Archive for the ‘French Polynesia’ Category
18 degrees 58.244′ South
166 degrees 46.667′ West
Our plans have changed – again- because there have been so many delays up to now that we’re at least 6 weeks behind our original schedule. So the Cook Islands, Samoa, even Niue are off the itinerary and we’ll be spending the last weeks of our trip in Tonga – specifically, in the Vava’u Group of islands – before heading for New Zealand. The Captain feels strongly, and I agree, that it’s better to explore one area than spend all our time sailing between many places without really seeing any of them properly.
We’re now en route from Bora Bora to Tonga, a distance of about 1,250 miles, and should reach Neiafu in about 5 days, assuming the winds remain favourable. We’ve had an OK passage so far, with only a few days of too little wind or too much. The swells have been enormous. On one day, although the sea was calm, the swells were so huge and the distances between them so long, that the surface of the sea looked more like a landscape of slowly moving hills and valleys than water. These swells come all the way up from the Southern Ocean and I wouldn’t have liked to have been there for the storm that caused them!
Nothing seems to have broken down so far either. Except the fridge, of course, which goes on strike at irregular intervals for no reason The Captain can discover. I maintain it’s sheer malignant perversity or possibly the desire for a better class of electricity.
We stayed rather longer in Taha’a than we had intended, thanks to high winds and seas and pelting rain that lasted 5 days and forced us to remain on a mooring buoy until they abated enough for us to set sail for Bora Bora with some degree of comfort and safety.
Even before that, the weather had been more boisterous than usual, and there was no point trying to get to one of the tiny islets that are so picturesque, as no anchorage there would have been safe to spend the night on, and certainly snorkelling was out of the question. So we moored in a couple of pretty bays and had a perfectly delicious meal at a restaurant run by a chef from Normandy who served us Mahi-Mahi with vanilla sauce – which sounds very peculiar but is much the same kind of improbably delicious combination as are foie gras and Sauternes.
Though water sports were off the activities list, we went on an ethno-botanical tour of Taha’a given by Alain Plantier, a fervent amateur botanist, who took us to the interior of the island by way of his vanilla plantation. ‘Vanilla Tours’ had been recommended to us, and I had met Alain’s wife over a lunch of poisson cru at the Tahiti Yacht Club. Luckily, we were able to book just before the weather turned fierce and there was only one other couple with us. It was genuinely worthwhile – even according to The Captain, who tends to look askance at tours and suchlike herd-activities.
Alain und Cristina Plantier moved to Taha’a from France some 30 years ago “to raise babies and a garden” after falling in love with French Polynesia. They’ve lived on the shore of Hurepiti Bay ever since, without electricity or running water until only about 5 years ago, and built their home themselves in the traditional native style: a separate house or ‘Fare’ for each daily activity – sleeping, cooking and living, bathroom, workshop, etc. and, later, a separate ‘Fare’ for each of their children. The whole is a collection of palm thatched, woven bamboo-walled dwellings half open to the outside world and tucked into a beautifully lush garden, connected by paths that wander through flowering hedges. It’s a kind of architecture perfectly suited to the climate, and one in which inside and outside are a matter of degrees of airiness rather than rigidly defined spaces.
Alain began the tour by explaining how the roofs and walls had been woven, and went on to talk about the various plants that had been brought to the Polynesian islands by the original settlers from Asia thousands of years ago and how they were used. We then walked on to their small vanilla plantation, where he demonstrated why vanilla costs so much. For one thing, the vines are about 3 years old before they begin to flower – and that’s after the ‘tutors’ or supporting small trees have grown up. For another, the whole process is so labour intensive that it’s a wonder the finished product doesn’t cost even more.
Vanilla planifolia originates in Central America and was first brought to Europe by Hernan Cortez in 1518. The Aztecs had used it to flavour drinking chocolate and called it ‘Tlilxochitl’, and thought it had magical powers. Although attempts were made to grow the orchids in many other suitable climates, the Spanish were able to maintain a monopoly on vanilla production for many years because only one kind of bee – which refused to thrive away from its native habitat – is the primary pollinator. Eventually a 12 year-old slave in Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, discovered a way to pollinate the orchid by hand and since then it has been grown wherever climate permits. Taha’a produces most of the vanilla grown in French Polynesia, and during certain times of year the whole island is said to be pervaded by the scent.
The blossoms are still all pollinated by hand, using a tiny stick to transfer the pollen to the stigma, between 8 and 12 hours after the blossom opens. After that ‘window of opportunity’ the blossom wilts and dies. We were told that in some of the plantations on Taha’a up to 12,000 blossoms will open every day, all of which need pollinating if they’re to produce a pod! After pollination, the pod begins to grow where the orchid blossom was. The green pods look like bunches of extra long, extra fat, shiny green beans 6-10″ long, and smell of nothing at all.
Six months later, once they’ve ripened and turned a light brown, they’re ready to harvest. The pods are left to dry in the sun for about 4 hours a day on cloths. After the daily drying the cloth and pods are folded and left to sweat and ferment. The next day, the cloths are unfolded and the accumulated moisture is evaporated in the sun again. And so it goes for many weeks, until a specific, very low moisture content is reached, the scent has developed and the pods won’t mould.
Here endeth the lesson!
The next part of the trip consisted of a very bumpy Jeep ride up through the central part of the island on a dirt road that began well, but turned to deep red mud as we drove higher. The vegetation became wilder and more jungle-like. Plantations of vanilla vines, coconut, papaya and banana trees were joined by wild hibiscus and enormous ferns and plants with leaves like elephant’s ears. Tall trees with lacy foliage towered over all, creepers crept, and bird-of-paradise blossoms glowed like flames in the deep shadowed under-brush. At several points we stopped and our guide demonstrated uses for the various plants we saw growing by the roadside. The plates he made of wild hibiscus leaves pinned together with small twigs, would do nicely at any domestic western barbecue should one be short a few of the cardboard variety!
