Waikiki is everything Kona wasn't. Big and shiny, large and loud, a land of white sand beaches fringed with palms and skyscrapers. ABC stores full of Aloha shirts rub shoulders with designer stores, and the nearby Ala Moana Mall is big enough that you could spend your whole holiday in there if you want to. I'm steering clear- I'd like to say it's because I'm not materialistic but really it's because I know there's at least one Barnes and Noble in the complex and I've been away from decent book stores for so long that I daren't walk through the door for fear of blowing my bank balance.
The designer stores and big hotels give the place a 'could be anywhere' edge, but the rolling surf, blue water and long expanses of sand are far removed from most major cities. Nestled at the edge, Ala Wai Small Boat Harbour feels a little out of place. It should be charging a fortune and be full of multi-million dollar super yachts. Instead it's home to local boats and cruising yachts- and, right now, Island Prism.
My first impressions weren't favourable. I started this blog post a number of times over the last few weeks and each time deleted it because it felt like I was complaining. After a few weeks it has grown on me and I'm ready to write. My initial impression was affected by the amount of rubbish in the water. We'd arrived after heavy rain had washed tons of rubbish from the Ala Wai canal into the marina. Most of it was wood and branches- natural detritus. However, there was also a huge amount of man-made debris, from bits of chairs to yoghurt cartons, shoes, flip flops, lost balls, syringes, broken toys and an endless supply of plastic straws, polystyrene fast food packaging, plastic cups, lids, bottles and boxes. It felt like fast food waste was quickly smothering us.
I spent a couple of days complaining. One lady, Christa, was getting her hands dirty hauling out the junk. I decided to help and spent a bit of time each morning pulling out rubbish, piling it on the dock and moving it to rubbish bins. After a couple of days I decided to start sketching what I pulled out- somehow it made me feel better. Within a week, the two of us had made a difference to a good sized section of the marina. Eventually the marina managed to organise contractors who completed the progress. Things look much better now, though the littering hasn't stopped and the canal continues to be used as a conveniently tragic rubbish disposal.
The noisy city with busy, badly repaired roads took me time to adapt to. My inner travel snob disliked the fact that I was more drawn to the glitzy touristy expanse of Waikiki rather than the urban jungle of downtown Honolulu. It took me a few weeks to shut her up. Waikiki was an easy walk from the marina, we could hang out on the beach with a picnic or occasionally indulge in happy hour with our friends from Kealana and Cheers (the boat most appropriately named for happy hours)! The sand was a manicured world away from the lovely beaches of Fakarava or Bora Bora, but it was still lovely and there were fireworks every Friday night.
Honolulu was also a great place to stock up on boat parts and get things done. We had some supplies meet us from the mainland and Canada, and took advantage of the well-stocked branch of West Marine. Jim made me buy wellie boots ready for the chill waters of Canada- I managed to find brown sailing boots with a cute floral print on the inside, which lifted my mood about the whole concept of being cold- at least I'd be cold with pretty feet. Though my feet still haven't got used to the idea of wearing socks.
One of the great things about Hawaii is how easy it is to get to. My friend Kate came out for a visit with her family and snuck me into the Hilton pool for an afternoon, and a bit of Canada came to us in the form of Brother-out-law Tim. We hired a car and toured the island, including the beautiful Foster Botanical Gardens- an oasis of calm in the middle of a buzzing city! The exotic and sometimes odd plants were fascinating- and who could stay stressed whilst sitting under a descendant of the tree where Buddha found Enlightenment? I can't say I was enlightened, but I was finally finding that there was plenty to like about this city after all.
Over on the Rainy side of Hawai'i, people speak of Kona as if it is some terrible, overdeveloped metropolis. Changing sides of the island, we were expecting unfriendly city people, heavy traffic and tall buildings obscuring the sun. We were wrong. But before we could explore, we had to get there.
The voyage was nothing short of spectacular. The weather cleared up enough to give me views of Mauna Kea as I sailed down the west coast, and I was entertained by breaching whales and frequent sightings of mothers and calves. My final count was four whales on the Hilo side and eight on the way to Kona. Swimming with the whales is forbidden here but they're always a breathtaking sight, especially when they launch themselves out of the water. One male was visible from miles away as he threw up huge plumes of water with tail and fins. I was so busy watching him I was taken by surprise when a mum and baby surfaced near Prism! We're meant to keep our distance but nobody told the whales that... I swiftly adjusted our course as they swam in front of us and toddled off out to sea. The distant male continued his antics for the next half hour- but I was careful not to get too mesmerised as I steered us up the coast!
