Hunting for Tikis in French Polynesia

Travelers go in search of little known Tiki sites on the Marquesas.

May 21, 2009, 4:24 PM

May 21, 2009— -- Maps point to imaginary roads. Locals direct travelers "over there." But for true adventurers, the hunt for French Polynesia's unmarked Tikis is worth the hike.

Travelers Neville and Catherine Hockley trekked in search of the storied stone statues earlier this month on the latest leg of their trip around the world.

The couple arrived at French Polynesia's Marquesas islands after 3,000-mile ocean crossing. Read more about the Hockleys' recent adventures -- from their travels through Panama, to their preparations to sail to the Galapagos, and their exploration of the isolated islands made famous by Darwin.

See photos from the Hockley's travels.

Visit the boat's Web site to learn more about their journey.

Read the latest excerpts from the Hockley's adventure below:

Catherine Hockley writes: We are now into day three of our 3,000 mile expedition across the Pacific and it's hard to comprehend the distance we still have ahead of us.

For me, our last passage from Panama to the Galapagos was quite an achievement in itself as it was our first, just the two of us, almost 1,000 mile leg. But there wasn't much of an opportunity for laurel resting once we got there, as our Galapagos visas only allowed us 21 days, so no matter what, whether we were ready or not, at day 21 we had to leave.

It felt a bit like being nudged towards the edge of a precipice. I was nervous about going forward, but we couldn't go back and our visas said we couldn't stay, so once we reached our departure date, that was it. Maybe it was a good thing though because it would have been all too easy for me to raise entirely compelling arguments to stay: Perhaps just one more day with the iguanas, just one more ice cream, just one more really good night's sleep before setting off on the longest passage in the history of us… ever!!

But on Sunday, April 5th, we reached our get out of town date, and get out of town we did. Sailing away from the last terra firma we'd see for a month felt pretty strange, but once we were out of sight of land, and all we had was our little circle of ocean, I began to settle down and ponder the miles ahead.

One of my pondering points was that we had read reports of piracy in this area, and when we were in the Galapagos we met an Australian who had been forced to make an unplanned detour there after having been tracked and followed by a 'fishing boat' very close to where we are now. It had appeared to be a fishing boat, but it was behaving more like a predator circling its prey. For every course change the Australian made, the other boat did the same, and after several dark hours of this, he called in a Mayday and made a b-line for the closest port, San Cristobal Galapagos.

So with that in mind we have been keeping a very close watch in our little patch of ocean and from time to time we have seen boats on the horizon, but nothing more sinister than a few like-minded sail boats and a fishing boat that happily turned out to be a just a fishing boat. Ironically, this aspect of the journey so far means the farther away from land we get, the safer we feel.

The weather is beautiful. We are averaging about 80 miles a day, we have a knot of current in our favor, and the wind is light but useable. So all in all, day three is turning out to be pretty good. We are, however, not having any success in the fish department, so I guess it's pasta for dinner again.

Crossing the Ocean to French Polynesia

Neville Hockley writes: We found the wind five days ago and it is glorious! After crossing an area of ocean filled with lightening, squalls and wind gusting to over 30 knots, it seems that we have finally settled into the South Pacific trades.

Sailing before 20-25 knots of easterly wind, Dream Time is charging through heavy swell at a determined 6-8 knots of speed. When the larger rollers pass under our keel, sometimes reaching heights of over 10 feet, we surf down their face, our record to date being an exhilarating 13 knots. Our reefed main and partially furled headsail have flown, untouched, for three days, drum-tight and held out far off our starboard side as we speed onward, our heading 255°.

The ocean, once heavy and lethargic is now alive with energetic waves, white caps and thousands of flying fish that, in an effort to avoid Dream Time's path, soar over the crests in schools, gliding majestically on their silvery outstretched dorsal fins, sometimes covering distances of over 300 feet. The larger, more experienced pilots expertly twist their bodies and fins, banking around and over crests, flicking their tails off the water to gain speed and altitude before plopping back into the sea. The smaller flying fish scatter frantically in every direction, clumsily colliding into oncoming swell, or sometimes, for those who misjudged Dream Time's speed and direction, headfirst into our sails or coachroof.