We ended by driving along the coast road, where a series of minuscule fishing villages clung to the shoreline. The inhabitants live off the fish they catch and, for the most part, eat the vegetables and fruit they grow themselves. It’s a subsistence economy, which explains why there’s so little fruit to be had in the shops despite the wealth of fruit trees on the island.
Bora Bora was only half a day’s sail away, so we were able to leave Taha’a at a civilised time of morning. We entered the main entrance to the lagoon to the accompaniment of 35 knots of wind – regrettably, this seems to have become a tradition when we come into harbours! We anchored on the second try without much trouble, though I had to steer the boat ’round and ’round for 15 minutes while The Captain untangled the anchor chain, which had got snarled in its locker.
We saw nothing of the island, unfortunately, except a Chinese grocery store and the fuel dock, because our visa ran out on Sunday the 6th September and we arrived on the Saturday the 5th. We were there just long enough to stock up on some fresh fruit and vegetables and top up with diesel. I walked out to the narrow, dusty main road while The Captain was filling the jerry cans and used up the rest of our small change buying papayas and bananas from a roadside stand. Ah well…
Tonga will be an entirely different experience – politically, culturally and geographically…
Love to all from us both,
16 degrees 44.110′ South/151 degrees 29.176′ West
When a shoal of miniature zebra fish make the collective decision that the three-inch-long garden of bright green seaweed thickly carpeting your ladder is the ideal spot in which to hang out permanently, it’s definitely time to move the sail boat on!
We stayed in Papeete much longer than we had intended and if it hadn’t been for Marc and Laurence, the extraordinarily kind and amusing couple we met at the yacht club, we would probably have got quite twitchy having to be in the same place for almost 4 weeks. As it was, they introduced us to their friends, who introduced us to even more people, so by the time we left about a week ago, we had quite a collection of new acquaintances.
The sail that needed mending and which had been the cause of our delayed departure was finally returned thanks to the subterfuge of the yacht club’s manager, who told the sail maker that we were going to leave in a couple of days. To be fair, the material had had to be sent from the U.S. and once it had arrived we had to take a taxi all the way to the airport to pick it up – and pay about 10X the cost of the materials in paperwork fees.
We also got the loos fixed. It turns out I was able to insinuate my hand and arm up under the floorboards and between the pipe work, and while The Captain braced the loose bolts from above I used one of his special wrenches to take the bits off from underneath. The trickiest part of the exercise was not dropping the nuts and washers and stuff into the bilge once they’d come off. Then The Captain – poor man – took the porcelain halves outside and cleaned and de-grottified them, lavishly applied silicon sealant to various grooves, then screwed them together properly. Then we did the wrench thing again to attach the porcelain to the floor & hoses. It was a really nasty job, which should never have been necessary, and he had the worst of it by far. But, oh, the relief of being able to sit on the loo without having it try to squirm out from under you…!
For me, the nicest part of the last 2 weeks in Papeete was going to the Sunday morning markets with Laurence, who would pick me up in the yacht club car park. The market is considered to be an especially colourful affair and is on the tourist agenda (though there never seemed to be any tourists there, probably because by 8am it’s over). An added bonus is that on Sundays the produce is sold by the people that grow it, and so is cheaper and fresher and riper.
At 5:30am, dawn barely breaking, I would creep out and take the dinghy to shore while The Captain was still asleep. His attitude to markets is, “When you’ve seen one lot of smiley brown people selling green stuff, you’ve seen them all.” By the time we arrived – at about 6:15am – the market would have been going strong since 4am, spilling out from the ordinary weekday premises into the adjoining streets. Scents of jasmine and gardenia flowers being made into wreaths and necklaces by old ladies on one side of the market, mixed with the smells of fruit and fish and the appetising, smoky odour of pork being roasted in an open, wood fired oven nearby. The Tahitians eat the roast pork for breakfast, along with fried doughnuts and bread, and crowds of men and women lined the tables and counters which were piled high with the food.
We would return to the car laden with pineapples in bunches of 5 tied with sisal twine, hands of green bananas, bags of chilli peppers, limes, papayas, mangoes, pamplemousses, bottles of fresh coconut milk or sugar cane juice, sweet bright green oranges, some of that roast pork. No live chickens on our shopping list, though every now and then someone would walk by with a bulging string bag stuffed with a fowl or two. These would occasionally struggle in the half-hearted, resigned manner of a bird that suspects its next stop is definitely not going to be A Fun Place but knows it can do nothing about it.
One Sunday I bought a traditional sort of pudding which had been baked over a wood fire in a 3′ long thick green bamboo tube tied at the top with coconut leaf and raffia. To get at the contents one has to split the bamboo with a heavy knife whacked with a hammer. I thought it tasted delicious, rather like a cross between semolina pudding and coconut cake, but The Captain gave it a thumbs-down. On the other hand, he much appreciated the bamboo – split finely it has been most useful for fishing bits of rubbish from the bilge. Broken cable ties, pieces of plastic, stray nails and chunks of wood…this stuff keeps turning up, having thoughtfully been left there for our entertainment by the chaps at the boatyard in Richmond.
The trip to Moorea was wild. We had been warned the south-east trade winds funnel through the gap between the islands, to the extent that the phenomenon is marked on charts as a danger to commercial shipping. But we did not expect the wind to whip up to 30-35 knots within a few minutes of our leaving the lee of Tahiti’s north shore. At one point, just off the north-east coast of Moorea, it reached 38 knots. The Captain at the helm was soaked to the skin within minutes, and I had to keep ducking and clambering from one side of the cockpit to the other to escape the worst of the heavy spray.
The one nice thing about the trip was that the unsettling rhythmic metal-on-metal noise we had heard on the way down, and which had caused us such anxiety, had vanished. One nice day at the yacht club, on the off-chance, I had got out my snorkelling gear and scraped the coating of small barnacles from the prop. The Captain said, after a bit of research, that sometimes this causes cavitation, which can set up odd noises. This seems to have been the case.
Once we got into Opunohu Bay the wind died down to almost nothing and we moored just within the reef on the eastern side of the entrance. It was very different from where we had been moored in Tahiti: the water was very clear – so clear that we could see our anchor lying in the white coral sand 30 feet below – and our view of the shore consisted of white beaches and obligingly attractive coconut palms leaning over the sand.
We spent 3 days there, simply motoring slowly around in the dinghy and enjoying the new views. One morning we slalomed through a narrow passage between reefs to get to Cook Bay, where we took a walk and had a lavish Italian lunch.
I also did a bit of snorkelling, but was disappointed because the coral had been much damaged and was partially dead. There were many of beautiful fish though, and sea cucumbers of enormous size and a hideous surgical-appliance greyish-pink, covered in cone-shaped protuberances at either end. Definitely one of Nature’s lapses of taste.
Then we left for Raiatea, and had a peculiarly unpleasant overnight crossing. I say peculiar, because although it was raining neither sea nor wind were unreasonably high. But yesterday we had dinner with a German fellow who sails a traditional Tahitian double-hulled boat, and who had done the same trip during the same 24 hours. He also said it had been the worst of all his Polynesian crossings – and this is a man who has been sailing since he was 8 years old, all over the world. However, here we now are, after coming into the reef the day before yesterday through Passe Teavapiti (the entrance furthest to the north-east) with an escort of leaping dolphins. It is very much the world of transparent turquoise waters and palm fringed islets we’d imagined, even more so than Moorea.
Our stay started with a hiccup, because the first night we dropped our anchor in about 80 feet at the edge of the main channel near the town of Uturoa, where all the marine charts say anchoring is encouraged. But the next morning we got a visit from the Port Authority, who said we had to move on. We believe everyone is nervous because about one night about 2 weeks ago, in Bora Bora, some drunken idiot with more fingers than brain cells rammed his motorboat into a moored cruising sail boat at speed, damaging 2 boats, injuring 2 sailors badly, and severing his own arm. Nasty – and this is why we always have our anchor lights and sometimes even our cockpit lights on at night.
Anyway, we couldn’t leave immediately because we couldn’t raise the anchor. I’ve mentioned that the windlass had got stuck in the ‘on’ position when we first moored at the Tahiti Yacht Club. The Captain had opened the switch and fixed the problem – we thought. I’d been a bit uneasy though, because in Moorea it began acting up again: I could raise the anchor only by placing my foot on the windlass deck-switch ‘just so’ and pushing in exactly the right way. Being an impatient old moo, my theory is that if any mechanical object gets temperamental that way, it’s officially busted.
Well, the wretched thing had given up the ghost right after we’d finished anchoring the afternoon before. The Captain opened the whole thing up immediately and discovered to his horror that the whole switch was green with corrosion on the inside. He said it was a miracle it had worked at all. It hadn’t been serviced as it should have been. He fixed it the next day, of course, but had to plead for more time with the official.
Now we’re moored on the western side of the island just around the northern point. We’re at a tiny shipyard – Chantier Naval des Iles – where we got someone to check on the skeg and propeller, just to make sure everything is in place and firmly attached. This was done yesterday, by a brilliant French mechanic, born in Martinique, who stripped to his kecks to dive under the boat after doing all the investigations he could from the inside. Can’t see a London or Californian mechanic doing that….!
I took a walk today to get some groceries (well, beer mostly…) and the vegetation on either side of the road was lush and beautiful. While admiring the ferns and banana trees and bird-of-paradise flowers, I noticed that the ground beneath is densely pockmarked with holes ranging from thimble-sized to ones larger than a man’s fist. When we first arrived in Tahiti, I’d taken it for granted these belonged to some kind of gopher or other rodent, but was told later that land crabs dig them. Here, in a less urban area, there are many more of the holes and the inhabitants are obviously less timid, because they sit at the entrance to their burrows with big front claws bent in, so they look like they’re sitting with arms crossed. On my approach they quickly retreated sideways and underground, sometimes furtively clutching a bit of detritus they’ve scavenged. The ground surrounding their burrows is quite bare and swept free of rubbish.
Tomorrow morning we leave for Raiatea’s twin island Taha’a, which lies within the same barrier reef. We shall probably spend about a week there and I hope to do some good snorkelling. We hope that, for a change, there will be NO work to do on the boat!
More later and love to all from us both,
This is going to be an odd sort of blog because it’ll be mostly photos, on the principle that one of the latter is worth a good bit of text!
The venue was the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands, on Punaauia Bay about 20 minutes’ drive west of Papeete; the occasion was the Traditional Sports and Games Competitions – a yearly event that is part of the Heiva i Tahiti, which is basically a celebration of all things traditionally Polynesian. The day was the 14th July – Bastille Day – and like any good French ‘Colony’, everything was shut down, including public transport. We were lucky enough to be able to ride with friends, but people without a car or similar arrangements would have had a devil of a time getting there. The result that the audience consisted mostly of families and friends of the competitors, who came from all over French Polynesia; it was an almost completely tourist-free occasion. It’s deeply hypocritical to be delighted by this absence of one’s own species, of course…
The events were: men’s & women’s javelin throwing, rock lifting, coconut husking, copra-preparation and coconut tree climbing.
