An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Our cruiser friends Shelley and Mike affectionately refer to Atuona as ‘the city’. In reality there’s only just enough of it to constitute a town, but we were delighted to find a cluster of well-stocked grocery stores, a couple of restaurants and two museums. The town is perched just above a sweeping black sand beach with a constant rolling surf. It’s very beautiful, with mountain peaks rising above the bay and horses galloping along the tideline. However, it’s hopeless as an anchorage, so cruising yachts congregate a twenty-minute walk away in a more sheltered spot.
One of our priorities was finding internet access, so we called in to ‘Eliane’s Salon du The and Cybercafe,’ featured in our Lonely Planet and on the little map we picked up at Tourist Information. The long driveway was a little tricky to find and the cybercafé part seemed shut up, but the teahouse door was wide open so we bowled on in. Inside looked cozy and homely, just like someone’s living room. It was a cute idea, though the proprietor seemed very surprised to see us. We asked if it would be possible to use the internet. No, it wasn’t- the teahouse was closed, permanently, and we’d just invited ourselves in to his lounge. He was very nice and calm about it really. Retreating from our impromptu home invasion as gracefully as we could, we backtracked to Snack Make Make on the mainstreet- after ensuring that it really was open for business.
Our other priority was to get petrol- unleaded for the dinghy engine and diesel for Prism. But the gas station was out of unleaded, and there wouldn’t be any until Saturday when the Toporo came in from Tahiti to deliver it. Diesel was available, so we commenced a morning of shuttle runs with our 20 litre jerry can, keeping carefully tally of the number of times we refilled so we could pay at the end. Initially I was on heavy lifting duty to save Jim’s ankles, but I was released from service whilst he did the last few fills so I could go to the Musee de Gaugin.
Paul Gaugin spent the last few years of his life here in Atuona, in search of ‘the noble savage.’ His paintings here, scorned at the time, helped to revolutionise art. His Polynesian paintings are fantasies of colour, as he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. Green horses wade through tumbling steams in the shade of purple trees, whilst women laze alongside pink beaches. Sinister figures stand in the forests- guardians? Spirits? Demons? Strange as some of his choices are, they make sense when viewed here, surrounded by the landscape and culture that inspired them. Many of the scenes- women in colourful pareus (sarongs) and men in white singlets riding stocky Marquesan ponies- haven’t changed much in the last century. Paul probably wouldn’t approve of the satellite dishes and 4x4 vehicles, but I think he’d appreciate and recognise the rich and vibrant culture, and would be glad that missionaries and French ultimately failed in achieving cultural homogenisation.
The paintings in the museum are all replicas of works hanging in galleries through Europe and America, ordered chronologically from his early works in Brittany to his vibrant canvases from Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Hanging under traditionally styled high pointed roofs, they feel real enough, and the geckos calling from the eaves and scuttling along the tops of the artworks just add to the atmosphere. Outside is a reconstruction of the House of Pleasure, a two-storied hut with shutters that lift up to let in the breeze, looking down on the well that provided Gaugin with the cold water for his absinthe. The museum has a cabinet full of objects found on the site; chunks of paint, absinthe bottles, morphine ampoules, broken pottery. A time capsule of junk that sheds light onto a life which ended a century ago, and helped change art forever.
One of the highlights of Hiva Oa is its wealth of archaeological sites. We organised to hire a car with our Belgian friends Geert and Cindy, and their visiting friend Tim. The car turned out to be a truck, an enormous tank of a 4x4, and I was very happy when Geert said he would drive. The Toporo was unloading, and half the island was there to receive crates and packages- everything from speedboats to kids’ bikes to planks of wood emerged from the hold. Geert negotiated the chaos and we were soon on the road, heading northeast to the archaeological remains at Iipona. The road meandered along ridges and saddles with stunning views of teal-blue bays, then zigzagged up and down mountainsides in snaking switchbacks. We rose from rich jungle to arid scrubland, kept scrubby by the munchings of wild goats. The road changed from concrete to dust and rocks, and herds of wild horses trotted across the track. We rattled our way along, keeping an eye out for wild bananas and cheering whenever our bouncing backsides were spared by an all-to-brief concrete section.
The plunging hillsides made bananas hard to access- all too often they dangled just out of reach over a sheer drop, and the bunches which were easy to get to usually had a house lurking in the background- not so wild after all. Eventually we spotted a papaya tree in the middle of nowhere. A machete-wielding Geert balanced on Tim’s shoulders to reach up to the top. The ripe fruit were rotten or munched by rats, but he managed to get some green papayas, which we hoped would ripen in the tropical sun.
After a couple of hours of rutted roads and postcard-worthy photo stops, we reached Iipona. We’d been instructed to pay a small fee at a snack near the waterfront, and were then given directions to get to the archaeological site. The grounds were very well kept, with mown lawns and pretty plantings. It almost felt too pristine, and I was most drawn to the outer edges where ruggedly cuboid rocks rested beneath the shady bows of banyan trees. Somehow the glorious sunshine burned off the mystery of the place, and I wondered how it would feel on a misty day.
There were five tiki altogether, in various states of repair after their encounters with warring tribes and Christian missionaries. They were the biggest I’d seen, the largest standing at 2.6 metres, staring sternly over the gardens. I was most drawn to a female tiki in a horizontal pose. The regular interpretation is that she is lying down to give birth, and is a symbol of fertility. With her arms stretched out in front of her, her toes pointed and a beaming smile on her face, to me she appeared to be flying, adventurous and free. Birth or flight- either way she has a new world ahead of her.
