If ever there was a perfect Pacific paradise we found it in Kauehi – one of the exquisite atolls in the Tuamoto Archipelago. The 78 Tuamoto atolls encompass an area 1500km long and 600km wide. Of course the most well known atoll is Mururoa where the French, under Charles de Gaulle, carried out nuclear testing. Between 1966 and 1996 nearly 200 nuclear bombs were detonated there. When you visit these idyllic islands with their pristine waters and coral you realise what a tragedy that was. Three cheers for NZ’s nuclear free status.
In the days before accurate GPS, the low lying Tuamoto atolls (unlike the steep and rugged Marquesas) were often avoided by sailors due to difficult navigation. Variable currents, sudden storms and poor charting made them hazardous. The well known English yacht Gypsy Moth, sailed around the world by Francis Chichester, famously went aground here a few years ago. It’s not an area to be treated lightly and we approached our first atoll with extreme caution. Our four day/night sail from the Marquesan island of Ua Pou was lovely with gentle trade winds and flat seas making for some lovely sailing including a great spinnaker run.
Many of the Tuamoto atolls have narrow and difficult reef passes so you must get the tides right as there can be strong currents rushing through with associated overfalls and steep waves. We timed our arrival in Kauehi for the morning slack water and it proved to be a straightforward entry through a wide channel – not half as scary as we were anticipating. We then had a lovely sail across the lagoon to the village. English friends Chris and Sarah from catamaran Tulu, who we first met in Panama, were already anchored here and it was great to have a welcoming sundowner on board the capacious Tulu.
Not a lot happens on Kauehi and when we went ashore on Saturday afternoon the town felt very sleepy. Sunday church service seemed to be the week’s highlight so we went along and sat in the beautifully shell and flower decorated church listening to the amazing children’s voices. After church we went for a wander and met Tiaihau, a friendly and welcoming local who just happens to be the mayor, shop owner (there is only one), pearl farmer and coconut grower. He particularly likes Kiwis and quickly and generously invited us and the Tulus to lunch at “Paradise” – his pearl farm along the coast.
We had a great day. Tiaihau, Andrea and translator Gerard looked after us brilliantly. Lunch was chicken and rice. Tiaihau and Gerard also ate pinkish meat from a pot that wasn’t offered to us and, as we’d read that dog is a delicacy here, we were curious. Gerard later admitted that yes, it was dog- we were just pleased it wasn’t offered to us! We finished the day with a look at some of the thousands of black pearls Tiaihau had harvested and picked out a few to buy – he generously boosted that with plenty of free ones.
Lots of our cruising friends were arriving in Kauehi and when we told Tiaihau he suggested they might be interested in doing a pearl farm trip. They were. So 20 of us set off on Tiaihau’s truck and had another fantastic day at Paradise. We went out to the farm by boat and snorkelled on the oyster lines before returning for lunch.
It was a working day and the locals were busy removing the coconut meat from the shells – sitting in the hot sun without any shade or even sunglasses! The meat is sent to Tahiti to be processed into coconut oil for cosmetics. The skill these people have in removed the meat quickly and efficiently from the shell is astonishing.
Our lunch was in a waterfront shed and as we ate we watched black tipped reef sharks swimming in the shallows. It was a wonderful day and Tiaihau took us back via the airfield which is obviously the pride and joy of the village. Two flights arrive each week bringing fresh baguettes and supplies from Papeete. We left the village adorned with shell necklaces feeling sad at leaving such lovely people but delighted in having formed friendships.
We had a lovely sail back across the lagoon to a remote anchorage in the south east corner – it was classic travel brochure material – white sandy beach, turquoise water and swaying palm trees. And not a house in sight. We couldn’t wait to get in the water and snorkel and as soon as we did two black tipped reef sharks appeared. Oh well, you have to get used to them….so we ignored them and they ignored us and we went on our way. The snorkelling was fantastic and it was a fitting way to end our amazing time in beautiful Kauehi.