Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Garden of Eden, Garden of Death

The valley that runs from Hakaui into the mountains that enclose French Polynesia's tallest waterfall is a veritable paradise - a spring fed river, groves of bananas, coconut palms, and all manner of fruit trees. A well made stone road runs for a kilometer along the river, lined by hedges of colourfully leaved plants.

The people we met in this valley were very friendly. The first house that we came to after fording a two foot deep river sells fruit to the cruisers who come here mostly during the months when cyclones are not a possibility. Two Marquesan men and a woman invited us over and gave us samples of their fruits - they sell bananas by the stalk, breadfruit, star fruit, passion fruit, and papayas. Having not brought money, we chatted with them for a while and then told them we would come back the next day.

The road passed by a few modest homes before plunging into the rain forest, which is aptly named as it rained here for much of our walk. In the forest were the pai pai home sites of the thousands of Marquesans who lived here before they were decimated in the 19th century by the diseases of foreigners. Now only a handful of families lives here with more coming from nearby Taiohae on their vacations.

We crossed the river several times, each time having to wade up toour knees on slippery and sharp stones. After more than an hour of following the muddy trail, we came to a look-out from which the waterfall at the head of the valley could be seen. A French couple was resting there and the woman warned us in broken English against going beyond the point where the valley closes in, due to danger of rock falls made worse by the recent rain. She also told us that the missionaries were responsible for building the trail we had been following and pointed out a side 'hidden valley' in which women, the old, and children were said to have hidden in times of war.

At the bottom of the hill, we reached the point where crumbling thousand foot spires hem in the valley. The trail from this point criss-crosses a turbulent stream several times and, so high and near are the cliffs, that it is difficult to see the sky. During one river crossing, I tried to stay dry shod but slipped while jumping to the last rock and badly knocked a shin, tearing the skin in several places. Any sort of open wound here is a serious matter due to ease of infection, but we decided to press on and clean things up when we returned to Ladybug. At this same crossing, Rani had just finished wading across when we spotted a 3 foot long eel swimming inches from where she had just stepped. A few hundred feet further we found the bag of hard hats that someone has donated to make hiking through the gorge safer. We each donned a hat and proceeded to the pool below the falls.

The pool was muddy with run-off, but we stripped to our bathing suits and waded in, as the heavens opened yet again. We swam across this first pool and clambered over some rocks into a second pool lying beneath the falls. Only the last 100 feet of waterfall was visible from the second pool, but the velocity of the water attested to its descent from the heights. The mist made it almost impossible to open our eyes as we swam toward the falls. Another cruising family was just returning from a swim and they told us of a shelf behind the falls where we could rest after we swam under the cataract. I could not persuade Rani to join me, so I dived under and swam beneath the pounding water, coming up in a narrow gap beside the rock wall. It was difficult to breathe in this small space and I did not linger.

On our return, a handsome cinnamon coloured dog that had followed the other cruisers to the falls 'adopted' us, trotting happily along between Rani and me for the entire return trip. I wonder how many cruisers this attractive fellow has guided to and from the falls?

On a sobering note, we learned that only a few weeks ago on this trail a woman from one of the cruising boats had been struck on the head by a falling coconut. When this sort of thing happens in cartoons we laugh, but a ripe coconut can weigh 4 or 5 pounds. Anyone who has heard the WHUMPH when one of these hits the ground nearby can understand how important it is to try to avoid walking under coconut palms, especially in any sort of a wind. After the accident, the woman was driven to the beach by one of the Marquesans we had talked to earlier and evacuated to the hospital at Taiohae where she died the next day. Another Marquesan told us that he has cut down the palm tree that caused the cruiser's death as well several others near the trail, but there are still dozens if not hundreds of palm trees that one passes under on the hike to the falls.

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