Geert, Tim and Cindy drove back to the village to try and find some lunch, and Jim and I stayed to draw then have a picnic amongst the tiki. A small French tour group came through, deciding that wherever I was sketching was obviously the best angle for a photo so could I please move. Or else I would be in their photo so could I please move. I retreated to the spot where Jim had spread out our crackers and cheese, and sat down for lunch. Of course, this turned out to be precisely THE best spot to take photos- so could we please move. We were glad so see them go so we could finish lunch in a single place. The next arrivals were a couple from New York along with their guide. As the couple set off exploring, the guide stopped to talk to us. He explained that there are dozens more tiki scattered across the island, many only known to the boar hunters who know the forests well. He saw missionaries and archaeologists as the enemies- missionaries break the tiki and archaeologists spirit them away. I hoped his opinion was a few decades out of date, but loved the thought of an army of statues scattered through the jungle. On this sparsely populated island I wondered how many are as yet totally undiscovered, their weather-beaten faces seen only by boar, goats and ponies.
The guide paged through my Tahuata sketchbook as his tourists rejoined us, and I was excited and gratified when he recognized the lead dancer from Fatu Hiva. He also identified a tattooed warrior as being his cousin. We all chatted about travel and he drew our attention to a carved animal beneath the glorious flying tiki. It’s usually interpreted as being a dog or goat, but it looks exactly like a llama. Not impossible- Polynesians quite probably made it to Peru, bringing back with them kumara (sweet potatoes) and really confusing Thor Heyerdal, who assumed that it was the point of origin for the entire Polynesian migration. It is not inconceivable that Marquesan sailors saw llamas and came back home to carve them, although I draw the line at believing the guide’s story that his ancestors built Macchu Piccu. Of course, it’s also not inconceivable that the carving is just a badly done goat.
The New Yorkers departed and the Belgians returned. We piled into the ute to rattle our way back round the mountains to Atuona. With an hour or so of daylight left, we drove round to Taaoa and the multileveled platforms of Tohua Upeke. Soft golden light filtered through the dangling tangles of the banyans, kissing the wild undergrowth and the platforms of dark volcanic rocks with a magical light. I’d found the primal wildness that had been missing from Iipona. Wandering farther into the site took us to a collection of banyan trees, where we discovered a squat square tiki with round eyes and a wide smile. The path to reach him was overgrown, we had the site to ourselves, and I felt a little like an explorer as I paused a few seconds for a very quick sketch. Then it was back to ‘the city’, stopping to photograph the sunset over the rocky coastline as we headed towards civilization and dinner. The restaurant had a Christmas tree and fairy lights, the wine was cold, the pizza delicious, and the service surly after Jim switched his side order from rice to fries shortly before it was due to arrive.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and stalls of toys had sprung up outside the largest supermarket. Disney gardening sets and robotic dinosaurs competed for space with fairy castles, and Christmas had come early for one little boy delightedly sitting in a small electric car. Our Christmas day itself was quiet. Cindy, Tim and Geert had left for the Tuamotus and the anchorage was thinning out. We celebrated with a bottle of St Emillion, good cheese and a tin of roast duck we’d bought back in New Zealand. I sung Christmas carols, somehow forgetting two lines from every song, and illustrated the letters that Jim wrote to family and friends. We enjoyed the peace and reflection as our time in French Polynesia drew to a close. Within a few days we were heading out into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of melon-headed whales who zoomed around the boat, leaping in a joyful escort as we sailed beneath another gorgeous sunset.
Music festivals are supposed to be grubby, and the one at Tahuata was no exception. Instead of the traditional British field of mud, we were confronted by dust (which would happily turn into mud if a handy downpour gave it the chance). Consequently, a few of my sketchbook pages have a browner tinge than I would like, but I guess I need to look on it as incorporating a little bit of the island into each image.
It took us a day to sail to Tahuata from Fatu Hiva, and there were already a few boats anchored in the little harbor when we arrived. It was a rather rolly anchorage, and the swell coming in added to the excitement of dinghy landings, bringing a high risk of getting swamped. The small quay had no breakwater, and we were forbidden to tie up to it due to a constant flow of local boats and naval tenders dropping off people, instruments and supplies ready for the festival. Initially we were allowed to tie to a rocky outcrop and use a stern anchor to keep the inflatable zodiac off the sharp rocks, but soon even this was disallowed and we were forced to anchor a distance away from the wharf and swim ashore, or brave the breaking surf to attempt a beach landing (we decided to control how wet we got and anchored out rather than risk the boat in the surf). An added incentive for avoiding the wharf was that the policing of dinghies didn’t extend to keeping the local children under control, and they often used tenders near the wharf as swimming platforms and playthings. Apparently our rubberised craft were more tempting than the local wooden or fiberglass boats- or perhaps the consequences of messing with them were rougher! The kids were always quick to help us unload bags, bike and water jugs when we came alongside the quay, so I could forgive their playfulness- though Jim preferred to anchor far enough out to remove temptation from their sights.
Watching the festival set up was entertaining in its own right. Each afternoon a naval ship would arrive in the bay with a new contingent of villagers, who were then ferried ashore along with carefully wrapped costumes, clubs and enormous drums. The residents of the village of Vaitahu joyfully welcomed each boatload of arrivals with singing, drumming and blowing horns and conches. People and packages were loaded into waiting trucks, which formed a snaking procession over the hill to the next bay, where a large hall provided communal lodgings. Soon the waterfront became home to a community of stone carvers, who set up generators and set to work with grinders, hammers and chisels. Lumps of red lava rock transformed into metre tall tiki, which visiting islands would present to Tahuata to grace their tohua- the large stone dance platform. The carvers were happy for us to watch as the features of the figures emerged- bug-eyes, grinning mouths and protruding tummies. Females are often given a long braid or a baby on their belly. Boys are easy to spot. Weavers sat in shady spots, as men and women created skirts, loincloths, tops, headwear and armbands to adorn themselves for the dances.
