South Pacific: Part 4 – French Polynesia

Places visited in French Polynesia
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In the evening, after supper, they entertained us with an Otaheitian dance, which consisted of various writhings and distortions of the body, by no means obscene, yet in no respect pleasant.

Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1820) Vol.III No.VI Art.XXII.—Extract from the Journal of Captain HENRY KING of the Elizabeth

From the Pitcairns, which I’ve described in my last couple of posts, we sailed on into the unfashionable end of French Polynesia. The famous resort islands (Tahiti, Mo’orea, Bora Bora) are all in the Society Islands in the west—but we sneaked in from the east, into the outlying archipelagos of the Gambiers, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. On the way, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, finally getting into the tropics proper; and we changed time zone again, arriving in the Gambiers at GMT-9.

Our first stop was in Mangareva, which is the origin of Pitcairn’s quarterly supply boats, and the Pitcairners’ closest access to an airport ( a mere 500 kilometres away).

Mangareva is a large island surrounded by a broad lagoon, which is dotted with smaller peaked islands, and fringed by a reef and several long, narrow coral motu. The airport runway occupies pretty much the whole of one of these flat motu, Totegegie. We came ashore in our Zodiacs at a proper harbour (which was a first!) and strolled into what felt like the teeming metropolis of Rikitea, home to about a thousand people.  Rikitea sits tucked under the old volcanic summit of Mount Duff, and hosts (unexpectedly, it must be said) the largest church in the South Pacific, St Michael’s Cathedral.

St Michael's Cathedral, Rikitea, Mangareva
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Mount Duff on Mangareva, seen from Aukena
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Mount Duff and Mangareva, from Aukena © 2017 The Boon Companion

Next stop was in the Tuamotus, involving another clock change to GMT-10, on which most of French Polynesia operates. Our landing was on the isolated atoll of Puka-Puka, with just 150 inhabitants. The local kids had been given the morning off school to come and welcome us ashore with a song and dance performance, so we were greeted with great enthusiasm. And with refrigerated coconuts, which was the single best drinking experience of the whole trip. Chilled coconut milk, directly from the coconut—if I could find the person who invented that, I’d shake them by the hand.

Puka-Puka, Tuamotus
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Rush hour on Puka-Puka © 2017 The Boon Companion
Local children, Puka-Puka, Tuamotus
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Having lightly clipped the eastern fringes of the flat coral Tuamotus, we were suddenly into the mad volcanic landscapes of the Marquesas. The Marquesas keep half an hour out of step with the generality of French Polynesian clocks, but that just seemed a time change too far, and we stuck with a shipboard time of GMT-10, which would keep us in synchrony with Tahiti, our ultimate destination.

First stop was at Fatu Hiva, where we dropped into the Bay of the Virgins, and found (gasp) some other visitors there already. We were really getting back into mainstream travel destinations, albeit in the form of a few yacht-folk waiting in the Marquesas for a good weather forecast, before committing to the long journey eastwards across the open Pacific. Bay of the Virgins is Baie des Vierges, which is a one-letter name change from the original colonial name of Baie des Verges. My French dictionary would have that as “Bay of Rods”, but in French slang it comes out “Bay of Penises”, supposedly a reference to the improbable basalt spires that flank the bay. Guess who made the name change? Yup, missionaries. In Marquesan the place is called Hana Vave, which seems like it should have been the solution to the problem in the first place.

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva
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The Bay of “Virgins” © 2017 The Boon Companion
Hana Vave church, Fatu Hiva
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Cover of "Fatu-Hiva" by Thor HeyerdahlAs a young man, Thor Heyerdahl spent some time on Fatu Hiva with his new wife, attempting to get “back to nature” by living in a poorly constructed hut in the forest. His book describes their inevitable decline into hunger, tropical ulcers, insect infestations and paranoia. The whole idea pretty much put the “Fatu” in fatuous, but it did expose Heyerdahl to the large Marquesan stone carvings that would eventually lead to his interest in Easter Island, and ultimately his (rather misguided) Kon-Tiki expedition.

Hiva Oa next. This island was, at different times, home to the odious Paul Gauguin, and the probably quite nice Jacques Brel, both of whom are buried in the picturesque Calvary Cemetery above the town of Atuona. The town also houses a Gauguin gallery, which I was sure would provide a welcome blast of air-conditioning on a hot and humid day—but the paintings are all reproductions, so no such luck.

View from Calvary Cemetery, Atuona, Hiva Oa
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View from Calvary Cemetery © 2017 The Boon Companion
Atuona, Hiva Oa
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Atuona © 2017 The Boon Companion

In the afternoon we slipped around to the north coast, to visit the archaeological site of Me’ae I’ipona, home of the Marquesan tiki statues that inspired Heyerdahl. They’re all housed under thick thatch roofs, to protect them from the elements, which makes for limited photo opportunities. But the light on Puamau Bay was gorgeous.

