For centuries, visitors to French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands have tried to make them fit their own ideas of what a paradise should be – but the reality is so much better.
Mahalo could have squashed me like a piece of breadfruit, and yet I couldn’t stop marvelling at him. Arms broad as coconut palms extended from his sleeveless army surplus jacket, and etched into these limbs were black markings symbolising his ancestors, family, job and personality – he literally wore his heart on his sleeve. He then took off his hard hat to reveal a face and bald head almost completely covered in dark ink. I
didn’t know it then, but in many ways Mahalo was a microcosm of how French Polynesia was changing.
Tattoos were banned for over a century in the Marquesas Islands, where my ship was headed. Today, they are a good example of how the archipelago is slowly reclaiming its culture from the whims of misguided foreigners. But more on that later. In the meantime, I simply watched in awe as Mahalo effortlessly worked the crane aboard the four-star Aranui V – our part-cargo ship, part-cruise liner. The newly launched vessel was the only one in the area able to deliver cement, cars, bicycles, sugar and travellers to the archipelago, but to me it was simply my gateway to this remarkable world.
For anyone unfamiliar with Polynesia, the Oceanic subregion forms a neat triangle deep in the Pacific, with Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand its three most far-reaching outposts. My destination, the Marquesas, lay more or less in the middle: a dozen volcanic islands within the collective of French Polynesia, only six of which are actually inhabited. These are some of the remotest clusters of islands on Earth; so remote that they even have their own time zone (30 minutes behind Tahiti). No wonder so many people had come here to escape.
A list of the Marquesas’ famous post residents reveals a who’s who of cultural outsiders. Notorious French artist Paul Gauguin lived, romanced and drank himself into a stupor on Hiva Oa.
Explorer Thor Heyerdahl – famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition – treated his new bride to an 18-month honeymoon on Fatu Hiva, while Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel sought to avoid fame and advanced-stage lung cancer in the islands’ sculpted mountains and bays. Even Moby Dick author Herman Melville had once jumped ship here.
For many, the Marquesas offered a retreat from reality – well, all except Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who is said to have declared that they looked “just like the Scottish Highlands” when he visited in 1888. Travel writer Paul Theroux best sums up their appeal in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania, which he researched while touring the islands after the break-up of his marriage. “They are the tableau on which travellers can paint their fantasies,” he wrote. It was this line that had provided the inspiration for my own visit. And fantasised I had – of mouthwash-blue lagoons and reefs alive with rainbow-hued fish. But, like all dreams, it wasn’t long before reality came knocking.
“The Humbolt current makes it too cold,” he added, pouring yet more cold water on my dreams. But I wasn’t the first visitor to the islands to arrive with misconceptions. I followed in a grand historical tradition.