What do you think of when you hear the words 'Bora Bora'? My mind turns to a kind of ultimate luxury- movie stars with cocktails, gourmet restaurants and white sand that you're not allowed to sit on unless you've paid a hefty premium and have a name that's appeared on film credits. So I has a few reservations about cruising there for long- would we be able to afford to do anything? Would we feel out of place? Would we be allowed within a mile of any of the flash resorts? Would they move us on as soon as we dropped anchor, as I'd heard on some of the other islands.
It turned out that private boat was the best way to see the island and the motu fringing the lagoon. We could move between anchorages, find great views and carry out a search for the best chocolate lava cake on the island. White beaches could be ours for the cost of a drink and we could enjoy sundowners without breaking the bank. Whilst I'm sure I would love the luxury of an overwater bungalow, they're generally built over sand- so don't necessarily offer the best snorkelling. We, on the other hand, could swim off the boat to nearby reefs or take the dinghy to find the best spots, and then spend as long as we liked in the water without being hauled out by impatient tour guides keeping to an itinerary.
I drew a map soon after our arrival- trying to integrate two different cruising guides and recommendations from the Lonely Planet. It helped us get our bearings and create a rough plan- a couple of days anchored off the main island, then down to Motu Tupua in the South West, followed by a journey up and over to explore the lagoon to the east and the south.
After living in the boat yard on Raiatea, we felt like we had earned the incredible dinner and views at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Fresh bread with melting butter, delicious tuna and of course that lava cake- my taste buds were in ecstasy. We also had the pleasure of watching the sun set behind Island Prism- and watched the other diners taking photos of her. We were pretty happy she'd been scrubbed up for the occasion!
We then moved a little farther south to Mai Kai. They offered mooring balls for $30 a night, which included use of their infinity pool. It seems very silly to enjoy a pool so much after months of world class snorkelling- maybe the relaxing poolside loungers helped, maybe it was the fact I could just float on my back and gaze up at the sky. The wifi was good enough to catch up on a few internet jobs, and we splashed out on dinner again (the lava cake wasn't quite as fluffy as the one from BBYC, but went very nicely with a glass of St Emilion). And the sunset really came out to play.
The anchorage down at Motu Tupua was lovely, The snorkeling was ok, and although the condition of the coral wasn't great, I saw lots of fish. The real draw was the view of the peaks of Bora Bora and the colours of the water in the lagoon. I pulled out my acrylics to try to capture the wonderfully intense shades or turquoise and blue. They're an interesting choice for a sketchbook- they can stay slightly sticky when dry, so it's not a great idea to use them on both pages of a spread, but the rich colours were exactly what I needed. And my beloved luminous watercolours found a home on each facing page.
The east side was one of the highlights of Bora Bora. The motu were home to some very exclusive hotels, so we didn't go ashore, but we loved the view and the amazing snorkelling just a short dinghy ride away. We spent hours swimming with manta rays- up to seven in a group- and clouds of up to thirty eagle rays. The underwater ballet held us mesmerised. The coral was beautiful and there were plenty of fish, including the majestic Napoleon wrasse, but the rays were the stars of the show. Every day we emerged from the water after hours of swimming, exhilarated and with fingers like prunes.
Of course, the rays appeared in my sketchbook, and were recreated in watercolour form. The patterns on their back reminded me of the swirling koru patterns of Maori art, so each of my mantas got a little Polynesian twist- as did some of the landscape!
We negotiated the route between coral heads to reach the very southern tip of the lagoon. We anchored off the Sofitel Private Resort and used the dinghy to get through the little pass to Matira Point. The resorts here were very nice, and a little less exclusive than the overwater bungalows out on the motu. We visited the Sofitel bar for happy hour, and were shown to a table that would have a great view of the dance show later that evening. I drew my drink and was soon asked to draw the bartender, who was very pleased with the sketch I gave her. The dancers were amazing- with their sinuous movements, I'm sure they have joints in places I don't. I tried some gesture drawings- the only way to try to capture the rapid motions of the dance, and snapped some reference photos to attempt some more colourful sketches later.
On the way back to Prism, the channel lights guided us and we thought we'd gone far enough into deep water to avoid the reef. Sadly not- we struck coral, I managed to lift the engine before any harm was done but we had a gash in the bottom of the dinghy. Thank heavens for our new dinghy pump- Jim spent the last portion of the journey bailing out. The next day we moved back round to our anchorage near the manta rays. Our friends Trish and John on Lumiel joined us and we snorkeled, followed by delicious coffee and bacon butties on their catamaran. They even let me use their warm shower. As the sign on their boat says, 'It doesn't get any better than this!'
So after my initial reservation, it was hard to leave. I hope I'll make it back one day- those manta rays and the chocolate lava cake at the Bora Bora Yacht Club are calling.
(If you're a fan of the manta rays, they're appearing over on Redbubble with some of the other wonderful creatures I've met through Polynesia. Take a peek at Redbubble, or contact me for information about the originals!)
Raiatea- where legend and history collide. Thought to be the launching point for the Polynesian voyages to Rapa Nui, Hawai'i and Aotearoa (New Zealand), it was home to heroes and adventurers. Priests blessed the launching double-hulled canoes and found messages from the gods in the cries of the heron and the kingfisher. When the missionaries came, the old gods were forgotten and the marae, used for centuries of worship, were neglected or destroyed. Today, the ruins of the mighty marae have been restored, though the old deities remain dormant (not a bad thing as one or two of them were rather keen on human sacrifice).
Bill, Jim and I found that traveling back in time to explore the ancient civilisation was remarkably straightforward. We motored through the linked lagoons of Taha'a and Raiatea, dodging the occasional reef on our route south until we anchored in sand near to the marae of Taputapuatea. We dinghied ashore and explored coral rock pavements and platforms looking out to sea, ancient walls consumed by banyan trees and a few carvings, last remnants of an ancient artistic heritage. Standing stones in the courtyards marked the spots where the tribal elite would have sat, and modern carved stele recalled the tall wooden totems which would have once decorated each marae. The tables for offerings of food were long gone, but we recreated the feasts of the past with some baguettes, blue cheese and steamed buns with our hunter-gatherer Jim rustled up from a nearby store.
Moving back up north, we anchored near to the Faaroa River. It was wide enough and deep enough for us to access by dinghy, so we motored up, through lush farmland fringed with hibiscus and ginger. The heavens opened, adding to the feeling of tropical adventure and making our later sail up to the main town of Uturoa rather damp.
We delivered Bill to the airport- the only airport I've ever seen with its own dinghy dock- before Jim and I turned our hand to hauling Prism out at the Raiatea Carenage for a few coats of bottom paint and a raising of the water line (apparently all the art supplies have left her sitting a little low in the water). I'm sure I should have been sketching boats sitting in cradles, waterblasters and tools but I just wasn't finding the boat yard inspiring- it probably didn't help that I didn't want to be there. My Sketchbook Skool kourse 'Imagining' was far more inspiring, so I turned my hand to ink blob monsters until Prism was afloat again and Bora Bora called.
From sleepy Huahine to tranquil Taha’a- a straightforward day sail, despite the swell that was still with us. A barrier reef surrounding the island means it's well-protected, and the lagoon is deep enough that it's possible to cruise all around the island without leaving sheltered waters. We spent our first night in tranquil Apu Bay. The muddy bottom gave us good holding, but the deep water made hauling up the anchor hard work- I was glad to be on the helm and Jim was glad to have Bill there to help!
The Lonely Planet had raved about the lovely Joe Dessin beach. We wanted to pay it a visit, but approaching by dinghy meant that a bit of guesswork was needed to find it. We eventually spotted a strip of white sand fringing a coconut plantation, which seemed like a likely spot. We confined ourselves to snorkeling and sitting on the foreshore to avoid trespassing. There was just enough sand for each of us to plunk ourselves down with our legs being lapped by the water. Water movement meant sand movement, and when we stood up we found that we had most of the beach in our swimsuits. The snorkeling was nice- plenty of fish, interesting shellfish and some attractive coral formations. Afterwards, cruising past on Prism, we found that the main beach was just a little farther west- but we'd still enjoyed our private sandy spot.
Our next anchorage was off the island of Taotao. It's home to a beautiful resort, with white sands, turquoise waters, luxurious over-water bungalows and great views across to neighbouring Bora Bora. Bill and I went ashore to organise some diving and were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received. The receptionist was even happy for me to sit in the lobby, styled after a traditional fare va'a (boat house), and sketch the century-old va'a motu which once sailed between the islands of the lagoon. The fish on the page are modelled on a carving of a tuna at the resort.
Later in the day we snorkelled the coral river, a patch of coral gardens in between Taotao and a neighboring motu. The second motu has a path to the start of the gardens, and a consistent current into the lagoon floats you along. Curious fish come and investigate (presumably hoping you'll give them a snack- fish friendly foodstuffs are available at the resort). The snorkeling was fun, and our dives the next day were excellent. We were taken to the outer reef - visible from the resort but a half hour journey by boat. The corals were healthy and there were plenty of colourful reef fish- no feeding here, leading to more natural encounters. Whale song echoed through one of the dives, and a highlight was a swirling school of jacks, who merged into a doughnut formation as our instructor swam through them. The diving and snorkeling inspired some more fish paintings- again inspired by Ohn Mar Win's lovely art.
