Atoll Heaven

16:39.350S 143:23.543W
Friday, 29 May 2015
 
We spent a couple more days in Rairoia relishing the beautiful snorkelling, friendly reception from the villagers and, for Bungles, the chance to get some kite boarding.  The “brothers” who are also kite board enthusiasts, own a pearl farm and they took out Lucy and Bungles to their farm to show them how it’s done.  At the time, they were involved in taking in small shells from the lagoon to the land base so that the seed pearl could be inserted to the oyster and then taken back out to the farm in the lagoon to mature and to grow into the treasured black pearls.  This is highly specialised work and an expert had come from Tahiti to do the work, known as “grafting”.
 
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We are now in the atoll of Makemo, having left Raroia on Sunday, 24 May for a night sail. The first part of the passage was downwind and easy, then we had to turn South, leaving Taenga well to port, and found ourselves on a reach across the sea, doing 7 knots plus under three reefs and a bit bumpy.  This speed was going to put us ahead of our scheduled dawn arrival time so we hove-to for an hour and then set off again. A few hours later, the sun came up and land, or rather palm trees, came into view.  Much effort and science had gone into trying to predict when slack water would occur in the pass but not much confidence attached to the result.  So we approached with caution, found conditions good, went in, motored around to the little harbour/dock and dropped the hook.  Hurray! Our second atoll and still in one piece.
 
Once again, we found an unexpectedly modern and well built dock, modern facilities ashore, bakery, shops, lighthouse, schools and, by comparison with Raroia, quite a town with paved roads, street signs, neat gardens with fences, a huge church, airport,  etc. Near the dock there was a large sports hall with football, basketball, and so on.  The Tuomotus are renowned for the skill of their craftsmen in sculpting mother of pearl so we set off in search of carvers, successfully locating Billy (and his wife Sylvane) and the house of Gerard, who featured in our pilot guide.  He wasn’t at home but his wife showed us examples of his work.  While admiring the skills involved, we were not particularly drawn to the designs.  By comparison with the Marquesas where the wood and stone carving all incorporate powerful traditional motifs, many drawn from the art of tattoo, the pearl carvings appeared to be adapted to the taste of foreigners.  Here is a picture of Billy at work on a large pearl oyster shell:
 
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After two nights in the harbour, several more yachts had arrived including Lavinda, Let it Go and Sabir from Raroia. The yachties gathered ashore one evening for a drink followed by movies in the sports hall.  There were screening two documentaries, the first of which provided some interesting insight into the atomic bomb testing that the French had done in nearby Mururoa. Viewed from the perspective of the local people who were affected, there is much to be unhappy about – epidemic of cancers caused by radiation, displacement, lack of information or access (Mururoa is classified as a military base and off limits.  Information on the tests and the status of the atoll remain secret).  Indeed we have heard reports that the atoll’s structure has been gravely compromised, that there is a large split in the coral with the dual risk of Angel leakage of radioactive material, and Mug the possible landslide of a large portion of the atoll to the ocean floor.  This, in turn, would give rise to a huge tsunami and the release of radioactive material to the ocean.  Altogether a massive disaster. Consequently the French authorities have leased teams of equipment in the vicinity in order to pour vast quantities of concrete into this crack.  While this is a positive response, it means that there is no equipment or material left available in the rest of the islands to undertake other public works like dock and road maintenance/construction.  All food for thought.
Meanwhile it was getting crowded in the anchorage so we pulled up our hook – together with a large steel pipe on which it had been fouled, much to the amusement of the other yachties.
 
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Then we set off to the North East corner of the atoll to find the reputed Trou Baleine, or Whale Hole.  Navigating within the atoll means keeping a sharp lookout for the many coral heads that are scattered in the lagoon.  These pop up from 40 metres depth without warning.  Big ones are easy to see since they are mini reefs with breaking waves, but the little ones are more dangerous.  Here is our beautiful  lookout team on  the roof:
 
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Two hours later we found ourselves in heaven.  We were the only boat in sight, calm azure sea, safely anchored in shallow water behind sand banks with the palm fringed shore to our left and the bare reef to our right.
 
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We’ve been here for five days just exploring and going native.  Collecting shells, snorkelling, kite boarding, hunting crabs and lobsters, bird watching (trying to spot the rare Tuomotu sand piper), eating coconuts .....   One guy, Taevo, arrived in his little boat to work on his copra plantation and stayed a couple of days.  He showed Bungles and Lucy how to shuck a green coconut, how to open one to drink the water inside, how to extract the sweet soft meat, etc.  However he couldn’t help us find the mantis shrimp – the varo, a local delicacy – which is supposed to live here.  He had no knowledge of the varo. Let it Go also arrived a stayed a couple of days.  These are the french couple, Laurent and Valerie and their son Benjamin whom we had met in Raroia. We celebrated Banjamin’s 18th birthday on board their boat with a magnificent dinner and enjoyable evening but we are alone again now.  As for the Trou, this turned out to be a steep drop off from the sand bank into the lagoon, forming a deep pool.  We’re not sure if its name derives from the shape of the pool or from the real (or mythological) whales that come to calf here.
 
We find it hard to tear ourselves away from this spot.  Are we ever going to find another place to compare?  Our aim had been to make Tahanea our next stop, followed by Fakarava, but now we are not too sure.  For now, we are waiting for the wind and sea (in the ocean) to calm down a bit before proceeding.  Here in the lagoon, all is calm and beautiful.
 
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