A PASSAGE TO THE SOUTH PACIFIC

The remote Marquesas Islands are set far out in the open Pacific, 800 miles north-east of Tahiti. Nicole Swengley reached them after two days at sea, voyaging on a working cargo freighter
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The Independent Culture
Ever since reading James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific I've been hooked on the idea of sailing around the South Seas. But, lacking contacts in the States, I had no yacht on which to hitch a ride. Then I got lucky. On a recent visit to Tahiti I spotted the Aranui, a working cargo ship, moored in Papeete's docks. Within hours I was at sea.

The Aranui takes around 60 fare-paying passengers on its 16 day inter- island voyage - and I deliberately use the term "voyage" rather than "cruise". There's nothing glitzy or glamorous about this hard-working freighter. It's a tough, throbbing 343ft chunk of white-and-blue painted steel complete with funnels, cranes and cargo holds.

Even before boarding I felt as if I'd stepped straight into a Robert Louis Stevenson story. The Aranui's Polynesian stevedores are straight out of Treasure Island: red bandannas, gold earrings, whale-tooth necklaces glimmering against gold-brown tattooed bodies. One grabbed my bag, tossed it on to his shoulder as if it were feather-light, and ran up the boarding- ladder in bare feet. I followed at a more sedate pace trying not to slip on the rungs.

Two days later we reached the Marquesas. My first glimpse of the islands left a lasting impression of emerald mountains mysterious, brooding, inviting - rising jaggedly from the bluest of cobalt seas. Even a short walk inland is heady stuff. The inner being as well as the eye is arrested by purple and cerise bougainvillea, rosy oleander, yellow and red hibiscus, thrusting pink ginger, pale frangipani, pure white tiare (gardenia), unbelievably vivid flame trees and the weighty green globes of the breadfruit trees that brought Captain Cook to this remote area.

And the Marquesas really are remote. Further from a major landfall than any other group of islands on earth, they jut out into the open Pacific just south of the Equator about 800 miles north-east of Tahiti. Air services are limited and local flights are full six months in advance. It takes seven hours to fly from Papeete, Tahiti's capital, and seven days by copra boat. No wonder the islands are way off the usual tourist track.

Days start early on the Aranui. Before 5am I found myself scrambling down the boarding-ladder and being lifted bodily by the muscly stevedores into a wooden whaleboat for a bouncy and sometimes wet ride ashore with the other passengers.

The air is thick with the fragrance of flowers in the Marquesas. Lush green mountains rear up to stark rocky pinnacles shrouded in low cloud and mist. Beaches of grey, dove and tin-coloured stones or blindingly- white sand melt into deliciously warm turquoise waters. The sensory overload left me reeling - or was it just the sticky humidity that made me feel drugged?

Laughing Gauguin women with flowers in their hair and dancing singing children; who offered us spiky spider lily crowns, made each disembarkation a moment to savour. At every island I felt as if the entire community had turned out to greet me personally. The truth is that the Aranui is a lifeline for these isolated island communities, since each three-weekly run brings 2,000 tons of hotch-potch necessities from washing machines and wheelbarrows, fridges and mattresses to building materials and Lipton's teabags.

Watching the stevedores whisk the stuff over the Aranui's side by crane and skilfully lower it into wooden whaleboats for the journey ashore is like witnessing a graceful acrobatic routine perfected by endless practice.

It's not only the stevedores who make travelling on the Aranui a memorable experience. I soon discovered that the freighter attracts adventurers rather than tourists, half of whom are French and half American with a smattering of Canadians, Italians and Germans. I was the only Brit apart from two plucky sisters, 77 and 84 years old.

Unlike conventional cruise ships with their captain's cocktail parties and polite dinner-table conversations, passengers' pretensions quickly, evaporate. I soon found myself swapping notes with Amy and Nick, a pair of artists escaping Cape Cod's harsh winter, or dissecting novels with Terry, a Californian screenwriter, or chatting in schoolgirl French with Frederic, a thirty-something Parisian theatre lighting technician, and Michele, a fanatic scuba-diver from Nimes.

Long sultry evenings usually began and ended in the bar. Personally I blame Yoyo, the plump Polynesian bar-tender, who mixed a mean Pina Colada. He'd present it with a face-splitting grin which suggested the world had been given to him as a personal gift. When thanked, he responded with "eye tay pay-ah pay-ah" (Polynesian for "no problem") which soon became the ship's buzzword.

After dinner spruced-up stevedores appeared in brightly-coloured pareus (sarongs) and started strumming ukeleles. Soon we were reeling across the freighter's heaving deck learning the Tahitian three-step, while others in the party savoured a moment of serene introspection at the ship's rail, under the brightest of Pacific moons.

During the voyage we visited all six inhabited Marquesan islands (there are 12 altogether) plus Takapoto and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Islands - the world's largest coral atoll. Our first Marquesan port-of-call was Ua Pou where we visited the little Catholic church with its carved wooden, Polynesian madonna, and combed the shore for souvenir phonolites, the island's unusual spotty flower-stones of volcanic rock.

After feasting at a restaurant on typical Marquesan fare - lobster, octopus, goat, poisson cru, breadfruit and cooked bananas - we hiked along a hot dusty track to a bleached-gold beach drenched by roaring 10ft rollers. We called it "the Piano" after the opening shots in that film. I'm not a natural beachcomber. I don't travel the world collecting beaches. But I think I could happily have spent the rest of my life in this stunningly beautiful bay.

