Aranui: A cruise in paradise with purpose

Elisabeth Easther and her son booked a passage on a freighter to explore the far-flung charms of French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands

 A voyage aboard Aranui 3 lasts 14 days with an itinerary that includes the Tuamotu and Marquesas archipelagoes. Copyrights: J. Benhamza

A voyage aboard Aranui 3 lasts 14 days with an itinerary that includes the Tuamotu and Marquesas archipelagoes. Copyrights: J. Benhamza

By Elisabeth Easther

Sitting 1300km northeast of Tahiti and 4000km from the west coast of Mexico, the Marquesas are what you'd call far-flung. Comprised of 12 islands, only six of them inhabited, they marinate in something like 700sq km of ocean with a population that doesn't quite reach 10,000.

Taking into account that only three of the inhabited islands have airstrips, and with flights fairly pricey and not all that regular, for a long while, unless you had your own waka, you probably weren't going to pop this archipelago on your list of things to do.

In 1983, however, that began to change when an entrepreneurial chap by the name of Wing Wong, already in the freight business, saw the need for passengers to be taken to and from these islands and various other ports along the way.

Tahitian for "Great Highway", Aranui 1 made her maiden voyage 31 years ago and, although that initial ship was mainly for freight, there was space for 24 intrepid passengers.

Demand quickly outstripped capacity and it wasn't long until the moderately larger Aranui 2 was called into service. She was then usurped in 2000 by yet another larger vessel.

So there we were, my son and I, first time cruisers, aboard Aranui 3. Following in the footsteps of notables like Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel, we were ready for an adventure. And what an introduction to life at sea this is - my only concern is that we've been spoiled for future oceanic expeditions.
Despite being a working cargo ship, let me assure you there's no roughing it aboard Aranui 3. The crew are phenomenal, the food is divine, plus there's a pool, a bar, a gym and a gift shop but, at the same time, you won't be getting your hair done or hydrosliding from prow to stern - unless the sea is especially rough.

Because Aranui 3 isn't simply a cruise ship, our voyage had a tangible sense of purpose. Our presence in ports created a buzz, the locals on land clutching their paperwork eager to get their hands on a wide range of goods. From motorbikes to rubbish bins, sacks of food, drums of fuel, mattresses, flatscreen TVs, sides of beef and stock for the shops - we brought it all. Because we were cruising at Christmas time, we had a fair bit of Santa's work to do too. The ship is also equipped to bring livestock and licensed to return the bodies of dead people home to rest; out of the hold and off the cargo decks, all manner of things were swung ashore by crane - if you can't grow it or catch it out here, Aranui 3 brings it in.

As passengers on a freighter (there were 168 of us on this trip) it's hard not to feel a frisson of importance; we're with the band. Actually, to go with the band analogy, we were more like groupies, all of us full of respect for the crew who set about their arduous tasks with skill, dedication and good humour.
Largely created by volcanic activity, merely looking at the Marquesas makes you feel adventurous. The jungle teemed with life and spouted with waterfalls while soaring mountains, serrated cliffs and rugged rocks dominated the darling bays. Spits of land jutted out to sea, reaching into the deep, dark water like talons, the abundance of plankton painting the ocean a magnificent blue.

Every day on our two-week excursion, bar the two full days at sea, we'd be offered an outing. A hike, a feast, a cultural experience, a spot of shopping, a deep-sea fishing trip; the days were easily filled. One day we were taken by whaleboat to the deserted beach of Koku'u, on the island of Tahuata. There we spent the day swimming and feasting; epic waves and coconut-juggling Germans will ensure that day stands out forever. On Nuku Hiva (where series four of Survivor was filmed), we were driven into the wilderness in a convoy of what had to be all of the island's 4x4 vehicles. Avoiding potholes and precipitous drops as we went, we stopped to explore an impressive archaeological site. There, beneath the base of a mammoth banyan tree, a performance of the ancient "pig dance" gave me goosebumps. On a tour of the Botanical Gardens on Ua Huka, we wandered through trees heavy with mangoes. Their taste was out of this world.