We explored the main islsnd too, and were entranced by the glorious singing from the churches on Sunday. I also loved the array of woven hats sported by the ladies, which were lots of fun to sketch. We enjoyed pizza for lunch and took a free tour of Ia Orana pearl farm- very interesting and with a pleasant lack of ‘hard sell’ after. The oysters in Taha’a all originate from Ahe in the Tuamotus, where atolls provide far more favorable conditions (there's no muddy run off from the land, which the oysters don't like much). Oysters can produce up to four pearls in their life, and once they've produced one, all the others will be the same colour. When they reach the end of their productive life, the oysters become dinner and their shells are sold to crafts people. Nothing is wasted out here in the islands.
We could probably have lingered longer, but Bill's flight date was approaching and we wanted to see a bit of Raiatea before he left- plus we had a date with the boatyard to keep.
'Peaceful' is the best word to describe Huahine. The best way to describe Huahine is ‘peaceful’. There are no trains of buzzing jet skis or roaring cavalcades of quad bikes. No packed tourist boats zoomed through the anchorage. The soundtrack was provided by the wind, the surf pounding on the reef and the constant crowing of cockerels.
Our first anchorage was off Fare, the main town, which consisted of a few stores, a very well-stocked supermarket, a few stalls with fresh fruit and veg and a patisserie (if you were up early enough to grab a tasty treat before they sold out). We anchored on a sandy spot near the reef, an easy dinghy ride to get ashore to the shops and yacht club. The yacht club sold ice, so we were able to keep the fridge cold and top up with veggies, yoghurt and cold fruit juice.
Our first day was spent exploring the town (which didn't take long) and recovering from the sleep deprivation and seasickness of our rocky overnight passage. By the second day, we fell into a very pleasant pattern. Bill and I would get up and go diving in the morning, whilst Jim would go ashore with his bike and try not to get into too much trouble while unsupervised. By ten we would be back on dry land, then de-salt, grab an early lunch and hire bikes for the afternoons.
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the diving. The reef around Huahine was decimated by a plague of crown-of-thorns starfish, then smashed by storms. Annie of Mahana Dive says that the storms were the saviours of the reef, creating a bare moonscape free of dead coral. The starfish moved on or starved, and the bare rock provided a sturdy ground for the reef to regenerate. Now there's a healthy coral garden on the outside of the barrier reef, teeming with fish and invertebrates. Nearby is the Avopehi Pass, where currents provide a highway and feeding ground for a mass of pelagic species- half a hundred gray reef sharks cruised amongst huge schools of barracuda, a squadron of ten eagle rays soared above us, and we saw numerous tuna and schools of jacks. On the reef, we searched for nudibranchs, tiny crabs and shrimp hiding in the coral, beautiful shellfish and lurking moray eels. All in all, the dives rivalled- and surpassed- many of the sites I visited in the Tuamotus.
I'm sitting outside on deck at Huahine, the first of the Leeward Islands. Someone ashore is playing the ukelele, there's some beautiful singing and the sun is coming up, making the water glow teal and gold. We arrived here from Moorea yesterday after a fast but rocky overnight passage- both seasickness and the number of freighters to dodge increased after dark.
Jim’s brother Bill has come to stay with us for a fortnight. We're enjoying having someone else on board, and he's being very tolerant of the cozy conditions on Prism and my tendency to draw lots!
We took Prism round to Haapiti, a gorgeous anchorage with a renowned surf wave breaking on the reef by the pass. Prism anchored on a spit of white sand near a sharp slope, surrounding us with every conceivable colour of blue, and had an incredible view of Moorea’s towering peaks. Eagle rays and sting rays cruised past the boat regularly, and in the pass we snorkeled with turtles and reef fish, and regularly sighted the resident pod of common dolphins, numbering about 50.
Lacking a board, we couldn't surf the wave, but Jim enjoyed swimming round the edges whilst I floated in the dinghy and watched the surfers. Huge waves leave me a bit wary, but I was very happy swimming through the more tranquil turquoise waters to get back to Prism.
Once again it all seemed idyllic- until a man decided I really needed to see his private parts when I was on the dock. He made it very clear what he'd like me to do next, and though he never tried to touch me I was very happy when the dinghy engine started straight away and I could get back to Prism. The dock was secluded and I was nervous about going back by myself, so poor Jim and his ankles were forced to make the traipse to the store with me, in between applying paint and new anti-skid to the cockpit floor (and playing in the waves whilst we waited for layers to dry).
Our cruise back round to Opuhonu Bay brought back Moorea’s wow factor. The pod of dolphins were out in force as we left Haapiti, and we saw a pair of humpback whales not far from the entrance to the pass. We were watching them when a huge whale breached near Prism, in an amazing explosion of water and animal. He remained airbourne for a surprising amount of time, reentering with a huge plume of foam. And then he floated, serene after his huge expulsion of energy. I hopped in the water and he slowly swam towards me- and started singing. He looked at me as he swam past, then dove down into the blue. I stayed, hanging in the water, listening to his song long after he had vanished from sight.
Rounding the northwest corner of the island we found more whales - a mother and calf this time. It was Jim’s turn to swim, so he joined a group of snorkelers from one of the commercial tour boats. The baby was in playful mode, waving flukes and fins out of the water, totally unconcerned by the little creatures floating nearby. It was enchanting to watch, even from the distance of the boat. Eventually mother stuck her tail above the water and gave the sea a gentle slap- a sign that playtime was over. She and her little one dove and we continued on our way, buzzing from our amazing encounters.
We stocked the fridge with ice and relaxed for a few days before we returned to Tahiti to collect Bill. Our whale adventures were not over, however. As we cruised east, the mother and baby appeared again. Jim got Prism out the way whilst I swam over. The little one eyed the swimmers with curiosity whilst mum hovered nearby. They made a short dive and returned to the surface, where the calf had a short rest on mum's nose before flopping off and playfully flapping his fins in the air. He swam close to check out this strange creature in the water with him, before returning to mum’s side to play some more. We decided to leave them in peace and continued on our way- to meet another individual who greeted us with a spectacular breach, followed by a massive tail lob. We admired the theatrics from a safe distance- tail lobs are probably warning behaviour- and continued to Tahiti where laundry, bike shopping and supermarkets awaited us.
We reprovisioned, collected Bill and returned to Moorea. The whales gave him a brilliant welcome- a mother and calf were resting under the water, occasionally popping up to breathe. They were shallow enough to be visible from the surface, and weren't worried by our presence during their surface intervals. Taking turns to keep Prism at a safe distance, we hung in the water and watched them relaxing, the calf feeding and snuggling up to its mum beneath us.
Our attempts to go hiking were impaired by rain, and in the end we decided to attempt the Ancestors’ Trail despite the regular showers. Sometimes it felt like we were walking through a stream, and the cascades alongside the trail were swollen, but the path was well maintained and safe so we had no difficultly reaching the marae and the lookout up at the Belvedere. The fickle weather chose that moment to give us a sunny spell, with the clouds fringing the dramatic view over Cooks and Opunohu Bays.
We restocked the fridge with ice, bought some of the delicious fresh fruit available on Moorea and pointed Prism towards Huahine, an overnight sail. Jim extolled the wonderful trade winds, but wave trains from the south and the easy threw Prism about and created an uncomfy ride. Luckily a bout of seasickness did not impair my ability to keep watch- a freighter approached and changed on to a collision course, but did not seem to notice us or respond to our hails on the radio. We can only assume that the crew were asleep or lazy, and we'd turned on all the deck lights and should have been showing in their AIS system. A gybe took us out of harm's way, and we continued on course when the snoozing vessel had passed. More freighters and cruise ships followed, all maintaining a healthy distance. The sea calmed a little around dawn and I managed to get a little sleep before Jim brought us through the pass to anchor near the little town of Fare, where we have a whole new island to explore.
It's been a busy week here on Prism! We bought Jim a bike and left Papeete, initially for the Tahiti Yacht Club on the north west side of the island. There's a decent anchorage nearby, nicely protected by the barrier reef. It turns out that we dropped the hook near to the finish line for the outrigger canoe racing on Saturday mornings- so enjoyed a few hours of drinking coffee and watching the races. Of course, I pulled out my sketchbook and attempted the challenge of capturing the blur of limbs as the paddles moved through the water. We also enjoyed some great music from the drumming school on shore.
Our plan was to explore some of the sights of the north coast. There was only one problem- hills. Big ones. I will walk up hills if they are in my way, but am almost allergic to cycling up them. But if I was going to see anything of Tahiti, I needed to try, as weekend buses are only slightly more common than unicorns round here. Our first excursion was to Point Venus and Matavai Bay, where Cook went to help measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun and Captain Bligh and his soon-to-be-mutineers went gathering breadfruit. The call of history helped me up the hill when I thought my legs were going to fall off, and the views from the top and the freewheel down the other side almost made it worth it.
Point Venus was a pretty spot, with monuments to Cook and Bligh and an attractive lighthouse designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s dad. We ate lunch on a shady picnic table, enjoyed the swathe of black sand and cooled off in the rain, which inevitably fell halfway through every sketch (my drawings now have an interesting speckled effect). It rained all the way home- which did make tackling the hill cooler- and Jim scored a haul of mangos from a roadside stall.
The following day we tackled that hill again, and found a few others beyond. This time, my motivation was the Three Cascades, a group of waterfalls 22km from Papeete- so about 20km away from us. This time my foldup bike and I complained less as we tackled the first hill, though by the time we’d gone 18km (up numerous hills and into a stiff headwind), I was wondering if my legs would fall off before we made it. Which was of course the sign for yet another hill to go up. Hills aside, the scenery was rugged and spectacular, the ocean bobbing with surfers enjoying the beach breaks on a Sunday, then warming up on the black sands.
