Coming upon an island by sea is quite unlike dropping in on the silvery wings of civil aviation. The sailors have to haul their islands up. Every rolling slice through the pink swell of dawn brings them closer to the thrill of landfall, to the promise of island delights. The teasing blip hovering above the horizon's clouds becomes something more tangible, ever so gradually, until it is without doubt terrestrial. The sailors tug the island closer and closer, until the hour comes when they are running beside a strange and wonderful shore, where mountain buttresses rise from the surge and suck of surf, away up to where pinnacles pierce white tufts of morning cloud.
"The first experience can never be forgotten. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched by a virginity of the sense." Thus wrote Robert Louis Stevenson of his approach to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. For, having chartered the trading schooner Casco in San Francisco in 1888 and sailed south, it was the Polynesian peripheral of Nuku Hiva that was the writer's first South Sea isle.
Read more of Stevenson's arrival in the South Seas, then follow in his wake to discover that the essence of hauling a Marquesan island from ocean's maw has changed little over the years. No longer is the privilege of visiting these oceanic outliers reserved for wealthy itinerants, dissolute traders or implacable evangelists. Now the cargo-passenger ship Aranui journeys north every month, on a two-week round-trip from Tahiti to the six populated islands of the Marquesas. In doing so, Aranui allows adventurous travellers to experience the Pacific tradition of piggy-backing on copra, or dried coconut, boats to out-of-the-way places. These lucky passengers are close witness to the ship, now in her fourth incarnation, bringing precious monthly cargoes to each of the populated islands of the far-removed and fabled Marquesas.
'Fabled' is a delicate word, one that can appear trite if used without sufficient justification. In the case of the Marquesas, perhaps more so than in any other grouping of Pacific Islands, the description fits; whether seen through the lens of European tradition or that of the first-comers, the Polynesians. For Polynesians this was a remote place of high culture, where the art of tattooing evolved to its highest expression, and where woodworking was taken to the most exquisite levels. As a staging point for long canoe voyages of exploration and migration, Polynesians as far away as Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand) claim heritage in the Marquesas.
In the European tradition, the Marquesas were the first significant Polynesian islands discovered, when the Spanish explorer Mendaña sailed among them in 1595. This was the place where Herman Melville jumped ship and lived with the cannibal tribe of Typee on the island of Hiva Oa. This is where Paul Gauguin came to paint his last great masterpieces, and where his mortal remains lie buried in a hillside grave. Down through the years, from Jack London in his yacht Snark to Paul Theroux on Aranui, the Marquesan magnet has drawn wandering writers, some scribbling words worth the salt with which they were encrusted, and some not.
Another line from Stevenson's pen is well worthy of consideration, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour." Many an old sailor supports the adage that the romance of sailing rests not in pleasure yachts but with working vessels. These sentiments point the way to two bounties of voyaging with Aranui. The first is that while in your station as a paying passenger you are not labouring, you are nevertheless part of a working vessel, toiling through the Marquesas to bring the islanders their only viable means of import and export.
The second advantage is that once among the islands, you arrive every day at some exotic new destination. The acts of travelling and arriving are intertwined, each day Aranui taking in two ports-of-call, each arrival captivating in the interaction between mariners and islanders, each arrival a dramatic revelation of some new terrain. And then, with each of these arrivals, there is the corresponding tristesse of departure - the sailors may be back next month, but you, the traveller, are unlikely to pass this way again.
And so to the itinerary of Aranui's Marquesan odyssey, starting with departure from Tahiti's port capital, Papeete, from whence you pass within cannon's shot of the anchorage at Point Venus where Captains Cook and Bligh famously sojourned. Tahiti's peaks slip astern and Aranui sails on through the night to the coral necklace of Fakarava, set in the northern reaches of that vast scattering of atolls known as the Tuamotu Islands. Down the narrow gangplank you go, to waiting whaleboats that have been lowered by Aranui's forward cranes. Once safely ashore you may explore Fakarava's narrow strip of land - although some 60 kilometres in length, the atoll's terra firma averages fewer than 200 metres in width. You may wander across to face the incessant blow of the trade winds at the edge of a wild ocean shore, or instead follow the calm lagoonside, along a sleepy lane between elegant palms, festoons of drying fishing nets, huts with hedges of violet allamanda, and a choice of little foreshore churches. If you have brought a mask and snorkel ashore, the aquamarine lagoon offers vistas of coral heads, clams, lime green parrotfish and the iridescent movements of larger creatures flashing in from deeper water.
