We’ve been retracing Mason Earle’s climbing trip to Ua Pou, but the epic started to get more serious when they reached the base of their objective. Led by a former French military guide and base camping at an off-the-grid jungle ex-pat compound, the team set out to climb Poumaka, a 4,000-foot warrior tower protected by dense jungle and a brutal 45-degree, fifth-class fern gully approach. Even fueled by coconut water and homegrown avocados, the hourly assaults of torrential rain; wet, mossy climbing conditions; and a bad case of cashew dermatitis shut them down. So they refocused on Motutakae, an 800-foot tower of white basalt rising from the sea on the dry side of the island, with a west-facing wall that baked in the sun. This is Mason’s adventure climbing report on the experience.—LYA Editor
Words by Mason Earle, Images by Andrew Burr
The boat ride to Ua Pou was spectacular. As the mountains, obscured by clouds, drew closer, our excitement grew. I dipped my hand into the water speeding by and was shocked by its warmth—“Tahitian soup,” as my friend Surfer Bob referred to the French Polynesian ocean. Arriving in Hakahau Bay marked a high point of uncertainty. We had no local contacts, no lodging arrangements, and only our feet for transportation. Children playing on the docks stared in bewilderment at the four sun-deprived foreigners. As luck would have it, we met the single most important contact on the island within 15 minutes. Jerome, the local hiking guide, an ex-French military man, was covered ankle to chin on one half of his body with beautiful Marquesan tattoos. His eyes lit up when we told him we were there to climb. He informed us that no climbing team had been to the island in more than a decade and that ours was only the second ever. “If you want to climb the towers, you must go to Manfred’s house.” Jerome quickly took it upon himself to be our personal tour guide and logistics coordinator, which we needed badly. After a comfortable night sleeping on his porch, overlooking the bay, we packed ourselves and our gear into his truck and took off towards Manfred’s house, the jumping-off point for accessing the towers.
During the bumpy ride to the village of Hakahetau, Jerome told us the story of Poumaka, the most prominent rock spire rising out of the island. In the local legend, the spires of Ua Pou were all great warriors. “Poumaka,” Jerome began, “was once a young warrior trying to prove himself.” Eventually he challenged Mata Henua, “the most terrible warrior.” An epic battle ensued, culminating with Poumaka cutting off the head of Mata Henua. Jerome explained to us that once a warrior defeated his enemy by decapitation, he would display the severed head in front of his house. Jerome pointed to a rock outcropping protruding from the ocean some 200 yards offshore. “This,” he said, “is the head of Mata Henua.” Jerome went on to tell us about the importance cannibalism had in the island’s history. Upon defeating one’s enemy, it was customary to eat them. The first boat full of missionaries to arrive on Ua Pou were not able to gain the chief’s favor and subsequently ended up sharing the dinner table with coconuts and breadfruit.
We made it to the village of Hakahetau, and then turned onto an old grassy road leading straight up into the jungle. After 2 miles, we reached a clearing. Amidst groves of fruit trees was a small single-story house built from cobblestones. As we pulled up, a grey-haired man in a one-piece camo suit hurried up to the car. He excitedly showed us where we could set up camp. He and his lovely wife Therese were happy to have some unusual guests. Manfred’s house, or “Manfred’s Ville” as he referred to his jungle compound, was, simply put, bad to the bone. Completely off the grid of an island that is already off the grid, Manfred had everything: Hydroelectric power, plumbing, a fully functional kitchen, a moonshine still, and a swimming pool. He grew mangos, avocados, pomegranates, bananas, tobacco, coffee, grapefruit, star fruit, black pepper, and countless other edibles. Ua Pou is said to produce enough tropical fruit to sustain ten times its population, and it would seem most of that grew up at Manfred’s Ville.
We spent several days at Manfred’s. Fueled by coconut water, mango, and enormous avocados, we attempted to climb Poumaka. It rained a lot. Several hundred feet up the rock face, we heard a distant roar that became louder, like an approaching train. With less than ten seconds’ notice, we realized it was a wall of rain coming straight at us. Fifteen seconds later, we were drenched. On top of the rain, I had also contracted a severe case of raw cashew dermatitis. Who knew that the cashew belonged to the same plant family as poison ivy? This charade went on for a couple days before we called it quits. It was time for us to focus on an objective closer to the sea, where the weather would be drier.
We were told about an enormous rock spire rising directly out of the sea, on the southern end of Ua Pou: Motutakae (moe too tahk eye). After close to a week in the muddy jungle, some time in the sun seemed like the right call. Once again we jumped aboard with our friend Cyrill, who took us down the coast in his fishing boat. Along the way, we stopped for some fun deep-water soloing. Climbing high above the water, and then jumping in. This really was paradise.
Our first view of Motutakae had our jaws dropping again. Like a pale ivory tusk, Motutakae rose some 800 feet directly out of the turbulent sea. We had Cyrill take us closer to inspect. Thousands of birds circled the giant tower. The rock seemed otherworldly, a pale white with giant black caves, like a skull’s eyes. We picked a line that ascended the most prominent prow on the western face. The first pitch traversed off the tidal ledge that the boat deposited us on. Behemoth South Pacific swells nipped at our heels as we climbed into the unknown. The occasional lurking shark reminded us why we were roped up, so close to the water. The climbing was fantastic. We followed a crack system, but the face was also riddled with pockets that made for great handholds. Our vantage point above the turquoise sea was better than any aquarium. Schools of fish danced below us, and giant manta rays glided slowly by. We saw sharks, and even a lone sea turtle. The birds were kind to share the few ledges on the route with us, though I’m sure they were at least a little uncomfortable with the arrangement.
After two days of climbing, we succeeded in climbing the west face of Motutakae. We jotted down our ascent in the rusty summit register left by the group of Germans who had scrambled up the backside. We shook hands on top—a First Ascent adventure is always best shared with good friends. We made it down safe (not without trundling some gigantic blocks, for safety of course), and loaded our gear back onto the boat that would take us back to Hakahau, the first leg of many getting back home. We spent the last days deep-water soloing, sailing and surfing. This was fun, but after getting held under water and bashed against some rocks, it reinforced what I already knew—I should stick to climbing. We said goodbye to the friends we made on Ua Pou, and jumped on a friend’s sailboat back to Nuku Hiva. As it is with most trips, I always seem to leave a piece of my heart at these remote and wild locations. This was certainly true with Ua Pou, and I hope to go back someday.
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