Gambier Islands

James & Amelia Gould
Thu 26 Jun 2008 02:59

7 - 14 June 2008: Gambier Islands, French Polynesia


Once Rahula was safely at anchor and mostly tidied away we launched the dinghy and headed over to a trimaran called Migration that was hosting the birthday party we had been invited to.  The party was in full swing by the time we arrived, with everyone from the other yachts in the anchorage crammed into the yacht's saloon because of the heavy rain outside.  Delicious pizzas were being made by the host and eaten as soon as they had been put out.  Our tiredness from the long passage faded away after a couple of beers, and we were please to have some new company and conversation.  Most of the other boats there had arrived at the Gambiers via Easter and Pitcairn islands and it was interesting to hear their crew's stories about these isolated outposts.  Everyone seemed to have a nightmare with the weather, so we didn't feel too bad about our slow passage!


It rained so much on our first night that we manage to top up both our water tanks, all our Gerry cans, and even the kettle and coffee pot!  We had a leisurely first morning, eating pancakes for brunch and drinking rainwater coffee.  It was a great feeling to finally be able to relax after so many days at sea, though the strong wind and unsettled weather kept us worrying about Rahula's anchor.  We were in a lovely spot, sheltered by a reef on one side and a tall mountain on the other.  The capital of the Gambiers, Rikitea, was wrapped around the bay at the foot of the mountain, and was made up of one long street with only 2-3 houses on either side.  Most of the houses were simply designed flat packed affairs made of plywood and corrugated iron.  At the top of the street was a large church made of coral stone, which stood black and imposing over the village, a grand monument to the lives that were lost building it.  There were large trees, bushes and beautiful flowers everywhere, and it seemed you could plant anything here and it would grow.  As we wondered through the village everybody smiled and said hello and when we asked about buying some of the fruit growing on the trees in their gardens they all said we could take all we wanted.  One guy even gave us a ladder so that we could pick the fruit we couldn't reach!  As I had been craving fruit since we ate our last banana nearly 3 weeks before, we returned to Rahula with armfuls of grapefruit, breadfruit, and bananas.  This became a regular feature of our walks in the Gambiers; I always carried some plastic bags to carry all that we could forage, as it seemed that the locals had more than they could eat.  Everywhere we went I searched the trees and bushes for fruit, and we ended up accumulating wild mangos, oranges, limes and chilies.  James always took his machete on these walks, and when we got thirsty we would search for fallen coconuts that he would crack open so that we could drink the milk.  The first few attempts at getting into the coconut were more of a hack, maim, kill approach.  Then J saw a local do it, and refined his cracking skill, getting it down to a fine art, complete with a little channel for a juice to flow down.  We also couldn't suss how to get at the huge bunches of bananas hanging from the trees, and when James tried to climb a tree to get at the fruit the whole tree came down…  We since learnt that is how you get bananas - each tree only yields one bunch of fruit.  We got some vegetables from a small Chinese man who kept an allotment up the hill behind the village.  We had to walk up there a few times before we found him, but it was worth it for the tasty fresh offerings he sold to us.


It was lucky that all the fruit was free, as everything else was very expensive.  There were a few small shops in the village, mainly selling canned and frozen food at extortionate prices.  A dozen eggs cost £5, beer was £2 a can (I nearly cried/swapped A for a six-pack! J) and cereal was £10 a box!  We bought the bare essentials (I couldn't convince her that beer was an essential… J), glad that we still had a cabin full of cheap tins from Panama to get through.  Every time I looked at the prices I wondered how the locals could afford to pay them.  The main industry in The Gambiers is pearl farming, and there were the odd signs of affluence, such as everyone driving around in smart new 4x4s and having satellite TV, but there was no evidence of the large income required just to pay for basic food items.  This was the first place we had been to that was more expensive than the UK, and we finally saw the high cost of living in Paradise.  The high price of even staple ingredients forced us to do one of the most disgusting jobs we have faced so far on this trip.  While I was reaching for something in the pantry one day I noticed something moving in our large vat of rice.  Closer inspection revealed that our rice stock (about 10KG) had become a home for a colony of weevils (I call them protein… J).  Luckily the rice was in a sealed container, so the little critters did not spread to the flour or pasta stockpile.  Ordinarily we'd have thrown the whole lot away and bought some more, but out here there was no way we could get that much rice, and what we could get would be expensive.  So we spent a horrid hour sifting through the rice spoonful by spoonful and picking out the weevils we found.  Another cruising task ticked…


