Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Dangerous Islands - Tuamotus and reaching Tahiti

When Charles and I first looked at the long string of atolls which make up the Tuamotus, part of French Polynesia, we had grand plans: we'd go to the smallest, least accessible, most remote ones -- lots of them.  When it came to the reality, we changed tactic and divided the time we had available between fewer atolls, trying to get to know them better.  This is definitely a cruising area to come back to and explore further.  Some of our Oyster World Rally friends are talking of basing themselves in Tahiti and sailing these waters for years.

Calliope in Makemo
So what makes them so special?  First of all, they are hardly there.  Each atoll is like a skinny doughnut, with far more water inside its "hole" than land around it. There's a hyped-up, mostly straightforward but potentially dangerous 'pass' (the entrance/exit), best negotiated at slack water, meaning high or low tide.  The scary bit is that on either side of the pass, the waves break dramatically on the reef, so as you approach, there are huge plumes of spray and crashing breakers.  Once you're in, the water is flat -- but deceptive.  It's a beautiful deep cobalt colour when deep enough, and even more beautiful vibrant turquoise where "boomies", columns of lava, rise from the bottom to catch yachts unawares.  In years of sailing, I'd never been up the mast in the bosun's chair (a fabric seat hauled up by ropes), but I thought I should face my fears - that's partly what this year is about, proving that even in one's 60th year, one can take on new challenges - so with scarcely a tremble, I allowed myself to be hoisted to the first spreaders on the mast... and guess what? I loved it up there.  From a height, it's easier to spot changes in water colour.  I think the charts alerted Charles to dangers anyway, but my excitable squeaks just may have contributed to our safe transit of the atolls.
Plastic Makemo

Tuamotu people are special, too.  Marquesans were tough and friendly.  These atoll dwellers were softer: they grew flowers and painted their garden walls lilac and fuchsia.  There is no soil on the atolls, so growing anything is hard.  Vegetables and fruit are all imported, as is all food except fish and coconuts, so I'm in awe of the cooks in the restaurants we went to, making the most of tinned ingredients and deliveries which arrive every week or fortnight.

Our outboard engine, which has been giving us trouble for a while (Galapagos fuel? maybe), decided to play up badly while we were in Fakarava.  Roger and Dinah ended up staying an extra night as we couldn't deliver them to their "Crusoe chic", electricity-free resort.  That was fine - we found another frozen meal in the depths of the seriously depleted freezer.  At the 'resort', which was just a few huts and a restaurant on stilts, two men laboured over the outboard for a good hour, standing in knee-deep water with baby sharks swimming around their legs.  They even took parts out of their own engines to test ours.  They didn't want payment, but they were happy to accept our offer of three enormous Marquesan pamplemousses.
In the end, we only visited three Tuamotu atolls: Makemo, Fakarava and Apataki.  In Makemo, we were miles from anywhere.  We kayaked (thank you, Dave, for the red kayak, which is reassuringly solid), swam around reefs swarming with fish - it really was like being in a giant aquarium- and walked along a beach teeming with hermit crabs.  They're oddly endearing, adopting a shell which suits their size at any given time, but also voracious: other yachties had clearly enjoyed a barbecue ashore and the remains were being devoured by weirdly delicate crab claws.  Charles and I battled through mangroves and vines (they grow so fast you can practically see them move), to get to the outside of the reef, which was sadly covered in plastic debris - less bad than San Blas.

