From Tahiti to Fiji: A 2,000-mile voyage in paradise
hen the palm-fringed coral island appeared on the horizon – a sliver of land in the vastness of the Pacific – the lady carrying her father in her handbag became visibly excited.
“So that’s it, we’re finally here,” she said. “Hopefully we can leave him on the island he longed to see.”
The story of how Kay Kingston, from Leicestershire, came to bring the ashes of her father to Palmerston atoll in the Cook Islands is a curious travel tale in which fate and this newspaper unwittingly played a small part.
The teardrop of coral was once the home of an itinerant English ship’s carpenter by the name of William Marsters who ran away (leaving wife number one behind) to seek his fortune. He fathered 23 children by three Polynesian wives, and by the time of his death in 1899 had become patriarch to 54 grandchildren.
A notice placed in a Leicestershire newspaper a few years ago by a woman researching his ancestry alerted Kay’s father, Desmond Masters, at his home a few miles from William Marsters’ birthplace in the village of Walcote.
Kay recalled: “It turned out my great-great-grandfather was first cousin to Marsters, and my father was fascinated by the story. He was desperate to visit Palmerston, but unfortunately he fell ill and passed away. On the morning after the funeral we saw an advertisement in The Daily Telegraph for a cruise calling at Palmerston. Was it fate? We knew we had to come.”
This explains how I came to meet Kay and her husband Geoff on board MS Caledonian Sky, a small cruise ship heading for far-flung isles on a 2,000-mile voyage across the South Pacific from Tahiti to Fiji.
Palmerston is a tourist board’s dream, the quintessential image of a South Seas idyll etched between endless sky and sea, more than 100 miles from the nearest inhabited island. The entire resident population of about 40, almost all of them descendants of Marsters, had assembled to greet us on a sandy beach, where the island pastor conducted a short service and a choir sang a hymn of welcome in Maori.
Women and girls wearing brightly patterned pareos (wraparound skirts) and floral wreaths performed traditional Polynesian songs and dances, accompanied by men playing guitars, ukuleles and wooden drums. The lilting songs, rustling palm fronds and rhythmic lapping of a lagoon on a deserted beach were the stuff that dreams are made of.
Measuring less than a square mile, the coral atoll is easily explored. Modest wooden bungalows with iron roofs are scattered among palms and massive mahogany trees, along with a church, a school, a solar power station and wandering bands of chickens, kittens and tame booby birds. The islanders are relaxed and hospitable, a community seemingly at peace with itself and happy to keep the rest of the world at considerable arm’s length.
The highlight of our visit was a brief ceremony in which Kay’s father was welcomed by the pastor as a brother and a friend, and his ashes interred in a cemetery a few steps from the resting place of his fecund relative.
Palmerston is as remote as it gets, with a supply ship calling from the Cooks’ largest island, Rarotonga, three or four times a year.
Dropping anchor off tiny islands, our cargo of fewer than 100 passengers swam and snorkelled in remote lagoons, explored shallow coastal waters in Zodiac boats, joined guided tours or wandered off on our own. Such adventures tend to attract well-travelled kindred spirits who mix easily in a sociable atmosphere reminiscent of a country house party.
The bird watchers and nature lovers among us were delighted by Atiu, the Cook island home of “Birdman” George Mateariki, who has received international recognition for helping to save endangered species, notably the Rimatara lorikeet and the Rarotonga flycatcher. When George led us in search of his feathered friends, we entered a dense and tangled maze of native lantern trees, African tulip trees bursting with flame-red flowers, giant ferns and wild jasmine and red passion fruit.
Soon a flock of lorikeets with flashy green plumage and scarlet breasts was flying overhead. They were followed by an airborne kaleidoscope of bright blue and white kingfishers, red, white and green fruit doves and the graceful, long white tails of numerous tropicbirds, all flourishing thanks to George’s efforts as a part-time volunteer to keep the island free of predatory rats and myna birds.
With a population of around 450 served by one clinic, one school, two bakeries and two policemen with little to do, the island is a natural aviary and a joy for children. As we left, a couple of girls waved farewell from a breakwater and leapt, laughing, into the sea.
On to Tonga, where a 50-strong high school brass band welcomed us with an energetic dance display on the quay at Neiafu, a pleasantly ramshackle town of clapboard houses and shops strung around a deep water harbour. The best viewpoint is from a flat-topped hill that I found at the end of a dirt road winding by modest cottages and colonial-style villas amid gardens bursting with exuberant flora. Cockerels crowed, piglets foraged and butterflies flitted among banks of wildflowers.
Concrete steps and way-marked trails led through a deep forest of tropical hardwood, echoing to the melodic trills and cooing of Tongan whistlers and fruit doves, to panoramic views of one of the finest natural harbours in the Pacific.
In its 19th-century heyday as capital of Fiji, Levuka, on the island of Ovalau, used to be one of the busiest ports in the Pacific – a bustling melting pot of traders, adventurers, criminals, sailors and beachcombers carousing in “wild drunkenness” in more than 50 bars and hotels on a mile-long beachfront strip. No longer the capital, it has relapsed into a sleepy backwater of wooden buildings along a shore framed by jungle-clad mountains that conjure a film set for a swashbuckling South Seas adventure. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it is a living museum boasting the country’s first post office, a police station, bank and school and the office of The Fiji Times newspaper.
Time does not actually stand still in Levuka, it is just in no apparent hurry to go anywhere. To enter the Royal Hotel, the oldest in the South Pacific, is to step back into fading colonial splendour in large, airy lounges open to the sea on one side and playing fields on the other. A town community centre houses a one-room museum that is a treasure trove of tales of shipwrecks, hurricanes and a square-rigger converted into a First World War German raider that was a scourge of Allied shipping.
The school, built in 1879 for Europeans, is a grand affair with arguably one of the world’s best playgrounds, a sweeping greensward bounded by breadfruit and mango trees where birdsong mingles with children’s laughter.
We had been sailing in the exploratory wakes of Captain Cook, and in Tongan waters where Captain Bligh was unceremoniously ejected from the Bounty. The vistas of the tropic isles they sighted have hardly changed, and it required little imagination to see Cook’s topsails rounding a headland swathed in luxuriant forest.
Living in isolated communities like Palmerston and Atiu no doubt offers challenges, but their motto could be “Lost and Found”. Lost in an endless ocean, they seem to have found peaceful havens in a turbulent world.
Source: The Telegraph.