Weatherbound in Paradise: Bora Bora & Maupiti
30 July - 7 August 2008: Bora Bora & Maupiti, French Polynesia
We arrived at Bora Bora by late afternoon after a great sail from Tahaa. We motored through the pass in the surrounding reef with huge waves crashing onto the shallow coral and the sound of breaking surf all around. Safely inside the calm of the lagoon we started looking for a good place to anchor, usually indicated by a large cluster of yachts. As most of the options involved anchoring in deep water, which we hate, we headed to the south side of the island and anchored on the edge of the reef in 3.5m of water over sand. The water was so clear we could see the anchor as it dropped, and watch it dig into the sand and set. We were again in beautiful tropical surroundings, and the only thing that marred this great spot was the wind howling through the anchorage, creating a short chop on the water. Delicate Dawn came and joined us an hour or so later, sailing into the anchorage as their spare propeller was too slow to beat into the wind. Mat and Rose met up with a few old friends in the anchorage, and we were invited to join them to a party on a large catamaran. The catamaran, Desert Eagle, was owned by a friendly German family who lived in Namibia. The cockpit comfortably seated the 12 or so of us onboard and the interior was like something out of a Chelsea show home catalogue. We had a pleasant evening chatting and drinking far too much Panamanian wine… (Every cruiser we know stocked up with cheap Chilean wine which came in carton while in Panamas. The cartons are ideal for a boat, as unlike glass bottles they do not rattle and break and are lighter to carry. The wine tastes OK too. The wine is so common among cruisers that it is referred to by the brand [Clos], rather than as wine!)
During the party Mat mentioned that Desert Eagle had a doughnut onboard which they can tow behind their dinghy. Various drunken promises were made to get it out the following morning and go for a spin. After an uncomfortable night at anchor due to the strong wind we were woken early in the morning by the sound of rushing water and a gleeful scream. Peeking out of the hatch I spotted Mat clinging on to the doughnut for dear life while it was dragged around the anchorage, bouncing on the waves. He was smiling (or grimacing!) so it can't have been as bad as it looked (though he suffered for the rest of the week from sore arms from holding on so tight!). Then it was our turn and the dinghy came over to offer us a ride on the doughnut. It was far too early for James and I who hadn't had our morning coffee (or maybe I'm just getting old… J), but Steve jumped straight out of bed into his swimming trunks and onto the doughnut. He loved it!
We had a look at the weather forecast that morning and saw that the wind was going to increase over the next few days making the anchorage even more uncomfortable than it already was, so we decided to move to somewhere with a bit more shelter. We weighed anchor after breakfast and followed the coast north looking at the various options. The first one was a mooring near a restaurant called Bloody Mary's, but all the moorings were taken, and the anchorage was pretty deep. We explored various bays and they were all too deep, unless we anchored very close to the shore (the bottom rises very steeply in these volcanic islands). Eventually we came to the Bora Bora Yacht Club, and found the bay practically empty, very sheltered, with several free moorings floating forlornly on the surface. We grabbed one quick, and radio'ed Delicate Dawn to come and take one of the others before the secret was out. As it turned out we had chosen a good spot; the BBYC is actually a restaurant, and had some bad press among cruisers for being very expensive with bad service. It was now under new management, and though the restaurant hadn't yet been reopened, the bar served reasonably priced (for French Polynesia!) drinks, the moorings were cheap (5000 CFP for a week), and the new owners were incredibly friendly and helpful. It was also much closer to the main town that Bloody Mary's, and we'd often get a ride in with one of the YC employees, sometimes getting a lift in the owner's bright yellow, open top Jeep, which was very cool (I want one! J). As soon as word got out we were joined by many more boats until the place was buzzing with activity. The BBYC had a barbeque area around the back that they let cruisers use as long as they buy drinks at the bar. It was in use nearly every night, and became a social meeting spot. We had a BBQ there one night with many of our friends, and it was great to be able to share a meal without the hassle of entertaining onboard. (They also had a fine family of hounds with two really cool puppies that had us all, even Amelia, wanting to take them home… J)
Bora Bora was described by Captain Cook as "the pearl of the Pacific" and is now expensive holiday destination where the rich and famous tousle for beach space with honeymooners blowing all their savings. The small islands on the reef surrounding the main island are covered with hotels all offering a glimpse of paradise from the deck of a room on stilts on the water front. The rooms are all identically thatched and crowded along a small space in front of the hotel's main buildings, but at least they are in keeping with the atmosphere of the place and are not big high rise concrete blocks with lots of balconies. We expected the main town to reflect the exclusive holiday destination feel of the hotels and be preened and full of expensive jewellery and duty free shops (as we saw in Barbados). However, the town was a dusty street with no pavement, with a few small souvenir shops scattered between hardware shops and supermarkets. It was obvious that most tourists do not venture out of their all-inclusive hotels unless on a guided tour, so there was no need to tart the place up for visitors. We ambled aimlessly through the town, balking at the price of everything and wondering what to do over the next few days while we waited for the weather to improve. Hiring a car was far too expensive, so we decided to rent bicycles and explore the island on two wheels.
