Our sail from Ucluelet to Tofino was more of a motor trip. We peered through the thin shroud of fog as Prism rolled over the Pacific swell. Amphitrite Lighthouse was glowing away, a reassuring supplement to the clanking navigation aid and our trusty GPS. As visibility improved, we could see the stretches of golden sand that form a series of surf beaches, separated by rocky headlands. Mist hung about them even as the sky cleared- the spray tossed up by the rolling breakers obscures these beaches slightly no matter how bright the day is.
I was hoping to see a sea otter, but Jim told me this was very unlikely, These shy creatures were slowly building up their population on the west coast, but didn't venture as far south as Tofino. We turned away from the Pacific to begin our approach, past the lovely Chesterman Beach, where houses cling to rocky peninsulas, perfectly placed for storm watching in the winter season. I saw something in the water. A seal? Or a sea lion? It looked pretty big. Jim passed me the binoculars- the long whiskers, golden sideburns and characteristic incredibly cute floating-on-its-back pose were unmistakable. It was a sea otter! It watched us as we motored into the island-filled inlet leading us to the town.
We'd been assured that there would be space on the public dock, but this turned out to be rather optimistic. Once again we needed to raft up to another boat. The visitor's pier, E dock, housed two other sail boats and a flotilla of small craft. Slowly cruising past, we confirmed that there were indeed no spaces, but some of the small boats didn't appear to move much- we could raft up to the cruising yacht at the end of the dock, move a small barge and create enough space for Prism to fit in, out of the currents in the channel. I checked the depth sounder and started to turn. Nothing happened.
Jim told me I was stuck- but the depth sounder showed 2.5 meters of water beneath us. We draw less than two meters so there shouldn't have been a problem- but Jim was right. Whatever the depth sounder was telling me, I wasn't going anywhere.
Jim tied a line from Prism to the dinghy, hoping that we could pull Prism off the sand bank. Rowing gave him a great workout, but Prism couldn't be persuaded to leave her nice comfy sandbank. There was nothing to do but wait a few hours for the tide to finishing ebbing. Slowly and gently, Prism laid down, much to the entertainment of everyone on the dock. Cooking became interesting as we heeled over. The rice worked fine, but as the gradient of the stove grew steeper, I found myself having to hold the frying pan to stop it slipping off- and even then it was impossible to get an even heat. It was not my most successful curry ever, but thankfully it was vegetarian, and eventually I decreed it to be warm enough to eat.
Time passed, the tide changed, and we slowly worked our way back to an upright position until we were finally afloat. I was glad it was dark, though I'm sure my cheeks were glowing as we took Prism in to the dock. The other liveaboard residents were waiting to help us with our lines, and to share stories of their encounters with my little sandy hillock. Thank you Bob, if you read this, for helping my poor bruised ego!
Safely moored on the public wharf, we were able to set about exciting things like taking warm showers (at $1 for 2 minutes, I may have achieved a new personal best for speed showering). The weather was wet, but this isn't unusual on the West Coast, and the town and its surroundings were still beautiful. I was excited to find that Tofino now has an art supply store, and once I'd purchased some much-needed paper I wandered around the downtown galleries to absorb some creative inspiration.
Built out of cedar, the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery is an olfactory experience as well as a visual one. The rich, warm scent of the wood greets you as soon as you open the doors. Inside, benches and sunken seating throughout the long house invite visitors to linger amongst the artwork, and massive wooden carvings enhance the indigenous setting. My favourite paintings are Vicker's sunsets, often complete with his magical 'shadow images'- shimmering designs which appear as the viewer walks past. These shadows often depict native imagery, and add a spiritual side and a sense of history and culture to the wonderful land and seascapes. Just down the street, the Mark Hobson Gallery delights in realism, full of hunting eagles, luminous waves and twisting seaweed. Photographing the work is encouraged, and Mark was there, apron on and paints set up, hobnobbing genially with visitors.
Tofino is relatively bike friendly, and when the sun came out we decided to make use of the multi-purpose path that heads out of town to the Botanical Gardens. Around the cafe are pretty cottage-style flower beds and a community garden, along with a beautiful lily pond. The garden path soon enters woodland, full of native trees and plants. As the forest grows denser, the trail becomes a boardwalk, full of little side paths with views over the Clayoquat Sound. The tide was out, but the sun had transformed the mudflats into an expanse of sparkling silver, with stripes of vibrant green seaweed and blue water. We found a pebbly beach to enjoy the vista whilst hummingbirds and dragonflies buzzed round us. Finally hunger set in, so we returned to the cafe and munched croissants whilst listening to a talented jazz pianist.
Jim's brother Bill drove out to join us on Prism. His car gave us all the chance to explore further, so we made expeditions to Chesterman Beach, Wickanninish, Combers Beach and the suitably named Long Beach. Bill and I walked along the sand whilst Jim rode around on his little fold up bike, which worked really well on the hard sand close to the water. The ocean spray cast its usual magic, reflecting the sunshine and creating a light mist across the golden sand. We strolled the length of the beach and crossed the headland to poke around the bustling tide pools of Combers Beach, which were full of darting scalpins, lumbering crabs and a host of colourful starfish and anemones. We could have stayed there all afternoon, but hunger set in so we drove to Ucluelet for a late lunch.
After five blustery days, the weather calmed. We provisioned up and took Prism out to spend a few days on Flores island. We motored through swirling mists and thick fog, thankful for our GPS which let us know exactly where we were. Strong currents ran through the maze of channels. They played havoc with our speed, accelerating us to six knots before slowing us down to four. It didn't matter- the sun was slowly increasing the visibility and we were too busy watching the jaunty flocks of rhinoceros auks and looking out for sea otters to mind a little bit of a slog.
Five otters later, we turned into the long inlet which cuts into Flores Island. A few small fishing boats whizzed past us and a sea plane buzzed overhead. We passed the little village of Ahausat, with its century-old general store, and poked about the various arms of the inlet until we found a place to anchor. It was a secluded spot- away from any signs of habitation. The ravens greeted us with a chorus of 'ki tok's, and the bald eagles seemed to be giggling about something, as bald eagles often do. Our hopes of seeing bears at low tide were not rewarded, but a seal came to visit and one of the eagles gave us a display of how to fish bird style.
Bill and I tried to follow a walking track through the woods. We were well-armed with bear bells, a bear horn and bear spray (which apparently ISN'T for helping to style their fur). Sounding a bit like Santa's reindeer, we jingled our way along a twisting trail which was a clamber rather than a walk. Over and under fallen trees, through swathes of sticky mud which tried to steal my boots- it felt a bit like we'd fallen into 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. Eventually we decided we'd had enough of scrabbling through the mossy forest and bushwhacked through to the beach. This was slightly easier going, though the muddy patches shared the kleptomaniac tendencies of their forest cousins and insisted on trying to relieve me of my footwear. We crossed the foreshore and wandered through crab-infested grass to a shallow lagoon where three herons were keeping their eyes open for afternoon tea. We called for our taxi (also known as Jim in the dinghy), and tried to wash off the worst of the mud before we returned to Prism.
The calm waters created a great place to row. Our inflatable dinghy is a little cumbersome as a row boat, but we were still able to poke around in hidden corners and paddle up to the mouth of the tumbling stream which entered the inlet. The clear water gave us a great view of the fishy denizens of the inlet- presumably it helped the eagles too. We all enjoyed the slow pace of life for a few days before returning to busy little Tofino. Once again, the sea otters were out in force. Most of them stayed away from Prism and her rumbling motor, but a few came close. One was busy tucking in to a tasty breakfast of red rock crab, and another was having his morning wash, bobbing along on his back as he scrubbed his whiskery face with webbed paws. A third surfaced a few meters in front of Prism. She was just drifting along in neutral, but the otter quickly turned tail and dove. 14 tons of sail boat was not what the little creature had been expecting.
Our return to Tofino was much less eventful than our first arrival. We tied up to the dock, offloaded crew and took on ice and vegetables. Soon Bill and his little blue electric car were speeding off towards Victoria. Jim, Prism and I were heading that way too- at a more leisurely pace and via the islands of the Broken Group and the inlet of Bamfield.
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Occasionally, you get to a place and feel like it resonates with something in your soul. Cornwall, Winchester, the Tutukaka Coast and Tofino have that effect on me. I soon felt the same way about Ucluelet. Friendly folk at the Small Boat Harbour, an artsy vibe round town and an abundance of great walks and beautiful views- it's not hard to see why the place caught my imagination.
The West Coast of Vancouver Island is known for its wet weather. It's still beautiful in the rain, with its misty greens and subtle greys, and the rain tends towards a steady drizzle. Very English, really. Mostly, though, the sun came out for me, and I made the most of it, leaving Prism at the marina whilst I hit the Wild Pacific Trail
The trail is in two sections: a loop at the very end of the peninsula and a return track further on. The loop takes in the aptly-named Inspiration Point, Amphitrite lighthouse and a fascinating section of bog, full of twisted trees, thick pillows of moss and sinister sundews just waiting for bugs to fly into their sticky clutches. I love carnivorous plants! The trail was easy, with plenty of viewpoints and lots of information about the flora and fauna. Most of the signs were close to the correct plants, so I soon learned to tell the difference between deer ferns and sword ferns, and could pick out the skunk cabbages- which thankfully had not yet reached pungent maturity.
Plenty of sketch breaks and a few side trails meant it took me a while to complete that section of the trail. The next day I got up early to complete the second section, starting with a peaceful stroll along Big Beach, where I was soon distracted by the lush seaweeds and a crow trying to smash open a tasty bivalve. Having the beach to myself, I tried painting the hazy light and vibrant golds and browns, until I'd filled a spread of my sketchbook and realised that I'd been there over an hour. Time often stands still when I'm making art.
The trail led me through a resort, to beaches strewn with enormous logs carried in by the waves and bleached to bone white- skeletons of the giants of the forest. I followed a series of Artists' Loops, with plenty of benches and viewing platforms over the pebbly beaches and pounding waves. Even on a calm day their power sent spray flying. I could see why storm watching is a popular winter pastime here- though not one I'd like to try from Island Prism!
Of course, it would have been rude not to make the most of the sketching opportunities so kindly provided, and I was keen to try and paint the wonderful light and the many shades of green. My palette holds some lovely mineral greens- green apatite, serpentine, amazonite and jadeite, but I found I was reaching for my blues and quin gold to mix my own. It seemed the best way to capture the distance, depth, light and shade; after years of being a lazy colour mixer I felt redeemed.
Time check- almost three. I completed the Ancient Cedars loop and was determined to make the Rocky Bluffs which mark the end of the trail. This was well worth it. The waves grew wilder and the vistas back down the coast were expansive and impressive. My pen was running out of ink, my water brush was down to its last dribble having already been refilled, and my water bottle was also down to its last few sips. The trail halted and I turned around, pausing only briefly to enjoy my favourite scenic spots and photograph a few banana slugs- which are indeed banana yellow and seem to get browner as they get older. Unlikely as it sounds, the native slugs are rather interesting- including the implausibly athletic-sounding jumping dromedary slug, which presumably are the ninjas of the slug world. They certainly had stealth mode enabled, as I didn't see any.
Ucluelet held indoor attractions too. The Mark Penney Gallery held some beautiful work, and Mark was happy to talk me through his latest work in progress and give me tips on how to paint realistic reflections (in the reflection, the lights are darker than object they're reflecting, whilst the darks are lighter than on the original). Wonderful First Nations creations filled the Cedar House Gallery, and next door the Den housed a studio and a small shop filled with prints, jewelry and weaving. I fell in love with a tactile weaving which was taking form in the studio, and with difficulty tore myself away from the squishy balls of locally spun wool available in the shop. Crossing the street, we moved from art to natural history and entered the aquarium. The fish are all local and everything gets released at the end of the season; fish, octopus, scallops and sea urchins all return home and the aquarium is scrubbed, cleaned and closed until the spring. The staff were all young and very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, answering my questions about sea pens and jellyfish. I watched the wolf eel devouring crabs, tickled a sea anemone (which grabbed my finger with its sticky tentacles) and stroked a starfish- it always amazes me how hard their pillow-like bodies actually are.
We spent the whole afternoon there, with Jim making the most of the well-stocked reading corner whilst I sketched and sketched and sketched. My pen ran out of ink- then committed hara kiri by throwing itself nib-down onto the floor. I managed to straighten it but it wasn't quite the same. Closing time was near, so we thanked the staff and wandered back to Prism.
