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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fabulous Fakarava

Back in the magnificent Mediterranean we’d often meet cruisers who had already sailed the Pacific.  “Just wait until you get there,” they’d say.  “It’s magic”.  After a few months in the Pacific we’ve realised that paradise really is on our own back doorstep.  The Tuamoto atolls we’ve visited have been absolutely exquisite.  What they lack in shops (there are few), bars and restaurants (ditto) and cafes (forget it) they more than make up for in remoteness, tranquility and sheer beauty.   Hopefully, their remoteness means they will always stay this way.  And because they are so difficult to get to, it’s us lucky cruising sailors that really get to enjoy them at our leisure.


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We arrived in Fakarava amidst squalls – the sail across from Kauehi had been fine but as we approached the northern pass we could see black clouds building.  The pass is wide and it was, again, a straightforward entry with the ingoing tide giving us a sleigh ride.  Any salt splashes were soon washed away with a brief deluge as the squall hit before the bright sunshine returned – a typical day in the Tuamotos.  We anchored off the village of Rotoava for a night – enough time to buy baguettes and restock with a few fresh supplies.  With story deadlines looming I had to find internet which had been difficult.   In Fakarava we found the stunning waterfront Havaki Hotel and I sat on the dock and sent my story and photos – tough place to earn a living!  Afterwards we headed down the lagoon to find our very own piece of paradise with not another boat in sight – heaven.IMG_0623


We spent three days and nights in idyllic remote anchorages, working on Bandit in the mornings (it’s true, the definition of cruising after all is fixing the boat in exotic locations) and enjoying our surroundings in the afternoons.  The snorkelling in the crystal clear water was lovely as were the beach walks.   The entire coast of Fakarava is dotted with blissful deserted spots like this.


Then we moved on to the bottom of the atoll to a heavenly spot called Harifa.  Because it is so heavenly there were other boats there but it is a big anchorage and can absorb them.  Most of the cruisers we knew so, once again, it was nice to socialise.  Best of all there was a waterfront restaurant which had just opened.  You had to preorder so the food could be caught!.  The friendly hostess Liza served the best poisson cru we’d ever tasted …a huge bowl for $10 made using freshly squeezed coconut and limes.    




Snorkelling was beckoning so we moved to Tetamanu at the southern pass which has a reputation for world class diving and snorkelling. The pass is notorious for sharks, friendly ones of course.  As we anchored Bandit was surrounded by small reef sharks.  The water was crystal clear and as we watched fascinated a massive black shape loomed out of the depths.  It was definitely not a friendly reef shark.  We later found out it was a 17ft tiger shark (identified by divers who went looking for and found it).  Anyone who knows anything about sharks will know the tiger is number two on the “dangerous” list after the great white.  The tiger was attracted by whale meat – we soon realised we’d anchored close to where locals were cutting up a washed up carcass.  Needless to say, we moved further away.



Seeing the tiger made us a little wary about snorkelling but the dive school assured us the sharks were well fed…so off we went.  We drift snorkelled through the pass at slack tide – keeping a firm grip of the tender so we could leap into it if we saw anything untoward.  The snorkel was fantastic – there were so many sharks you couldn’t count them and after a while you (kind of) ignored them…they certainly ignored us.  The coral was spectacular and the marine life was astonishing- quite the best snorkelling we’ve ever had.   David also did a dive with friends from True Blue and came back ecstatic – once again, seeing dozens of sharks was the highlight.


The south pass area is a very remote part of Fakarava.   The village of Tetamanu, which years ago was a thriving town, is abandoned and only a few locals live there running the dive shop and resort.  What a magic spot for a diving/snorkelling holiday with traditional burres right on the waterfront…you can dive from the deck!  It really was a very special place and it was hard to drag ourselves away but we had a deadline in Papeete so with much reluctance we upped anchor and headed away.  With winds forecast to be squally we headed up to Amse Anyot in Toau Atoll to sit out the blow.  Toau was a wonderful stopover and the friendly Valentina (Liza’s sister) made us very welcome and was delighted to receive some goodies from the Bandit lockers.   We dined in fine style on fresh lobster and left with more in the freezer and a bagful of fine pearls.


Captivating Kauehi

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.   DSC_5748

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. IMG_0590



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.


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 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. 


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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. 

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 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.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Magical Marquesas

Entry formalities into French Polynesia at the lovely island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas were fast, efficient and relatively painless.  The only downside was that non EU sailors must pay a bond, equivalent to a one way airfare home, which causes something of a dilemma because the bond is not necessarily refunded in the currency it’s paid in.  Not wanting a fistful of French Polynesian Francs on the day we exit we paid $90 for a bond exemption letter.  It is annoying to do so when we have full travel insurance with an evacuation clause and can show a healthy bank balance, but that’s the way they roll here.




It was wonderful to go ashore, find internet and buy fresh baguettes, brie and pain au chocolate.  The anchorage was full of boats we’d met in the Mediterranean, Caribbean or Galapagos so there was a fair bit of socialising – coffee here, drinks there, dinner out – it was absolutely wonderful to catch up with friends after so long at sea.   Finding fresh supplies here can be difficult so when we heard there was an early morning market we made sure the alarm was set for 5am and were ashore not long after.  What joy to find bok choy, aubergines, fresh lettuce and tomatoes.  After a few days we were ready to move on and headed around to Anaho Bay in the north. We’d heard a lot about this bay and it didn’t disappoint – a stunning anchorage with good snorkelling, fantastic hikes and, best of all, dozens of mango trees.   We never tire of fresh mangos.DSC_5667



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In Anaho we had a wonderful pot luck dinner on board Southern Cross with Scotia – both boats had been on our Magellan SSB Net in the Caribbean for many months.  We’d met SC in Panama and again in Galapagos and Fuka Hiva but had to wait until the Marquesas to see the faces behind Scotia’s delightful Scottish accents.  While walking ashore we came across a Bulgarian backpacking couple and, as they were headed for the same spot as us – Hakaui - we gave them a ride.   With no public transport in these islands they’d found getting around difficult, relying on hitch hiking.  It’s nice to share our world with others – and these guys had never sailed before or seen dolphins and we provided both experiences.


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In the Marquesas we seemed to move from one spectacular anchorage to another and so it proved the day we arrived in Hakaui in the south.  The entrance was quite narrow and once inside the bay opened up with sheer and dramatic cliffs on three sides and a beautiful white sandy beach at the head of the bay.  Absolutely stunning.  As we made our way in we watched manta rays in the water ahead of us. 



The main attraction here was the hike to the 350m Ahuii Waterfall which went through beautifully manicured and lush tropical gardens before reaching river crossings and rough paths. We’d heard the waterfall was dry so didn’t go all the way but it was a fantastic walk with amazing scenery and the bonus of meeting friendly locals along the way who sold us fruit.  We headed back to Bandit with bananas, coconut, papaya, oranges, Tahitian apples, mangos, limes and breadfruit.  They don’t seem to grow many vegetables here but we’ve enough fruit on board to ward off scurvy.

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It would be easy to linger here but we only have a three month visa and there are still many miles to cover and lots more to see.  With good moon and tides we hope to head away to the Tuamoto Islands in the next few days with vivid memories of the magnificent Marquesas etched in our minds.   We’ll stop off at Ua Pou for a night or too en route.  Perhaps the best thing about these wonderful islands is that their remoteness means they are off the beaten track and so few tourists, apart from yachties, get here.  Avery special place.