by Lee Foster
The entire population of the remote island of Atiu in the Cook Islands lined the shore to greet our fleet of zodiac boats from our small cruise ship.
These Polynesians blew their conch shells. Singers and dancers swirled about in their ti leaf skirts, emphasizing the hips of women and the legs of men. A lavish feast with over 30 tropical fruits awaited us. The Christian minister said a prayer, welcoming us as brothers and sisters in the “great ocean of the world.” A spokesman for the paramount chief gave us greetings. The chief himself was there, but was considered too important to speak for himself. The clear message of welcome was an important ritual historically. “Are these people friend or foe?” was the question, yesterday and today, whenever two parties meet on these remote South Pacific islands.
Even the most jaded cruise passengers found themselves moved by the genuine friendliness of the moment. People from vastly different worlds were encountering each other.
The Polynesian people of Atiu are by no means primitive, but they are isolated. Well educated, in the cultural sphere of New Zealand, they have some airstrip contact with the outside world and a monthly small freighter ship bringing supplies. For the most part, however, they live self-reliantly, harvesting the many lush tropical fruit trees that bear abundantly. From the sea they gather copious numbers of fish. The advent of a small cruise ship was a rare and marvelous island event.
While we toured the island in small trucks, looking at the villages, the coffee plantings, and the sacred marae, sites where the chiefs decided historically on critical matters of war and peace, my guide remarked, “You don’t need money to live on Atiu, but you need money to live in Raro.”
She was referring to Rarotonga, the main island in the 15-island cluster known as the Cook Islands, named after the Englishman Captain James Cook, the Great Circumnavigator, who charted much of the Pacific in the 18th century. Cook could be celebrated, arguably, as the greatest navigator of the Western world. However, he was only the equal of the great Polynesian voyagers of the early migrations who first explored these waters and settled the islands.
In a travel world where genuine discoveries, such as Atiu, are rare, the occasional itinerary of small cruise ships opens up virgin territories in the South Pacific.
My cruise itinerary included three fairly secluded islands, which were Aitutaki, Atiu, and Mopelia. The ship would also call at three better known destinations, which were Rarotonga, Bora Bora, and Tahiti.
The emphasis was on exploring nature and culture, with onboard naturalists and anthropologists as guides and speakers.
South Pacific Remote Island Discoveries
Aitutaki, Atiu, and Mopelia were the seldom-seen island destinations on my itinerary.
Aitutaki set the pattern for our stops on inhabited islands. The locals would dance for us, conduct an island tour, and offer for sale their crafts, such as brightly-colored rectangular cloth wraps, called pareus, or pareos, for both men and women.
Although these islands are remote, their historic chiefs were at times highly successful warriors. Conquering parties from Aitutaki and Atiu subdued the larger islands such as Rarotonga.
Today these remote islands are known for their dancers, which preserve a style of ingenuous dance that seems more authentic than the commercial, entertainment dancing of Tahiti. I learned that Aitutaki and Atiu dancers were among the consistent winners in various South Seas dance competitions.
Aitutaki was also interesting because it was both a volcanic island, with some black sand beaches, and an atoll, a lagoon fringed with coral. When a volcanic island gradually recedes back into the sea, which is what volcanic islands do in the South Pacific, a fringe of coral remains around a lagoon, the caldera of the former volcano.
On Aitutaki I snorkeled, riding the zodiac taxi to the choicest coral beds.
All the islands I visited had wonderful snorkeling, but each was different, though they had the common characteristics of clear turquoise water, lavish coral, and interesting fish life, usually proximate to a white-sand beach, a band of green coconut trees, and an elevated volcanic background. Aitutaki had large coral heads, primarily brain coral. My favorite snorkeling site was the lagoon at Bora Bora, where a snorkeler can be mesmerized by the spiny black sea urchins, undulating manta rays, multitude of colorful reef fish, snake-like blue mouths of clams, and stylish purple coral. On Aitutaki I saw giant clams, fully two feet in diameter.
Atiu was an unusual island because it was a thickly-wooded plateau, with villages in the center rather than around the shores.
