In my last post, I said that my giant squid monster had led to something even bigger. Well, he got some friends. First was the tropical island angler fish, then the sea dragon and the tentacle-tongued ship swallower. I brainstormed things that sea monsters could do, or what they might look like. I was challenged to draw a sea monster a day for a month- cheating slightly, I counted my first four monsters as four days worth (though up till then my daily monster rate had varied between 2 and 0.4) then set to work on creating a sea monster every day.
I mostly used Copic multiliners to draw with- I love the range of sizes and consistency in their ink flow. My Rotring Tikky liners had a thicker ink flow- great for juicy, shiny eyes and rich dark blacks. Continuing with the same media and theme has started to help my art- I soon found that my cross hatching and stippling improved, and my monsters became more textured with increased depth. I got better at thinking of little details that would make my monsters more interesting and bring them to life. You can see monsters 1- 11 in the gallery below, and read their stories on Instagram and Facebook
Anoho Bay was our last stop in French Polynesia, and was a gem. Our anchorage was calm, tucked away from the eternal rolling swell and fringed by golden beaches and coral reef. The afternoons were hot- perfect for snorkeling. Visibility was low but fish were plentiful, from enormous green parrotfish to vast schools of yellow convict tangs- ‘bazillions of them’, as Jim would say. Although some of the coral was bleached and dead, I also found large patches of healthy hard coral in shades of bright green, steel blue, lavender and orange. I searched for shells, and found a purple sea urchin cast larger than my palm.
I explored onshore as well. The three beaches in the bay were linked by a narrow track and made a pleasant walk. The bay is ringed by steep-sided mountains and is only accessible by boat, foot or horse- no wheeled vehicles here. Every property owned at least one horse, and we saw trains of ponies carrying in sacks or provisions. The main industry here is copra production, and plenty of husked coconuts were drying in the sun, to be shipped off and turned into coconut oil. I sketched the bay and the little sailing vaka anchored near the beach. The sketches brewed in my head and became part of my series of Polynesian-influenced watercolours.
As I painted, the local boats were busy, ferrying in family and friends ready to celebrate the New Year. Umus were planned for New Year’s Day, and on New Year’s Eve everyone was busy weaving pandanus leaf baskets to hold the food in the underground ovens. Pigs were butchered, their blood staining the rock pools as men dragged wheelbarrow loads of entrails down to the sea to wash and prepare. Throughout the evening, fireworks echoed round the bay and people howled at the full moon. By midnight all was silent. Jim and I toasted 2018 with rum and lime, and contemplated our upcoming voyage to the northern hemisphere.
The next day, Jim carried out some boat maintenance as I filled our water tanks. This was only possible at high to mid tide, by rowing ashore and filling the bottles from a hose I dragged near the sand. Stingrays and baby reef sharks scooted through the shallows and I watched the children swimming and kayaking round the reef. Jim spotted a manta ray when he was up the mast checking lines, and saw a second swimming past Prism. I was hoping more would come and visit whilst we were cleaning her hull. It was not to be, but I did enjoy the communities of tiny damselfish who were seeking refuge around the propeller, with a satellite cluster beneath the dinghy. Evicting crabs from Prism’s hull proved tough as they insisted on swimming back, but we did a thorough job getting rid of weed and barnacles. After a few buckets of laundry we almost ready to go- a three-week voyage across the equator was calling us and we had another half a world to visit.
The passage from French Polynesia to Hawaii was a dream. Smooth seas and strong breezes carried us north, and we only suffered in the calms of the doldrums for a day or so. I was able to cook- lentil stews, spaghetti and chili- and also to draw without feeling sick. I sketched the inside of the boat, drew the dolphins who joined me one night, glowing in the bioluminescence, and imagined what could have been beneath the water when Jim said he saw a pink eye gazing up at him one night. The giant squid monster I captured on paper became the start of something bigger- but that will be my next post!
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Our cruiser friends Shelley and Mike affectionately refer to Atuona as ‘the city’. In reality there’s only just enough of it to constitute a town, but we were delighted to find a cluster of well-stocked grocery stores, a couple of restaurants and two museums. The town is perched just above a sweeping black sand beach with a constant rolling surf. It’s very beautiful, with mountain peaks rising above the bay and horses galloping along the tideline. However, it’s hopeless as an anchorage, so cruising yachts congregate a twenty-minute walk away in a more sheltered spot.
One of our priorities was finding internet access, so we called in to ‘Eliane’s Salon du The and Cybercafe,’ featured in our Lonely Planet and on the little map we picked up at Tourist Information. The long driveway was a little tricky to find and the cybercafé part seemed shut up, but the teahouse door was wide open so we bowled on in. Inside looked cozy and homely, just like someone’s living room. It was a cute idea, though the proprietor seemed very surprised to see us. We asked if it would be possible to use the internet. No, it wasn’t- the teahouse was closed, permanently, and we’d just invited ourselves in to his lounge. He was very nice and calm about it really. Retreating from our impromptu home invasion as gracefully as we could, we backtracked to Snack Make Make on the mainstreet- after ensuring that it really was open for business.
