Snow Leopard
Sat 31 Jul 2010 00:47

French Polynesia, the Tuamotu archipelago


We left Nuku Hiva at noon for the 540 mile trip to Kauehi in the Tuamotus in a brisk trade wind. We had decided to have a nice gentle sail down, taking 3 days, so put two reefs in the main. However Snow Leopard had other thoughts. Throughout the first day we tramped along averaging 10 knots, so that evening we rolled a bit of jib in to slow down. Oh no, Snow Leopard was having none of it and continued averaging 10 knots. We were comfortable so let the boat continue through the moonlit night.


To get into the lagoons of the Tuamotu islands you must arrive at the entry pass at approximately slack water, as most have incoming tides of 4 knots and out-going tides of up to 10 knots. As you can imagine these currents cause large rips, with breakers and standing waves and we certainly wanted an easy passage into our first lagoon.


However having covered 242 in the first 24 hours we were left in a dilemma. We either had to continue averaging 10 knots all the way or slow down to an average of 4 knots and have a third night at sea as first anticipated.


We thought we’d give it a go but it did mean driving the boat hard, with several sail changes, and what should have been a relaxing passage became rather tense as we ploughed on and on at speed.


The wind dropped light for a few hours during the second night and our plans looked unattainable, but back came the wind, with the addition of some nasty squalls and we finally arrived off the entrance to the lagoon just before low water. There were still standing waves, but they were manageable and we butted through into the lagoon.



My image of these South Pacific lagoons was somewhat awry. I had always thought of them as small, gentle anchorages (once through the pass!) surrounded by palm trees, with a short row ashore to little fishing villages. Somehow the true size of these atolls had evaded me, even though I had the charts and the pilot books. Kauehi is a medium sized atoll, but was still 7 miles in diameter. When we reached the anchorage outside the village of Tearavero, we had motored for over an hour from the entrance and you couldn’t see the other side. It was more like an inland sea than a lake!


The anchorage was about half a mile from the village, and it was shallow with many coral heads waiting to snag your anchor. Fortunately when we arrived our friends Chris and Lorraine on Gryphon 2, were already there and able to advise us on the best place to drop the hook.




The anchorage at Kauehi


The High Street, Kauehi City


Kauehi has a total population of about 200, all in the village of Tearavero. There is an old church, and town hall, built of coral bricks, one shop and that’s it, but a very neat and tidy, pretty village, which rather grandly proclaims itself ‘Kauehi City’!


The people were very friendly in a quiet way, but after a couple of days started to chat more and more. One day, as we were going for a walk, the town’s mayor stopped and asked where we were going. “I’m going to paradise. Do you want to come?” he asked in French. We both looked at him somewhat non-plussed, until he explained that he had a pearl farm called Paradise, and all now made sense. So we hopped into his truck and bounced our way first along the road, then between the palm trees to the pearl farm. Not much was going on at the time, just a bit of maintenance, but he explained that he produces a million and a half black pearls a year, all exported to China and Japan. He also owned a large chunk of the island where the coconuts are turned into copra and exported via Tahiti, plus he owned the village shop and the ‘café’ at the newly constructed airstrip, which receives two flights a week from Papeete, Tahiti. Bizarrely, bread and eggs are flown in once a week, and then distributed at the shop, so if you want bread you have to be there on Saturday morning for your week’s supply.

Kauehi church, built of coral bricks







Shell chandelier


This is Andre. I so appreciated his fine sense of fashion that I had to have a photo. You’ve seen the shirts – now the shorts. I really have gone tropo!





Next day, someone who cannot be named, sidled up to us and said he was going to collect some tern eggs and would give us some that evening. The extremely furtive way we were asked, and then the clandestine handover later, suggested that this is probably a highly illegal undertaking. However we withheld our moral scruples, partly because of the generosity of giving us the eggs and partly to see what they were like, and accepted 10 eggs. We invited the crew of another catamaran over to taste a tern egg omelette, which, I must say was delicious.


Hum! The less said the better – but delicious


Onshore, the town were putting on a ‘heiva’, rather like a village fete at home, except lasting three weeks! A number of stands had been erected around the local football pitch (coral not grass, so not conducive to sliding tackles), and beautifully decorated with woven palm leaves. There were catering stands, selling ice cream and candy floss, or chow mien or steak and chips, stands selling palm leaf hats and jewellery made of shells, and other stands with games, such as a dart board, table football and a coconut shy! Every evening there were sporting competitions. The petanque (boules) was keenly contested as was the volleyball. All this on an island with only 200 people!


We and the other visiting yachtsmen were welcomed openly, and given cake and an extraordinary pink drink which, I think contained grenadine. There was no alcohol!


The sign was put up especially for us visiting yachties


The Heiva site with committee all dressed in green


All smiles in Heiva disco hut!


Never complain about the quality of a grass pitch


Us yachties at the Heiva. The devious looking man in the white shirt is the mayor. Say no more!


Lucy with ‘Madam Mayor’, the shop owner, on her birthday


This place has aspirations – watch out New York


We stayed in Kauehi a week and it was a lovely introduction to the Tuamotus. Things have obviously changed big time in the last 10 years, especially since the building of the airstrip. Mobile phones and satellite TV are the norms. The village had far better street lighting than North Boarhunt at home, but the people remain friendly in a modest way.



