Makemo - At home in the atolls 16:37.660S,  143:34.276W

Hamble Warrior
Jamie Hickman
Tue 25 Jul 2023 04:55

25th June

We had an overnight passage to Makemo during which we enjoyed mostly Force 4 winds and comfortable conditions. Our preparations meant we had meals ready to heat up and it was a pretty relaxed passage. We arrived at the narrow pass into the lagoon at Makemo a little earlier than we had planned as we had calculated slack tide as the best time to transit.

We hove-to outside the lagoon with a gathering of other vessels milling about all also arriving to enter the pass. We could see the town of Makemo on the edge of the lagoon; right at the pass, and the distinctive lighthouse which would become a familiar sight over the coming weeks.

Eventually catamaran "Quantum" bit the bullet and entered the pass and we all filed in behind. As with Raroia the water in the pass was very turgid but we made it through safely into the flat calm waters of the lagoon.

There were 3 boats in the town anchorage when we arrived including friends Magnus and Becky on S/V Amazul; and two of the boats that had entered ahead of us, both of which already had their anchors down and set by the time we arrived.

We circled the anchorage and searched the clear water for a sandy spot in the seabed uncluttered by coral to drop our anchor. This was rather tricky due to the amount of coral visible. We took our chance when we found a reasonably clear spot and by luck as much as anything managed to set in sand. Once the anchor was set we attached fenders to our anchor chain to buoy it off the seabed and keep it away from the coral.

We took our dingy and rowed across the bay to the small inner harbour over large coral heads that were clearly visible just below the surface. In the picturesque little inner harbour a couple of small local boats lay and one of our neighbours' tenders. We hadn't brought our little anchor to keep the boat off the quay so we selected a large rock and tied a line around it dropping it off the stern of the dinghy and tying the bow to the quay. Then we went ashore to explore Makemo.

Our first impressions were of a town much bigger than Raroia but no less friendly. Again the ubiquitous tricycles and bicycles were everywhere although we also saw a number of electric bikes, cars and SUVs. Makemo has 13 miles of made-up road stretching the length of the lagoon which accounts for all these vehicles. We located the boulangerie where we were able to order fresh bread and croissants from the helpful ladies behind the counter for the following day. Across the road was the market square where a decent sized supermarket "Opareke Market" was located. Here we would find fresh eggs on days when they were delivered from the local farm and a good selection of other items including fresh vegetables and frozen meat. Walking out of the town we crossed two bridges which join each of the "motus" allowing us to walk from one to another over the main road. A 15 minute walk out of town and we found another sizeable supermarket, again with a friendly and helpful lady behind the counter and with very good prices. The available fresh vegetables varied from day to day here but were generally cheaper than the shops in town as was the frozen meats. They also had a small selection of hardware and household items including several large rolls of fabric and here Jamie treated me to a couple of metres of a beautiful fabric with a very Tahitian floral design which I plan to make some clothes with.

As we had gone ashore on a Monday all the snack places were shut so instead of treating ourselves to an "arrival lunch" we bought beers and crisps and sat down on the quayside. As we sat looking out at the impossible amount of blue; sea and sky, broken with just a hint of white cloud we watched a small brightly-coloured powerboat arrive with a guy standing on the bow bringing people and goods from other atolls. Whilst we drank our beers we watched with fascination as a barrel of fuel was brought down to the quayside by forklift; once the goods and passengers had been disgorged a barrel of fuel was brought up from the belly of the boat and siphoned into the boat's fuel tank. The new barrel was then loaded onto the boat and the old barrel taken away before the skipper and his crew put down the cigarettes they had been smoking throughout the fuel transfer and set off on their way again. I asked the skipper if it was rough out at sea today; knowing that strong winds were expected and having been told they had come 40 miles from the neighbouring atoll. He confirmed it was as he fastened his buoyancy jacket and we joined the rest of the little crowd gathered on the quayside in waving them off and wishing them luck.

We later saw the local police car driving along the long stone pier and I went over to speak to them. I asked if we would be ok to tie to the pier later in the week when we were expecting strong winds which would make the anchorage here uncomfortable. The police checked the depth of our boat and agreed we could tie ashore. We decided to do this in the next few days to make sure we were ready for the strong winds and that we would likely stay a while in Makemo once we were set. We wanted to stay long enough to settle into the local community a bit; to experience island life and make friends.

