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.
It was not always like that.
There are multiple options to fly from Singapore to Tahiti.
Bora Bora island is famous for its overwater bungalows rising above lagoons.
Maupiti island on the far end of Society Archipelago, 300km to the north-west of Tahiti, has no banks, teller machines, resorts or luxury hotels, offering a true Polynesian feeling without the hype.
• A good time to visit Tahiti is in July, when the vibrant Heiva festival takes place. This is an iconic event during which Tahitians honour their heritage with music, dancing and singing.
• Another interesting place to visit is Point Venus, the historic landing site of early European explorers.
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.
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.
Every part of Point Venus can tell a story – you just have to imagine it without the carpark and the boys with their surfboards.
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.
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.
LUXURY AT A PRICE
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mr Maucourts spent 30 years on Tubuai until cyclone Oli paid the island a brief visit.
“My house was gone.” His and 200 more.
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.