Beyond Tahiti: Cruising to French Polynesia’s unheard-of islands

Beyond Tahiti: Cruising to French Polynesia’s unheard-of islands

Aranui 5 calling in at Anaa Island in French Polynesia. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur

A cruise to Pitcairn Island and surrounding motu is a meeting of beauty, history and cultures mostly unseen by the average visitor to French Polynesia, writes Helen van Berkel

What were they thinking, those 27 souls, as that blue smudge on the horizon resolved into green slopes and a rocky inhospitable coast?

Standing at the rail of the Aranui 5 as it berthed in Bounty Bay on Pitcairn Island in French Polynesia on an early, summer’s morning, my thoughts were with those men and women on board the eponymous ship that on that day in 1790 also dropped anchor here.

The story of the mutiny on the Bounty has resonated for centuries in books and in films. Led by Fletcher Christian, sailors angered by what they saw as cruel and brutal treatment at the hands of Captain William Bligh, took command of the Bounty on April 28, 1789. They set Bligh and his supporters adrift in the ship’s boat, grabbed 18 Tahitian men and women (willingness debated) plus a baby – and fled.

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Pitcairn Island, accessed by the Aranui 5 cruise ship, was also the destination of the Bounty mutineers. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Pitcairn Island, accessed by the Aranui 5 cruise ship, was also the destination of the Bounty mutineers. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur

Pitcairn Island was oft-used by Pacific Island peoples seeking stone for tools and weapons but it was wrongly marked on British maps: it was the perfect hideout.

Less than 50sq km of dense bush and immense rocky outcrops, Pitcairn is still home to the descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian companions.

The Aranui 5 plies the waters of French Polynesia, delivering freight to the far-flung islands but also offering a luxury boutique experience for passengers.

The Aranui 5 provides a boutique cruise through French Polynesia. Photo / Supplied
The Aranui 5 provides a boutique cruise through French Polynesia. Photo / Supplied

Like the Bounty, we had set out from Tahiti but our five-day journey was in far greater comfort and speed – and with far less chance of ending up on a gallows.

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Our first stop was Anaa Island, a tiny scrap of reef remnant that is home to about 1000 souls. Many of them were in church when we arrived on Sunday. Their singing drew us – and a few of the neighbourhood dogs who curled in the shade of the porch – in to peek at the beautiful vaulted ceiling.

An aerial view of Pitcairn Island. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
An aerial view of Pitcairn Island. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur

Fast boats took us across the lagoon and we arced around gobbets of rock that once were mountains, to the Pito Ogoogo lava tube. Some of the stronger swimmers reckon they touched the bottom, about 10m down. But I watched the reef fish from above, swirling in the current around the tube.

Keen paddlers eyed up a 12-seater outrigger canoe pulled up on the beach and after an approach to the villagers and hurried conversations among passengers, we had a crew to take it out on the lagoon. We quickly got the rhythm, thanks to some competitive outrigger paddlers from Hawaii in the group, digging deep in unison and swinging our paddles from the outside to the centre of the vessel. I could see the incredibly clear waters are also a breeding ground for sea cucumbers. Despite their unappetising appearance, they are both a delicacy and a valuable export crop.

The children of Hikueru perform a selection of songs. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The children of Hikueru perform a selection of songs. Photo / Helen van Berkel

Singers also greeted us in Hikueru about 200km away – only this time their tunes were aimed at us. It was a school day for the island’s dozen children, and the neatly presented students sang us a variety of songs in French, Tahitian and English.

Children on Amanu welcome incoming boats. Photo / Helen van Berkel
Children on Amanu welcome incoming boats. Photo / Helen van Berkel

For many of the scattered isles of French Polynesia, ship visits are an occasion worthy of pausing the day’s labours and pulling out guitars and ukeleles. In village of Ikitake on the Amanu atoll – even the mayor lined up on the dock as the Aranui’s barges brought us ashore.

Small children in traditional headwear and cloth led us away from the wharf for a performance. The Aranui’s 120-odd passengers almost outnumbered the locals – fewer than 200 live on Amanu. Then they produced tables groaning with local produce, including a popular dish of raw fresh-caught fish in coconut milk.

An Amanu Island local in traditional headdress. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
An Amanu Island local in traditional headdress. Photo / Lionel Gouverneur

A tour of the village showed us churches, a town hall, a school and health clinic. Closer to the coast was a cemetery and an old lighthouse. The latter was a squat platform upon which the villages would pile dry vegetation and set alight to warn incoming ships.

French Polynesia is made up of five archipelagos, and from the Tuamutos we sailed to the Gambier islands, where I fell in love with its biggest island, Mangareva and its main village of Rikitea.

The altarpiece in the St Michael's Cathedral on Mangareva is magnificent. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The altarpiece in the St Michael’s Cathedral on Mangareva is magnificent. Photo / Helen van Berkel

About 1500 people live on the island – many, judging from the beautifully maintained gardens and homes on our island exploration, deeply houseproud. They generously shared their garden produce, laying out trays of breadfruit, coconut, mango, dragonfruit and other treats to sustain us as we walked around the island. Again, churches list high among the village’s attractions. St Anne church – painted the blue of the Mangarevan flag – is used only every few months but is outshone by the masterpiece that is St Michael’s Cathedral. Built of coral between 1839 and 1848, the church was extensively renovated in 2012 and boasts a mother-of-pearl altarpiece that must be unique in the world.

It is the largest church in the South Pacific and the workers who helped build it so impressed the Catholic Church that they also travelled to Tahiti to help build the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Venus Point beacon. A hot walk away up the hill is the tomb of Joseph Gregorio II, the last high chief of these islands.

