Published in The Financial Times in June 2006
In July 1891 on a sultry afternoon a tall man stepped down onto the dock at the small port of Papeete. Wearing a brown felt cowboy hat with shoulder length salt-and-pepper hair, he drew catcalls from Tahitians more used to the buttoned-up Europeans of this isolated outpost in French Polynesia. Yet Paul Gauguin was never a man to compromise. Always in quest of the absolute, he had abandoned family and friends in Europe and set sail for Tahiti. Here in the bright sun of the tropics he hoped to discover a new artistic truth amongst people unspoiled by modern civilisation.
I arrived at the more prosaic time of 5 a.m. just as the dawn spread down over the distant mist capped mountains of Moorea. Watching the morning light spill across the spectacular bay it was easy to understand why Gauguin himself was so dazzled by his new surroundings that he was unable to paint for weeks after his arrival.
Giving up on sleep, I walked through the narrow streets for an excellent croissant at a Chinese patisserie. Close by in the market, vivid fish were being carefully strung into dainty displays by burly women who wielded large slabs of ice as if they were made of feathers. On the wharf, an American cruise ship was edging alongside, its decks lined with passengers as the town centre filled with the cars of the morning rush hour.
When Gauguin arrived a century before, Papeete was a sleepy backwater of tin-roofed houses beneath the mountains. Within a month, fleeing the stultifying expatriate circle, he set off on horseback along the coast to find the real Polynesia.
Later that day, but in air-conditioned comfort, I followed his route with my guide Bernie Kamalamalama, leaving Papeete on a road bordered by thickly wooded hills and the surf of the Pacific. We stopped at the sleepy hamlet of Mataiea, only 80 kilometres out of Papeete, a journey which had taken Gauguin more than a day. “Then he would have been invited in at every house he passed”, Bernie said with a smile. “Island hospitality is unstoppable”. Here, on a lovely cove dotted with palm clad islets Gauguin rented a fare, the Tahitian house of bamboo thatched in grass. Living with a young vahiné ( e has acute) called Tehamana he found at last the idyll of his dreams and in a joyous letter to a friend in Paris he wrote: “…coming from Europe I was always uncertain about colour…yet now it is so simple to put red or purple on my canvas.” The cove today is still much as it had been, although nothing remains of Gauguin’s fare. Bernie pointed out a mango tree, under which the painter drank rum with Tahitian friends, a practice which earned him much disapproval from the local clerics.
Not far away, the Musee ( first e has acute ) de Gauguin stands on a small promontory. Here in a garden full of darting vivid parrots I talked to curator Belinda Hart, an elegant woman of mixed French and Tahitian blood. “Gauguin would walk about for three or four days and then lock himself away in his fare…” and then she hesitated, searching for the right words. “Pour faire sa cuisine – to make his cooking”. I must have looked slightly bemused for she laughed. “He never took an easel on his walks but would absorb images. His paintings were distillations of the colours he remembered”. She showed me around the small open-sided museum which had a few drawings and sketches by the painter, and some artefacts from his last home in the Marquesas. “There is a special luminescence here”, she told me. “At dusk and at dawn it is as if the land returns the light it has received”.
I stayed that night in a simple fare close by, falling asleep underneath a mosquito net with the sound of the sea breaking on the beach metres from my head. Next morning at dawn, a fisherman paddled out across the mirror calm lagoon to the smudge of white where a lazy swell broke on the distant reef. The light was indeed extraordinary, the dark purple of the mountains above merging to a lemon tinted sea. Relieved that I did not have the task of interpreting this scene on canvas, I slipped into the warm water for an early swim before having breakfast of papaya and lime juice on the terrace by my fare.
That day I completed the tour of the island, driving through quiet villages with fishing pirogues drawn up on the beaches before coming back into the bustle of Papeete. Out in the bay long canoes were racing on the calm water as I went for my last Tahitian supper at a roulotte, one of the small vans which set up each evening on the wharf.
Gauguin had left from this very spot after only two years in Tahiti, penniless and disappointed. The 80 or so paintings he had produced were too exotic for European tastes and remained unsold in Paris. But in two years he was back, painting furiously until his death in the remote Marquesas in 1903 – ironically just as the European art world awoke to his genius.
A blast from the cruise ship leaving the wharf filled the night and I paid my bill, sad to think that by the time dawn came again over the mountains across the bay, I too would be far on my way.
Nick Haslam’s visit to Tahiti was organised by Transpacific Holidays (Tel: 01293 567722. Web: www.transpacificholidays.co.uk), specialists in travel to the Pacific islands.
Getting there: He flew with Air New Zealand which has daily flights to New Zealand from London Heathrow with a free stopover in Los Angeles. An additional two Pacific Island stops are included on the flight down in Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa or Tonga starting from GBP 50. Direct flights start from GBP 690 including tax.
For more information about Tahiti go to www.tahiti-tourisme.com
Hotels in Papeete:
Tahiti Beachcomber Intercontinental: Tel: +689 865110. Web: www.tahiti.interconti.com
Le Mandarin: +689 50 84 62. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fare Nana’o ( a small family-run hotel near Mataiea and the Musee ( first e has acute) Gaugin ) : tel: + 689 57 93 93. Web: email@example.com