The festival opened in spectacular fashion, with greetings and dances given by each island in costume. We spotted some familiar faces from Fatu Hiva, garbed in yellow-stained tapa cloth and that fragrant vetiver we’d seen being processed. Representatives of other islands wore skirts of leaves or grass, which fluttered and rippled with every movement. Long hanging strands of moss made graceful tops for the ladies of one island, women from another wore intricate crowns made of ebony and carved bone. Some wore enough vegetation to cover themselves from neck to knees, others preferred to show a bit of midriff and leg. Masculine costumes were even more varied. The chiefs were the most spectacular, with towering headpieces of bone or shell, spectacular black ruffs which broadened their shoulders and thick skirts of frizzed black horsehair. The effect was to awe and intimidate, to convey mana and power- and it worked, especially when topped off with a boar’s tooth necklace, intricate tattoos and a carved war club. The other end of the scale had an equal impact- a few tufts of grass, leaves or feathers as a loincloth, a necklace of tusks or carved bone, and very little else. This minimal attire was perfect for showing off extensive tattoos (often combined with a nicely toned physique)!
Each island presented a chant, song and dance in welcome, usually led by a flamboyantly dressed chief or two and supported by the soprano singing of the matriarchs. It was an impressive sight- and sounded incredible when voices layered with the drums. In between, I tried to see how much of the Marquesan announcements I could understand- some words such as ‘pakepake’ (clap) and ‘kaoha nui koutou’ (many greetings to you all) are similar or identical to New Zealand Maori. Visiting dignitaries had their chance to speak too- but the heavens were not impressed and promptly opened, causing many of us to seek shelter under nearby marquees whilst the politicians waffled on in the deluge. The rain stopped when the waffle did, and we enjoyed the last performances with slightly muddier backsides as we sat on the tiered rocks and grass of the amphitheater.
The scheduling was definitely operating on island time. The two versions of the timetable only existed in French, differing substantially from each other and from reality. Workshops often failed to materialise if the people scheduled to lead them were too tired, location was often vague and timing was more of a guide than an expectation (a bit like bus schedules in Auckland or Basingstoke). There was no point getting anxious or cross, as the way of life here is to just go with the flow and there was always something to watch- dance and drumming practices on the tohua, bands in the artisan’s centre, wood carving, tattooing, or the young man who rode through the village with a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his horse, piping out R’n’B. When events happened, they were wonderful. One morning there was a demonstration of traditional tattooing- called ‘patutiki’ in Marquesan. The subject lay on woven mats whilst the tattoo artist sat next to him, applying the ink to his skin using a sharp rock. This was tied to a long rod, which was tapped by a second rod to incise the skin and let the ink flow in. A third man gently fanned the subject, and a forth periodically wiped the blood and ink away. It was a much messier process than the modern needles and machines that buzzed away for the rest of the festival. Marquesan patutiki artists are known for the beauty and delicacy of their geometric artwork, and were highly in demand by locals, as well as by tourists wanting a permanent souvenir. So far I remain undecorated…
I also thoroughly enjoyed the lunch put on by the islands. We were told to ‘bring a plate,’ which in New Zealand means you bring food to be shared. I started planning what I could make, figuring out what vegetables needed to be used soon and trying to decide whether curry or couscous would be better received. Fortunately Cindy from Zensation set me straight before I started cooking- the instructions were literal and we were only expected to bring something to eat off of, preferably something natural and organic. Jim rustled up some coconut shells and we climbed the hill to the next bay.
Marquees with trestle tables were set up waiting for the feast. The food had been cooked in umu- underground ovens made by digging a pit. Fires are lit in the bottom, whilst pigs, taro, plantains and bananas are wrapped in taro leaves and placed in baskets woven from long green pandanus fronds. The baskets are placed in the embers and covered with more layers of leaves, to slowly roast overnight. When it was time for lunch they were unearthed and ceremonially carried to the waiting trestle tables with chanting and dancing. The leaves were unwrapped and their contents transferred to long wooden bowls with beautifully carved handles. Platters of crabs and shellfish were spread out alongside woven banana leaf plates full of fruit and firi firi (coconut doughnuts). Lengths of green bamboo, split in half, made perfect tongs and scoops to serve the dishes, and some people used them as rather stylish-looking plates. Coconuts were also popular- though as one unfortunate soul discovered, they don’t work so well if they have a hole in the bottom…
When lunch was announced, I commenced queuing in an orderly British fashion (with only two people in front of me). It soon became clear that politeness wouldn’t fill my coconut shell any time soon- not when I was competing with an endless stream of hungry Polynesian males! So I stood my ground and ended up with a chunk of pork and some plantains in my coconut, along with a good dollop of coconut milk with onion and fish sauce. Everything was lean, tender and delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet rich plantains- though by the time I’d finished, the platters of fruit and firi firi were nothing but peel and memories! Our coconut shells went in the compost, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting with Shelley and Mike from Avatar whilst I sketched the goings on.
Each evening the islands took it in turns to perform in the tohua, culminating in a collaborative dance on the third night. Offerings ranged from seated dances of sedate and elegant hand gestures to energetic performances with much hip wiggling to my favourites- the men performing high-octane cousins of the Maori haka, which sent shivers down my spine with their power. Through it all beat the drums, fast, layered and mighty, thundering as the warriors stamped and chanted with deep, throaty voices. The air was scented with sweet frangipani and vetiver, and the coconut oil that glistened on the performers’ skins. I made huge strides in my figure drawing as my hands flew across the paper, trying to reflect the mana of the performers.
My favourite performance was by the islanders of Ua Pou. Flaming torches were passed round and a fiery battle commenced. The flames whirled and clashed together, then flew as the torches were tossed between performers. No one could doubt the bravery of the warriors, energetically brandishing their torches as their grass skirts whirled about them. A quick visit to the tap by the post office was enough to sort out one young man whose costume was glowing, and a few buckets of water after the performance doused a small patch of grass which was smoldering. The next island, Ua Huka, tried to compete by including two cockerels and a live pig in their performance. The animals seemed quite unimpressed and the pig, tied upside down to a pole, vocalized its displeasure, but everyone survived the dance- although only the human cast members were invited to take a bow at the end.
The festivities were cut slightly short- the islanders from Ua Pou and Ua Huka were due to leave earlier than expected, aboard the Aranui. We left before the closing ceremony, keen to avoid the manic traffic that would accompany the departures. It only took an hour to motor to Atuona on the neighbouring island of Hiva Oa, and the Aranui arrived a couple of hours later. It berthed on the quay, and we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming as we sat outside on Prism, watching the sunset. I don’t know when I’ll get to hear Polynesian drums again, but relished this chance to enjoy the rhythm for just a little longer.
