Show Me the Mana

Gauguin found it on Hiva Oa. So can you.

Jan 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
Access + Resources

Air Tahiti serves Hiva Oa daily ($489 round-trip; 011-689-864-242, from Papeete, Tahiti. Pearl Resorts' Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge in Atuona (doubles, $200; 800-841-4145, has 20 bungalows and suites with stellar views of the island of Tahuata. For considerably less, try the Temetiu Village Pension ($50-$80 per person per night; 011-689-927-302; e-mail, [email protected]), only a 20-minute walk from Atuona. Hiva Oa Tours (011-689-927-004; e-mail, [email protected]) in Atuona can arrange hiking or four-wheel-drive tours of the island. Rent mountain bikes at the Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge. Tour operators are scarce in the Marquesa...

PEPERU, A MOP-GIANT of a Marquesan man, his cousin Siano, and I have been hiking for four hours through the steamy jungle when he turns around and whispers, "The first time I came here, I got chicken pox—from the mana."

I expected our destination, an ancient ceremonial site, to hold an air of mystery, but I didn't realize that the mana, or supernatural power, would unleash an infectious disease.

"You don't mean goose bumps, do you?" I ask, remembering that English is only one of Peperu's four languages.

"That's it," Peperu says.

We're hiking in the interior of the 77-square-mile volcanic fang of Hiva Oa, the second-largest island in the Marquesas archipelago, about 800 miles northeast of Tahiti. From the rocky seashore, the terrain vaults to 4,000-foot peaks that top out in a razor-sharp central ridge. Only about 1,800 people inhabit Hiva Oa, all but a handful in the town of Atuona, on the southern coast. True, Atuona now has a swank Pearl resort, paved roads, and Pringles, but due to its distance from everywhere, the ten-island chain is mostly left to itself. Aiming to immerse myself in local lifestyle, I stay at the family-run Temetiu Village Pension, on a hill overlooking the Bay of Traitors a half-mile east of Atuona. The bungalow is modest but spotless, and my gracious host, Gabriel Heitaa, serves tasty traditional meals of fresh tuna and lobster, or wild pig and breadfruit from the jungle.

Lured by tales of islanders living in a state of grace, artist Paul Gauguin sailed to the Marquesas in 1901 and died on Hiva Oa in 1903, 100 years ago this May. The island still reeks of the sensuality and mystique Gauguin captured on his canvases: Wild horses race across fern- covered hillsides, and even casual hikes through glades of pandanus lead to ancient ceremonial sites. Little in the way of outfitted sporting adventure exists, but you can always rent a mountain bike to tackle the singletrack pig trails lacing the bush, or find a local who will take you on a dive excursion to the sea caves that punctuate the coast.

But it's the vertical terrain and the lost world it conceals that make Hiva Oa worth a visit. In the 200 years following the first European contact, in 1595, slave traders and disease decimated the Marquesas. An entire culture was ravaged, leaving vestiges of its history standing in the jungle.
Peperu and Siano lead me to a ridge where, shrouded in lush vegetation, low walls of stacked stone support rectangular platforms. On one a slab forms a seatback—a chieftain's chaise. Nearby lies the worn but unmistakable shape of a pestle, left where it was discarded hundreds of years ago. Lichen-softened stone panels display bas-relief forms of carved tikis— figurines of ancient gods. Siano shows me a fantastically twisted gray-green boulder that chieftains once held on to while seeking divine guidance. I palm the boulder and am overwhelmed by the sense that the stone is touching me back. This, I understand at once, is mana. Looking down at my forearms, I find them covered with bumps. Once again, it seems, the mana has inspired a wicked case of Marquesan chicken pox.

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