Story and Photos by Bo Zaunders
A Polynesian Odyssey
Voyage to the Marquesas Islands
The skyline of Ua Pou rose dramatically out of the South Pacific – rocky shores and lush green hills, and, above them, brooding volcanic pinnacles, soaring into the sky, summits hiding behind rain-filled clouds. It was 6am, and I was standing on the deck of the cruise/freighter Aranui 3. After embarkation in Parapeete, Tahiti, we were already into Day 4 of a two-week cruise, and had traveled nearly a thousand miles to get to this point.
The Marquesas Islands.
This is the most northerly archipelago in French Polynesia, just south of the equator, and farther from a continental landfall than any other group of islands on earth – as far as you can get from so-called civilization.
The Aranui has been called the umbilical cord between Tahiti and the Marquesas. The Aranui 3 was built in 2002, and was on its 83rd voyage (the most recent ship is Aranui 5, commissioned in December 2015). Along with freight - everything from heavy machinery to potato chips, beer, and toilet paper - the Aranui, on this voyage, brought 116 passengers, among them, Roxie, my wife, and I.
Already we had passed through the Tuamoto archipelago, and visited, albeit for only three hours, its second largest atoll, Fakarava. Anchor was cast in the shimmering green lagoon; passengers outfitted with life vests were guided down a ladder, and crowded into a flat-bottomed vessel that had been dropped into the water by one the ship’s large cranes. Options were given. In Fakarava you could swim, snorkel, or, since it was Sunday morning, you may want to attend mass in the local Catholic Church. But first came a welcome committee of one: a smiling woman standing on the white coral sand, presenting each of us with a small tiare, a white flower to be placed behind your ear in a manner appropriate to marital status. If married or spoken for, put it behind your left ear above your heart, and behind the right ear if you were still available. Turning the flower backward, you signal that, married or not, you are available right now.
The church doors stood wide open. I could hear a chorus from inside, soft and rhythmic, with the same words repeated over and over: “Ana ana tipa tua, ana ana tipa tua…” The church was filled to the last pew, and exuded a friendly relaxed atmosphere that struck me as delightful. Two priests in long white gowns bent down in front of the altar, the soles of their bare feet facing the congregation, while a small girl with flowers in her hair sneaked out into the center aisle, and did a little dance. How utterly different from the austere, rather empty, Lutheran church of my Swedish childhood!
Back on the Aranui, we were just in time for lunch, a three-course meal beginning with a salad with mussels, then white fish with risotto and mushroom purée. As always, for lunch or dinner in the ship’s dining room, complimentary bottles of red and white wine had been put on the tables - a concession, presumably, to the French, who (followed by Australians, Americans, and Germans) constituted a majority among the passengers.
It was suggested that everybody mingle. In consequence, the dining room had no assigned seatings. The arrangement would prove serendipitous. People choosing a cruise as unconventional as this were bound to be good company - more curious, erudite, and adventurous than most. Already we had had interesting chats with a German neurologist, a French scientist working on the Space Program, a US-based Frenchman involved with computer programming for Apple, and Claude and Martha from Philadelphia, both professors, she of English, he of Organic chemistry.
We no longer questioned whether the combination cargo/cruise ship would work. It couldn’t be better. I marveled at how relaxed and informal life onboard ship was, and how easily the crew mixed with the passengers. No black-tie events, for sure, but no lack of entertainment. One morning a couple of young girls in native costumes danced around the breakfast tables, and every night crewmembers jam in the upstairs bar, strumming ukuleles and guitars. Joelle, one of the waiters in the dining room, seemed to epitomize Aranui’s easygoing style. Effusive and friendly, yet efficient, he showed up in different colorful outfits every day, usually with a crown of flowers to match - and shoeless.
Historically a sign of beauty, wealth, and status, tattoos are still part of the Marquesan culture. This was quite noticeable, not least on the crew of the Aranui. I especially recall Mahelo, the gentlest and most tattooed of them all.
Aranui’s two yellow cranes swung back and forth, lifting and lowering cargo – everything from prefabricated houses to beer and toilet paper - onto the quay of Hakahau, our first port of call in the Marquesas.
Here we would stay all morning, watch paepae dances, and lunch at a local restaurant. As in Fakarava, a visit to the Catholic Church was recommended. Proposed also was a peek at handicrafts, and a 40-minute mountain hike up to a cross and a wonderful view of the bay. I learn that the first European to set foot on this island was the French navigator, Captain Etienne Marchand, in 1791. Receiving a friendly welcome, he was luckier than subsequent visitors, some of whom were eaten by the islanders. Not a nice way to treat your guests, but the Europeans, apparently, wrought a lot more havoc on the Marquesans than the other way around. First discovered in 1595 by the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana, the Marquesas boasted a total population of about 100,000. By the early 1900s, due primarily to smallpox brought in by Europeans, that number had been reduced to an all-time low of about 2,000. Today, the islands have a population of between eight and nine thousand.