Our other priority was to get petrol- unleaded for the dinghy engine and diesel for Prism. But the gas station was out of unleaded, and there wouldn’t be any until Saturday when the Toporo came in from Tahiti to deliver it. Diesel was available, so we commenced a morning of shuttle runs with our 20 litre jerry can, keeping carefully tally of the number of times we refilled so we could pay at the end. Initially I was on heavy lifting duty to save Jim’s ankles, but I was released from service whilst he did the last few fills so I could go to the Musee de Gaugin.
Paul Gaugin spent the last few years of his life here in Atuona, in search of ‘the noble savage.’ His paintings here, scorned at the time, helped to revolutionise art. His Polynesian paintings are fantasies of colour, as he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. Green horses wade through tumbling steams in the shade of purple trees, whilst women laze alongside pink beaches. Sinister figures stand in the forests- guardians? Spirits? Demons? Strange as some of his choices are, they make sense when viewed here, surrounded by the landscape and culture that inspired them. Many of the scenes- women in colourful pareus (sarongs) and men in white singlets riding stocky Marquesan ponies- haven’t changed much in the last century. Paul probably wouldn’t approve of the satellite dishes and 4x4 vehicles, but I think he’d appreciate and recognise the rich and vibrant culture, and would be glad that missionaries and French ultimately failed in achieving cultural homogenisation.
The paintings in the museum are all replicas of works hanging in galleries through Europe and America, ordered chronologically from his early works in Brittany to his vibrant canvases from Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Hanging under traditionally styled high pointed roofs, they feel real enough, and the geckos calling from the eaves and scuttling along the tops of the artworks just add to the atmosphere. Outside is a reconstruction of the House of Pleasure, a two-storied hut with shutters that lift up to let in the breeze, looking down on the well that provided Gaugin with the cold water for his absinthe. The museum has a cabinet full of objects found on the site; chunks of paint, absinthe bottles, morphine ampoules, broken pottery. A time capsule of junk that sheds light onto a life which ended a century ago, and helped change art forever.
One of the highlights of Hiva Oa is its wealth of archaeological sites. We organised to hire a car with our Belgian friends Geert and Cindy, and their visiting friend Tim. The car turned out to be a truck, an enormous tank of a 4x4, and I was very happy when Geert said he would drive. The Toporo was unloading, and half the island was there to receive crates and packages- everything from speedboats to kids’ bikes to planks of wood emerged from the hold. Geert negotiated the chaos and we were soon on the road, heading northeast to the archaeological remains at Iipona. The road meandered along ridges and saddles with stunning views of teal-blue bays, then zigzagged up and down mountainsides in snaking switchbacks. We rose from rich jungle to arid scrubland, kept scrubby by the munchings of wild goats. The road changed from concrete to dust and rocks, and herds of wild horses trotted across the track. We rattled our way along, keeping an eye out for wild bananas and cheering whenever our bouncing backsides were spared by an all-to-brief concrete section.
The plunging hillsides made bananas hard to access- all too often they dangled just out of reach over a sheer drop, and the bunches which were easy to get to usually had a house lurking in the background- not so wild after all. Eventually we spotted a papaya tree in the middle of nowhere. A machete-wielding Geert balanced on Tim’s shoulders to reach up to the top. The ripe fruit were rotten or munched by rats, but he managed to get some green papayas, which we hoped would ripen in the tropical sun.
After a couple of hours of rutted roads and postcard-worthy photo stops, we reached Iipona. We’d been instructed to pay a small fee at a snack near the waterfront, and were then given directions to get to the archaeological site. The grounds were very well kept, with mown lawns and pretty plantings. It almost felt too pristine, and I was most drawn to the outer edges where ruggedly cuboid rocks rested beneath the shady bows of banyan trees. Somehow the glorious sunshine burned off the mystery of the place, and I wondered how it would feel on a misty day.
There were five tiki altogether, in various states of repair after their encounters with warring tribes and Christian missionaries. They were the biggest I’d seen, the largest standing at 2.6 metres, staring sternly over the gardens. I was most drawn to a female tiki in a horizontal pose. The regular interpretation is that she is lying down to give birth, and is a symbol of fertility. With her arms stretched out in front of her, her toes pointed and a beaming smile on her face, to me she appeared to be flying, adventurous and free. Birth or flight- either way she has a new world ahead of her.
