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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DES­TI­NA­TION AFLOAT -

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

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