Once Were Cannibals
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Alain is grinning at me. His teeth are strong and white and even though looks French and his name and accent support this, his skin matches those of his compatriots. In fact he pulls up the leg of his shorts to show me just how much he is a true French Polynesian.

There he has a work-in-progress. An inky trail of tribal tattoos circle his kneecap and march up his strong thigh. The swirls and whorls he traces are his family tree, he announces proudly.

Alain, our guide, is from yet another island across the water from where we are talking in the main town, Taiohae, on Nuku Hiva, the largest island. He points it out from a lookout high above the bay that cradles the settlement. His homeland is just a smudge on the horizon, a couple of hours by boat away.

The Marquesas, subtitled appropriately 'the land of men' is said to be the most remote island group in the world, and are composed of twelve islands. Six are inhabited but the remainder are rocky dots in this forgotten corner of the Pacific Ocean.

You get an idea how remote these islands are when you check a map. Draw a line due north - a long way north - and they are directly in line with the Alaskan-Canadian border. Go south a long way and you finally hit Antarctica. There is nothing in between in either direction.

For hundreds of years the Marquesan people lived untroubled by outsiders. Related to Hawaii both geographically and racially their culture survived despite a disturbing habit of dining on the conquered enemy. As we travelled Nuku Hiva we were shown places - such as a deep hole near the roots of a huge tree - where a person would be kept awaiting their turn in the pot. A sort of cannibal's cold larder.

Today's Polynesians, though, seem happier to play a guitar in the sun, relax away from the heat or enjoy the same things we all do. 'Marquesans like to have fun' was Alain's answer with a naughty smile when I asked about his wife, a pretty girl that had been pointed out to us. "She is my wife - this week," he added. Children, then? "In this village, you mean?" he parried mischievously.

In fact it was this freer attitude to love that drew people like Paul Gauguin to these same islands in the 1890s. Here he formed alliances with a succession of very young women. The light, the freedom, perhaps the beauty of the women themselves gave him much inspiration, although his health declined and he died in 1903 and is now buried on Hiva Oa, another island less than an hour's flight from Nuka Hiva.

We visited his stone-edged grave, as you must when on the island, and it was clean and tended. Later we learned he had descendants on the island, and by one of those master-strokes of serendipity while happy-snapping at the wharf we met his 22-year-old great granddaughter. Wrapped in a sarong after a swim, resembling one of the painter's own subjects, you could see how her great grandmother would have won him.

Hiva Oa is smaller than Nuka Hiva, but with its own attraction. The same cemetery that keeps Gauguin's remains, also has another famous plot. Jacques Brel, Belgian singer-songwriter found inspiration here too and was buried in 1978.

Like Nuka Hiva there are archaeological sites on Hiva Oa too, where the traditional sacred places have been uncovered and are now being restored. Deep in the tropical forest, the air is steamy, and the mossy grey stones at last stand clear again, free of encroaching vines and weeds. Yet the Marquesans are marching in pace with time. For the Year 2000 celebrations in Nuka Hiva, one of these sites was the venue for a massive fireworks display that still makes Alain's eyes shine as he talks about it.

Although the Marquesas are part of French Polynesia, they are far removed. The small Air Tahiti plane takes over three hours to reach them from Papeete, Tahiti, and we put our watches forward half an hour as well. On arrival we board a helicopter for a swooping flight across the island to our hotel - a ten minute extravagance (the tortuous mountain road trip takes several hours) where we skim the mountain tops then gasp as the earth falls away into a massive green basin a couple of thousand feet below. Far off the frilled edge of the ocean beats on the rocks, for these are not the peaceful turquoise coral atolls you see in Tahiti's brochures. Here the sand is black, the sea green.

The climate is milder in the Marquesas too, because of tradewinds and the sea is cooled by an upwelling of cold water rising to the surface. Yet the tropics are all around - in the frangipani that scents the air, fruit such as custard apples and breadfruit growing in profusion, and the flowers the local girls tuck into their hair, and yours, as a sign of welcome.

Right ear shows your taken, left ear means you're looking. Or is it the other way round? In the Marquesas it hardly matters. As Alain says, 'we just like to have fun'.

 

FACTFILE for the Marquesas Islands - 'the Land of Men'.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies to Tahiti (Papeete) via Auckland four times a week from both Melbourne and Sydney, and three times from Brisbane. There are five Air Tahiti flights from Papeete to Nuku Hiva weekly (daily in high season) and three flights weekly between Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa. Flying time to Nuku Hiva from Papeete is around three hours, and between the two islands around 35 minutes.

ACCOMMODATION

The Keikahanui Nuku Hiva Pearl Lodge is situated overlooking the bay and town of Taiohae, Private resort-style bungalows and a fine restaurant make this a relaxing place to stay. The Hanakee Hova Oa Pearl Cottages on Hiva Oa provide a similar standard of accommodation overlooking the island of Hanakee.

DINING:

The French influence is widely felt in dining on these islands, although tropical fruit, including local breadfruit mangoes, custard apples and pawpaw, abounds.

GETTING AROUND

Local guides are available to drive visitors around the islands, although you may hire a car from around US$60 a day. Petrol is around A$1 litre.

HEALTH

No inoculations are needed, the water is safe to drink, although bottled water is advised. There re no mosquitoes although there are plenty of tiny stinging 'nonos'.

LANGUAGE

French is the official language and Polynesian and Marquesan are separate languages. English is not widely spoken outside the resort.

CURRENCY

Pacific Franc (CFP) around A$13 to 1000 CFP.

VISAS

None needed for Australians staying less than 30 days.

TIME DIFFERENCE

Half an hour ahead of Papeete (Tahiti) and 20.5 hours behind Australian EST.

THINGS TO DO

There are several tattoo artists and wood carving studios on each island, as well as horseriding, swimming and diving and other water sports, as well as 4WD excursions, and hiking to secluded waterfalls, bays and forest areas.

 

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