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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We spent a couple of days anchored at Hakatea Bay. It's a little to the west of Taiohae, and the mountains circle the anchorage, creating a dramatic vista and protecting the bay from the worst of the rolling Pacific swell. Being (relatively) still was certainly a welcome change, and meant I could get my paints out without fear of them being catapulted across the cabin. Painting on a rocking boat is probably about as close as watercolours get to being an adrenaline rush...
I had a commission to work on, from a beautiful photo of Mount Maunganui back in New Zealand. I declared a painting day, and transformed the table into full studio mode. I wish I'd videoed the painting of the sunset- the way the watercolours behave when the wet paint hits wet paper is beautiful, and always has a slight edge of unpredictability. With the jewel colours of the sunset it was magic.
Because part of watercolour painting often involves waiting for paint to dry, I like to have a second piece on the go. I'd started a picture of a lemur when I flew back to Auckland to get my US visa sorted out. I'd visited the zoo with my friends Jill and Ethan, and we were entranced watching the ringtail lemurs feasting on strawberries for their lunch. I sketched them as they munched and had got as far as redrawing the sketch on watercolour paper and laying down a background wash. The whimsy of the idea still appealed to me so I decided to finish it off in between working on the larger A3 painting.
And then more paintings happened, I found it impossible to put the brush down, the ideas queued in my brain were all clamouring to get out and a second art day was declared. Beautiful valley walks? What beautiful valley walks? They remained unwalked by me.
And a bunch of the ideas that have been lurking in my head or loitering in my sketchbook got unleashed. I'm particularly pleased with the mantas- based on a sketch I did in Bora Bora.
This morning the brushes had to go back in their roll, and the much-depleted tube of French ultramarine was placed back into the art box along with the rest of the rainbow. We're back in Taiohae, after a dolphin-filled sail back, ready to grab a few more provisions before we head south to the island of Hiva Oa. But we'll do it again soon, watercolour paints- it's been a blast.
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.
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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!
It was a four day passage from Raivavae to Fakarava. We started off rocking about in a rolling swell, and ended up motoring on glassy seas. We arrived at night- not a good time to attempt to go through a pass, especially one fringed with coral. Prism was put to sleep until the sun came up and we could safely make our way in.
The journey through Tumakahua pass was straightforward. The current was with us, and the route was well marked. We entered the anchorage with five other boats and grabbed a mooring buoy as our welcoming committee approached. A host of surgeonfish and a grey reef shark were on meet and greet duty (probably hoping that we’d have a few scraps of breakfast left to toss overboard). A white-tipped reef shark soon joined the party, then Jim and I jumped in with our snorkel gear. The fish swam up to investigate and the sharks cruised beneath us. It was a great arrival.
Most of our visit to Tumakahua was spent in the water. The currents are strong, sweeping nutrients through the pass and attracting lots of life. There are plenty of brightly hued reef fish living amongst the corals, large schools of snapper, mullet and barracuda, graceful eagle rays and imposing Napoleon wrasse. But the biggest draw here is the huge population of sharks. We saw them every time we entered the water. They generally seemed to ignore us, going about their sharky business. Most of the denizens here are reef sharks, whose philosophy towards humans is ‘we’ll respect you if you respect us’. The more fearsome residents, hammerheads and lemon sharks, live outside the reef at greater depths- beyond my dive certification level. But I’m very happy hanging out with the reef sharks.
The torpedo-shaped white tips tend to cruise around by themselves, or lie on sandy gullies on the seabed during the day. The stocky cream-coloured black tips seem to like shallow water, swimming through the coral gardens and cruising around the resort, hoping to pick up scraps thrown into the water by the cook. They’re small but have a more traditionally ‘shark’ shape than the long skinny white tips. The greys grow largest, although a lot of the animals we saw were young, and we often saw them in the pass and deep channels. They’re impressive, especially when dozens of them congregate and they’re close enough to see the dot of their pupil staring back at you. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking.
We saw sharks on every snorkel, but the best way to see the greys was to dive. The site is known as the ‘Wall of Sharks’, with good reason- though if the naming were up to me, I’d pluralise the ‘wall’. I made five dives altogether, all on the incoming tide. We’d enter the water either at a buoy within the pass or, for a longer and deeper dive, outside at the mouth of the pass by the drop-off.
The reef around the drop-off was beautiful, full of incredibly healthy coral and teeming with fish. A large group of grey reef sharks cruise just over the drop-off, occasionally joined by the odd white tip. We’d then follow the reef into the pass, looking for marbled grouper lurking amongst the coral heads. As we’d ascend, we’d reach the second wall of grey reef sharks, and see more white tips snoozing on the sand gullies at the bottom. There would be huge schools of big eyes, their red scales appearing black as the depth filtered out their colouring, and we’d often find large groups of silvery snapper. Looking up, we’d often spot an eagle ray flying above us, or a mass of brass striped barracuda. Once I saw a great barracuda, fearsome and intimidating with its large teeth on permanent display.
The third group of sharks could be viewed from above the reef, or by dropping down to a cavern. They were often the closest, coming within feet of us. Occasionally we’d see one rear up, ferocious maw gaping, as it invited a cleaner fish to give it a wash and brush up. Others would stay almost stationary, barely moving as they kept their position against the current, whilst the more energetic and awake would swim up to the head of the group, then turn and run with the current until they merged with the school again.
We usually took our safety stop just outside the dive centre, with a resident group of bright yellow striped snapper to keep us company, and a good chance of seeing Napoleon wrasse or black tip reef sharks. Once, we ran with the current which swept us around the corner, through the coral gardens near the anchorage. We were almost at the first boat before we had to surface and wait for the dive centre’s own vessel to come and retrieve us.
Despite spending so much of my time in the water, I still found time to draw. We used the dive centre at Tetamanu Village- the largest of the three accommodations around Tumakahua- and would often stop in for a pre-dive coffee or pre-sunset beverage. The café was on stilts above the reef and was a great place for fish spotting and sketching. Schooling fish used the shade of the resort’s boats and the piles of the café as a refuge, and butterflyfish, damsels and tangs were drawn to the pretty reef. Sketching moving creatures who were underwater wasn’t easy, but it was good practice- and a rare opportunity for drawing sea creatures from observation. The staff were interested and very positive- good motivation to keep up sketching in public!
The boardwalk to reach the café provided the perfect position for watching- and drawing- black tip reef sharks. There would always be a few cruising through, and the whole local population of about twenty would pay a visit before meal times. The kitchen threw fish scraps and chicken bones into the water, and I’d sit on the boardwalk and try to draw the elegant shapes that slid through the shallow water beneath me. Once, I put my camera in the water and got some video of the feeding frenzy- sharks darting around and making the water froth as they sped towards the bones. Most surprising of all was the huge Napoleon wrasse, which muscled its way across shallow coral to get into the middle of the action. It was not afraid to get into the thick of the sharky mass- and with a huge mouth just made for hoovering up tasty morsels, it quite often won the spoils.
The underwater scenery isn’t the only draw here; there are some gorgeous beaches too. We took the dinghy on the long ride round to les Sables Roses- the Pink Sands. This is a series of motu (islands) over in the UNESCO area. We’re not allowed to take Prism over there, but tenders are fine. We threaded our way through the reef as the tide fell, and chose a likely looking island trimmed in white and pale pink. Jim selected a spot under a shady palm tree, where he remained for the rest of our visit, and I set off exploring. The island was small, but it was easy to wade through the channels between motu, keeping my jandals on to protect my feet. I was rewarded by having islands all to myself, filled with lush greenery, surrounded by powedery white sand and fringed with pink sandbars, which were revealed as the tide retreated further. The contrast with the turquoise water was gorgeous, and I felt like we’d found a bit of paradise. Our only companions were dozens of hermit crabs and a baby black tip reef shark, which was entertaining itself by catching waves and surfing into the shallows, turning outwards and repeating the process.
That afternoon was a treat. We enjoyed sundowners with Afif, a lovely gentleman from Lebanon who we’d met diving. Then April and Harley from El Karma were planning a beach fire with a few of the other cruisers from our anchorage. As the sun set, we motored ashore for a picnic around a roaring fire, with more good company and surrounded by huge hermit crabs, who lumbered around the motu and seemed intrigued by the bright lights of the invading humans. The moon was a perfect crescent and the Milky Way was strung out across the sky. It doesn’t get much better than this.
A few more dives and a couple more snorkels, then we heard that the wind was due to change. Lovely in a south easterly breeze, Tumakahua becomes very uncomfortable in a northerly wind, which fetches up water from right across the long lagoon leading to a very uncomfortable swell. Midway through our visit, we’d experienced one night of northerlies, leading to a smashed jar of sundried tomatoes and very little sleep, and we were not keen to repeat the experience. We cast off the mooring buoy and headed north through the lagoon. Prism was ready to go, zipping along at six knots through the channel. We stopped at Tahao, a lovely anchorage which we had to ourselves. Today we called at Pakakota, where Micheal, an ex-cruiser, has set up a restaurant, mooring buoys and strong wifi (comparatively anyway).
A few days after reaching Fakarava, I finished the sketchbook I’d started in Raivavae. Unusually for me, I’d stuck with the same media- watercolour and brush pen- for the whole of the book, which does give it a nice continuity. I was struggling with the brush pen for the sinuous shapes of the sharks- in theory it should be perfect, but I found it hard to get the speed necessary to draw the fast-moving fish. For the new book, I decided to start off with my Derwent Inktense pencils. I’ve often used these for colour washes, but haven’t used them much to actually draw with. They let me be a bit ’sketchier’ than the brush pen, building up lines as sharks came past and repeated poses. I liked the effect of going over the coloured lines with a waterbrush- it gives the slightly blurry impression that the fish are actually under water. Wetting the page before I used the pencil let me get an interesting variation in line and a good depth of colour. The pencils can’t be erased once wet, so this method was permanent and gave a spontaneous feeling. They did bleed through a bit in my Hahnemuhle cartridge sketchbook when I used them on top of a wash- I think I’m overloading this book beyond its capacity. .
Back on the boat on a rainy day, I pulled out my Noodlers ink bottles, and used dip pen and water brush to draw sharks from a photo. The brush blurred the ink lines, creating interesting blurs and shading, especially when the inks were made from mixed colours which separated when the water was added. I followed up with a drawing of the reef, experimenting with using ink wet-in-wet and adding salt, creating wonderful textures which were perfect for coral. The colours were very vivid, leading to highly saturated images. Much too bright, but fun to do! My poor paper struggled with the amount of ink, and suffered from bleed-through in places. This wasn’t helped by the salty spots. I had to resort to blotting a few places with kitchen paper when they were still wet the next morning. When it had finally dried out, I pulled out my Posca pens and added details and patterns to suggest polyps, and drew in a few reef residents too. The poscas did add to the bobbliness of the paper- was it still damp or just overworked? Again, the cartridge paper is struggling.
Drying things in the tropics can be harder than you’d think. Watercolour washes dry in a flash in full sun- it’s causing a problem with my sketchbook as I have to use more water and the cartridge paper goes bobbly. Time to switch to my pricier but sturdier watercolour books, I think. Some of the paints themselves seem reluctant to ever dry. I knew this could be a problem with my Senneliers, which have honey as a binder. I was given my Senneliers in pannier form a few years ago, and they’ve been fine through New Zealand summers, but now the viridian and helios purple are just one step short of being liquid, whilst the other pans I have remaining are all slightly on the squishy side. It’s not just the Senneliers, however. Most of my pans now hold tube paint from Windsor and Newton or Daniel Smith- honey free and therefore, I thought, tropic-safe. I filled them all before we left NZ in the increasingly chilly Autumn, but many of the colours have returned to a rather soft state- they just don’t seem to totally dry out. It means that getting juicy colour is never a problem, but also means that colours sometimes ooze out of their pans. My Daniel Smith cobalt turquoise is a particular offender, closely followed by the W&N indigo- although maybe they’re just trying to tell me to paint another sea scene.
Beautiful sea scenes are easy to come by here and my inner critic keeps telling me I should be painting more (although it might be the paints talking). They’re probably right, and rethinking my ‘make every drawing a double spread’ approach might help me with this- a series of small sketches each day would be more manageable, and would fit in with adventures more effectively, plus encourage me to draw the little things which I feel like I’m starting to overlook (local drinks, fruit, flowers, hermit crabs etc). I’m taking lots of photos too, and although I prefer to draw from life, reference photos don’t hurt (especially when I’m tackling subjects under the sea!). Good fodder for rainy days! Perhaps I need to consider how I use my travellers notebook, as it can hold multiple sketchbooks inside- is it time to start using two sketchbooks- a ‘best’ book with good paper for when I have lots of time to sit and observe, so I can keep the cohesive look I enjoyed in my last sketchbook, plus a ‘scrappy’ one for experiments, quick doodles, journaling? This might also be a way to get me drawing people more…
I will mull on this as I finish the second half of this cartridge book- do you use one sketchbook or multiple books?
It's looking like we'll have a good weather window on Friday or Saturday. Departure is getting near, the boat is well-provisioned and leak-free (for the moment anyway), and all that stands between us and French Polynesia is a load of laundry, a last shop for vegetables and rather a lot of sea.
I started drawing places I'm saying goodbye to. It's the people who are important, but the places are all tied up with the memories of the special souls I go there with and so it seemed a good way to approach leave-taking. So I've been sketching Pacific Bay and Schnappa Rock, a great little restaurant here in Tutukaka, and remembering fun sailing trips, swimming, post-dive beverages with Jill and delicious birthday dinners.
Then along came Brian Butler. He's teaching a class on Sketchbook Skool this week, and shared lively sketchbooks filled with busy drawings of concerts and road trips. He collages images together and paints enormous murals on the side of buildings to celebrate the communities he's painting in. His style is different and original, and you can find him at www.theupperhandart.com/. He challenged us to draw our own collected images of our favourite places. It seemed a perfect way to remember them and say goodbye.
His quirky style got me thinking, and gave me permission to be silly. (Why do I feel I need permission to be silly in my artwork? I don't have much problem being silly any other time. Does it all stem from the art teacher who just never got my drawing of the whale weigh station?). The result was an exploding Rangitoto spewing out Auckland landmarks, my running shoes, wine from Mudbrick vineyard and coffee from the shop across from the school where I taught. It's totally daft, it didn't matter that I can't draw a straight line and I had a whale of a time playing with bendy perspective. If I ever redraw it, I'll try so I'm looking into the volcano. I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I was finished, I started drawing a fish-eye view of the Poor Knights. I challenge you to see how many fishy puns you can find.
I used coloured pencils, which take a lot of layering but are very relaxing to build up and blend. I wasn't happy with the first shark I drew on the Poor Knights, so obliterated it with a cooler version in Posca pen. One of those mistakes that turns out for the best- I like the solid colour on the textured coloured pencil.
There may be more towns and regions to come- it's certainly a great way to reminisce! I'm not so sure about trying to create a mural a la Brian- I'm not much good with ladders- though I could always decorate the side of the boat!
I've posted my more sensible watercolours down below too (pretty happy with how the shadows are working out- a big thank you to Natalie Renotte on the Sketchbook Skool Facebook page for her advice on the dark foreground Schnappa Rock sketch)- now I'm off to distort some of the beaches on the Tutukaka Coast,,,
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.