Skip to content

Two Mysteries at Hanamenu Bay, Hiva Oa

June 12, 2011

June 10

Murre raced across Canal Bordelais for Hiva Oa making six knots under jib and mizzen alone. Winds were fresh out of the east and the swell boisterous and warm, and Coot danced and spun at Murre’s stern, straining her painter to the breaking point. But behind the island the sloping plain dropped right away creating a high, sheer headland that became increasingly arid and barren near Kiukiu Point, and here the wind did not blow at all, though the swell persisted. We motored around Bonard Point and into Hanamenu Bay in mid afternoon, anchoring in twenty five feet of water a quarter mile from shore. Inside the bay, wind gusted toward the beach and then each way over the bluffs, so I put out a second anchor holding Murre’s head toward the ocean’s low swell.

This northwest corner is the island’s dry side, and to eyes now so accustomed to jungle, first impressions were those of desolation. The high hills surrounding the the narrow bay were covered sparsely with dead grass and a small, yellow-flowered bush, but these could not hide the structure of the sun-baked earth beneath, which was sheet upon sheet of crumbling volcanic rock. Below these hills bay water became a dull brown, and the beach, though heavy with palms, looked to be more mud and rock than sand. A bluff of exposed rock just back from the beach split the land into two narrow valleys, Hanaheka and Hanamenu, both of which turned quickly east, closing off any interior view. Small, drab dwellings could be seen below the palms.

Two Marquesan men put off from shore in a dingy and powered out to a locally-built motor cruiser moored nearby where they exchanged boats on the mooring and prepared to depart. The pilot knocked the top off a coconut with a machete and drank before climbing to the fly-bridge and putting his hand to the throttle. The cruiser sped away toward Atuona, and then we were alone.

I walked to the bow to check how Murre rode her anchor. Circling there was a brown shark eight feet long. An hour later while cast fishing, I caught a four foot shark, brown-gray with black tipped fins that fought spiritedly for twenty minutes before snapping the line on Murre’s rudder and escaping with my favorite lure. The water color and its obvious inhabitants suggested there would be no swimming here.

Next day ashore presented two mysteries. The first had to do with the dwellings. Two were obvious from shore, but behind the sandy beach and palms were more. Eight small cottages in all made up a small compound with a wide dirt path between and a common hall at the center–a dirt floored palapa with two long tables made of local wood. The cottages were small and plain, tin roofs and painted plywood for siding, but well kept and several of them had manicured lawns positioned around shade trees (a hammock hung from one), neat fences with picket gates, small gardens. Here and there a hose and sprinkler quietly watered a young breadfruit tree or a row of ti plants. To the west, a small stream flowed down from the hills into an architectured pool, bordered by grass and two, log-carved sitting benches below a single palm tree. Chickens roamed freely, giving the grounds a sense of movement and life. But the compound was empty of people. The windows of the cottages were boarded over, the doors padlocked.

I followed the path out of the compound to a wooden gate and through it as it continued. The path was wide enough for a small car, raised a few inches and lined with tightly fitted volcanic stone, and it soon lead into an area heavily shaded with large, old mango trees. Here, to the right of the path was a now common sight–an ancient stone foundation, square, made of volcanic rock. But next to it was a rectangular cement sepulcher, also very old and long ago broken into. A wild horse stood to one side watching me, its rib and hip bones pressed tightly against its hide.

The path continued in this manner to a stream, and across it as a trail, without the stone works or the care, it lead off into the valley’s dense undergrowth becoming less and less obvious and finally petering out at a small grove where six more thin horses watched me approach before scattering into the low forest. This was not a road into town, as I had thought. I turned back.

After recrossing the stream I turned from the path and headed straight up the hillside to the east, hoping to break free of the valley’s covering and get a view. But almost immediately I encountered another path, half as wide as the first, also finely built-up with volcanic rock. I first followed it back down into the valley to find it began in the mango grove with the sepulcher and just where that path turned toward the stream. But over growth had hidden it.

I then followed it up.

For a ways the path was wide and well traveled and bordered with rock. In one stretch black rock had been neatly piled into a bridge to fill a small ravine. The bridge was ten feet high and thirty feet in length, and the rock had been evenly stacked to form symmetrical sides and sharp, precise corners. A low, rock lip on either side framed the wide dirt path. From a little distance its design reminded one of a Roman aqueduct.

The trail proceeded slowly up the mountain from here. For some time it continued to be rock lined and well traveled (at least by the wild horses for droppings were frequent), and its grade was minimal. Above the loose forest that grew up around the valley floor, ground covering quickly thinned. Small grass and the yellow-flowered bush, wasps, the caw of myna birds. But the view up canyon and toward the island’s interior revealed even higher mountains, entirely green, covered with cloud.

As the trail continued up it became increasingly steep and as it became steep it ceased to be wide; a little further it ceased to be rock lined; then its way ceased to be obvious until within a hundred feet of the summit it simply ceased to be. Suddenly I was scrambling on all fours over rock and loose dirt at a precarious angle that made slipping a thing to be avoided. By this time it was late in the day. The sun had dropped over the eastern hills and cloud was beginning to cover the valley, so I returned to the bay.

This trail out of the compound, past ancient stone foundations and up into the mountain where it died was the second mystery. The first mystery had a tentative solution: Hanamenu, it appeared, was now a weekend get-away, an escape from the continual rain of the island’s south side, for a select few Atuonans who could afford a second home maintained by others. But it had also been the site of an ancient village that extended from the beach and back to the stone-works in the grove of impossibly old mangoes. Now, as then, it was accessible only by boat.

But the second mystery failed to resolve. Why so much energy had been expended on a rock lined, rock-bridged path that faded into the mountain before it crested the summit I could not understand.

Back on the valley floor and while there was light I harvested a few mangoes, but not too many. The ground covered with pits and the horse’s evil eye suggested they were a prized staple, and he was skinnier than I. Then I spent an hour on the beach breaking into a coconut, whose juice was lightly sweet and meat, hearty. An efficient method for getting through a coconut husk is a third mystery whose resolution I’ll save for later.

One Comment
  1. Philip permalink
    February 14, 2013 12:43 pm

    English is not my first language, but I tried to understand your history anyway. I read atleast 10 books about the tuamotus and the marquesas. As much as I can figure out I guess you found an old path of religious reasons. It´s certainly over 300 years old (a rough guess) and was built by inhabitants thru their religion. Bengt Danielsson, a swedish traveller (Kon.Tiki) and ethnologist lived for 2 years in Nahoe with his wife. (Nahoe is far south from Hanamenu) In his book he tell his reader about a trip with horse from Nahoe to Atuona. A road that is cescribed as the one that you found but without the rocks. SO it can either be religious or just a transportation road.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: