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In search of paradise in Tahiti

Frank Stern on 13 Aug 2017

The Straits Times


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Beyond Tahiti in French Polynesia are abundant beauty and gruesome rites on lesser-known islands waiting to be discovered


It is a scene seared into the movie- lover's memory: Marlon Brando, with open shirt and eyes aflame, as he mutinies against the harsh Captain William Bligh, forcing him to board a dinghy into the Pacific.


Brando, playing the ship's second-in-command, and his men sailed back to Tahiti where they had spent some months and had fallen for the island.


Any adolescent who watched the 1962 blockbuster Mutiny On The Bounty would never stop dreaming of this paradise on the other side of the world where you could cast captains adrift and find beauty and solace in the arms of beautiful girls. Tahiti was a yearning, a promise.


Mind you, in Captain Bligh's day and age in the 18th century, it would take sailing ships 10 months before Tahiti's precipitous volcanic cones finally hove into view on the horizon.


Nowadays, you can make the journey relatively unscathed in a day from Singapore and be welcomed at the airport of Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, with a garland of fragrant tiare flowers.


It was not always like that.


When Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin became the first European to lay anchor in Matavai Bay in 1767, the island's women paraded their genitals at the pale-faced Englishmen. The gesture was meant to stop the newcomers from landing on the island under pain of death, but the island was eventually conquered.


It is now 250 years since the first Europeans arrived and I set out on a two-week journey to follow their path, to see whether traces of the former Arcadia, with its mesmerising nature and unconventional way of life that the early explorers raved about in their travel journals, can still be found.


On this emotional journey in the tracks of my childhood heroes, I also learn about ancient customs and gruesome rites, and about cultural misunderstandings and islands that not many know about.


As most visitors to French Polynesia do, I start my trip through the island world in Papeete on Tahiti.


A fortnight is not a lot of time for 118 islands and atolls - of which 67 are inhabited.


So I focus on the Society Islands, which together with the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands, constitute the French Polynesia overseas territory.


One thing I discover in no time: It is not a mistake to get out of Papeete - 25,000 inhabitants, two churches, one McDonald's - at the earliest opportunity.


There is no better place to start travelling back in time than at Point Venus, 10km to the east.


Standing on this little peninsula at the eastern end of Matavai Bay, it is not hard to dream up European ships under full sail greeted by a fleet of skilfully carved canoes.


The place conjures up the age of the Great Explorers. In 1769, two years after Wallis' arrival, British explorer James Cook pitched camp on the peninsula at the eastern end of Matavai Bay to observe the transit of planet Venus across the sun.


In 1788, Bligh ordered his breadfruit seedlings to be planted there, which the Bounty mutineers later threw into the sea.


Thomas Huggan, Bligh's ship's surgeon and a gifted drinker, was buried in the black volcanic sand of the promontory - the first alcoholic in Tahitian soil.


Every part of Point Venus can tell a story - you just have to imagine it without the carpark and the boys with their surfboards.


Halfway between Papeete and Point Venus, I detour to the tomb of King Pomare V, in the eyes of the painter Paul Gauguin, "an indescribably hideous monument".


Yet, it is worth seeing. The stone pyramid is crowned by an urn that resembles a wine carafe, a detail that is unintentionally apt. Tahiti's last king, who sold off his realm for a song to the French in 1880, also enthusiastically drank himself to death.


By then, though, the islands of the Age of Discovery had long vanished.


Thanks to British and French missionaries who fought hard for hegemony over the souls of the Polynesian pagans - with the French winning the upper hand in the end - all nudity had been covered up and church choirs had replaced lascivious dances and songs.




Today, thousands of tourists arrive every year in Tahiti by ship and plane in search of paradise lost, with almost 184,000 tourists arriving in 2015.


"There were times when a great deal more came," says Mr Gaston Arai of the tourist office in Tahiti. But the 2007-2008 global financial crisis also left its mark in the South Seas and the repercussions are felt to this day.


The slump in tourist numbers does not seem to have had any appreciable effect on prices, however.


"Tahiti isn't exactly cheap," Mr Arai concedes, adding that Moorea, Tahiti's little sister, is quite a lot more expensive.


On the other hand, Bora Bora, the luxury isle with its famous water bungalows, makes the others seem like a bargain, he says.


While the price for the most expensive suite in a five-star lagoon resort in Moorea is a little less than $1,700, in Bora Bora, you might pay double that amount.


When Cook sailed to Moorea, you could still barter with nails and glass beads. Nowadays, huge luxury liners are moored where in 1777, on Cook's third voyage to the South Seas, his HMS Resolution - a heaving wooden tub measuring a mere 34m by 9.5m wide - lay at anchor.