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The tomb of the last king of Mangareva. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The tomb of the last king of Mangareva. Photo / Helen van Berkel

Our guide tells us he generously donated all of his lands to the Catholic Church. The church used these lands to build a convent and another church at the foot of Mt Duff (Auorotini in the Mangarevan language) named in honour of the first missionary ship to land here. Both the church and the convent are now picturesque ruins, quietly crumbling in the hot Polynesian sun.

As well as catering for tourists, Mangarevans make their money farming and selling black pearls. Farms dot the bays that curve around the coastline. The lustrous beads have been farmed since the 1960s, valued for their varied shades, ranging from misty greys to midnight black.

Mangareva pearls have been farmed since the 1960s and are valued for their varied shades. 
Photo / Lionel Gouverneur
Mangareva pearls have been farmed since the 1960s and are valued for their varied shades.
Photo / Lionel Gouverneur

By now, life aboard the Aranui had settled into an easy rhythm. The days start with a refreshing walk around the ninth decks and a buffet breakfast featuring French fare as well as a big selection of local fruit. A shore journey follows, and we return for a served lunch and French wines. The afternoon may have a lecture, or a music or dance lesson or a movie – Mutiny on the Bounty – was popular. I enjoyed grabbing a coffee in the deck five lounge and talking with whomever else felt the same. At dusk, we’d gather for cocktails on the deck and music with the onboard band to watch the sunset over the darkening disk of the sea. Dinner was always an impressive affair. After dark, we steamed on under a firmament of more stars than the average cityscape. The array was only dimmed when the full moon sailed among them. More energetic passengers would party into the night in the karaoke lounge.

The village of Rikitea is one of the main settlements on Mangareva. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The village of Rikitea is one of the main settlements on Mangareva. Photo / Helen van Berkel

Among the many interesting people on board was tapu cloth expert and Norfolk Islander Pauline Reynolds, who gave us talks about the women of the Bounty. It was her first trip to Pitcairn which, she told me, had always preoccupied her thoughts. For her, this was somewhat of a return to her ancestral lands: she was the great (times six) granddaughter of Fletcher Christian.

Today’s islanders are her cousins and when I asked her how she felt as we neared Pitcairn she said she couldn’t wait to set foot on the land where her family story began.

A seawall gave us protection the mutineers did not get from the Pacific’s swells and islanders lined up with quadbikes to take us to the Adamstown village plaza up the Hill of Difficulty.

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The concrete road is the only sealed road on the island and I could see how it got its name as I opted to walk its sharp curves to the village plaza, where stalls offered wood carvings and other souvenirs for sale. Pride of place is the Bounty’s anchor, a rare surviving part of the ship that the mutineers burned in Bounty Bay.

The grave of John Adams, buried with his wife and daughter,  is the only known final resting place of any of the Bounty mutineers. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The grave of John Adams, buried with his wife and daughter, is the only known final resting place of any of the Bounty mutineers. Photo / Helen van Berkel

The ship’s Bible is still in the museum behind the town hall. I joined a walking tour to visit John Adams’ grave, the only one of the mutineers whose final resting place is known. By the time of the first contact after the mutiny, in 1808, he was the only survivor of the Bounty. The nearby island cemetery, however, is full of names from the Bounty descendants: Christian, Mills, Young.

Our guide also pointed out the island’s jail – the only reference made to the 2004 sex abuse trial on the island. Fewer than 70 people still live on Pitcairn – the school has closed because there are no children – and all pitch in to run their own society. Our guide on a quadbike tour of the island was Dennis Christian – also the postmaster. The entire island is navigable on foot but it is steep, hot and dusty so we paid about US$70 ($112) each to ride in cushioned comfort on the back of the quad. Lean forward, he’d order as we powered up the steep slopes. A small red dust cloud rose behind us as we visited the rugged rocks of St Paul’s Pool and onwards to the island’s highest point where a sign reveals just how isolated Pitcairn is: Tahiti is 2325km away, Wellington 5333km.

The smaller Aranui was able to put passengers ashore at Pitcairn but a larger cruise ship circled the island. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The smaller Aranui was able to put passengers ashore at Pitcairn but a larger cruise ship circled the island. Photo / Helen van Berkel

We set out on foot in search of Miss T, the Galapagos tortoise who lives in solitary splendour on the west side of the island – but we did not find her but I heard that one couple on board were successful. The entire island is navigable on foot despite its steep paths and heat.

The Aranui is one of the few cruise ships to be able to land passengers on the island: it carries a maximum of 260 passengers and we watched smugly from Pitcairn’s cliffs and coves as a far larger cruise ship could only circle the island.

As the green slopes and rocky inhospitable coast of Pitcairn receded to a blue smudge on the horizon in our wake, I asked Reynolds how she felt stepping ashore on the island: “It was a feeling of familiarity deep within my bones,” she said. “It was a wonderful, beautiful, happy time.”

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That it was.

Checklist Pitcairn Island, French Polynesia

Details

Aranui 5 will next visit Pitcairn Island from October 7-17, 2023. Next year’s departure is February 17-27. For more information or to book, visit aranui.com

Aranui is offering 10 per cent off all 2024 cruises booked by March 31, 2023, reducing the price of the 2024 Pitcairn cruise to $9208 per person twin share in a stateroom (usually $10,161).

Getting there

Both Air Tahiti Nui and Air NZ fly direct from Auckland Airport to Faa’a International Airport (PPT) on the main island of Tahiti.

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For more information on Tahiti, visit tahititourisme.nz

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