Our first friends on Makemo were a little gang of 3 school boys who came over wanting to practice their English on us. Looking back I suspect practicing their English was of secondary interest to the large bag of crisps we were sporting. "Victor" (11) had two friends whose names I was never able to remember but one we nicknamed "Hot Pie" as he always asked us for food when he saw us in town after this. Having devoured our crisps like a flock of seagulls they asked us several thousand questions; One of which was "Have you got any Cigars", showed us a few tricks on their bikes, taught us a game where they threw our water bottles in the air and tried to make them land the right way up (were we part of this game or being bullied by three children with a combined age of about 35..???!!!!) and begged us to come and see onboard Hamble Warrior. "Maybe" we said, but not today. We managed to escape back to our dinghy without committing to that arrangement!

On our way back to Hamble Warrior we met our friends Magnus and Becky snorkeling in the harbour; we pulled our dinghy alongside theirs and chatted for a while before making plans for them to join us for drinks and dinner that evening. We went back to the boat and prepared food and tidied up ready for our guests. We had a lovely evening talking about boats and places we'd all sailed and what our onward plans were. They left the next day heading north to an anchorage that would be sheltered to the incoming winds and we set about resolving our internet problems and dealing with the banking and tenancy admin that had been pressing us since Raroia.

The middle of that week with the strong winds forecast we spent a few hours resetting ourselves onto the quay. We put ourselves stern-to in the 'med-mooring' style we were accustomed to from our time cruising in Greece; with 4 lines ashore and two anchors out. I spent a lot of time in the water setting anchors and checking chain to ensure we didn't set any of our gear in the coral. I noted lots of fish in the clear water under the boat; it was like an aquarium. Amongst them I saw several Remora which at first I took for baby sharks. Later one of these clever little "sucker fish" cleaned the weed and gooseneck barnacles from our hull and took up residence at the front of our keel. Each time I snorkeled off the boat or climbed in to clean the water line or take the large barnacles; of which there were still a few, off the rudder (Jamie removed dozens of these monster barnacles from the prop too) this little guy was suckered to the front of the keel. We named him DJ Rumba after Tom Haverford's "robotic room-mate" in Parks & Recreations! (if you know you know)

During those first few days of strong winds the anchorage emptied and we were the only boat in town. We had tied ourselves with long lines to the quay to keep us well away from the quayside itself. This was for Meep's benefit as we didn't want him jumping ashore and going wandering. For us to get ashore we would launch the kayak and paddle the short distance under the pier to land on the small beach the other side. This worked perfectly although at high tide we needed to lie flat in the kayak to fit under the pier which must have looked funny to the locals as we popped up the other side!

Within a couple of days of tying to the quay the passenger ship arrived to take the islands dance troop and several other islanders to Tahiti for the big "Heiva" celebrations on 14th July. The ship came alongside on the inner hammerhead of the pier and fortunately we weren't in its way with how we had tied stern-to. We had a wonderful spot to watch as the islanders all made their way down the pier in cars, on bikes and on foot. We watched as cars were driven into containers and craned into the boat's hold. Eventually it was time for the dancers to board and there was singing and music before they kissed everyone goodbye and climbed aboard. As the ferry untied all the islanders lined the decks waving goodbye and stayed on deck as the boat made its way out through the pass and off to Tahiti. The few stragglers finally went back down the pier and we exchanged waves and "yo rah nas" with them before we were left on our own once again. It felt very quiet all of a sudden after such a busy and exciting morning!

We were rarely completely alone on the pier though. Most days the many spear fishermen would arrive early and we would see them snorkeling around the lagoon and then cleaning and filleting their catch on the beach behind us. Later in the day fishermen would come with their rods and fish off the pier. We soon learned to recognise the huge dark clouds in the clear blue water which meant a large shoal of fish and we noted how locals would often ride down the pier; circle looking out to sea and ride off again or get their fishing rods out depending on what they could see. We became familiar with the faces of the many fishermen and chatted to them as best we could in my slowly-improving French. Nearly all the conversations we had in Makemo were in French and we came to value how precious it was that we could communicate when we spoke to other cruisers who didn't speak French and realised how much of an advantage we had. We also made an effort to speak the few Tahitian words and greetings we had learned. We always greeted islanders in Tahitian and that was how we heard them greet each other; although after a while we also learned that the Tuamotus had their own language and we managed to learn a few words in Tuamotuan including the greeting of "Koora Oora" which means "long life". We reserved this greeting for our best friends on the island.