The following day five of us (me, James, Steve, Mat and Rose) set off on large old fashioned bikes (why did I have to have the girls' one, hurrumph… J) to see the sights of Bora Bora. We cycled along the flat coastal road, fighting against the wind in some places, and stopping at various points of interest marked on out basic tourist map. The first marked spot was Bloody Mary's (it was a free, sponsored map…), and we stopped to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out that the restaurant is a bit like the Hard Rock Café, and advertises heavily during American sports events. There was a board outside displaying pictures of all the famous people who had eaten at the restaurant, and a shop selling Bloody Mary souvenirs. It was a tried and tested marketing formula, but it worked its magic on us and we decided to book a table for that Saturday night. The restaurant offered free pick ups and drop offs, so we didn't even have to worry about how to get half way around the island without our trusty rented bikes. Having taken all the obligatory pictures under the Bloody Mary's sign we cycled onwards, and found the more exclusive "artisan" shops selling "authentic" Polynesian wood carvings and jewellery. On the southern side of the island we started coming across some of the hotels, complete with white beaches made of imported sand (as a volcanic island Bora Bora does not have any natural beaches). In another village we found a small house with a tattooing sign outside. Steve decided this was the place to have his tattoo done, and after lots of unwanted advice and suggestions from us he chose a design and we left him in the hands of the tattooist (I got a very traditional, wonderfully detailed sailfish on my back. Ignore this bit Mum! S).
As we cycled around the island we were treated with stunning views which made it clear why the island has been dubbed the "most beautiful" in the Pacific (or is it just clever marketing?!). Mount Otemanu rises steeply in the centre of the island and dominates the view from every angle. The lagoon surrounding the island is dark blue, but closer into the coast and around the outer reef the water changes colour to a pale turquoise as it becomes shallower. The turquoise water is studded with the occasional brown dots indicating the colourful coral beneath the surface. Much of the surrounding reef has built up enough to form small coral islands covered in palm trees and with long coral sand beaches, which surround the main island in a ring like a pearl necklace. All the geography of French Polynesia was here in camera sized pieces - a lush volcanic island, beautiful lagoon, and isolated coral atolls.
On the eastern side of the island we felt the full force of the strong winds that have been keeping us in port. The lagoon was a mass of white froth, and even the tourists were clinging tightly to their beach towels. We came across a sign stating "Musee de Marine" and decided to stop to investigate. It turned out to be someone's private collection of model boats he had built himself since he was 17 years old. The old Frenchman welcomed us into his small museum and proudly stood aside as we admired his beautifully crafted models. His chosen vessels were a real Who's Who of sailing, and included many famous sailing ships and yachts from the 18th - 20th centuries, such as HMS Bounty, the Kon Tiki raft and Bernard Motissier's yacht Joshua (my personal favourite, the guy and his boat are a legend….J). He was currently working on the Cutty Sark, and we were pleased to hear that the Cutty Sark foundation sent him full plans of the ship. (I started a model of the Cutty Sark when I was about 14 and never finished it. I got bogged down in the mast and rigging before the summer when much less tedious distractions came along. I don't think the Frenchman will have the same problem now! .J) Unfortunately he said HMS Victory was too complicated for his old eyes!
Eventually Saturday night came and we got dressed up in all our finery, ready to experience all that Bloody Mary's promised. We stood outside the Yacht Club 10 minutes before our allotted pick up time, waiting to be whisked away to a great meal out (we hadn't eaten out since Tahiti, so this was a big deal!). 45 minutes later our ride still hadn't shown up, and we were getting hungry and impatient. We tried to call the restaurant, but received no reply. An hour later we were distinctly fed up, so when the BBYC owner suggested another restaurant down the road we jumped at the offer - why should Bloody Mary's get our money when they can't even be bothered to pick us up as promised? We were driven to the restaurant (called St James) by one of the YC employees (who also ran Jet-Ski tours and made the foam for the local Night Club's foam parties but we won't hold that against him….J), and were dropped off at a nice little French restaurant on a balcony overlooking the water. We sat and had drinks in a nicely decorated lounge while perusing the menu and were taken to our table when we were ready to order. The food was excellent, and priced the same as an average restaurant in London (£40 per head). It was a really nice evening, much more civilised than a meal in an American burger joint, and was topped off by a lift back to the Yacht Club in the infamous yellow Jeep!
