Invariably people picture the South Pacific as a place of endless sunshine, tranquil seas, lush vegetation and, of course, sunny-natured people.
Many equate it with the HMS Bounty, whose sailors mutinied after tasting the fruits of paradise, which they were reluctant to leave. After all, who would not trade the dismal conditions on board a ship in those days with an idyllic existence among the laid-back islanders?
We tend to lose sight of the fact that the Pacific, as the largest body of water in the world, can also be a place of turbulent conditions. It is so vast that in 30 days of sailing from San Diego, US, to this heady part of the world we did not sight another ship on the horizon.
We certainly experienced the vagaries of the weather, but it all added to the atmosphere.
Endless sunshine can be bland and with our ship’s stabilisers doing their duty – as our captain pointed out every day during his noon address – there was no discomfort.
Home for the 30 days was the Holland America Line’s beautiful Westerdam.
A plush, spacious suite with twin beds (which converted to a queen size with an oh-so-comfortable mattress), a couch and chairs, television, air con, and bath/shower met every creature need. The delicious food on board meant I came home several kilos heavier, despite multiple laps of the verandah and sports decks.
After Hawaii, we made land in Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass by locals). With global warming, the islands could sink beneath the sea. Kiribati is the only country in the world where the four hemispheres meet.
Fanning Island, which has about 2 000 residents, was discovered by Edmund Fanning who, records tell us, for no reason awoke three times in the middle of the night while sailing. Perturbed, he stopped his ship. Daylight revealed that, had he not done so, he would have sailed on to a coral reef.
On Fanning Island, everyone goes barefoot – including the police. There is no electricity or television, and the occasional visits from ocean liners are a highlight.
The weather was terrible as we arrived and the captain said we would give Fanning a wide berth. Trying to sail in to drop anchor would be impossible and the tenders would not have been able to ferry passengers ashore.
Gloom descended, but there was much to counteract this.
One of the highlights of such a cruise is the lectures on board. One was about how the Tahitians had navigated to Hawaii. The Hawaiians, trying to prove their roots were Polynesian, undertook a journey in the reverse direction. A pathfinding wayfarer, calling on the skills of his ancestors and the long-forgotten art of navigating by the currents, winds, stars and seabirds, led the expedition to Tahiti.
There were also lectures on palaeontology, tracing the history of the planet and its animals, as well as on volcanoes, and the history of tattooing.
Our Hawaiian guide on board told us the first tattoo any islander received told of their family history and signified their class and vocation. Beginning just above the waist on one side of the body, the tattoo progressed all the way down the leg to the ankle. An islander could then add personal touches with other tattoos. In the Marquesas Islands, such tattoos covered the entire face and body.
In the old days, the tattooist used the tusk of a wild pig, tied to a piece of wood, hammering it into the skin and applying dyes.
We also learnt that although surfing originated in these South Pacific islands, initially only members of royal families were allowed to stand upright on their boards – the lower classes simply paddled.
Raratonga on the Cook Islands now beckoned. Here, back in 1350, seven canoes set sail on another Polynesian migration that ultimately took these hardy sailors to New Zealand, where they settled.
We sailed in during a near-gale. The captain kept repositioning the ship, but it kept dragging anchor in the soft sands of the ocean floor. Again we could not go ashore, but we were able to circumnavigate the island, so we got a sea view.
Raiatea in the Society Islands was next and to our relief we managed to dock. However, torrential downpours and small landslides had made some sections of the circular island road difficult to negotiate. The onshore operators called off all excursions.
Were we doomed? It was possible to go ashore, though, and to walk around, absorbing for the first time some of the atmosphere of a Polynesian island.
Let me mention here the advantages of booking a shore excursion through Holland America. For one thing, we were refunded all we had paid for the aborted tours.
For another, if you have booked island excursions through its agents, the ship waits for you if something goes wrong and you are delayed. Although tours offered by island companies are cheaper, if anything goes wrong and you do not get back before the ship sails, you will need to make your own way to the next port.
The weather, finally, played ball. Our guide on a tour in an open-style bus around Bora Bora, an island north-west of Tahiti, was highly entertaining.
One of his fascinating stories was about how, while making one of the many films about the mutiny on the Bounty, MGM studios needed beautiful Polynesian maidens. However, when these women smiled, they revealed rotten teeth. MGM had its dental expert fit them with dentures, but these had to be left behind after every day’s film shoot.
Given the laid-back disposition of the islanders, the women would often not pitch for the next day’s filming. MGM came up with an offer, saying that not only would they be paid for showing up, but if they had a blemish-free record, they would get to keep their dentures at the end of the filming. From then on there was 100 percent attendance.
Then there was the tale of how Marlon Brando met and married his Tahitian wife during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty.
We passed three beautiful cottages on stilts in the ocean, which Brando bought to help out a friend on the island who was offering such accommodation to visitors.
Rowan Mr Bean Atkinson made an advert here for Britain’s Barclays Bank. This led to a rush for tracts of prime land on Bora Bora.
As the only official cemetery in the Society Islands is on Papeete, the residents often gain permission to bury members of their families on their land. Many of these graves have a roof over them to protect them from the heavy rains.
A memorable part was the opportunity to swim with rays. These gentle creatures have grown accustomed to being fed by the fishermen in an attempt to attract them to the boats carrying tourists.
You hop into the shallow water out on one of the reefs and are instantly caressed by the soft touch of these rays exploring your body. Having a ray hug me from the front, while another did the same from the back was a bit unsettling at first. Gathering confidence, you can, if you wish, feed them with fish from your lips and get a kiss from a ray.
Some of the hotels on stilts that abound on the mainland and surrounding motus (islands) can charge at least $1 500 a night. Translate that into rand – R21 540 – if such a stay grabs you! But the beaches and the ocean are idyllic.
Mo’orea is definitely the Bali Ha’i of the Pacific, so lush and beautiful it is breathtaking. Rainforests, towering peaks, turquoise waters – yes, even after the heavy rains, although not as vivid as normal.
It is best explored in a 4 x 4. This enables you to climb to the best viewpoints and look down on the inlets below and out over the ocean.
Here the remains of 500 ruined temples are hidden in the undergrowth. In one valley alone, there are 300. Some were dedicated to the god of war and required human sacrifice, but only of men, not wom en.
There are several stories about how the main island of Papeete, the most populous and well-known of the islands of Tahiti, was given its name. The most romantic of them is that it refers to the ete (basket) used by one of the queens to draw her pape (water) to drink.
Our final island visit was to Nuku Hiva – the place where the islanders once covered their entire bodies in tattoos. Even children had to endure the pain of such craftsmanship to show they could be stoical.
In these islands some infanticide was also practised at one time.
The Roman Catholic Church thrived here as its missionaries had the protection of the French military.
One of the Catholic churches in the town of Taiohae has beautiful doors, altars and baptismal fonts carved from wood. The windows are not glazed, but covered in mesh, allowing the breeze in.
Most of the original islanders lived beside the sea, but with the arrival of Westerners, foreign illnesses wiped out a huge portion of the population.
This was true of every island on which the Western sailors went ashore.
As a consequence, many islanders made their way into the depths of the jungle, high in the mountains, to try to avoid death.
Whereas foreigners were first met with open arms, giving rise to stories about the friendly, sexually uninhibited people who lived here, eventually the islanders grew to fear and dislike them.
On Nuku Hiva we ate sweet pawpaw, oranges, grapefruit, delicious banana fritters, tapioca sweetmeats and fried crisps.
On my final afternoon I sat under a tree on the shore, watching the residents hanging out.
It was so relaxing that I began to wonder about jumping ship – but by now the Westerdam had become like a home to me.