Nuku Hiva has been well worth the tricky sail to get here. We've been anchored off the sleepy little town of Taiohae, which boasts a few stores, a craft shop, a number of wood carvers and a few churches. The place is charming, and very genuine. It's not unusual to see someone riding their horse to the post office. Shirts are optional, traditional tattoos are almost compulsory, and boar tusk necklaces are not just worn to impress the tourists. There are hardly any tourists in any case- the place becomes busy when the Aranui is docked, then quickly returns to its usual state of dozy tranquility.
The anchorage is rather rolly, but the holding is good and there's enough to explore that it's worth putting up with the swaying. There's a little quay where we can tie up the dinghy; it's also used by the bonito boats, and we often watch the fishermen unloading their catch. There's a snack, which serves good poisson cru, tasty pastries and delicious pomelo juice, and is always full of locals and yachties (the decent wifi is an added draw). A couple of doors down are the yacht services, where Kevin does laundry and offers assistance with paperwork and parts deliveries.
On Sunday, we went to church. The entrance belongs to a tropical fairy tale- an inviting gateway with turrets, leading to a garden full of tropical blossoms. The cathedral is built of stones brought from each of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, and filled with intricate Marquesan wood carvings. Below the roof are open sides, letting in the light and the breeze. Swifts and song swirl beneath the rafters, as the a cappella choir weave magic in French and Marquesan. Sometimes guitar, drums and ukulele are used as an accompaniment, but they just seem to dilute the whole effect- the magic is in the voices alone. After mass, the congregation retreats to the outer courtyard where pastries and bread pudding are sold under shady marquees. The small children who squawked, complained and pestered their brothers through the service are carted off home, and a few people remain to share gossip beneath the trees. I loitered and sketched until the sun became too hot and we retreated to the snack for a cold juice.
Tohua Koueva is an old communal site up in the hills, in the shade of towering banyan trees. Getting there involves a couple of kilometres of walking upwards, and those inevitable moments when you begin to wonder if the climb will be worth it. In this case- yes it was. The site itself was beautiful, shady, lush and green. The extensive meeting platforms have been restored, and huts have been reconstructed to give a feel for what the site was like a few hundred years ago. There was a film crew there; two intrepid souls had swam from the neighbouring island of Ua Pou to Nuku Hiva, and were now exploring their ancestral and spiritual roots. One of the film crew, Pascal, took an interest in my sketching and took some time to tell me a bit about the site. I was surprised there were no other tourists there, he answered that they don't often get this far. He didn't mind, it allows the local population to enjoy it and connect with their culture. We spent the whole morning there, sketching and exploring, searching for tiki sculptures and absorbing the ambience. I'd happily go back- armed with a small vat of insect repellant!
I've also been working on a series of sketches of tiki. You can find the series so far here!
Land. Solid, stable, firm, immobile, not crashing and smashing or rocking and rolling… I’m very happy to be ashore following our passage from Tahiti to the Marquesas. We were intending to wait for a weather window- southerlies, perhaps, which would speed us along on our way northeast. But none were forecast, despite the pilot charts indicating that southeasterlies should be prevalent at this time of year. So we had to leave anyway.
Sailing into wind is uncomfortable. The waves are against you, so if they reach a reasonable size the boat smashes into them, slowing as she pounds along. Island Prism performs well upwind, and is capable of 5 knots or more in a stiff breeze (respectable for a cruising boat of mature years), but the constant pounding puts strain on boat and crew both so we sometimes find we need to slow her down. And if the wind slows but the swell remains, we are left struggling and wallowing. On our way north, the winds stayed strong and stable- but struggling against the trade winds is no easy task, especially as we didn’t want our teeth rattled out of our heads. We made an average speed of four knots, and our trip, predicted to take seven days, stretched out to ten and felt much, much longer.
We even ended up having Jim’s birthday at sea, and celebrated with a tin of ravioli and a bar of Whittakers chocolate (the really delicious and distinctive dark Ghana). On passage isn’t the best time to have a birthday, but Whittakers isn’t a bad way to celebrate. And now we’re on land (hooray! Land!), there are rumours of ice cream and pizza at one of the snacks, so we’ll be able to celebrate retrospectively.
We’re anchored in Taiohae Bay, home to the main town in the Marquesas. The bay rings with the inevitable sound of cockerels, and the crashing of waves upon the black volcanic sands. As we dropped the anchor we could smell the richness of the land- soil and wood carried on the air, with a faint scent of flowers. The mountains rise steeply out of the ocean and are covered with lush green vegetation. This is a place where things like to grow. I didn’t draw much on passage- one day I hope to break through the queasy feeling it gives me, but it hasn’t happened yet- so when we’d anchored I tried to capture the feeling of the voyage. I think a follow up is needed, with more headwinds.
What do you think of when you hear the words 'Bora Bora'? My mind turns to a kind of ultimate luxury- movie stars with cocktails, gourmet restaurants and white sand that you're not allowed to sit on unless you've paid a hefty premium and have a name that's appeared on film credits. So I has a few reservations about cruising there for long- would we be able to afford to do anything? Would we feel out of place? Would we be allowed within a mile of any of the flash resorts? Would they move us on as soon as we dropped anchor, as I'd heard on some of the other islands.
It turned out that private boat was the best way to see the island and the motu fringing the lagoon. We could move between anchorages, find great views and carry out a search for the best chocolate lava cake on the island. White beaches could be ours for the cost of a drink and we could enjoy sundowners without breaking the bank. Whilst I'm sure I would love the luxury of an overwater bungalow, they're generally built over sand- so don't necessarily offer the best snorkelling. We, on the other hand, could swim off the boat to nearby reefs or take the dinghy to find the best spots, and then spend as long as we liked in the water without being hauled out by impatient tour guides keeping to an itinerary.