The weather remained bad for the whole of our first weekend in Rikitea.  It was cold, rainy and windy, and for the first time since we left Europe we had to get out our duvet and winter fleeces.  We spent a whole day onboard the boat pottering around doing odd jobs when it was far too miserable to go outside.  Some of our gathered fruit had started to spoil so we made banana jam and banana bread to use it up.  On our second night in Rikitea we were invited to dinner onboard Dalai, the beautiful yacht built by its French owners whom we met in the Galapagos.  They had caught two huge tunas before arriving, and needed help eating them.  We were more than happy to oblige, offering some of our gathered fruit in return!  We were also invited for breakfast on Migration to help celebrate Alene's actual birthday.  Being an American boat they served waffles with various deliciously sticky toppings, which was a real treat for us.  We returned all this kind hospitality a few days later inviting the Migration and Dalai crews onboard Rahula for sundowners.  As we didn't have anything to serve with the drinks, James made some crisps from the breadfruit we had gathered.  They were delicious, and he received lots of compliments, beaming as he dished out the recipe!


One of the must do tasks on Mangareva is to climb Mount Duff, the tallest peak on the island at 1455 ft, which we decided to do with Bruce and Alene from Migration.  We had been warned that the trail up to the peak was badly marked, and it was easy to get lost so we were careful to spot the markings on the trees.  As soon as we turned off the main road onto the trail we found ourselves in thick undergrowth surrounded by trees whose branches crossed each other in long lines.  The path took us under, over and through these branches, and we soon broke out into small ferns and tall bushes.  A few hundred meters further up we found ourselves in the midst of a tall pine forest, the trees rising upwards straight as a ruler and the floor covered in a carpet of pine needles.  Here we lost the markings for the trail and despite hunting around for ages we could not locate the path.  We decided upwards was the best way to go, hoping to cross the path again further up.  It was difficult to get our bearings as we could not see anything through the canopy.  We made good progress while we were in the pine forest, but further up the undergrowth increased and we started trampling though brambles and tall bushes.  As the undergrowth became thicker James got his machete out and went ahead to slice a path through the bushes.  He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and his arms and legs became covered in scratches from the thorns and burrs.  After what seemed like forever we reached the top of the incline we were walking up and finally got a view across the island.  We realised that we had ended up in a saddle between the island's two peaks, and still had a long way to go to get to Mount Duff.  We carried on hacking our way towards the peak, catching occasional glimpses of it through the canopy which spurred us on.  Finally we broke out of the trees and arrived at the layer of tall grass growing along the peak.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but there was a strong cold wind blowing, and we had to bend into the wind to continue the climb.  The final 100m to the top were very steep, and the sheer drop on either side combined with the strong wind upsetting my balance meant I was fighting my vertigo to make it all the way up.  The peak was no more than 5m diameter, and we sat on a rock to admire the view.  Boy, was it worth it!  The whole island of Mangareva stretched out to the north, and we could see Rikitea and all the yachts at anchor (all five of them… J) in the bay to the east.  Beyond were shallower bays filled with Oyster beds and houses on stilts in the middle of the reefs.  On the west side of the island we could clearly see all the coral reefs and deeper channels providing safe passage between them.  The water was a bright turquoise over the reefs and a deep cobalt blue in the deeper sections.  Beyond Mangareva we could see the other islands making up the Gambiers group and the outer reef providing shelter from the ocean swell.  There was nothing else beyond; from here we could see what we knew - we were on a little pocket of land in the middle of a very large ocean.  It took us so long to climb up that we had to rush back down in order to make it back to the main road before dark.  Luckily we managed to find the path on the way down so it was an easy descent.


Despite all the rainwater we collected we still did not have enough to do all the laundry we had accumulated while at sea.  There was no Laundromat in the village, but we had been told of a German sailor who had settled on the island and who would do favours for yachts in return for a bottle of booze.  We had some cheap whisky onboard we had bought for just such an eventuality, so we went to visit Fritz (yep, his real name! J) hoping he would let us use his washing machine.  On meeting him we found that he had obviously been doing a lot of favours, as he was short of a few marbles… His English was pretty basic, and we managed to communicate in a mixture of French, German and English (as well as the international flailing-arms sign language of the terminally drunk…J).  He agreed to do our laundry, though there was later some confusion over payment - he asked for rope, and when I turned up with some of coils he laughed and said he meant Rum (easy mistake to make…J)!


