The Valley of the Kings

Faanui  (Valley of Nui), a place of refuge, a place where one can gather the ‘breath of life’ as the ancient Tahitian expression, E Mapuhiraa aho no Faanui says, derives its name from Nui, the son of Porapora-i-te-fenau-tahi (the First-Born in the Time of Man), who’s umbilical cord was buried here in the valley. It’s a tradition practiced to this day to ensure the maintenance of a person’s affinity with their land – Bora Bora has no hospital & those expecting a baby travel to Tahiti or more usually Raiatea to give birth; most return with the umbilical cord of the new-born to bury it in the land of Bora Bora.

The ‘breath of life’ remains with you as you move through this beautiful land discovering the culture &  history of another time whilst gaining an insight into the lives of those who once inhabited such places. Up to the time of the missionaries, the Tahitians lived in the valleys rather than beside the sea. We would climb through lush tropical vegetation in a fascinating outing as our guide, Azdine, outlined the legends surrounding the valley, the sacredness of certain trees, & the knowledge of the ancestors for the medicinal qualities of certain plants.

The photo below shows how to survive in the unlikelihood of your being lost in the mountains Bora Bora without water – the snake vine is your answer; the taste is more than acceptable:

snake-vine-water

When Azdine started undertaking this hike in only 2006 he was drawn to the cliff-face that flanks Mts Otemanu & Pahia, certain that there would be caves; caves used for centuries to bury the dead. It was a climb of several days through thick jungle through which he cut a path. Little did he know that he would ultimately stumble upon, buried deep in the thick foliage, the signs of the remnants of ancient villages, of maraes (places of worship) & of the burial site of Kings. It would present him with an opportunity to look into the botany, archaeology, ethnology & geology of this fascinating area of Bora Bora.

In our midst today was Loic, a chef from the Intercontinental Thalasso Spa, eager to learn of new tastes to tantalise the palate. As we climbed we were surrounded by fruit-trees which took me back to my days ‘on the farm’ as a boy, to the delights of eating ‘fruit from the tree’; fruit which grows so plentifully in these valleys & on these mountainsides. Some were well known – mango, bananas, avocados, pamplamouse, paw-paw, passion-fruit & so on – & others not so well known:

The local tahitian hibiscus – the base of the flower has a certain sweetness & goes well in salads:

salad-hibiscus

There are many mape – the local tahitian walnut with a wonderful trunk almost always found in sacred places – to be found throughout the climb but few would recognise the autera, the local tahitian almond photographed here. It would be interesting to date the grinding stone & grinder:

tahitian-almond

The best find for many though was the wild coffee bushes. Azdine had brought some roasted beans with him taken from the bushes on a previous hike. The scent is exquisite, that of the finest coffee perfumed with a rich hint of dark chocolate – slurp!

wild-coffee-bora

bora-wild-roasted-coffee

Vanilla grew wild in the trees, we were surrounded by wild ginger & our thirsts were quenched by the water of fresh coconuts. The tasting over we would wash our hands & faces in the ‘shampoo flower’ as it is known to Tahitians, the ‘shampoo’ squeased gently from the flower of the ginger plant. Used in ancient times it’s remarkably cleansing leaving great softness to your hands & hair:

shampoo-flower

shampoo-direct-from-flower

When we completed the ascent we wiped the sweat from our brows with the inner layer of the skin of a pamplamouse. It was both refreshing & effective:

grapefruit-tonic

It made one reflect on the fact that Bora Bora is not paradise on earth simply for its beautiful lagoon or for its majestical mountains but also for the abundant offerings of the land. We would soon realise also that it is for the sprituality it imparts.

We would arrive at a stunning plateau at the foot of Mts Otemanu & Pahia, a place of rare beauty surrounded by these majestic mountains & other prominent peaks. It was here in 2006 that Azdine (literally) uncovered the remains of a marae, not just any marae as it featured an almost 1.50 metre  anthropomorph – anthropomorphs predate the Moai of Easter Island & the traditional Tikis of French Polynesia & Hawaii by tens of thousands of years. This is how it looked in 2008/2009 :

 

Here is how it looked when we arrived yesterday – 23rd April, 2014:

faanui-valley

otemanu-faanui

faanui-peaks

marae-faanui

faanui-marae

It is a story of reckless ignorance, of destruction & of greed. Apparently this segment of the destruction of this country’s cultural heritage commenced with earth moving contractors seeking to provide stone (rocks) for the fortification of one of the major resorts on the motu. The contractors moved on the sacred site of one the oldest & certainly most important marae on Bora Bora, sites which to this day remain unprotected by any form of government legislation. The site presented ‘easy pickings’, an opportunity for quick gain at the expense of the history, culture & the rights of generations of Polynesians (& need I add the world).