The weather forecast ahead was poor, and if we wanted to make it north to Tofino we needed to leave before we faced thirty knot headwinds (no thanks). Classic Ucluelet fog and drizzle had moved in, which made the place soggier but gave it a mysterious beauty. I finished a couple of loads of laundry, splurged on a pair of slippers for my poor chilly toes and completed a watercolour sketch of a fishing boat in the mist. Then we cast off from the boat we were rafted to and motored through the thick, still, chilly air to the open ocean, once again watching the bald eagles who soared above the boat.
On our final day in Oahu,we refueled Island Prism and sailed westwards along the south coast. Away from Honolulu, the steep hillsides became less sparsely populated and the strips of golden sand had not yet gained fringes of houses and towers. A small pod of dolphins cruised past us a little before dark, when we passed the most westerly point of the island and pointed the boat north.
Our first few days were rather rocky as we beat our way into the wind- the penalty for trying to cross the Pacific the wrong way! We were well-stocked with ice and I'd precooked our meals for the first few days, which made life in the galley much easier. Jim and I quickly fell into our usual pattern of taking turns with six-hour watches. There wasn't too much to see once we lost sight of land- in the beginning both days and nights were cloudy, the full moon occasionally visible through the haze. I didn't feel up to painting to start with, so decided to try a small watercolour sketch each day. Painting the sea and sky would let me play around with techniques and colour, and I'd build up a record of our passage.
I pulled out an old sketchbook which I started a couple of years ago and barely used. It's a Strathmore 400 series field notes book, with a sheet of thin cartridge paper between each watercolour leaf. Originally I felt like the cartridge paper got in the way, and the spiral binding got in the way of double page spreads. However, on passage the binding made the book more compact and easy to handle. I could use the cartridge paper to keep a log of each day and to make little sketches in biro. I also stopped being precious, and if a cartridge sheet seemed superfluous I just tore it out. As I regained my sea legs I was more inclined to paint, and began creating some full page paintings. There were also days when the light was constantly changing and one quick sketch didn't seem enough. I decided that my 'small painting a day' would be a minimum, and told the story of the weather using multiple boxes if I felt like it.
We motored for a day as we passed through the doldrums. The seas calmed down as we moved farther north, though we still had a good stiff breeze. Although we were still traveling upwind we were no longer beating into the waves, the gentle swells made life pretty comfortable and we cruised along at a respectable 6 knots. Prism seemed eager to get back to Vancouver Island!
We crossed a few shipping lanes, populated by ships journeying between Asia and the US or Mexico. The sea feels enormous and empty when you're floating alone, so we enjoyed our brief radio chats. The captain of Morning Margarita even found Prism's Facebook page and sent us a lovely message for when we reached port.
The only other signs of life were the sea birds who skimmed the waves in an endless, effortless glide. One night a small petrel decided that the cockpit would be a safe roost. It was rather disgruntled when Jim had to adjust the wind vane, and flapped off into the darkness. The waning moon faded to nothing, and rose later and later, so the nights were truly dark, especially when cloud obscured the stars- we could have been sailing through a pot of India ink. Cold and cloudy days made us really appreciate the GPS- with no sun to take sightings, we'd have been totally lost without modern technology.
16 days in, the wind vane broke. It's a wonderful, simple and effective piece of equipment with a sail and a water rudder which steers Prism using the power of the wind. Without it, we have to hand steer- which quickly becomes tedious in the open ocean. Initially Jim thought that one of the lines had broken, but longer inspection revealed that a bolt had rusted through. Thankfully Jim's Big Bag o'Bolts contained a perfectly-sized replacement (this almost never happens, even though he has enough hardware to supply a DIY store)! We sailed onward, snug inside as the temperature decreased daily and we piled on increasing layers of clothes.
Three days from Canada, the wind vane broke again. This time the welding on the quadrant broke. Jim lashed the offending join with twine, but the opposite side soon followed. As the seas grew rough, we were faced with days of hand steering and pounding into the chilly waves. A heavy stream of freighters poured out of Seattle and Vancouver, waves breaking over them and throwing up towers of spray higher than the ships. Prism seemed more sedate- whilst our ride was far from comfy, we rose up and down with the swell rather than cutting through it.
Then land came into sight and the wind and waves died down. We motored for the final day, as Vancouver Island drew closer. Some of the mountains were topped with blobs of snow, and I donned hat and gloves. Two Pacific white-sided dolphins cruised past, and I was excited to see a large white sunfish basking on its side, trying to absorb what little warmth was on offer. It gaped at me as I steered past it, close enough to see its beady eye and waving pectoral fin.
By evening, we were approaching Trevor Channel. Twilights here were long and lazy, and the russet sky let us see our way into Bamfield where we tied up to the Coastguard dock, ready for Customs in the morning. The stillness was delightful but disconcerting, and my body felt as if it was still rocking.
The sun was well and truly up in the morning when we had a knock on the hull. The coastguard had arrived for work- and informed us that Bamfield was not, after all, a port of entry. It seems things have changed since the publication of our cruising guide. We were politely but firmly invited to depart, so made our way through the Broken Group- scattered shards of rocky islets and small tree-covered islands. They were lovely and almost deserted, except for the odd fisherman and a colony of somnolent harbour seals. Turning towards Ucluelet, bald eagles soared above us and as we moored a river otter hopped out from the water onto a nearby dock. Whilst we waited for the RCMP to come and inspect the boat, kingfishers swooped by and a Stellar sea lion swam past. It wasn't warm or sunny, but it was a kind of paradise, as was my long hot shower when we reached Ucluelet Small Boat Harbour. Our Pacific crossing was finished, and a summer of cruising Vancouver Island stretched ahead of us.
...We're nearly gone. The sat phone is up and running, the fridge is stocked with ice, Jim's complaining about the number of provisions, the amazing Jacqui is updating Prism's Facebook page (you can follow the feed here if you're not on Facebook). The lovely Lynn is taking care of the Etsy store whilst we're at sea (you can get 10% off until we cast off the mooring lines on Tuesday 29 May).
Lately, sketching has been fitted in between boat work and watercolors, so this post has a little less colour than usual- but I hope you'll still enjoy the sketches!
With brother-in-law Tim at the wheel, we drove to Pearl Harbor. A number of free tickets are issued each day, and we were lucky enough to get tickets for the next tour. The visit starts off with a documentary film, featuring lots of original footage of the run up to and aftermath of the bombing. It was factual and well-presented, helping us to frame events in the context of the lanscape. Next we boarded a boat and were taken to the Arizona Memorial. The ship remains beneath the water, a tomb for the hands who went down with her, the sculptural memorial seeming to float, cloud-like, above.
Back on shore, I chose not to sketch the missiles and guns on display and concentrated on the more human exhibits. The lei on the statue added a pop of colour. Of course I closed my sketchbook too soon and ended up with a purple blob on the facing page. This ended up influencing the design of the whole spread- I think it worked out ok in the end!
The Honolulu Museum of Art was housing a flower show. I took my pencil (no pens or paints allowed) and sketched some of the gorgeous blooms and arrangements. I took photos to help me colour later- though as you can see, I haven't got far with that yet!
I was a bit disappointed to discover their Georgia O'Keefe collection was on holiday in New York, but spent a while immersed in one of Monet's waterlily paintings, and exploring the Hawaiian art exhibits.
In between painting the cockpit and whipping the new lifelines, I also had some sketching time round Waikiki. Afternoons were spent on my Polynesian Square watercolour series, and evenings were for drawing the beach and marina.
Just beware of suspicious people sketching round marinas (oops)!
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.
We'd spent over a month in Kona and we still weren't getting bored. Personally, I could have stayed forever. The marina waters were clear, with daily visits by turtles who used it as a quiet place to nap. Surprisingly, they also liked to tuck in to the carcasses thrown overboard by fishing boats. I'd always thought turtles were vegetarian! A porcupine puffer made its home under the dock we were tied to, and an endless procession of tangs, boxfish, parrotfish and Moorish idols kept our keel and lines clean. We discovered great snorkeling right next to Honokohau harbour, and took the dinghy to the harbour entrance where the resident pod of spinner dolphins make a game of playing in powerboat wakes. They weren't bothered by us as we bobbed about, and repeatedly swam right past as they made lazy circles round the bay. It was a great way to spend a morning- and if we didn't want to take the dinghy out we could just walk to the headland and watch them from shore.
When we weren't in the water, Jim was on wheels- in training to try and cycle up Mauna Kea. He embarked on a training programme of stiff hill climbs and explored possible routes up to the mountain. Every other morning he'd get up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to a new place to go Up. Like in Hilo, the buses had the capability to load bikes on the front. The drivers seemed to be a quirky bunch, and bus routes were rather flexible depending on whether the driver needed a cigarette break. But fares were cheap and the service covered a lot of the island. The training plan was going well, and Up is plentiful on this moutainous isand, but the logistics proved trickier. The cabins just below the park were closed, there was no other accommodation and sneakily camping brought the complications of having to bring up enough food and water. Then the weather added to the difficulties- both sides of the island were experiencing heavy rainfall and the normally clear peak of Mauna Kea was obscured by cloud night after night- an enormous inconvenience to all the observatories up there. Jim's dream of standing above the clouds and staring at the stars seemed less and less likely.
And then, after repeatedly extending our marina stay, it was time to leave. We had farewell drinks with Gary and Joanna aboard 'Cheers', and they mentioned renting a car. Within minutes our plans had changed. Again. Justin, a local who is fitting out his own boat ready to sail to Tahiti, was a whizz on Google and knew the local rental places- and soon we had a car booked for a week, and were smiling sweetly at marina management to have our berth for another week and a half, please.
Of course, the first thing we checked was Mauna Kea's weather. Nothing hopeful for the next few days- but plenty more island to explore. And plenty of places to eat. Hawaiian food is based around pork, taro, chicken, fish and rice- often with a Japanese or Chinese twist, a touch of pineapple, an American edge or a little extra aloha which turned stodgy to succulent. Pork is cooked long and slow til it's tender and falls apart, taro leaves are treated like spinach and spices are handled with flare. The portion sizes tended to be very generous and generally lunch would feed us through to the next day's breakfast. I can recommend the orange chicken at L&L BBQ, the pizzas at the Kona Brewery and the pork and rice at Maddie's, but the grand prize has to go to the Hawaiian-Style Cafe in Waimea. My fluffy omelette was accompanied with gravy and delicious hash browns, plus a stack of pancakes the diameter of a dinner plate and as much syrup as I cared to drizzle. Thankfully we'd skipped breakfast so I made a valiant attack on the omelette, but even with Jim helping me most of the pancakes ended up in a takeaway box (and were still delicious later). We are now having a week of salads and vegetable stir fry to compensate for our week of indulgence!
In between these feasts, we managed to see quite a lot of the island. Hawai'i is full of small towns, historical buildings, archaelogical sites, dramatic valleys, twisting gulches and incredible views of the volcanoes which dominate the island. The landscape and wildlife are tied into a host of legends which explain this diverse and contradictory land of fire and snow. Pele, the volcano goddess, often takes centre stage with her jealous nature and capricious and fiery temper. The snow maidens dominate the higher mountains and occassionally Maui pops over from his eponymous island to visit his mum, Hina, who lives in the as-picturesque-as-they-sound Rainbow Falls.
Waterfalls are a feature of Big Island- especially on the Wet Side- and with the generally soggy weather they were in full flow. The north east coast is home to a lot of them, where they tumble down the sides of the beautiful but intensely private Waipio Valley. The road down to the valley is steep and suitable for 4x4 vehicles only, so we satisfied ourselves with taking in the view from the lookout at the top. Sheer cliffs fringe the flat green river valley floor before twisting out to form a vertical coastline. Waterfalls cascade off the top and tumble into the sea. The valley was decimated by a tsunami, but although few people live there now it is still cultivated. Much of it is closed to outsiders, giving it a secretive, 'lost world' feeling.
The 'Akaka Falls are much more accessible, but that doesn't stop them from being beautiful. A 400 foot waterfall drops into a pool, surrounded by emerald vegetation. It belongs in a storybook or a shampoo advert, and the viewpoint is perfectly located to take in the whole of the falls. The well-paved walk meanders past banyan trees, pretty cascades and lovely vistas, whilst orchids and ginger add splashes of colour.
A short drive away, we found the Rainbow Falls which enthusiastically launch themselves into freefall, the riverbed sloping in just the right way to give the water a run up before it takes the plunge. We were there too late to see the rainbow for which they are named- that's a sunny morning phenomenon. Behind the falls is a cave, which legend says was home to Hina, mother of Maui. A true fairytale falls, it even had a giant lizard monster to bother it, once upon a time.
After our waterfall themed day, we returned to Puna and the south coast. The Punatics were still about and the funny smell still clung to much of Pahoa. We ate brunch then drove to the tide pools near the south east tip, where I found the best snorkelling we've had in Hawai'i. The deeper pools were home to thousands of fish living amongst varied and pristine corals. I found this healthy coral very exciting- whilst the other snorkel spots we'd visited were teeming with fish, the coral was mostly bleached and dead. Parts of the west coast have reserve systems where swimming is not allowed at all- I'd like to think that those areas host coral gardens just as lush as these.
How to follow a chilly snorkel? A visit to the hot pools! Fed by underwater springs warmed by Pele's fires, the pools are a bath-like temperature. They're open to the sea, which stops them getting too hot, and fish seem to enjoy them just as much as humans. Concrete areas around the sides make access easy, but the sandy bottom and overhanging trees keeps everything feeling natural. The only occasional spoiler to the relaxation were the small fish who kept trying to nibble Jim and Joanne's legs. None of us wanted to get out, and we'd probably still be in there now if we hadn't started to get hungry.
Getting back to Kona involved driving along Saddlecross Road, which crosses the plains between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. When the weather is clear it offers spectacular views out to sea, and the sunsets are incredible. Low clouds make everything more mysterious, as the volcanic vents form odd shaped shadows and twisted trees create eerie goblin forests in the fog. Every time we crossed from one side of the island to the other the light was different, and Gary got us safely over the saddle, whatever the weather threw at us. Joanne was DJ and we usually had a great soundtrack to our roadtrips.
The west coast also had a lot to offer. We snorkelled at Two Step and saw Kealakekua, where, as Jim likes to say, "they wrote the Captain Cook Cook Book". Thankfully these days 'long pork' is not on the BBQ menus. Farther up the coast, Lapakahi State Historical Park offered the remains of a fishing village with many fascinating glimpses into traditional Hawaiian life, and the petroglyphs at Waikaloa literally made the past an open book. Carved letters and words were not modern graffiti but the recordings and experiments of people learning a new alphabet system. More fascinating, to me, were the carvings of people, boats, fish and turtles, and the mysterious but once meaningful systems of lines, dots and concentric circles which formed a method of communication long before the Latin alphabet sailed into town.
The valleys of the far north were obscured by heavy rain, but the little town of Hawi had enough cute little shops and galleries to entertain me and Joanne. It was a typical little town with buildings which just beg to be described as 'quaint,' including a historic cinema. Gary and Jim were less impressed, but cheered up when we added coffee and cake to the itinerary. They were more enthralled by the driving- from coast to rainforest to mountains. This island does manage to pack a lot of variation into a short distance.
We did a few boat things too- chiefly a big trip to the shopping behemoth of Costco to bulk buy provisions. Our last full day of car hire was laundry day. As we sat in the car, Jim checked the weather on Mauna Kea one last time. Sun. And a clear night ahead. Suddenly doing the washing turned into a scramble, as we planned the quickest way to get petrol, gather snacks and find enough warm clothes for a night up a cold mountain. We made it up to the visitors center whilst there was still plenty of room in the car park and walked up a hill for stunning sunset views of Mauna Loa. As it grew dark, telescopes were set up outside the visitors center. After a dinner of leftovers (of course), we were treated to a laser-guided tour of the cloud-free heavens, and then had a peek through each telescope. Binary stars, colliding galaxies, the Jewel Box cluster, the Cigar galaxy (actually a side-on spiral) and the Orion nebula- it made amazing viewing, like real-life Star Trek, and the volunteers were able to answer all our questions. Jim finally got to see the stars, and it was totally worth the wait.
After the car went back, it was time to disassemble our bikes and say our goodbyes. Yes, we finally managed to untie the mooring lines and make the crossing over to Oahu. The marine chandlers were calling and Prism needed work done before the passage to Canada. Hawai'i is something really special, and I've pretty much run out of superlatives to describe the landscape, wildlife and people. I'd love to sail back here next year- so long as I get a thesaurus first.
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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Our cruiser friends Shelley and Mike affectionately refer to Atuona as ‘the city’. In reality there’s only just enough of it to constitute a town, but we were delighted to find a cluster of well-stocked grocery stores, a couple of restaurants and two museums. The town is perched just above a sweeping black sand beach with a constant rolling surf. It’s very beautiful, with mountain peaks rising above the bay and horses galloping along the tideline. However, it’s hopeless as an anchorage, so cruising yachts congregate a twenty-minute walk away in a more sheltered spot.
One of our priorities was finding internet access, so we called in to ‘Eliane’s Salon du The and Cybercafe,’ featured in our Lonely Planet and on the little map we picked up at Tourist Information. The long driveway was a little tricky to find and the cybercafé part seemed shut up, but the teahouse door was wide open so we bowled on in. Inside looked cozy and homely, just like someone’s living room. It was a cute idea, though the proprietor seemed very surprised to see us. We asked if it would be possible to use the internet. No, it wasn’t- the teahouse was closed, permanently, and we’d just invited ourselves in to his lounge. He was very nice and calm about it really. Retreating from our impromptu home invasion as gracefully as we could, we backtracked to Snack Make Make on the mainstreet- after ensuring that it really was open for business.
Our other priority was to get petrol- unleaded for the dinghy engine and diesel for Prism. But the gas station was out of unleaded, and there wouldn’t be any until Saturday when the Toporo came in from Tahiti to deliver it. Diesel was available, so we commenced a morning of shuttle runs with our 20 litre jerry can, keeping carefully tally of the number of times we refilled so we could pay at the end. Initially I was on heavy lifting duty to save Jim’s ankles, but I was released from service whilst he did the last few fills so I could go to the Musee de Gaugin.
Paul Gaugin spent the last few years of his life here in Atuona, in search of ‘the noble savage.’ His paintings here, scorned at the time, helped to revolutionise art. His Polynesian paintings are fantasies of colour, as he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. Green horses wade through tumbling steams in the shade of purple trees, whilst women laze alongside pink beaches. Sinister figures stand in the forests- guardians? Spirits? Demons? Strange as some of his choices are, they make sense when viewed here, surrounded by the landscape and culture that inspired them. Many of the scenes- women in colourful pareus (sarongs) and men in white singlets riding stocky Marquesan ponies- haven’t changed much in the last century. Paul probably wouldn’t approve of the satellite dishes and 4x4 vehicles, but I think he’d appreciate and recognise the rich and vibrant culture, and would be glad that missionaries and French ultimately failed in achieving cultural homogenisation.
The paintings in the museum are all replicas of works hanging in galleries through Europe and America, ordered chronologically from his early works in Brittany to his vibrant canvases from Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Hanging under traditionally styled high pointed roofs, they feel real enough, and the geckos calling from the eaves and scuttling along the tops of the artworks just add to the atmosphere. Outside is a reconstruction of the House of Pleasure, a two-storied hut with shutters that lift up to let in the breeze, looking down on the well that provided Gaugin with the cold water for his absinthe. The museum has a cabinet full of objects found on the site; chunks of paint, absinthe bottles, morphine ampoules, broken pottery. A time capsule of junk that sheds light onto a life which ended a century ago, and helped change art forever.
One of the highlights of Hiva Oa is its wealth of archaeological sites. We organised to hire a car with our Belgian friends Geert and Cindy, and their visiting friend Tim. The car turned out to be a truck, an enormous tank of a 4x4, and I was very happy when Geert said he would drive. The Toporo was unloading, and half the island was there to receive crates and packages- everything from speedboats to kids’ bikes to planks of wood emerged from the hold. Geert negotiated the chaos and we were soon on the road, heading northeast to the archaeological remains at Iipona. The road meandered along ridges and saddles with stunning views of teal-blue bays, then zigzagged up and down mountainsides in snaking switchbacks. We rose from rich jungle to arid scrubland, kept scrubby by the munchings of wild goats. The road changed from concrete to dust and rocks, and herds of wild horses trotted across the track. We rattled our way along, keeping an eye out for wild bananas and cheering whenever our bouncing backsides were spared by an all-to-brief concrete section.
The plunging hillsides made bananas hard to access- all too often they dangled just out of reach over a sheer drop, and the bunches which were easy to get to usually had a house lurking in the background- not so wild after all. Eventually we spotted a papaya tree in the middle of nowhere. A machete-wielding Geert balanced on Tim’s shoulders to reach up to the top. The ripe fruit were rotten or munched by rats, but he managed to get some green papayas, which we hoped would ripen in the tropical sun.
After a couple of hours of rutted roads and postcard-worthy photo stops, we reached Iipona. We’d been instructed to pay a small fee at a snack near the waterfront, and were then given directions to get to the archaeological site. The grounds were very well kept, with mown lawns and pretty plantings. It almost felt too pristine, and I was most drawn to the outer edges where ruggedly cuboid rocks rested beneath the shady bows of banyan trees. Somehow the glorious sunshine burned off the mystery of the place, and I wondered how it would feel on a misty day.
There were five tiki altogether, in various states of repair after their encounters with warring tribes and Christian missionaries. They were the biggest I’d seen, the largest standing at 2.6 metres, staring sternly over the gardens. I was most drawn to a female tiki in a horizontal pose. The regular interpretation is that she is lying down to give birth, and is a symbol of fertility. With her arms stretched out in front of her, her toes pointed and a beaming smile on her face, to me she appeared to be flying, adventurous and free. Birth or flight- either way she has a new world ahead of her.
Geert, Tim and Cindy drove back to the village to try and find some lunch, and Jim and I stayed to draw then have a picnic amongst the tiki. A small French tour group came through, deciding that wherever I was sketching was obviously the best angle for a photo so could I please move. Or else I would be in their photo so could I please move. I retreated to the spot where Jim had spread out our crackers and cheese, and sat down for lunch. Of course, this turned out to be precisely THE best spot to take photos- so could we please move. We were glad so see them go so we could finish lunch in a single place. The next arrivals were a couple from New York along with their guide. As the couple set off exploring, the guide stopped to talk to us. He explained that there are dozens more tiki scattered across the island, many only known to the boar hunters who know the forests well. He saw missionaries and archaeologists as the enemies- missionaries break the tiki and archaeologists spirit them away. I hoped his opinion was a few decades out of date, but loved the thought of an army of statues scattered through the jungle. On this sparsely populated island I wondered how many are as yet totally undiscovered, their weather-beaten faces seen only by boar, goats and ponies.
The guide paged through my Tahuata sketchbook as his tourists rejoined us, and I was excited and gratified when he recognized the lead dancer from Fatu Hiva. He also identified a tattooed warrior as being his cousin. We all chatted about travel and he drew our attention to a carved animal beneath the glorious flying tiki. It’s usually interpreted as being a dog or goat, but it looks exactly like a llama. Not impossible- Polynesians quite probably made it to Peru, bringing back with them kumara (sweet potatoes) and really confusing Thor Heyerdal, who assumed that it was the point of origin for the entire Polynesian migration. It is not inconceivable that Marquesan sailors saw llamas and came back home to carve them, although I draw the line at believing the guide’s story that his ancestors built Macchu Piccu. Of course, it’s also not inconceivable that the carving is just a badly done goat.
The New Yorkers departed and the Belgians returned. We piled into the ute to rattle our way back round the mountains to Atuona. With an hour or so of daylight left, we drove round to Taaoa and the multileveled platforms of Tohua Upeke. Soft golden light filtered through the dangling tangles of the banyans, kissing the wild undergrowth and the platforms of dark volcanic rocks with a magical light. I’d found the primal wildness that had been missing from Iipona. Wandering farther into the site took us to a collection of banyan trees, where we discovered a squat square tiki with round eyes and a wide smile. The path to reach him was overgrown, we had the site to ourselves, and I felt a little like an explorer as I paused a few seconds for a very quick sketch. Then it was back to ‘the city’, stopping to photograph the sunset over the rocky coastline as we headed towards civilization and dinner. The restaurant had a Christmas tree and fairy lights, the wine was cold, the pizza delicious, and the service surly after Jim switched his side order from rice to fries shortly before it was due to arrive.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and stalls of toys had sprung up outside the largest supermarket. Disney gardening sets and robotic dinosaurs competed for space with fairy castles, and Christmas had come early for one little boy delightedly sitting in a small electric car. Our Christmas day itself was quiet. Cindy, Tim and Geert had left for the Tuamotus and the anchorage was thinning out. We celebrated with a bottle of St Emillion, good cheese and a tin of roast duck we’d bought back in New Zealand. I sung Christmas carols, somehow forgetting two lines from every song, and illustrated the letters that Jim wrote to family and friends. We enjoyed the peace and reflection as our time in French Polynesia drew to a close. Within a few days we were heading out into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of melon-headed whales who zoomed around the boat, leaping in a joyful escort as we sailed beneath another gorgeous sunset.
Music festivals are supposed to be grubby, and the one at Tahuata was no exception. Instead of the traditional British field of mud, we were confronted by dust (which would happily turn into mud if a handy downpour gave it the chance). Consequently, a few of my sketchbook pages have a browner tinge than I would like, but I guess I need to look on it as incorporating a little bit of the island into each image.
It took us a day to sail to Tahuata from Fatu Hiva, and there were already a few boats anchored in the little harbor when we arrived. It was a rather rolly anchorage, and the swell coming in added to the excitement of dinghy landings, bringing a high risk of getting swamped. The small quay had no breakwater, and we were forbidden to tie up to it due to a constant flow of local boats and naval tenders dropping off people, instruments and supplies ready for the festival. Initially we were allowed to tie to a rocky outcrop and use a stern anchor to keep the inflatable zodiac off the sharp rocks, but soon even this was disallowed and we were forced to anchor a distance away from the wharf and swim ashore, or brave the breaking surf to attempt a beach landing (we decided to control how wet we got and anchored out rather than risk the boat in the surf). An added incentive for avoiding the wharf was that the policing of dinghies didn’t extend to keeping the local children under control, and they often used tenders near the wharf as swimming platforms and playthings. Apparently our rubberised craft were more tempting than the local wooden or fiberglass boats- or perhaps the consequences of messing with them were rougher! The kids were always quick to help us unload bags, bike and water jugs when we came alongside the quay, so I could forgive their playfulness- though Jim preferred to anchor far enough out to remove temptation from their sights.
Watching the festival set up was entertaining in its own right. Each afternoon a naval ship would arrive in the bay with a new contingent of villagers, who were then ferried ashore along with carefully wrapped costumes, clubs and enormous drums. The residents of the village of Vaitahu joyfully welcomed each boatload of arrivals with singing, drumming and blowing horns and conches. People and packages were loaded into waiting trucks, which formed a snaking procession over the hill to the next bay, where a large hall provided communal lodgings. Soon the waterfront became home to a community of stone carvers, who set up generators and set to work with grinders, hammers and chisels. Lumps of red lava rock transformed into metre tall tiki, which visiting islands would present to Tahuata to grace their tohua- the large stone dance platform. The carvers were happy for us to watch as the features of the figures emerged- bug-eyes, grinning mouths and protruding tummies. Females are often given a long braid or a baby on their belly. Boys are easy to spot. Weavers sat in shady spots, as men and women created skirts, loincloths, tops, headwear and armbands to adorn themselves for the dances.
The festival opened in spectacular fashion, with greetings and dances given by each island in costume. We spotted some familiar faces from Fatu Hiva, garbed in yellow-stained tapa cloth and that fragrant vetiver we’d seen being processed. Representatives of other islands wore skirts of leaves or grass, which fluttered and rippled with every movement. Long hanging strands of moss made graceful tops for the ladies of one island, women from another wore intricate crowns made of ebony and carved bone. Some wore enough vegetation to cover themselves from neck to knees, others preferred to show a bit of midriff and leg. Masculine costumes were even more varied. The chiefs were the most spectacular, with towering headpieces of bone or shell, spectacular black ruffs which broadened their shoulders and thick skirts of frizzed black horsehair. The effect was to awe and intimidate, to convey mana and power- and it worked, especially when topped off with a boar’s tooth necklace, intricate tattoos and a carved war club. The other end of the scale had an equal impact- a few tufts of grass, leaves or feathers as a loincloth, a necklace of tusks or carved bone, and very little else. This minimal attire was perfect for showing off extensive tattoos (often combined with a nicely toned physique)!
Each island presented a chant, song and dance in welcome, usually led by a flamboyantly dressed chief or two and supported by the soprano singing of the matriarchs. It was an impressive sight- and sounded incredible when voices layered with the drums. In between, I tried to see how much of the Marquesan announcements I could understand- some words such as ‘pakepake’ (clap) and ‘kaoha nui koutou’ (many greetings to you all) are similar or identical to New Zealand Maori. Visiting dignitaries had their chance to speak too- but the heavens were not impressed and promptly opened, causing many of us to seek shelter under nearby marquees whilst the politicians waffled on in the deluge. The rain stopped when the waffle did, and we enjoyed the last performances with slightly muddier backsides as we sat on the tiered rocks and grass of the amphitheater.
The scheduling was definitely operating on island time. The two versions of the timetable only existed in French, differing substantially from each other and from reality. Workshops often failed to materialise if the people scheduled to lead them were too tired, location was often vague and timing was more of a guide than an expectation (a bit like bus schedules in Auckland or Basingstoke). There was no point getting anxious or cross, as the way of life here is to just go with the flow and there was always something to watch- dance and drumming practices on the tohua, bands in the artisan’s centre, wood carving, tattooing, or the young man who rode through the village with a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his horse, piping out R’n’B. When events happened, they were wonderful. One morning there was a demonstration of traditional tattooing- called ‘patutiki’ in Marquesan. The subject lay on woven mats whilst the tattoo artist sat next to him, applying the ink to his skin using a sharp rock. This was tied to a long rod, which was tapped by a second rod to incise the skin and let the ink flow in. A third man gently fanned the subject, and a forth periodically wiped the blood and ink away. It was a much messier process than the modern needles and machines that buzzed away for the rest of the festival. Marquesan patutiki artists are known for the beauty and delicacy of their geometric artwork, and were highly in demand by locals, as well as by tourists wanting a permanent souvenir. So far I remain undecorated…
I also thoroughly enjoyed the lunch put on by the islands. We were told to ‘bring a plate,’ which in New Zealand means you bring food to be shared. I started planning what I could make, figuring out what vegetables needed to be used soon and trying to decide whether curry or couscous would be better received. Fortunately Cindy from Zensation set me straight before I started cooking- the instructions were literal and we were only expected to bring something to eat off of, preferably something natural and organic. Jim rustled up some coconut shells and we climbed the hill to the next bay.
