I’m alone in an ancient world on one of the most isolated scraps of land on earth. All I can hear, as I follow a narrow mud path through densely thicketed jungle, is the steady dripping of water on leaves from an overnight rain squall, and my own heartbeat. Every other noise – birds, wildlife, insects – is muffled by the thick foliage all around. Suddenly, there’s a deafening blast of sound. I stop dead in my tracks. I can feel my skin prickle. There’s a moment of profound silence, followed by a high-pitched wailing. I start walking again, rather more briskly this time. As I round a bend in the track, all becomes clear. I’m face-to-face with a bare-chested, heavily tattooed warrior in a necklace of bones and a woven grass skirt, holding a massive conch shell. A beautiful young woman stands next to him, similarly dressed in grass, singing in an eerie, otherworldly voice.
Happily, these locals are friendly, and this is their traditional welcome to one of the most sacred sites on the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia: an ancient stone platform with amazing rock art beneath a 400-year-old banyan tree. We’re on Nuku Hiva, one of the six inhabited islands of the Marquesas, among the most remote land masses on the globe, sitting in the South Pacific 1400 kilometres northeast of Tahiti and 4800 kilometres west of Mexico. There’s a shout and below us other men, similarly attired, and with their faces painted in myriad complex designs, start dancing a Marquesan haka to a hypnotic drumbeat and the background crooning of women. As the music washes over us and the men leap and gyrate, it’s impossible not to become enchanted by this glimpse into a world as foreign to a 21st-century traveller as it would have been to the first Spanish explorers who arrived in 1595.
The stuff of legend – The Marquesas have long been the stuff of legend, principally because of their isolation, sheer inaccessibility and tales of their fierce, cannibalistic inhabitants. Yet while the islands are still far off the beaten track, with rugged mountains crashing down onto white beaches, the populace couldn’t be friendlier – or more eager to introduce visitors to their vibrant culture. Painter Paul Gauguin loved it here and is buried on the island, close to ‘60s singer, songwriter and actor Jacques Brel. Kon-Tiki explorer Thor Heyerdahl also chose these islands for his biggest adventure, while Moby-Dickauthor Herman Melville lived here, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote In the South Seas about his visit and Brokeback Mountain screenwriter Larry McMurtry penned Paradise, a memoir about his voyage on a freighter to the islands.
Life on board a luxury freighter – Tellingly, a freighter is still the best way to reach the Marquesas, but these days it’s much more comfortable. The new ship Aranui 5 is half-freighter, half-cruise ship, delivering vital supplies to the locals at the same time as transporting a maximum of 240 guests to an area of the world that’s simply fascinating. The 14-day round-trip voyage, with its crew of muscular, traditionally tattooed Marquesans, is just as exciting as the destination. Each cabin is smart and spacious, with flat-screen TVs, a huge amount of storage and generous outdoor balconies.
All meals are served in the dining room, from the buffet breakfasts to the three-course French bistro-style lunches and dinners, all served with French wine. The accent is Polynesian: poisson cru (raw fish) is one of the house specialties, and one evening is taken up by a grand Polynesian dinner. There are two main bars on the ship and a pool that gets very little use. And no wonder – there are so many opportunities to swim off the Marquesas’ glorious beaches, there’s little need for an onboard dip.