Although our French has improved during our time in Polynesia I have often suspected that our poorly spoken French and the effort it shows - along with our smattering of Polynesian words - has warmed us to the islanders more than if we were French and spoke the language fluently. This stems from my suspicion that the islanders don't hold the French government and their "motherland" for want of a better term in the greatest esteem. Evidence of this was the bank holiday celebrations beginning 14th July; this is Bastille Day in France and traditionally is "Heiva" in Polynesia. The history of "Heiva" is a little complex as originally when the French missionaries arrived in Polynesia they banned dancing; deeming the Polynesian dancing as being too sexual and "provocative". July 14th was the only day the islanders were allowed to dance and so to this day it is a day for dancing and sports. In modern times most small island communities like those in the Tuamotus don't really celebrate Heiva unless the government provides funding for a special event. Instead they send their best dancers to compete in the large Heiva celebrations in Tahiti. The afternoon of Friday 14th was, however a bank holiday and the shops and services all closed down for the afternoon but the island was very quiet. We took the day off to enjoy the bank holiday and had a lovely relaxed day. We joined a couple of our local friends on the beach and shared some beers and they told us the local dancers had ranked 2nd in the Tahitian Heiva competition. We didn't get the impression that anyone was particularly celebrating the 14th July though. The colours were raised at the town hall and then most people took the day off and went home. For the rest of that weekend though there was most definitely a heightened "party" atmosphere. Saturday and Sunday we saw people out dressed in their finest clothes and the island seemed to be buzzing. It was as if they had deliberately spurned the 14th July but made a bank holiday of the rest of the weekend. Maybe we imagined it. Maybe not.

After a while a new boat arrived and seeing us tied to the quay they tied alongside the inner hammerhead - in the ferry's spot. It wasn't long before we were sharing the quay with three neighbouring boats although none tied stern-to and none stayed more than a week or so.

Makemo was much bigger than Rairoa; with nearly 4 times the population. As well as the shops there was a post office; a craft centre with beautiful local crafts for sale, a large school, sports hall, town hall, church with a very tuneful congregation that can be heard in full voice on Saturday nights and a few snack places which all kept different hours (and were all closed by 8pm at the latest). Without any real bars we chose to buy cold beers from the market and sit in one of three favourite spots; either the little bench in the market square, the crate-seats outside the bakery which afforded the best views of the island entertainment - an electronic boxing machine like you'd see in an arcade, particularly popular with the island women we noted! Or we would sit in the covered area down at the quayside where we could look out at the water and the locals occasionally gathered to practice singing and playing their ukes and drums which sounded incredible with the acoustics it afforded.

One friday we took our "Friday Night Works Drinks" and went to sit down at the port. Whilst there we met a really nice guy; he has a pearl farm on the next motu. We chatted for a while and then he took us to his family's house where he introduced us to his friends and family and we spent a lovely evening drinking and chatting with them. They are a very musical people and the ukulele came out and they all sang and played their banjos and ukes; it was so magical.

When they lose loved ones here they bury them at their home and many of the houses we have seen have a grave in the front yard - a sort of family crypt with a headstone. Anyway this family had recently lost a very beloved member - at just 38 years old he died of blood cancer in February. Apparently it was 6 months since his passing and so they were gathered around his grave which was absolutely beautiful and bedecked with garlands of flowers and shells. As they sang these beautiful songs his best friend would frequently reach over and affectionately pat the grave. It was like we were all drinking *with* him. It's hard to describe and probably sounds quite morbid or like we were intruding on a very private moment but it didn't feel like that. They welcomed us and got chairs for us and told us about their friend (Victor - another Victor! Popular name here!) Victor's 15 year old son joined us and he spoke really good English. He taught us loads of Tuamotuan words including the term for "beautiful" which is "Viru Viru"... I was sure we would use that term a lot during our time in the Tuamotus.