Somehow I made it- to find that the sign for the turn-off was labeled ‘ferme’. A 20km cycle and our destination was shut? We pedaled up the road to the falls anyway, in the hope that SOMETHING might be visible from the road. We saw two falls tumbling down the sheer hillsides- and a steady trail of people ignoring the ‘closed’ sign and walking to the falls anyway. Normally I'm pretty rule-following, but I'd just cycled a very long way (with hills and headwind, in case you'd forgotten), and was in no mood to behave myself. And Jim never behaves, so we slipped over the low slung piece of bamboo barring the way.
It turned out that the falls I'd seen from the road were not the main attraction- they were shrimpy distant cousins. The Vaimahuta falls were 80 metres of tumbling water, sparkling in the sun, fringed with lacy ferns and dripping with moss. White tropicbirds swooped past, elegantly long tails gliding like banners behind them. Tourists came and went, I sketched, it rained, my ink ran, falling water on my waterfall. I wished I had the skill and knowledge to show how the sun made the rain sparkle like diamonds before it hit my paper.
I took the gently winding trail to the second and third falls, Haamaremare Rahi and Haamaremare Iti. Two different watercourses pour themselves down opposite sides of a huge rocky outcrop, both clearly visible from the viewpoint. I listened to the water, the birds and the falling red leaves. I drew, watched and listened. The rain stayed away and I absorbed the tranquility.
My legs made it to the nearby blowholes, then somehow got me home. A rest day was in order (I had paintings to finish), then we set sail for Moorea. We had a beautiful downwind trip and Prism flew along. We anchored at Cooks Bay (a misnomer as the famed Captain actually went to neighbouring Opunohu Bay), and went ashore for ice cream. A family were sitting in the beach, having a sing song, and invited us to join them. They played guitar, ukelele, drums and spoons, the adults teaching the children to keep the beat as they wove rhythms. Our musical talents are lacking but we added applause, and played with the puppy who chewed our toes. A thank you song as the sun dipped and we went our separate ways, glowing with the warm welcome.
I'd started this page by drawing Prism, then sketched the family, then decided to combine it all together. cross hatched shadows try to hide the fact that the legs had gone horribly wrong, and I ended up choosing a limited palette of cobalt teal and quin gold to try to bring some semblance of unity to the thing. I actually like the way the light turned out
The next day we sailed to Õpūnohu Bay- where Captain Cook visited Moorea. It's a spectacular anchorage, with a white sandy bottom and a fringing reef protecting it. We were greeted by a large pod of dolphins, who returned to see us every time we entered or exited the reef pass. Ashore is a lovely white sand beach with decent snorkeling off it. The mountains tower over it, changing colour with the light. I didn't need to leave Prism to get lots of inspiration for sketching!
We did spend a lot of time exploring on land. I got my legs in gear and we cycled up to the Belvedere for amazing views over both bays. My legs didn't like me much but my eyes were very happy. The route up winds its way through an agricultural college, where we stopped for home made ice cream and large glasses of mango juice to refresh us for the rest of the slog upwards. Above the college are a series of archaeological sites, sensitively restored. We found ceremonial sites, an archery platform and a marae, constructed out of round rocks and sacred to ‘Oro, the god of war. Nestled amongst the buttresses of mapē trees, the area was special enough to encourage me to cycle up again the next day and walk the Ancestor Trail, through beautiful forest scattered with ancient ruins and reconstructions of traditional Polynesian buildings- plus the occasional lovely waterfall and hundreds of chickens. Brought over with the Polynesians for food, these days they run free as most people prefer the tender chicken offered by the supermarket.
One morning we were awoken at 4 by the sound of an engine stuttering and stalling. I worried that someone was in trouble. Jim worried that someone was stealing the dinghy. We rushed outside to find humpback whales cruising through the anchorage, chatting to each other with broken engine sounds. Nobody needed rescuing and we watched them as they swam away through the middle of the busy anchorage in 5 metres of water. I couldn't get back to sleep, but really couldn't complain too much about the cetacean alarm clock.
The following day, I spent the morning painting a whale in the bay. Lunch time rolled around, with a small gaggle of whale watching boats floating not far from the bay. Following a tip from Cinnabar, our neighbours, we hopped in the dinghy and motored out to see if we could get a daylight whale sighting. One of the tour boats approached us, I was expecting them to try to shoo us away but they kindly offered to look after the dinghy so we could both swim. In the water we went, towards the snorkelers and the two humpbacks resting in the water. We watched them blowing spray into the air for a while, then they started to move- swimming right past me. The white underbelly, tail and fins of the nearest whale were clearly visible underwater as it dove and finned down into the depths. Ten minutes later they were back, quite a way off this time, but we were treated to a spectacular double dive. We saw them twice more, once at a distance and once close up. The boats and occasional visiting jet skis all kept well away, and had their engines off whilst the whales were nearby. We stayed on the land side of the whales at all times so they would not feel cut off from the open ocean. After the fourth surfacing, we all headed off to leave the whales in solitude for a while. I was impressed with how the encounter was handled, and awed at actually being in the water with these amazing animals.