I drew a map soon after our arrival- trying to integrate two different cruising guides and recommendations from the Lonely Planet. It helped us get our bearings and create a rough plan- a couple of days anchored off the main island, then down to Motu Tupua in the South West, followed by a journey up and over to explore the lagoon to the east and the south.
After living in the boat yard on Raiatea, we felt like we had earned the incredible dinner and views at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Fresh bread with melting butter, delicious tuna and of course that lava cake- my taste buds were in ecstasy. We also had the pleasure of watching the sun set behind Island Prism- and watched the other diners taking photos of her. We were pretty happy she'd been scrubbed up for the occasion!
We then moved a little farther south to Mai Kai. They offered mooring balls for $30 a night, which included use of their infinity pool. It seems very silly to enjoy a pool so much after months of world class snorkelling- maybe the relaxing poolside loungers helped, maybe it was the fact I could just float on my back and gaze up at the sky. The wifi was good enough to catch up on a few internet jobs, and we splashed out on dinner again (the lava cake wasn't quite as fluffy as the one from BBYC, but went very nicely with a glass of St Emilion). And the sunset really came out to play.
The anchorage down at Motu Tupua was lovely, The snorkeling was ok, and although the condition of the coral wasn't great, I saw lots of fish. The real draw was the view of the peaks of Bora Bora and the colours of the water in the lagoon. I pulled out my acrylics to try to capture the wonderfully intense shades or turquoise and blue. They're an interesting choice for a sketchbook- they can stay slightly sticky when dry, so it's not a great idea to use them on both pages of a spread, but the rich colours were exactly what I needed. And my beloved luminous watercolours found a home on each facing page.
The east side was one of the highlights of Bora Bora. The motu were home to some very exclusive hotels, so we didn't go ashore, but we loved the view and the amazing snorkelling just a short dinghy ride away. We spent hours swimming with manta rays- up to seven in a group- and clouds of up to thirty eagle rays. The underwater ballet held us mesmerised. The coral was beautiful and there were plenty of fish, including the majestic Napoleon wrasse, but the rays were the stars of the show. Every day we emerged from the water after hours of swimming, exhilarated and with fingers like prunes.
Of course, the rays appeared in my sketchbook, and were recreated in watercolour form. The patterns on their back reminded me of the swirling koru patterns of Maori art, so each of my mantas got a little Polynesian twist- as did some of the landscape!
We negotiated the route between coral heads to reach the very southern tip of the lagoon. We anchored off the Sofitel Private Resort and used the dinghy to get through the little pass to Matira Point. The resorts here were very nice, and a little less exclusive than the overwater bungalows out on the motu. We visited the Sofitel bar for happy hour, and were shown to a table that would have a great view of the dance show later that evening. I drew my drink and was soon asked to draw the bartender, who was very pleased with the sketch I gave her. The dancers were amazing- with their sinuous movements, I'm sure they have joints in places I don't. I tried some gesture drawings- the only way to try to capture the rapid motions of the dance, and snapped some reference photos to attempt some more colourful sketches later.
On the way back to Prism, the channel lights guided us and we thought we'd gone far enough into deep water to avoid the reef. Sadly not- we struck coral, I managed to lift the engine before any harm was done but we had a gash in the bottom of the dinghy. Thank heavens for our new dinghy pump- Jim spent the last portion of the journey bailing out. The next day we moved back round to our anchorage near the manta rays. Our friends Trish and John on Lumiel joined us and we snorkeled, followed by delicious coffee and bacon butties on their catamaran. They even let me use their warm shower. As the sign on their boat says, 'It doesn't get any better than this!'
So after my initial reservation, it was hard to leave. I hope I'll make it back one day- those manta rays and the chocolate lava cake at the Bora Bora Yacht Club are calling.
(If you're a fan of the manta rays, they're appearing over on Redbubble with some of the other wonderful creatures I've met through Polynesia. Take a peek at Redbubble, or contact me for information about the originals!)
Raiatea- where legend and history collide. Thought to be the launching point for the Polynesian voyages to Rapa Nui, Hawai'i and Aotearoa (New Zealand), it was home to heroes and adventurers. Priests blessed the launching double-hulled canoes and found messages from the gods in the cries of the heron and the kingfisher. When the missionaries came, the old gods were forgotten and the marae, used for centuries of worship, were neglected or destroyed. Today, the ruins of the mighty marae have been restored, though the old deities remain dormant (not a bad thing as one or two of them were rather keen on human sacrifice).
Bill, Jim and I found that traveling back in time to explore the ancient civilisation was remarkably straightforward. We motored through the linked lagoons of Taha'a and Raiatea, dodging the occasional reef on our route south until we anchored in sand near to the marae of Taputapuatea. We dinghied ashore and explored coral rock pavements and platforms looking out to sea, ancient walls consumed by banyan trees and a few carvings, last remnants of an ancient artistic heritage. Standing stones in the courtyards marked the spots where the tribal elite would have sat, and modern carved stele recalled the tall wooden totems which would have once decorated each marae. The tables for offerings of food were long gone, but we recreated the feasts of the past with some baguettes, blue cheese and steamed buns with our hunter-gatherer Jim rustled up from a nearby store.
Moving back up north, we anchored near to the Faaroa River. It was wide enough and deep enough for us to access by dinghy, so we motored up, through lush farmland fringed with hibiscus and ginger. The heavens opened, adding to the feeling of tropical adventure and making our later sail up to the main town of Uturoa rather damp.
We delivered Bill to the airport- the only airport I've ever seen with its own dinghy dock- before Jim and I turned our hand to hauling Prism out at the Raiatea Carenage for a few coats of bottom paint and a raising of the water line (apparently all the art supplies have left her sitting a little low in the water). I'm sure I should have been sketching boats sitting in cradles, waterblasters and tools but I just wasn't finding the boat yard inspiring- it probably didn't help that I didn't want to be there. My Sketchbook Skool kourse 'Imagining' was far more inspiring, so I turned my hand to ink blob monsters until Prism was afloat again and Bora Bora called.
