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Motu Manu: Island of men

The acoustic landscape is so heavily saturated with bird calls that there’s barely space left for us to speak. That doesn’t stop Tuhuna, our Ua Hukan guide, shouting instructions above the cacophony. Marquesan mingles with French. A few words of English are woven into the fabric for my benefit.

I understand that I am to jump from our swaying motorboat onto a small protruding stone platform. After dodging razor edged rocks and clandestine sharks, I am to hoist myself up a thick rope that hugs the sheer cliff face of the island.

The beating sun, a sweating brow, and shirt ingrained in orange dust accompany my ascent. I triumphantly reach the top of Motu Manu, meaning Bird Island in Marquesan. The eruption of wild sea birds around us mimic the volcanic origins of the island. I’m now sitting on a vast and desolate slab of stone, less than 500m in length, jutting above the unforgiving Pacific Ocean.

I gaze across the channel of water that separates barren Motu Manu from the equally barren and burnt rock face of Ua Huka. The island appears to have risen from the depths of the ocean. More likely, it was formed when a chunk of mars hurtled to earth and made this its new home.

The sense of overwhelming space in every conceivable direction consolidates why this is one of world’s most remote islands. Nestled in the Marquesas Archipelago of French Polynesia, Ua Huka offers a rich cultural history, vast swathes of copra plantations, and incredibly vulnerable wildlife.

They call the Marquesas’ the land of men. Have you ever heard the gleeful giggle that erupts from the strong Polynesian men etched and cloaked in chronicles? A childlike chortle follows the filming gear and men as they surface over the cliff edge. Men upon men, carved from the mountains and inked with the night sky. Their tattoos whisper tales of creation and the secrets of life.

Before the island is engulfed in darkness the fishermen leave us, burdened with buckets of sea bird eggs. These eggs are only collected at certain times of the year, with a limited number available for clutching hands. There still exist hidden corners on this earth where people live with the land. Thousands upon thousands of sooty terns dip and swoop as the fishermen dive off the island. A joyful whoop escapes through a gap in the soundscape.

Now four humans remain. Tuhuna, Ben our cameraman, Liv another researcher, and myself. Alongside our newfound screeching, flapping, and crapping neighbours, of course. The proud silhouette of Ua Huka across the water dips in definition as the sun plunges into the ocean.

I have travelled to Ua Huka for several days to search for something. Something wonderfully rare and unique. This 83km2 island harbours both scorched orange earth and deep green valleys draped in coconut plantations also boasts one of the rarest jewels on earth.

This jewel can be seen flung through the air, shimmering and glittering blue. The screech that follows it paths betrays its true nature. This gemstone lives. The ultramarine lorikeet, given the moniker pihiti, embodies a tale of environmental destruction and callous species introduction that is far too common. Poignantly, more species of eastern Polynesian landbirds have become extinct since the arrival of humans than currently survive on the islands today. A strong sense of injustice and conservationist curiosity drove me to the island to study it for myself.

After an evening’s work of filming and singing I settle up to sleep on another otherworldly bird island. Tuhuna’s dark eyes, strong jaw, and weathered hands allow him to carry the title of protector of the island. It may be heavy, bearing the weight of all our past mistakes, but it is necessary. The island remains free of black rats and bursting with endangered bird song, thanks to the measures taken by Tuhuna and local conservation agencies.

The night is punctuated with bird calls and hard rocks. Sleep is a luxury that doesn’t beckon. As the island welcomes the scorching sun, the waves remain vacant of our transport home. Our satellite phone crackles and our skin burns. To shield my alabaster skin I cloak myself in every bit of material I can find, as I decorate card in watercolour paint to ease my nerves.

As our limited water supplies begin to dwindle, I calculate whether I could swim to the mainland. I conclude I cannot. But as the calming effects of painting wear off, the whir of a motorboat embraces us. I savour the thrill of diving into the ocean and feeling safe once more.

Later in the week I paint a rare bird, clean up my watercolours, and present these to Tuhuna for his birthday. A smile escapes. We devour the wild goat that, at Tuhuna’s request, was hunted and cooked by him and Ben. The fire throws warm shadows across his face as he skillfully strums his guitar and erupts into a joyful song about a lost princess. The acoustic landscape is so heavily saturated with song and laughter that there is no need to speak.

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