Fatu Hiva – The Garden of Eden



As I wrote in my previous blog, Vinni got the honor of shouting; ”Land Ho!” She certainly deserved the honor. Despite being laid completely low by a truly nasty cold/flu, she stood all her watches and bore the heaviest burden on the passage, as I was completely “hors de combat” with my back pain/spasms that meant I could barely crawl around on the boat.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish poet and author (Treasure Island and more) wrote, (quoted from my memory), “Some memories you will always have. Your first love, the sight of your first South Sea Island. These memories stand apart and crystal clear. There is something virgin about them”.

He was right, of course. Landfall on your first South Sea Island is something very special. Emotions pile on, you feel your voice getting thick and if you come easily to tears – here is where they will come. It could, of course, also have something to do with the fact that you’ve sailed between 3-4000 nautical miles and been many weeks at sea. The sight of any land can bring tears to your eyes – but when it is a South Sea Island like Fatu Hiva that rises one-half mile unannounced out of the ocean, out here in the middle of nowhere…………………….

Yeah, well you have to be a very cold fish indeed not to get emotional. Since neither Vinni nor I are cold fish, we felt the emotions and yes, a tear or two, as we sailed into Hanavave Bay between the steep forbidding cliffs.


The cliffs are steep right into the water

We made landfall at Hanavave (old Polynesian name) in the first part of the afternoon. We expected to find 2, perhaps 3 boats at anchor. Imagine our surprise when we saw 11-12 boats bobbing in the swell. The bay was almost full and we ended up anchoring in 75 feet of water. We let all our 330 feet of chain run out and had we had more – we would have run that out also.

Then something strange happened. We were three boats that arrived almost simultaneously (within an hour of each other). During the next two hours, 3 more boats made landfall!  Total six boats within 3 hours from Galapagos and Panama!  Hmmmmm. Strange indeed

Many pilot books claim that Hanavave Bay is the most dramatic and beautiful landfall on the planet. Since I haven’t seen them all, I’ll have to pass on validating that claim, but suffice to say, this is one extremely beautiful landfall. As you enter, a narrow deep valley stretches out in front of you, weaving its way through the high mountains (roughly 3000 feet high). The valley becomes progressively narrower as it makes its way between the cliffs. Impassably high vertical cliffs and stone formations surround the valley, and the anchorage. The light changes constantly as the sun traverses the sky, casting long ever-changing shadows in every direction.

These stone formations led the first French explorers to name the bay Bai de Verges, or Phalli Bay (in plain English – the Penis Bay). When the Catholic missionaries arrived some years later, they were horrified by that name, added an “i” and the name became Bai des Vierges, or Bay of Virgins. I don’t speak French, but one can wonder a bit about why those two words, penis and virgins resemble each other so closely, with only an “i” as a difference.

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yes – well they could look like penisses

Today the bay is called Bai des Vierges, unless you use the old Polynesian name – Hanavave Bay.


Map of Fatu Hiva from Thor Heyerdahl’s book

Fatu Hiva is the island Thor Heyerdahl (Kon-tiki fame) and his wife Liv lived on for a year in the 1930’s. They sought a place where they could live a primitive life without any “modern” conveniences. As Thor describes in his book, “Fatu Hiva”, they were, perhaps, the first hippies (Henry David Thoreau did something similar in the early 1700’s and described his experiences in his exceptional book – “Life on Walden Pond”). Thor and Liv arrived on the copra schooner, a sailboat that stopped by the island on occasion, without plan. It bought the copra (dried coconut meat) from the locals and had some minor supplies the locals could trade for.

Both the schooner’s skipper and the authorities on Tahiti warned Thor and Liv against living on the island. The local population wasn’t used to strangers ad there were no conveniences whatsoever on the island. But this was exactly what they were looking for.

Here is a picture from Thor’s book – Hanavave Ba in the 1930’s. The buildings were all made of palm leaves – today they are made of concrete and sheet metal roofs.


Houses made of palm leaves

They ended up making a home in a deserted village in the middle of the island. The village was deserted when the population died out due to illnesses, smallpox etc., brought to the islands by the Europeans. Before the Europeans arrived, the population of the Marquesas was 80-100,000. Today there are approximately 10,000 Marquesasians. The population of Fatu Hiva is close to 600.