From sleepy Huahine to tranquil Taha’a- a straightforward day sail, despite the swell that was still with us. A barrier reef surrounding the island means it's well-protected, and the lagoon is deep enough that it's possible to cruise all around the island without leaving sheltered waters. We spent our first night in tranquil Apu Bay. The muddy bottom gave us good holding, but the deep water made hauling up the anchor hard work- I was glad to be on the helm and Jim was glad to have Bill there to help!
The Lonely Planet had raved about the lovely Joe Dessin beach. We wanted to pay it a visit, but approaching by dinghy meant that a bit of guesswork was needed to find it. We eventually spotted a strip of white sand fringing a coconut plantation, which seemed like a likely spot. We confined ourselves to snorkeling and sitting on the foreshore to avoid trespassing. There was just enough sand for each of us to plunk ourselves down with our legs being lapped by the water. Water movement meant sand movement, and when we stood up we found that we had most of the beach in our swimsuits. The snorkeling was nice- plenty of fish, interesting shellfish and some attractive coral formations. Afterwards, cruising past on Prism, we found that the main beach was just a little farther west- but we'd still enjoyed our private sandy spot.
Our next anchorage was off the island of Taotao. It's home to a beautiful resort, with white sands, turquoise waters, luxurious over-water bungalows and great views across to neighbouring Bora Bora. Bill and I went ashore to organise some diving and were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received. The receptionist was even happy for me to sit in the lobby, styled after a traditional fare va'a (boat house), and sketch the century-old va'a motu which once sailed between the islands of the lagoon. The fish on the page are modelled on a carving of a tuna at the resort.
Later in the day we snorkelled the coral river, a patch of coral gardens in between Taotao and a neighboring motu. The second motu has a path to the start of the gardens, and a consistent current into the lagoon floats you along. Curious fish come and investigate (presumably hoping you'll give them a snack- fish friendly foodstuffs are available at the resort). The snorkeling was fun, and our dives the next day were excellent. We were taken to the outer reef - visible from the resort but a half hour journey by boat. The corals were healthy and there were plenty of colourful reef fish- no feeding here, leading to more natural encounters. Whale song echoed through one of the dives, and a highlight was a swirling school of jacks, who merged into a doughnut formation as our instructor swam through them. The diving and snorkeling inspired some more fish paintings- again inspired by Ohn Mar Win's lovely art.
We explored the main islsnd too, and were entranced by the glorious singing from the churches on Sunday. I also loved the array of woven hats sported by the ladies, which were lots of fun to sketch. We enjoyed pizza for lunch and took a free tour of Ia Orana pearl farm- very interesting and with a pleasant lack of ‘hard sell’ after. The oysters in Taha’a all originate from Ahe in the Tuamotus, where atolls provide far more favorable conditions (there's no muddy run off from the land, which the oysters don't like much). Oysters can produce up to four pearls in their life, and once they've produced one, all the others will be the same colour. When they reach the end of their productive life, the oysters become dinner and their shells are sold to crafts people. Nothing is wasted out here in the islands.
We could probably have lingered longer, but Bill's flight date was approaching and we wanted to see a bit of Raiatea before he left- plus we had a date with the boatyard to keep.
'Peaceful' is the best word to describe Huahine. The best way to describe Huahine is ‘peaceful’. There are no trains of buzzing jet skis or roaring cavalcades of quad bikes. No packed tourist boats zoomed through the anchorage. The soundtrack was provided by the wind, the surf pounding on the reef and the constant crowing of cockerels.
Our first anchorage was off Fare, the main town, which consisted of a few stores, a very well-stocked supermarket, a few stalls with fresh fruit and veg and a patisserie (if you were up early enough to grab a tasty treat before they sold out). We anchored on a sandy spot near the reef, an easy dinghy ride to get ashore to the shops and yacht club. The yacht club sold ice, so we were able to keep the fridge cold and top up with veggies, yoghurt and cold fruit juice.
Our first day was spent exploring the town (which didn't take long) and recovering from the sleep deprivation and seasickness of our rocky overnight passage. By the second day, we fell into a very pleasant pattern. Bill and I would get up and go diving in the morning, whilst Jim would go ashore with his bike and try not to get into too much trouble while unsupervised. By ten we would be back on dry land, then de-salt, grab an early lunch and hire bikes for the afternoons.
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the diving. The reef around Huahine was decimated by a plague of crown-of-thorns starfish, then smashed by storms. Annie of Mahana Dive says that the storms were the saviours of the reef, creating a bare moonscape free of dead coral. The starfish moved on or starved, and the bare rock provided a sturdy ground for the reef to regenerate. Now there's a healthy coral garden on the outside of the barrier reef, teeming with fish and invertebrates. Nearby is the Avopehi Pass, where currents provide a highway and feeding ground for a mass of pelagic species- half a hundred gray reef sharks cruised amongst huge schools of barracuda, a squadron of ten eagle rays soared above us, and we saw numerous tuna and schools of jacks. On the reef, we searched for nudibranchs, tiny crabs and shrimp hiding in the coral, beautiful shellfish and lurking moray eels. All in all, the dives rivalled- and surpassed- many of the sites I visited in the Tuamotus.
I'm sitting outside on deck at Huahine, the first of the Leeward Islands. Someone ashore is playing the ukelele, there's some beautiful singing and the sun is coming up, making the water glow teal and gold. We arrived here from Moorea yesterday after a fast but rocky overnight passage- both seasickness and the number of freighters to dodge increased after dark.
Jim’s brother Bill has come to stay with us for a fortnight. We're enjoying having someone else on board, and he's being very tolerant of the cozy conditions on Prism and my tendency to draw lots!
We took Prism round to Haapiti, a gorgeous anchorage with a renowned surf wave breaking on the reef by the pass. Prism anchored on a spit of white sand near a sharp slope, surrounding us with every conceivable colour of blue, and had an incredible view of Moorea’s towering peaks. Eagle rays and sting rays cruised past the boat regularly, and in the pass we snorkeled with turtles and reef fish, and regularly sighted the resident pod of common dolphins, numbering about 50.
