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Climbing Toward Mt Tema

June 5, 2011

From the harbor the closest northern peak is imposing and cloud soaked Mt Tema*. Its southwestern face drops four thousand feet straight into the sea. To the east and in a previous age, great chunks have eroded away in crescent shaped bites. Sometimes the earth slid all the way to the coast, and now the village of Atuona is built over it. But sometimes the fall retained much of its altitude. Even from the harbor’s shore, one can see a light green berm of earth propped up against this northern mountain to half its height, and over it a brown zig-zag of trail up its face. This is not an invitation, it’s a command.

Mt Tema

The couple on Columbine, Cynthia and Glenn, and I decide to ascend. I have general directions from Gail on Ri Ri (right at the bank, right at the school, go up) but even she has said that the road’s rights and lefts are a mystery and we’ll have to experiment.  I anticipate getting lost with a certain excitement.

Less so Cynthia. When we meet the yacht agent, Sondra, and husband in town, directions are the first thing she requests. Sondra’s husband clouds over. “Oh, ze trail it is not safe in zis weazur. We do not recommend such a hike now. Better to walk the road to the village or come to our house and use the internet.”

Nothing recommends a trail more highly than being warned off by a local. We thank Sondra’s husband and continue on as planned.

Getting Directions

Right at the bank, right at the school and at the next intersection we are immediately lost. The carved stone marker presents us with two choices in Marquesan, neither of which we recognize. I spy a man in his back yard. He is smoking, watching us, and with an arm raised he is waving us to the left. He comes to the road and explains in detail, in French, how to get to the trail head. We understand none of it, but we return his smiles and follow his repeated gestures.

Within fifty feet, another intersection with a house on the corner. We stop to consider and here another man leans out of his window and points to the road at our right. We follow. We assume we are being directed to “our” trail but have no idea.

The roads are crude, rough cement and very vertical. We pass more houses. Some are single story shacks with tin roofs and plywood walls and these are painted in bright colors like aqua-marine and magenta. Others are conservative, Victorian cottages with stone walk ways and separate garages. Dogs bark gruff warning and often chase us but with tails wagging. Soft words of greeting and then they take our petting.

We meet more intersections but houses are below us now, and each time we choose the way most obviously upward.

We pass a cemetery where a long dead stump has been carved with a tiki, and soon after the paved road becomes dirt and mud, and it continues up.

Through a forest and single track trail we climb, passing here and there a broad platform of volcanic rock, an ancient building’s foundation. One has a small stone tiki at the highest point. None are cordoned off or posted with signs saying “tabu”, and we guess as to their original use–hunting lodge, temple, platforms for human sacrifices?

The trial exits forest and continues up and at the crest of the hill, a shanty of wood pole, palm leaf walls and a blue tarp for a roof. Inside clothes are hung on lines and mattresses are turned on end against the damp. Doors are padlocked. No automobile tracks. “1000 feet of altitude,” says Glenn, who is carrying a GPS.

The berm and trail from far below

Now we approach the berm that is visible from the bay. The green covering is a monoculture of small fern, acres and acres of it with not a tree or bush, and the dirt path, wet but not muddy, is wide, evenly graded, and completely plant free. Here and there a burn patch to destroy the larger plants. At the switch backs, trenches direct rain water away from the trail. The shanty, we now decide, is the maintenance crews’ quarters, for this immaculate trail is a small marvel of engineering and must need constant attention.

Switch backs they may be, but they are extraordinarily steep. Our sea legs complain bitterly. Only Glenn, a barefooted trail marathoner in the states, powers ahead. To him this is a kind of heaven, and he has been waiting at the top for twenty minutes by the time Cynthia and I collapse near him.

“Over 2,000 feet up,” he says. “Hmmph!” is all I can muster. Glenn opens another beer.

We lunch at the highest point on the berm. The view expands outward and toward the ocean to the south and reveals an island that is mountain after mountain, ravine after ravine. There aren’t any flat spaces, no plateaus or wide valleys that I can see, and I wonder where the tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces that I buy from the vegetable truck are grown.

By this time we are in cloud, or rather just under it. Where the trade winds meet sheer Mt Tema they are scooped up, condense, and blanket the peak. Cloud is forming right above us. We watch it pile and rise and flow over the peak like an inverted river. Tropic birds circle and squawk near the cliff. Other unknown bird song calls from the jungle.

The trail continues into the mountain, but compared to the smooth freeway of berm, it is rough going–overgrown, wet, rocky and often log jammed. The forest drips quietly. Ancient, long-leafed ferns droop from the crooks of moss covered trees. Wild orchids hang from muddy banks. We crest two rises thinking each the summit, and each time the summit is still far up in the cloud.

The trail, we are told, descends into the next valley and leads to the northern village, but we have gotten a late start, and after another mile we turn back. The drop back into town, back into the sun of the coastline, takes half the time we’ve anticipated. It has not rained all day.

More photos here…

*I think. My chart is a black and white photocopy and both the name and altitude of the peak are partly overprinted. The only map available in town ($30) fails to show the peaks or this trail.

View of the island from the top

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