mendaña stumbled upon them, but his untimely death a few months later kept them relatively anonymous.

Two centuries passed before they saw the face of a navigator in the person of James Cook. From then on, the archipelago saw the arrival of several representatives of expansionist states, eager to lay claim to these Polynesian lands.

Ignoring the quarrels between the various conquistadors, intrepid adventurers nonetheless stopped off to discover the culture and civilization of these islands. Follow in their footsteps and fall in love with this part of the world.

Arrival in Nuku-Hiva

Landing on the island of Nuku Hiva would be far too simple to begin your expedition. Although there is an airport to the north-west of the island, the sea route is far more attractive. What’s more, any good adventurer would choose to sail across the waves to reach the mainland.

Taiohae Bay

Like Herman Melville when he was a mere sailor on the Acushnet or Jack London aboard the Snark, your journey begins on Taiohae Bay. The landscape has changed somewhat since the time of these authors – there were no buildings on the shore – yet the lush nature is still very much present and should pique your curiosity.

Before heading in, take a few steps up to admire the entire bay. Can you see the caldera in which the Marquesas Islands are nestled? The remains of a volcano that erupted several million years ago, it is the first witness to these lands.

Baie Taiohae

View of Taiohae BayCredit: Shutterstock – angela Meier

Beyond the scientific explanation, there’s a local legend that tells the tale of the Marquesas Islands, that of Oatea and his wife Atanua. Lost in the middle of the sea, the couple still wanted to build a home. So Oatea summoned his ancestors, the gods, to create a floor on land. They responded positively to the call, and the Marquesas Islands were born.

Temehea Tohua

The jungle has been beckoning ever since you arrived, so give in to temptation at last. Venture to the north of Nuku Hiva, where you’ll find the remains of Temehea Tohua, home of the last queen of Taiohae.

It’s famous for its many tikis – statues of Polynesian gods – of all shapes and sizes! While some have big mouths, others have small trunks. Others have elongated helmets and some have bulging eyes.

Tiki Temeha

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Claire.Wanderlust

These representations continue to intrigue anthropologists. What did the Polynesians base their tikis on that makes them look so much like aliens? While we wait for a rational explanation, you can have fun thinking that the truth lies elsewhere…

It’s time to get to the heart of the matter and discover our favorite adventurers.

Major explorations

You’re finally following in the footsteps of Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. In fact, if London ever ventured into this valley, it was thanks to the former’s account in his book Taïpi.

Taipivei Valley

As mentioned above, young Merville embarks on the whaling ship Acushnet. When he docked on the island of Nuku Hiva, the author of Moby Dick was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, and the thrill of adventure ran down his spine. Exhausted by his captain’s orders, he decides to flee the ship with his shipmate Richard Tobbias Greene.

However, the magic of the place is a little misleading. The jungle has a few traps, and Melville ends up injured in a fall. For 3 days, he and his sidekick wander through the wildlife, which stretches as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, they come across the Taïpi tribe, who take them in and look after them.

Vallée Tapivai

Photo credit: Shutterstock – angela Meier

Once on his feet, Melville doesn’t want to leave and gradually integrates himself into the tribe. As the months go by, the « Garden of Eden », as he has christened it, becomes a disenchantment. Yet the Taïpi integrate him into the tribe’s habits and customs. In front of him, he prepares popoi, a typically Polynesian recipe made from the fruit of the breadfruit tree – also known as Uru – to which the same ingredient is added, but fermented. Then, thanks to a pestle, the whole is transformed into a kind of paste that each villager shares.

But it’s not this tradition that frightens the adventurer. He discovers that his hosts are anthropophagous! And, like Hannibal Lecter, they sometimes consume human flesh! But unlike the serial killer, the Taïpi don’t do it for pleasure.

They only performed this ritual in times of war and when capturing prisoners. By devouring their enemies, they steal their « manas » or mystical energy. Melville did not witness any such ritual, but paranoia lurked. What if, after being pampered, he simply became the evening meal? Taking advantage of a moment’s inattention, he ends up fleeing the village.

Kamuihei archaeological site

To see what Melville fled from, you need to go up to the north of the Valley, where the Kamuihei archaeological site is hidden. You’ll be admiring a place that is timeless in the literal sense of the word. Indeed, no dating has yet been carried out.

The moss covering the large basalt boulders and the remains of the dwelling platforms is evidence of the ravages of time. They could have been completely swallowed up by Mother Nature if archaeologist Pierre Ottino-Garanger hadn’t moved heaven and earth to restore them.

Stroll through what remains of the festivities, admire the petroglyphs and banyan trees – or divine trees – stroll between the food storage pits and you’ll see the Taïpi appear before you in full ritual. If you listen carefully, you may even hear the pestle striking the popoi.


