Coco gets a bit Number Five on it in French Polynesia
We’ve sailed a long way to find this. I mean don’t get me wrong; we’ve seen some really beautiful places and met some awesome people. And the diversity of the places we have seen has been enormous. From the chilly Baltic and the Nordic culture, the English autumn, some European flair in Spain and Portugal, island style in the Canaries, a taste of Rasta in the Caribbean, chasing hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos. But there just isn’t anything that can compare to the romance of tropical island life in French Polynesia and the South Pacific.
Warm welcomes, dramatic volcanic islands pushed up out of the ocean with lush green tropical jungle smothering the hills, white shorelines clad with palm trees and exotically coloured clear blue water. It’s a Robinson Crusoe paradise yet to be discovered by the hoards. It’s hard to get to, and without a yacht, difficult to get around, but worth the effort; the rewards are tremendous.
There are no words that can describe the raw beauty of this part of the world, so I’ll keep them to a minimum in this post, and let my photos do the talking.
Mangos in the Marquesas
After sailing for 16 days and 3000 nautical miles from the Galapagos Islands, our first sighting of the Marquesas was breath taking. This tropical island paradise is dramatic – it’s volcanic and rises out of the Pacific Ocean like some prehistoric and untouched world. Where was the cast of some Jurassic movie set charging out of the mountains being chased by an ancient tribe followed by fantastical hungry creatures all needing their pound of white man movie star flesh? Not to be, sigh. Limited excitement here. Back to the view.
It was time to stop for a couple of days, a decompression chamber from the relentless days at sea was needed. We were tired having been on the move pretty much non-stop since completing the Panama Canal transit two months ago; and we’ve also discovered that the most dangerous thing on the yacht, is a coconut. Opening one up for an early morning snack 36 hours out from the Marquesas turned out to be a near catastrophe when a momentary lack of concentration lead to a slip with the knife. Whoops. It was deep, a lot of blood and somewhat traumatic. The fortune tellers will be forever confused with the new life-line I’ve crafted on my left hand. Jacqui did an awesome job of pulling it back together with tape (it really did need a doctor and stiches) but that meant we were sailing to the true definition of short handed, literally! So we needed some downtime. And my hand needed to sit still for a couple of days. I’ll spare you the photos. But I was useless for two weeks and have a good scar for stories at a later date.
This place truly is the fruit basket of the world. The hiking from village to village yielded us mangos, bananas and pawpaw growing wild on the side of the steep and narrow local dirt roads. The people, so welcoming and friendly. Always a wave and a smile, come in for coffee, have some fruit. It was humbling. Their craftmanship still strong. Carving with bone, wood and whale teeth producing beautiful art bringing some South Pacific flare to the interior of Coco. Traditional methods of beating bark by hand for days until tapas magically appear decorated with tikis, tortoise and rays are still employed – one of the few places you can still find them. It’s French, but it’s not.
We met Jimmy at his restaurant “Chez Jimmy’s” on one of the smaller and more relaxed islands where they cooked up epic coconut and breadfruit flavoured lovelyness finished off with a round on the guitar. This was my first experience of the famous Marquesas breadfruit fries. Light, flavoursome; the perfect fry. Potatoes are gone from my life, forever. His specialty was four hour cooked local wild goat curry – shot by his mate to order a couple of days prior. Had I known, my plant eating ethics would gone by the wayside and the goat, ritually sacrificed, would have been mine. With cold beer, the prefect anointment – I’ve become attached to the Hinano Tahiti brew. A pacific island wine matching with goat.
If I was reborn as an archaeologist (probably not my first choice to be fair, 007 secret agent would be ahead of archaeologist) I would come here. Our hiking through the jungle reviled ancient villages covered in the most beautiful 600 year old banyan trees, wild mangos, carvings and stone structures hidden between the pitons. The undiscovered and unresearched history here of the early migration to these islands is everywhere. Terraced villages built in stone, carvings in the rocks thousands of years old. The stories of their festivals and brutal cannibalism tantalising. Then of course, in their innocence, and with conviction, the French Catholics arrived demanding a stop to all this frolicking with the devil; requesting an allegiance to their one God, rather than the way cooler made up Gods that the early Marquesan’s worshiped, and sacrificed the odd virgin for. The newly arrived bishops made them speak French, told them to cover up with a shirt and to stop tattooing each other. Oh, and eating each other was now out of the question (especially the tasty children – that’s a no no). They also bought with them, white man’s diseases and annihilated 98% of the Marquesan’s with influenza, cholera, typhoid, syphilis and other delightfully gifted trappings of so called civilization. Apocalyptic new beginning’s. Lucky them.