Mopelia, in a group of islands called the Society Islands, was the third of these lesser-known islands. An uninhabited coral atoll, except for a few itinerant people harvesting copra from the coconut trees or cultivating black pearl oysters in the lagoon, Mopelia was a symphony of bird life. Sooty terns, frigate birds, and boobies dominated the many other species. The sky became literally aflight with birds. Noise levels in the rookeries were deafening. At this remote atoll no humans were harvesting eggs or otherwise disturbing the birds. Such a paradise for birds was rare, even in the South Pacific.
The Better-Known South Pacific Islands
While the entire South Pacific is a new and exotic destination for most travelers, some visitors will have already encountered the three more familiar islands on my itinerary–Rarotonga, Bora Bora, and Tahiti.
Each night the ship moved from one island to the next, allowing us to spend the daylight hours at a new destination.
Rarotonga, the cruise voyage starting point, was a classic volcanic island, created by a momentous volcanic event about two million years ago, but now slowly sinking, creating a fertile flatland around its base. I toured the taro fields, coconut groves, breadfruit orchards, and papaya plantings on the flat and well-watered agricultural belt. The tropical fruit abundance on these islands is amazing. Choosing from recognizable bananas, themselves available in many varieties, or exotic red balls, known as rambutan, the fruit lover finds much to munch on here. Pineapple and papaya have a taste here that can’t be equaled in foreign markets because of the inherent problems in shipping, requiring that the fruit be picked before ripe.
My guide in Rarotonga talked much about the resurgence of local pride and emphasis on local identity that I would find throughout my island voyages. His body was tattooed, an important ancient art that showed family lineage and clan identity. Tattoos on legs and arms presented genealogy and also indicated that the wearer had the strength of character to bear the pain of the tattoo process, a ritual passage to adulthood. The guide talked about the renewed interest in dance, language, and respect for ancient culture, suppressed in the missionary era.
At the Rarotonga Cultural Village I experienced my most complete orientation to the essential skills needed for South Pacific life, from the making of bark tapa cloth to cooking in underground pits, from carving with a stone adze to generating fire by rubbing hibiscus wood together. The greeting of these friendly people is kia orana or “may you live.”
From a certain beach on Rarotonga, seven voyaging canoes left in 1352 for New Zealand, which started the population of those islands.
Bora Bora stands out for two reasons, beyond its superb snorkeling. As the ship approached Bora Bora at dawn, the twin-peak mountain of the island, a kind of crab-claw volcanic shape, amounted to the most stunning land form on my trip. Furthermore, when touring the island, Bora Bora displayed the most opulent cultivation of flowers in a flower-rich region. Hibiscus, frangipani, and bougainvillea of many shades ran riot over the island.
As on most of these islands, the remnants of World War II are also apparent, mainly as discarded cannons and as airfields that subsequently made mobility for these people much easier.
One amusing aspect of Bora Bora is the long “mailbox” in front of homes, visible frequently as I toured the island. Bora Bora is in French Polynesia, of course, and the “mailbox” was to cover the daily delivery of a baguette of French bread.
Tahiti was the final island destination on my voyage, allowing me three days to relax at the Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel before flying home. There was plenty of time to enjoy the sunrises with their pink light on the famous black sand beaches of the island.
The main pleasure of downtown Papeete in Tahiti is the Public Market, which sells all the food and flowers a Tahitian might desire and all the crafts that a visitor might want to take home, especially fabrics and shell jewelry. The high-end memento from this region is black pearl jewelry. And, indeed, the prices for the best black pearls are high. Tourism is the #1 industry in Polynesia. Selling black pearls is said to be #2.
The Archbishop’s Palace in Papeete is an excellent example of French colonial architecture. The City Hall ranks as a modern counterpoint of striking, tile-roof, French Polynesian architecture.
An island tour in Tahiti took me to the Paul Gaugin Museum, which honors this French artist’s encounter with the languorous sensuality of the South Pacific. Gaugin found that even Papeete was too civilized for his taste, so he journeyed around Tahiti to find a more-isolated and possibly more Rousseauean milieu. The museum and horticultural gardens show a few of Gaugin’s graphic works, such as a still-life painting from his Tahiti period, and several of his wood carvings. Primarily, however, the museum portrays his life, often a miserable existence. He was an emissary of European Civilization who met South Pacific Primitiveness, perhaps most enjoyably in the person of his 14-year-old native wife, the subject of many of his paintings.