That night I stood on deck at sunset in the warm wind, and gazed at a silver crescent moon with Venus sparkly as a diamond above it. The sky was a warm deep-red as I listened to the hiss of the sea, the metallic slither of chain as we anchored off Nuku Hiva, the ukeleles' incessant zing and the sashay of home-made maracas (improvised with rice in empty plastic water-bottles).

The next day we jeeped into Nuku Hiva's mountains for a panoramic hillside picnic, where buzzing insects and ferns swishing in the roasting breeze were the only discernible sounds. Then we paid our respects to the smiling tikis (carved stone gods) in a golden green hillside hollow at Paeke. It was greenhouse-humid at this mea'ae (religious site) and silent apart from the coarse laughter of kora-kora (warblers). The site is rarely visited as it is "tabu" for Marquesans and no one knows why or how it was built approximately 1,400 years ago. Feeling as though we were explorers from the last century, we returned to the Aranui in whaleboats along the river Taipi where Herman Melville adventured and was inspired to write Typee.

The Aranui trundled round to Hiva Oa where we visited Gauguin's grave on a hillside overlooking the little village of Atuona where the artist spent his last years. Unlike the grey stones marking other graves, Gauguin's is heaped with red rock as if officials were determined he shouldn't escape.

Gauguin's paintings of Atuona village show how little has changed in the last hundred years or so. We admired a full-size replica of his thatched "House Of Joy" (a model of the original interior is on show in Tahiti's Gauguin Museum). Afterwards we browsed in the admirable little cultural museum which is good on tikis and tattoos.

Atuona's now handicrafts centre sells typical Marquesan souvenirs - hand- dyed pareus, seed jewellery, painted stones, sandalwood soaps and hand- painted tapa cloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. It also sells monai, a perfumed coconut oil, which came into its own when outwitting the "no-no" gnat whose bite causes an itching welt. No-nos are found throughout the islands but we found that if you slather your skin with monai the nasty insects skid off.

No-nos adore archaeological sites so when Amy, Nick and I hiked into Hiva Oa's rainforest to reach the petroglyphs we were glad of our monai. No one knows why these rock-carvings of turtles and human figures were made nor how many thousands of years old they are. But their primitive charm and the serenity of their setting is awesome. I was envious of Amy's ability to sketch them; later she gave me the drawing as a birthday present.

Danish Pia and her husband Raphael, a French naval officer, invited me to join them on a four-wheel-drive jaunt on Ua Huka. Wild horses and goats skitter across untamed hillsides above heart-breakingly beautiful bays, and we gasped with pleasure as we swooped in a jeep decorated with fresh ginger and hibiscus flowers along the scenic coastal road.

Raphael was keen to visit villages where sculptors maintain the Marquesan tradition of wood-carving -- reputedly the best in French Polynesia. While he splashed out on wooden bowls, tikis and intricately-carved spears, I found the prices too high and French exchange rate too challenging.

Thanks to Leon Lichtle, the island's go-ahead mayor, Ua Huka has an impressive museum of Polynesian culture, plus an extensive botanical garden and plant nursery where we tasted lychee-like tava fruit, admired the chenille tree's red cat's-tail fronds, and caught a flash of blue parrot winging through the trees. That night the Aranui staff staged a Polynesian evening. Yoyo conjured up an addictive rum punch and a vast deck buffet was laid out on groaning tables plaited with pandanus leaves and flowers.We were invited to "dress native" so I wore my pareu. Some of the others were far more inventive. Amy and Nick went wild with body-paint and huge fallen leaves culled from the botanical garden's ti plants. Pia looked freshly-painted in a pink pareu and floral crown.

Was it my imagination or were the stars really brighter, the ukeleles more insistent, the stevedores' smiles broader that night as we danced the Tahitian three-step until we dropped? Perhaps. But then the Aranui offers the kind of classic South Seas adventure of which the best seafaring stories are made. !

TRAVEL NOTES

LIFE ON-BOARD: A voyage on the Aranui can be booked through Strand Cruise & Travel Centre, Charing Cross Shopping Concourse, Strand, London WC2N 4HZ (0171-836 6363). Two-berth cabins cost between pounds 2,100 and pounds 2,800 per person depending on the grade (dormitory accommodation costs pounds 1,500). Prices are inclusive of meals with wine, short excursions and port taxes but do not include holiday insurance.

Accommodation on-board is basic but adequate. There are 30 air-conditioned cabins in three grades, with or without private facilitites. Sleeping in a dormitory of 25 curtained double bunks, with communal showers and loos, halves the fare.

Compared with conventional cruise ships, the Aranui's living quarters are condensed but perfectly sufficient with a pleasant dining room (with two sittings), a lounge with tea and coffee-making facilities, modest library, tiny video room and bar. There's a tank-like swimming pool on deck and plenty of seating, some of which is canopied as the sun is mercilessly strong.

The average temperature in the Marquesa Islands is 28C. The Aranui operates a year-round schedule and the best time to go is between the months of February and June. Avoid the French school holidays in July and August, when seas can be rough. Remember to take ear-plugs (the engine throb is incessant) and at least factor-20 sun-tan lotion.

GETTING THERE: Travelmood (0171-258 0280) offers return Air New Zealand flights from Heathrow to Tahiti for pounds 969, including a stopover in Los Angeles with two free nights' accommodation. Alternatively Air New Zealand flights to New Zealand/Australia are available from pounds 864 (60-day advance purchase), including unlimited stopovers in Tahiti and other South Pacific islands, plus Los Angeles. Passengers who choose to make a stopover in LA are entitled to two nights' free accommodation.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Tourism Council of the South Pacific on 0181 392 1838.

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