Bora Bora was used as an American military base during the Second World War, and the island is littered with left over relics. A short walk from the BBYC were some WWII guns perched on a high vantage point overlooking the only pass into the lagoon. We climbed up the uneven road leading to the guns, and were overtaken by a battered Land Rover taking tourists on a "safari tour" though the "jungle" of Bora Bora. The gun emplacements now seemed to be a favourite gathering spot for the island's teenagers, and they crowded around the concrete bunkers or climbed the guns while listening to music from their mobile phones. The guns were covered in graffiti written in Tippex, but otherwise seemed in pretty good condition considering their outdoor location. They were an interesting memento from the island's past, lying neglected on a hillside. Our tourist map showed the location of other guns around the coast, but we never managed to locate them. Further along the coast from the BBYC was another hike up to a vantage point, and we followed the steep road lined with fruit trees up the hill past traditional and modern houses. At the top was an artist's workshop where the colourful local wraps called parea were made. I couldn't resist buying one…
After a week in Bora Bora we were itching to get going. The weather was finally due to calm down and we were preparing to leave on Monday the 4th August. Then a heavy squall passed over, and we decided to wait another day and let the heavy seas die down a little. Then as we were saying goodbye to everyone we got an offer we couldn't refuse - our friends Randy and Hideko invited James and Steve to go diving. After much deliberation (about a nano-second in my head, a lot longer on the surface to avoid the wrath of A… J) we accepted, and then the offer was enhanced to sailing Randy and Hideko's huge catamaran, Swinging on a Star, around to the east side of the island and going diving and snorkeling there. That way I could come along too. We accepted, hoping that we would be back in time to sail that evening (but really we all knew we were now sailing the following day, which was cool; it was worth it to catch up with Randy and Hideko as they will be spending a while in French Polynesia so we will be leaving some really good friends behind… J). We had a great day onboard Swinging on a Star, anchoring off a beautiful coral motu, thundering off to the dive site in a huge powerful dinghy (which was still being swamped by the chop in the lagoon, meaning constant bailing with a mask by Hideko!! J) and swimming among beautiful coral teeming with marine life. It turned cloudy when we were returning to the boat and we were all freezing after spending so long in the water. When we arrived back at SoaS Randy suggested I go and have a shower to warm up and I luxuriated in the running hot water pouring out of the huge shower head. I didn't want to get out, but I knew I had to save some hot water for the others… A few drinks later the sun started to set, and as we started gathering our stuff to head back to Rahula, Randy invited us to stay for dinner and said the magic words - steak frites. James and Steve's eyes lit up, and we just couldn't refuse… So we stayed the night, and had a wonderful evening with great food and great company (Don't forget to mention the ice cream with freshly made butterscotch sauce and 12 year old malt whisky! I wanted to swap boats! S-- so did I….J). Early the following morning it really was time to stop partaking in Randy and Hideko's generous hospitality and so Randy whizzed us back to poor neglected Rahula. We quickly got the boat ready, and sailed by 8am, before anything else detained us in Bora Bora!
After a week of strong winds which kept us in port we sailed into a windless Pacific (totally against what the weather forecast said, but typical of this ocean - either too much or too little wind!). We were determined to get going so we persevered, motoring West as Bora Bora receded behind. We had 1000 miles to go to the next island of Niue, and Steve had a flight to catch from Tonga at the end of the month. However, an updated weather forecast showed that the calm was due to last a couple of days, and we didn't fancy using up all our diesel so early in the passage. A few of the boats who left Bora Bora at the same time as us decided to stop in Maupiti to wait for the wind, and once we had checked the pass conditions (it has a fearsome and probably not deserved reputation….J) we decided to do the same. We motored up to the narrow pass, lining up carefully with the transit beacons while waves thundered onto the reef on either side. Once inside the pass the seas calmed down and the lagoon opened up before us, revealing another beautiful piece of paradise. It was like Bora Bora, but without the hotels and on a smaller scale. We anchored near a motu on the edge of the pass, in water so clear we could see the anchor 10m down. We spent the afternoon snorkeling and walking around the motu collecting coconut water, then had a relaxed BBQ in the evening. In the morning we walked around the main island foraging for fruit and managed to acquire bananas, breadfruit, limes and grapefruit. By lunchtime the wind was due to fill in, so we reluctantly weighed anchor and headed out into the open ocean, finally leaving French Polynesia and continuing our journey westwards across the Pacific.