Coconut trees are scaled with the aid of a twisted rope about 16″ long, with a loop for the feet at either end (some of the competitors made their own rope from some kind of fibres before the event). It took the winner about 3 1/2 seconds to climb to the red rag!
To husk a coconut, one whacks it several times onto a lethally sharpened wooden stake – of the kind more commonly used to pin vampires to a crossroads in the dead of night – thus peeling the tough fibrous covering from the nut.
To prepare copra, the stake was dispensed with and the whole coconut was split with an axe, spraying coconut water and coconut chips onto the surrounding spectators. Then the meat was scooped out of the split nuts with a special tool, then put into a bag (though in reality it would have been dried in the sun for a day or so before being bagged) and the competitor would jump to his feet as a roar of triumph would be heard from his supporters.
Rock lifting was, well, lifting big rocks. These had been carefully smoothed to eliminate any possible convenient handholds. The women lifted 60 kilos and the men 150 kilos, and the idea was to hold the boulder on your shoulder for as long as possible.
Some of the men, being just that much tougher, danced around the platform a bit with their loads.
The men’s javelin-throwing went on the longest and was the most impressive competition. The javelins are home-made from wild hibiscus shoots about the thickness of a finger, carefully peeled and dried, resulting in a shaft which is light, flexible, strong and not entirely straight, which gives a spin to the javelin when it’s thrown. The points are made of the metal from cans and the men’s javelins are also tipped with heavy carpenters’ nails. These weapons are thrown at an unhusked coconut fastened to the top of a metal pole about 30 feet high.
The women’s coconut was a big green one, and the men’s a smaller, drier brown one. The spears were thrown pretty much as people felt like it, and the degree of skill manifested by the men may be judged by the fact that toward the end of each heat, there had been so many hits that javelins were skidding and bouncing off the ones already embedded in the target. The winner came from a tiny atoll somewhere in the archipelago, and this was the 16th year in a row he’d won.
We ate a lunch of traditional foods – roast pig, young taro shoots and huge portions of a selection of glutinous and/or starchy vegetables that had the sort of flavour that whispered, ‘This will go straight to your hips’ even as one ate them. In fact, the Tahitians tend to be on the large side, especially the ‘Mamas’ or matriarchs, whose personalities are obviously as impressive as their avoirdupois, whose hats would put those seen at Ascot to shame, and who can all dance beautifully!
A few days later, we went to one of the many traditional dance competitions that take place each year during Heiva i Tahiti, which took place in a vast, temporary open-air stadium which had been set up near Papeete’s main harbour. Dance troupes from all over Polynesia, including Hawaii, perform in various categories, and prizes are awarded for the totality of each performance – skill, choreography, costumes, story-line, singing…
The costumes are extraordinary as well as beautiful, because most of them, especially those worn by young dance troupes, are made from fresh vegetation and flowers by the performers themselves, and their friends, during the night before their performances. The performance we attended featured, among other young troupes, the group that we had heard practising nearly every night for weeks in the gym behind the yacht club.
That’s it – hope you enjoy the photos!
Love to all,
17 31.414′ S / 149 32.118′ W
Sorry about the long hiatus. In retrospect, this blog should probably have been called ‘Fixing The Boat’! Anyway…
‘Yacht Club de Tahiti’, which is where we’re moored, sounds very posh but isn’t really. It’s a small, sleepy, rather pretty place, surrounded by greenery, with only a couple of dozen moorings in addition to the berths. The members are mostly locals and it’s the venue for a children’s sailing school and the area’s teenagers’ activity centre. This means that the lagoon is often full of tiny sail boats skittering about like colourful butterflies, and in the evenings the adjacent stadium is full of kids practising traditional dances to the sound of drums. Mornings and evenings the local outrigger teams practice their technique and this morning there was a race, with lots of shouting and laughter as the crews of the boats alternated after each lap: the first crew would simply jump out of one side of the canoe as the other lot, who were waiting in the water, jumped in from the outrigger side. The boats would barely stop moving during the exchange.
This mooring is in sharp contrast to the bays on the other – more touristy – side of Papeete. There, hundreds of boats are moored and anchored very close together in bays whose shores are encrusted with large hotels, and theft from boats tied up to jetties is a problem. We like the tranquillity of this place, but many cruisers enjoy the kind of close contact that the busier marinas offer. À chacun son goût…
The trip from Nuku Hiva was irritating beyond belief, although the first day was great: brilliant sun and about 15 knots of wind, which is ideal for the boat. In those conditions she sails at 5 ½ to 6 knots, riding high and cutting through the swell as smoothly as silk. Unfortunately, come evening the wind rose to 25 to 30 knots and because the prevailing trade winds at this time of year are south-east/east, but the prevailing swell comes from the south, the resulting ride was what The Captain cheerfully calls ‘travelling in a washing machine’.
The next day was the same, and the next. We decided we’d give Rangiroa a miss as the guidebooks are so specific about the dangers of entering the Tuamotu lagoons during anything other than calm conditions. One has to enter and leave on the slack tide anyway, as there can be currents of up to 9 knots as water is funnelled through the narrow openings in the lagoon. It turns out we did the right thing; yesterday we heard boats had been trapped in both Nuku Hiva and Rangiroa for more than a week by the unusually high winds for this time of year.