Lacking a board, we couldn't surf the wave, but Jim enjoyed swimming round the edges whilst I floated in the dinghy and watched the surfers. Huge waves leave me a bit wary, but I was very happy swimming through the more tranquil turquoise waters to get back to Prism.
Once again it all seemed idyllic- until a man decided I really needed to see his private parts when I was on the dock. He made it very clear what he'd like me to do next, and though he never tried to touch me I was very happy when the dinghy engine started straight away and I could get back to Prism. The dock was secluded and I was nervous about going back by myself, so poor Jim and his ankles were forced to make the traipse to the store with me, in between applying paint and new anti-skid to the cockpit floor (and playing in the waves whilst we waited for layers to dry).
Our cruise back round to Opuhonu Bay brought back Moorea’s wow factor. The pod of dolphins were out in force as we left Haapiti, and we saw a pair of humpback whales not far from the entrance to the pass. We were watching them when a huge whale breached near Prism, in an amazing explosion of water and animal. He remained airbourne for a surprising amount of time, reentering with a huge plume of foam. And then he floated, serene after his huge expulsion of energy. I hopped in the water and he slowly swam towards me- and started singing. He looked at me as he swam past, then dove down into the blue. I stayed, hanging in the water, listening to his song long after he had vanished from sight.
Rounding the northwest corner of the island we found more whales - a mother and calf this time. It was Jim’s turn to swim, so he joined a group of snorkelers from one of the commercial tour boats. The baby was in playful mode, waving flukes and fins out of the water, totally unconcerned by the little creatures floating nearby. It was enchanting to watch, even from the distance of the boat. Eventually mother stuck her tail above the water and gave the sea a gentle slap- a sign that playtime was over. She and her little one dove and we continued on our way, buzzing from our amazing encounters.
We stocked the fridge with ice and relaxed for a few days before we returned to Tahiti to collect Bill. Our whale adventures were not over, however. As we cruised east, the mother and baby appeared again. Jim got Prism out the way whilst I swam over. The little one eyed the swimmers with curiosity whilst mum hovered nearby. They made a short dive and returned to the surface, where the calf had a short rest on mum's nose before flopping off and playfully flapping his fins in the air. He swam close to check out this strange creature in the water with him, before returning to mum’s side to play some more. We decided to leave them in peace and continued on our way- to meet another individual who greeted us with a spectacular breach, followed by a massive tail lob. We admired the theatrics from a safe distance- tail lobs are probably warning behaviour- and continued to Tahiti where laundry, bike shopping and supermarkets awaited us.
We reprovisioned, collected Bill and returned to Moorea. The whales gave him a brilliant welcome- a mother and calf were resting under the water, occasionally popping up to breathe. They were shallow enough to be visible from the surface, and weren't worried by our presence during their surface intervals. Taking turns to keep Prism at a safe distance, we hung in the water and watched them relaxing, the calf feeding and snuggling up to its mum beneath us.
Our attempts to go hiking were impaired by rain, and in the end we decided to attempt the Ancestors’ Trail despite the regular showers. Sometimes it felt like we were walking through a stream, and the cascades alongside the trail were swollen, but the path was well maintained and safe so we had no difficultly reaching the marae and the lookout up at the Belvedere. The fickle weather chose that moment to give us a sunny spell, with the clouds fringing the dramatic view over Cooks and Opunohu Bays.
We restocked the fridge with ice, bought some of the delicious fresh fruit available on Moorea and pointed Prism towards Huahine, an overnight sail. Jim extolled the wonderful trade winds, but wave trains from the south and the easy threw Prism about and created an uncomfy ride. Luckily a bout of seasickness did not impair my ability to keep watch- a freighter approached and changed on to a collision course, but did not seem to notice us or respond to our hails on the radio. We can only assume that the crew were asleep or lazy, and we'd turned on all the deck lights and should have been showing in their AIS system. A gybe took us out of harm's way, and we continued on course when the snoozing vessel had passed. More freighters and cruise ships followed, all maintaining a healthy distance. The sea calmed a little around dawn and I managed to get a little sleep before Jim brought us through the pass to anchor near the little town of Fare, where we have a whole new island to explore.
It's been a busy week here on Prism! We bought Jim a bike and left Papeete, initially for the Tahiti Yacht Club on the north west side of the island. There's a decent anchorage nearby, nicely protected by the barrier reef. It turns out that we dropped the hook near to the finish line for the outrigger canoe racing on Saturday mornings- so enjoyed a few hours of drinking coffee and watching the races. Of course, I pulled out my sketchbook and attempted the challenge of capturing the blur of limbs as the paddles moved through the water. We also enjoyed some great music from the drumming school on shore.
Our plan was to explore some of the sights of the north coast. There was only one problem- hills. Big ones. I will walk up hills if they are in my way, but am almost allergic to cycling up them. But if I was going to see anything of Tahiti, I needed to try, as weekend buses are only slightly more common than unicorns round here. Our first excursion was to Point Venus and Matavai Bay, where Cook went to help measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun and Captain Bligh and his soon-to-be-mutineers went gathering breadfruit. The call of history helped me up the hill when I thought my legs were going to fall off, and the views from the top and the freewheel down the other side almost made it worth it.
Point Venus was a pretty spot, with monuments to Cook and Bligh and an attractive lighthouse designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s dad. We ate lunch on a shady picnic table, enjoyed the swathe of black sand and cooled off in the rain, which inevitably fell halfway through every sketch (my drawings now have an interesting speckled effect). It rained all the way home- which did make tackling the hill cooler- and Jim scored a haul of mangos from a roadside stall.