Geert, Tim and Cindy drove back to the village to try and find some lunch, and Jim and I stayed to draw then have a picnic amongst the tiki. A small French tour group came through, deciding that wherever I was sketching was obviously the best angle for a photo so could I please move. Or else I would be in their photo so could I please move. I retreated to the spot where Jim had spread out our crackers and cheese, and sat down for lunch. Of course, this turned out to be precisely THE best spot to take photos- so could we please move. We were glad so see them go so we could finish lunch in a single place. The next arrivals were a couple from New York along with their guide. As the couple set off exploring, the guide stopped to talk to us. He explained that there are dozens more tiki scattered across the island, many only known to the boar hunters who know the forests well. He saw missionaries and archaeologists as the enemies- missionaries break the tiki and archaeologists spirit them away. I hoped his opinion was a few decades out of date, but loved the thought of an army of statues scattered through the jungle. On this sparsely populated island I wondered how many are as yet totally undiscovered, their weather-beaten faces seen only by boar, goats and ponies.
The guide paged through my Tahuata sketchbook as his tourists rejoined us, and I was excited and gratified when he recognized the lead dancer from Fatu Hiva. He also identified a tattooed warrior as being his cousin. We all chatted about travel and he drew our attention to a carved animal beneath the glorious flying tiki. It’s usually interpreted as being a dog or goat, but it looks exactly like a llama. Not impossible- Polynesians quite probably made it to Peru, bringing back with them kumara (sweet potatoes) and really confusing Thor Heyerdal, who assumed that it was the point of origin for the entire Polynesian migration. It is not inconceivable that Marquesan sailors saw llamas and came back home to carve them, although I draw the line at believing the guide’s story that his ancestors built Macchu Piccu. Of course, it’s also not inconceivable that the carving is just a badly done goat.
The New Yorkers departed and the Belgians returned. We piled into the ute to rattle our way back round the mountains to Atuona. With an hour or so of daylight left, we drove round to Taaoa and the multileveled platforms of Tohua Upeke. Soft golden light filtered through the dangling tangles of the banyans, kissing the wild undergrowth and the platforms of dark volcanic rocks with a magical light. I’d found the primal wildness that had been missing from Iipona. Wandering farther into the site took us to a collection of banyan trees, where we discovered a squat square tiki with round eyes and a wide smile. The path to reach him was overgrown, we had the site to ourselves, and I felt a little like an explorer as I paused a few seconds for a very quick sketch. Then it was back to ‘the city’, stopping to photograph the sunset over the rocky coastline as we headed towards civilization and dinner. The restaurant had a Christmas tree and fairy lights, the wine was cold, the pizza delicious, and the service surly after Jim switched his side order from rice to fries shortly before it was due to arrive.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and stalls of toys had sprung up outside the largest supermarket. Disney gardening sets and robotic dinosaurs competed for space with fairy castles, and Christmas had come early for one little boy delightedly sitting in a small electric car. Our Christmas day itself was quiet. Cindy, Tim and Geert had left for the Tuamotus and the anchorage was thinning out. We celebrated with a bottle of St Emillion, good cheese and a tin of roast duck we’d bought back in New Zealand. I sung Christmas carols, somehow forgetting two lines from every song, and illustrated the letters that Jim wrote to family and friends. We enjoyed the peace and reflection as our time in French Polynesia drew to a close. Within a few days we were heading out into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of melon-headed whales who zoomed around the boat, leaping in a joyful escort as we sailed beneath another gorgeous sunset.
Music festivals are supposed to be grubby, and the one at Tahuata was no exception. Instead of the traditional British field of mud, we were confronted by dust (which would happily turn into mud if a handy downpour gave it the chance). Consequently, a few of my sketchbook pages have a browner tinge than I would like, but I guess I need to look on it as incorporating a little bit of the island into each image.
It took us a day to sail to Tahuata from Fatu Hiva, and there were already a few boats anchored in the little harbor when we arrived. It was a rather rolly anchorage, and the swell coming in added to the excitement of dinghy landings, bringing a high risk of getting swamped. The small quay had no breakwater, and we were forbidden to tie up to it due to a constant flow of local boats and naval tenders dropping off people, instruments and supplies ready for the festival. Initially we were allowed to tie to a rocky outcrop and use a stern anchor to keep the inflatable zodiac off the sharp rocks, but soon even this was disallowed and we were forced to anchor a distance away from the wharf and swim ashore, or brave the breaking surf to attempt a beach landing (we decided to control how wet we got and anchored out rather than risk the boat in the surf). An added incentive for avoiding the wharf was that the policing of dinghies didn’t extend to keeping the local children under control, and they often used tenders near the wharf as swimming platforms and playthings. Apparently our rubberised craft were more tempting than the local wooden or fiberglass boats- or perhaps the consequences of messing with them were rougher! The kids were always quick to help us unload bags, bike and water jugs when we came alongside the quay, so I could forgive their playfulness- though Jim preferred to anchor far enough out to remove temptation from their sights.