The next morning, both engines quit within 5 minutes of each other. This meant that unless we fixed at least one of them, we’d quickly be out of power for the electronics and the autopilot. After six hours of sweaty labour on our part, all done while we were being thrown about, TheCaptain got the main engine started. Although initially it sounded as if there might be water in the engine, the problem turned out to be the fuel tanks, which should have been properly cleaned out by the boatyard in California, but weren’t.
The tanks have rust in them. This probably happened when the previous owners refuelled from rusty steel drums. Although this stuff usually stays at the bottom of the tank, it’s stirred up when conditions are rough. The rust is very fine, and clogs the fuel filters for the engine. In fact, the rust is so fine that it goes through the primary filters and clogs the secondary filters, which are a pain to change. The Captain has had to alter the entire filtering system for the small engine and increase the fineness of the filters for the big engine, because the problem can’t be solved until we reach New Zealand.
(NB: There is a special place in Hell for designers and engineers who don’t take into account the conditions in which the things they design are to be used. The cretins who dream up smoothly polished bath taps that can’t be turned with soapy hands will go there, and so will the engineers who put fuel filters and other bits that regularly need servicing into the most inaccessible areas of engines.)
Then a really nasty grinding noise began to manifest itself and we couldn’t get the engine revolutions above 1600 rpm, which is about half power. It sounded as if something metallic were rubbing against something else along the shaft, which is not the kind of sound one wants to hear. The auxiliary engine remained dead, no matter what The Captain did. This meant the water maker couldn’t be used. Then in short succession the refrigerator quit and the water pump sprang a leak (poor installation of a too-short hose) and an entire tank of our precious water went into the bilge. We were left with 40 gallons. We wouldn’t have died of thirst, given we have enough Schweppes tonic water on board for a small army, but washing ourselves became a matter of dabbling.
After a few more days of rough sailing we finally got to within 20 miles of Tahiti but could get no further, even with the main engine, which The Captain babied nervously. The wind was coming from straight ahead of us, we had no real mainsail to tack with (because it has that tear…) and the engine could only give us 1/2 power, which wasn’t enough to make more than 1-2 knots headway (i.e. any regulation-issue granny can walk faster). The Captain decided we’d heave to off Moorea, well away from Papeete harbour traffic, and get some rest. (For non-boaty people: ‘heaving to’ is when you set sails and rudder in such a way that the forces cancel each other out and you sit more or less stationary and quietly even in heavy seas and wind. It’s rather nice, actually!)
And there we sat for the night. The winds had shifted direction by the next morning and we’d noticed that during the very early morning they’d died down for a few hours. Rather than heave to for another night, we decided to make a run for our harbour by moving all night again, so as to place ourselves advantageously when daylight arrived.
That worked, except for the entirely gratuitous couple of squalls that smacked into us 2 miles off the harbour entrance – 35 knots of wind and pelting rain. And then we couldn’t anchor here because there was no holding, which the guidebooks hadn’t mentioned, and finally the windlass got overenthusiastic and got stuck in the ‘on’ position, whomping the anchor up into its cradle before I could tear down the companionway to cut the electricity from the main board (The Captain had to steer the boat). I used a lot of bad language. A kind soul launched his dinghy and came by after seeing us go ’round and round for the 6th time, and helped us hook up to the one free mooring buoy. Thank goodness we’ve been lucky about that, at least, because the regular owner is away and his boat is undergoing repairs, so we can stay on it for the present.
From the boat, it looks as if we’re moored with no protection at all – the view is straight out to sea. In fact, although there’s no protection from the wind, within the reef the water is almost still even when it’s blowing hard. Coming in behind the reef was interesting, because we hadn’t done it before. One sees nothing dramatically dangerous on entering, not even any breaking waves, when the sea is relatively calm. We followed the markers in, then had to thread our way through a narrow channel between the shore and the coral reef. Coral shows brown or green under the blue water, but unless the sun is high it’s quite difficult to see, even with polarised sunglasses. It would be very easy to run into the reef without someone stationed up in the bow to keep a sharp lookout, or if the wind were high enough to push the boat about, or if the water were very choppy, or if one were inclined to cut corners…
One last bit of unnecessary trouble came to light the day after we’d moored. It turns out the front toilet has come loose from its pedestal, because the chimpanzees at the boatyard didn’t tighten the bolts properly. Short of taking the wretched thing off entirely, uncoupling the hoses and reseating it, there’s nothing much we can do, so it stinks and dribbles. I’ve used rubber sealer and gaffer’s tape to ameliorate the problem and we can only keep fingers crossed and nose clothes-pegged for the next few months.
So far we’ve visited several chandlers and hardware stores in the shabby industrial/port area of Papeete. That part of the city has nothing to recommend it other than exotic ferns – of the kind ordinarily seen in very expensive flower shops – which grow out of the gutters. For the rest we’ve done little else except work on the boat to restore some kind of cleanliness, normalcy and functionality.
Papeete itself is a pleasant enough provincial city with lots of traffic and a general air of laissez-fair decrepitude at the edges. In a couple of days we’ll check out the museums and we’ve arranged to go to one of the shows of Heiva – the traditional dance and music festival that takes place at this time of year in Polynesia. The prices aren’t as horrendous as we’d heard – possibly because the tourist trade has decreased to 1980’s levels in the wake of the economic downturn – and everyone we’ve met has been so overwhelmingly friendly and helpful that one can’t help comparing their attitude to what one encounters in urban environments in the U.S. and the U.K.
From here, as soon as the sail has been mended, we’ll go to Moorea, which is supposed to be more of a traditional ‘tropical paradise’ than Tahiti. After that we intend to sail on to Raiatea and surrounding islands before quitting French Polynesia.
