Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sunday Hike in Paradise

Back in the Cowichan Valley, I rarely attended church because Sunday morning was when the Cowichan Outdoors Group went for their day hike. I preferred to worship in the cathedral of nature. This Sunday at Hanavave we had been invited to attend the Catholic service at 8 am. We were eager to hear the beautiful choral music and decided to spend the early hours of the morning at this service before hiking to an overview above the Bay of Virgins.

The service was lovely - most of the village was there with the women dressed in their finery wi shawls over their shoulders. The men were typically in contrast, wearing shorts and T-Shirts although a few also dressed up. We had hoped to record the music but were ushered to a pew bear the front and I felt it obtrusive to pull out my camcorder, so I only recorded part of one hymn. The mass was in Marquesan and much of it was sung by a large adult choir, guitars, a children's chorus and the congregation itself, many of whom sang in beautiful in beautiful harmonies.

We recognized familiar faces including the people we had traded with the day before and other villagers. You do not have to stay long in a small village before you know and are known by much of the population. I felt moved to tears by the song and words, which had power, despite being mostly unintelligible. The service lasted an hour and after the service we shook hands with the preacher and with other attendees. We met an older Marquesan lady named Madeleine who later rescued us from a throng of children who were asking for candy. The kids know that visiting boaters often bring candies ashore to help make friends and any stranger is approached with a request for bonbons. We gave out a handful of hard Mexican sweets before following Madeleine through the town to her lovely house on the edge of the road to Umoa. She picked three pamplemousse for us and gave us a tour of her extensive gardens, which contained hot pepper bushes, pumpkins, many fruit trees, and herbs. She told us to drop in on our way back from our hike to pick some basel and mint for our tea and to pick up the fruit.

The hike began on a concrete road that switch-backed up the hill above the town - the same road we had used to reach the path to the waterfalls. We passed a small shrine with the Virgin Mary standing on an island in a little lake formed by the waters of a spring, water plants entwining her feet as she stood with outstretched arms in a cool stone grotto. The paved road was steep and we had to pace ourselves to avoid sweating too much. Rain clouds continued to pour over the mountains, driven by strong easterly winds, their shade providing periodic relief from the intense tropical sun. We were looking for a good viewpoint down onto the bay from which we could photograph Ladybug, but first were treated to a spectacular overview of the village. It was framed by towering pinnacles of black rock and mountains that appeared dark and ominous when shadowed by the masses of cloud.

A truck passed us bound for Omoa and the concrete ended, grading into a steep gravel track and then into a rich volcanic soil, soon to be turned to mud by a rapidly approaching rain squall. We saw a bulldozer parked on an overview and a small shelter for the workers of a gravel crushing operation. Just as we reached this the sky opened and we gratefully took shelter and watched as the rain obliterated everything in view. The deluge lasted only 10 minutes and we stepped outside to the most glorious view out over the bay and along the splendidly rugged coast - everything looking sharpened and renewed by the rain.

As we hiked to another overlook I spotted something reddish and articulated wriggling in the grass. It was a centipede - about 5 inches long - pretty but apparently quite poisonous according to our guide book. Despite my protests, Chris picked it up with s stick so we could get its picture. Back on the main road, we passed a couple of banana trees hanging on the edge of a cliff, that had clusters of ripe fruit. Chris knocked down a few but we left the rest for the return journey. Each fruit was about 3 or 4 inches long and intensely sweet.

The charts we had for the island (from an 19th century French survey) showed a plateau at the head of this valley, so we continued to hike beyond the look-off expecting to come to level ground. The scenery here was reminiscent in some ways of England with wonderfully green, rolling grassy hills. There was no livestock, but scattered black and brown volcanic boulders gave the appearance of distant ruminants. It turned out that the plateau was more a series of volcanic ridges and valleys and we never did reach level ground.

At each switchback, we said to one another - ok - let's just go to the next corner. This continued for a couple of hours, the scenery becoming more lush. Palms and mango trees replaced the grassy hills and we eventually found ourselves at a half-way point. We had left the valley in which lies Hanavave and entered the valley leading down to Omoa. We were surprised to find a series of picnic table shelters and I guessed that these might have been put in place for fruit pickers. We later learned that these were placed at the halfway point between Omoa and Hanavave for the tourists who arrive on the inter-island cruise/supply ship, the Aranui III. These tourists have a day trip between the villages and stop here for lunch. Above the shelters towered a huge deciduous tree so covered in epiphytes that its own foliage was hardly visible and a hedge of hibiscus flowers lined the road.

On a side road we found another shelter and a copra drying area as well as fruit bushes that were not familiar to us. They bore reddish purple fruit - about an inch in diameter. Against my advice, Chris tried a couple and said they tasted like a cross between a plum and a guava. Fortunately these turned out to be edible (we took back some to show Madeleine), although I cannot remember the name of the bush.

we hiked another kilometer or so until we had good views down into the valley of Omoa and then retraced our steps to the shelters and back down into the valley. The return journey was much quicker - mostly a gentle downhill ramble. The roads had dried quickly and the heavy sticky mud was now gone. Near the banana trees, I found a stick and we used this to knock the rest of the bunches down, filling a plastic bag. We saw no-one else on the hike until near the end when we met a father and son from one of the other boats who had climbed to a lower look-off.

We retrieved our pamplemousses from Madeleine and she gave us some mint from her own bushes and then directed us to the Mairie (village hall) where we 'pruned' basel from a public hedge in front of the building. I gave Madeleine a shawl clip to thank her for her kindness and we returned to the boat, exhausted but happy after a very full day. I intend to lead this hike for the Cowichan Outdoors Group at the earliest opportunity.

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