The next day was Monday. The best way to spend a morning seemed to be with a visit to the Rotui distillery, where we tasted their excellent fruit juices and rum punch. We can't play all the time though, and spent the afternoon giving Prism’s hull a much-needed scrub. Some of the algae was very hard to remove- Jim tried using a tough, spiky seaweed as a bio-friendly scrubber but sadly results were below par and we resorted to one of the scoring pads from the kitchen instead. By the time we'd finished, hull, keel, rudder and propeller were all pristine and we'd earned ourselves a glass of the fruit juice we'd bought from the distillery as we watched yet another gorgeous sunset.
We've had a rather mixed stay in Papeete. Having Jim’s wallet stolen off the boat was a major frustration, as was being sent on numerous wild goose chases around the wider town as we tried to get Jim’s carte de sejour to extend his stay here (fyi- go to the Haute Commissaire, NOT border police). And waiting for the new bank cards to slowly make their way from Canada by courier was agonising. But there are bright sides- Papeete is a colourful town where one of the great pleasures is watching the world go by.
My highlight in the city has been the market. It opens every day, full of stores selling clothes, handicrafts, long skinny pods of Tahitian vanilla, tropical fruits and huge bunches of vibrant exotic flowers. Along one side are ladies making lei, beautiful floral crowns of bougainvillea, spikey leaves and fragrant cream tiare. They smell as wonderful as they look- a contrast to the fish section, where silvery trevally, emerald parrotfish and slabs of red tuna nestle on beds of ice, and the air smells of the sea.
On Sundays the market really comes alive. The vegetable stalls spill out from the covered market onto the surrounding streets, interspersed with stalls selling pain au chocolate, cinnamon swirls, and coconutty fried fiafia in their distinctive figure of eights. Chinese butchers weigh out portions of chopped pork, and tourist stalls are replaced with tables laden with dim sum, samosas, honey and passionfruit. The rest of the town is shut, and by 9 am the market too will have dispersed. The streets will be deserted, everyone either at home or relaxing with family in the Jardin de Paofai.
The gardens stretch along the waterfront, another city highlight. Paths link activities along the fitness trail, then wind past lily ponds and children's playgrounds. Shady benches are the perfect place for lunch, and if you're planning a party you can hire a covered picnic area- bring your own pizza or raw fish salad, get the cousins to bring their ukuleles and make sure that everyone sports a lei, or at least a flower behind the ear.
It's been a great place to sketch. When I'm drawing lots I work through my little 40 page sketch books quite quickly, and it was time for a new book. The paper swiftly proved a terrible choice for watercolour, absorbing the colour and making a wash impossible. My Noodlers pen blotted as the ink was sucked out of it, and everything seemed keen to soak through and appear as ghostly smears in the next page. I didn't care about this book- in fact I actively disliked it- so embarked on a week of intensive sketching so I could finish it and move on to something with nicer paper. The book soon filed up with people- my ambivalent attitude towards it meant I didn't care if my blind contour went wrong, if I had to turn the page and start again. So when Wolfram pulled out his guitar and began playing, I drew pages of him, accompanied by song lyrics. I sketched in the park and at the market and drew the ladies working on their leis. A ‘rubbish book’ may need to become a permanent part of my travellers sketchbook- somewhere I can scribble and scrawl and practice, practice, practice.
People have reacted wonderfully to my drawings. Wolfram took a sketch home with him, the waitress at the roulotte where I drew as I dined was very excited and gave me little hugs through the meal, and a gentleman who saw me drawing at Trois Brasseurs presented me with his phone and asked me to draw his friend, a dancer (she's the lady in red below). He bought a pitcher of beer in thanks, which made me very popular with our cruising friends. My squiggly sketches of the dancer in yellow, done as she performed for a group of tourists off a cruise ship, were also well received (for the record, Tahitian dancers are amazing but they move so fast- drawing them from a photo is definitely easier! ).
Jim’s cards have arrived and we got his immigration paperwork sorted, so we're now free to cruise again. We're going to explore the northern side of Tahiti and probably head over to Moorea. I've enjoyed our ten days in a marina - the warm showers have been a definite bonus- and we've loved meandering down to the food trucks at the Place de Roulottes, but we haven't seen a shark in a while now and it’s time to be out at anchor! Off we go to the next step of the adventure!
From Tikehau to Tahiti was a two day passage. It started well, with smooth seas and dolphins, but as we pulled away from Tikehau the rolling swells from the last few days of strong winds made themselves felt. It wouldn't have been too much of a problem if the wind hadn't been so fickle, fading and leaving us to be rolled about by the waves. Jim caught a fish- a tasty looking tuna- but the swell and the smell weren't working for me, so the lucky animal was returned to freedom in the sea.
