Saturday, August 10, 2013

Where the Sky Meets the Sea

Bali Ha'i - a still from the 1958 movie South Pacific

Across just a short stretch of ocean from Tahiti lies the mysterious island of Moorea, nine miles NW to be precise. According to Polynesian legend, the island’s volcanic ridges constitute the second dorsal fin of the fish that became the island of Tahiti – that’s how close the two islands are. Anyone standing on the shores of north-western Tahiti has a magnificent view of Moorea’s dramatic jagged skyline, made famous around the world by the film South Pacific, in which it appeared as a stand-in for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s invented island of Bali Ha’i.
Throughout many years of research in library reading rooms and hunched over my computer, I’d read account after account of this awe-inspiring view of Moorea and had come to think of it as being almost a mythical place, like Shangri-La - or indeed Bali Ha’i itself.

Herman Melville (the author of Moby Dick) wrote in 1842 of the “the romantic elevations of Eimeo [the old name for Moorea], high above which a lone peak... shot up its verdant spire.” Thirty five years later, the Scottish artist, Constance Gordon-Cumming described the island as looking “weirdly grand; huge basaltic pinnacles of most fantastic shape towering from out of the sea of billowy white clouds, which drifted along those black crags.” In 1891, the American painter John La Farge brought an artist’s perspective to his description of the sunsets behind Moorea, “the fantastic island that has made a distance of blue and gold to our days at Papeete... even in the evening or in the afterglow, when the sunset lights up in yellow and purple the sky behind it.”  
In 1914, the American writer and traveller Frederick O’Brien described Moorea as:

“the most astonishing sight upon the ocean that my eyes had ever gazed on... Its heights were not green like Tahiti’s, but bare and black … a long sierra of broken pinnacles and crags which had all the semblance of a weathered and dismantled castle... The confused mass of lofty ridges resolved into chasms and combes, dark, sunless ravines, moist with the spray of many waterfalls, which nearer became velvet valleys of pale green, masses of foliage and light and shadow. The mountains of Moorea were only half the height of Tahiti’s, but so artfully had they been piled in their fantastic arrangement that they seemed as high, though they were entirely different in their impress upon the beholder.”
And in 1951, James Michener, whose stories of his wartime experiences in French Polynesia were the source for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s libretto for South Pacific, wrote, “From Tahiti, Moorea seems to have about 40 separate summits: fat thumbs of basalt, spires tipped at impossible angles, brooding domes compelling to the eye. But the peaks that can never be forgotten are the jagged saw-edges that look like the spines of some forgotten dinosaur.” 

I longed to stand where these people had stood, looking out at that haunting island with its primordial mountainous skyline, but the cost of a trip to Polynesia was more than my husband and I could justify. But in late November 2007, encouraged by my then agent, we took a leap of faith, maxed out a credit card, and got on a plane to Tahiti so I could see the place I was writing about with my own eyes. 
After a long delay at LAX and an eight-hour flight across the Pacific, we arrived in Tahiti at night, dog tired and travel stained. We were driven in a rickety cab through the humid darkness to our hotel. It was very late and we were dying for sleep, but the air conditioning in our room refused to work, which meant a laborious process of repacking and moving to another room before we could fall into bed.  

We woke next morning to a hot and beautiful day. Our room looked out onto the cargo ships docked in the port of Papeete and the green hills behind the town. An interesting view, especially as everything in Tahiti related in some way to my book, but with nothing very fantastical or mystical about it. But then my husband, who had gone off to explore the hotel while I showered and dressed, came back to the room in a state of suppressed excitement. He led me down a flight of stairs and out to the edge of the hotel’s infinity pool and pointed.
And there it was on the horizon, looking exactly as I expected, exactly how it had been described. And that was the moment when I realized I was finally there, standing in the land where I’d been living in my imagination for so long - and promptly burst into tears.

Moorea in the morning
Moorea in the evening

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