Best to all,
The bay we’re in now – called Hakatea or Taioa – is one we could not have reached except by sail boat although it’s only an hour’s trip west of Taiohae Bay where we were previously. A look at the map will show it’s a double bay, and we’ve moored in the eastern part. Entering it we passed sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high, undercut by waves, to find a small, perfect, crescent-shaped white sand beach fringed with coconut palms. Set back from the beach are a couple of huts set under more palms and huge mango trees. It’s a postcard-perfect scene. There are about 8 other boats here, and people pootle around between them in rubber dinghies to chat or visit.
Originally we were only going to stay a couple of days, but it’s so pretty and there’s been so little wind that we’re still here. Also, The Captain has had the chance/misfortune to do some necessary oil changes and discover some more things which aren’t as they should be (the little generator is acting up, the drive belt for the water maker squeaks, and we’re having trouble accessing the internet). Before taking off for Rangiroa we’ll have to go back to Tiaohae to get 30 grade oil for the generator and use our internet cards. Otherwise all’s fine.
In the meantime we’ve also had a chance to meet a few people on other boats and compare stories. Many, it seems, regardless of whether they came from South America or the U.S., had much the same sort of passage we did – either too much wind or not enough. We were lucky (or rather, The Captain was wise enough to steer us far enough west after looking at the downloaded weather files) to miss the thunderstorms that had lurked just south of the equator in a long, menacing belt. Others hadn’t been able to skirt the storms. The people with too little wind had come up from the Galapagos and had to motor for 8 days.
One fellow in his thirties – a French Canadian with one of those wild, wiry beards that looks as if every individual hair is determined to march to a different drummer, and a slightly spaced look in his eyes that told of a few too many magic mushrooms – had a nightmare 60 day trip. His wooden boat cracked a ‘rib’ and began to leak, he lost the means to make electricity and his engine died, and towards the end he ran out of both food and water. He and the unfortunate student who’d come on board as crew – thinking it would be a cheap and interesting way to eventually get to New Zealand – had ended up bailing for more than a month. The student took off the moment they reached land!
We’ve also met a Dutch family who took their teen-aged children out of school – which is not legal to do for more than a year in the Netherlands – have been sailing for 4 years now, and don’t really want to go back; a couple on a large catamaran who run IT training centres in Africa and South America, and who seem to spend most of their time in harbour getting gently sozzled beginning at mid-day; and various other semi-nomadic folk who’ve left behind complicated emotional lives to gypsy around the warm places of the world. The Captain thinks they may all have problems. I’m not sure they’re much different from people one meets everywhere, except that possibly their idiosyncrasies may be exacerbated by what is essentially a solitary lifestyle unrestricted by the demands of community and close friendships.
The planned hike to the waterfall was a trip into a different world from that of sleepy Tiaohae. The Captain didn’t join me, because a 5+ hour hike in tropical heat is his idea of hell, but gave me a 2-way radio and dropped me off at the beach with the rubber dinghy. From there I walked to the western part of the bay, where a valley and largish stream meet the shore.
Initially the valley was wide, and I walked through the outskirts of a small village along a sunny, grassy lane bordered by hibiscus bushes covered with bright blossoms, ti plants with colourful leaves, small banana plantations, coconut palms, lime, lemon and papaya trees and noni bushes. I passed a few small houses set slightly back from the lane, some of which had copra drying on racks in their gardens, and stopped briefly by a tiny chapel which consisted of no more than a thatched roof on wooden pillars and a crucifix set behind a long, low table covered with a white lace cloth, in front of which stood an enormous vase of shocking-pink ginger flowers. The small fires we’ve seen from the boat since we arrived were everywhere, most of them burning coconut husks. Later I found out that they serve a two-fold purpose: the smoke keeps flies and mosquitoes away and, traditionally, a smoking fire means someone’s at home.
There was also a scattering of dwellings that were no more than pavilions made of wooden pillars and corrugated tin roofs, with floors of pounded earth (neatly raked), and almost completely open to the world except for waist-high walls made of wood or matting. The sleeping/lounging quarters consisted of a platform raised a few feet off the ground and floored with matting and futons. The walls were slightly higher here, to provide semi-privacy, but still didn’t go all the way to the roof, presumably so as to catch the breeze. Tables, chairs, fire, sink, cooking stuff, generator, etc. were in the public, open part of the pavilions. The general lay-out seemed to be rather free-form, and in some cases the structures I was looking at had obviously been built on the stone foundations of much more ancient dwellings and probably look much the same as those did. Since the temperatures are well in the 80’s and this is the ‘cold’ season of the year, this kind of shelter seems perfectly designed for the climate!
Many of these pavilions enjoy a style of decoration – strange to European eyes – that could be described as ‘early Sword & Sorcery’: a liberal scattering of skulls, bones, tusks and lethal weaponry; the last mostly machetes and the odd spear. From what I could see, the skulls used to belong to boar, goats and the occasional horse, and they’re nailed to pillars, stuck on top of posts and just randomly displayed in likely corners. It’s a somewhat disconcerting effect, especially as there were also piles of old coconuts in the shadows and at the edge of the forest which look, when seen from the corner of one’s eye, almost like human skulls.
As I walked on, the lane got narrower and occasional ruins began to appear: long, low walls, platforms and steps of dressed black volcanic stone. Some were decorated with weathered stone tikis.