The following day we tackled that hill again, and found a few others beyond. This time, my motivation was the Three Cascades, a group of waterfalls 22km from Papeete- so about 20km away from us. This time my foldup bike and I complained less as we tackled the first hill, though by the time we’d gone 18km (up numerous hills and into a stiff headwind), I was wondering if my legs would fall off before we made it. Which was of course the sign for yet another hill to go up. Hills aside, the scenery was rugged and spectacular, the ocean bobbing with surfers enjoying the beach breaks on a Sunday, then warming up on the black sands.
Somehow I made it- to find that the sign for the turn-off was labeled ‘ferme’. A 20km cycle and our destination was shut? We pedaled up the road to the falls anyway, in the hope that SOMETHING might be visible from the road. We saw two falls tumbling down the sheer hillsides- and a steady trail of people ignoring the ‘closed’ sign and walking to the falls anyway. Normally I'm pretty rule-following, but I'd just cycled a very long way (with hills and headwind, in case you'd forgotten), and was in no mood to behave myself. And Jim never behaves, so we slipped over the low slung piece of bamboo barring the way.
It turned out that the falls I'd seen from the road were not the main attraction- they were shrimpy distant cousins. The Vaimahuta falls were 80 metres of tumbling water, sparkling in the sun, fringed with lacy ferns and dripping with moss. White tropicbirds swooped past, elegantly long tails gliding like banners behind them. Tourists came and went, I sketched, it rained, my ink ran, falling water on my waterfall. I wished I had the skill and knowledge to show how the sun made the rain sparkle like diamonds before it hit my paper.
I took the gently winding trail to the second and third falls, Haamaremare Rahi and Haamaremare Iti. Two different watercourses pour themselves down opposite sides of a huge rocky outcrop, both clearly visible from the viewpoint. I listened to the water, the birds and the falling red leaves. I drew, watched and listened. The rain stayed away and I absorbed the tranquility.
My legs made it to the nearby blowholes, then somehow got me home. A rest day was in order (I had paintings to finish), then we set sail for Moorea. We had a beautiful downwind trip and Prism flew along. We anchored at Cooks Bay (a misnomer as the famed Captain actually went to neighbouring Opunohu Bay), and went ashore for ice cream. A family were sitting in the beach, having a sing song, and invited us to join them. They played guitar, ukelele, drums and spoons, the adults teaching the children to keep the beat as they wove rhythms. Our musical talents are lacking but we added applause, and played with the puppy who chewed our toes. A thank you song as the sun dipped and we went our separate ways, glowing with the warm welcome.
I'd started this page by drawing Prism, then sketched the family, then decided to combine it all together. cross hatched shadows try to hide the fact that the legs had gone horribly wrong, and I ended up choosing a limited palette of cobalt teal and quin gold to try to bring some semblance of unity to the thing. I actually like the way the light turned out
The next day we sailed to Õpūnohu Bay- where Captain Cook visited Moorea. It's a spectacular anchorage, with a white sandy bottom and a fringing reef protecting it. We were greeted by a large pod of dolphins, who returned to see us every time we entered or exited the reef pass. Ashore is a lovely white sand beach with decent snorkeling off it. The mountains tower over it, changing colour with the light. I didn't need to leave Prism to get lots of inspiration for sketching!
We did spend a lot of time exploring on land. I got my legs in gear and we cycled up to the Belvedere for amazing views over both bays. My legs didn't like me much but my eyes were very happy. The route up winds its way through an agricultural college, where we stopped for home made ice cream and large glasses of mango juice to refresh us for the rest of the slog upwards. Above the college are a series of archaeological sites, sensitively restored. We found ceremonial sites, an archery platform and a marae, constructed out of round rocks and sacred to ‘Oro, the god of war. Nestled amongst the buttresses of mapē trees, the area was special enough to encourage me to cycle up again the next day and walk the Ancestor Trail, through beautiful forest scattered with ancient ruins and reconstructions of traditional Polynesian buildings- plus the occasional lovely waterfall and hundreds of chickens. Brought over with the Polynesians for food, these days they run free as most people prefer the tender chicken offered by the supermarket.
One morning we were awoken at 4 by the sound of an engine stuttering and stalling. I worried that someone was in trouble. Jim worried that someone was stealing the dinghy. We rushed outside to find humpback whales cruising through the anchorage, chatting to each other with broken engine sounds. Nobody needed rescuing and we watched them as they swam away through the middle of the busy anchorage in 5 metres of water. I couldn't get back to sleep, but really couldn't complain too much about the cetacean alarm clock.
The following day, I spent the morning painting a whale in the bay. Lunch time rolled around, with a small gaggle of whale watching boats floating not far from the bay. Following a tip from Cinnabar, our neighbours, we hopped in the dinghy and motored out to see if we could get a daylight whale sighting. One of the tour boats approached us, I was expecting them to try to shoo us away but they kindly offered to look after the dinghy so we could both swim. In the water we went, towards the snorkelers and the two humpbacks resting in the water. We watched them blowing spray into the air for a while, then they started to move- swimming right past me. The white underbelly, tail and fins of the nearest whale were clearly visible underwater as it dove and finned down into the depths. Ten minutes later they were back, quite a way off this time, but we were treated to a spectacular double dive. We saw them twice more, once at a distance and once close up. The boats and occasional visiting jet skis all kept well away, and had their engines off whilst the whales were nearby. We stayed on the land side of the whales at all times so they would not feel cut off from the open ocean. After the fourth surfacing, we all headed off to leave the whales in solitude for a while. I was impressed with how the encounter was handled, and awed at actually being in the water with these amazing animals.
The next day was Monday. The best way to spend a morning seemed to be with a visit to the Rotui distillery, where we tasted their excellent fruit juices and rum punch. We can't play all the time though, and spent the afternoon giving Prism’s hull a much-needed scrub. Some of the algae was very hard to remove- Jim tried using a tough, spiky seaweed as a bio-friendly scrubber but sadly results were below par and we resorted to one of the scoring pads from the kitchen instead. By the time we'd finished, hull, keel, rudder and propeller were all pristine and we'd earned ourselves a glass of the fruit juice we'd bought from the distillery as we watched yet another gorgeous sunset.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.