The first view of Tahiti is almost legendary- rows of towering green mountains rising from the sea. For me, it shall remain the stuff of legends- it was hard to see the island through thick cloud and pouring rain. As I steered the narrow pass to Teahupoo between pounding reef breaks, I caught hazy glimpses of sharp peaks in front of me. The atmosphere was almost eerie- not a South Seas picture postcard paradise, but somewhere mysterious and magical. The eeriness felt well-placed when we learned how Teahupoo got its name. Two tribes were fighting over land here, and the battle was bloody. The victors lopped off the heads of their adversaries and piled them up as am offering of thanks for their victory. ‘Teahupoo’ means ‘altar of skulls’.
Happily, Teahupoo is now famed for its surf break rather than its head hunting. We were here to catch some of the Billabong Pro, an international surf extravaganza. But the competition was over, finished in the first three days of the eleven day window, so we'd arrived in time to see viewing towers being dismantled and support crews saying their goodbyes.
The weather remained determined to be non-tropical, with a chilly wind accompanied by drizzle. We made the best of it, exploring beautiful lily ponds and roads towards the mountains where old men sat outside strumming their ukeleles. The up side of the rain is the lush greenery, with an abundance of flowers and flowing streams. Such a contrast to the lovely but dry Tuamotus. There are even butterflies flitting about. It's enough to make you forgive the lack of surfing and the dull weather.
We won't linger here too much longer- destiny is telling me I have a date with paperwork in Papeete. So it's time to head to the big smoke- whilst we still have our heads
Ile d’Oiseaux- Bird Island- lived up to its name. Noddys, fairy terns and red footed boobies all nest there, and wading birds scurry along the tide line. Squawks and chirps and whistles and grunts echo around the island from dawn to well after dusk. On the ground, scuttling, clicking and rustling hinted at the hundreds of crabs who make their homes amongst the leaf litter. The most extraordinary thing was how unconcerned some of the birds were. Whilst some sent out alarm calls and wheeled up into the skies the second they spotted us, others would sit confidently and just watch us. Bird photography has never been so easy, and a second shore party with my sketchbook was essential
Nearby was Ile d’Eden. A tiny Christian community from Taiwan, following the teachings of their prophet, they've transformed their dry, sandy atoll into a fertile garden, growing fruit, vegetables and vanilla, producing honey and sea salt, raising chickens and pigs. Manure from the animals and compost from the garden are dug back into the gardens, enriching the soil, creating a self- sustaining farm. We purchased papaya, lettuce and mint for a tasty salad- fresh fruit and veg are a rare treat out here in the Tuamotus, where few things grow. Looking at the farm, and smelling the rich, mulchy soil on Ile ďoiseaux, I did wonder why more islands don't try this, at least on a small scale. Could fertile little garden plots be in the future?
We've been on the move since my last blog post- fantastic places but slow/ no Internet. The lack of interweb is quite refreshing- people look around and smile as they walk along the street and kids entertain themselves by playing outside, riding their bikes and swimming. Wandering around in the afternoon, it's normal to hear ukeleles or people practicing the drums. Life without Internet isn't so bad. Having said that, I do get pretty excited when we find a decent connection, but then lots of formerly everyday things have become exciting and rare, like peppers and fresh water and bok choi and eggs. Eggs are a mystery, occassionally sighted but always seeming to arrive ‘demain’ (tomorrow). Perhaps they're related to bread and unicorns- only seen by pure souls who get out of bed very early.
The secret to baguettes in Rotoava, the small town in the north of Fakarava, is to order them the day before from the bakery. They also make tasty pain au chocolat- the only challenge is getting to mine before Jim can. There is a fruit and vegetable stall selling cabbages and onions, and I was very excited to get the first green pepper I’ve tasted in French Polynesia. There were a few and it was tempting to stock up, but peppers don't last well in the heat and Island Prism doesn't have a fridge. So one pepper it was- and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I did a few dives on the pass here. The coral’s good, and there's a decent shark population. It would have been breathtaking if I hadn't just come from the south, which was even sharkier. The Garuae pass was atmospheric, with sandy slopes full of Moray eels and flat fish. On one dive, I descended into a huge school of goat fish, and drifted along with them just above the sand as if I was a goat fish too. The sharks swirled in front of us and I felt very small. Later, the current picked up and I flew above coral gardens where butterflyfish flitted and squirrelfish gazed out from dark caverns with big baleful eyes.
The pace of life is slow in the Tuamotus, and people look around them, so sketching is harder to keep under the radar than when I'm in the lands of attention-consuming online connections. People are interested and positive, and it's been a good way to strike up conversations with other cruisers, tourists and locals. When it's hot, popping a fold up stool in a shady spot and drawing crabs or boats is a pretty good way to spend time. And if I get to hear someone's story while I do it, that's an added bonus. Seeing my sketches may have inspired someone else to start talking a sketchbook and watercolours when she travels (do it, Louise- a sketchbook, fineliner and paintbox won't take much room!). I was very excited when Anne-Marie, another cruiser, liked my drawings enough to ask me to paint her some post cards. We'd dived together the day before so I painted her underwater with the sharks and manta ray we saw on our dive. She insisted on paying for the commission and I was able to treat Jim to delicious ice cream sundaes at La Pailotte, a gorgeous eatery on the waterfront. It's exciting to think of two of my artworks winging their way to France!
