Bill Tuttle: Beyond Rapa Nui: Voyages Through The South Pacific
Polynesia and the Creative Spirit
In 1840, 21-year-old Herman Melville, serving aboard a whaler, became so enamored of the Marquesan people; he jumped ship for a month-long sojourn among them. Four years later, he published his first novel, Typee, a semi autobiographical account of his time in the islands. Robert Louis Stevenson was similarly enchanted during his travels: “No other part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor,” he wrote. Of course, Tahiti’s image as an unspoiled paradise owes much to the paintings of Gauguin. The French postimpressionist moved to the island in 1891 and, inspired by “its primitive and wild state,” produced a number of masterpieces. The islands’ lure continues. Belgian singer and songwriter Jacques Brel retired to the Marquesas, producing one final album before his death in 1978, and actor Marlon Brando has made a home on Tetiaroa Island since the early ’60s.
Tin Can Island
Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Fiji are justly famous worldwide as epitomes of tropical paradise; yet along the western reaches of Polynesia lies a lesser known, but equally remarkable destination–the kingdom of Tonga, dubbed the “Friendly Islands” by Captain Cook. From the uplifted limestone Vava´u Archipelago to volcanic Niuatoputapu and Niuafo´ou, the islands of Tonga offer a greater geological diversity than any other Pacific nation. Lacking a suitable anchorage, Niuafo´ou devised a unique postal delivery system. Mail was sealed in soldered kerosene tins, and then swimmers would negotiate nearly a mile through the surf to exchange the tins with passing ships. This method earned Niuafo´ou the nickname “Tin Can Island.” Today, the island remains rarely visited, its few travelers landing on its black lava beach by Zodiac or canoe.
The Riddles of Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is home to possibly the world’s most-recognizable archeological relics, as well as one of its great mysteries. The giant stone heads, or moai, that dot the landscape are the remnants of a preindustrial society that rose, flourished, and fell on this 64-square-mile island. Theories abound as to the moai’s purpose and their makers’ origins, the most famous being Thor Heyerdahl’s supposition that the island’s residents emigrated from South America. While Heyerdahl proved such a voyage was possible, the prevailing thought among scientists is Polynesians, migrating west, settled Easter Island, and the heads represent sacred chiefs and ancestors. The erectors of the heads died out long ago, but the moai remain, standing sentinel on Rapa Nui’s grassy terrain.
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Article provided by Zegrahm Expeditions
Photos: Maoi: Zegrahm Expeditions; Gauguin's artwork: "Siesta Tahiti" Paul Gauguin