My morning routine now consists of sea burials for the unfortunate victims unable to find our scuppers -- twelve this morning. Last night, an hour before my 3:00 am shift, one even managed to fly directly into the open v-berth hatch and landed with a light 'flump' on the blanket beside me. Leaving a strong, salty, fishy smell in its slimy path, it took a few seconds for me to turn on the light, get a hold of him as he twitched and flipped around the bed, before hurling him, unceremoniously, back out to sea the same way he flew in.

There has been no traffic on the horizon or the short-range VHF radio for almost a week. It truly feels like we are alone. And unable to speak to friends or fellow cruisers on our long-range SSB radio, due to a short in the wiring I have yet been able to trace (which keeps blowing a fuse), in a way we are.

But what a ride! Suddenly the 1,927 nautical miles we have remaining isn't quite so daunting, and at our current speed we should raise Hiva Oa, the first our Marquesan Islands in about 14 days.

Neville Hockley writes: It's day 17 of what will probably be the longest single passage of our entire world circumnavigation. Sure I knew it was over 3,000 nautical miles of open ocean before we set-off, and I calculated that it would take us between four to five weeks to transit, but the reality of planning an offshore leg such as this one and actually doing it, are quite different.

We're well over half way to the Marquesas and have covered a distance of 1,796 nautical miles, but the reality is we still have another 1,209 before we raise the islands. A distance that at our current speed of 6 knots in 15-20 knot trade winds, will take us another nine days to transit.

The passage is going remarkably well. We have a daily routine that operates like clockwork -- night watches, domestic chores, boat projects, eating, napping, relaxing. Ironically we're doing very little 'sailing' though. Our sails have remained full and untouched for over a week, so Catherine and I feel more like passengers on Dream Time rather than her captains. If the trade conditions are as they should be, the reality is that the boat is happy to skip over the waves sailing herself. The satellites orbiting above guide our autopilot below, we have remained on the same tack, on the same heading, in much the same conditions for two weeks now. There's really very little for us to do, except hold on.

Our ocean photos do little justice to the actual size of the heaving swells that surround us. The photos show a light chop or perhaps even what appear to be smooth, tranquil rolling seas with the sun shimmering off its surface, the reality is quite different. The swell is relentless and requires us to clutch, brace, grab, twist and flex as they continuously pass under our keel. It's like balancing atop one of those giant orange rubber aerobic balls -- in an earthquake. The swell is a combination of the easterly waves blown by the trades and a deep, slow rolling swell from the south, probably a result of stronger winds down in the 'roaring forties', and they occasionally decide to converge right on Dream Time's port quarter.

Clinging to handholds with our fingertips, in a fashion not altogether different from mountain climbers, Catherine and I hang on as Dream Time is heaved over to starboard, enough for our caprail to occasionally scoop gallons of seawater onto the teak deck, turning the water around us white and leaving the ocean bubbling, gurgling and hissing in our wake as we surge forward. The unfortunate reality is that these freak waves usually rear-up just when Catherine is preparing one of her deliciously complex meals down in the galley (the ingredients invariably consisting of just about anything that rolls: tomatoes, onions, apples, cabbages, olives). Chasing a runaway onion or a pack of fleeing olives around an undulating cabin floor is most definitely not her idea of fun.

But besides the sheer magnitude of this long passage, the length of which we will probably never have to cover again in a single leg. Besides the rolling, the bracing and the endless routine of it all, the reality is, I really quite like it out here.