Thor and Liv received help from a couple of locals, built a palm leaf house in the deserted village, and lived there for almost 6 months. Liv became ill and they managed to get her to Hiva Oa where she was treated. Upon returning, they found out that the rainy season had begun and the mosquitos were so numerous that it was impossible to live in the valley. To make matters worse, while they were gone, a French priest had arrived on the island and since Liv and Thor were Protestants, he turned the entire population against them (everyone out here is Catholic), and they were finally forced to flee over the mountains to the windward side of the island. They had been told that an old man lived out here with a young girl in total isolation.

Indeed, there was an old man and a young girl. The old man was, according to himself, around sixty years old and the last of the cannibals on Fatu Hiva. He had joined in the eating of people festivals when he was a young man, but he noted, it had been many years since he had tasted human flesh. The young girl was a gift from the village on the other side of the island, so he didn’t have to live there totally alone.

Thor and Liv lived here for almost six months until people began arriving from the village and living there. As more and more showed up, life became impossible for them. The locals got drunk on citrus alcohol, partied, and held orgies every night. Liv and Thor feared for their lives and eventually fled over the mountains back towards the village. They stayed in isolation on a beach until one day the copra schooner showed up and they left.


Copra (coconut) lying out to dry

The island back then was very primitive. They had never seen a white Vahina (Polynesian for woman). White men, yes, but a white woman no. One of the locals offered to trade Thor his wife and four children for Liv and could not understand why Thor said no – it was a very high payment he was offering. One well-known theory came from Thor and Liv’s year on Fatu Hiva. Thor conducted anthropological studies while they were on Fatu Hiva and devised his theory that Polynesia was settled from South America. A theory he later “proved” by sailing the raft, Kon-tiki, from Ecuador to the Tuamuto Atolls.

Vinni will write more about this and the settlement of the South Sea Islands by the current Polynesians in her blog about Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa.

Back to our landfall (wow! What an aside!). We anchored and had our “landfall drink” before going ashore. It is actually illegal for us to go ashore here. We should have sailed to either Nuku Hiva or Hiva Oa, cleared in then sailed back to Fatu Hiva (against the wind and swells). Nobody does that. So, either you make landfall illegally or you don’t see Fatu Hiva. We made landfall and figured nobody would say anything, since virtually everyone else does the same thing. We were prepared to claim a “medical emergency” because of my back, which had not gotten better just because we arrived at an island.


yeah – believe it or not – a pay phone!

As another aside, I have to brag a little bit here. Normally our “wailing wall” is filled with yellow post-it notes when we have sailed a passage. This time, after almost 3500nm, there wasn’t a single post-it note on the Wailing Wall. Not a one. Nothing on Capri needed fixing or adjusting. That just goes to show that either we are getting better at making sure everything is perfect before leaving or else everything on Capri is finally up to the standard needed for blue water sailing……………… Whatever the reason, it was wonderful not to have to immediately start work on the boat. Instead, we could start exploring our first South Sea island.

Fortunately, there were no problems with making landfall. Not for us, nor for any of the others (everyone made landfall illegally). We got to know the local policeman well (we ate dinner at his house a couple of evenings and used him as a taxi/guide). He couldn’t care less if we were legally cleared in or not. His biggest interest was if we had any .22 caliber ammunition we wanted to sell him. It is more than very illegal to bring undeclared ammunition into the Marquesas, so having the local cop ask if we had any for sale or trade seemed a bit absurd.

There are two places to make landfall on Fatu Hiva, Hanavave bay and Omoa, a village about two nm further east down the coast. Hanavave has a population of about 200 and Omoa 400. There is one road over the mountains, said to be 17 kilometers (to reach a village only 4 kilometers away by water) long. The drive over and back is an all-day affair (a testimony to the state of the road) even in a four-wheel drive. It is better if you don’t suffer from a fear of heights if you take the road……………………….

Hanavave is a wonderful little harbor where you can easily land your dinghy at the pier (a rarity out here). As you walk through the village, everyone says “hello” and smiles. People are more than friendly, although every child you meet asks “bon-bon?” (Candy). Candy is the last thing these children need. The Polynesians have an insufferable sweet tooth – they simply can’t get enough sugar. Diabetes is rampant here with virtually all adults suffering from type 2 diabetes. There are few old people amongst the population. We’re surprised at how fat everyone, especially the women, are. We’re not talking an extra 20-25 pounds here – this is major fat, most of the women are at least 100-200 pounds overweight (no, that is not a typo). They start getting fat in their early teens. The weight problems apparently are due to several things. First, the local custom is that a woman should carry some extra weight to show that she is good at making food and that her family can afford to eat well. Second, of course is the diet. The diet here is heavily carbohydrates. One would think it otherwise; fruits grow wild everywhere, just pick from the trees. This is truly the Garden of Eden. There is more tuna in the waters than you can catch. One of the other cruisers caught a tuna off the back end of his boat while at anchor one day. The locals go fishing and come back after an hour or two with three or four 60-70 pound yellow fin tuna. One of the diet problems is that everything eaten here is deep-fried. Breadfruit and rice, staples of the diet are pure carbohydrates. The fact that this is the Garden of Eden also means that no one works – so they get no exercise. The fact is that the population dies young. All these islands have the same problem – the weight issue means that everyone has type 2 diabetes and all the sicknesses associated with that – cardiovascular, pulmonary etc.


The main drag through town



This modern style house could be in florida………………just missing the swimming pool

One day we trekked, with some other cruisers, up through the long valley to see a 350-foot waterfall.


Fantastic waterfall

Very beautiful and Vinni jumped in the pool at the foot and swam around. My back kept me from swimming. Later she found out that some fresh water eels live in the pool and are known to “nip” at swimmers legs and stomach – oops!


Vinni jumps right in – not knowing there are fresh water eels here

Aside from seeing the waterfall, one good thing came out of the trek. One of the cruisers we walked with was a French doctor. We asked her about my back (now going on 3+ weeks and still so painful that I could only walk fully erect – bending over was impossible). She had some muscle relaxation pills in her medicine chest, gave me a couple and two days later I was well and fit for fight! Thank god!

The bay here is well protected from the swells and the boats lie quietly (quietly is a relative concept however). The valley that stretches far inland works like a funnel. The trade winds blow against the windward side of the island and work their way inland over top of the mountains and through the valleys. This causes strong gusts (up to 40-50 knots) to fly down through the valley and out into the narrow bay, hitting the boats at anchor.


Capri is down there somewhere

We’ve never dragged on our anchor, ever, and we’ve begun to feel that we are fairly experienced and think we know what we are doing, at least when anchoring. In other words – we feel pretty confident. As I noted further up, we anchored in 23 meters (75 feet) and ran out all our chain (350 feet). Our anchor weighs 70 pounds and the 350 feet of chain weighs 300 pounds, so all told almost 400 pounds of weight down. A couple of days after we arrived, a really powerful gust rammed us and shortly thereafter, we were asking each other, “uhh, are we dragging?”

That thought was far from our minds since we have never dragged, but we quickly realized that we were indeed dragging and sailing backwards out of the bay. Our Mantus was dragging and worst of all, it had not bitten and set itself again as it is supposed to. We hauled all 350 feet of chain in and reanchored.

Later that day we talked with our neighbor boat, a New Zealander who had been here before, who said, “You shouldn’t feel bad about dragging. Hanavave is world famous for dragging. Everyone drags here. Today 3 more boats dragged. Usually 3 or 4 boats drag every day. The problem is the bottom here, which is one long rock shelf with a thin layer of sand on top. No anchor can bite in the rock. If you go out to where the water is 30 meters deep, you’ll find a good sand bottom”.

We saw other boats drag and some of them needed 8-10 tries before they got their anchor to bite even a little bit and then they dragged when the next big gust came along.

I guess it was a bit of a consolation that everyone else also had problems getting their anchor to bite properly; ours only dragged once during the week we were there. Hell, our pride was at stake……………

Fatu Hiva is, as I’ve said, a true Garden of Eden. The weather is always perfect here, the trade winds ensure it is never too hot, there are more fish in the ocean that you can eat and they are easy to catch. There are wild pigs and goats (escaped from the European explorers) that are easily hunted if you want meat on the menu.