Puamau Bay, Hiva Oa
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Our last Marquesan island  was Nuku Hiva. (You’ll have pieced together by now that hiva is Marquesan for “island”.) Last, but definitely my favourite, for the spectacular scenery and the lovely bay of Hatiheu. We wandered around another archaeological site, this one densely overgrown, where we found yet another endangered endemic bird, the Marquesan imperial pigeon, clattering around in the canopy without an apparent care in the world. Then the best display of dancing and drumming we’d seen, and a stroll back down to the bay.

Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Tiki, Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Dancer, Kamuihei, Nuku Hiva
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Our penultimate landing was in the huge coral lagoon of Rangiroa, back in the Tuamotus, and back on a  flat coral motu, where we pottered along the beaches of Avatoru Island, admired the palm trees, and studiously ignored the fact that there was a resort hotel visible in the distance. (First one of those we’d seen—we were definitely moving back towards what passes for civilization.)

Avatoru, Rangiroa
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Avatoru, Rangiroa
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

At the end of our visit, as we sailed out through a channel in the reef, a pod of spinner dolphins fell in step alongside, as if escorting us safely off the premises.

Cover of "Rascals In Paradise" by James MichenerAnd so to the dock at Pape’ete, Tahiti. I’m afraid my ideas of Pape’ete had become frozen after reading James Michener’s Rascals in Paradise (1957), so I was ready for pleasure yachts pulled right up to the dock so that their sterns overhung a narrow, unpaved waterfront street, and braced for roistering poets and artists having fist-fights outside Quinn’s Bar. But you know it’s not going to be like that, don’t you? It was just a slightly damp tropical town on a quiet Sunday morning. Sigh.

So we transferred to one of those plastic resort hotels, where we sat around for a pleasant enough (but slightly surreal) day, drinking local beer in the humid 30ºC heat, staring bemusedly at plastic Christmas trees covered in plastic snow, and listening to Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”.

Sunset over Mo'orea
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

And then a midnight taxi ride to Faaa airport. (Three a’s! How cool is that? *) Two overnight flights later, we were in Edinburgh airport again. It was dark. It was 1ºC. Sleet was falling. Bing Crosby was singing “White Christmas”.


* Also spelled Faa’a or Fa’a’ā. I’m cool with all of these.

6 thoughts on “South Pacific: Part 4 – French Polynesia”

  1. Thanks for more lovely photos and interesting titbits.

    I must admit that I was surprised to read that Jacques Brel was buried on Hiva Oa – he seemed such a “European” performer that I expected him to be buried somewhere like Père Lachaise Cemetery – alongside Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison et al. (Also, “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” after all 🙂

    I have had a quick look back through your posts on this trip and I can’t see what vessel type you traveled on – was it a smallish vessel on an “expedition” trip?

    1. There’s actually a Jacques Brel museum next door to the Gauguin museum. It consists of an aircraft hangar containing his old Beechcraft aeroplane “Jojo” (mounted on a stand, like some sort of gigantic model kit), a selection of faded posters and information boards, and a continuous loop of Brel’s music gargling away in the background.

      Our vessel actually appears in a photo in this post, showing the view from Calvary Cemetery. It’s what counts as small these days, but rather too large for our tastes – about 100 passengers. So quite slow getting people on and off ship, and rather too enamoured of the “obscene quantities of food and drink” cruise-ship model.
      Ideally we go for “expedition cruising” vessels with 50 or 60 passengers, like our trip to Wrangel Island, but they’re becoming rarer and rarer as the old Akademik Shuleykin-class Russian research vessels reach the end of their lifetimes, and are replaced with fancy-dancy “luxury small ships”.

  2. Thanks for that nice photo. Looks like the ORION or similar?

    I must admit that I am really loathe to go on a cruise ship. The 100,00 ton plus behemoths have all the charm of a sheep or cattle transport. The photos I see show the passengers being herded on and off in just the way I used to see sheep being loaded on vessels bound for the middle-east. I have only done one ocean trip from Singapore to Perth in the 1970’s. It was an old, early 1950’s, Dutch built vessel, Indonesian flagged and chartered by a Russian company it was only about 8,000 tonnes and was of the teak & brass fittings era.

    We used to see a few USSR “Akademik” vessels pass through Fremantle, our local port, back in the 1970/80’s but their accommodation standards would be unacceptable to many passengers these days. My wive, really this true, feels seasick watching shows about the voyages of HMS Beagle, so ocean ventures are a bit limited for us.

    I like Brel and gargling is probably not an unfair way to describe his singing style. But he did write some excellent songs e.g Port of Amsterdam

  3. The ship is the Caledonian Sky. Most people on board absolutely loved it, it must be said, and there were many who were on their fifth or sixth trip on that ship or one of its sisters.
    We chose it because of where it was going, and would probably have chosen differently if there had been other options.

    I’m still very fond of the “floating youth hostel” approach of the old Russian and ex-Russian expedition cruising ships, but I doubt if we’ll see their likes again.

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