That cannot be said of the next island we visited, Fakarava. This is the second largest of the Tuamotus, and the lagoon is 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.  That’s a circumference greater than the Isle of Wight, to put it in perspective. Whilst the lagoons are huge the islands (motus) surrounding them are perilously insignificant. Even at Rotavoa village the island is no more than 400 metres wide and 3 metres high (not including palm trees of course). One wonders and fears what global warming will do to this oh-so fragile environment. Talking to Enoha at his delightful lagoon-side restaurant, he had noted a 10 cm increase in the water level in the last 8 years. What will be here in 50 years? Not a lot unless the movers and shakers of this world pull their fingers out and actually do something rather than just talk, talk, talk.


That pass into the lagoon is wide and easy although the strong tides still cause breakers, which give the helmsman a good soaking!


This island has always been visited by many more tourists, by air and boat (they even get small cruise ships into the lagoon, and the people (about 1000) are very blasé about visitors to their island.


Main road, Rotavoa, Fakarava. Note heavy traffic


The anchorage, Rotavoa, Fakarava. If they all look the same there’s a reason for that!




The anchorage contained about 14 yachts, including a number of charter boats, up from Tahiti. Although sheltered from the prevailing wind, the anchorage was prone to a swell from the south which was beam-on to the yachts causing them to roll uncomfortably (even us!!!). The weather continued to be windy with big rain squalls, as it had been since we reached the Tuamotus.


One of the principle reasons for coming to Fakarava is for the diving, especially along the two passes into the lagoon, which teem with fish and lots and lots of sharks! Now, I’m not a fan of sharks. Everybody around here says they are harmless (well they would wouldn’t they?) but I’ve never been keen to meet the shark who proves to be the exception to the rule, especially as we are now talking big sharks like hammerheads and tiger sharks. However I reckoned that in a group it would cut down the chances of me being the victim so I was prepared to give it a go. Unfortunately the bad weather had stirred up the bottom and the visibility was so poor that diving was off the menu temporarily.


Instead we had the delights of the World Cup final and a total eclipse of the sun to keep us amused. Unfortunately they occurred at precisely the same time, which I feel was very inconsiderate of the World Cup planners in South Africa, not to take account of the Tuamotu islanders’ situation. Well as you know, Spain won the world Cup and it was cloudy throughout most of the eclipse. C’est la vie!


Given that the weather showed no sign of improving, (in fact it was forecast to get windier), and given the rather dull atmosphere in Fakarava, we headed 40 miles north-west to the island of Toau.



We sailed up to Anse Amyot on the north coast. It looks like a pass into the lagoon, but is in fact a cul-de-sac, with the entrance cut off from the lagoon by a shallow reef, covered with fish traps.


These belong to the one family who live here, headed by the effervescent Valentine and her hard-working, jack-of all-trades husband Gaston. They have laid a number of moorings for visiting yachts, which is just as well as there is not a great deal of room to swing at anchor and the bottom is foul with big coral heads.


There was only one boat there when we arrived, ‘Gryfon 2’ again, and it was good to see Chris and Lorraine again. We were followed in soon after by another British boat ‘Sara 2’. We had first met John and Chris on ‘Sara 2’ in the San Blas islands in Panama, and had bumped into them several times since. Actually they had to follow us from Fakarava to Toau as we had all their food! Their fridge had broken down and we have all their perishable food in our fridge, so if they want to eat they have to follow!


The next day was July 14th, Bastille Day, and a day of great celebration all over French Polynesia. We had been anticipating being somewhere here we could enjoy the local celebrations – traditional dancing, singing etc. – instead we are at a tiny motu on Toau with a current population of 4 plus 6 visiting British yachtsmen! Still the day started well when Chris and I went off to catch lobster with Gaston in his wooden pirogue (complete with 150hp outboard. We went a couple of miles down the reef then jumped out, swam ashore and started searching under rocks right on the edge of the reef. Rather, Gaston and his mate searched, Chris tried valiantly and I held the sack in anticipation. After about an hour we had about a dozen lobsters, which were to be the centre-piece of out feast to be cooked by Valentine and Gaston that evening.


We went ashore that evening for a fabulous meal of poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk, breaded parrot fish, chicken pieces and barbequed lobster. Valentine is a wonderful hostess regaling us with stories about life on a deserted island and of all the boats that have visited over the years. She has wonderful scrapbooks with contributions and photos of all the boats going back to 1983.




July 14th feast, Toau. Lobster caught that morning!


Gaston and Valentine, our delightful hosts


The scariest story was about the family’s survival of a cyclone that swept across the island in 1983. The waves came right over the island. Everything was destroyed. The chickens and pigs were lost as were all the family’s possessions. They survived by climbing into a concrete water cistern and staying in they until the storm had abated. They set to work the very next day to start rebuilding.


The wind really began to howl, and we began to worry about the strength of the moorings we were on and wondering if the line snapped would we have enough time before being swept onto the reef. Everything held firm in after two days of really windy weather things started to calm down.


Lucy and I decided to walk round the motu. Valentines’ three dogs accompanied us. Baloo, a rottweiler-cross amazed us with his fishing prowess. In the shallow lagoons surrounding the island he caught 4 parrot fish and a shark! His incisor teeth have been worn smooth by the skin of all the sharks he has caught. That has to be a first – a shark-hunting dog!


‘Baloo’ the shark hunter


Valentine and Gaston


Their little bit of paradise. Note the telephone box – it didn’t work!



After a few more days, walking, snorkelling (the Picasso fish is extraordinary), and generally lazing, we decided it was time to leave these strange islands (Billy Connolly on a visit a few years ago, names the Tuamotus ‘the kingdom of Niki - Naki - Noo – and somehow it is very appropriate.


So having paid our farewells to the friendliest of inhabitants, in the remotest corner of the world we set out for Tahiti, to Papeete and civilisation – ugh!