A piglet still too young for the grill……….

Pamplemousse (a type of grapefruit), breadfruit, mango, papaya, bananas, limes, oranges, lemons, a type of apple, passionfruit and other fruits we don’t recognize grow wild here. What more can you ask for in the Garden of Eden?

The population is declining – the young people (as are young people everywhere) are restless and don’t want to stay on the island. They want to go to Tahiti. They all have smartphones and even though the internet out here is terrible – they all know what the rest of the world looks like.

Our local cop and his wife run the only restaurant in Hanavave. The term “restaurant” should be taken loosely here. The restaurant is on their back porch at one long table. Next to it is a small outdoor kitchen and a big grill. The guests bring their own bottle (they don’t have a license to serve alcohol). They also have the only “hotspot” in Hanavave, which means that all the cruisers bring their IPad etc., come early and try to read their emails. The internet is sloooooow. Only the cruisers come her for dinner – supposedly there is a B+B somewhere I town but we never saw it. Dinner costs $17 USD and consists of grilled pork, Poisson de Cru (raw fish in coconut milk with rice), goat in curry sauce with rice, grilled breadfruit and diverse salads and vegetables (whatever they can pick). It is all you can eat and everything was very tasty, although some portions of the goat were tougher than my old leather shoes. We ate there a couple of times, both to get a change of pace from our own cooking and to get a social life with the other cruisers – after dinner everyone stayed until late, talking and finishing whatever wine/beer there was.


The cruising sailors having dinner at Fatu Hiva’s best (and only) restaurant

In case you were wondering, we hadn’t gotten completely off the beaten track. One day a cruise ship appeared in the bay. It wasn’t a big one – this was a National Geographic cruise ship. As soon as they anchored, a big launch deposited a number of their passengers on the dock. The Fatu Hivans, who knew they were coming, had set up chairs and tables for them and decorated the space by the dock. The women then showed off their local dances. Others had set up tables and were selling wooden carvings, miniature Tikis, Polynesian war clubs etc. There were some exquisite carvings amongst them and we were tempted, but, but, but, Capri is full to the gunnels as it is – where would we put them? Other passengers trekked out to the waterfall. As a cruise ship, it was fairly discrete, but we had not expected to see one here.

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and this one did too. A couple of cruisers, Oskar and Lisa are Swedish and fell into a conversation with the 1st mate from the cruise ship at the dances. He was also Swedish and immediately invited them out to the ship for dinner.

The next day they laughingly told everyone that they had been treated to huge, tender steaks, champagne, vintage wines, an enormous dessert cart, cognac and you name it – they got it! The rest of us were only a tiny bit jealous…………..

Oh well, our spaghetti tasted just fine (in your dreams!)

The local cop Piu, was also the taxi and we rode over the mountains with him and a couple of other cruisers, Willy and Marie. Willy is Swiss and Marie is Columbian (Former Columbian Ladies Amateur golf champion – handicap +3 (I hate her!!!) ), both of them unbelievably nice. They are also on their way around the world, currently in their 7th year, sailing a 54 foot Amel. Their lives are completely controlled by their boat cat, who they rescued 5 years ago when she was a kitten. The cat decides everything and they both do what they are told – especially Willy since he is outnumbered 2 to 1 by the women on board.

Everyone on the island has a four-wheel drive. I didn’t really understand why (there is only one road) since the road is made of concrete and as roads go in fairly good condition. As we drove up over the top of the mountains, I began to understand why. Halfway up the mountain, the concrete stopped and from here on in it was a dirt road. Very steep and full of ruts and small ravines made by the run-off rain. Only a four-wheeler can get through here.

The trip over the top is unbelievably beautiful. The landscape unfolds as one picture perfect postcard after another. As we neared Omoa, there was a wooden signpost and Piu told us that it pointed the way to the abandoned village where Thor Heyerdahl and Liv built their hut and lived. The trail to the spot is a 6-8 hour trek over mountains and valleys. No one goes there anymore and if any tourist is crazy enough to want to go there, it requires a local guide – otherwise they will never find it.


