10 Oct 65 : Paradise, bliss – and drunken legionnaires : Tahiti

Pacific Ocean

Sunday 10th October 1965

Dear Family,

Today is Sunday and the island of Tahiti has just slipped over the horizon and I think this is one of the biggest regrets of my life, for I shall probably never see it again. It was without a shadow of doubt the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life.

The ship arrived at 5 a.m. and we were up at that time cutting sandwiches for the day. We were finally able to go ashore at about 7 a.m. and walked into the town. The only town of any size on the island is Papeete, and the harbour is right in the town.

 

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Tony’s photo of Papeete

 

It’s a very small place (the whole population of the island is only 2,500) and at 7 a.m., was very busy. Tahiti is French, and the French atmosphere was terrific. Although they are Polynesians they speak French, and all the cars and buses are French too. In fact if you didn’t know where you were you would swear you were in France. There were thousands of scooters and mopeds charging all over the place. Everyone seems to have one or the other.

All the people looked exactly as I expected them to look. The women wore brightly coloured flowered dresses or sarong type things, and all had very long black hair – a lot had it hanging loose and others had it piled up high.

All without fail had flowers in their hair, or behind their ears. Even some of the men had a small flower behind their ears and we discovered that this is an old native custom which means that they are looking for a wife. We strolled through the town past the fruit market, and down streets bustling with people and traffic – people carrying bananas which they had just picked, and fish they had just caught.

As the ‘rush hour’ developed the streets became full of more scooters and mopeds – all in true French style blowing their hooters like mad.

It was a very gay, happy little town and I took an immediate liking to it. The people are very good-looking, but most are spoilt by their smiles which show they have no teeth. This apparently is due to the fact that they only drink coconut milk instead of cow’s milk, and this causes a deficiency of calcium.

However they are a very happy people and so they should be too. They probably don’t realise it but they are living on the next thing to Paradise.

We found the place where we could rent a Vespa scooter and set off on a tour of the island. There was no problem as far as the route was concerned as there is only one road and this goes right around the island.

 

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Tony’s photo

 

As soon as we cleared the town the scenery became magnificent. The road followed the coast and we passed beautiful lagoons and bays with thousands of palm trees. The water was crystal clear and some of the colours it produced were amazing.

There is a coral reef surrounding the island and the waves were breaking over that. This is an island of colour. Everywhere there were the most vividly coloured tropical flowers you can imagine and at times the road was a riot of colour.

We began to go through small villages and were intrigued by their houses which are simply made of matting. The walls consist of matted leaves and a sort of thatched roof made of twigs. They were very attractive and neat and nearly all had gardens of these fabulous flowers and plants.

I was amazed as to how primitive and unspoiled the life is here. We saw loads of little naked children and women bare to the waist and even saw women doing their washing in the streams, pounding their clothes on stones.

 

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Tony’s photo

 

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Tony’s photo

 

The streams, which come down from the mountainous and completely uninhabited centre of the island, are crystal clear. We kept stopping and talking to the people and taking pictures of them. It was fascinating and seemed almost too good to be real.

We saw the fishermen going out in their outrigger canoes fishing for sardines, and saw one fellow who makes his living by wading out up to his neck and fishing with a huge net. His little hut and boat were almost on the beach, nestled in amongst the palm trees.

 

s-l1600 Tahiti postcard front
1960s postcard, captioned: RETURN FROM SEA, TAHITI. These young people are returning from a fishing trip in the lagoon beyond. Tahiti is noted for the particularly luxuriant growth of its coconut groves. The one pictured here is no exception.

 

Everywhere we went we had to watch for falling coconuts and often we had to drive through ones that had fallen on the road. Some of the birds, too, were very exotic and unusual.

We phoned the town at 11:30 am and discovered that the ship was not leaving until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, so this meant we had 24 hours to spend in Tahiti which, although short, was enough. We had our lunch overlooking a lagoon and decided we were very lucky indeed.

By the middle of the afternoon we were back in Papeete having completely gone around the island. We then went to look at the best hotel on the island, and on the way back, we passed the harbour and discovered three English fellows who set out 17 months ago to go to Australia. They had a small yacht and invited us on board to look around. They have been pottering around the South Sea Islands for some time and seem to be in no hurry.

