Voyage of a lifetime

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Aranui seen from Fatu Hiva

There are simple cruises and there are voyages of discovery. I’ve never seen the attraction of a cruise to nowhere, the sort than simply sail around for a few days then head back to port. Where’s the adventure in that?

I expect a cruise to ship me somewhere marvellous. In this respect, my best ever cruise was on a hard-working cargo ship plying remote parts of the Pacific. There were no luxury cabins, no endless buffets and no excruciating karaoke evenings. Instead, my voyage of a lifetime was aboard “a freighter to paradise”.

The Aranui is a copra trader. She regularly departs Papeete in Tahiti on a 14-day round-trip voyage to one of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth – the magical isles of the Marquesas Archipelago, 1400 kilometres north of Tahiti and just 10 degrees south of the Equator.

The Aranui 3 can carry a couple of hundred passengers yet it’s primary mission remains the transport of goods, as it has since the first voyage of the Aranui 1 in 1959. She carries tractors, pumps and assorted machinery, building materials, food and drink, medical supplies and other items that are vital to the people living on these far-flung islands . There were 80 passengers on my voyage and that was more than enough. When visiting some villages we outnumbered the locals.

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Aranui in Aakapa Bay, Nuku Hiva

The largest, most populous island is Nuku Hiva and the most remote is Fatu Hiva at the farthest tip of the archipelago. Midway lies Hiva Oa. There are 13 islands altogether, all volcanic, all rising dramatically out of the ocean to reach dizzy heights.

Mountain slopes are smothered in vegetation and crowned in weathered needles of black rock. Coastlines are mostly black cliffs battered by waves and washed by treacherous currents. There are few swimming beaches in the Marquesas but lots of splendid natural harbours, deep inlets and glorious bays.

The earliest signs of settlement in French Polynesia are found on these islands and excursions included visits to ancient sites of worship called marae. On Nuku Hiva we also visited the modern cathedral in Taiohae, browsed the local market then drove to the Taipivai Valley where, in 1842, author Herman Melville lived for a while and was inspired to later write Typee based on this experience.

On Hiva Oa we visited the grave of artist Paul Gauguin who died here in 1903 and is buried under a frangipani tree in Calvary Cemetery on the hill above Atuona village. Belgian chanteur Jaques Brel, who died in 1978, is buried nearby.

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Fatu Hiva

Most of Aranui’s passengers opted for the 16 km trek across Fatu Hiva, following a ridge-line trail that links the villages of Omoa and Hanavave. It was welcome exercise after days afloat and provided astounding views. That evening we sat with our drinks on the Aranui’s top deck watching a luminous golden sunset over Hanavave, the Bay of Virgins.

Hapatoni island is not visited on every voyage. Our arrival caused much celebration and prompted brisk business in carved wooden bowls, sandalwood necklaces and nut pendants. There was singing, dancing and a BBQ.

The Aranui pays each village per visit and in some instances supplies food for modest feasts. At other landfalls we ate in local restaurants. The Marquesas menu includes lobster, freshwater shrimps, goat curry and sweet and sour.

ship1Aranui: Compagnie Polynesienne de Transporte Maritime, P.O. Box 220, Papeete, Tahiti.

Click here to find out about these cruises: Aranui

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