The Societies and a dash of Tuamotos

French Polynesia is as you might expect has benefited from its relationship with France and now we could find good cheese and wine, Carrefour supermarkets stocked like back home, French language which we could cope with OK but the beer was still rubbish, oh for a decent pint! I know, you can’t have everything and the volcanic islands here are gorgeous and the climate sublime.On arrival in Raiatea, the second largest of the Society Islands, we had Romano hauled out by Raiatea Carenage who set about immediately fixing our damaged keel and checklng the alignment of the prop shaft after our rope wrap. The keel damage, fortunately, as it turned out was superficial and easily repaired. The yard lifted the engine which is necessary to withdraw the propellor shaft and fitted new seals and Joseph the fridge man ordered spare parts needed for our fridge and freezer repair. I ordered a new slightly larger 5hp Mercury outboard motor from the chandlers which was delivered four days later from Papeete and now pushes the dinghy along at pace. It replaced our old 3.3hp motor which had reached the end of its natural life.

Romano in the slings at Raiatea Carenage

The damage from hitting the reef in Ravavae.

We had decided we didn’t want to stay on board in the boat yard, there was one basic toilet and one cold shower and the prospect of clambering down a ladder in the middle of the night if we needed a pee didn’t appeal. So, we took the advice of an English lady on another boat who knew the island well and booked into the Sunset Beach Motel half a mile down the road from the yard. We rented a beachside bungalow there for the first week where we could moor our kayak (transport to and from the yard) and then moved for the second week to what was billed as shared accommodation in “La Grande Maison” . It was bliss, no rolling bed, endless hot water for showers, a lovely veranda to view the sunsets, a barbecue, plenty of wood on hand and our own private beach. As it turned out for the second week we had La Grande Maison to ourselves for half the price of the bungalow, it was huge, a large kitchen diner, a vast lounge, a veranda and our own ensuite rooms, it was a very welcome respite from being at sea for months. 

Luxury after weeks at sea

The motel had been a coconut plantation in earlier times and there were hundreds of coconut trees with the bungalows dotted between so Gill and I set to work collecting coconuts. I have had several attempts at husking coconuts and it has always been a half hour task hacking away with a machete until Nicola at the boat yard laughing at my efforts went off and came back with a steel spike about 6ft long which he rammed down a crab hole and did the job in 2 minutes. So when it came to husking these I went in search of a suitable spike which I “borrowed” from a nearby shed we then shaved the coconut into slivers with a knife and dryer them in the oven in our kitchen. We prepared 11 coconuts in this way for our curries and Gill’s home build delicious muesli, our regular breakfast cereal. Free coconuts, it was just too good an opportunity to miss. 

Look, someone who now knows how to husk coconuts!

One down side of the coconut trees was the imminent risk of death! We had a few days of really strong wind which brought down heavy frond branches and lots of coconuts so you had to plot a zig-zag path from our place to reception in driving rain and hope you didn’t get hit, apparently more people are killed by falling coconuts than are attacked by sharks, something to remember while you’re basking under your next palm tree listening to the surf rolling in and wondering if you should go for a swim or stay where you are!

Sunset from our veranda

Meanwhile back in the yard work proceeded at pace and five days before we were due to leave to pick up Gill’s Australian friend Ros, the boat was ready for me to apply the coppercoat anti-fouling to the repaired areas. This is a water based epoxy antifouling loaded with copper powder which needs 4 dry days to cure and of course the weather turned against us and I had no choice but to apply it in order to meet our schedule. An hour after I had applied this very expensive product the heavens opened and washed much of it away. I could have cried, but found swearing at the heavens much more cathartic. I patched up the missing bits with conventional antifouling once the rain had stopped. The next few days were dry and on the last day the yard guys were still fixing bits as the hoist carried us to the water for the re-launch. I paid the bill which was very reasonable and for good quality work and we were set to leave for Huahine fifty miles to the east to collect Ros who had been spending some time with her friend Jen. Just as we left our membrane arrived from the UK and Vairea handed on board, I was helping to re-rig the forestay and put it aside on deck, unfortunately that was the last we saw of our £300 membrane which must have gone overboard on our way to Huahine. Now we had to be more careful with water consumption.