The famous Banyan or divine trees of the PolynesiansPhoto credit: Instagram – air_tahiti

Kamuihei is not the only site of its kind in the Marquesas Islands. A significant number are scattered throughout the archipelago, testifying to the high population density that once occupied this valley. In fact, before the arrival of the explorers, James Cook had estimated the population at 100,000 souls; today, there are less than 5,000.

Continue up the valley and you’ll come across the magnificent bay of Hatiheu.

Hatiheu Bay

On Hatiheu beach, the crashing waves lull you to sleep. Stretch out on the sand or on a chaise longue, and relax at last. And you’re not the first to feel this sense of calm.

Baie Hatiheu

Photo credit: Shutterstock – angela Meier

More than 130 years ago, Robert Louis Stevenson was standing in your shoes, feeling the same emotions. His arrival coincided with the death of his father in 1887. He decided to leave the United States to travel the world with his wife. Like London, Stevenson set sail for the Marquesas Islands to learn more about Melville.

When he finally arrived, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Nuku Hiva had the good fortune to be his first port of call since leaving the American continent, and as he describes it, it became the emotion of a first experience that can never be repeated. In his own words, the Marquesas Islands remain forever engraved in his memory. For him, they are « the first love, the first sunrise, the first island in the Pacific, which will forever remain special memories ».

Like Melville, Stevenson mingles with the local population. Regardless of the language barrier and the savagery of the people he met, he wanted to discover the Polynesian world. This experience was different from Melville’s. The Europeans have begun to impose certain rules, such as banning Maori tattoos. Fortunately, it takes more than that to make millennia-old customs disappear.

Stevenson scribbles tirelessly in his notebook to preserve the moments he experiences with his wife. He painstakingly described the landscapes of the islands he visited aboard his schooner, the Casco. This stopover was the inspiration for his book « Les Marquises », which he finalized while resting in Samoa, his last place of residence.

Live your own adventure

Unfortunately, the wild tribes no longer populate the island of Nuku Hiva. Even so, you’ve had the chance to discover their culture. But why not make your own adventure by discovering the natural treasures of Mount Tekao and the Vaipo Waterfall.

Mount Tekao

From Taiohae, take the road north towards Mount Tekao. This majestic massif overlooks the Toovi plateau. Culminating at 1,224m, it gives you a bird’s-eye view of the Marquesas Islands. But the hike will not be easy. The gradients are steep, and you’ll need to double your efforts to get over the pass.

Once you’ve overcome these obstacles, you’ll realize that it was all worthwhile. You’ll have a breathtaking view of Toovi’s verdant plateaus of majestic pines and copses, which give the impression of an enchanted forest.

The needles of Aakapa are also open to you. In fact, they have attracted modern-day adventurers. Some Frenchmen dreamed of stretching a wire between two peaks and performing a balancing act on it. Unfortunately, the project never came to fruition. Between dengue fever and the onslaught of natural elements, the organizers decided to throw in the towel.

Aiguille Aakapa

Aerial view of the Aiguilles d’AakapaCredit: Shutterstock- le bouil baptiste

At the end of your escapade, it’s best to return to Taiohae for a rest, as your next destination requires you to be in shape.

Vaipo Waterfall

It’s the highlight of your trip. To admire it, head into the Hakaui Valley – west of Taiohae Bay – where a 5-kilometre hike awaits you. But rest assured, it’s suitable for all types of walker.

Apart from ending up with wet feet, you risk nothing, except in the event of torrential rain. Better still, the path is already mapped out. One of the queens of the valley had the bright idea of building a « royal » path that leads almost all the way to the waterfall.

Along the way, you’ll come across a number of ancient dwellings, for in those days, nothing was built on the shore for fear of a tsunami wiping it all out. And it’s not just the ancient dwellings of the living that line your route, but also those of the dead. Tombstones can be found on the cliffsides, their braided nape ropes still holding after all these years.

Once you’ve reached the 2/3 point of your walk, you should be able to see the waterfall in its entirety. At 350 metres high, it is the highest waterfall in Polynesia, ranking 202nd in the world. Take in as much of the view as you can, and let the sound of rushing water carry you away.

Cascade de Vaipo

Photo Credit: Instagram – danilora

This doesn’t mean you have to turn back. Keep going until you find yourself at the foot of the waterfall, where the water ends its course in a large basin carved out of black basalt. If you haven’t dragged your feet too long, you’ll arrive just as the sun floods the natural pool at the base of the waterfall. It’s tempting to take a dip, but because of the possibility of falling rocks, swimming is prohibited.

Au pied de la cascade de Vaipo

Photo Credit: Instagram – shanahs1

And so your adventure comes to an end. You would have understood that it was the total change of scenery and the discovery of a distant culture that so charmed Melville, Stevenson and London. Like them, you’ll have to return home with a host of memories engraved forever.