Aranui 5 ferries intrepid tourists (and vital supplies) to the remote Marquesas

By Chris Short

By Chris Short

We will call it extreme sport for retirees.
We're on a 3200-tonne ship anchored in the sublimely named but geographically formidable Invisible Bay on the northern edge of Ua Huka – one of the tiny islands that form the Marquesas archipelago in French Polynesia.

We're 1500 kilometres from anywhere with a hospital, there's a rough, treacherous swell of more than two metres and a strong southerly blowing. We've come all this way, seven days from Papeete, and there are about 150 people with an average age of, well let's say most no longer work, and we need to get ashore – there are places to go and things to see that most people will never experience.

There's no pier and no dock, just an incredibly skilled team of traditionally tattooed Polynesian seamen, a couple of stout barges and an amazing amount of individual and collective determination.

To sail on the Aranui is to be invited for an all-too-short 14 days to become part of a microcosm that slowly reveals the depths of a culture so nearly lost during years of expedient exploitation. Jane Cruickshank
This far into a two-week cruise of the Marquesas Islands everyone knows the drill. You do what you're told, you jump when Tino says, and you put your faith in the tattooed matelots with whom you've thrown in your lot. You also know that the rewards will be immense.

Welcome to the extraordinary experience that is the Aranui 5.

Aranui 5 is the latest in a line of four working boats that for 30 years have plied the route from the Tahitian capital of Papeete to the 12 small islands, some of which were settled possibly 1000 years ago by the wave of Polynesians who made their way from Western Polynesia.

Known as the Marquesas since 1595 after a Spanish explorer's patron, García Hurtado de Mendoza, fifth Marquis of Cañete, the islands are relatively young, the result of volcanic activity between 6 million and 1.5 million years ago. The youngest is the most southern, Fatu Hiva, and they are all slowly sinking back into the ocean as they drift north-west. Unlike most of Polynesia, these islands don't have coral reefs to protect them from the not-so-Pacific Ocean. Hence the challenging landings.

Remote but beautiful

One of the Royal Suites on the ship, which also boasts a balcony with views of the freight deck.
Aranui 5, launched late last year, is part cruise ship, part freighter. It provides a lifeline to the 9000 people who scratch a living but live what seems to be a full life in some of the world's most remote, inaccessible but beautiful terrain.

To sail on the Aranui is to be invited for an all-too-short 14 days to become part of a microcosm that slowly reveals the depths of a culture so nearly lost during years of exploitation. Sandalwood trees, gone; sperm whales, almost gone; original inhabitants, estimated by Captain Cook at 70,000 in 1774 down to 2000 in 1920. There followed years of well-meaning missionaries and social policies designed to pacify and assimilate. Not to mention waves of diseases and poxes never before encountered.

The Marquesans were reduced from being one of the most violent and ferocious cultures that had populated much of Polynesia including Hawaii, Easter Island and Tahiti to a tattooed curiosity in colonial history.
When you join the Aranui, you go places that not many can, do, or have. There's a smattering of literature about the Marquesas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville's Typee (a great read considering he spent 18 days there) and Paul Theroux (dyspeptic but painfully true). So it's a chance to explore a hidden world.

Aranui 5, launched in late 2015, is part cruise ship, part freighter.
Aranui's business model appears to be sound – deliver the goods to the islands and keep the passengers busy, well-fed, mildly boozed and as informed as they choose. It sounds simple but it takes more than 100 mostly Polynesians working round the clock to do it. Most multi-task. All fulfil more than the terms of their job descriptions. All are ambassadors for French Polynesia generally and the Aranui 5 in particular. They let you into their world if you choose to accept the invitation.

The meals on the Aranui are a delightful mix of French and Polynesian cuisine. Although it is not a la carte there is variety, allergies and food preferences are catered for and if you ask for medium rare, that is what you will get. French table wines are supplied at lunch and dinner. There are three bars and all the comforts required to cosset the most pernickety passenger, including beauty treatments and massages. Or you can work out in the gyms, there didn't seem to be a queue. The book exchange and library plug the gap left by the almost complete absence of Wi-Fi (an issue of decreasing concern as the voyage proceeds). Laundry services are free and regular but there's also a laundrette with a steam iron for the compulsives.

Like all such tubs, there are varying levels of accommodation on the Aranui. We were treated to one of the Royal Suites, which had plenty of space, a comfortable bed, a TV, a big balcony and fabulous views of the freight deck. I'm serious – it's one of the highlights of the trip watching the loading and unloading of what represents a mere 20 per cent of Aranui's income but rather more of what makes life on a remote island possible.

Container entertains

The arrival of the Aranui signals replenishment for the inhabitants of these beautiful but harsh islands.

Who ever would have thought a container – yes, a red-oxide metal box – could intrigue? Somehow in the mystery of the south Pacific it can entertain and engage. What's in it? Mostly you won't find out but sometimes it's opened up onshore and out comes all this stuff. We take it for granted but people get excited when a new fridge arrives.