Watching the festival set up was entertaining in its own right. Each afternoon a naval ship would arrive in the bay with a new contingent of villagers, who were then ferried ashore along with carefully wrapped costumes, clubs and enormous drums. The residents of the village of Vaitahu joyfully welcomed each boatload of arrivals with singing, drumming and blowing horns and conches. People and packages were loaded into waiting trucks, which formed a snaking procession over the hill to the next bay, where a large hall provided communal lodgings. Soon the waterfront became home to a community of stone carvers, who set up generators and set to work with grinders, hammers and chisels. Lumps of red lava rock transformed into metre tall tiki, which visiting islands would present to Tahuata to grace their tohua- the large stone dance platform. The carvers were happy for us to watch as the features of the figures emerged- bug-eyes, grinning mouths and protruding tummies. Females are often given a long braid or a baby on their belly. Boys are easy to spot. Weavers sat in shady spots, as men and women created skirts, loincloths, tops, headwear and armbands to adorn themselves for the dances.
The festival opened in spectacular fashion, with greetings and dances given by each island in costume. We spotted some familiar faces from Fatu Hiva, garbed in yellow-stained tapa cloth and that fragrant vetiver we’d seen being processed. Representatives of other islands wore skirts of leaves or grass, which fluttered and rippled with every movement. Long hanging strands of moss made graceful tops for the ladies of one island, women from another wore intricate crowns made of ebony and carved bone. Some wore enough vegetation to cover themselves from neck to knees, others preferred to show a bit of midriff and leg. Masculine costumes were even more varied. The chiefs were the most spectacular, with towering headpieces of bone or shell, spectacular black ruffs which broadened their shoulders and thick skirts of frizzed black horsehair. The effect was to awe and intimidate, to convey mana and power- and it worked, especially when topped off with a boar’s tooth necklace, intricate tattoos and a carved war club. The other end of the scale had an equal impact- a few tufts of grass, leaves or feathers as a loincloth, a necklace of tusks or carved bone, and very little else. This minimal attire was perfect for showing off extensive tattoos (often combined with a nicely toned physique)!
Each island presented a chant, song and dance in welcome, usually led by a flamboyantly dressed chief or two and supported by the soprano singing of the matriarchs. It was an impressive sight- and sounded incredible when voices layered with the drums. In between, I tried to see how much of the Marquesan announcements I could understand- some words such as ‘pakepake’ (clap) and ‘kaoha nui koutou’ (many greetings to you all) are similar or identical to New Zealand Maori. Visiting dignitaries had their chance to speak too- but the heavens were not impressed and promptly opened, causing many of us to seek shelter under nearby marquees whilst the politicians waffled on in the deluge. The rain stopped when the waffle did, and we enjoyed the last performances with slightly muddier backsides as we sat on the tiered rocks and grass of the amphitheater.
The scheduling was definitely operating on island time. The two versions of the timetable only existed in French, differing substantially from each other and from reality. Workshops often failed to materialise if the people scheduled to lead them were too tired, location was often vague and timing was more of a guide than an expectation (a bit like bus schedules in Auckland or Basingstoke). There was no point getting anxious or cross, as the way of life here is to just go with the flow and there was always something to watch- dance and drumming practices on the tohua, bands in the artisan’s centre, wood carving, tattooing, or the young man who rode through the village with a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his horse, piping out R’n’B. When events happened, they were wonderful. One morning there was a demonstration of traditional tattooing- called ‘patutiki’ in Marquesan. The subject lay on woven mats whilst the tattoo artist sat next to him, applying the ink to his skin using a sharp rock. This was tied to a long rod, which was tapped by a second rod to incise the skin and let the ink flow in. A third man gently fanned the subject, and a forth periodically wiped the blood and ink away. It was a much messier process than the modern needles and machines that buzzed away for the rest of the festival. Marquesan patutiki artists are known for the beauty and delicacy of their geometric artwork, and were highly in demand by locals, as well as by tourists wanting a permanent souvenir. So far I remain undecorated…
I also thoroughly enjoyed the lunch put on by the islands. We were told to ‘bring a plate,’ which in New Zealand means you bring food to be shared. I started planning what I could make, figuring out what vegetables needed to be used soon and trying to decide whether curry or couscous would be better received. Fortunately Cindy from Zensation set me straight before I started cooking- the instructions were literal and we were only expected to bring something to eat off of, preferably something natural and organic. Jim rustled up some coconut shells and we climbed the hill to the next bay.