Then the lane ended and I had to ford the stream to continue, now along a path that plunged into the forest. The temperature and humidity rose immediately and suddenly there was the overwhelming, oppressive smell of vegetation sprouting, growing, dying and decaying. The path became rougher, narrower and steeper and was now covered in brown leaves and the carnival whorls of red and yellow hibiscus blossoms that had fallen from high above. More ruins appeared, and it soon became obvious that the beautifully built-up stone sides of what was now a rough trail were very old indeed. In fact, they had been built hundreds of years ago to provide access to the long abandoned villages 2 hours’ walk further up the valley.
The trail skirted small rivulets and cascades and was well marked with cairns where there might have been some doubt as to the way. The stream side was dizzyingly steep, though there was so much tangled vegetation that a slide resulting from a mis-step would have been broken immediately by something seriously spiky.
The cliffs were almost vertical on the opposite side of the rapidly narrowing valley, and so high that the sun no sooner arrived overhead than it was time for it to leave again. As a result, to reach the light, the coconut palms were taller than any I’ve ever seen, trunks of the saw-toothed pandanus stretched almost as far, and hibiscus bushes had become trees. Vanilla orchids (not the season for blossoms, alas) garlanded palms and bushes in the occasional clearings, and at least half a dozen varieties of ferns carpeted the ground. A ruined village almost the size of a city block was impressive and somewhat sinister, the walls being torn apart at a glacial pace by the fingers and roots of giant fig trees which cast a sombre gloom over the whole site.
After climbing 2 1/2 hours and fording that stream a few more times (I’d cut myself a walking stick by that time), I came to the end of the trail in a deep slot canyon carpeted in creepers and ferns, and where the small waterfall tumbled down through an intricately carved grotto. It was, in fact, a bit of an anti-climax, because the waterfall is only spectacular during the rainy season. I stayed a while, dangling my feet in the cold water and watched tiny crayfish nibble my toes, then walked back down to the outskirts of the village, where I had a long chat with one of the locals. His family still owns the entire valley, and has for hundreds of years, and the inhabitants of the village consist mostly of relatives. His pavilion – built on the foundations of his ancesters’ home – was decorated not only with the obligatory skulls, spears, machetes, etc., but also with a large collection of the beautiful ancient stone tools he finds during his perambulations of the valley. He doesn’t give them to a museum, as he says they belong to his family anyway!
On the way out of the village I stopped at one of the pavilions and bought some fruit: ‘pamplemousse’ (which look like lumpy green, thick-skinned grapefruit on steroids, large as a man’s head and very sweet) and a bunch of bananas. Getting the last was an interesting new experience. The man walked over to his banana grove, scratching his side meditatively with the business side of his machete, chose a likely-looking bunch, gently moved his tiny son aside and chopped the whole plant down! The bananas – 70 odd of them – are now hanging in the forward cabin ripening…
And that’s it for now! I’ll try to send some photos (the upload speed here isn’t what it could be) so it might be worth checking…
Love to all,
We spent only one night in Hatiheu Bay, then moved on to the main port of Tiaohae to complete the obligatory check-in procedures for foreign vessels. This was as painless and pleasant as the check-out procedure had been a pain in the arse in San Diego. It helped that we speak reasonable French – in fact, that’s helped during our entire stay. The next day the police boat came alongside our boat and we were all ready to face a bureaucratic nightmare: what had we forgot to do?! But they only wanted to know if we had made off with their big blue sign-in book by accident! We checked our briefcase, but had to disappoint…
After clearing, we were able to move freely on land once we’d moored the rubber dinghy to the old quay, amidst a flotilla of the wretched things all tangling their mooring lines and rubbing up against each other and the side of the quay, which is paved with a kind of mosaic of flattened oyster shells. The black spiny sea urchins below them are less innocuous and we try to keep the dinghy well off them.
I’ve explored the town a bit, and it stretches along the crescent of the bay and then back several streets and uphill before attenuating into scattered, pastel coloured houses between which many chickens wander at will. Come to think of it, the chickens – especially roosters – seem to be everywhere: pecking around the post office, peering out of drainage ditches next to the refuelling jetty, doing sentinel duty next to the Gendarmerie…
On the eastern side of the bay there’s the old quay with a few buildings on it: 2 cafés, a dive shop, and a boutique-cum-laundry-cum-internet café-cum-refuelling service, as well as a public loo under a sort of pavilion. There’s a mobile restaurant-van from which are sold freshly made crepes, and another selling huge quantities of fried rice and fish. People hang out there much of the day – mostly old boys, but also yachties and the odd local teenager, as well as a few younger men who are looking for odd jobs.
A couple of small fishing boats come in every afternoon, and the fishermen eviscerate, decapitate, fillet and sell their catch from wooden tables. They catch mostly fish that look like red snapper and yellow-fin tuna. The latter are magnificent creatures 3-5 feet long with round staring eyes and yellow scimitar-shaped fins, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly they’re dispatched: whack, crack, snick, snak, slash, slice. The huge fillets are then flopped onto the scale and buyers take their fish home after paying only about $7 a kilo. The carcases are unceremoniously thrown into metal dustbins next to the tables from whence they’re often taken out again by other people who want them for soup.
Further along the waterfront are 2 pretty new wood and stone pavilions. In one there is information for tourists in the form of rather sophisticated pamphlets (mostly in French) about the local culture and art, and in the other one can buy handicrafts as well as freshly dried vanilla pods. The vanilla orchid grows wild here, and I’ve never seen such fat, luscious pods. The Captain says, rather crossly, that my interest perks up when anything to do with food comes up – but why not?!
Further west are an ancient – now restored – ceremonial platform built of dressed basalt blocks, on which many equally ancient and also modern traditional stone carvings are displayed, and the small local church, from which the thunderous sound of hymns being sung emerges on Sunday mornings. That’s pretty much it for the town!