Back then, as today, Opunohu Bay afforded an unbeatable view of the island - a deep incision in the thickly forested hills with bare, almost vertical volcanic cliffs that tower into the sky.


At some point, anyone travelling in the South Seas will fall in love with one of the countless atolls. For many, Moorea is the most beautiful of all.


But Cook's crew went away with no such romantic memories of the reef-encircled island. Not just because of the goat that was snitched from them by the local Mooreans, but above all, on account of the way the ship's master reacted.


Because of this goat, Cook, who on the first voyage, swore his men to friendliness and respect towards the "Indians", launched a savage punitive expedition against the natives. All along the coast, their homes and canoes went up in smoke.


When a sextant disappeared on Huahine island, the next stop, Cook ordered his men to cut off the ears of the presumed thief.


On each of his three voyages around the world, England's most famous non-swimmer moored off Huahine and, each time, there was trouble, not least because his men grabbed everything that could be boiled or roasted. Pigs, ducks, chickens - everything was spirited off into the "floating island" from the far-off kingdom.




Mr Joselito Tefaataumarama knows all the old stories.


The wiry man with sunglasses, shorts and a flowery shirt stems from the former ruling dynasty of Huahine, so it is not entirely unlikely that his ancestors encountered Cook and his men.


These days, he drives tourists around and tells them about the times when surplus newborns were suffocated and human sacrifice was practised in the maraes, the sacred sites of the Polynesians.


However, the most important ritual place in Polynesia was about 40km further west on Raiatea and was dedicated to Oro, the god of war. He was the mightiest in the Polynesian Olympus and he was insatiable.


To this day, the Taputapuatea marae, with its altars of black volcanic stone, is a pretty spooky place. In times gone by, the slaughtered victims were hung up on trees to the roll of drums and the blare of shell trumpets, or had to serve as rollers over which the heavy outrigger canoes of the priests were hauled ashore.


The South Sea Arcadia with all its abundant beauty certainly had its dark side.


Talking about the sacred island on a boat tour, Ms Suzanne Sarcione explains that just over a dozen other gods determine the fortunes of the Polynesians.


"When they come together, they shroud the mountain peaks in clouds. When there's thunder and lightning, it means that there's a brawl at the table of the gods."


She is a gifted storyteller. While skipper Jean Rameha steers the boat up the Faaroa river into the green heart of Raiatea island, Ms Sarcione brings the old legends to life. Like the one about the tiare apetahi flower that grows only on Raiatea and here only on Mount Temehani - a tale of eternal love outlasting even death.


The way she enacts the South Seas fairy-tale world with graceful hand movements - conjuring up mountains, waves, the silhouette of a woman - is reminiscent of a dance.


She almost makes you oblivious to the fact that the island was not always this quiet tropical paradise, but a place of human sacrifices.


Raiatea island, once the spiritual centre and cradle of Polynesian culture, is now outshone by its sister islands.


Even fewer venture as far as Maupiti island, 90km further west. Shielded by a coral reef, with only one treacherous passage leading through it, for a long time, the island lay on the periphery of European expedition routes.


Unlike almost all other South Sea islands, this western outpost of French Polynesia has managed to preserve its own character. No hotels, no resorts, just a few family- owned boarding houses.


For Mr Alain Maucourts, Maupiti was a childhood dream come true. Above Tereia, a beautiful beach, he has built a house on the hillside.


Before he came to Maupiti, the Frenchman worked for the school administration on Tubuai, which belongs to the Austral islands in the far south-west of French Polynesia, almost 1,000km away.


Mr Maucourts spent 30 years on Tubuai until cyclone Oli paid the island a brief visit.


"My house was gone." His and 200 more.


On the shore, palm trees sway in the breeze, waves lap onto the immaculate white beach and, in the lagoon, where giant manta rays make their rounds, the light paints the water myriad shades of blue.


It is no wonder that the first visitors to the South Seas from rainy England were captivated by such sights - and the Polynesians.


Although there have been some changes since - nowadays, about 40 per cent of the men and more than half the women are obese - the lifestyle still seems to be characterised by a light-heartedness that other parts of the world lost long ago.


Despite their diligent efforts, generations of missionaries have not been able to change this.


Today, the two worlds that fatefully clashed in the South Seas are more or less reconciled.


Paradise was never here, only a lingering quest for it.


• Frank Stern is a German freelance travel writer based in Munich and Singapore who focuses on South-east Asia and the Pacific.


The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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