The sailing is fantastic with most of the islands easily within a day’s reaching on the southeast trade winds. The anchorages are stunning – everything from the rawness of the volcanic rocks that emerge from the ocean floor never yielding to the South Pacific storms that try to beat them back into the earth, to the stunning palm fringed beaches that you can own for a day because it’s so remote and there are very few yachts here. That’s a novelty after spending time in the Caribbean where there is a daily drag-race with all the chartered catamaran’s to find an anchorage in the next supposedly idyllic and undiscovered bay (and then parking uncaringly in your face anyway – let’s face it, they don’t care if their shitty chartered cat drifts into your Swan 54 at 2am). There are real sailors here, people who love, and are passionate, about the adventure of sailing to remote places. I get it now why the South Pacific is so special.
These people care about their villages and village life. They are proud, they live off the land to a large extent, food grows like weeds here, The breadfruit, coconuts, starfruit, mangos, pawpaw, banana, citrus, sweet potatoes and other vegetables – all abound. They hunt wild pigs and goats, the sea is still bountiful. Tourists haven’t yet overtaken their part of the world. Instagram is not king here. Life is king here. If you get a chance in your life to visit the Marquesas, then go. I can’t really tell you where to go, there are a lot of islands in the group, but they are all unique and incredibly beautiful. So just go. Visit them all and don’t rush. Life here doesn’t rush, it’s a harmonic tradition that is life.
Timeout in the Tuamotus
Even though I was bloodshot eyed tired from the miles of sailing that had by now, blurred into oblivion, my excitement levels in reaching the Tuamotu group was stratospheric. This place is your quintessential South Pacific remote tropical island coolness. It’s a place I always wanted to visit. But after the another couple of overnighters on the 500 mile sail from Marquesas to the Tuamotu group of islands we were buggered. We stopped at Takaroa atoll in the northeast for 24 hours before another overnight sail down to the atoll of Kauehi.
Travel between the atolls in the Tuamotus is governed by the tides. Arrival at the channel into a new one ideally should be timed for slack tide, which is either the top of high tide or the bottom of low, so that the water isn’t rushing at 10 knots like a grade 4 river rapid in or out of the narrow gap in the atoll that you need to navigate through. Even worse if you get wind against tide. If you get the timing wrong (which quite frankly, is bloody easy to do because the tide information here is about as accurate as my high school math) it’s like a log fume ride in a theme park. In a 54 foot 25 tonne yacht. Apparently not an experience you need to have… (but we did) Once inside, in the lagoon of the atoll, the fun doesn’t stop there. Most of them only have a charted channel through to the village – the rest? It’s navigated with good luck and hopefully a clear enough day to see the coral heads waiting to tear a hole in your yacht. We bloody near hit one, in 30 metres of water, right next to Coco – a massive coral head just under the surface. Impossible to see until you’re almost on top of them. How the hell did it grow that tall? What do they feed these things? We go slow now, really really slow. A Sobering introduction to the Tuamotus.
We keep pinching ourselves (as do the mosquitos, I don’t usually get bitten, they must be very hungry here), we’ve actually found a tropical paradise. After sailing pretty much half way around the world we’ve found it. This place is stunning. Can you imagine being marooned in a place like this? It’s perfect. I mean picture perfect, it shimmers. The stars are reflected in the ocean like a second universe. Everything that you ever imagined was possible, everything that you’d expect, from a remote palm fringed island. And we are here. Lucky bastards.
And we were actually, marooned. With 30 knots of wind, gusting 45; for 5 days, all we could do was hide behind some meagre palm trees avoiding the horizontal rain, waiting for the blow to pass through. It’s called the Mara- amu or something like that. I’ll research it at some point when we have internet. Internet. An occasional commodity here. Some of the wind was okay, some of it was bloody strong. I don’t think I’ve ever been anchored in 45 knots of wind before. I didn’t sleep most nights. I love my Rocna anchor. Really love my Rocna anchor. I’ve finally realised that sailors are gluttons for punishment. A little too little, a little too late. I wish the wind would stop howling through the rigging though.
However, it meant enforced rest. Doctors’ orders. We needed it. Immersion in a new place of discovery. And I’ve got a crab keeping an eye on me. If he’s not careful, in my boredom, I may have to create a Hermit Crab Bisque from the Coco Cantina. Very French. Very Number Five. Very not vegan.
The diving was truly spectacular. Fakarava served it up as an extravagant seafood platter that you’d only expect to find in an illicit backstreet Chinese restaurant specialising in shark fin soup, a lot of shark fin soup. I’ve never seen so many in my entire life. Hundreds. We were lucky enough to be here as the grouper were gathering to spawn – that’s a flash word for fish sex. Eggs are released, sperm is squirted; somehow it all seems to come together and new fish are made. But the sharks like to eat the grouper so it’s a bit of a sex feeding frenzy party – BDSM ocean style. Some of the grouper don’t come out feeling like they scored. A lot of them get eaten.