Next to them was a small yacht from New Zealand and we got chatting to them too. They were a married couple with four kids and were on their way to the States. He was a motor mechanic and will look for work when he gets there. They have had a stroke of bad luck. He ripped the bottom of the boat out on a coral reef and it has just been repaired in Tahiti at great expense.

There were also boats there from other parts of the world. It seems to be a great meeting place for world travellers and we wished we could have stayed a lot longer. The weather there was fabulous, about 84 degrees Fahrenheit and the water was 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The only bad thing about the whole place was that, by some freak of nature, the beaches are jet black. It’s sand, but black sand, and apparently it’s due to iron oxide. It’s certainly very unusual.

 

vintage postcard captioned Paopao Bay known as Cook's Bay, at Moorea
1950s postcard captioned: Paopao Bay, known as Cook’s Bay, at Moorea

 

About 12 miles away and facing the town is another Island called Moorea (note: now Mo’orea), and this is the island that was used in the filming of South Pacific, and in the film was called Bali Hai. It’s a very impressive island, very mountainous and jagged and its peaks are always hidden in cloud.

Being French, there is a branch of the Foreign Legion here and we passed their barracks early in the morning on our way around the island, and we also spoke to some young Frenchmen who were doing their 2 years National Service, which includes 8 months on Tahiti. They were delighted and admitted that they are the luckiest soldiers in the world.

We got back to the ship at 6 p.m. for dinner and were amazed at what we saw. The whole crew, officers and men, were all blind roaring drunk, and to add to the chaos, there was about a battalion of foreign Legionnaires on board as well.

 

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Tony on board

We felt very conspicuous being stone cold sober, but most were so drunk I don’t think they could even see us. When we got to the dining room things were even worse, with food everywhere (flying through the air mainly) bodies everywhere, singing, banging, and yelling.

All through the meal Legionnaires would come up and slap us on the back and insist on shaking hands and then proceed to tell us their life-history. Most of these fellows had been in the bar opposite the ship all day, and had only come back for some food – and were going back for the evening!!

Colin and I and Jim (the other Bristol fellow) and Mack, one of the passengers (a young American) went to the Royal Tahiti Hotel for the evening. This is a very plush hotel with dancing and cabaret in the gardens and we had a very pleasant evening there and saw some very genuine grass-skirted dancing.

quinn's bar tahiti postcard front
1960s postcard, captioned: Quinns Bar, Papeete, Tahiti. Le Bar du Quinn, Papeete, Tahiti.

 

On the way back to the ship we called in at the bar where all the crew were. This is a place called Quinn’s and is supposed to be world famous. It’s a really rough place and the noise was terrific but everyone was having a great time.

When I got back to my cabin Udo, my cabin mate, was stretched out on the floor (in his best suit), but I have got so used to this that I now just step over him and go to bed.

I arose at 7 a.m. just as the ship was leaving. We had been delayed by a rumour that there was a Foreign Legion stowaway on board and the ship had to be searched. When we left the harbour only seven of the crew were capable of working – and even the captain was still drunk!! It will be a miracle if we ever get to Auckland.

Sunday turned out to be a bigger nightmare than Saturday. Instead of sobering up – the crew started drinking harder than ever, as this was their day off, and by lunchtime the entire ship was wildly drunk again!! Lunchtime on Sunday was a meal to remember. Once again food and drink were flying, and spoons being banged on the tables to the music which was blasting out at full volume from a tape recorder – while the crew sang German drinking songs at the tops of their voices. This continued on into the night.

The next morning Colin went to the potato store, (a huge box on the deck), to fetch the potatoes for the day, and found one member of the crew in there! He had climbed in there the night before and had fallen asleep on a bed of potatoes!!

To be continued… 

Note from Tony: I was assigned to share Udo’s cabin, and I don’t think he was too pleased about that. He didn’t speak any English, so communication was difficult – but he wasn’t a very sociable type anyway. When he wasn’t working he was always drunk, and I often found him out cold on the floor of the cabin – either completely naked or in his best suit!! As we approached Sydney, he told me (through a pal of his) that I had to leave his cabin for a while as he was going to paint the floor – because he was going to be entertaining a woman when we were in Sydney…. So I had to find alternative accommodation whilst he painted the floor and then later when he entertained his lady friend!

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