Our morning in Hakahau proved idyllic. The church had large triangular openings near the roof, allowing an unobstructed view of Ua Pou’s bizarre, cathedral-like mountains. A beautiful wooden pulpit was crafted to resemble the prow of God’s ship, “as it cut through the stormy waves of purgatory.” The paepae, which took place outdoors beneath large trees, consisted of small group of native women in colorful dresses, swirling their hips to the beat of guitars and drums.
Then came a lavish, buffet-style, Marquesan lunch at Tata Rosalie’s open-air restaurant. I recall a Poisson Cru, raw tuna marinated in lime juice, mixed with grated carrots and chopped tomatoes, and soaked in creamy liquid squeezed from coconut meat. Very refreshing.
Nuku Hiva. In 1842, 23-year old sailor Herman Melville jumped a whaling ship and made his way across the rugged highlands to Taipi Valley, where he stayed for a few weeks with cannibals. Living to tell about his experiences, he used them for his first novel, a highly embellished melodramatic tale, which became an immediate best-seller. Nuka Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, also caught the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson who, profoundly moved by its majesty and beauty, lived out his days in Polynesia.
Early morning was spent in Taiohae, the capital of the Marquesas, population: 3,000. In Cathédrale Notre Dame, Pascal, our English-speaking guide, delivered a short lecture. To our right we could hear another guide giving the same speech in French, and from behind came the German version. Suddenly, from outside, a cock crowed over and over, loud and clear, adding local color and a fourth voice to the proceedings. In every place we had visited so far there had been displays of handicrafts, and Taiohae was no exception. An hour of “free time” was granted in this little Marquesan metropolis, which boasted a few shops, a bank, and a post office with internet facilities.
Next we climbed into jeeps for a trip to Hatiheu on the northern coast of Nuku Hiva. A steep climb took us to the top ridge of Mount Muake. Nearly 3,000 feet below lay Taiohae Bay, a natural amphitheater formed by a volcanic crater. Embraced by dark mountains, against a foreground of dense tropical forest, its blue waters sparkled in the distance. We pressed on, sighting a couple of spectacular waterfalls, and arrived at Kamuihei ceremonial center, a prehistoric site in the shadows of gigantic 400-year-old banyan trees.
Here, for the first time, we saw the kind of stone platforms on which the ancient tribes built their houses and performed sacred rituals, including human sacrifices. There were also some tiki statues and huge boulders carved with enigmatic petroglyphs of birds, fish and sacred turtles. Turtles, Pascal told us, were so highly regarded that they might well have qualified for sacrifices, along with humans.
As on the previous day, we had lunch in a local restaurant. It was called Chez Yvonne and had a high arched palm-thatched roof. Like Rosalie’s, it served a sumptuous Marquesan buffet. Guests were invited to step outside and witness the opening of an earth oven. By the time I reached the pit, three men were already shoveling sand and removing stones. Soon they began peeling off banana leaf wrappings, and, finally, freed a number of small, well-seasoned pigs that had been roasting on red hot volcanic rocks for hours, and which were now about to become part of our noontime meal. Served with coconut milk, rice and breadfruit, the pig proved delicious, as did lobster tails, steeped in seawater.
After lunch we continued down the valley immortalized by Melville to the village of Taipivai, where, after a long day, whaleboats stood ready to bring us back to the Aranui. Warned about resident no-nos, tiny mosquito-like insects that show no mercy, we had followed the advice of George, the ship’s doctor, and sprayed ourselves with some outlandishly expensive insect repellent. It was well worth it: when “Survivor,” TV’s popular reality show, was filmed here in 2002, the greatest complaint was the pesky no-nos.
End of Part I.
General information: The Marquesas Islands are a group of twelve volcanic islands in French Polynesia, six of which are inhabited. They’re located some 500 miles south of the equator and approximately 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. The climate is subtropical; the population between 8 and 9,000. First discovered by the Spanish in 1595, the Marquesas became an territory of France in 1843.
How to get there: Although it is possible to get to the largest island, Nuku Hiva, on regularly scheduled flights by AIR TAHITI, the recommended way to see the Marquesas is by Aranui, a cargo/cruise ship. Fifteen times a year, it brings cargo from Papeete, Tahiti, to all the inhabited islands, and accommodates up to 200 passengers.
Numbers and websites:
AIR TAHITI NUI
(Inter Island air service is also provided by Air Moorea, Air Archipels, and Polynesia Helicpteres.)
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