Although it appeared on the world's television screens in 2002 as the setting of the fourth Survivor series, Nuku Hiva first became famous in the 1840s, when Herman Melville jumped ship and was befriended for several weeks by the otherwise ferocious Taipi tribe in the rugged Taipivai Valley. Based on that adventure, Melville's first novel, Typee, launched his illustrious writing career.

Then as now, Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands and the second largest in French Polynesia. It is so rugged that a majority of its 330 sq. km (127 sq. miles) surely go straight up and down. Two volcanoes formed Nuku Hiva. The large central crater has eroded away on one side, leaving in its bottom the high, cool Toovii Plateau, now devoted to farms and pastureland. On the southern coast, half of another crater fell into the sea, creating deep Taiohae Bay, the best harbor in the Marquesas and a favorite port for cruising yachts. On the northern side of the crater, Mount Muake abruptly rises for 864m (2,834 ft.), forming an awesome backdrop to the town of Taiohae, the capital of the archipelago, and its half-moon harbor. Other than arriving by water, the only way into Taiohae is to descend Mount Mauke's clifflike face.

The central mountains cut off what trade winds blow at this latitude, leaving the western third of Nuku Hiva a desert, known as the Terre Déserte (Deserted Land). Rather than being lush and green, the valleys here are dry canyons reminiscent of the American Southwest and the Australian Outback. With the exception of a few cattle ranches and homes near the airport, this area is quite literally deserted.