For Whom the Atoll Tolls

Our voyage to Pitcairn Island commences as Aranui 5 shoves off from Papeete harbor and glides past magnificent Moorea. This is actually the fourth incarnation of the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime’s passenger/freighters named Aranui, which has been providing cabins for travelers, as well as delivering and picking up cargo for the Marquesas and other remote isles of French Polynesia, for decades. The up to 10 deck Aranui 5, which has 103 cabins for a total of 230 passengers, began sailing in late 2015, although CPTM’s Pitcairn voyages only commenced shortly before the pandemic struck.

The next morning, after sailing all day and night, we awaken at our first port-of-call. Anaa is about 300 miles east of Tahiti in the world’s largest archipelago, the Tuamotus. This sprawling chain of about 80 atolls stretches across a vast expanse of sea that is roughly the size of Western Europe.

Atolls are essentially flat strips of sand fringed by palm, pine and other greenery. These low-lying islets often encircle lagoons and are protected from the pounders by barrier reefs. Life at these flat outposts is essentially basic and the 413-foot long Aranui 5 drops anchor offshore and passengers board barges in order to land at Anaa. As we embark on our first expedition, to the amusement of the English-speaking adventurers, I imitate John Wayne giving a “saddle up” order to “pilgrims” in a Western movie: “Let’s paddle up and move ’em out, Polynesians!”

The turquoise water is calm and glassy as we arrive and debark at a concrete pier where we’re greeted by a mama and two boys who give us flowers. Anaa is the only landfall on our South Seas sojourn that I’ve been to before, back in 1987, when French colonial authorities flew me to the atoll to see what was then a showcase for renewable energy, which provided power to the islanders. Here and there are signs of solar energy, but Anaa doesn’t seem to be an alternative energy Mecca anymore.

We walk through a quiet village of wooden and concrete houses with iron roofs and friendly people waving, welcoming us. There are bicycles, motorcycles and, here and there, a car or truck. I keep my eyes peeled, looking for one of the most memorable people I’ve ever encountered over my decades in the Pacific Islands and whom I haven’t been able to forget more than a third of a century later.

In about 15 minutes we hike “cross country,” from the oceanside of the islet to the lagoon-side, where there’s a picnic site with tables beneath tin roofs beside a classic white sand beach. I walk – or try to walk – out into the shallow, crystal clear lagoon to snorkel but plunge into the extremely soft, mushy bottom; my reef shoes almost come off in the muck. I walk very far out until the water is at least hip-length.

Nearby is a concrete dock where Tuamotuan teenagers play an imported ghetto blaster, blaring extremely loud, bad Westernized music, all beat and no melody, shattering the tranquility. It’s astonishing that no matter how far one travels to the ends of the Earth to get away from it all, “all” is often waiting right there for you. Bad taste and noise are citizens of the world, almost impossible to escape.

“Ma’a Paumotu” – a delicious Tuamotu buffet – is served on the picnic tables and then I continue trekking around the atoll past ramshackle, openair houses. (Paumotu is another Polynesian word for Tuamotu.) It’s amazing how few traditional homes remain in French Polynesia, where many live in eyesores. I guess that’s a sign of “progress”!

Afterwards I visit Anaa’s botanical garden, where tropical plants and fruits are grown, demarcated by explanatory texts in Tahitian, French and English. A bridge spans a channel where the water flows out to sea beside a peaceful-looking home made with some local material. But I still haven’t found that girl I never forgot and have been looking for, when a minibus rolls up.

Julia, Ocean Child

I board the small bus presided over by an Anaa tour guide, Brigitte, adorned in shell leis, reflective sunglasses and crowned by a leafy hat woven out of pandanus or palm, probably with her own supple fingers. The jaunty Brigitte serenades us, strumming an ukulele, accompanied by one of Aranui’s musical mariners. She is very knowledgeable about her isle, so I take a shot and ask Brigitte if she knows that female I came across 35 years ago, during my first trip to Anaa, and haven’t been able to get out of my mind since. As I don’t know her name, I try to describe her in my fractured French.

Although, of course, too young for me then to pursue as a partner, this teenager was an embodiment of that legendary Polynesian beauty which, after watching movies like South Pacific and Mutiny on the Bounty, had lured me halfway across the world, from New York to Oceania, where I lived for 20-plus years. The sarong-clad Anaa lass was very pretty, slim, with a lovely smile, golden skin and would have been 14-ish at the time I’d encountered her. So now, I tell Brigitte, she must be around 50, and was beautiful in every way – except for one thing that made an indelible impression on my mind, haunting me for decades: The girl’s arms were literally on backwards.

“That’s true,” Brigitte nods, responding with certainty. “She still lives on Anaa and has five children now.” I can’t help but ask if her offspring are “normal.” Brigitte replies, “Three are normal; the arms are backwards on two of them.”

Anaa is about 530 miles from the Tuamotu atoll of Moruroa, France’s South Pacific nuclear testing site for its “force de frappe.” From 1966 to 1974 Paris conducted at least 41 atmospheric atomic tests. I ask Brigitte: “Are her arms on backwards because of the bomb?” Brigitte denies this, asserting it is just a matter of “birth defects, genetics.” Maybe – but I’m unconvinced. In any case, I inquire, “What is her name?”

Brigitte answers: “Julia.”

I immediately flashback to that lovely song so full of longing that John Lennon composed for his dead mother, killed in a car accident by a drunk off-duty cop when the soon-to-be Beatle was only 17-years-old (

“Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia
Julia, Julia
Ocean child calls me

“So I sing the song of love
Julia, seashell eyes
Windy smile calls me
So I sing the song of love

“Her hair of floating sky is shimmering
Glimmering in the sun
Julia, Julia…”

Facing great opposition from the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, France stopped detonating nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, and moved the “experiment” underground, exploding another 140 atomic and hydrogen bombs until Paris finally ended the N-tests in 1996. When I lived in Oceania, I reported on the NFIP for Radio Australia, Radio New Zealand, Reuters, AP, etc. Of course, until now, Polynesians suffer from the fallout of this nuclear reign of terror.

Brigitte asks me if I want to go meet the now grown-up woman whom I’ve thought so often of over the years. But I decline… What am I going to tell Julia, this atoll ocean child? That I’ve always remembered her because of her deformity and have pitied her from afar for decades?

The Pacific Islands are so extremely extravagant in their exquisite pristine beauty that sometimes I wonder if spiteful superpowers were so envious that they lashed out at the isles and atolls to punish them, and make the Polynesians and Micronesians pay for daring to be so gorgeously innocent?

As we zoom back to Aranui 5 across the sea I think: “No matter how far one travels to get away from it all, ‘all’ is waiting for you there.” To paraphrase the 17th century English poet John Donne: “Ask not for whom the atoll tolls – it tolls for thee.”

“When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind
Ocean child calls me…”

When you go:


French Polynesia:

Pitcairn Island:


Aranui: (800)972-7268

United Airlines: (800)864-8331


TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377


Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS

Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.

Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: (866)377-9412.

Written by: Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell picture Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.

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