Toau was just a day sail away from North Fakarava. Our departure was carefully timed with the outgoing tide- we wanted enough current to help us on our way but not so much that we risked facing turbulent waters as tide fought with the prevailing wind. We made our way through smoothly, and made it to Toau by mid afternoon. I loved it- turquoise waters, great coral and fantastic snorkeling with eagle rays, tiny pipefish and enormous Napoleon wrasse. Jim, however, noticed a change from when he was here nine years ago. He felt that fish numbers were down and the schools of reef sharks which had wowed him previously were noticeably absent. Just one of those things or poor fishery management? We certainly found a well-stocked fish trap, some of whose victims were showing negative signs from their captivity. I was glad to learn that the trap didn't belong to Valentine and her husband, but to an absentee nephew who refused to let them touch it. It's tragic to think of paradise being destroyed by human thoughtlessness, but I suppose that's a story the world's over. I avoided the depressing traps after our first snorkel, and Jim mourned for the declining glory of the ocean. For me, the fish life and eagle rays still made it worth a visit, and I hope that they manage to hang on to what they have.
On Toau I spent a happy half hour watching and sketching hermit crabs whilst Valentine, who owned the motu where we were moored, told us about the local tsunami early warning system. The crabs are good at sensing impending disaster and climb the trees- this is a signal for the locals to do likewise (there is no high ground on the coral atolls of the Tuamotus). Hermit crabs are therefore treasured friends. I loved the bright red ones, though some of the smaller creatures were delicate whites and pinks with pale shells to match.
Also in the anchorage at Toau were Nick and Jess on Te Mana, whom we'd meet in South Fakarava. They invited us to their boat for dinner, and revolutionised our cruising lives by showing us how to make our own coconut milk. Husk and split a coconut, drink the water if you want and use a nifty device called a rape de coco (pronounced ‘rap’) to grate the white flesh. The rape de coco looks like a flat spoon with fine teeth on one side, and is screwed on to a board which you sit on. You rhythmically scrape your coconut against it to remove the flesh, which you then put in a muslin bag and squeeze. An amazing amount of creamy milk comes pouring out, and you can eat the grated remains if you want to. The fresh milk is rich and sweet and had a fuller flavour than the canned stuff I've always used. Jim spent the next morning joyfully grating and milking, leading to an excellent lunch of fish with coconut milk (the cruiser’s dilemma- if fish stocks are under pressure, is it OK for us to take the occasional fish too?). There's definitely no shortage of coconuts, and a rape de coco has gone to the top of our shopping list when we reach Pape’ete.
We stayed at Toau for a couple of nights before moving on to another tranquil atoll, Ahe. This was an overnight passage- and with a beautiful beam reach we made great time, arriving at 8am instead of our predicted 2pm. We misjudged the slack tide in the pass slightly, and I had a couple of knots of current against me going in, but engine and headsail kept us going (even if it was only at a rate of two knots). We found a well-marked channel to the main village of Tenukupara, and anchored snuggly in a sandy space between coral outcrops. We were glad to be out of the way when the supply ship Dory came in, and happily sat ashore watching the hustle and bustle as bikes, trikes, wheelbarrows and a ute joined Dory’s forklifts to unload and restock the vessel. There was a bit of a party atmosphere and small boats zipped in from across the lagoon.
The following day was Bastille Day. The celebrations were a riot of colour at the flag raising. Residents of each suburb wore brightly coloured t-shirts and most people sported colourful and intricate lei on their heads. There was singing in Reo Maohi, then the Marseilles, followed by a feast. We were presented with leaf plates with sweet cakes and slices of baguette. I pulled out my sketchbook and once again failed to stay under the radar. A father soon asked me if I could draw his infant son, Moana, and this was soon followed by further requests and I ended up under a tree with a queue of families! Jim was sent back to Prism for more paper as my sketchbook grew thinner. The babies reactions varied from fascination to total disinterest ( little Tiare especially was infinitely more engaged with the sand than with me- her parents ended up with two drawings, a hard-won portrait which I think caught her mischievous gaze and a sketch of her fully focussed on the sand). The older children were more excited and the parents had a tough time prising the competed pictures from their hands. I wish I could have drawn the whole families- the parents’ proud and adoring expressions said everything you needed to know about families in French Polynesia! I'll have to share the photos at a future date, but it was definitely a good opportunity to practice my portraiture, and was a fun way to say thank you to this welcoming community for allowing us to join in their celebrations!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.