Cap­ti­vat­ing ad­ven­tures

Sail­ing the South Seas in search of riches, a jolly Ger­man raider’s jour­ney is a fas­ci­nat­ing back­drop, writes Rod­er­ick Eime

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - CRUISE HANSEATIC -

‘‘ A GI­GAN­TIC, vi­o­lent hand seemed to grasp the ship and flung us crash­ing on to the reef. The shat­ter­ing im­pact of the ship smashed the co­ral and huge chunks flew about like shrap­nel from an ex­plod­ing shell. The deck was al­most per­pen­dic­u­lar and swirling ed­dies of wa­ter and co­ral bom­barded us. I clung like the devil to an iron bar and fi­nally the wave sub­sided, leav­ing us high and dry. Thank­fully, we were un­in­jured but our ship was a to­tal wreck.’’

So, in this brief dra­matic event, the voy­age of the Ger­man com­merce raider Seeadler came to an abrupt end, leav­ing the Ger­man crew and Amer­i­can ‘‘ pas­sen­gers’’ ma­rooned on the un­in­hab­ited trop­i­cal is­land of Mopelia, about 250km due west of Bora Bora.

In 1917, Count Felix von Luck­ner com­manded the wind­jam­mer in search of Al­lied ship­ping to cap­ture and sink. Per­haps the last of the true pri­va­teers un­der sail, von Luck­ner was no blood­thirsty de­mon of the seas. Hav­ing served as a lowly rank un­der dis­guise in his teens, he un­der­stood the plight of com­mon sailors and took great pains to avoid send­ing them to the bot­tom with their ships.

In­stead, he gath­ered large num­bers of pris­on­ers aboard his own ship, treat­ing them as his crew and re­leas­ing them to safety when pos­si­ble. It is said un­der his com­mand the Seeadler cap­tured 14 ships with­out ca­su­alty be­fore the ship came to grief.

Now, 95 years later, I amalso a cap­tive of the Ger­mans, al­beit a will­ing one, sail­ing those same South Seas in search of scenic and cul­tural riches to ex­plore and con­sume.

Be­lieve me, it is no hard­ship to be con­fined aboard the su­perb MS Hanseatic, the world’s only 5-star ex­pe­di­tion ship (ac­cord­ing to the Ber­litz Cruise Guide 2012) as it plies the warm Pa­cific wa­ters , is­land-hop­ping from Papeete in Tahiti to Lau­toka in Fiji.

In a fur­ther stretch of the co­in­ci­den­tal, our path west­ward also traces roughly that of von Luck­ner’s when he set out to seek res­cue for his men in a long­boat voy­age not un­like those his­toric ad­ven­tures of Bligh and Shack­le­ton. Just as the Count had gath­ered men from all cor­ners of the globe aboard Seeadler, our own mas­ter, Cap­tain Thilo Natke, sim­i­larly car­ried a con­tin­gent rep­re­sent­ing at least 13 nations among his 272 pas­sen­gers and crew.

While the ship’s of­fi­cial lan­guage is Ger­man, many itin­er­ar­ies are sold as bilin­gual and so an­nounce­ments, some lec­tures and doc­u­men­ta­tion are also avail­able in English.

Our Ex­pe­di­tion Sud­see (South Seas) is not one of cun­ning, stealth and sub­terfuge like von Luck­ner’s, but we are nev­er­the­less avoid­ing the beaten path. The 123m Hanseatic vis­its quiet ports and atolls, many too small to at­tract cruise ships of larger pro­por­tions.

There is the lesser-known neigh­bour of Bora Bora, Huahine, and the trop­i­cal de­lights of the Cook Is­lands at Raro­tonga and Ai­tu­taki, both un­com­fort­able chap­ters for von Luck­ner but high­lights for us. Af­ter a day of tour­ing, shop­ping and frolic at each lo­ca­tion, we sail off with a salute of cham­pagne flutes to a stir­ring ren­di­tion of the ship’s song, a kind of cross be­tween a rous­ing Ok­to­ber­fest sin­ga­long and pa­tri­otic an­them in the old Ger­man style.

The stereo­typ­i­cal im­age of Ger­mans as a some­what stiff and frosty peo­ple with an in­flex­i­ble ad­her­ence to pro­ce­dure might be dated but it’s true that Hanseatic – in­deed Ha­pag-Lloyd ships in gen­eral – has a more for­mal at­mos­phere than other less pres­ti­gious ships of the world’s ad­ven­ture fleet.

Din­ing in the sin­gle-sit­ting Marco Polo Res­tau­rant, for ex­am­ple, is a mas­ter­ful event with pre­cise, al­most chore­ographed ser­vice of the su­perbly pre­sented cour­ses by im­pec­ca­bly uni­formed staff.

Del­i­cate breast of quail, lob­ster in shell, os­trich fil­let and pink, barely grilled slices of veni­son are not out of place on the nightly menu. A cos­mopoli­tan wine list is rea­son­ably priced, al­though charg­ing for ta­ble wa­ter seems a bit out of place.

A sec­ond, reser­va­tion-only res­tau­rant, Bistro Le­maire, serves an evening meal of ro­tat­ing spe­cial­ties de­signed to re­flect the des­ti­na­tions vis­ited and uses locally sup­plied pro­duce, such as mas­sive par­rot fish from the la­goon at Palmer­ston Atoll or ten­der suck­ling pig.

While ashore on Mopelia, von Luck­ner’s cast­aways had dined in sim­i­larly re­gal fash­ion. The Count re­calls: ‘‘ At night the mess was fit for the ta­ble of the royal palace – tur­tle soup with tur­tle eggs, broiled lob­ster, omelets of gulls’ eggs, roast pork and, for dessert, fresh co­coanut (sic).’’

In­stead of hastily con­structed bun­ga­lows and ham­mocks, our com­fort­able cab­ins are on four of the ship’s six decks. They come in eight cat­e­gories and while all are out­side, none has a pri­vate bal­cony. Two cab­ins are equipped for the dis­abled, while the eight cab­ins and four suites on the top deck en­joy per­sonal but­ler ser­vice. All cab­ins have email and a flatscreen en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem with movies, doc­u­men­taries and cruise in­for­ma­tion.

Shore ex­cur­sions are con­ducted with a com­bi­na­tion of tie-ups at the few wharves and ten­der­ing by ei­ther Zo­diac or en­closed lifeboats.

Just like the noble Ger­man of last cen­tury, both our voy­ages con­clude in Fiji. Count Felix was forced into an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic sur­ren­der by au­thor­i­ties off the east coast of Viti Levu on tiny Wakaya, but we de­part in a frenzy of hand­shak­ing and cheek peck­ing. Many new friends are made and re­peat cruis­ers are born.

Be­fore we all head off on new jour­neys, there’s time to raise a glass to Graf Felix von Luck­ner in the de­light­fully anachro­nis­tic Ovalau Club in Fiji’s old colo­nial cap­i­tal of Le­vuka. On the wall over the bar hangs his Kaiser-era Ger­man naval en­sign, and a cheery car­i­ca­ture of a smil­ing, pipe-smok­ing of­fi­cer in a naval cap sur­veys the pa­trons.

The gen­tle­man raider’s sto­ries, along with many oth­ers, are still told here by those old enough to re­mem­ber their grand­fa­thers’ tales of the jolly, bar­rel-chested Ger­man who charmed and be­guiled his way across the Pa­cific in a time of ter­ri­ble war. The writer was a guest of Ha­pagLloyd Cruises.

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