Half way through our stay in Rikitea the weekly supply ship came in to the port.  The whole village suddenly buzzed with activity as cars started to collect around the dock and the village launch was put in the water.  It was like a festival day with lots of people milling about clutching receipts for their orders delivered by the ship, other people sitting under trees with coolers selling drinks and food, and kids running around playing.  We were told the only way to buy diesel was directly from the ship, so we joined the queue of customers to find out how.  At first we thought we would have to buy a 200 litre drum of diesel, which would practically sink Rahula, but we soon discovered we could fill our Gerry cans direct from the ship's ready use store.  The diesel that came out was the purest we have ever seen, though obviously also the priciest (but not too bad, as an aside: the diesel in the Pacific has an awful reputation for being 50% water, 20 % dirt and about 30% very old diesel so we were pleasantly surprised by this stuff.  According to the captain it had apparently been run through a separator and filtered prior to being sold, as it was coming straight from the ship's day tanks!, still I haven't actually fed it to 'Smokey Joe' yet so we'll see …J)  The following day the shops were full of boxes of goodies unloaded from the ship, and we rushed in to buy some frozen meat before it had all gone (it was the first fresh meat we had since Galapagos…).


On our last full day in Mangareva we decided to try to cycle around the island.  We made a packed lunch and went ashore with our small folding bikes.  The road north looked flatter, so we set off along the coast, stopping occasionally to admire the view or examine a fruit tree (more like to load me up with another hundred weight of fruit! J).  A few miles into our cycle James' bike got a puncture, and we had to stop to borrow a spanner.  Unfortunately our French didn't stretch to having a conversation with the family supplying the spanner, but they all came out to watch James change the tyre and smile at our ridiculously small bikes.  Puncture repaired, we continued on our way, soon arriving at our first steep hill.  The road became worse the further we got from Rikitea, and we discovered that our small, gearless, bikes could not make it up the hill with pedal power.  So we walked up the hills, and freewheeled fast down the other side.  As we passed one of the isolated houses a dog decided to accompany us, and stayed with us for nearly a quarter of the way round.  James got quite attached, and even gave him a name… (Yeoman, RN Navigators will understand… J) We collected more fruit, until our (read "James"…J) bikes could carry no more, and filled a water bottle with coconut milk.  On the west side of the island we came across huge oyster beds in a bay, and the premises of the Tahiti Pearls factory.  We tried to go in to have a look, but were soon escorted back out by a large burly man who didn't understand our requests for a tour.  Sure sign that we were off the beaten track as there wasn't even a visitor's centre!  About 3/4 of the way round we came to a fork in the road, that either took us over a saddle back to Rikitea or continued to follow the coast.  The coast road did not look very well used, and we wondered if it continued all the way around.  There was only one way to find out, so we chose the path less travelled.  The road became a dirt track and after a particularly steep hill ended in the front gate of a farm…  So we turned around and headed back to Rikitea, proud to have made it nearly all the way round on our silly little bikes.  It was a great day out, and a nice way of seeing how the island's landscape varied.


After exactly a week in Rikitea we decided to move on and explore some of the other islands in the group before heading north to the Tuamotus.  We wanted to visit a small island we had seen on the way in through the pass which looked nice.  The weather forecast for the weekend was benign, with little or no wind, so there was no point in heading out to sea.  We said goodbye to all our new friends and started weighing anchor around 11am, ensuring that we had the sun overhead for navigating through the reefs.  This was when we discovered that our anchor chain had become wrapped around a submerged fishing buoy.  We tried to free the chain, but in the end James had to don his snorkeling gear and dive down to untangle the mess of ropes and chain.  It took an hour and about 30 duck dives by James to free the boat.  We marked the submerged buoy with a large water bottle so that other yachts know its location and then finally set sail.  In the time it took us to untangle and weigh the anchor the weather had changed from a balmy, sunny morning to an overcast afternoon with heavy rain clouds all around.  We decided to continue anyway, trusting the weather forecast (oh how foolish the skipper was not to trust his instincts…J). 