And that's one of the great things, the arrival of the Aranui signals replenishment for the inhabitants of these beautiful but harsh islands. There's only so much breadfruit, pineapple and papaya you can eat. Whitegoods, fuel and processed foods are pretty handy. A flotilla of twin-cab utes, mostly pretty modern, flocks to the quay once the Aranui's crew start unloading. And then loading the sacks of copra, blue barrels of noni (a stinky fruit that produces an oil deemed highly efficacious in every way) and other produce destined for Papeete.

Our guide is adamant: Don't touch the tikis! But of course some passengers do. They're just big stones with a few marks and lots of lichen. But are they? Not really, they're remnants of a powerful culture still being discovered and latterly embraced. Much is lost but, unlike many other subsumed civilisations, there are physical remnants – the intricate stonework that provides the platforms for the tahua and ma'are (civic and religious meeting places), and of course the haunting tikis and some petroglyphs. There are also echoes from early archaeological surveys (Linton, 1923) and records such as those of German explorer Karl von den Steinen, who had the foresight to photograph and annotate fully tattooed men and women in 1897.

But most is lost, buried or crumbling as the rampant vegetation reclaims the land upon which it was imposed. There is a palpable frustration among the few who understand what was once there and what still is but is slowly disappearing.

Although colonisation and missionaries destroyed Marquesan heritage, much has been recreated by drawing on Maori and other Polynesian cultures. 

Hiva Oa's Me'ae Ipona provides a stark reminder. Five fabulous tikis stand in mournful seclusion visited only by those from the ships who are shown where to go. More recently one, an extraordinary but decaying figure of a pregnant high priestess giving birth, had been moved. Despite complaints to authorities, nothing happened. Eventually, despite the tabu, one of the guides restored her to her rightful place. "So, I touched the tiki."

On the Aranui we are treated to the knowledge garnered over many years by a polyglot team of guides, including Marquesans, an archaeologist and a historian.

Island excursions

Every day, except the two spent crossing the 1300 kilometres of Pacific from the Society Isles to the Marquesas, one may disembark, usually aboard the barges, and visit one of the six inhabited islands. We're talking tiny numbers. Fatu Hiva, for example, has just three villages of about 200 people each. Atuona, the southern administrative centre on Hiva Oa, is home to 1600 people. In all, there are only 9000 people living on these wild, remote but alluring volcanic islands.

Atuona still trades on the memory of Paul Gauguin, the French painter with a weakness for under-aged girls who chose to spend his last tumultuous few years battling the Catholic Church from his House of Pleasures. He also did some painting . . . none of which is to be found in French Polynesia. Still, there are some competent copies in the island's museum so you get the drift.

Once ashore, passengers are loaded into fleets of twin-cab 4WDs for the short trip to the attraction of the day, which could be Polynesian dancing, handicrafts, swimming or one of the many archaeological sites slowly being uncovered and preserved. On several islands we're treated to a Marquesan feast – poisson cru a la Tahitienne, sashimi, crab salad, goat curry, breadfruit, red banana and, in Nuku Hiva, pig cooked in a traditional underground oven.

It's not all eating and drinking – there are hikes up and over the mountains, snorkelling, swimming on deserted beaches (deserted until 200 people turn up, that is) and wandering around the villages.

Although the human history of the Marquesas is relatively short, they brought a well-established culture found in varying forms throughout the Pacific. Although colonisation and missionaries destroyed Marquesan heritage and spirituality, and its associated rituals and mores, much has been recreated by drawing on Maori and other Polynesian cultures.

Musical tradition

Apart from the re-emergence of traditional tattooing, banned along with music and dance in the 1860s, there is the omnipresent music (the Aranui 5 has its own band of staff members). And that means the ukulele, the Portuguese "small guitar" that arrived from Hawaii in 1930. Such stringed instruments were not part of the Polynesian tradition before colonisation. But like so many introduced features of the area, it is difficult to imagine the islands without them. This includes much of the fauna and flora. Without human intervention, these remote islands are too far even for most birds, apart from the characteristic frigate birds, boobies and terns, let alone land-based creatures. Even the flowers most would identify as Tahitian, the hibiscus and gardenia, are introduced, as are most of the productive trees.

The small guitar is so much a part of the Marquesas that in the Notre Dame Cathedral on the island of Nuku Hiva, St David is depicted holding a ukulele. Above him is the Marquesan cross, an ancient symbol adapted to a more modern purpose in the process of assimilation and acceptance of the past.

Sailing on the Aranui is about discovering as much or as little as you wish to know about a handful of charming but secretly treacherous islands. Nothing is compulsory, except the safety drills. But everything attempted is rewarding, even if in ways not expected.

The writer travelled as a guest of Aranui Cruises, Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.

Need to know

Prices start from $11,629 twin share for a 17-night package including a 13-night cruise on Aranui 5 in a premium suite, departing Papeete on various dates in 2017. Inclusive of all meals, shore excursions, and wine with lunch and dinner; return economy flights with Air Tahiti Nui from Australia; four nights pre/post cruise accommodation at Manava Suite Resort; Tahiti transfers; all taxes; and a chauffeur-driven luxury car transfer to and from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane airports.

For more information about Aranui 5, visit