May 31, 2024

Fatu Hiva: For the Love of Nature

One of the 20
th Century’s best known explorers and ethnographers began his celebrated career on a far-flung outpost in the Pacific Ocean in 1936 with his new bride and not much else.

French Polynesia is nowadays a world famous location for honeymooners who spend their languid days in 5-star over-water bungalows, getting endless massages and drinking colourful cocktails with little umbrellas. But not the newlywed Heyerdahls. They had every intention of eschewing the trappings of civilization and returning to a simple life ‘back to nature’ on the most inaccessible yet fertile island they could find.

Born in rural Norway in 1914, Thor Heyerdahl is best remembered for his fascinating journey across the Pacific Ocean in the balsa wood raft, Kon Tiki, in 1947. He used the journey to advance his controversial theory that the inhabitants of Eastern Polynesia had arrived from South America centuries before the first white European, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, sighted the remote archipelago in 1595. The Spaniard arrived from Peru, stayed two weeks, held the first Roman Catholic mass, complimented the islanders on their fine physique and demeanor, then massacred over 200 before sailing on in search of the Solomon Islands.

Ever the dreamer, Heyerdahl had foreseen his escape from civilization years in advance. “I was still a schoolboy in Norway when I began to prepare myself for this wild adventure.” He wrote at the beginning of the book that was first published after the couple’s return to Norway in 1938. Originally in Norwegian only, the outbreak of World War II stalled the translated edition and the book vanished into obscurity. The English edition wasn’t published until 1974, after Heyerdahl had established his credentials from decades of archeological and anthropological studies.

Satellite image of Fatu Hiva
Significantly, it was his experiences on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands that helped form his early theories. Under the guise of an academically financed zoological study looking at how animals and plants could have reached a volcanic Pacific island, the couple’s hidden agenda was in fact to ‘run away’ and become the world’s first ‘hippies’ long before that term was invented.

Instead of falling in love and then deciding to elope, Heyerdahl’s plan was actually hatched before he had found a suitable mate with which to conduct this radical social experiment. The young adventurer was confused by man’s apparent conflict: modern man loved and admired nature, but seemed to do everything possible to distance himself from it. The church taught ‘creationist’ theory, while Darwin espoused ‘evolution’.

“I could not understand modern man’s determination to sever all his ties with nature. What was it they wanted to run away from? Were they scared by the apeman Darwin had painted behind them? ‘Progress’” asserted Heyerdahl, “was synonymous with distance from nature.” He was determined to face this fear and run headlong ‘back to nature’.

Despite his good looks and erudite, confident manner, our hero was awkward with the fairer sex. But, ever pragmatic, he knew a woman was an integral part of the ‘experiment’.

“Girls. I was desperately interested, but too shy to approach them,” he wrote, “they were fairies, not real human beings, and I did not know how to talk to them intelligently. Yet I should never return to nature before choosing one of the enticing species for company.”

Liv Coucheron-Torp
It was at his end-of-school ball that Heyerdahl met bright-eyed Liv Coucheron-Torp. They didn’t dance, but chatted instead with the conversation meandering from jokes to philosophy. He chanced his luck and asked plainly, “What do you think about turning back to nature?”

“Then it would have to be all the way,” she answered firmly and plainly. The die was cast and the flame burned year on year despite him studying zoology and geography and she economics at separate universities in Oslo. Finally, after considerable negotiation with parents and academics, the 22 and 20-year-old lovebirds were ready for their big adventure.

They pored over and over maps of the South Seas in search of a suitable destination. “A single virgin speck among the thousands of islands and atolls. A speck which the world had overlooked. A tiny free port of refuge from the iron grip of civilization.”

After much deliberation, the island of Fatu Hiva, - “rich in sunshine, fruit and drinking water with few natives and no white men” - was chosen and, on a biting Christmas 1936 morning, away they went on their honeymoon.

The pair spent a month in Papeete as guests of prominent local members of the Tahitian community waiting for a copra schooner to voyage north to the Marquesas. They used the time learning local crafts and how to find and cook the wild foods they would need to survive on their island ‘paradise’. Unable to pronounce their difficult Scandinavian names, they were adopted and re-christened Teraimateatatane and Teraimateatavahine: Mr and Mrs Blue Sky.

Finally, they set out on the three-week voyage with a cheerful Englishman, Captain Brander, aboard the schooner Tereora. Even as they couple began their escape from civilization it followed them all the way. “I detest our own civilization; that’s why I’m here,” confessed Brander. He loved the islands but never went ashore, and stood by as consumer goods were unloaded, making way for copra at each little island. “Why do they want sewing machines and tricycles, underclothes or canned salmon? They don’t need any of it!”

Fatu Hiva. Hanavave, Bay of Virgins. (Roderick Eime 2009)

After visiting numerous ports on the islands, at the southern end of the southernmost island in the Marquesas, the Tereora dropped anchor. “It’s here or nowhere,” said Brander and the determined couple were set ashore at the village of Omo'a where there was abundant fresh water and fruit trees. Despite pleas from Brander to return to Tahiti, the pair waved him away with the promise he would return to collect them, “perhaps in a couple of months, perhaps in a year.”

From that moment, the real adventure began. After acquainting themselves with Willy, the mixed race storekeeper and proxy mayor of Omo'a and suffered the many inquisitive stares of the locals who had never seen a white woman, they left to make their home in the lush valley behind the village where a royal garden had once flourished. At time of first white contact, perhaps 100,000 Polynesians occupied the Marquesas, but disease and decline had wrecked havoc on the population and perhaps less than 10,000 remained at the time of their arrival.

Happy times. Newlyweds frolic in the jungle on Fatu Hiva. 
After acclimatising to the noisy, insect-infested jungle, the Heyerdahls enjoyed the initial phase of their self-imposed exile. But the novelty quickly wore off when the persistent mosquitoes brought disease and quarrels developed with the few natives. Their final departure was a mixture of both sadness and relief and Heyerdahl summed up their experience thus:

“There is nothing for modern man to return to. Our wonderful time in the wilderness had given us a taste of what man had abandoned and what mankind was still trying to get even further away from. Progress today can be defined as man's ability to complicate simplicity. Nothing in all the procedure that modern man, helped by all his modern middlemen, goes through before he earns money to buy a fish or a potato will ever be as simple as pulling it out of the water or soil. Without the farmer and the fisherman, modern society would collapse, with all its shops and pipes and wires. The farmers and the fishermen represent the nobility of modern society; they share their crumbs with the rest of us, who run about with papers and screwdrivers attempting to build a better world without a blueprint.”

The Heyerdahls divorced in 1949 and Thor, voted ‘Norwegian of the Century’ by his countrymen, passed away in 2002, aged 87.

This story orginally appeared on Outer Edge Magazine

Travel writer and photographer, Roderick Eime, visited Fatu Hiva in November 2009 aboard the Aranui3, landing at the village of Omo’a as did Heyerdahl 73 years earlier. He went on to visit the Kon Tiki Museum, Oslo in July the following year.

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