Marquees with trestle tables were set up waiting for the feast. The food had been cooked in umu- underground ovens made by digging a pit. Fires are lit in the bottom, whilst pigs, taro, plantains and bananas are wrapped in taro leaves and placed in baskets woven from long green pandanus fronds. The baskets are placed in the embers and covered with more layers of leaves, to slowly roast overnight. When it was time for lunch they were unearthed and ceremonially carried to the waiting trestle tables with chanting and dancing. The leaves were unwrapped and their contents transferred to long wooden bowls with beautifully carved handles. Platters of crabs and shellfish were spread out alongside woven banana leaf plates full of fruit and firi firi (coconut doughnuts). Lengths of green bamboo, split in half, made perfect tongs and scoops to serve the dishes, and some people used them as rather stylish-looking plates. Coconuts were also popular- though as one unfortunate soul discovered, they don’t work so well if they have a hole in the bottom…
When lunch was announced, I commenced queuing in an orderly British fashion (with only two people in front of me). It soon became clear that politeness wouldn’t fill my coconut shell any time soon- not when I was competing with an endless stream of hungry Polynesian males! So I stood my ground and ended up with a chunk of pork and some plantains in my coconut, along with a good dollop of coconut milk with onion and fish sauce. Everything was lean, tender and delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet rich plantains- though by the time I’d finished, the platters of fruit and firi firi were nothing but peel and memories! Our coconut shells went in the compost, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting with Shelley and Mike from Avatar whilst I sketched the goings on.
Each evening the islands took it in turns to perform in the tohua, culminating in a collaborative dance on the third night. Offerings ranged from seated dances of sedate and elegant hand gestures to energetic performances with much hip wiggling to my favourites- the men performing high-octane cousins of the Maori haka, which sent shivers down my spine with their power. Through it all beat the drums, fast, layered and mighty, thundering as the warriors stamped and chanted with deep, throaty voices. The air was scented with sweet frangipani and vetiver, and the coconut oil that glistened on the performers’ skins. I made huge strides in my figure drawing as my hands flew across the paper, trying to reflect the mana of the performers.
My favourite performance was by the islanders of Ua Pou. Flaming torches were passed round and a fiery battle commenced. The flames whirled and clashed together, then flew as the torches were tossed between performers. No one could doubt the bravery of the warriors, energetically brandishing their torches as their grass skirts whirled about them. A quick visit to the tap by the post office was enough to sort out one young man whose costume was glowing, and a few buckets of water after the performance doused a small patch of grass which was smoldering. The next island, Ua Huka, tried to compete by including two cockerels and a live pig in their performance. The animals seemed quite unimpressed and the pig, tied upside down to a pole, vocalized its displeasure, but everyone survived the dance- although only the human cast members were invited to take a bow at the end.
The festivities were cut slightly short- the islanders from Ua Pou and Ua Huka were due to leave earlier than expected, aboard the Aranui. We left before the closing ceremony, keen to avoid the manic traffic that would accompany the departures. It only took an hour to motor to Atuona on the neighbouring island of Hiva Oa, and the Aranui arrived a couple of hours later. It berthed on the quay, and we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming as we sat outside on Prism, watching the sunset. I don’t know when I’ll get to hear Polynesian drums again, but relished this chance to enjoy the rhythm for just a little longer.
On Fatu Hiva, the sound of water is never far away. Rolling waves crash onto the beaches, and the valleys and hillsides are full of rushing cascades and burbling streams. Cool, clear and frequently drinkable, the water is testament to Fatu Hiva’s status as the rainiest island of the Marquesas, and contributes to its abundance of vegetation, and fertile soil- perfect for growing fruit.
Mangoes drip from the trees over the roads. Windfalls are free for all, tiny and sweet. Jim scoops them up off the roadside and slices them open with his knife. They are so small that they only give up a couple of bites of fruit (or one mouthful if you’re Jimmie), but they’re juicy and worth the effort. Jim keeps eying up the bountiful limes, bananas and pomelos, but they’re all on private land- not for general consumption.
To get fruit, we need to trade- pomelos in exchange for perfume samples and makeup, bananas for a packet of Paracetamol. The holy grails of trading seem to be tobacco, rum and bullets, picked up cheaply by cruisers who arrive here from Panama or Ecuador. My first attempt at trading is with Marie-Priscille, who asks for pens, flip flops or perfume in exchange for some pomelos. I’m sadly lacking in spare perfume and footwear, but she agrees to swap some fruit for 500 francs (about $5) and a few pens. It seemed easy- until I went to collect the fruit. I was presented with a huge bag of pomelos, limes and mangoes, but of course the price had gone up. Did I have rum? Tobacco? Mascara? Was I SURE I didn’t have more flip flops lurking on the boat, or a spare bottle of perfume? My offering of nail polish was grudgingly accepted, along with a handful of multicoloured biros and an additional 500 francs. The mangoes turned out to be windfalls- mostly bruised and split and quickly tossed overboard. But the pomelos are tasty and the kilo or so of limes will keep the scurvy at bay for the next few weeks- and go very nicely with the last of our rum.