Whilst tied to the pier we got a lot of jobs done aboard Hamble Warrior. We ordered parts for Jamie's parents to bring out when they visit us in Tahiti soon. I hauled Jamie up the mast 5 times to sort the faulty wind instruments which haven't been working properly for many years now. Eventually Jamie brought the instruments down and we removed the cabling from the mast to work out what we needed to replace. We scrubbed the water line to get rid of the green scum that has been clinging to it since our Pacific crossing; dived the hull, prop and rudder so we are all clean again... the Remora did a lot of the work for us; very little weed and no goose barnacles but a few massive barnacles as I mentioned earlier - especially on the prop.

It was the fouling on our prop which caused us to meet our dear Fisherman friends "Punua" and "Nooroa" for the first time. They were telling us the prop was heavily fouled and my French wasn't initially up to understanding them but we soon got there between us. After that we became very good friends and always stopped to greet each other. They would spearfish in the lagoon around our boat and I asked them about the fish they caught and what was safe to eat; it turns out all small and medium fish in Makemo are safe from ciguatera - reef poisoning. They gave us some of the fish they had caught; 4 beautiful snappers, and thus began a firm friendship. They gave us fish; I baked them cookies, they gave us more fish, I baked them cookies and cake, they gave us fish and coconuts, we shared our beers with them and I got baking again. On the Sunday before we left the island they gave us Papaya and some delicious boiled root vegetables. So the morning we were due to leave I took them cheese straws I had baked and a big chunk of the large pumpkin we had aboard.. they gifted us some beautiful shells and gems they had gathered from the sea and we parted promising to return in September or October. I am going to have to do some serious baking! These two of all the wonderful and welcoming islanders were probably our best friends in Makemo. They made so much effort to welcome us and make us feel at home. Meep would sit and watch Punua fishing near the boat and eying up his floating catch box that he pulled around behind him. Some days Punua would hand me a large fish straight off the end of his spear; other days he would gut and clean his catch and then bring his box of fish over for us. Their kindness meant so much to us. We would take them gifts to Punua's house which was on the road from the pier into the town and his dogs would run to greet us excitedly. Their wholesome life was centred around surviving on a simple diet provided by the land and waters they lived off and friendship. We left Makemo promising to return and I am sure we will. It is another place which has left a deep mark in our hearts. I believe that the longer we stay in these places the more we fall in love with them. I am glad we chose to stay and got to know Makemo and her islanders. It is a really special place.

In the end we stayed for 3 weeks in total. We left with more friends than we arrived with; our French improved a little more as did our Tahitian and we learned a few words of Tuamotuan to add to our collection of polynesian languages. Our plan had been to stay long enough to integrate a little into the local community; to experience island life and learn something from our island friends, we certainly feel like we did that.

The night before we were due to leave we sat on the edge of the pier as the sun set over Makemo for the last time. The day's heat radiated out of the concrete under our bums and we enjoyed a cold beer and jumped up several times to say goodbye to friends as they passed by. After dusk we looked down into the water and saw several large sharks slip under the pier and disappear into the lagoon. These were the first large sharks we had seen since we got here and I wondered if perhaps they only came into this part of the lagoon in the evening. I was certainly glad I hadn't met any of them during my snorkeling trips; although I suspect they are fat on fish and not interested in us. It was pretty amazing to be able to enjoy them from our little birds eye view over the edge of the pier though. 

The following morning we did a quick round of the islands shops; picking up a few groceries for our trip and saying our goodbyes. It was July 17th; a special date for us as it is the 5 year anniversary of launching Hamble Warrior and also Meep's 5th birthday. We untied our lines from the quay; recovered both our anchors without incident and set off out of the pass heading towards Tahiti with a plan to stop off at Fakarava en route. This will be our final stop in the Tuamotus before we reach Tahiti and the Society Islands.

Here are some of our favourite new words;

Yo-ran-ah - hello
Ma roo roo - thank you
Ne he ne he - beautiful
Nah nah - goodbye

Koora oora - greeting meaning "long life"
Koora mati - response (to elders) meaning "back to you"
Viru viru - beautiful
Manooya - cheers
Rica rica- good

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