After sailing all night and enjoying a whale-filled cruise in the morning, we pulled into Honokohau Harbor and were instantly baffled by the mooring system. They call it 'Tahitian mooring'- but it is unlike anything we ever saw in Tahiti. The maneuver involves catching a mooring buoy on the way past and then stopping the boat just off the dock so the deckhand (Cap'n Jim) can get a line ashore. Powerboats with bow thrusters and the ability to make fine adjustments in reverse make this look easy. On a more classic sailboat, it's more of a challenge.
Prism doesn't do well in reverse. It's very hard to steer her and if there's a current or a puff of wind, things can get messy. So we decided to go in forward. Our berth was on the end of a row, so we only had a boat on one side- initially this seemed like a blessing as the clear side gave us more room and less things to try not to hit! I turned us in to the dock, and Jim prepared a line to lasso the mooring buoy. By the time we did it, the wind had blown Prism's bow round into the fairway and no amount of steering would bring her back in towards the dock. So we had to throw Jim into the dinghy to tow a line ashore and pull us in, Mediterranean mooring-style. The marina staff were highly amused- and we didn't know whether to be glad that we were given an end berth or not. Our fellow cruisers weren't much help when it came to technique- using fenders and the boats next to you to move forward seems to be accepted procedure! And Google was no help. Any suggestions from anyone who's tried it?
Once we were safely moored, Kona turned into a social whirl. We caught up with long-time cruisers Jim and Joy, who are sailing their way to Alaska. Jim soon met Will, an Alaskan cyclist with an infectious sense of humour and a lovely wife, Carline. They were great company, shared great stories and told us all about their fascinating friend Teri, who is known as the 'gecko whisperer" for her incredible photos of geckos surfing, painting, ironing and modelling Easter bunny ears. The next day we went into Kona to see the monthly hula at the palace. The afternoon involved great dancing, beautiful music, torrential rain which flooded the roads and cocktails at Gertrudes with jamming ukuleles all around us as the flood waters rose. Between tasting samples of Kona coffee and catching the performance, we saw a lady selling cards covered with geckos. I seized the day, introduced myself, swapped cards and followed up with an email- and a friendship was born. Teri is one of those people who has a story for every occassion. Her husband Gil is great company, makes excellent fish tacos. We even got to meet Teri's gecko models- who are totally wild and pose for the fun of it!
The kindness of strangers in Kona was incredible. Chuck and Linda invited us to their home for dinner after deciding Jim seemed like a reputable sort, and Gail and John, two ex-cruisers who had thrown out the anchor, understood the value of a hot shower and the use of a washing machine. It was fascinating to trade tales, and we really appreciated being welcomed and looked after.
John and Amanda arrived from Hilo on Mahina Tiare, and I got the chance to go out paddling in a wa'a with the Waikaloa Canoe Club. This outrigger canoe holds six people- a steersman and five paddlers. Ohana Day meant that we weren't racing, but were still expected to pull our weight. Paddling in time and changing sides became an exertive but meditative experience- though I had to make sure that I didn't fall out of sync every time was saw a humpback (watching breaches from a va'a? A truly spiritual experience). We crossed the bay to Mauna Kea resort, stopped for a glass of water and then made our way back out through golden clouds of yellow tangs, passing the occasional whale and turtle.
Jim got man flu, I met watecolourist Jean Haines at a workshop at the local art shop and Amanda saw my Month of sea Monsters and commissioned me to her illustrate her latest book about marine diesel engines. It's been a fantastic experience as we trade ideas and inspirations and build something together. I've been learning all about the systems that keep Prism going and honing my Photoshop skills at the same time. You know you're doing the right job when you get up early, full of ideas and ready to go. My only complaint is I need more hours in the day so I can work on the commission and my book, sketch the local area and practice the new watercolour skills I've learned!
The Kona Coast is relatively flat which makes it great for biking. Hawai'i isn't really a beach destination, but there are patches of white sand if you look. Magic Sands is one of the most unusual beaches. Storm waves regularly sweep away the sand, only for it to be replaced later. It's small and full of both locals and tourists- a fun place for people watching. We liked to get poke from Da Poke Shack (delicious Hawaiian raw fish salads with rice and seaweed or edamame), and spend an hour enjoying the vibe. Nearby was another beach with great snorkelling and numerous historical sites. The beach was salt and pepper pebbles, comfy enough for me to doze off in the sun.