Omoa trademark erected at the waterfront

We arrived in Omoa but everything was closed (Sunday). We knew it would be, but the “tapas lady” was open (Pui had called ahead). Tapa is an old custom here on Fatu Hiva. It is a picture (symbol) painted on the inner bark of the breadfruit tree and they are truly beautiful. Fatu Hiva is the only place left in the Marquesas where this handicraft is still worked and the “tapas lady” in Omoa is acknowledged as the best. When we arrived, she immediately went into the forest and quickly came back with a breadfruit tree limb. As you can see in the video, she strips the bark and peels off the inner bark. This is then beaten thin and flat. Thereafter it can be painted.

Her husband is the artist. They show us many Tapas they have for sale, but Vinni and I have our eye on one that is lying half-done on the table. Were it finished, we would buy it in a heartbeat.

“No problem” says the husband, “have a cup of tea and I’ll finish it”. It took about an hour and beautiful it is – see the picture of Vinni with ours and Marie with theirs.


our tapas along with the artists

On our way back to Hanavave we spotted at large hole through the cliff (mountain) on the opposite side of the valley. Through thousands of ears of erosion, the wind has worn a hole completely through the rock, meaning it is possible to get to the other side through the hole, without having to climb over the top. Piu told us that in times past, if a man wanted to marry, he had to climb up and go through the hole in order to prove his worthiness and manliness. It is not done anymore because it is considered very dangerous (or perhaps all the men have become pussies). Later we were told that in the times before the Europeans came, there lived many differing tribes on the island. When the tribes from the other side would come to raid Hanavave, they would come through the hole and rob and take prisoners. Women prisoners were simply married into the new tribe, the men and children were kept as slaves until they were needed for the dinner table. The Polynesians back then were cannibals.

It does tend to give a new meaning to a dinner invitation when you know the main course is yourself……….

They aren’t, however, cannibals anymore. They are Catholics and here on Fatu Hiva they are very religious. The church is filled at every service and when we drove over the mountains with Pui, he stopped at a small spring alongside the road. Over top of the spring there was a small statue of the Virgin Maria and he said a short prayer and crossed himself. We weren’t entirely sure if it was “just” a prayer or if he was praying that we would get over the mountains safely (with his driving). The trip wasn’t dangerous, but as I noted earlier – a fear of heights is not good to have if you are traveling this road.

It’s difficult to describe the Garden of Eden. Fruit grows wild everywhere and around every house, there are gardens with bushes and trees simply loaded with so much fruit that the limbs scrape the ground.  The locals just pick whatever they want – also from their neighbor’s gardens – no one minds. We met locals that picked limes and lemons from a neighbor’s tree and gave them to us – the same with pamplemousse and other fruits. Coconuts are everywhere and even though every single coconut belongs to someone, you don’t have to walk far before you are so far away from everything that the coconuts are lying alongside the path and no one will pick them up.  Taking these is not stealing.

If you want coconut, you choose a good-sized one that has fallen to the ground by itself and is brown. The green ones on the trees are filled with coconut water and no meat. Check to make sure it isn’t budding and then shake it. If you can hear the coconut water sloshing around inside – it is a good nut and you can get started with your machete (yes, we bought one of those) and remove the outer husk. If you are careful, then you can dehusk it without damaging the inner shell. Then it can be saved for a loooong time and enjoyed later.


Vinni checking out a coconut to see if it is a good one

If you are artistic, you can carefully cut the shell in half, polish it inside and out with fine sandpaper and then it will look like fine mahogany.  Glue a little foot on it and you’ll have a very pretty bowl.

We stayed on Fatu Hiva for almost a week and sailed thereafter north to Nuku Hiva (120nm) to clear in, bypassing Hiva Oa (30nm). We will be here in the Marquesas for at least six months waiting out the hurricane season, so we decided that we might as well start at the northern end of the island chain.

Will we sail back to Fatu Hiva? Perhaps, but it is an uphill sail and we have seen the island.



3 thoughts on “Fatu Hiva – The Garden of Eden

  1. Tremendous blog entry. Loved the description and historical accounts, I almost feel like I’ve been there. Thanks Carsten.




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