It makes ones stomach churn to be told that the contractors knew what they were doing & even took some of the more important stones, like the stone for the mango drip, to decorate their homes. Other important stones representing the seats of the King & of the Tehua, & those representing the seven arii now form part of a certain hotel’s retaining wall or remain lost forever in the stones that remain on-sight. Who knows what has happened to the stone which held to ink for tattoo ceremonies for the countries elite.

Unchallenged & unchecked by the population or its elected representatives, the destruction would continue. At the beginning of this very year (2014) certain locals, presumably with a commercial interest in mind, took it upon themselves to start further clearing the area with earth moving equipment & (although having sought the advice of a known expert in Tahiti) to start ‘rebuilding’ the marae & ‘decorating’ its surrounds to radically alter that which had been found. Staggeringly, the anthropomorph has been removed (I suspect for ‘safe-keeping’ rather than stolen). Such a situation is inexplicable  & the authorities must move without delay to localise this priceless piece of Polynesian history & culture, probably the most important relic of its type in French Polynesia, certainly in Bora Bora & to classify the island’s historical sites.

I wonder if information such as the above will spur change……………………..

Not far from the marae can be found perhaps the greatest discovery. A short walk through lush vegetation, across a small creek & a climb up large stones you will bring you to “Apoo Ote Ora” (the Circle of Life). It is a magnificent & majestic setting of huge stones backed by what is the largest banyan tree known in French Polynesia probably in the pacific. It makes for the most powerful of encounters:

bora-banyan

The banyan tree is called Tumu Ora (the Tree of Life) in Tahitian & it was to this special place that Azdine took James Cameron, a man captivated by Polynesian culture & the producer of the film Avatar. James would remain there; still, quiet for over 2 hours, moved, spiritually charged by the surroundings. The banyan tree itself & much of what he experienced that day would feature in Avatar.

When the missionaries arrived Tahitians grew their hair long in the belief it gave them strength. The arii (upper class) would come to A Pou E Tora & connect their hair to the banyan roots dangling from the tree then sit on the large stones in a deep sense of being connected to nature, to their source (yes, as seen in Avatar). Seen as a form of paganism by the missionaries the cutting of hair was soon ‘encouraged’!

The importance of the site, a place of royalty, seemingly confimed by the ‘petroglyph’ photographed below:

bora-petroglyph

A clear representation of Bora Bora, to the ‘egg’ which symbolises Taaroa, the tahitian god of creation; the circular form a representation of infinity/royalty.

As the place of royalty there is an area of carved stone believed to have been used by woman to give birth:

bora-birth-stone

Most importantly of all the area was used to bury the Kings of Bora Bora. It gave sense to the names Apoo Ote Ora & Tumu Ora – life was a circle where one travelled from one’s place of birth & back again at one’s death. It explains in part also the wish of modern day Bora Borians to be buried on their land & not in cemeteries or crematoriums.

Research into the Puta Tepuna – the Book of the Ancestors (currently housed in the Bishop Museum in the USA) shows that in ancient times the arii  (the most powerful branch of Tahitian society) would not be buried in the ground seen as sullying the person concerned & thereby detracting from such persons purity & sanctity, nor be cremated as fire was perceived as evil, as a tool of the ‘devil’. It was in the banyan tree that Kings would find their final resting place. They could be embalmed & then stood upright in-between the roots of the tree. Over time as the roots thickened the bodies would find themselves engulfed in the structure of the tree. It is believed up to 7 Kings were buried that way over time.

In September of this year a team of experts is coming to Bora Bora equipped with the latest laser & sonar technology & will examine the tree in an endeavour to determine how many bodies remain ‘buried’ in the tree. I will be on the mission & readers will be the first to know of the findings!

There are a number of ways to see this area situated in the mountainside up behind the destinctive church at the foot of Faanui Bay. There are access roads recently (savagely) cut into the mountainside but these involve crossing private land so permission should first be sought. There are the 4×4 that rush madly up & down the fairly uneven, more regular but still private, access route (though many landowners in the area have banned the 4×4). The best way without doubt is to take your time & stroll up the road beside the church, to feel the vegetal growth & gifts around you (there are even American ammunition storage shelters from WWII for those that are interested.

As Azdine said to us: “The difference between a foreigner & a local tahitian is that the foreigner has a watch, but the tahitian has the time”!

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