Sure, there is the excitement of realizing our dream to sail around the world, the thrill and adventure of crossing the South Pacific in a small sail boat, but there is something else. I see things differently out here. I'm more aware of the magnificent order of things -- a simple, natural harmony of gargantuan scale that even on the rolliest of days, can be quite comforting. It is something that I rarely recognize when on land, but out here in the open ocean, you're right in the very center of it all. The sun and moon rise from the horizon immediately behind us, orbiting high above us before swinging down and sinking below the horizon directly in front of us. The quiet night sky - the Southern Cross always floating off our port side, the Big Dipper off our starboard. Orion's Cross dead ahead, Dream Time's bow nodding and pointing directly at the center of her three stars, night after shooting star night. The world seems to revolve around us and even though at times it feels like we're in the middle of nowhere, the reality is, we're at the center of everything. And, at least for the moment, I can think of nowhere else I'd rather be.

Neville Hockley writes: A dark, featureless mass appeared off our port bow long before the morning sun had brightened the night sky. But as the warm glow of a new day spread from the east, chasing away the last of the stars, it revealed what our radar had known for over two hours: We had reached land!

After sailing for 28 days and 31 minutes, traveling 3,142 nautical miles, burning only 25 gallons of diesel, one propane tank, generating five small bags of garbage, catching seven Mahi Mahi (spearing the last one, a 36" Mahi from the boat!) collecting a carpet of sea growth on the hull and growing an inch of facial hair (me, not Catherine), we have finally arrived at Fatu Hiva, the Marquesas, French Polynesia!

Sitting defiantly in the middle of the ocean, Fatu Hiva reaches over 3,000 feet above sea level, its jagged peaks hidden behind a matching canopy of soft clouds -- one island sitting atop another. Serrated crests and wrinkled valleys carve their way deep into the center of the lush island, stretching down, reaching for the sea like outstretched claws rooting themselves to the world. After living for a month in constant motion, where everything around us changed, moved and shifted, sailing along side such a vast, immovable mass was overwhelming, exhilarating and intimidating. We crept along its north east shore like we were sneaking up to a sleeping giant. Catherine and I sat on the coach roof in silence, mesmerized and in complete awe of what we were seeing, and in what we had accomplished.

We dropped anchor in Baie des Vierges at 10:31 to the sound of cheering from John and Andy aboard Happy Spirit, friends we first met in the San Blas islands that now seem like a world away and a lifetime ago. We spent our afternoon on board, we didn't need to go ashore, the breathtaking view from Dream Time was more than enough, at least for today. We sat on the foredeck and gazed in awe as the island before us changed in shape and color -- the setting sun streamed into the valley, filling it with a warm, tropical glow, turning cliffs into towers of bronze, moving shadows across vertical rock spires, revealing faces that have gazed out across the ocean for centuries. Palm leaves softened and became a blanket of rich, green silk draped over the island. And a soft breeze fluttered down through the valley, across the anchorage and out to sea, carrying with it the sweet, rich, poignant unmistakable scent of land.

With the sun now deep below the horizon, Dream Time rests in the comfort of Fatu Hiva's solid and reassuring embrace, providing us with relief from a world of contact motion. It's a strange feeling to think that we'll wake tomorrow and the island will still be there, it's not going anywhere, and, at least for now, neither are we.

Catherine Hockley writes: I know that this may sound silly, but I didn't know that the French Polynesian islands are in fact actually French. I think I thought the 'French' part was more of a descriptive flourish to make it sound more exotic but it turns out that everyone here speaks French, the French flag flies at the top of the flagpoles, and every morning there are heavenly fresh baguettes to munch on with your café au lait! I'm not sure how France managed to get hold of these beautiful islands so very far away from France, and the rest of the world, but they did and they must be pleased because it's truly a paradise here.

The islands are physically stunning with their epic black volcanic peaks covered with lush green foliage surrounded by a dazzling sapphire ocean, and the people here are mesmerizingly beautiful. We spent our first few days on Fatu Hiva a small craggy volcano of in island, and probably one of the most beautiful, replete with a Bay of Virgins, a 300-foot waterfall and a very competitive and successful football team. When we went ashore, we were pursued by curious, giggling children who were thrilled when we returned the next day with photos we had taken of them the day before, along with the requisite candy and pens.

