The Aranui 3 is not a looker. It is a
cargo vessel that, for more than 50 years, transferred goods from Papeete, the
capital of Tahiti, to the remote islands of Marquesa, 1,500km to the northeast.
It was not until the early 1980s that the Aranui 3 transformed into a
freighter-cum-passenger cruise ship, transporting adventure-bound travellers to
South Pacific islands that few outsiders had ever laid eyes on.
the ship expanded from 12 cabins to 85 to accommodate traveller demand, and
today, almost all 17
cruises each year are sailing at full occupancy, prompting the company
to unveil the Aranui 5 in 2014, a ship that will be almost twice the size.
allure of spending 14 days on a cargo vessel-turned-cruise ship had nothing to
do with the bare-boned interior of the Aranui 3. The lounge had only a
miniscule library and much of the dining hall’s ocean view was blocked by
cargo. It had nothing to do with the reception desk that was only open a
handful of hours each day or the cabin’s basic amenities – a twin bed, desk and
old TV. It had little to do with the preset three-daily, starch-heavy meals
that were served or the friendly, souvenir-shirt-wearing crew who, at the end
of the trip, presented a beautiful traditional dance on the sundeck. It wasn’t
until after few days at sea that I understood why people from all over the
world spend thousands of dollars to board a cargo vessel that only has wireless
internet for five days out of two weeks. It has nothing to do with the actual
ship; it has everything to do with the chance to experience the living history
of hidden Polynesia.
in 1595 by Spanish explorer Alvaro de
Mendana de Neira, French Polynesia’s Marquesa Islands are so remote that
the closest cosmopolitan city is Honolulu, Hawaii, about 3,500km to the north. As
the only ship to go to all six of the inhabited islands (11 total sprawl across
997sqkm), the Aranui 3’s role – supplying food and goods to the islands – has
allowed the small societies to thrive.
glimpse of the islands after three days of sailing from Papeete was the town of
Hakahua (population: 3,000), located on the island of Ua Pou. Three basaltic
peaks soared high above the lush forests, the surrounding water a milky dark green
hue due to the volcanic sand below. A 3km hike brought us to a scenic vantage point above the sublime bay, below which there
was a pocket-size beach for sunbathing.
of the inhabited islands, Ua Pou’s modest town, where we stopped for a typical
buffet lunch of poisson cru (a traditional Tahitian dish of raw fish, coconut
milk and lime), beef, rice and banana pudding, was equipped with a post office,
a bank, a school, a few general stores and not much else. Most houses were one
storey, box shaped and minimally decorated, with music playing through the open
windows even though no one seemed to be home. The feeling of being completely
remote, in the middle of nowhere, sunk in fast.
arrived the next morning to the island of Nuku Hiva, a rainstorm brewed.
"It always rains when the Aranui arrives," said our driver, one of many
locals who ferried cruise passengers deep into the rainforest, passing the
350m-high Vaipo Waterfall, the largest in the South Pacific, on the way. Arguably
the most popular island, Nuku Hiva is where author Herman Melville jumped out
of a whaling ship in 1842 and was captured by the local Taipa tribe. He spent
three weeks among the tribesmen – one of the world’s few cannibal tribes – and
based his first novel, Typee, on his time living here. Eventually he escaped,
and the tribe disappeared.
passing the waterfall, we trekked through the rainforest for less than a km to
one of the island’s oldest banyan trees (approximately 400 years old) on the
archaeological site Hatitheu, where 19th-century Taipa tribesmen
left behind stone carvings and relics. Another short 1km – and muddy, thanks to
the brief drizzle – hike led us through lush foliage to an ancient set of ruins
of which little was known. Sketches of people were etched into large stones, proving
to be more mysterious but just as marvellous as Hatitheu.
Paul Gaugin and Belgium singer Jacques Brel were so impressed with their
initial visit to Hiva Oa, the largest island in the archipelago, that they both
lived and died there. In 1902, Gaugin wrote a letter to a friend, "I
congratulate myself every day for the decision of coming here."
grave is located at the top of an unnamed hill on Hiva Oa, paying tribute to
the artist who gave the world paintings such as Tehamana Has Many Ancestors, which
he painted on the island. Located just a short walk from the cemetery, the
island’s Gaugin Museum offers a comprehensive history of the painter and is
well worth a visit, even if all the paintings are replicas.
island of Tahuata – the site of the first French settlement in the Marquesas in
1842 – it was the people who were the highlight. As soon as we anchored, local
children greeted us with garlands of plumeria and pikakke flowers. They sang
songs and the locals hosted a seaside barbeque lunch, where they performed
traditional Polynesian dances accompanied by Marquesan drums and ukuleles.
also home to Felip, a local tattooist who, at the age of 48, has been inking
for 30 years. While some historians believe the art of inking started in the
Bronze Age, or in Egypt around 2,000 BC, the word “tattoo” originates from the
Tahitian word “tattau”, which means “to mark”, and was first mentioned in
explorer James Cook’s records when he explored the South Pacific in 1769. As a
unique souvenir, four eager passengers became part of a very small number of
Westerners who can say they got a tattoo in the place where the name of the art
destination was back to Nuku Hiva, where we docked for two hours to swim, hike
or amass hand-carved trinkets to bring home. As we pulled away from the beautiful
land, I realised how much I would dearly remember not only the Marquesan
islands, but also the freighter that made the seemingly unthinkable trip a