We’re anchored in the stunning Bay of Virgins, next to the village of Hanavave- one of only two villages on the island. It’s not an easy place to get to; the island has no airport, and the only scheduled boat is the cargo ship Aranui, which calls in every couple of weeks. There’s a small shop which stocks the usual staples of crackers, bricks of plastic cheese, corned beef, canned fish and tins of cassoulet, but everything else is grown, raised or hunted locally. The men are eager to trade for bullets so they can hunt the wild goats and pigs around the island. The pig tusks are used for necklaces, and men wear the circles of tusks with as much pride now as they did centuries ago. The pig bones are used for carving, the goat skins stretched and tans. Nothing is wasted here.
Towering fingers of rock ring the bay, reaching up to clutch the sky. In the morning they are silhouetted dramatically. In the afternoon, they reflect the warm light in shades of orange and purple. The first sailors here didn’t see the rocks as fingers. Instead they perceived their favourite anatomical features, and named the bay “Baie des Verges”- the Bay of Penises. The missionaries who arrived a few years later did not appreciate this. With the addition of a letter ‘i’, verges became vierges, penises were transformed into virgins and the cheeky rock formations took a vow of chastity. Nobody knows what the rocks think about this, but in the Catholic Marquesas they are stuck with the status quo.
The rocks are best seen from our anchorage, their impact fades on land. We are anchored out in the gentle and constant swell, cooled by the trade winds. To get ashore we take the dinghy to the small boat harbor and tie it to the rocky wall alongside colourful speedboats. In the afternoons, the small boat harbor becomes a hive of activity. Men bring their dogs for a swim, the accepted technique being to throw your mutt into the water and hold the end of its lead whilst it does doggy paddle on the spot. I’m not too sure what the dogs think about this, but they strain at the lead on the walk down to the bay, which I’ll take as a sign of excitement. After lunch, the ladies come to wash vetiver- sweetly scented plant fibres used for weaving neck garlands. They stand in the water to toss the fibres around, spreading them out on the quay to dry whilst they swim then wash and oil their hair. In the late afternoon, the dock becomes the place of choice to play football, with the children taking one edge and the young men using another. The ball often ends up in the water, but that’s part of the fun, and swimming to get it adds to the exercise- unless a handy yachtie uses their dinghy to retrieve it before it drifts too far!
A dedicated football field does exist, but people mainly use it to moor their horses whilst they go fishing or visit the community hall. At the moment the hall is mainly used for dance rehearsals. Practices are well under way for a Christmas performance, but most of the time and enormous amounts of energy are being put into preparing for the Marquesan Festival next week. The main festival is held every four years, with groups invited from as far afield as New Zealand and Rapa Nui. Every second year is a mini festival, held for the people of the Marquesas by the people of the Marquesas. The festivals started as a way of celebrating and valuing culture and the Arts at a time when Marquesan language and traditions were being pushed aside and forgotten. Pounding drums and chanting voices drew me and Jim to take a peek into one of the rehearsals. We were treated to a sneak glimpse of wiggling hips, stamping feet and a huge amount of energy being expended.
Carving is also flourishing on the island. Taoa, one of the local carvers, showed us his beautiful bowls and tiki, created from local rosewood, ebony and stone. We also met Poi, who invited us into his home and showed us gorgeous and intricate carvings from bone, wood and swordfish. His wooden house had the semi-outdoor feel typical of Polynesian homes. The living area was largely open with enormous unglassed windows to let in the breeze. Shutters could be pulled across to shut out inclement weather. A broad verandah wrapped around the house, forming his workshop out the back. It was scented with vetiver, piles of which had been dyed with turmeric and were ready to be formed into lei for the festival. Poi’s wife also used turmeric to dye some of her tapa cloth. She made it the traditional way, soaking bark in water until it was ready to be pounded into thin sheets, then dried and painted. In the past tapa was used for clothing; today it is a canvas for beautiful geometric art.
Jim’s bike caused much amusement on the island. Bikes here are mainly toys for children- the village is too small to make them necessary for adults, and the steep and unpaved road to the other village is not cycle friendly. One afternoon it was commandeered by young Mahana, who took great delight in freewheeling it downhill, her father in hot pursuit to give her a push on her way back up. We met Mahana and her sister as they sat in a wheelbarrow, being pushed up the winding road to go to swim in the cascade. Within a few minutes she’d charmed a turn on Jim’s bike, given my camera a thorough workout and modeled my sunglasses. It turned into a party when Marie Priscille turned up with bags of fruit. She shared some juicy mangoes and pomme d’or (sweet, pink pear-shaped fruit which taste a bit like an apple), and was delighted when Mahana used my camera to take some photos of us. Mahana was desperate for us to join her on her outing to the falls, but we’d just finished a four hour hike and were ready to return to Prism and enjoy another glorious sunset over the beautiful bay. Her ready laughter followed us down the road and she continued to wave at us from under the banana plants until we went round the next snaking bend and out of sight.