At our next stop, Hiva Oa, a larger island and the final resting place of the French impressionist Paul Gauguin, we anchored in Traitors Bay along with 20 or so other boats. Happily there are a few restaurants and hotels here so the ice cream predicament has been resolved for the time being and although it's expensive, I don't think you can put a price on ice cream after a 3,000 mile ocean crossing. Last night we were lucky enough to be in town for a Polynesian dance festival held at the towns' sports hall. It was a spectacular exhibition of traditional and modern Polynesian dance and music, and everyone from the island, including all their many many children, had come to watch and eat scrumptious French pastries and it was just lovely being temporarily included in this huge happy family of people enjoying an island evening out.

We are heading out tomorrow to do a mini road trip to explore some of the island visit the black volcanic sand beach and to find some of the mysterious stone Tiki's hiding in the jungle, we'll keep you posted...

Neville Hockley writes: Catherine and I have just returned to the boat after spending an adventurous weekend exploring the isolated archeological sites along the remote northern coastline of Hiva Oa.

Carving its way through the heavy blanket of rain forest that covers the island, the single road that connects the south coast to the north, at times, was little more than a rocky, narrow, dirt track. As the road wound its way over the craggy 3,000 foot crest that forms the spine of Hiva Oa, and dropped down into the lush valleys below, Catherine and I would burst into song, chanting the Indiana Jones sound track as our little Suzuki 4x4 trundled along, struggling to negotiate the particularly rough patches of road. A smiling local, concerned for our well being, asked if we knew where we were going, probably unaccustomed to seeing tourists off the "main road."

We meandered our way around the edge of cliffs, at times with only a few feet separating our tires from a vertical drop to the ocean below, winding up and down between the valleys and bays that dot the coastline. For two days we searched for Polynesian Tikis -- stone statues carved by Polynesians hundreds of years ago to honor gods, chiefs, warriors and priests. So remote are the Marquesas, many of the Tiki sites are unmarked and rarely visited by tourists. Vague maps show locations in tour books, but many are wrong, indicating roads that don't exist and not even attempting to describe the exact locations of the Tikis. With no paths, signs or maps to guide us to some of the more remote sites, we asked friendly locals for directions, who, sweeping their arms vaguely across hills blanketed in every shade of green imaginable, would explain that the Tikis were just, "over there."

For hours we wandered through valleys and over hills, sliding down embankments covered in marble-size volcanic stones. We waded through bushes and clambered over rock piles. We visited numerous Tiki sites and even found the elusive Tiki Moe One, buried deep in the hills within Hanapaaoa Bay.

We ate lunch on volcanic boulders lining the beach in the deserted Hanapaaoa Bay, dining on sweet bananas plucked from the bunch and stuffed inside crispy fresh French baguettes. We filled bottles with water pumped right from the stream that trickled down to the ocean through the valley, adding the juice of sour oranges we found on the drive down, making fresh lemonade. We met a colorful Polynesian local in Puamau who bought us ice cream, invited us to his house, and gave me a special stone he had found in his village. Explaining his love for Hiva Oa and wanting me to take a little of his island with us on our travels, "we are brothers now" he said, "peace and love."

We stopped at a local farm at the bottom of a little valley just dripping with ripe fruit - bananas, mangoes, oranges, pamplemousse (giant, bowling ball size grapefruits). The owner, Mr. O'Conner, armed with a 15-foot pole with a net on the end, personally selected the largest, heaviest, sweetest pamplemousse from the tops of his trees. It was a weekend we will not soon forget.

Tomorrow will be another big day. At 9:00 am we'll be meeting Hiva Oa's most prestigious tattoo artist, sculptor and competitive outrigger canoe racer. I'm not entirely certain what Marquesan tattoo design I'll have, but after spending a weekend with the Tikis...

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