Onboard the voyage that takes you to the great beyond

WT Writer
Feb 9, 2022

A Pacific voyage from Tahiti to Easter Island feels like a trip through time and space —and that’s just what it is

Strawberries don’t grow in the empty heart of the Pacific. A few palm trees on the occasional lonely atoll, yes, but you can’t really stir those into your muesli. For certain guests on board, the truth simply wasn’t graspable. Strawberries, they’d demanded. yet strawberries right now — on board or off — there were not. “We already have a scandale because the yoghurt we took on in Pape’ete tastes different,” Hervé, the executive chef, explained to me, with mild exasperation. At least there were limitless freshly baked croissants.

“We are in the middle of nowhere,” he said, like it needed underlining. “A black zone. Go to the bridge and watch the radar, it’s just clean sweeps! No cargo ships, no planes.” Then he added, softly: “It may be the first time ever that humans are passing on this precise route.” He surveyed the lunging wastes to the horizon. “People don’t realise this: the extent of their safety is 2cm of steel hull.” He meant it: our vessel was our life support system on a desolate Pacific that, with its gradations of sea and night-sky blue, might easily be outer space.

Polynesian women perform traditional dance in Tahiti

First-world problems can arise in faraway places, especially aboard a five-star small ship, in this case L’Austral, among the fleet of Ponant, the French specialist in intrepid luxury cruising. Somewhere east of Pitcairn Island, our previous port of call, where Captain Bligh’s ship met its mutinous demise, we couldn’t really complain. Not with a bounty including Champagne and cheeseboards from la belle France with every meal; memorably, too, barbecued wahoo fish one lunchtime on the back deck, bought by Hervé a day or two before from vendors in Mangareva, among the remote Gambier Islands of French Polynesia. While he shopped in Rikitea town (pop: 1,500), I found Jesus in the coral-limestone cathedral: a statue festooned with a rainbow of fresh-flower garlands.

Christians, Melanesians, Polynesians… Over 14 days, it would become humbling to learn of the pioneers who had made it this way before us — some of them millennia before us — on our privileged voyage from Tahiti to Easter Island. The temporary dearth of strawberries was put into perspective by engrossing on-board lectures about the cultures that, over aeons, managed to spread eastwards across the ocean, like seeds that sometimes bob to distant shores and grow, and sometimes perish. Rapa Nui — to give Isla de Pascua, or Easter Island, its real name — is Chilean today. Most travellers reach it in five hours (as the 777 flies) from the capital, Santiago de Chile, where the airport shops sell souvenir mini Moai statues like meaningless collaborations between Dalí and Disney. But they’re missing the story: the island is Polynesian to its bones, which makes a slow boat, up from the South Pacific isles, such a life-changing alternative approach.

Ours begins with a night at the InterContinental Tahiti, in the capital, Pape’ete. The resort is faded-fabulous — 1950s-retro and Floribbean — with a waterfall into the pool and the island of Mo’orea carbon-dark across the water at dusk, like a tropical Paramount Pictures logo. The drums of the Tahitian barbecue night bring to mind that old movie Bird of Paradise, starring Dolores del Rio. There are totem poles of carved tiki faces holding up the bar, where a rum- and curaçao-laced blue mana’o or two can pitch the unwary quickly from Polynesia into amnesia.

L’Austral sails next day at sunset. As we settle in, the cabin TV displays a map of the long way ahead, which looks less like geography, more like astronomy, so utterly pinprick are the places to be visited on this cruise — constellations across an ocean of blue. Over time we’ll come to understand that, culturally, Easter Island is one point in an ancient triangle that includes New Zealand, west of it, and Hawaii, to the north. It is the most remote island in the Polynesian world, not annexed by Chile until 1888. The Tricolore French flag squirms in the faintest breeze as L’Austral exits dock, leaving Tahiti sown with beads of traffic headlights. Next stop: Fakarava.

The ship moves with a rubbery shake through the darkness, turbulent but slow-mo, like a jumbo jet in jelly. Over caesar salads and crème brûlées in the elegant wave-level restaurant, well-mannered French guests chatter sotto voce, unlike some of us Brits, who, after a bottle of Bordeaux, soon become blotto voce. Next day, basking in 26C of sun, we pass creamy-sandy atolls — lassoes of land resembling giant calamari rings.

It’s quite terrifying to comprehend that swathes of the ocean are aquatic desert, a soulless gyre. No fish, no birds. Too far from land, too far from home. That the ancestors of Polynesians likely originated in Southeast Asia or Taiwan — opinions differ — colonising the western Pacific between 4,000 and 800BC, is remarkable. That they travelled in canoes, fleeing territorial disputes, perhaps, or climate change, is inconceivable. I contemplate the magnitude of it all from the breezy back-deck bar as the day fades to grey, to powdery night nebulae, sipping Croix Salans Pays d’Oc rosé in gratitude for my surrounds.

