Hitching a ride on a cargo ship has a proud history, and the adventurous can still do it today in Europe and North America and, closer to home, in the South Pacific.
The no-frills cousins of the cruising family, cargo cruises carry adventurous travellers on freighter ships that transport goods around the world. A basic version sees up to a dozen passengers sharing facilities with the crew for a month or more, for around $150 per day, while others take 200 people around the South Pacific at luxury cruise prices.
The appeal lies in the slow pace of travel and the unusual experience of life aboard a working vessel. Imagine being one of five guests on a massive grain carrier that a similarly sized cruise ship would accommodate a crowd of 5000. There's no entertainment or mobile phone reception, and many ports are in non-touristy areas, but many people relish the lack of distractions to work, read or write. Not that cargo cruises are boring; most freighters have internet access, a pool, gym, sauna and barbecues on deck.
The first thing to sink this trend - popular for long-haul trips until the 1970s - was cheaper airfares; the second killer was COVID-19. Before the pandemic, about 4000 passengers sailed annually on commercial cargo ships, but this minimalist style of travel remains largely suspended. According to travel agency Cargo Ship Voyages: "Passenger travel on cargo ships has largely ceased since the pandemic; regrettably, we are seeing little appetite from shipowner partners to resume activity."
While we never stopped delivering cargo to the far-flung Marquesas, the islanders missed our guests.
Hamish Jamieson, managing director, Hawke's Bay Travel Centre & Freighter Travel, based in New Zealand, agrees there is no clear indication when or if "authentic" cargo cruising will restart. "That is the million-dollar question. In 2021 the big companies said we will start again in 2022, then in late 2021 they announced a further pause until early 2023. In late 2022 they delayed the restart until early 2024. The truth is nobody really knows," he said.
However, there are a few options for short journeys within Europe and Canada, global voyages on the St Helena, and Aranui Cruises in French Polynesia. Cargo Ship Voyages recently listed a 28-day journey on a German container ship that departs Hamburg every month. Passengers are welcomed on the route to Belgium, France, Morocco, the Netherlands and UK. Fares start at 2624 euros ($4383) per person (2904 euros solo).
A smaller ship alternative is also offered in Quebec. From April to January, Bella Desgagnes offers one-week cruises in its 63 cabins while it delivers mail and supplies to coastal villages. Fares start at $CAD705 ($807) per person twin-share (plus fees and taxes) including meals and sightseeing in some ports.
St Helena, a former Royal Mail ship, has become the transport facility and hospitality club for Extreme E Racing Series, which stages off-road races in remote locations. The ship carries the vehicles and equipment, and during race events it is used to entertain the drivers, teams and sponsors. At other times, passengers can stay in the 60 guest cabins and use the restaurant, VIP bar, executive lounge, and pantry stocked with snacks and soft drinks. An upcoming line voyage from Chile to Saudi Arabia via the Panama Canal and Suez Canal is estimated to take 40 days. Departing December 14, 2023, it's priced from 5266 euros per person twin-share (7586 euros for solo occupancy).
Most convenient for Australians is Aranui Cruises, which has provided passenger-cargo voyages from Papeete, Tahiti, for 40 years. While Aranui 5 distributes food, fuel and other staples around the Marquesas archipelago, travellers can explore the palm-fringed blue lagoons surrounded by volcanic vistas.
"We have been delighted to welcome guests back onboard Aranui 5 after the COVID-19 pause. While we never stopped delivering cargo to the far-flung Marquesas, the islanders missed our guests and have enjoyed once again showing them around their home and sharing their customs and traditions," said Laurent Wong, Aranui Cruises' regional representative in Australia and New Zealand.
Next year the cruises will reinstate Bora Bora, which was temporarily removed from the itinerary. "Bora Bora is the last stop on our incredible 3800-kilometre round-trip voyage to the remote Marquesas Islands, and it is a fitting finale to the ultimate South Pacific adventure," Wong said. "Bora Bora is as beautiful and exclusive as ever, and we love taking our guests to this slice of paradise as part of our traditional cargo cruise to the Marquesas."
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Aranui, which means "the great highway" in the Maori language, ran its original ship as a merchant inter-island trader, although it occasionally provided passage to Tahitians who slept on the main deck under a tarpaulin. The first official passenger cruise was launched in 1984 aboard the Aranui 1, with a few modifications including guest cabins, dormitories, a new galley and dining room.
Each subsequent ship in the fleet has been upgraded with more amenities, culminating in the 254-passenger Aranui 5. This cruise freighter offers air-conditioned accommodation, with more than half of the rooms featuring a private balcony. Facilities include a pool, library, gym, spa, tattoo studio, two bars and a restaurant serving regional cuisine, staffed by local crew.
The 2024 program includes 20 Marquesas sailings that deliver supplies to six islands - Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva and Hiva Oa - where passengers can disembark for hikes, 4WD tours or visits to archaeological sites. Aranui 5 will also alternate between Tuamotu atolls Fakarava and Kauehi on the journey north to the Marquesas, and Rangiroa and Makatea on the return leg.
Marquesas Islands fares start at $8181 per person twin share. A 25 per cent discount is offered on the 12-day cruise departing December 2, 2023, reducing the base price to $5955 per person. Fares include shore excursions, a weekly laundry service, three meals a day and French wines served with lunch and dinner.
For cargo cruises, see aranuicruises.com.au, cargoshipvoyages.com or freightertravel.co.nz