Unfortunately the wind was right on our nose to Huahine so we motored for 10 hours into lumpy seas and several rain squalls. When we finally arrived after an uncomfortable ride we anchored off the beach at the east end of the island’s one street town, watched the sunset over a couple of drinks, cooked dinner and went to bed. The next day we launched the dinghy to go ashore, a first real test of my new Mercury outboard which worked well with a noticeable increase in power. We had arranged by phone to meet up with Ros and her friend Jen on the quay, they arrived on a couple of ram shackled old bikes, which everyone seems to use on these islands. They have no gears, no springs and back peddling brakes, they’re very heavy but the islands roads go around the edges of the islands at sea level so there are no hills to pedal up, so no problem! Jen showed us where the supermarket was and we went in for a recce. It was well stocked by many standards and we were happy we could get sufficient provisions for Ros’s 2 weeks on the boat. One of the nice things about French islands is you get decent cheese, something we haven’t found since leaving Europe. We have so missed good cheese, throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, we had to put up with American rubbish. They have no idea how to make a decent cheese, it is tasteless, rubbery and oily. I suppose if you stick it in hamburgers you can’t tell it from a decent cheese. We were also able to buy good pate, again something we hadn’t seen since The Canary Islands. One of the good things to come out of South America was the wine and in Panama we stocked up with a lot of boxed Clos Wine, it cost $3 for a litre of really good Cabernet Sauvingnon and we are still drinking it in Tahiti with lots more to come. Sadly, beer is expensive here by anyone’s standards it’s £2.20 for a 33cl can for mediocre slosh whereas in Panama it was 45p a can, however it’s beer so I don’t grumble too much! In general, food is very expensive in Polynesia, around twice the price of the same products in the U.K./U.S. There is no income tax here so taxes are raised on consumption, a car here is twice the price of a car in France.

The islands of Polynesia are beautiful and Huahine is no exception, soaring mountain peaks to 1500m, lush tropical vegetation and small sandy beaches in coves. All the islands are surrounded by reefs with passes to enter the surrounding lagoons, some of which can be only metres wide with strong current flows unless you enter at slack water. The entrances are well buoyed and lit and we had no problem getting in and out. 

It’s much more humid here in the Societies than the southern islands of the Gambier or Australes where we needed a blanket at nights, here we’re back to sweaty coverless nights again. Showering off the back of the boat at night however, is a lot more pleasant without those cool southern winds. The water is also warmer so we can snorkel for longer without chilling down.

The following day Jen had invited us to join Ros she and some friends for a tour of the island so we met up in town to find out our transport was a minibus owned by Sophie, a friend of Jen who was accompanied by another friend Trish so I was seated in the bus with 5 very lively women for our tour of the island. The island which is called “the wild one” is beautiful, unspoilt and the people charming. We stopped off at a Polynesia Museum the “Tiki” started by a local woman and which gave a full account of how the islands had developed. We stopped for lunch around 1 o’clock at the south end of the island at a lovely restaurant where we had the most fantastic fish and sea food meal right on the beach with our feet in the soft sand. As a thank you for showing us around Ros, Gill and I treated Jen and her two friends.

From left to right Jen, Sophia, Trish and me enjoying a great lunch.

After lunch Sophie took us to a gallery where a painter friend of hers, Melanie from Rhode Island, had a display of her work in oil, water colours, and lithograph. We were tempted to buy one for the boat and hoped we could return with sufficient funds in a few days but we never made it back again.

One of Melanie’s paintings

The following morning we arranged to pick Ros up at 11.30 and she duly arrived on the quay complete with one very large suitcase and a couple of smaller bags. There was no way we could all get in the dinghy with the baggage so I made a run out to the boat first with the bags, returning for Gill and Ros. I should explain at this point that Ros has suffered for many years with rheumatoid arthritis and is severely disabled, more so than I imagined but she has gamely refused to give in to her condition and runs a cattle farm when she is not on accounting consultancy projects. Gill met her when she was working in Papua New Guinee with Deloittes and Ros was engaged to do accounting consultancy work.

