The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
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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In my last post, I said that my giant squid monster had led to something even bigger. Well, he got some friends. First was the tropical island angler fish, then the sea dragon and the tentacle-tongued ship swallower. I brainstormed things that sea monsters could do, or what they might look like. I was challenged to draw a sea monster a day for a month- cheating slightly, I counted my first four monsters as four days worth (though up till then my daily monster rate had varied between 2 and 0.4) then set to work on creating a sea monster every day.
I mostly used Copic multiliners to draw with- I love the range of sizes and consistency in their ink flow. My Rotring Tikky liners had a thicker ink flow- great for juicy, shiny eyes and rich dark blacks. Continuing with the same media and theme has started to help my art- I soon found that my cross hatching and stippling improved, and my monsters became more textured with increased depth. I got better at thinking of little details that would make my monsters more interesting and bring them to life. You can see monsters 1- 11 in the gallery below, and read their stories on Instagram and Facebook
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.
Land. Solid, stable, firm, immobile, not crashing and smashing or rocking and rolling… I’m very happy to be ashore following our passage from Tahiti to the Marquesas. We were intending to wait for a weather window- southerlies, perhaps, which would speed us along on our way northeast. But none were forecast, despite the pilot charts indicating that southeasterlies should be prevalent at this time of year. So we had to leave anyway.
Sailing into wind is uncomfortable. The waves are against you, so if they reach a reasonable size the boat smashes into them, slowing as she pounds along. Island Prism performs well upwind, and is capable of 5 knots or more in a stiff breeze (respectable for a cruising boat of mature years), but the constant pounding puts strain on boat and crew both so we sometimes find we need to slow her down. And if the wind slows but the swell remains, we are left struggling and wallowing. On our way north, the winds stayed strong and stable- but struggling against the trade winds is no easy task, especially as we didn’t want our teeth rattled out of our heads. We made an average speed of four knots, and our trip, predicted to take seven days, stretched out to ten and felt much, much longer.
We even ended up having Jim’s birthday at sea, and celebrated with a tin of ravioli and a bar of Whittakers chocolate (the really delicious and distinctive dark Ghana). On passage isn’t the best time to have a birthday, but Whittakers isn’t a bad way to celebrate. And now we’re on land (hooray! Land!), there are rumours of ice cream and pizza at one of the snacks, so we’ll be able to celebrate retrospectively.
We’re anchored in Taiohae Bay, home to the main town in the Marquesas. The bay rings with the inevitable sound of cockerels, and the crashing of waves upon the black volcanic sands. As we dropped the anchor we could smell the richness of the land- soil and wood carried on the air, with a faint scent of flowers. The mountains rise steeply out of the ocean and are covered with lush green vegetation. This is a place where things like to grow. I didn’t draw much on passage- one day I hope to break through the queasy feeling it gives me, but it hasn’t happened yet- so when we’d anchored I tried to capture the feeling of the voyage. I think a follow up is needed, with more headwinds.
What do you think of when you hear the words 'Bora Bora'? My mind turns to a kind of ultimate luxury- movie stars with cocktails, gourmet restaurants and white sand that you're not allowed to sit on unless you've paid a hefty premium and have a name that's appeared on film credits. So I has a few reservations about cruising there for long- would we be able to afford to do anything? Would we feel out of place? Would we be allowed within a mile of any of the flash resorts? Would they move us on as soon as we dropped anchor, as I'd heard on some of the other islands.
It turned out that private boat was the best way to see the island and the motu fringing the lagoon. We could move between anchorages, find great views and carry out a search for the best chocolate lava cake on the island. White beaches could be ours for the cost of a drink and we could enjoy sundowners without breaking the bank. Whilst I'm sure I would love the luxury of an overwater bungalow, they're generally built over sand- so don't necessarily offer the best snorkelling. We, on the other hand, could swim off the boat to nearby reefs or take the dinghy to find the best spots, and then spend as long as we liked in the water without being hauled out by impatient tour guides keeping to an itinerary.
I drew a map soon after our arrival- trying to integrate two different cruising guides and recommendations from the Lonely Planet. It helped us get our bearings and create a rough plan- a couple of days anchored off the main island, then down to Motu Tupua in the South West, followed by a journey up and over to explore the lagoon to the east and the south.
After living in the boat yard on Raiatea, we felt like we had earned the incredible dinner and views at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Fresh bread with melting butter, delicious tuna and of course that lava cake- my taste buds were in ecstasy. We also had the pleasure of watching the sun set behind Island Prism- and watched the other diners taking photos of her. We were pretty happy she'd been scrubbed up for the occasion!
We then moved a little farther south to Mai Kai. They offered mooring balls for $30 a night, which included use of their infinity pool. It seems very silly to enjoy a pool so much after months of world class snorkelling- maybe the relaxing poolside loungers helped, maybe it was the fact I could just float on my back and gaze up at the sky. The wifi was good enough to catch up on a few internet jobs, and we splashed out on dinner again (the lava cake wasn't quite as fluffy as the one from BBYC, but went very nicely with a glass of St Emilion). And the sunset really came out to play.
The anchorage down at Motu Tupua was lovely, The snorkeling was ok, and although the condition of the coral wasn't great, I saw lots of fish. The real draw was the view of the peaks of Bora Bora and the colours of the water in the lagoon. I pulled out my acrylics to try to capture the wonderfully intense shades or turquoise and blue. They're an interesting choice for a sketchbook- they can stay slightly sticky when dry, so it's not a great idea to use them on both pages of a spread, but the rich colours were exactly what I needed. And my beloved luminous watercolours found a home on each facing page.
