After Tahiti, What?

After Tahiti, what? In all the twelve million square miles of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, there is nothing with quite the sensual appeal that Tahiti used to have before the foreign legion came to Papeete. But for peace and tranquillity, the chance to laze in tropical warmth and comfort in surroundings that make Tahiti’s scenery seem almost second-rate, the Isle of Pines, a French colonial speck of coral and ironstone thirty miles southeast of New Caledonia and nine hundred miles east of Australia, comes close.

The Isle of Pines is not proof, of course, against the intrusions of Hollywood, or even De Gaulle’s H-bomb, which have rubbed away Tahiti’s magic. But French colonial policy and nature have combined to guarantee that for the predictable future, tourists will come as privileged pilgrims to bask on its pure white coral sand and to swim in its blue and turquoise waters. No clamoring invasion will break the calm. The Inn of Capricorn, the island’s only hotel, has a monopoly and no room for seclusion-destroying expansion. Its seventeen thatched Tahitianstyle bungalows and central dining room, patio, and kitchen are spread out under the banyan trees on an isthmus so narrow that a well-hurled stone from the beach on one side would splash into the bay on the other. There is space for another six or eight bungalows on the bays on either side of the isthmus, but even when these are built, the inn will have accommodations for only fifty people. Apart from an area set aside as a farm for the inn, the rest of the island is a native reserve. And that, according to the French authorities in Nouméa, is the way it is going to stay.

To those who seek organized pleasure, the Isle of Pines has nothing to offer. As a concession to the energetic, the inn has a tennis court tucked away. There are also some underground grottoes filled with stalactites, which are certainly not worth crossing the Pacific, or even the island, to see; and a native village where the Melanesian islanders, descendants of the fiercest headhunters and cannibals in the South Seas, dance with grass skirts over their Mother Hubbards and grubby shorts, a disciplined modesty that the missionaries, mercifully, never managed to impose on the Tahitians.

With a singular lack of enthusiasm, the inn provides its bus, one of three motor vehicles on the island, for such tourist excursions. But ir this, as in almost everything else, it is less a matter of pleasing the customers than of approving the members of a select club. The inn’s own boutique, run by Miss France circa 1957, is the island’s only shop. There are no golf courses or movies. Guests are expected to turn up when the bell rings for meals or go hungry. The lights go out at 11 P.M.

Eager beavers loathe the island; beachcombers lucky enough to find it, and usually cheerfully ignorant of its history, never want to leave.

Discovered by Captain James Cook on September 6, 1774, and named for the pines which grow tall and straight around its shores and on neighboring coral reefs, the Isle of Pines is about eleven miles long and nine miles wide. Later explorers and traders were tempted by the beauty of its bays and beaches but were for years repelled by the ferocity of its natives. It was not until the 1840s and the discovery of fragrant sandalwood in its forests that white men began to converge on the island.

Sandalwood in those days fetched a high price on the Canton market; its price in lives among those who felled the forests on the Isle of Pines was even higher. In 1842 one of the earliest of the sandalwood ships, the Star of Tahiti, dropped anchor in the Bay of Kuto, where the Inn of Capricorn now stands. Offended by the white men, the native chief sent his men on board the brig on the pretext of wanting to sharpen their axes. At a favorable moment, the natives felled the brig’s captain with a blow between the eyes and subsequently killed, cooked, and ate Seventeen members of the crew. Four years later the crew of the brig Catherine, out of Sydney, suffered a similar fate.

Such a challenge brought an immediate response from European missionaries, who were now at the peak of their crusading zeal in the South Seas. A French Roman Catholic mission set up a post in 1848, and by 1853 all of the islanders were said to have been converted.

British and French naval ships arrived simultaneously at the island to claim it. The British protested innocently that theirs was a scientific expedition, while the French explained that they were there to revictual any missionaries who had not been eaten.

With the help of the missionaries, the French won the day. Having hoisted the French hag above his house, the native chief, accompanied by his small granddaughter, called on the British aboard their ship in Kuto Bay. The British dined the chief at the captain’s table and pressed him to accept their presents. All went well until they presented him with the Union Jack and learned to their dismay that he had already accepted the tricolor.

For many years, Catholicism and cannibalism continued to flourish together. A trader who made the journey to the island from Nouméa by native canoe in 1859 discovered that the well-wrapped cargo which accompanied him consisted of three bodies, a present for the chief. Periodically, the islanders set off in the war canoes to raid the Loyalty Islands, east of New Caledonia, where they plundered the villages and killed and ate their foes.

In 1872 the guillotine put an end to this double standard of Christian piety at home and cannibal lust abroad. It also turned the Isle of Pines into the hellhole of the Pacific. On March 23, 1872, the French government declared the island a place of deportation, and seven months later the frigate Danae dropped anchor in Kuto with the first group of political prisoners from the Paris Commune. Soon there were 3400 of these unfortunates on the island, along with Arab rebels from Algeria and several hundred New Caledonian natives who had been hunted and starved into submission after massacring and mutilating two hundred white colonialists.

From the Kuto anchorage, the chain gangs hacked a road through the jungle and built the prisons in which they were to rot and often to die. They tapped the clear, cool springs in the hills and created a first-class system of waterworks that to this day provides the Inn of Capricorn and the native villages with fresh water.