Fakarava is a more popular destination for yachts, and we caught up (literally) with several other Oysters there. The South pass is rightly famous for world-class diving, as Pippa and William have described.  As a humble snorkeller, I still came face to face with several sharks - an experience I'm glad to have had but still can't really feel relaxed about - and loved "riding" the current flooding in through the pass, over fabulous coral and thousands of fish, being carried along at about 3 knots.
North Fakarava is more developed.  We decided we didn't need to visit the shops there, so we entrusted Pippa and William to an airport-bound taxi and took on Matthew from El Mundo, who needed a lift to Tahiti.  He was a mine of information, very good company and instructed Charles in winch maintenance, which has become a bit of an obsession (sorry: a very necessary and valuable bit of boat skill).
Our third atoll was Apataki.  We wondered about going to Rangiroa, which is much more developed, and we've since heard very good stories from those who did go there.  But I'm so glad we chose Apataki.  We had to sail around the outside of the atoll for a long way before we got to the pass, which only became visible at the last minute.  It was a bit tricky - we had less than a metre of water under the keel at one point - and the light was fading as we came in, so we dropped anchor just inside.
In the southern hemisphere's winter, where we are now, night falls abruptly at just after 6pm and it doesn't get light till almost 6am; our response to this is to go to bed soon after 8pm and rise early - that just feels right.  Anyway, Apataki pass was delightful: faded blue-painted fishermen's huts on stilts, a church spire or two and a Brighton Pavilion-like pearl farm.  The following morning we motored cautiously through myriad buoys (almost like negotiating lobster pots in Maine!) to a motu or island near the reef on the south side.  From the boat, entirely alone, we swam ashore past the most colourful coral ever.

 When we got to the reef, we waded, knee-deep, for at least another kilometre to the ocean's edge, collecting shells and marvelling at the fish and occasionally sharks who could swim in the shallows.  One nurse shark seemed to be asleep on the bottom until it woke up as we approached and lazily swam away.  We brought our haul of driftwood and shells back to Calliope.  Hours later, one of the shells got up and set off purposefully across the table!  Matthew very sweetly swam back to the reef to return it to its habitat.  He confessed later that he'd had a niggling worry that he was swimming after dark, which is sharks' feeding time.

And so on to Tahiti, with frustratingly little wind.  Charles and Matthew tried every conceivable sail combination before admitting that the "iron sail" (engine) was needed.
Teahupoo wave Tahiti
What a contrast Tahiti has been!  While parts of the island are quite poor and there's some homelessness and begging in the back streets of Papeete, this is a cosmopolitan, first-world town.  Marina Taina, where we've been for a week, is a superbly-run place, with helpful and efficient staff.  You can buy anything and everything in the Carrefour which is ten minutes' walk away; Ace hardware and other useful parts suppliers are nearby and today Charles and I bought two beautiful pieces of Polynesian art in a gallery which wouldn't be out of place in London.
  Prices are high and seem higher because French Polynesia still has the multiple zeros of the ancient franc which I remember from childhood France.  Yesterday we drove around the island, which has helpful kilometre markers so you know how far you are from Papeete, and went out to watch surfers on the huge ("most dangerous in the world") wave off Teahupoo (some the names here, ending in poopoo,  make me giggle in a very juvenile manner).  We had lunch in a restaurant which commemorates the visit - inside the reef - of the SS France, a ship aboard which I crossed the Atlantic as a toddler and which I saw, beached in northern France and being cut up with acetylene torches, when I was being driven to Oxford in 1976.  We've also eaten out twice from "roulottes", food trucks like the ones in Portland, Oregon.  The market is full of produce and on Sunday a whole side of it was occupied by women weaving "couronnes", crowns of flowers of many colours, but always containing the "tiare" flower, a fragrant gardenia.

To those of you who saw the photograph Pippa posted on Instagram of Charles with a cut to his eyebrow, I can reassure you that it's fully healed now. He had fallen against a doorframe as the boat rolled.

Michael and two friends, George and Tom, join us in a few days.  Meanwhile we have had a couple of nights in a hotel with infinity pool, enjoying air conditioning, a big bedroom and a bath.  Dylan, an engineer from New Zealand, has done marvels with our gearbox and has quietly serviced and replaced bits of the boat I pretend to understand but don't really.  I've done some cooking and provisioning but there are a lot more spaces under the floorboards to fill before we set out for the next three months without access to supermarkets.  I'm loving this life and finding it hard to see the appeal of London, with attacks in Finsbury Park and tower block fires, despite the heatwave there.  I do miss friends and family and wish my mother a swift recovery from her hip operation - it would be lovely to be there to help - but increasingly, life on board feels "normal" as well as exciting.

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