The east side was one of the highlights of Bora Bora. The motu were home to some very exclusive hotels, so we didn't go ashore, but we loved the view and the amazing snorkelling just a short dinghy ride away. We spent hours swimming with manta rays- up to seven in a group- and clouds of up to thirty eagle rays. The underwater ballet held us mesmerised. The coral was beautiful and there were plenty of fish, including the majestic Napoleon wrasse, but the rays were the stars of the show. Every day we emerged from the water after hours of swimming, exhilarated and with fingers like prunes.
Of course, the rays appeared in my sketchbook, and were recreated in watercolour form. The patterns on their back reminded me of the swirling koru patterns of Maori art, so each of my mantas got a little Polynesian twist- as did some of the landscape!
We negotiated the route between coral heads to reach the very southern tip of the lagoon. We anchored off the Sofitel Private Resort and used the dinghy to get through the little pass to Matira Point. The resorts here were very nice, and a little less exclusive than the overwater bungalows out on the motu. We visited the Sofitel bar for happy hour, and were shown to a table that would have a great view of the dance show later that evening. I drew my drink and was soon asked to draw the bartender, who was very pleased with the sketch I gave her. The dancers were amazing- with their sinuous movements, I'm sure they have joints in places I don't. I tried some gesture drawings- the only way to try to capture the rapid motions of the dance, and snapped some reference photos to attempt some more colourful sketches later.
On the way back to Prism, the channel lights guided us and we thought we'd gone far enough into deep water to avoid the reef. Sadly not- we struck coral, I managed to lift the engine before any harm was done but we had a gash in the bottom of the dinghy. Thank heavens for our new dinghy pump- Jim spent the last portion of the journey bailing out. The next day we moved back round to our anchorage near the manta rays. Our friends Trish and John on Lumiel joined us and we snorkeled, followed by delicious coffee and bacon butties on their catamaran. They even let me use their warm shower. As the sign on their boat says, 'It doesn't get any better than this!'
So after my initial reservation, it was hard to leave. I hope I'll make it back one day- those manta rays and the chocolate lava cake at the Bora Bora Yacht Club are calling.
(If you're a fan of the manta rays, they're appearing over on Redbubble with some of the other wonderful creatures I've met through Polynesia. Take a peek at Redbubble, or contact me for information about the originals!)
Raiatea- where legend and history collide. Thought to be the launching point for the Polynesian voyages to Rapa Nui, Hawai'i and Aotearoa (New Zealand), it was home to heroes and adventurers. Priests blessed the launching double-hulled canoes and found messages from the gods in the cries of the heron and the kingfisher. When the missionaries came, the old gods were forgotten and the marae, used for centuries of worship, were neglected or destroyed. Today, the ruins of the mighty marae have been restored, though the old deities remain dormant (not a bad thing as one or two of them were rather keen on human sacrifice).
Bill, Jim and I found that traveling back in time to explore the ancient civilisation was remarkably straightforward. We motored through the linked lagoons of Taha'a and Raiatea, dodging the occasional reef on our route south until we anchored in sand near to the marae of Taputapuatea. We dinghied ashore and explored coral rock pavements and platforms looking out to sea, ancient walls consumed by banyan trees and a few carvings, last remnants of an ancient artistic heritage. Standing stones in the courtyards marked the spots where the tribal elite would have sat, and modern carved stele recalled the tall wooden totems which would have once decorated each marae. The tables for offerings of food were long gone, but we recreated the feasts of the past with some baguettes, blue cheese and steamed buns with our hunter-gatherer Jim rustled up from a nearby store.
Moving back up north, we anchored near to the Faaroa River. It was wide enough and deep enough for us to access by dinghy, so we motored up, through lush farmland fringed with hibiscus and ginger. The heavens opened, adding to the feeling of tropical adventure and making our later sail up to the main town of Uturoa rather damp.
We delivered Bill to the airport- the only airport I've ever seen with its own dinghy dock- before Jim and I turned our hand to hauling Prism out at the Raiatea Carenage for a few coats of bottom paint and a raising of the water line (apparently all the art supplies have left her sitting a little low in the water). I'm sure I should have been sketching boats sitting in cradles, waterblasters and tools but I just wasn't finding the boat yard inspiring- it probably didn't help that I didn't want to be there. My Sketchbook Skool kourse 'Imagining' was far more inspiring, so I turned my hand to ink blob monsters until Prism was afloat again and Bora Bora called.
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,,,
Dinos ahoy! They've taken to the seven seas. Slightly inspired by my upcoming sailing trip (I wonder where the yellow boat idea came from?), and by my little friend Ethan, who's having a birthday while I'm on passage.
They are over on Redbubble- click here- and can be found on stickers, t-shirts, cushions, swimming bags (perfect for togs or PE kits) and more! (I think the cushion or acrylic blocks would be perfect in a child's room!).
I've also created free printable pirates colouring page- just click the link below to download! It's A4 size and in PDF format, so it's easy to print and go! I'd love to know what people think of my colouring pages, and am thinking about making them a regular offering (perhaps along with some ocean colouring sheets), so please leave me a comment. (You can find a hatching dinosaur colouring sheet here)
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.