The landscape, however, is spectacular. Vertiginous, deeply corrugated mountainsides, covered with dense, lush vegetation, rise up behind the town and all around the shores of the island. The centre is supposed to be quite dry and barren, though I haven’t seen it. High up on are patches of bare, black and brown volcanic rock that look like huge burst blisters with jagged edges. There are almost no coral reefs here; the cliffs fall straight into the sea. Many thousands of people used to live in the mountain valleys – one can still see the remains of their houses and ceremonial platforms – but contact with Europeans brought all the diseases – physical and spiritual – of civilization, and at one point the native population on the island was reduced to less than 500 people.
The local people are wonderfully friendly, especially if one smiles first and says hello or waves, and they’re also rather attractive. By this I mean that if you took 25 people off the street at random, 20 of them would be considered above averagely good-looking, albeit mostly ‘generously’ proportioned once they get older. It’s interesting that most of them have tattoos, especially the younger generation from about the age of 13.
It seems tattooing has had a resurgence in popularity during the last 2 decades, partly as an expression of cultural pride. The girls have delicate patterns on their hands and shoulders, and sometimes on their wrists and on their lower backs. The men are more extensively decorated, and one often sees them with a tattoo that begins behind one ear, curving around to the jaw. The designs are exquisite, and as different from European tattoos as one can imagine: geometric, stylised, complicated, curved to enhance the slope of a shoulder or placed to emphasise a calf or bicep. I saw one man who could have come straight from an etching of Captain Cook’s era. He had a hawk-like face that was heavily tattooed, a hairline that had been partly shaved back from the forehead and long hair in heavy, braided locks. I wished I could have taken a photo of him, but one can’t simply treat people as curiosities.
As in every paradise, there’s at least one worm in the apple. I was able to learn a bit more by talking with some of the younger people, and life here isn’t easy. To get a decent education they have to leave the island and either go to Papeete or to France, and even if they do, there are no jobs here once they return. The young men, especially, are in a bad way. One of them – a talented artist who specialises in stone and wood carving and went to a prestigious art school in Paris to refine his work – can find almost no market for his work, having already done most of the contemporary decorations on the local buildings. They’re intelligent, articulate, aware of contemporary politics and world events, and intensely frustrated. Most of them spend their time hunting wild boar in the mountain valleys, and make necklaces of of the tusks (pretty savage-looking accoutrements, those!) There are also people who live in those valleys permanently, much as their ancestors did. They’re supposed to be rather shy and speak no French or English, and tourists don’t meet them.
The local cuisine is fairly basic and on the heavy and starchy side. The fresh fish is good if grilled (we made sashimi of that yellow-fin tuna from the market) but if one reads books of traditional recipes it’s all coconut milk and more coconut milk. One recipe was for banana pudding, which consisted of banana, sugar, an unseemly quantity of starch, and coconut milk, baked for a hour. Burp!
We’ve spent most of our time recovering from the passage and doing chores. We have washed the boat; changed the oil, fuel and water filters; repaired bits and bobs; re-stowed and re-arranged clothes and food; and tut-tutted over work done badly by the yard (there’s plenty of that, but I’m not going to go into it any more as it’d be as boring to read about as it is to have to deal with!). I haven’t yet managed to scrape off the crop of pendulous, inch-long goose-neck barnacles that have sprouted from the hull at the stern, right at the waterline, as I’m reluctant to snorkel here. The water in this bay is mixed with run-off from the small rivers that go through the town and which are polluted due to the many pigs and goats living in the valleys upstream. Moreover, there are supposed to be sharks, attracted by refuse from town and boats. We have also refuelled, which has been an exercise for which we could have sold tickets.
The refuelling dock is very high, to accommodate the ferries that stop here to offload supplies and travellers, and the nozzle of the diesel pump is too big for the opening of our fuel tank. So we motor over in the rubber dinghy with plastic jerry cans. The Captain comes alongside the heavy, rusty ladder reaching from the top of the dock about half-way to the water. From it, some rubber tires hang off manky, heavy old ropes. Holding the painter I clamber – barefoot, so as to be able to get a grip – up onto the rubber tires and then onto the ladder, then onto the concrete jetty high above. I make the boat fast, then he throws me another line from the stern of the dinghy and I make that fast. Then he hands up the jerry cans one by one, then he comes up the ladder in a somewhat more sedate manner as befits his age and dignity. Once the jerry cans are full, we reverse the process.
What else….Ah! Birds! Because I was unable to find a good bird book for this part of the world, I’m seeing birds I can’t identify. One species is large, with about a 2 foot-plus wingspan, black on top, white under the head and midway down the body, with a long black swallow-tail. It spends most of its time soaring. Another of that type also has a patch of red near the head. Another species is small and pure white – maybe a tern? – and always seems to fly in pairs. There’s another species which is mostly black with a big, light, almost blueish bill and a short, blunt tail.
So far, the weather has been perfect. We need no sheets or blankets at night, but it’s not too hot or humid either. There’s always a breeze, often blowing from land and bringing with it the sweet smell of wood smoke and something else aromatic – perhaps roasting coconuts? In the afternoons clouds gather and sometimes there are a few drops of rain. In a day or so we’ll be moving off again. First west to Hakatea Bay for a couple of nights, and from where I’m hoping to hike to a spectacular waterfall inland (2 hours each way). We’ll be leaving for Rangiroa a day or so later. After that we’ll pull into Papeete for repairs on the mainsail, though we’ll probably be staying there as little time as possible. After that we’ll be going west…
That’s all for now!
Love to all,