Another day and night at sea pass, during which you become accustomed to the deck's swing and sway and undertake exploratory communications with your fellow travellers and the intermingling crew. Unlike other ships you may have sailed on, you find you are as likely to sit beside an off-duty crew member in Aranui's bar as you are a fellow passenger. The lunch and dinner chimes summon you to three-course bouts of French cuisine at communal tables in the dining room, serviced by flower-bedecked Polynesians, with bottles of French wine generously spread around the tables.
Then comes your first Marquesan sunrise, with the island of Ua Pou thrusting up from horizon's pale, its crazy basalt spires spruiking the central volcanic plug of Oave that towers over 1200 metres into the blue. Like a collection of giant Gaudí cathedrals, any amount of geological explanation cannot capture the grandeur of this landscape. Once ashore, there are ancient paepae, or stone platforms, to visit, where evidence of ritualistic cannibalism is seen in the placement of a stone killing slab. There are handicrafts to browse in the villages of Hakahau and Hakahetau, along with delicate 'flower stones' unique to Ua Pou, before retiring to the shady veranda of Tata Rosalie for a light lunch of poisson cru, breadfruit and pink mountain bananas.
After her two landings at Ua Pou, Aranui ploughs on through the night to the next cargo drop at the wharf of Taiohae on Nuku Hiva. Taiohae is the administrative and commercial centre of the Marquesas, and the ship's two great cranes are busy all morning off-loading building supplies, motor vehicles, drums of oil, and shipping containers of food, furnishings and medicine. There are island exports to load as well, pungent copra, noni fruit for the health food trade, fresh citrus for the hotels and bars of Tahiti, wood-carvings, frozen fish and goat meat. Amid all the dockside commotion, passengers wander off along the picturesque waterfront of Taiohae Bay.
That night the ship sails south to the Bay of Traitors, harbouring Atuona village on the island of Hiva Oa. Among the flowering gardens of Atuona is the re-creation of Paul Gauguin's House of Pleasure, from which the gammy-legged representative of art battled bitterly with the champions of both Church and State. He lost those battles, but there is no doubt now that he won the war, for during his last vital years of 1901 and 1902, posterity received such works as Girl with a Fan, Barbarous Tales and Horsemen on the Beach. Above the village in the little Calvary cemetery, the petulant master lies buried, his grave adorned with fallen frangipani and humble offerings of pilgrims from all corners of the globe.
Onward the sailors cry, onward to the southernmost island of Fatu Hiva, most beautiful, most geologically gothic, most lonely; an island that would be seldom visited were it not for Aranui. To better understand man's place in the scheme of things, it was here that Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl came with his young wife in 1937 to immerse himself in unsullied nature, earning a dodgy reputation among Fatu Hivans for his desecration of their taboo places. At Fatu Hiva is the most spectacular bay in all the Pacific Islands, La Baie des Vierges, the Bay of Virgins. From an outrageous background of high cockscomb mountain ridge, a collection of giant basalt pillars march down the island's flanks to converge on the little village of Hanavave. At sunset this collection of stone columns, tumbling waters and steep coconut groves becomes mesmerising. Russet shadows accentuate the pillars, giving logic to the original name La Baie des Verges, the Bay of Penises - the twist of nomenclature occurring when priests and administrators vanquished the days of whalers and beachcombers.
The next day is spent along the north coast of Hiva Oa, going ashore in the whaleboats to the villages of Puamau and Hanaiapa. Aranui's passengers, some hundred strong, are a diverse assortment, bunched for linguistic reasons into French, German and English-speaking mobs. Among Aranui's crew is a coterie of guides speaking all three languages and leading their charges through the splendours of the ancient marae, or sacred site, Iipona in the forest above Puamau's long black-sand beach. With the exception of the stone statues on Easter Island, Iipona has the most imposing collection of stone tiki in all of the Pacific. With its overarching burial cliff, 5000 square metres of paved stone terraces and steps, and the impassive power of the five great tiki, Iipona is a place like Iona in Scotland or Uluru in Australia, where a sense of the spiritual is present in spatial terms.
