Love Boat meets Dirty Danc­ing

Cruis­ing the mighty Pa­cific on the Aranui 5 is not a hol­i­day for the seden­tary or slovenly, writes

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The stage is set for a diplo­matic in­ci­dent. Team NZ sits high on the wa­ter, its tippy co­conut shell hull bal­anced by a stone adze-weighted keel. Across the pool, the French craft – beau­ti­fully con­structed as it is with tapa-cloth sail and seed-pod dou­ble hulls – is tak­ing on wa­ter.

‘‘It’s sink­ing,’’ shouts Maria – one of Team NZ’s builders. Too bad – the prizes have al­ready been awarded. France is King.

An an­gry woman strides across cruise deck 7 from the French camp to si­lence the Kiwi protest. ‘‘He’s only a kid,’’ she growls, of the French boat’s 10-year-old cre­ator, who watches for­lornly pool­side.

This was sup­posed to be a cel­e­bra­tory Poly­ne­sian evening – one of the Pa­cific cruise’s two out­door buf­fet din­ners. In­stead, the crowd cranes to see if there’ll be a fist fight be­tween two women over a boat.

The ten­sion is bro­ken by Maria’s hus­band petu­lantly bomb­ing the pool to re­trieve his cre­ation. The crown­ing irony? First, sec­ond and third place all earned the same prize – two free cock­tails from the bar. It’s Love Boat meets Dirty Danc­ing. A cruise ship, 200-odd pas­sen­gers and two weeks of shared meal­times and mai tais, shore ex­cur­sions, dance lessons and karaoke.

The ship is the pas­sen­ger/cargo hy­brid Aranui 5, which ev­ery three weeks gath­ers in the 1400 kilo­me­tres of open ocean be­tween Tahiti and the dra­matic Mar­que­sas Is­lands – Pa­cific par­adise of choice for Kon-Tiki ad­ven­turer Thor Hey­er­dahl and pain­ter Paul Gau­guin.

The pas­sen­gers are mostly Ki­wis, Aussies and French. Mostly older, ad­ven­tur­ous types keen to look be­yond Tahiti’s palms-and-white-sand atolls to one of the world’s most re­mote is­land clus­ters. A land­scape of vol­canic peaks and misty spires; of bird and pig dances and tra­di­tional tat­toos.

The two-week round trip is long enough to make friends and en­e­mies; to make and break stereo­types. There’s the guy in the As­ton Martin T-shirt who drives a Porsche. The Bel­gian boy who doesn’t eat choco­late. The big­not­ing Kiwi who dis­penses prop­erty ad­vice while scrolling his phone for self­ies with im­por­tant peo­ple. And ‘‘cap­tain leary’’, whose rov­ing eyes fix on legs leav­ing din­ner.

No doubt our mot­ley crew of four have also earned nick­names – the blond man-mag­net; the Samoan Michael Jack­son; the high priest­ess of cool and me, the hap­less hanger-on.

We’re the rowdy bunch al­ways cack­ling at din­ner, drink­ing and danc­ing with the crew, rock­ing to Just an Il­lu­sion – the cheesy tune that’s be­come our theme song since an awk­ward first-night ser­e­nade by the bare-chested en­ter­tain­ment di­rec­tor.

But that’s part of Aranui 5’s charm. Owned by a Tahi­tian fam­ily, this ship and its pre­de­ces­sors have been de­liv­er­ing pas­sen­gers and cargo to the far reaches of French Poly­ne­sia for 33 years. Un­like the united na­tions of mega cruise ships, the crew is pre­dom­i­nantly Mar­que­san or Tahi­tian, mean­ing you don’t have to leave the ship to get an in­sight into the cul­ture.

Some­where in the vast roll of ocean be­tween Tahiti and the Mar­que­sas, you lose half an hour – and about 50 years. Mar­que­sas time is 30 min­utes ahead, but its cul­ture is rooted in the Poly­ne­sian mi­gra­tion that ended with Ma¯ori ar­riv­ing in New Zea­land. The lan­guages have sim­i­lar­i­ties, too. ‘‘Ka Oha,’’ Mar­que­sans call in greet­ing.

The is­land group has a com­bined land mass sim­i­lar to Cor­sica, but is scat­tered across an ocean expanse the size of Europe.

Nuku Hiva is the first to sharpen into fo­cus, a lineup of Toy­ota Hiluxes wait­ing to take us on an is­land tour. While we watch the vi­o­lent pig dance be­neath a 500-year-old sa­cred Banyan tree at the To­hua Ka­mui­hei ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, the crew un­loads the is­landers’ pre­cious cargo. Crates of Coke and Heineken are swapped for a shrink-wrapped scooter. The ship’s dual pas­sen­ger-cargo func­tion makes our ar­rival feel less par­a­sitic.

The ar­rival of set­tlers and traders brought with it guns and al­co­hol, syphilis and small­pox, which dec­i­mated the pop­u­la­tion, from 75,000 in 1774, to just 2000 in 1920. Re­li­gion brought other per­ils – a ban on singing, danc­ing and tat­too­ing nearly de­stroyed the is­lands’ cul­tural iden­tity.

Over the hill, at Hati­heu, dirt is shov­elled from the umu earth oven at Chez Yvonne restau­rant. What does it mean to be Mar­que­san, I ask its owner,

The grunt­ing ‘‘ho, he’’ of the pig dance be­comes a fa­mil­iar sound­track dur­ing a Mar­que­san visit.

Beat­ing bark to make tapa cloth is a slow and tir­ing process.

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