The cascade is a very special spot- a thirty metre high wall of water, tumbling down a sheer rock face into a cool and shady pool. The rock wall curves into a ‘u’ shape, giving the pool an aura of secrecy- only a tiny part of it is visible from the trail. I’d had it to myself that morning, showering under the gentle spray and making lazy laps of the clear water. I could have stayed all day in this secluded paradise, but Jim was waiting for me so we could finish our sweaty hike up to the top of the hill to find a viewpoint over the harbour. It was tough going at times, and we reached the end of the sealed road, but the vista of imposing mountains dropping straight down into peacock blue water was worth the slog. The village and the bobbing boats all felt minuscule in comparison to the grand scale of the scenery
By now we were starting to feel like part of the community. Trading with Taoa was feeling more like alternate rounds of gift giving. We’d bring him some spare snorkeling gear, he’d give us a boldly painted tapa of a tiki, Jim would gift him some fishing tackle superfluous to our needs, he’d present us with an exquisitely carved rosewood bowl. I was having regular chats in my broken French with an elderly lady who lived in a lovely house of woven palm fronds, and Marie Priscille often passed the time of day and a quick joke (sometimes I even understood them). We didn’t want to leave, but the festival was drawing near, and after that we’d only have a week left in this wonderful part of the world. It was time to haul up the anchor and begin to make our way north.
We spent a couple of days anchored at Hakatea Bay. It's a little to the west of Taiohae, and the mountains circle the anchorage, creating a dramatic vista and protecting the bay from the worst of the rolling Pacific swell. Being (relatively) still was certainly a welcome change, and meant I could get my paints out without fear of them being catapulted across the cabin. Painting on a rocking boat is probably about as close as watercolours get to being an adrenaline rush...
I had a commission to work on, from a beautiful photo of Mount Maunganui back in New Zealand. I declared a painting day, and transformed the table into full studio mode. I wish I'd videoed the painting of the sunset- the way the watercolours behave when the wet paint hits wet paper is beautiful, and always has a slight edge of unpredictability. With the jewel colours of the sunset it was magic.
Because part of watercolour painting often involves waiting for paint to dry, I like to have a second piece on the go. I'd started a picture of a lemur when I flew back to Auckland to get my US visa sorted out. I'd visited the zoo with my friends Jill and Ethan, and we were entranced watching the ringtail lemurs feasting on strawberries for their lunch. I sketched them as they munched and had got as far as redrawing the sketch on watercolour paper and laying down a background wash. The whimsy of the idea still appealed to me so I decided to finish it off in between working on the larger A3 painting.
And then more paintings happened, I found it impossible to put the brush down, the ideas queued in my brain were all clamouring to get out and a second art day was declared. Beautiful valley walks? What beautiful valley walks? They remained unwalked by me.
And a bunch of the ideas that have been lurking in my head or loitering in my sketchbook got unleashed. I'm particularly pleased with the mantas- based on a sketch I did in Bora Bora.
This morning the brushes had to go back in their roll, and the much-depleted tube of French ultramarine was placed back into the art box along with the rest of the rainbow. We're back in Taiohae, after a dolphin-filled sail back, ready to grab a few more provisions before we head south to the island of Hiva Oa. But we'll do it again soon, watercolour paints- it's been a blast.
Tiki appear in various forms in Polynesian cultures. In New Zealand, they appear carved in greenstone- pounamu- to protect the wearer. As they are passed down through a family, they become more powerful- more lucky. In French Polynesia, tiki are usually carved from wood or stone. They protect the site where they are placed. and it is considered unlucky to move them.
Each one seems to have its own personality. I started sketching the tiki of Nuku Hiva in brush pen. It was a good exercise in looking at light and shadow, showing the negative space. I decided not to colour the tiki themselves but to try to use the background to say something about the tiki. Some are older, others are modern- but I thought that this approach would make the age irrelevant, and would make the mana and personality of each tiki the centrepoint.
The drawings haven't been too popular on social media, but I'm enjoying creating them so thought I'd pop them up here anyway. Thanks for taking a look!
You can find more 'classic' style sketches of Nuku Hiva on my blog post here
Nuku Hiva has been well worth the tricky sail to get here. We've been anchored off the sleepy little town of Taiohae, which boasts a few stores, a craft shop, a number of wood carvers and a few churches. The place is charming, and very genuine. It's not unusual to see someone riding their horse to the post office. Shirts are optional, traditional tattoos are almost compulsory, and boar tusk necklaces are not just worn to impress the tourists. There are hardly any tourists in any case- the place becomes busy when the Aranui is docked, then quickly returns to its usual state of dozy tranquility.