To stop off at such minute outcrops of unendingly welcoming civilisation, as we do over the coming days, is life-affirming and repeatedly frisson-inducing, even though visits last mere hours. Fakarava, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, is textbook South Pacific. Coconut palms stoop over a mirror-still, metallic lagoon, swimmable from a small, soft-sand beach, and a woman sells iced Tahitian beer. Red hire bikes permit circuits of the boomerang-shaped island, with its bougainvillea-dressed bungalows and its Sunday hush. The most identifiable imports are Coca-Cola and Christianity, and in the silent Church of St John of the Cross is a Byzantine portrait of Christ, hung with lavish skeins of conch shells.

Among the long ages of migrating humanity, the missionaries were late to the party, arriving in the second half of the 18th century to suppress the dancing, drums, tattoos and polygamy. But Catholicism and Protestantism thrive today in contexts unfamiliar to less tolerant lands. Sexual diversity in French Polynesia has always included the Māhū culture: community members born male, but developing as, and considered, non-binary. On the tiny Edenic island of Aukena, where ginger cockerels wander through the banana palms, we’re shown pearls for sale by a softly engaging trader with an impressive tongue stud, fine body art and big golden earrings, who smiles broadly for our joint selfie. I so wanted to remember their warm welcome when back on the other side of the world.

One morning, about 5,556km from Tahiti, through the windows, beyond the pastries, is Pitcairn Island, a British overseas territory. Welcome to Polynesia’s wild child, as it’s been ever since 1790, when HMS Bounty was burnt in the bay and Fletcher Christian, with his mutineers, began a family tree that survives to this day. Sheer and granite-stern, topped with lonesome pines, it is a Caledonian Capri, mad-dog surf frothing at the black rocks. It has no airport or ferry links. It is harder to reach than Easter Island, says the captain. Four times a year a ship from New Zealand arrives with mail and all the supplies, including chocolate and wine. “The important things in life,” says Kevin, the island guide who introduces me to Carol Christian (sixth generation). She runs the museum and has been back on Pitcairn for eight months, after a trip to New Zealand to have a pacemaker fitted (her journey meant 11 days on the supply vessel). Although there is a Kiwi police officer stationed, it feels strangely Wild West. I would love to stay, but we must set course for Easter Island: Rapa Nui. There’s just time to see the memorial to the last mutineer to expire, John Adams, on March 5, 1829. Planted with red lilies, in this isolated place, it makes me shudder: how lonely dying will be.

Pitcairn was the last stepping stone for the Polynesians before Rapa Nui. Who knows how they found it without compasses or maps, adrift on the Pacific for weeks at a time. Maybe chance, definitely preparation: complete communities sailed on vessels like primeval spaceships, with dogs, rats and roots as edible cargo. Recognised today as the best navigators in the world, by the time they discovered it they were certainly capable of reading stars, cloud patterns and bird flocks; of sensing the proximity of land by wave reverberations felt with feet. Inveterate explorers, they would return west to organise migration.

At dawn, seen from the prow of L’Austral, subtropical Rapa Nui looks like the first garden cross-pollinated with Dartmoor. There are palms and a huge volcanic crater of avocados and mango trees. There are wildflower meadows and copper-coloured ponies. And, of course, there are Moia, those world-famous humanoid sculptures — about 900 of them, singly and in clusters, island-wide. We have two full days to admire their extraordinary faces, spattered with lichen. Some appear disdainful. One gazes down with mother-of-pearl eyes. Some face inland, ancestor-gods, protecting the islanders. Some face the sea, effigies of the first to discover this place, which they had by the early 8th Century AD; although the hieroglyphs cannot be read today, proof of Polynesian DNA has been detected, from bones exhumed.

Easter Island

We find one figure part-entombed in the quarry it was being cut from. An abrupt halt. Did some calamity occur? Deforestation? Cannibalism? Overpopulation? War? A micro-premonition of Earth’s terrible end? Imported syphilis may have struck later. At least the first arriving Europeans (Dutch, 1722) were eye-witnesses to the cult of the Birdman, half-human, half-ornithological. A famous carving of it upon a Moai hints at spiritual transition — some cultural continuity, past to present, west to east. So, too, does a wooden statue of it that startles me, alone in the Catholic Church of Rapa Nui: avian and alien, it stares down its beak, spread wings gently suggestive of crucifixion, part of Polynesia’s fluid narrative. Soon we’ll be on a plane, flying home. Thankfully our Pacific voyage has revealed the real currents that lead to this place.

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