It took us a couple of hours to get to Taravai, and as we approached the reef bordering the bay we started looking for a channel.  We motored up and down looking for changes in the water's colour which indicates depth and the presence of coral heads.  Eventually we found the pass, and anchored in a lovely spot in the lee of a small island, but with coral reefs all around.  As there was no wind and none forecast we weren't too worried, and were actually looking forward to snorkeling the reefs on our doorstep.  It started to rain heavily, and we collected water and waited for the rain to stop. Then suddenly the wind increased from nearly nothing to 40 knots in the blink of an eye.  The wind generator went crazy and we both sat bolt upright, shocked by the sudden change in conditions. We could barely see the shore through the heavy rain but we both quickly realised that the anchor was dragging.  James started the engine and put it in full ahead, only just managing to maintain our position against the strong wind.  I rushed forward to deal with the anchor, but there was no way we could drive up to collect it and re-lay it.  We had dragged so far so quickly we didn't have enough room to set our second anchor, so James decided to ditch the first anchor and try to drive alongside a steel boat that was swinging on a mooring in the bay.  It was our only hope of stopping Rahula foundering on one of the reefs all around.  We dumped the anchor and 100m of line, taking care to mark it with a buoy, then James skillfully managed to drive Rahula across the bay to the other yacht and bring us alongside.  It was an amazing act of seamanship, and saved our boat (aar shucks, she's got me blushing now….J).  We tied up to the steel boat with as many lines as we could fit, tied Rahula to the buoy, and laid an anchor.  The wind and rain were still raging all around, and it was getting dark, but for now we were safe.  As we were securing everything a small dinghy came out to see us with a figured hunched inside against the rain and the wind.  It was the French owner of the steel boat, who lived on the island.  Once we explained what had happened he was happy for us to hang from his mooring for the night, and we were incredibly grateful, as there was no way we could anchor in the dark.  As soon as we were happy neither boat was going anywhere and the wind had subsided we retired inside to warm up and dry off.  We were just coming down from the adrenaline after dinner and starting to relax when I noticed a dark shape moving among our fly curtains.  James just managed to say "it’s a rat!"  before I squealed and jumped on the seat like all good ladies should!  James got his sea boots on and got a truncheon (well, bilge pump handle!) and we spent half an hour chasing down the rodent, finding it scurrying across the galley.  James killed it, and we spent the rest of the night with all the doors and windows shut in case any of the other inhabitants of the steel boat next door fancied a holiday on Rahula…  The final disaster of the day was that we discovered that the wind generator regulator had been damaged by the sudden change in wind strength, and so the wind generator no longer charged the batteries.  As I started to write my diary for this nightmare day I realised where we had gone wrong.  It was Friday, 13th June.  The superstition says never sail on a Friday, and I am sure it doubly applies for Friday 13th!  We have certainly learnt our lesson!


We had a restless night alongside the steel boat as more squalls passed overhead and the wind shifted, swinging us out of our sheltered position.  We were still up at first light eager to recover our anchor and get away from the rat infested yacht.  The following morning dawned calm and still, exactly in accordance with the forecast and we easily managed to detach Rahula from the steel yacht and re anchor in a better spot.  Once we were happy Rahula was settled and the weather was not going to change we headed ashore to seek out the owner of the yacht and thank him for having his boat in the bay.  Our book said the island was no longer inhabited, and as we stepped ashore we came across a large gate and a well kept church.  We wandered through the deserted village, noticing that a couple of the houses were actually still occupied.  Eventually we came across the Frenchman's house and met Didi and his wife, who thankfully spoke good English.  They invited us in for a coffee and we spent a pleasant afternoon chatting and recounting sailing horror stories.  They had been sailing around the world when they arrived at the Gambiers and decided to stay.  Six years later their boat has fallen into disrepair and as there are no facilities to fix it here, they leave it in the bay.  They lived in a simple house on the beach, with a small allotment and a couple of fishing dinghies.  They seemed content with their isolation, though grateful for our visit and some new conversation.  We returned to Rahula pleased to have met them, and having examined the weather forecast again decided that it was time to leave the Gambiers while we still had a smile on our face and before anything else went wrong…