Ros cracking a crossword!

Well we managed to get Ros in the dinghy somehow but getting her out of a bouncy dinghy into a rolling boat proved to be a bigger challenge but eventually we did it with a lot of heaving and pushing and laughter. Once on board she was able to cope better and Gill saw that she was well installed in the forecabin. We had decided to sail 300 miles east to the Tuamotu Islands, a group of around 80 atolls which would be very different from the high peaks of the Societies so we aimed for an island called Fakarava a large atoll about 30 miles long by 15 miles across with a huge lagoon in the centre where apparently the snorkelling and diving was world class. We set off in lively but not rough conditions and it quickly became apparent that Ros was going to have difficulties moving around the boat and even worse was becoming seasick. With the prospect of 3 more days of this I suggested turning back for a more benign sail but Gill and Ros thought that she would manage and so we soldiered on. Ros was amazingly cheerful throughout what must have been a horrible ordeal for her which she talked of later as a lifetime experience. We moved her to a mid ships berth where she was tucked in better and not likely to be thrown out. On the last day the wind dropped, the seas calmed down and we were obliged to motor the last 60 miles to Fakarava. This made life much easier for Ros and she was able to move around and even better stopped feeling ill.

Jen, Ros and Gill on tour on Huahine

The atolls are rings of reef based on sunken volcanoes with deep lagoons in the crater centre. The village of Fakarava was situated on a strip of sand 200 metres across with one main road passing through it. We dinghied ashore to a safe landing beach and went off to explore. Ros bought us ice creams and we sat outside the shop and tucked into would you believe it, “Magnums”, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Gill found a tiny shore side shop selling black pearls for which the Tuamotus are famous and bought some which she had set as pendants in Tahiti.

Each night we ate on the boat, the alternatives were limited and during the day we swam and snorkelled. The fish life was interesting in the lagoon but not unusually so and the visibility only a few yards given the strength of the wind, the main attraction of Fakarava was the drift dive through the pass which was rated as world class in diving terms but this was beyond us in these strong winds so we contented ourselves with snorkelling in the lagoon. On the third day the wind got up from its usual 20 knot trade wind strength and the 30 mile fetch in the lagoon meant we experienced quite a rolling night. This helped our decision to set off back to Moorea in the Societies despite the lively weather and influenced by our newly installed freezer braking down again. What was so annoying was, it was packed with meat for our time away with Ros. 

Cook Bay in Moorea, a lovely anchorage.

We had a fast sail, covering the 300 mile journey in just over two days, arriving in Cook Bay on Moorea at midnight. It’s always a bit scary going through a narrow pass in the reef at night hoping the charts are accurate, the lights are in the right place, there is enough depth of water to pass through and there are no nasty currents to put you on the reef. All went well and we dropped anchor at the head of of a long bay. I was first up in the morning and went out on deck to check our position, my jaw dropped, it was the most spectacular anchorage, soaring jagged peaks on both sides, verdant green treed hillsides, bright blue sky with the sun just peeking over the sheer mountains to the east, deep blue water in the bay without a ripple on it and reflecting the mountains above. It was breathtaking, I just sat for several minutes and soaked it all in. There are very few times in your life you are lucky enough to find moments like that.

We decided to hire a car and tour the Moorea which was only 60 km around. Of all the Society Islands I liked Moorea the best, it had it all, lovely beaches, deep rivers and waterfalls, spectacular mountains, every shade of blue to turquoise you could imagine in the lagoon and lovely Motus (reef islands) with pure white sandy beaches. This is as close to paradise as it gets!

Lush tropical vegetation

At the end of our drive we visited a Tropical Gardens up a very steep road where our little car kept bottoming out and it was so steep at one point Gill and Ros had to get out so I could crest the rise without burning the tyres out. In the garden we found many fruit trees, a waterfall in a woodland, a shaded area where vanilla was grown and numerous wonderful tropical flowers and shrubs growing on the hillside. There was no charge for entering the gardens but they had a shop selling home made jams and ice creams and of course vanilla essence where we were clearly expected to loiter. We tried the unusual purple taro ice cream but opted for their lovely vanilla, Ros had a pineapple smoothie and we all bought some delicious tropical jam.