That night the ship anchors in Vaitahu Bay, off the island of Tahuata, the same one where Mendaña dropped his anchors in 1595. The island is at peace now, but those first foreign ships brought havoc upon the people of Tahuata; Mendaña unleashing cruel cannonades, with many a pirate following in his footsteps, until the all-conquering French admiral Abel Dupetit-Thouars chose the island for one of his bloody subjugations of the Marquesans in 1842.
The morning is spent ashore at Vaitahu, conversing with the welcoming villagers on the seawall among the brightly painted pirogues. Aranui then follows the Tahuata coast, escorted by pods of dolphins, south to the tiny village of Hapatoni. The villagers here are so grateful for the ship's service they insist on presenting a feast of welcome at every visit. Before departure, the drums and guitars are produced, and with post-prandial passengers and crew lounging around under the shade trees, the villagers dance for their guests. This is no slick professional dance troupe; mums and dads and children in everyday work clothes give it their all. A big woman, a boon to the front row of any rugby team, does a graceful tamure, and she is joined by one of her relatives who is no more than six years old but knows every hand and foot gesture of the adult dance. The troupe is boosted by other women from the village, one with strong, smooth limbs and a doe-eyed face, stepping straight from a Gauguin canvas.
Now Aranui turns north again and sails through the night to the arid outpost of Ua Huka. From the sea, herds of wild horses and flocks of feral goats can be seen roaming the red hills of the rugged island. Aranui draws close to high cliffs, their base pummelled by ocean swell, until the narrow opening of Invisible Bay reveals itself. Bow-thrusters roaring, the ship turns about to ease her stern into the churning waters of this watery ravine. Anchors are dropped from the bow and the ship reverses slowly into the wash of the bay. Work boats are lowered into the slop and hardy sailors drag stern-hawsers through the surf to secure them to rocks on opposite sides of the bay. With the ship secured, next it is the turn of the passengers to descend the gangway to where a whaleboat plummets in the swell. The operation seems precarious, but Captain Oputu has performed it hundreds of times before. It was he who devised this bold method of approaching Ua Huka more than two decades ago.
Ua Huka has a rather quaint museum with a surprisingly excellent collection of artefacts and an equally surprising botanical garden, lush and fruitful in its valley below the unforgiving hills. In the village of Hane, there are singing sea-cliffs and a monolithic pyramid of rock protecting an otherwise exposed bay. Here the foreshore is cluttered with pirogues and you may find intricate wood-carvings for sale. Here, too, is the restaurant of Céline Fournier, where the best of Marquesan food is served. If for no other reason, it's worth the long haul to Ua Huka just to taste her poe, a pudding of pounded banana in coconut milk.
At dawn Aranui turns for home, stopping off at Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou once more to uplift cargo, then buffeting south through the trade winds, blowing hard on the port bow for the duration of the 1200-kilometre, two-day transit. On the second of these days, a last stop-off is made at Rangiroa atoll in the Tuamotu Islands to give passengers the chance to stretch their legs ashore and swim in the turquoise lagoon. This is one of the largest lagoons on the planet and, if the tide is going out when Aranui exits Rangiroa's narrow passage, the experience is very nearly akin to running whitewater rapids.
Tahiti rises from the ocean at first light of last morning and the time has come for adieux. It would be unusual indeed not to have struck up friendships with fellow passengers or members of the crew in the course of Aranui's fortnight circuit, so the final moments are not without regret. Shaking hands with some of these Polynesian seafarers, travellers recall how it was those very same burly and heavily tattooed arms that plucked them to safety when whaleboats plunged in the swell at the foot of the ship's gangplank, or deftly manhandled them ashore at some other precarious landing place. But there's also pleasure in the thought that someone else will shortly take possession of your cabin, befriend your favourites among the crew and carry on the tradition of adventurous travellers subsidising the cargo trade of the Marquesas. Long may Aranui provide the lifeline to the people of those fabled islands.