Cruise ship day was Wednesday, which always led to extra bustle in Kona. The Pride of America runs on a precise schedule, and I built up a mental picture of cruise director Crystal from her impossibly perky and peppy event announcements (25, blonde, ponytail, short shorts and white socks with tennis shoes). It all seemed a bit too much like floating 'Hi-de-Hi' for my taste, but the tourists all seemed happy and liked to stop and chat to me when I was sketching in town. The Princess line ships visit on a more occassional basis, dwarfing the town. But even on cruise ship days, Kona feels real. Which is hard to explain- but there's still space to walk, still room on the little beaches, no designer stores just for the rich tourists. The older buildings, full of character, have not been swept away for glossy glass and steel confections. I loved the labyrinthine board walk and the century-old Kona Inn tower, built from lava rock and looking quite medieval. When you're in Kona, you're definitely in Hawai'i- not in an identikit city which could be anywhere between London and Dunedin.
We were so happy there that when it became time to leave we extended our stay, then extended again. We got to go aboard the Hokule'a, which circumnavigated the world using traditional Polynesian navigation techniques, explored the galleries in the lovely little town of Holualoa (where many of the buildings have been owned by the same families for over a hundred years) and visited Greenwell coffee plantation, which put Kona coffee on the map- and still makes a great cup! We had other adventures too- but I'll leave them for my next blog post.
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Does offbeat and off-grid mean off your rocker? I was going to find out when we decided to take a few more days away from Prism and visit Puna, a sprawling region in the south of Hawaii. It’s where people go when they reject the groove of Hilo and want to find a new rhythm entirely. The locals are collectively known as Punatics, and Jim was itching to meet them. I fancied the arty vibe, yoga classes, hot pools and snorkeling, so we set about trip planning.
The first thing we learned is that being a hippie is expensive, at least if you’re travelling spontaneously. We wanted to find somewhere to stay on the coast, but the place with the home-built huts was full, the one with the shared bathrooms and hot tubs was ridiculously expensive and the clothing-optional one just seemed weird. We ended up booking another Air BnB at Black Sands- which is not a beach at all, but an off-grid development up the hill from the coast. Our room was delightful, with views over the rainforest and a happy population of bright green day geckos outside. Our lovely host, Susan, was very welcoming and it was worth the steep cycle and interesting bus journey to get there.
We’d taken the bus from Hilo to Pahoa, popping our bikes on the rack on the front. I’d watched the world out the window, whilst Jim broke the cardinal rule of public transport- Do Not Make Eye Contact. He spent the one-and-a-half hour bus journey being regaled with the near-death experiences of an aging musician whose brains seemed pickled by too many illegal substances. Getting off the bus and on to the bikes was quite a relief!
The scent of marijuana hung over most of Pahoa. There wasn’t much to the town- a health food store, a few restaurants, some shops selling second hand books and tie dyed clothes. It seemed like smoking was all there was to do. We had lunch at a bar, and got chatting to a glass blower named Tom who seemed very sane, then hopped on the bikes and took on the rolling hills to Black Sands.
Kalapana used to be a village. Then the lava came, slowly burning down forest and destroying homes. The flow is still active today, and people cling to the edges, making the most of the fact that the authorities don’t care what you build on land which could become a lava field in a couple of years. Potholed roads can be a worthy exchange for freedom if you’re happy with tank water and solar power. Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar has turned its end-of-the-road location beside the old flow into a thriving business. There’s a market there every Wednesday, full of local vendors selling everything from clothes to woodwork, jewelry and glass. There are also dozens of food stalls and a live band. We grazed our way through green papaya salad and watched some hula dancers take to the floor for an impromptu performance. Then the band turned to classic rock and roll, and even Jim’s ankles wanted to get moving. The clientele were a fun blend of tourists and locals, the atmosphere was amiable and the coffee cake was amazing. Outside there was fire dancing, and that unmistakable scent again.
Jim and his ankles don’t like walking, but he was willing to give it a go to stand on the edge of the lava flow. The viewing here is totally unregulated- once you get past all the warning signs, you are on your own. No signs, no barriers, no path. The landscape here is still being born- always changing as the flow switches direction and changes in intensity. The start is a moonscape, though houses have already begun springing up, their unique architecture reflecting the quirky personalities of their owners. With no soil, gardening is impossible, though tubs of grasses or hydroponic arrangements gave splashes of green.
The rock beneath our feet was iridescent in places, covered in shimmering gold or patterned with rainbow strands. It was also sharp and brittle. We had to take care not to fall- no mean feat on the tortured ground. Lava had hardened in rope like coils and enormous domes, often shattered in the middle. Some areas were smooth and others looked like they had been bulldozed. What on earth could turn huge chunks of rock over like that?
The temperature rose as we got closer to the flow. Between the lack of path markers and the uneven ground, taking a direct path was impossible. Some walkers returned having never found the flow, others pointed us in the right direction. Steam vents became more frequent and the air stank of sulphur. And then- finally- we found the lava.
