The Aranui 5 – a passenger-cargo ship in French Polynesia

Sunday, 22 January 2023

The Aranui 5 is probably the most iconic cruise ship in the South Pacific, except it isn’t a cruise ship. From the bow back to the bridge it’s clearly a cargo vessel, then from the bridge to the stern It’s equally clearly a cruise ship. Something went seriously wrong on the drawing board. Years ago, working on an early edition of Lonely Planet’s Tahiti & French Polynesia guide I watched an earlier incarnation of the Aranui pull into port and unload its cargo. When I realized they also had passenger cabins it was instantly added to my bucket list. It took until late 2022 to put another tick on that long list.

▲ The Aranui 5 in port in Papeete

Once a month the Aranui 5 pulls out of Papeete, the capital city on Tahiti, the most heavily populated island, and head east on an 11 day circuit which will take it to two of the low lying atolls in the Tuamotus and then stop eight times in the islands of the Marquesas, the dramatic and mountainous furthest east group of islands in French Polynesia

▲ My bicycle at Marae Tainoka, Fakarava, Tuamotus

There were 119 passengers on board the Aranui 5, the biggest group French either from the French Pacific colonies or from ‘Metro France’ in Europe. Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, British made up the rest. We had lots of different interests, there were a couple of bird watchers, binoculars always at the ready, a surprising number got into the daily unkulele lessons and put on a surprisingly melodic concert at the end of the cruise. I was keen on tracking down maraes (the ancient Polynesian temples) and tikis (think a smaller version of the Easter Island statues) and I started my archaeological exploration at Fakarava, the first Tuamotus stop where I rented a bicycle.

My goal was Marae Tainoka which is down towards the pass (lagoon entrance), beyond the airport. Problem one was that it was 4km to the airport, but another 6km beyond the airport to the pass, so it was 10km in total in each direction, rather further than I’d estimated. Problem two was that there was absolutely no sign of the marae, I thought it would just be there by the road, but it certainly wasn’t and there was no sign indicating where it might be. At the pass there were three young local guys riding the waves on bodyboards, one of them told me the marae was further back and on the ocean side of the road. I retreated, taking likely looking turns down to the water’s edge, but with no luck. Finally (and luckily) I found it on the other side, the lagoon side, and there was in fact as a sort of ‘sign,’ a marked stone. There were in fact three marae, so it was worth the effort to find it.

Problem three – and I had been warned – was that you can find yourself riding back into the wind. As I’d come by the airport it was pretty clear to see the wind was going to be blowing steadily against me, the windsock was absolutely horizontal. Oh dear. So it was an effort riding back. I certainly didn’t contemplate heading towards Marae Taupiri Ahururu, which would be about 20 or 25km in the other direction and Marae Taputapuate even further. There were also a couple of ancient phares – not lighthouses, just stone warning towers, on the ocean side of the island, between the airport and the village. I don’t get to those either.

▲ The Aranui 5 in port at Puamau, Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands

From the Tuamotus there’s a solid day’s travel before we reach the Marquesas, after which it’s a short hop between each stop. Only three of our stops are dockside, everywhere else we drop anchor offshore and ferry the cargo ashore on the Aranui’s barges. Managing the cargo is a major operation, the cargo crew are shifting things around before we even reach port and they’re at it non-stop until we pull out at most of our stops. At some of our dockside halts cargo will be taken ashore and then loaded back on as the cargo is shuffled around and reorganized.

▲ I never saw where this Land Rover came on board and where it was finally unloaded, but it was certainly there when we stopped at Hakahau on Uo Pou Island.

▲ Dockside at Tahauka Bay on Hiva Oa Island, a typical stop. As well as the cranes for lifting cargo on and off, the barges for ferrying cargo ashore when we couldn’t dock, the Aranui 5 also carried its own forklifts for shifting the cargo around on shore.

▲ There was some delicate maneuvering involved in some of our docking and anchoring operations, but none more so than entering  Invisible Bay at Vaipaee on Ua Huka Island where the ship had to be spun around in the narrow entrance to the bay, the bow and stern clearing the sheer rock faces on each side by what seemed like only a few metres.

◄ When we couldn’t tie up dockside the ship’s barges were craned out to shuttle passengers ashore.

▲ It’s the Aranui 5 – anchored off Rotoava on Fakarava Island – and each new version of the Aranui has more cargo capacity and more passenger cabins. The first Aranui only had a couple of cabins. There was never an Aranui 4, because the number four is regarded as unlucky in China. Wing Wong, who founded the family business which runs the Aranui, arrived in Tahiti from China in the 1930s.

▲ There were more than a few maraes in the Marquesas. Apart from extensive ruins, some with great petroglyphs, and a huge banyan tree, the Kamuihei Archaeological Site on Nuku Hiva also featured a Marquesan welcome performance for the Aranui passengers.

◄ This fine tiki overlooked the large and very well kept Taaoa Archaeological Site on Hiva Oa Island.






◄ Hiva Oa also features the grave of Paul Gauguin in the Calvaire Cemetery in Atuona, the largest settlement on the island. Belgian singer Jacques Brel is also buried in the same cemetery and the town features Gauguin and Brel Museums. From the Gauguin museum you could summarise his life as unhappy, unrecognised (until the moment he died) and boy he whinges, whinges, whinges about it! Probably with plenty of good reason, he reckoned he was a bloody good artist and nobody else did. Until he died when suddenly everybody decided he was indeed a genius. Too late.

▲ The Te I’Ipona site on the other side of the island is rated as the best site in the Marquesas and it certainly has the biggest collection of the largest tikis. Including the Tiki Maki Taua Pepe stretched out on her stomach.

▲ For me, however, the Meiaute Archaeological Site above the village of Hane on Ua Huka was the best marae, probably because I had it all to myself. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but I wisely followed Lonely Planet’s enthusiastic description and climbed up above the village to find the site with its three tikis, perched on the hillside with the coast and the Hane beach below.

◄ One of the tikis at the Meiaute site.

▲ Tikis weren’t the only reminders of early Polynesian culture, we encountered fine rock-cut petroglyphs at a number of sites. This dorado fish was incised in a rock just outside the village of Omoa on Fatu Hiva Island.

▲ The arrival of the Aranui 5 was clearly an important event at every island we sailed to. The village kids certainly made use of the ship’s mooring ropes while we were docked at Hakahau on Uo Pou Island.

◄ Every settlement also featured an interesting church, often with fine Marquesan wood carvings and sometimes with stained glass windows like this one at the Catholic Church in Vaitahu on Tahuata Island. A choral group from the Aranui 5 crew performed in the church while we were there.

▲ Fatu Hiva Island was our last stop in the Marquesas before we headed back to Tahiti and you could not ask for a finer view to farewell the islands than the Bay of Virgins at the village of Hanavave. Our stop in the Tuamotus on the way back was at Rangiroa with its massive atoll. I managed to fit in a scuba dive while we were at Rangiroa and in fact I’d been diving here before, back in 1994. I’m not alone in finding the shark sightings in the Tiputa Pass at Rangiroa the most impressive of my diving career. There were only a couple on this occasion, that previous dive featured dozens.