Marquees with trestle tables were set up waiting for the feast. The food had been cooked in umu- underground ovens made by digging a pit. Fires are lit in the bottom, whilst pigs, taro, plantains and bananas are wrapped in taro leaves and placed in baskets woven from long green pandanus fronds. The baskets are placed in the embers and covered with more layers of leaves, to slowly roast overnight. When it was time for lunch they were unearthed and ceremonially carried to the waiting trestle tables with chanting and dancing. The leaves were unwrapped and their contents transferred to long wooden bowls with beautifully carved handles. Platters of crabs and shellfish were spread out alongside woven banana leaf plates full of fruit and firi firi (coconut doughnuts). Lengths of green bamboo, split in half, made perfect tongs and scoops to serve the dishes, and some people used them as rather stylish-looking plates. Coconuts were also popular- though as one unfortunate soul discovered, they don’t work so well if they have a hole in the bottom…
When lunch was announced, I commenced queuing in an orderly British fashion (with only two people in front of me). It soon became clear that politeness wouldn’t fill my coconut shell any time soon- not when I was competing with an endless stream of hungry Polynesian males! So I stood my ground and ended up with a chunk of pork and some plantains in my coconut, along with a good dollop of coconut milk with onion and fish sauce. Everything was lean, tender and delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet rich plantains- though by the time I’d finished, the platters of fruit and firi firi were nothing but peel and memories! Our coconut shells went in the compost, and we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting with Shelley and Mike from Avatar whilst I sketched the goings on.
Each evening the islands took it in turns to perform in the tohua, culminating in a collaborative dance on the third night. Offerings ranged from seated dances of sedate and elegant hand gestures to energetic performances with much hip wiggling to my favourites- the men performing high-octane cousins of the Maori haka, which sent shivers down my spine with their power. Through it all beat the drums, fast, layered and mighty, thundering as the warriors stamped and chanted with deep, throaty voices. The air was scented with sweet frangipani and vetiver, and the coconut oil that glistened on the performers’ skins. I made huge strides in my figure drawing as my hands flew across the paper, trying to reflect the mana of the performers.
My favourite performance was by the islanders of Ua Pou. Flaming torches were passed round and a fiery battle commenced. The flames whirled and clashed together, then flew as the torches were tossed between performers. No one could doubt the bravery of the warriors, energetically brandishing their torches as their grass skirts whirled about them. A quick visit to the tap by the post office was enough to sort out one young man whose costume was glowing, and a few buckets of water after the performance doused a small patch of grass which was smoldering. The next island, Ua Huka, tried to compete by including two cockerels and a live pig in their performance. The animals seemed quite unimpressed and the pig, tied upside down to a pole, vocalized its displeasure, but everyone survived the dance- although only the human cast members were invited to take a bow at the end.
The festivities were cut slightly short- the islanders from Ua Pou and Ua Huka were due to leave earlier than expected, aboard the Aranui. We left before the closing ceremony, keen to avoid the manic traffic that would accompany the departures. It only took an hour to motor to Atuona on the neighbouring island of Hiva Oa, and the Aranui arrived a couple of hours later. It berthed on the quay, and we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming as we sat outside on Prism, watching the sunset. I don’t know when I’ll get to hear Polynesian drums again, but relished this chance to enjoy the rhythm for just a little longer.
Nuku Hiva has been well worth the tricky sail to get here. We've been anchored off the sleepy little town of Taiohae, which boasts a few stores, a craft shop, a number of wood carvers and a few churches. The place is charming, and very genuine. It's not unusual to see someone riding their horse to the post office. Shirts are optional, traditional tattoos are almost compulsory, and boar tusk necklaces are not just worn to impress the tourists. There are hardly any tourists in any case- the place becomes busy when the Aranui is docked, then quickly returns to its usual state of dozy tranquility.
The anchorage is rather rolly, but the holding is good and there's enough to explore that it's worth putting up with the swaying. There's a little quay where we can tie up the dinghy; it's also used by the bonito boats, and we often watch the fishermen unloading their catch. There's a snack, which serves good poisson cru, tasty pastries and delicious pomelo juice, and is always full of locals and yachties (the decent wifi is an added draw). A couple of doors down are the yacht services, where Kevin does laundry and offers assistance with paperwork and parts deliveries.
On Sunday, we went to church. The entrance belongs to a tropical fairy tale- an inviting gateway with turrets, leading to a garden full of tropical blossoms. The cathedral is built of stones brought from each of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, and filled with intricate Marquesan wood carvings. Below the roof are open sides, letting in the light and the breeze. Swifts and song swirl beneath the rafters, as the a cappella choir weave magic in French and Marquesan. Sometimes guitar, drums and ukulele are used as an accompaniment, but they just seem to dilute the whole effect- the magic is in the voices alone. After mass, the congregation retreats to the outer courtyard where pastries and bread pudding are sold under shady marquees. The small children who squawked, complained and pestered their brothers through the service are carted off home, and a few people remain to share gossip beneath the trees. I loitered and sketched until the sun became too hot and we retreated to the snack for a cold juice.
Tohua Koueva is an old communal site up in the hills, in the shade of towering banyan trees. Getting there involves a couple of kilometres of walking upwards, and those inevitable moments when you begin to wonder if the climb will be worth it. In this case- yes it was. The site itself was beautiful, shady, lush and green. The extensive meeting platforms have been restored, and huts have been reconstructed to give a feel for what the site was like a few hundred years ago. There was a film crew there; two intrepid souls had swam from the neighbouring island of Ua Pou to Nuku Hiva, and were now exploring their ancestral and spiritual roots. One of the film crew, Pascal, took an interest in my sketching and took some time to tell me a bit about the site. I was surprised there were no other tourists there, he answered that they don't often get this far. He didn't mind, it allows the local population to enjoy it and connect with their culture. We spent the whole morning there, sketching and exploring, searching for tiki sculptures and absorbing the ambience. I'd happily go back- armed with a small vat of insect repellant!
I've also been working on a series of sketches of tiki. You can find the series so far here!
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.