Sharks aside, the marine life in the Tuamotus is legendary. We had manta rays hanging out with us, everywhere we anchored seemed to be a skipjack tuna feeding ground, sharks hung out in the shallows, remora stuck to the bottom of the yacht, and the number of fish on the reefs we dived was mind blowing. We adored the underwater world. And the visibility was incredible. I don’t ever think I’ve seen such clear clean water in all my life. Let’s hope those damn human predators don’t come along and fuck it up by overfishing, pollution and climate change. Whoops, too late. I saw some..
We loved the Tuamotus for their remote, relaxed island life. It’s real. There is no faking it here. And its stunningly beautiful. The rhythm of life is defined by the supply ship arriving at the village on the atoll once a week with fresh vegetables and other stuff I’d never eat; I’m not sure they actually eat the vegetables (rice and fish seems to be a staple), coconuts lie on the ground waiting for you to collect them, we’ve learnt to cook “utu” in a fire on the beach; it’s a germinating coconut baked in its husk – delicious. We baked breadfruit in the same fire on the beach – also delicious.
But the sailing here is bloody hard work sometimes; the channels into the atolls are okay if you’re lucky, complete shit most of the time. There is either too much wind or not enough wind. Going through the lagoons requires attention so you don’t run into a bommie that rises 30 metres from the ocean floor waiting to get you. Most of them uncharted. Your anchor gets wrapped around coral heads and you need to dive them so you don’t end up cutting the chain (never ever come here without scuba gear on the boat!). But hell, I guess that’s why it’s remote and so appealing huh?
Society life, bonjour French bit – Bora Bora and Tahiti
After weeks of very little civilisation since leaving the Galapagos a month and a half ago, mixed emotion greeted us with the first sighting of Huahine rising from the ocean, a forest of green carpeting the entire island. It’s one of the smaller more relaxed of the Society Islands and usually a sucker for a small town bar serving cold beer on the waterfront after a long sail, I just wasn’t sure that I was ready for other humans.
Maybe I’m becoming a nomadic sailing hermit. I’ve seen it in other sailors that I’ve met on this journey – that glazed, slightly disinterested look that is focused past your face and on the horizon. You’re a minor and inconvenient speed bump presenting a delay on the way to their next destination. Anchoring with other boats, forgotten how to do that! The beer was good, regardless.
For the life of me, can’t work out why the French own this place – French Polynesia is an oxymoron in itself. Let’s briefly analyse this. The French; sophisticated, arrogant, structured, outwardly difficult, cosmopolitan, abrupt. Let’s fuck with our food and add butter to everything, only to be eaten it in Michelin stared restaurants if you can help it – let’s face it, if you’re not French, they just don’t like you that much (my apologies to any French readers, but you know it’s kinda true). The Polynesians – I mean the label itself just says it all. Islands, sun, laid back, I don’t really give a shit, take it slow, don’t rush me, laugh, village life, simple fresh food that you caught or grew – and as welcoming as hell; always with a smile and a laugh. And from what I can tell, they don’t really like the French telling them what to do. Yeah they get some cash to help keep core services going, but that comes at a price. Quite frankly, they should become part of New Zealand, I’d probably come and live here! Kia ora bro.
Huahine was cute; but only a brief stop for cold beer, some fresh food (no supply’s since the Marquesas 4 weeks previous), and as a bonus, we discovered the “Heiva” was in its final throws. It’s the main event on the islands, a bit like our dancing with the stars – but actually worth watching. Every village on the island enters a well practiced team into the comp all dressed in their local finery and they dance their arses off to jungle drums shaking and quivering like a dying trout for a few minutes until the next lot come on. This is a big deal; reputations are at stake, new talent takes old, the sexual innuendo in the dancing is obvious. The winners then head off to the main island in the group to fight it out for the big trophy. It’s an awesome part of island life and a real celebration of their culture. Very French? I think not…
Next stop was Bora Bora – the most commercial and touristy place we’d seen for months. Beautiful resorts; we caved in. After two and a half months and 5000 miles it was time for a break. That departure from Panama seemed but a distant memory. We booked all three of us into a resort for 5 days of well deserved rest. Coco sat out the front giving the resort some class, we slept without worrying about the anchor. It was bliss. We will sail down to Papeete from here, the bushes in the gooseneck around the pin have worn out – I suppose that’s what you get after 14,000 miles! Time for some service work before the final push through to New Zealand. I can’t believe we are only 3000 miles from home.
That is one brilliant adventure, written in an expressive and lively style. You must get this printed into book form for us all to read. xx
Awesome Alex! What a great experience
Is this the real Mike Riddle? Like from my childhood? Good grief, how are you?
Haha! Yes it is!
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Haha yes it is! And I am well. Got keen on sailing again so liking your adventures
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