If there’s one thing I particularly like about our sailing adventures it’s that there’s always something new to experience. Not just new places and people, but new knowledge and skills at times also. We’ve done some sailing around reefs before but negotiating atoll passes was new territory for us. The Tuamotus are all low lying atolls which were formed out of inactive volcanic islands. The process takes about 6 million years or so and begins with the formation of a fringing coral reef. Over time the volcanic mountain is constantly eroded by torrential tropical rain and slowly sinks under its own weight. Many of the atolls have one or two breaks in the reef which may or may not be suitable for a yacht to pass through. But just because you can get through doesn’t mean you will. We saw the very unfortunate sight of a six month old 56′ yacht sitting high and dry on the reef at one of the passes. Because the entrances are fairly narrow the tide rips through (at 6-8 knots at times!) so you need to time your entry and exit to coincide with the minimum amount of current. Strong wind and/or wave conditions can really ramp up the dangers. When inside you have relatively flat water, but eyeball navigation is essential to avoid the coral “bommies” that are everywhere, many of which are not marked on charts. Once you’re anchored you can enjoy the stunning aquamarine waters of the lagoon. When we first arrived we were blessed with calm seas and sunny skies for a few days.
At times this can be a very windy part of the world, as evidenced by how a number of the houses are tied down, in some cases with engine blocks or large truck tyres holding the roof on. During our time in Fakarava we experienced a weather “squash zone” which is what happens when a big fat high pressure system which is 1030hpa or above travels east from New Zealand at around 20 – 25 degrees South and squeezes the isobars in the trade wind zone closer together making for enhanced winds and rough seas which can last for several days. But even whilst we were hunkered down and it was raining, blowing dogs off chains, it was still warm so we can’t really complain. Dean & Sue joined us here and we managed to find a few things with which to amuse ourselves including enjoying a spit roast dinner cooked by Liza, one of the village women. We passed our time with a few swims, walks and watching the kite surfers. We discovered the locals are quite a religious lot – the church seemed very appropriate with its shell-draped light fittings. We were also intrigued by the “sleeping sharks” which seemed to behave more like pet puppies waiting at the waters edge to be fed. We subsequently saw more of these sharks in Moorea where the woman who was feeding them was actually patting them! (photo credit to Fitzy)
If there’s two things that are plentiful in the Tuamotus it is pearls and coconuts. Many of the famous Tahitian black pearls are in fact farmed in the Tuamotus or the Gambier archipelago, so we felt obliged to visit a pearl farm, along with a group of other cruising yachties, to see the process of farming and seeding the pearls. It was fascinating visiting the pearl grafter’s “laboratory” built on piles at the edge of the lagoon and looking over their shoulder as they worked their magic with the oysters. It was a very low key affair with the retail section of the business basically set up in the owner’s lounge room.
For me, the highlight of our time in Fakarava was scuba diving the south pass, which is famous for diving with sharks – black & white tip reef sharks and grey sharks. The visibility was fabulous and it was absolutely awesome to be down there with them in their natural environment, and have them swimming all around us. They weren’t the least bit interested in us, thank goodness! Our dive was timed close to slack water and it was amazing to see all the small fish rocketing into the lagoon when the the tide turned to incoming. It was definitely one of those pinch yourself “am I really doing this?” moments.
Next stop was Tahiti, where we were joined by David & Karen. We were there in time for the annual Heiva Festival which includes Polynesian sports such as team coconut chopping & husking events, stone-lifting (clean and jerk 140kgs if you don’t mind!) and throwing spears at a coconut on top of a 7 metre pole from a distance of 20 metres, etc. There were also some very spectacular and vibrant displays of traditional Polynesian singing and dancing demonstrating that their culture is very much a thriving one. I never tired of seeing the floral crowns so often worn by the local women – whether it be the local fishmonger or a bride-to-be and her hens. Also loved their quirky phone towers which are disguised as palm trees. We hired a car to visit neighbouring Moorea which often evokes images of bungalows over turquoise water, but for the most part is surprisingly low key.
For me Moorea was most memorable for “Stingray City”, which is a spot inside the lagoon where local tour operators have been feeding stingrays for years. Of course they are now almost tame and show up whenever humans arrive. Needless to say this is not responsible tourism as it disrupts natural behaviour patterns, so we didn’t feed them, but were curious enough to have a look. As soon as you get in the water the stingrays are there swimming all around you. Up close they are fascinating creatures. Going eyeball to eyeball with a stingray is certainly something I haven’t done before. I felt a very healthy respect for the barbs on their tails!
Pete & Sallie then joined us before we headed across the Huahine, Raiatea & Taha’a. We absolutely loved the quirky, island-style house boats we saw floating around the lagoon and enjoyed some fabulous snorkeling during our time there. I think we found the only bay in French Polynesia that is home to not one, but two rum distilleries. One of these was also a vanilla producer. Apparently the bee that used to fertilise the vanilla flowers is now extinct, so the process only happens with human intervention. Vanilla pods take about nine months to grow, are only able to be harvested between around 4-6am, then need about three months of drying. We were told that apart from a few places in Asia, vanilla is only grown in Taha’a and Madagascar, so I guess that’s why it’s so expensive. Needless to say, we also felt compelled to avail ourselves of the rum tastings.
We are now in Bora Bora and Helmy has just joined us for the 1300nm passage to Tonga, so we are focusing on what the weather’s doing from here. If the weather Gods smile upon us we may be able to make a couple of stops along the way. We shall see.
We love hearing news from family and friends, so please don’t forget to drop us a line and let us know what’s happening in your world. But please forgive us if we don’t reply right away, as we’ll most likely be in the wilderness for a while from tomorrow.