The anchorage is rather rolly, but the holding is good and there's enough to explore that it's worth putting up with the swaying. There's a little quay where we can tie up the dinghy; it's also used by the bonito boats, and we often watch the fishermen unloading their catch. There's a snack, which serves good poisson cru, tasty pastries and delicious pomelo juice, and is always full of locals and yachties (the decent wifi is an added draw). A couple of doors down are the yacht services, where Kevin does laundry and offers assistance with paperwork and parts deliveries.
On Sunday, we went to church. The entrance belongs to a tropical fairy tale- an inviting gateway with turrets, leading to a garden full of tropical blossoms. The cathedral is built of stones brought from each of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, and filled with intricate Marquesan wood carvings. Below the roof are open sides, letting in the light and the breeze. Swifts and song swirl beneath the rafters, as the a cappella choir weave magic in French and Marquesan. Sometimes guitar, drums and ukulele are used as an accompaniment, but they just seem to dilute the whole effect- the magic is in the voices alone. After mass, the congregation retreats to the outer courtyard where pastries and bread pudding are sold under shady marquees. The small children who squawked, complained and pestered their brothers through the service are carted off home, and a few people remain to share gossip beneath the trees. I loitered and sketched until the sun became too hot and we retreated to the snack for a cold juice.
Tohua Koueva is an old communal site up in the hills, in the shade of towering banyan trees. Getting there involves a couple of kilometres of walking upwards, and those inevitable moments when you begin to wonder if the climb will be worth it. In this case- yes it was. The site itself was beautiful, shady, lush and green. The extensive meeting platforms have been restored, and huts have been reconstructed to give a feel for what the site was like a few hundred years ago. There was a film crew there; two intrepid souls had swam from the neighbouring island of Ua Pou to Nuku Hiva, and were now exploring their ancestral and spiritual roots. One of the film crew, Pascal, took an interest in my sketching and took some time to tell me a bit about the site. I was surprised there were no other tourists there, he answered that they don't often get this far. He didn't mind, it allows the local population to enjoy it and connect with their culture. We spent the whole morning there, sketching and exploring, searching for tiki sculptures and absorbing the ambience. I'd happily go back- armed with a small vat of insect repellant!
I've also been working on a series of sketches of tiki. You can find the series so far here!
Land. Solid, stable, firm, immobile, not crashing and smashing or rocking and rolling… I’m very happy to be ashore following our passage from Tahiti to the Marquesas. We were intending to wait for a weather window- southerlies, perhaps, which would speed us along on our way northeast. But none were forecast, despite the pilot charts indicating that southeasterlies should be prevalent at this time of year. So we had to leave anyway.
Sailing into wind is uncomfortable. The waves are against you, so if they reach a reasonable size the boat smashes into them, slowing as she pounds along. Island Prism performs well upwind, and is capable of 5 knots or more in a stiff breeze (respectable for a cruising boat of mature years), but the constant pounding puts strain on boat and crew both so we sometimes find we need to slow her down. And if the wind slows but the swell remains, we are left struggling and wallowing. On our way north, the winds stayed strong and stable- but struggling against the trade winds is no easy task, especially as we didn’t want our teeth rattled out of our heads. We made an average speed of four knots, and our trip, predicted to take seven days, stretched out to ten and felt much, much longer.
We even ended up having Jim’s birthday at sea, and celebrated with a tin of ravioli and a bar of Whittakers chocolate (the really delicious and distinctive dark Ghana). On passage isn’t the best time to have a birthday, but Whittakers isn’t a bad way to celebrate. And now we’re on land (hooray! Land!), there are rumours of ice cream and pizza at one of the snacks, so we’ll be able to celebrate retrospectively.
We’re anchored in Taiohae Bay, home to the main town in the Marquesas. The bay rings with the inevitable sound of cockerels, and the crashing of waves upon the black volcanic sands. As we dropped the anchor we could smell the richness of the land- soil and wood carried on the air, with a faint scent of flowers. The mountains rise steeply out of the ocean and are covered with lush green vegetation. This is a place where things like to grow. I didn’t draw much on passage- one day I hope to break through the queasy feeling it gives me, but it hasn’t happened yet- so when we’d anchored I tried to capture the feeling of the voyage. I think a follow up is needed, with more headwinds.
I've created a calendar for 2018 and I'm very excited! It's available at Redbubble and ships worldwide. A perfect Christmas gift, or treat yourself to an original artwork every month for a year. The calendar is printed on quality paper, with plenty of space to record events and happenings, and it ships worldwide. Click the button below to see the rest of the calendar or view other products in my portfolio!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.