The simple pleasures are the ones we'll remember most fondly. On Nuku Hiva, Theo made fast friends with a local girl and, as we departed, the two of them waved to each other until they were just tiny wee specks. At that same port, the rope connecting the ship to the shore became an adventure playground. When the ship moved, the rope would dunk us into the water before hoisting us up into the air - the challenge was to see who could hold on the longest; undignified but oh so much fun.

And simply being at sea is a hoot. Lounging on Star Deck on an evening, the heavenly bodies above us would appear to move, not so much shooting as swaying.

The first time this happened, I thought it was the Marquesan mushrooms we'd had for lunch; who knew they'd pack such a punch? Eventually I figured it out.

In the ship's pool, the water would slosh over the sides when the sea chopped up, the current taking us with it. We could never get enough of that.

Everything on a ship is funny when there's a bit of pitch and roll, riding in an elevator, drinking soup, running on the treadmill in the gym as the water smacks up against the porthole - we loved every aspect of the ocean's motion.

There was room for self-improvement too, classes in drumming, ukulele, dancing, even bracelet-making. Each day various experts gave lectures in English, French or German on everything from marine diversity in French Polynesia to cultural identity.

I loved how the locals resisted being Christianised because they were just so happy with the status quo, their ancestor gods and their time-honoured traditions. There were some very funny and saucy tales about the missionaries being outraged.

Trouble eventually came to paradise though, as it so often does and, in the 1840s the traditional way of life fell into decline thanks to guns, booze and disease, but the darkest hour came in 1862 when Peruvians kidnapped 3000 Marquesans as slaves in a practice known as "black-birding". A brave band of Peruvians and Chileans mounted a rescue mission and managed to save 200 of the 3000 souls, although tragically the ship bringing them home carried smallpox and 70 per cent of the Marquesan population was wiped out. Every aspect of their culture suffered because almost all the old people died, and with them went the stories, the lore and the magic. The children, left to survive as best they could, were soon cared for and converted by the missionaries who took the opportunity to outlaw local traditions.

 Elisabeth Easther, with son Theo, followed the wake of 19th century explorers when she travelled aboard a freighter in French Polynesia.

Elisabeth Easther, with son Theo, followed the wake of 19th century explorers when she travelled aboard a freighter in French Polynesia.

In the 1920s, the population reached its nadir when there were two deaths for each birth. Realising the gravity of the situation, the French Government sent medical assistance, by 1930 there were two births per death and in the 1940s a baby boom saw some families produce up to 20 children each. Today, it appears, the Marquesan people are doing very well, the land and sea a big part of their prosperity.

It must also be noted, our fellow passengers were pretty interesting too. One woman had invented a game-changing radar for a military super power (although I won't name the country in case it's still classified).

Another fellow was the creator of a car airbag that can differentiate between an adult, a child or a box of beer. The first woman in America to get a PhD in computer sciences was along for the ride, and so were a pair of dashing Swiss bankers - we were a curious bunch.

Our little onboard community was a little like a jigsaw puzzle, slowly the pieces were put together. One woman was very open and entertaining about her cosmetic procedures, she looked great although she wasn't shy about showing off her scars or pointing out the work others had had done.

Another woman was struggling with unwanted attention from a fellow passenger, a man who told her she reminded him strongly of his favourite wife - since deceased. Despite being rebuffed politely on multiple occasions he never really took no for an answer - but it did make for a more fascinating voyage, a bit of drama at sea.

It wasn't a problem either that my boy was the only kid out of 18 onboard who spoke English, he managed just fine with sign language, arm farts and a smattering of hastily learned French.
Over two weeks, life aboard Aranui 3 quickly formed a rhythm to which we marched.
Easily we fell into the languid pleasures of daily life at sea and, like so many explorers before us, my son and I learned as much about ourselves as we did about the big wide world.

A new ship

Aranui 5 is following the same 14-day itinerary as Aranui 3. With an overall length of 125m, a maximum width of 22m, and a cruising speed of 15 knots on twin engines, the new ship will be capable of carrying 260 passengers. Aranui 5 will feature a reception, restaurant, bars, conference rooms, lounges, a library, media room, boutique, swimming pool with whirlpool, fitness room and spa. Accommodation will include 31 suites, 29 deluxe cabins and 40 state rooms.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Ultimate Cruising has all-inclusive packages on Aranui 5 departures. Book via 0800 485 846 or the website.

Credits: New Zealand Herald