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 French Polynesia aboard the Aranui 3

Aranui 3 in French Poylnesia
Cruise the mysterious Marquesas

by Bob Marriott

Ships of every description crowd the wharves at Papeete and we look up at the white hull of Aranui 3, our home for the next two weeks.

Welcomed aboard with a flower Lei we head for the accommodation and Linda my wife is thrilled to find a suite and our own sundeck. Below us forklifts buzz around like busy bees and cranes lift cargo aboard the ship to be packed away in the hold or stored on deck.

The shoreline drops swiftly behind, our last sight of land the thrusting spires of Moorea, wraithlike through a windblown mist.

On the second day we sight Fakarava in the Tuamotus, a tiny dot in a vast ocean. With no wharf for passengers to disembark, barges, rather like World War 2 landing craft are lifted from the ship and we go ashore wearing bright orange lifejackets.

The local industry is black pearl farming and small open-air stalls selling specimens do a good trade. Passengers and locals swim and snorkel in the quiet, tepid waters while just a five-minute stroll to the other side of the island, a rugged coral shore repels roaring head-high surf.

Back on board the night air wraps around us like a warm, damp towel as we lean on the rail. The stern light illuminates silver shoals of fish that dance and flash through the water.

Aranui means broad pathway and is the third in a line of ships that have been carrying freight to the islands for around fifty years. The ship makes fourteen trips a year and along with the cargo requirements there is accommodation for 200 passengers. Introduced to the Captain and expecting gold braid and brass buttons I find myself shaking hands with a softly spoken Polynesian guy wearing shorts and a Hawaiian-style shirt. His English is way ahead of my French.

Day four we sight the mysterious Marquesas, Ua Pou is one of about a dozen islands thrust from the ocean some twenty million years ago. Wild, lonely and beautiful they have attracted adventurers and writers across the years and inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write, “In the South Seas.”

Docking at Hakahau we gaze at the towering, craggy peak of Mount Oave the highest in the group at over 1200 metres.

With a gangway in place we can walk ashore and stretch our legs with a trek to a cross set above the town where there are lovely views of the harbour. The church has a magnificent pulpit carved from a solid log.

An open-sided restaurant set in a colourful garden is rich with the scent of Frangipani. Dancers and musicians perspire in the heat and afterwards there is swimming from the beach.

We cruise on to Nuku Hiva the administrative centre of the Marquesas with Taiohae the main town. American author Herbert Melville jumped ship here in 1842 and lived for a few weeks in the Taipivai Valley. He wrote the book “Typee” about his exploits, but is better known for his whaling story “Moby Dick.”

A 4 x 4 takes the steep, winding road to the Muake Pass. It’s cooler on the heights and the views are spectacular.

The Aranui sails on to Hatiheu, another town on the same island. The silence is profound as we walk into the forest to view ancient stone platforms that have witnessed ritual and human sacrifice. They possess a strange and haunting aura.

Male dancers perform lustily against the background of a massive Banyan tree and at a nearby site we view petroglyphs that have yet to be dated or deciphered.

On the island of Hiva Oa, Aranui lies at the wharf. Cargo is swung ashore, and as copra, fruit and other local items are loaded on to the ship, Linda reckons it makes fascinating viewing. The main town is Atuona where French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin made his home. Achieving fame only after his death he is buried in the Calvaire Cemetery on a hill overlooking the bay. Nearby is the resting place of Belgian-born French singer Jacque Brel who lived here in a much later era.

On the foreshore locally made multi-coloured fabrics wave like flags by the Cultural Centres commemorating both men. Linda buys a colourful wrap and we love the brilliant copies of the works of Gauguin.

At Puamau in Hiva Oa, an ancient site has the largest stone Tikis found in the Pacific outside of Easter Island. This discovery backed Thor Heyerdahls theory that the Marquesas were originally populated from South America. Other experts believe the flow was from South-East Asia or Polynesia.

The tiny island of Tahuata, about an hours sailing from Hiva Oa, has a tragic history. Spanish explorers went ashore in 1595 and opened fire on the islanders, killing around two hundred. Missionaries arrived in 1797 and the church with its wild green backdrop has unusual stained glass windows and spectacular views across the bay. The island is also the site of the first French settlement in the Marquesas in 1842.

Ua Huka has less than six hundred inhabitants. Horses originally brought here from Chile in 1856 were allowed to run wild and now outnumber the population. Not being horse-type people, we travel by car along a winding coast road with dramatic sea views. The island has seen no rain for months and the Botanical Gardens at Vaipaee are dry as dust.

Fatu Hiva is the most southerly of the islands. In the village of Omoa women give a demonstration of Tapa making, beating the bark of certain trees with a heavy wooden stick. Tapa was originally used for clothing, but today it is mainly kept for wall hangings and paintings. At a craft centre the souvenirs are of a very high standard, carvings in particular being superb. A small but fascinating museum has exhibits displaying some intricate work and the barrel of an old cannon lies outside.

Peace and tranquillity lie over this beautiful place. Tiny children swim like fish in the warm harbour waters while women gather breadfruit using a bag on a long pole; they smile and wave goodbye as we leave the wharf.

Tradition says that casting your flower Lei on the water when leaving the islands will ensure that some day you will return. We make a wish and gaze wistfully as they float out of sight. It marks the end of an experience we can never forget.

The writer wishes to thank Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime and Tahiti Tourism for their assistance.

For more information about the Aranui 3 freighter cruise see :

Bob Marriott is a New Zealand freelance writer and photographer. His work has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines in New Zealand and overseas, including Australia, The USA, England, Malaysia and China and on the internet.

A A long time member of NZ Travel Communicators and the NZ Society of Authors, Bob has worked on Fodor’s New Zealand travel guides for over ten years, and also their guides to South-East Asia, South Pacific Cruise Guides and Tahiti and French Polynesia.

He has travelled to around sixty countries.

Bob Marriott – [email protected]

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