So Close, Yet So Far?

After departing Mangareva, everyone aboard Aranui 5 – from passengers to crew – must submit to the voyage’s second obligatory covid test, no exceptions. The first swab for the swabbies, of course, had been taken a day before shoving off from Papeete, and now another one to make sure outsiders don’t carry the dreaded plague to the 40-plus inhabitants of way out-of-the-way Pitcairn Island is also required. Testing positive back at Papeete meant being barred from boarding Aranui 5 for the voyage. While if one passed the test but later flunked it before reaching Pitcairn doesn’t quite mean the infected shipmate has to walk the plank, it does oblige the afflicted to remain solitarily sequestered in his/her cabin until testing negative.

Our nostrils are swabbed by the ship’s doctor and medical team (which travels aboard every Aranui voyage) poolside, on the seventh deck. We are then ordered to immediately return to our cabins and if we are infected, an EMS associate will call us within 20 minutes to break the bad news and inform us we must suffer confinement in our cabin until we pass the test – which means that since Aranui 5 is only staying two days at Pitcairn, the cargo/cruiser’s carriers will miss out on stepping foot on the very isle that is the raison d’etre of the almost two-week voyage to the edge of the Earth in the first place.

After undergoing the nose swabbing this swabbie returns to his cozy cabin on the fifth deck, filled with dread. I sit on the bed, which dominates the snug room, and stare at the telephone. I have wanted to go to Pitcairn since small kid days, when I watched Mutiny on the Bounty, and had traveled thousands of miles all the way from Los Angeles on this Oceanic expedition to fulfill a long-held dream. Was it to be a trip to nowhere? Would I be cabin-bound while my fellow passengers roamed Pitcairn freely? Would I, like Moses, be denied entry to the long-awaited promised land at the last minute? Usually when I anticipate a call, I hope the phone will ring – but now, it’s quite the opposite, as I anxiously stare at Alexander Graham Bell’s handiwork, silently willing Watson, et al, to not disturb the peace.

But 20 minutes pass without incident and I have, happily, tested negative again. Good to go, I feel as if I’d struck gold – although rumor has it that up to six of our shipmates aren’t so lucky. According to gossip, those who have tested positive include English subjects who inhabit Aranui 5’s poshest suite (so at least they’ll suffer their banishment in style).

But although I breathe a proverbial sigh of relief, those of us who have passed the test aren’t quite out of the woods yet. Our passports, which we were forced to surrender at the front desk upon boarding Aranui 5, must be properly stamped, as we are leaving Paris-administered French Polynesia and entering one of the 14 remaining British Overseas Territory with a political status similar to Bermuda and Gibraltar – the remnants (some might say “dregs”) of the once much-vaunted British Empire, which the sun never set upon, once upon a time.

Now, Dear Reader, you may feel that I’m being hyperbolic in comparing the process of arriving at Pitcairn to the 12 Labors of Hercules. But even after an odyssey of thousands of miles that had been delayed almost three years due to the pandemic, receiving the seal of approval for my health and finally the official seal of arrival on my passport, a truly Herculean effort awaits us before we can set forth on Pitcairn. That night we experience the roughest seas of our voyage so far. The waves are rocking and rolling and passengers – including your erstwhile scribe – are repeatedly awakened by the turbulence.

I somehow managed to fall asleep again while it’s dark and upon awakening in the morning light, peer out past my porthole, beyond the lifeboat that partially obscures my view, to a green-grey rock rising out of the sea. We’ve made it way down yonder: Pitcairn beckons!

But the sea is still bucking like a bronco and I recall what one of our shipmates had previously told me whilst we were hiking at Mangareva: Driven to seek out Pitcairn, she’d actually previously sailed here years before, arriving at the outpost of solitude only to be prevented from landing at the far island due to stormy seas. Will we globetrotters be able to trot ashore?

“Lafayette, I am Here!”

What I hadn’t counted on is the sheer determination and carefully honed skill of the stalwart crewmen, Aranui’s argonauts, to land their human cargo safely and soundly. In three decades of sailing aboard Aranui, in nine Pacific passages, I have never seen these courageous, gallant, tattooed South Seas sailors ever drop a single solitary passenger, no matter how large or disabled. Not once – and these hardy Polynesians, the spawn of Queequeg, aren’t about to fail we simple seafarers now. If the Canadian Mounties always get their man, Aranui’s mariners never drop their man, woman or child.

A barge has been lowered into the pitching ocean. The door – which has protected the hatch like a force shield on a rocket protects it from heat upon reentering the atmosphere – has been vertically lifted. All conditions are go, as passengers carefully file, one-by-one, through the hatchway, where they are greeted by Aranui’s agile, brave, brawny crewmen, who acrobatically assist their precious cargo into securely boarding the waiting boat, which heaves up and down as if at a liquidy rodeo. We’re ready to blast off!

After I somehow safely alight in the barge with the resolute assistance of the surefooted Aranui mariners, and ensconce myself upon a bench which I clench with both hands, we jaunty buckeroos head off for Bounty Bay, its concrete pier too small for the 400-foot-plus Aranui 5 to moor there. The waves pound about us as we inexorably flow towards the shore. “Let’s paddle up and move ’em out, Polynesians!” I cry again – although for once, I remain seated while doing so, for fear of being blown overboard amidst the pitching pounders.

Bobbing and weaving, the 10-minute or so ride to the dock is like a Wild West show, but somehow, we manage to arrive safely, and are met by waiting Aranui seamen who lasso a rope to the pier and help us out of the roller-coaster-like barge back onto terra firma. Nearby is a wooden, open-air boathouse wherein two whaleboats are sheltered, topped by an outdated white sign emblazoned (prior to Brexit) with the European Union, UK and Pitcairn flags, and the words: “Welcome to Bounty Bay.” Relieved that I had somehow survived the twelfth task of Hercules, as I step onto the soil of Pitcairn I say, to nobody in particular, in the immortal words attributed to General Blackjack Pershing: “Lafayette, I am here!”

There we are greeted by the gargantuan, imposing, swashbuckling figure of Pirate Pawl, a six-foot-plus Pitkerner with a flowing white beard (a tuft of beaded whiskers ornamenting his chin), gray mustache, bald pate. He’s clad in sandals, dark shorts and a black Aloha shirt, with traditional Polynesian designs, similar to those that had adorned tapa cloth for centuries, running down the right side of the top that is not tucked in. Pirate Pawl peers at the newcomers from behind movie star-like sunglasses. The 59-year-old’s pierced ears are studded by metallic earrings, and around his neck Pirate Pawl Warren wears an outlandish necklace consisting of what appears to be black pearls, tikis carved out of bone, shark or whale teeth and gawd-knows-what-else. (Pawl and his mo’ bettah half Sue O’Keefe actually co-make a line of jewelry – and are proprietors of the Whale’s Tooth Inn.)

A sixth generation descendent of HMAV Bounty’s seamen and their Polynesian paramours, the imposing Pirate Pawl cuts a dashing figure. He is the embodiment of a mutineer straight out of central casting. “Welcome to Pitcairn!” he says gruffly but warmly. In my mind, I change General Pershing’s declaration to: “Fletcher Christian, I have arrived!”

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.
For more ITKT travel stories about French Polynesia
For more ITKT travel stories about Oceania