The world first heard of this new Devil’s Island in March, 1874, when a British vessel, bearing the splendid name Peace, Comfort, Ease, called at Kuto. Henri Rochefort, a writer, and five friends bribed their way aboard with 10,000 francs and escaped to Sydney. Their escape brought sharp official reprisals; but the guillotine only quickened the desire to be free among the lawyers, artists, doctors, writers, and other political prisoners who considered themselves the victims of vile injustice. Just a year after Henri Rochefort and his friends escaped, a doctor named Rastoul and eighteen companions reached Australia in a boat they had made themselves. They in turn were followed by waves of other political prisoners and habitual criminals, who were then being shipped to New Caledonia and the Isle of Pines by the thousands.

After deportation to the Isle of Pines ceased in 1898, the jails and other installations were demolished and sold for building material in Nouméa. The jungle claimed what was left. Since so many Frenchmen in New Caledonia are direct descendants of prisoners from the Isle of Pines, memories of these days are painful, and research is not encouraged. Just pottering about on the Isle of Pines brings its own rewards, however. The convict-built road leading from the inn at Kuto to the plateau at the center of the island is still in good shape, and something remains of each of the five prison communes that were once built along it at intervals of two kilometers. In one are the ruins of the old chapel. At another you may push away the vines and creepers and crouch in the condemned cells, or climb the steps of the guillotine.

The central plateau offers the enigma of a much more remote civilization. Scattered across it are pyramid-shaped mounds of dirt each about four feet high. Inside them are solid inverted pyramids made of a concretelike mixture of coral and seashells. Archaeologists have established that these tumuli are at least 4000 years old. They were made, it is clear, by skilled artisans, but for what function no one can say. They were not burial places. They appear to have had neither utilitarian purpose nor even religious significance, since they are haphazardly placed and cannot be identified with any phases of the moon. As with the orderly rows of ironstone boulders that one comes across in the jungle, all of them weighing hundreds of pounds, they remain a mystery in which no one on the Isle of Pines is even remotely interested.

But it is enough just to be there. The sand at Kuto Bay has the color and texture of flour. It sweeps for half a mile past the inn to a rocky eminence, where sea eagles build their nests and wild white goats graze. Perhaps it is the contrast that is so breathtaking, the pure white of the sand and the true turquoise of the sea. In all things, nature has exaggerated its colors. There are butterflies and fish of a dazzling blue. The greens of the forest are brighter than they are anywhere else, the balsam flowers a deeper blue, while the bougainvillaea flourish in reds, tangerines, purples, and pinks.

Here the sea only ripples on the beach, warm enough to be inviting and cool enough to be refreshing. Every headland promises a new beach, and even to the indolent there is a temptation to wander on. Here and there a dugout canoe dragged high from the water is a reminder of the island’s population of eight hundred natives, but the footprints on the beach are yours alone. Disrobe and plunge into the sea if you wish, for the wheeling gulls are your only company.

The jungle walks are free of snakes and savage animals. But blueand black-banded sea snakes proliferate in the coral rocks. They shun the open beaches, but the sunny and secluded nook that seems made for sunbathing is just the place the snakes like to play. Though the locals treat them with contempt and insist that their mouths are too small to bite, their innocence and incapacity are better unproven.

They are much less worth a risk than the seashells, the lustrous cowries with their polished enamel surfaces and rich color patterns, and the equally exquisite cone shells. Most are harmless, but a few, notably the conus geographus and the marble cone, with its black and white triangularshaped spaces, are more deadly than any snake.

The expert on these matters is Aime Bourgoin, a twenty-eight-yearold former commercial traveler from Cannes, who runs a launch, the Tunick, and is the Isle of Pines’s underwater guide. With his spear gun, he hunts the dangerous moray eel among the mushroom-shaped coral bunkers of remote reefs, and chases sharks for fun. He respects the eel and despises the shark. Once when we were shell hunting together in twelve feet of water, he pointed cheerfully as a nine-foot shark cruised slowly past. The sharks have so much to eat, he says, that they cannot be bothered tussling with anything as big as a man. Even so, it is reassuring that they are rarely, if ever, seen inside the reef or in the bays of the main island.

On another occasion, when my wife and I and a French couple from Tahiti were cruising with Aime at the northern end of the island, he spotted an immense turtle. Carrying only a float and a long nylon line, he dived on top of it and for half an hour battled with the three-hundredpound snapping-jawed creature, finally bringing it in triumph to the side of the boat. We lugged it aboard and carried it home in the dusk to be exchanged for bananas and papaya in the native village.

Night comes swiftly and calls for a jacket or sweater. The martinis are dry and generous. A bottle of Beaujolais costs just under $3, and vintage French wines and champagnes are about twice that price. Meals are more than adequate but less French than the advertisements claim. All in all, including meals and the flying foxes and bats that squeak in the thatch, the tariff runs from $8.50 a day. Higher-priced bungalows are literally almost on the beach; they also have more comfortable beds. Round-trip fare from the West Coast by Pan American or Qantas to Fiji, then by Air France to Nouméa, and Transpac (daily flight) to the Isle of Pines is $1228.80 first class or $888.30 tourist.