A spell on the island of dreams

In the third and final part of our South Seas odyssey, Peter Walker experiences the magic of the island of Tahiti

After Travelling around the South Pacific for a few weeks, there is something unbelievable about arriving in Tahiti. I do not mean the startling silhouette of Moorea or the fantastical peaks of Bora Bora beyond. It is the beady eyes, the beaky noses, the nobbly, white knees of the Frenchmen who guard the entrances to this particular paradise that are astonishing. "What are you still doing here?" is the thought that leaps to mind.

And, for French officials, they do look slightly embarrassed, as if after nuclear tests and Tahitian riots and world boycotts they are now not too sure themselves. They hardly, for instance, knew how to deal with my friend Ieremiah, a Cook Island Maori, who couldn't find his passport and frankly didn't give a damn, only partly because he was tanked up on Air New Zealand's Grand Marnier.

We were on our way to Raiatea, once the royal and sacred island of the Tahitian kings, about 100 miles west of Papeete. Ieremiah, an old school friend and nominally my photographer, had come on the trip because, he said, his ancestors were from Raiatea, and also because he likes flying business class. We left Faaa airport and were swept along an expressway into Papeete.

There are some places in the world so cut off from their past or their own surroundings that they induce a weird sense of dislocation in the visitor - Abu Dhabi airport at 3am is one, the freeways outside Louisville another. Papeete is a third - especially at the Hyatt Regency, sprawled over a lonely cliff looking into darkness. Except for a maid hoovering in the far distance, no one, at 1am, stirred in this labyrinth of halls, water- falls, balconies and statuary.

In the morning, we went back into Papeete. We were sailing at 4.30pm and had time to wander around. Alone, of all the towns in the South Pacific, Papeete has a whiff of the cosmopolitan, of chic. It is also fantastically expensive - Parisian prices, with a surcharge of 33 per cent, and since half the population is unemployed and penniless, it is hard to see how they live. We lunched with Ieremiah's friends, a contessa and a princess, both Tahitians who had married respectively an Italian count and a German prince, and spent 20 years in Europe, going from castle to castle. But they had both got fed up and come home to live beside the beach, with Moorea on the horizon. Moorea is a remarkable neighbour. As the people of Skye describe their island as "antlered", Moorea appears to defy the laws of geology, it looks like the horn of plenty in silhouette, a bowl of fruit containing bananas and pineapple, above which immense white clouds continuously unroll. Between that unearthly silhouette and the princess's beach, there is a booming reef, marked by a line of breakers that hurls up spray as white and fulsome as the clouds.

Lunch was washed down with a good deal of red wine, and then Ieremiah - again drunk - announced that he had not brought a camera and had lost all interest in photography. Since we had been invited to Tahiti as a writer and photographer and, in those roles, were being put up in very expensive hotels, this implied some difficulties ahead.

"Couldn't you at least carry my camera?" I said.

"That? No photographer would be seen dead with a camera like that."

"That's right," said the contessa, who had a talent for intrigue and faction, "don't take pictures for him. Stay here with us."

Thus at four o'clock, I set out for the ferry to Raiatea on my own. But, at the last minute, Ieremiah rushed aboard. "I decided to come ... my ancestors are from Raiatea," he said. "Also, you've got money, and I'm running out."

We were on a new hydrofoil carrying about 200 people and appropriately named Ono Ono. The designers of the Ono Ono had looked closely at the worse aspects of air- and sea-travel, and ingeniously combined them in one vessel which, for eight hours, surged across the sea in a corkscrew motion. Passengers have to sit in rows in an enclosed cabin in front of television screens. The outer deck has room for only about 20 people, and was jammed with beer-drinking locals. The film on the screens was an American drama which thematised the savagery of whites in Alabama towards their dark-skinned brothers and, the only white aboard, I felt the growing weight of moral disapproval directed my way as we all cork-screwed over the ocean. Ieremiah had joined the beer drinkers on the deck and, when we arrived at midnight, was the drunkest he had been so far.

We were supposed to be met by a hotel representative, but there was no knowing who he or she was, nor how they would find us.

"Look important," said Ieremiah. "I'm looking important!" and he stood on his suitcase and clapped his hands sharply, to the surprise and admiration of several hundred Tahitians. But the tactic had no other effect and we finally met our man by a process of elimination, when there were only three shadowy figures left on the wharf - ourselves and the driver from the hotel.

The next day was very quiet. We had been given fares, or bungalows, as a luxury hotel, surrounded by tall and sibilant palm trees. The best fares were those built out over the water. As you go in the door at night you see, below your feet, floodlit fish gliding deeper and deeper into the dark - a strange experience, like poring over your dream before actually getting to bed. But our fares were back in the garden, and all night geckos called from their perches in the palms above. The island gecko makes a disconcerting chuckle, like a slow-witted person getting a dirty joke. I would not like to wake up with a hangover to that sound. Ieremiah was a chastened figure.

We went into the town, a little place called Uturoa which had exactly the atmosphere of a small town in rural France, claustrophobic and decorous. There were shuttered wooden versions of the maison bourgeois, such as the doctor and the banker would inhabit in France; baguettes and bicycles abounded, but the Tahitians themselves seemed curiously muted, as if their French masters had, little by little, banned Polynesian exuberance.

Raiatea is famous in Polynesia for two things - it is the home of a most sacred flower, the five-petalled tiare which opens at dawn, has a quite incomparable scent, and grows only on this island. When transplanted even a few miles away, it declines to live. The island also has a vast marae, or sacred precinct, the ruins of the court of the kings of Tahiti, and centre of their lost religion.

We stopped at Taputapuatea on a hot noon tide. No-one was about. The walls and empty paving stones stretched to the sea, where a school of fish leapt in an arc from the water. I did not like this sinister place. That night, I learnt it had been at the centre of a cult of human sacrifice. Thousands of people had breathed their last on those stones.

But here, Ieremiah began to evince some interest in photography again. "Take a picture of me by this," commanded my cameraless photographer, standing by some plinth or cairn. "And over by that ... my forebears probably came from here."

We met several locals who introduced us to the local identities. There was Dr George, for instance, an Australian with a grand manner - the only European, he said, inducted into certain esoteric systems of eastern medicine.

"Juliet Prowse, Mickey Rooney, Sylvester Stallone, the Sultan of Brunei - no, his brother - all patients of mine," he boomed. "I can cure Aids. I can cure cancer in three days. Has anyone a stiff neck?"

We had no stiff necks, but I admitted to a cold that I'd caught in New Zealand.

"Lie down. I can cure asthma instantaneously. I have nine degrees. It really is quite remarkable. I could kill you just by waving my hand. Juliet Prowse?... riddled with parasites!"

He made several impressive passes through the air over my body. In the next few days my cold grew worse and then it began to rain. We left the island early. Flying out from Raiatea, I looked down on the royal island set in turquoise, with its French masters and great doctor and abashed Tahitians, and felt as a child does leaving a conjurer's show - that he has seen something which is both more vivid than real life, and, sadly, less.

TRAVEL NOTES

Air New Zealand (0181 846 9595) flies from Auckland to Papeete or from London from pounds 954 return. Flying to Tahiti with stop-overs on a Quantas (0345 747767) Explorer ticket costs pounds 1,198 return.

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