On our return we walked past some fisherman who had been gutting there catch of fish and the water around them was thick with grey sharks and sting rays

You wouldn’t want to swim here!

On our last night back in Cook Bay the local Bali Hai hotel was putting on a show of traditional Tahitian dance so we decided to go and asked if we could book dinner and watch the show but the receptionist told us insufficient people had booked so we were welcome to come ashore to watch the show but the restaurant would be closed. We piled into the dinghy in the dark and landed on the hotel beach. Not only was the restaurant closed, so was the bar so we watched a superb display of male and female dancing with the girls giving us a show of their incredibly sexy fast bottom wiggling. The men are equally impressive stamping and vibrating their legs in a show of strength and stamina, it was quite a sight. From a commercial point of view the hotel lost the opportunity of serving drinks and meals to the watching crowd. We saw the whole show for free!

Ros was flying out from Papeete back to Auckland and then on to Sydney in a couple of days time so we moved the boat twenty miles to Papeete Marina on Tahiti. We were met by our friends David and Gitta on Aros Mear from Dundee (last seen in Panama) and Sven and Lisa on Randivag from Sweden (last seen on Mangareva in the Gambier) it was great to meet up with these old friends again and swap sailing stories. 

In Papeete it was the time of year for the world famous Heiva Festival for all of Polynesia to compete on an island against island basis which is held every July on Tahiti. The islands of Polynesia compete in drumming, dancing, rock lifting, canoe racing and singing. It’s a bit like a Highland games except there are heats during the early part of the month followed by finals. We had already seen some of the canoe racing while at anchor and saw more later in Bora Bora so we decided to watch the singing and dancing in the main arena in Papeete. The stadium held around 5000 people which is large by Polynesian standards and it was probably two thirds full. There was a large stage which held the drummers, guitarists and ukulele players, the orchestra. and in front was a large arena for the players, dancers and singers. The dancing was unforgettable with both men and women throwing themselves enthusiastically into the dance. The costumes were spectacular and each dancer had many hand made headdresses of flowers and grasses each different for each dance. The girls had several grass skirts but always danced with the half coconut bras, each sized as required. There were hundreds of dancers in the arena, furiously wiggling bottoms and vibrating male legs accompanied by some very skilled drumming to give pace and rhythm to the dance, it was a wonderful experience. The singing was not so much to our taste, we expected gently swaying music and song in the Tahitian style but as it turned out it was aggressive, repetitive and of course in the Polynesian tongue.

Ros left us the following morning at 5am to catch her plane back to Auckland, leaving us a lovely card and present which was really kind considering her ordeal on board. After seeing her off we went back to bed until a more reasonable hour, in the morning, I shopped for provisions walking 3 miles to the nearest Carrefour supermarket while Gill washed our clothes and bedding in the unlimited water supply from the marina, a rare luxury. That evening we were invited for sundowners on Aros Mear and spent a very pleasant two hours chatting and watching the sun go down over a few drinks.

Our next port of call was Moorea again but this time we anchored in Oponohu bay where we hoped to swim with manta rays. We anchored off the beach and went in search of them but failed miserably. One of our American friends Ciro set off on a bay wide tour on his paddle board but saw nothing so we gave up and had a swim instead.

Rupert Murdock’s modest little yacht in Moorea

We had to get back to Raiatea to have the freezer fixed by Joseph, a remarkable guy who, as we found out, worked by day as a fridge repair man and ran his Chinese restaurant by night, cooking till 1 or 2 in the morning. I discovered a large hole in the dinghy which was letting in water so we launched the kayak to go and pick up Joseph from the yard. He was a little sniffy at having to paddle out but he was a true Polynesian and he powered the kayak as never before, setting a new standard for Gill. As suspected our new compressor had died and I had to buy another one, no such thing as warranty in Polynesia. Joseph’s repair work was disrupted by Bastille Day and a long weekend, in true French tradition, so we took the boat the 25 miles over to Bora Bora to see if we could find our friends Jessie and Neil on Red Thread, promising to be back first thing on Monday morning alongside at Marina Apooiti, as Joseph refused to transport his expensive tools by kayak.

