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.
Our first few days in Hilo, Hawaii were pleasant. After checking in with customs- who were very pleasant and easy to deal with- we made our way to Walmart to buy me a cheap bike. Wheels opened up the city, and we began to explore.
The waterfront is beautiful. Devastated by two tsunamis, the locals didn’t want to move back in so it’s now mostly parkland. A string of parks run along the coast, some with wild surf and other more sheltered and suitable for paddling amongst the rock pools. We fell in love with Banyan Drive, dotted with trees planted in the 1930s by figures such as Amelia Eaheart and Babe Ruth. Jim insisted on pedaling through it any time we went to or from town- and Suissan restaurant and its excellent raw fish salads- known as poke- was a draw as well. To celebrate our wedding anniversary we cycled north to the gorgeous tropical botanic gardens, and pedalled the lush rainforest and tumbling waterfalls of Four Mile Drive. The people were friendly, and slightly offbeat. We were invited to join in an anti-nuclear sit-in, and saw downtown bustling on the day of the women’s march. The anchorage was calm and secure and we only shared it with a couple of other boats. There were even warm showers ashore.
And then it rained. Not just showers but ten days of constant downpours, and so humid that everything on the boat felt sodden. Drying clothes was impossible, and even clean things from the wardrobe felt moist. The intense humidity had my computer going haywire, and watercolours took all day to dry. We even fired up the diesel stove as I shivered in my jeans and jumper, feeling damp and not at all as if I was I the tropics. Despite ten years of disuse, the stove fired up well and heated the boat nicely. We opened a tin of duck and roasted some carrots and potatoes- very tasty, but not how we’d envisioned spending our days in this island paradise.
By day ten, Jim and I were fed up of being cooped up. There is no public access to the mooring area at Radio Bay, which is next to the cruise ship terminal and container port. Cutting through the port was forbidden, and so any trips ashore involved rowing the dinghy to shuttle the bikes to the nearby public beach. Keeping the bikes ashore was not an option due to the high risk of theft. We ventured through the rain to the Astronomy Centre, feeling near to hypothermia under their blasting air conditioning, then dripped our way round galleries and museums. We were about ready to give in and endure a soggy sail to Kona, reputed to be the sunny side of the island.
Then I checked the forecast- a single solitary sun icon for the following day! We decided to seize it, hastily booked accommodation and woke up bright and early the next day. And it truly was bright- the sky was free from clouds and for the first time we saw the full bulk of Mauna Kea- highest volcano in the world- towering over Hilo. Shouldering our backpacks, we pedaled down to the bus station and loaded ourselves and our bikes on the bus to Volcano National Park.
The bus dropped us off at the visitor’s center on Mount Kilauea. It was a very short cycle to reach the first viewpoint on the rim, looking down into a huge caldera of black, red and ochre with smoky plumes rising from it. A sickly yellow cloud hung above, to be blown down the mountainside as ‘vog’- volcanic fog which often obscures large parts of the south of the island, even when the weather is clear. Vents puffed away around the crater rim, giving a sulphuric tinge to the air. The most prevalent plants were ferns and the ‘ohi’a, with red flowers almost identical to New Zealand’s endemic pohutukawa. This clever plant was able to close the pores on its leaves, holding its breath whenever the vog became stifling. Between the ferns, vapours and scarlet blossoms, we could have been in Rotorua.
Kilauea’s most unique point is best visible at night. It is the world’s most active volcano, and at night its lava lake can be seen spitting molten rock up into the sky. Once, visitors were allowed onto a lookout right above the lake. A great experience- but one night the volcano went ballistic and the lookout was destroyed- what wasn’t instantly burnt was hurled across the park, with lava bombs literally hot behind it. Thankfully, being 2am, the park was deserted and nobody was hurt- but if the eruption had taken place in the daytime it could have been a very different story. Crater Rim Drive was soon truncated to avoid barbecuing visitors. Definitely a safer choice, but I was disappointed that I could not gaze down into the turbulent heart of Pele’s realm. After the up-close theatrics of Mount Yasur in Vanuatu, Kilauea felt like a distant show- the difference between standing front row in a stadium concert and being so far back that the main act is little more than a dot on a stage. But it was still much better than watching it on YouTube the day after- so I’ll be happy with what I got. After all, you don’t get to see flying lava in Rotorua (for which the locals are probably very grateful).
We spent three full days up at Kilauea, exploring lava tubes, cycling the wel-named Desolation Road and enjoying countless breathtaking views over the craters. I walked across the caldera Kilauea Iti whilst Jim attempted a strenuous uphill bike ride towards Mauna Kea. We extended our trip by a day, met some local artists and found a fabulous Air BnB to spend our final night. Rather reluctantly, we eventually loaded our bikes back onto the front of the bus and headed back to Hilo, to return to the banyans and contemplate our next adventure.
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.
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.