It was constantly in motion, red-hot syrupy rivulets. One cascade would harden and new one would start to run. Cracks glowed and grew; hardened patches were pushed aside as the pressure increased behind them until a new wave of molten rock bowled them out of the way. The landscape behind us began to make sense as I watched it being formed. I was mesmerized.
I had the flow to myself for a while, perched on a very solid slope a few feet away. The ground was still too hot to sit on, and a melted shoe nearby reminded me to keep checking the soles of my trainers. Jim soon joined me and we must have spent half an hour watching the earth being born. A group of tourists came, venturing beyond the slope and walking on the flow, treading on rock that had been liquid a few minutes before. Not the safest place for that Instagram-worthy selfie. We left them to it, and Jim had great fun complaining all the way back to our bikes (it gave him something to do).
The wind howled all night, and in the morning Jim called the harbourmaster to check up on Island Prism. Good job he did- her anchor had dragged and night security found her up against the university dive boat. Details were vague- she’d been moved and the fire brigade may have been called. They thought everything was ok- but our heads filled with thoughts of damaged stanchions and gouges in expensive dive boats.
Our hostess Susan leaped to our rescue and drove us all the way back to Hilo. We found Prism tied up securely against the strong winds which were sending whitecaps over our previously calm little anchorage. Tom, who works on the University boat, joined us to inspect them. Both vessels seemed scratch-free, and we thanked him for his help the night before as he’d been called in the early hours to wrangle our misbehaving yacht. We moved Prism, with two anchors out this time, glad that no expensive boats were damaged and our home was ok.
We’ll never be sure exactly why Prism dragged. Our Bruce anchor is twice the weight it needs to be, we let out 20 metres of chain in the 3 metre deep anchorage and most of the seabed in Radio Bay is mud, which offers good holding as the anchor digs in well (it’s also a pain to clean off the chain when you haul it up). We always reverse the boat to set the anchor, and try again if we’re not sure it worked. All I can think of is that the bed may actually be a mix of mud and rock- once we hauled up the second anchor and it was suspiciously clean. It’s possible we were just resting on hardpan, rather than being dug in. Or maybe the strong gusts were simply enough to move the boat despite the heavy anchor and extra chain. Perhaps Prism just had abandonment issues and wanted a hug from the dive boat. Thankfully no harm was done and everybody was remarkably nice about it.
Our Puna adventure cut short, we decided it was time to think about moving round to the west side of the island. Another boat came to join us in Radio Bay for the last few days- Mahina Tiare, owned by John and Amanda, who cruise the world training up blue water sailors. Their numerous circumnavigations have given them a host of fascinating stories, and we were lucky enough to catch up with them for coffee before we left.
Then it was time to raise the anchors and head up and over the north of the island, to the sunny side of Kona.
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.
We spent a couple of days anchored at Hakatea Bay. It's a little to the west of Taiohae, and the mountains circle the anchorage, creating a dramatic vista and protecting the bay from the worst of the rolling Pacific swell. Being (relatively) still was certainly a welcome change, and meant I could get my paints out without fear of them being catapulted across the cabin. Painting on a rocking boat is probably about as close as watercolours get to being an adrenaline rush...
I had a commission to work on, from a beautiful photo of Mount Maunganui back in New Zealand. I declared a painting day, and transformed the table into full studio mode. I wish I'd videoed the painting of the sunset- the way the watercolours behave when the wet paint hits wet paper is beautiful, and always has a slight edge of unpredictability. With the jewel colours of the sunset it was magic.
Because part of watercolour painting often involves waiting for paint to dry, I like to have a second piece on the go. I'd started a picture of a lemur when I flew back to Auckland to get my US visa sorted out. I'd visited the zoo with my friends Jill and Ethan, and we were entranced watching the ringtail lemurs feasting on strawberries for their lunch. I sketched them as they munched and had got as far as redrawing the sketch on watercolour paper and laying down a background wash. The whimsy of the idea still appealed to me so I decided to finish it off in between working on the larger A3 painting.
And then more paintings happened, I found it impossible to put the brush down, the ideas queued in my brain were all clamouring to get out and a second art day was declared. Beautiful valley walks? What beautiful valley walks? They remained unwalked by me.
And a bunch of the ideas that have been lurking in my head or loitering in my sketchbook got unleashed. I'm particularly pleased with the mantas- based on a sketch I did in Bora Bora.
This morning the brushes had to go back in their roll, and the much-depleted tube of French ultramarine was placed back into the art box along with the rest of the rainbow. We're back in Taiohae, after a dolphin-filled sail back, ready to grab a few more provisions before we head south to the island of Hiva Oa. But we'll do it again soon, watercolour paints- it's been a blast.
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!)
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.