Arriving in Bora Bora we set about looking for our friends and calling them on the radio but without luck so we anchored off the Bora Bora yacht club and went for a swim in the lagoon. Later we got a radio call from Jessie, they were on the other side of the island. In the morning we set off for the southern end to see if we could meet up but when it came time to haul up the anchor we found it was fouled on old mooring lines. We managed to haul the offending ropes to within 10 feet of the surface and I dived down with my trusty titanium dive knife and cut the boat free. We then motored down south and picked up a mooring buoy belonging to “Bloody Mary’s Restaurant” which is world famous having fed the great and the famous from Goldie Hawn to Rod Stewart, Michael Heseltine and Prince Rainier. The restaurant had a couple of boards outside covered in over 200 famous names from around the world. We booked in for what we knew would be an expensive dinner justifying it on the basis we hadn’t had a posh meal out for months. Having secured the table we went off to snorkel the reef in the kayak. The dinghy had a large hole in it which I patched but it needed days to cure so Gill in all her finery that evening paddled to the restaurant jetty in the kayak. We arrived safely and her posh dress was fortunately still dry. The meal that night was fantastic and the restaurant unusual, it has a sand floor and a place to leave your shoes as you come in so you can wriggle your toes in the sand while you eat. You’re greeted by the hostess who shows you to a display table laden with fish, steak and shellfish where you choose what you want to eat. We had a couple of drinks at the bar and were then taken to our table where we sat on upended logs which were difficult to balance on but it was very relaxing wriggling our feet in the fine sand and sipping our wine. It was one of those few memorable meals!

A veritable feast

We met up with Jessie and Neil the next day and moved our boats to a spot where they knew we could swim with rays. In the morning we swam off the boat and saw whole schools of spotted eagle rays, I followed a turtle for a while but he swam faster than I could even with my fins on. In the afternoon we went out to the reef in the kayak and I saw another eagle ray feeding and a stingray who closely crossed his path with neither getting upset. We were hoping to see manta rays the following morning but they didn’t turn up and we had to bid our friends goodby and head back to Marina Apooiti on Raiatea so Joseph could fix our freezer and fit a new compressor and so I could fix our Duogen water/air generator with the spares which had arrived from the UK.

Once we were operational again we sailed 5 miles to visit the “Coral Garden” off the neighbouring island of Tahaa. I dived in to check the anchor and a reef shark with a shark sucker attached to one of its fins casually cruised by. Next I saw my second turtle browsing off the coral heads. Our anchor was well set for the forecasted strong winds although there were a number of bombies (coral heads) around the boat but only one would have given us a problem and only then in the unlikely event the wind swung 180 degrees  

How about this for your holiday home? 

So many fish

Gill in the coral garden

The Coral Garden is a shallow, clear water area between two Motus or islands on the reef where the tide rushes through and you can drift snorkel on the tide through this most beautiful coral garden with fish life, the best we have ever seen. It’s a regular spot to take tourists but not overdone, we saw only a dozen people on our two visits. The fish are used to people and come really close making for some great photo opportunities.
After a couple of days there we sailed 25 miles back to Bora Bora to check out of French Polynesia and provision at the well stocked Super U supermarket. Just as we were leaving some old French friends from our Guatemala days, Audrey and Adrian with sons Axel and Arsen, sailed by in their catamaran Quatra. Unfortunately we were about to leave so we only had a few minutes to chat but it was great to see them again. They were staying in Raiatea to complete the boy’s education and hoping to find work there to top up funds. 

We dropped our mooring buoy at 14.30 and headed west for the Cook Islands 500 miles away and then on to Tonga, 1200 miles away. We felt we had done justice to the Society Islands, we had enjoyed our stay in “paradise” and we’re now happy to move on.

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