The Museum of Tahiti, another major stop on a Tahiti island tour, ranks with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu if you want to see an ethnographic display of South Pacific people. Whether the subject is fishhook design or canoe construction, the range of deities or the social structure of their societies, the Museum of Tahiti covers the subject with precision and thoroughness.
The favorite sport in Tahiti is outrigger canoe racing. It seems as if everyone is part of a racing team preparing for the annual July tournaments. The outrigger canoe becomes the sacred carrier of life for these people, born of the wind and waves. Life is seen as a canoe voyage into the unknown. Man’s fragile muscle power before the elements becomes a statement of the sisyphian human quest. The physical poetry and dance of canoe movement before an all-natural environment becomes a metaphor for the passion of life. Cooperation among the canoe paddlers becomes paramount for the group success.
South Pacific Insights
My favorite memories from this kind of cruise trip are the insights that occur when I experience something meaningful about nature or human culture, guided by a competent naturalist or anthropologist. Here are some such insights from this small-ship South Pacific cruise:
*The ancient Polynesian voyagers had to know the locations and the rising/setting patterns of about 210 stars to make accurate navigational calculations. As people with well-trained memories fostered by an oral rather than written tradition, this was no small task.
*As clever observers of nature, these skilled Polynesian navigators were able to make the most remarkable jump, 2000 miles north to Hawaii, with some certainty that land would be up there, somewhere. They watched as a land bird, the golden plover, came south to “winter” in the Cook Island and the Marquesas. They watched again as the birds departed north for the “summer.” The golden plover did not breed or lay eggs in this southern environment, so it must do so in the north. This land bird could only alight on land, so land must exist to the north. They did not know, of course, that the golden plover flew all the way north to Alaska, some 6,000 miles.
*The coconut was considered the tree of life. If you nurtured it for seven years, as it started to grow, it would feed you for the next fifty years. Coconuts can be eaten at various stages of ripeness, when they would yield milk, soft pulp, or a harder pulp. The leaves were used for thatch weavings in housing and domestic products, such as plates.
*As they colonized new islands, birds brought their own food supplies. They carried in their intestines the seeds of their favorite food plants. The excreted seeds germinated to reproduce the desired food plants on the new island.
*The tropicbird mating dance, dancing stationary or moving backwards, is said to inspire some Polynesian dance.
*Most of the anthropological evidence of migration in the so-called Polynesian Triangle, with the triangle corners at New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii, focuses on the migration patterns. What was the place of origin and what was the destination? Carbon dating of artifacts keeps pushing the time frame backwards. Many aspects of the story are yet to be definitively answered.
*Mysteries of genetic programming abound in South Pacific wildlife. The bird known as the curlew leaves Alaska after its young are hatched and feeding for themselves. The adults fly south, without their young, to the Cook Islands. Two months later the hatchlings are ready to fly south, on their own, and somehow find the same destination 6,000 miles to the south. Similarly, green sea turtles hatch on the Cook Islands and swim 1500 miles to Fiji, somehow finding their way back, 20 years later, to the same beach where they were born. How do these creatures navigate?
*The parrotfish excretes about a cup of sand per day from all the limestone coral that the fish ingests. Appreciators of the white sand beaches of the South Pacific have the parrotfish and fish with similar habits to thank.
*The large bodies of the typical South Pacific islander may have evolved as a matter of natural selection. The extra size and body fat may have made such individuals better able to withstand the cold sea spray on long voyages in their relatively open outrigger canoes. Survivors would have passed along their physical traits to their offspring.
If you want to cruise some undiscovered territory, where an encounter with an exotic nature and the unspoiled local people is refreshing, where the clarity of the southern sky reveals stars that have not yet guided your dreams, and where the moist tropical air seems a balm to the skin, consider a cruise to the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.
If You Go: Cruising the South Pacific
Current South Pacific cruise packages on available ships will be known to a travel agent knowledgeable about cruises.