The island is as round as a calamari ring. An idyllic oval of palm trees haloed by snow-white sand. Black-tip reef sharks streak through the shallows as we dock.
“Ever tried clams?” asks Tino, one of the crew, grinning from behind large, black sunglasses. “I’ll show you how to catch them,” he says, handing me a mask and snorkel. We wade into the warm shallows. “Look,” he says. “See them? Poke the hook into the corner while she’s open, wait for it to clamp shut, and then tug gently.”
I push my face beneath the surface and slip the metal between the clam’s lips, swirled blue-and-green like carnival lipstick. After several yanks it comes free and I hold aloft the stick with primeval glee. Tino coaxes it open with a knife, carves out the entrails, adds a squeeze of lime, and offers it to me on the pearlescent plate. I slurp it down, seawater dribbling on my chin.
We are at Takapoto, the first port of call on our voyage aboard Aranui 5, which has sailed out of Papeete harbour the previous day. Part cargo ship and part cruise liner, it delivers cement, cars, sugar and tourists to the Marquesas, a French-protectorate archipelago that, on a map, appears little more than toast crumbs sprinkled in French Polynesia, a triangle of the vast Pacific Ocean, with Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand forming its three outermost points. It is one of the most remote clusters of islands in the world. So isolated, in fact, the time zone is 30 minutes ahead of Tahiti. With careful planning, most sailing is done overnight, so we can enjoy as much of the islands as possible during the day. Only two full days are spent at sea and during those the crew offers lectures on topics such as Polynesian history and traditional dance.
With a reputation for being “the most beautiful islands on the face of the Earth” (according to Paul Theroux), it will probably come as no surprise that their remoteness has attracted an alumni of writers and adventurers. Theroux toured the islands in 1991, on an earlier version of the Aranui, while researching his travel narrative The Happy Isles of Oceania. However, Robert Louis Stevenson declared the Marquesas looked “just like the Scottish Highlands” when he visited in 1888.
There is nothing highlands-like about the volcanic peaks I spy from my porthole after three days of sailing. Aranui 5 is a 125m dual-purpose cruise ship and freighter that delivers supplies to the Marquesas Islands. It holds 254 passengers (103 cabins) and 41 crew. Activities range from visiting archaeological sites and watching traditional dance demonstrations to calling at handicraft centres and museums. A 50-person “whale boat” is used to transfer passengers between the ship and island landings. On sea days, workshops include coconut-palm weaving, dance classes and lectures on Polynesian history. The final stop at Bora Bora includes a picnic on a private island; activities such as swimming with rays and sharks or a helicopter tour cost extra. Diving is available on Rangiroa and Bora Bora. Book ahead for 2018 with savings of 10 per cent on 14-day voyages departing Papeete on January 13, March 29 and June 12. From $7830 a person twin-share, including most shore excursions, twice-weekly laundry service and wine with meals. Air Tahiti Nui flies from Auckland to Papeete. More: aranuicruises.com.au; tahiti-tourisme.com.au; airtahitinui.com/au-en.
Surrounding the ship is an amphitheatre of wildness, where the cobalt-blue ocean pounds against steep green slopes streaked by waterfalls. We’ve anchored in Taiohae Bay at Nuku Hiva, largest of the Marquesas Islands. Not much has changed since 23-year-old Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, jumped ship here in 1842 to escape his job on a whaling boat. It’s certainly the least busy capital you’ll visit. There are a few shops, a post office, a bank and a pretty Catholic church. Rush hour consists of three or four men descaling the catch of the day on the docks.
We are bundled into 4WDs and driven inland to Kamuihei, a me’ae (sacred ceremonial complex) that has been slowly cleared of ferns and trees by French archaeologists Marie-Noelle and Pierre Ottino-Garanger. Clusters of boulders form ghostly outlines — petroglyphs of turtles, human figures and fish.
“We still don’t know their meaning, but it’s believed the valley may contain 500 or more,” explains our French guide, Charlotte. Lower down she points to a pit built into the rocks. “It’s where humans were kept before being sacrificed,” she says in an eerie whisper. Two junior passengers in our group stare wide-eyed into the hole.
Why was there cannibalism in paradise? Tensions between local clans were fraught, but worse enemies were to come. In 1595, when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana discovered the archipelago — he named them Las Marquesas after his patron the Marquis of Canete, viceroy of Peru — his ship was greeted by more than 400 va’a (canoes). Frightened by the locals’ long hair, tattoos and loincloths, Mendana’s men panicked when islanders came aboard and began taking their glass, iron and guns, and started to shoot. When Mendana raised anchor two weeks later, he left behind a date carved into a tree and more than 200 dead Polynesians.
The islanders had a 200-year reprieve, but a series of events occurred that brought their way of life to the brink of extinction. At the end of the 18th century, Catholic missionaries arrived. Horrified at the uninhibited sex lives of the locals, their nakedness, scarification of the