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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
And 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”.
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.