DIVE IN!We’ve been to the Gambier before, this little Archipelago on the southeastern edge of French Polynesia, clinging to the tropics by a few minutes of a degree. From any place to any other place in the Gambier it always seems to be six miles. Motus, reefs, mountain islands, all of French Polynesia on a small scale. Not a lot of people anywhere, basically one road on Magareva, no traffic lights, or stop signs or yield signs. No internet to speak of.
The business of the Gambier is pearls. Its cooler water temps and open lagoon are ideal for cultivating that one particular oyster which has captured the imagination of the world’s great connoisseur and collector ape, an irredeemable species with a bizarre obsession with grading things according to their level of perfection, and assigning abstract value. Toiling like 49’ers, cleaning the oysters, nurturing and counting them, performing delicate surgeries to create little iridescent balls of nacre.
We had lots of company in the Gambier this time around. Lots of time to go explore some of the places we missed the last. We thought it would feel like lots of time in general, but I guess Time doesn’t exactly work that way. First to arrive was Maddi, followed a few days later by Wyatt’s girlfriend, Heather. All passionate outdoors people, crazy about running over mountains and diving with sharks and mantas. Heather kept a diary of the fish she identified (as a scientifically trained person would). She and Wyatt would pour over Diana’s books at the end of their dives. Diana’s pretty good at this, but I’ve been slower remembering the names of (non-game) fish. One that Wyatt and Heather found that has stuck and is easy for me now is the Piano Fangblenny. Nice name for a fish with what sounds like a mean habit of eating other fishes scales. We had lots of music and card games for the rainy days. Maddi hooked a giant bonefish right off the shore in front of Eric’s. It charged her fly and then ripped into her backing. She landed the next one. Wyatt landed a nice fish there, too, a few before having eluded getting their picture taken by slipping off the hook at the very last second. We dove, exploring new places in the Gambier, had some gear trouble, and then got that fixed. We played volleyball in Taravai and climbed Mt Duff in the pouring rain. It felt quick (as almost everything seems to these days) but filled with memories.
The weather was unsettled during most our stay this year in the Gambier. Everyone says so. It’s a thing. We had great weather and we had rainy weather. We had calms that made it possible to swim with mantas at Ile Kamaka and spend a wonderful Sunday afternoon relaxing in the shallow water beach in front of Eric’s pearl farm. We also had the worse wind we have ever experienced at anchor, a glancing blow from a depression that plunged the barometer to the low 990’s. Top gusts of 54 knots and sustained winds of 40 knots. A proper gale. Other sailors certainly got tired of us commenting that it wasn’t like this last year.
Christmas day the festivities were held at Edouard and Denises, at the southern end of Taravai. We wore our hats from the Australs, and like everyone brought food to share. Herve supplied the pig for the roast (he introduced me to the doomed prisoner the day before) and Edouard made Tuamotuan-style bread on the fire from coconut heart and flour wrapped in leaves (delicious). We brought guitars and ukuleles and I backed up Maddi on few songs, then Wyatt came in. For me the best song of the afternoon was the one Wyatt and Maddi sang together “Wildermen.” It starts, “my brother and I”… but Wyatt sang “my sister and I.” They stopped and tried again, laughing when they each switched the line, and then on a third try got on with the song. Funny and relaxed, what a great afternoon! The song Maddi wrote for mother’s Day “Anywhere You Are” was also a big hit. We played the chorus a few extra times so everyone could sing along. After awhile, Herve brought out his Marquesan style ukulele, which confounded us at first because he’s left handed, though he hasn’t restrung the instrument to match, so he plays it upside down and backwards. It didn’t make it easier that here they use the do re mi system of notation in French Polynesia instead of A B C chords that we’re used to. But after a bit of mental gymnastics we were able to share some songs with him, too.
KAMAKA is a small, steep island on the south edge of the Gambier. Because the reef is submerged along this border of the archipelago the ocean swell is free to move in. There’s a patch of sand that great for anchoring (though watch out for a lost anchor on bottom about one third in from the east side), but the conditions have to be pretty calm for it to be comfortable. There is almost always a south swell breaking on the west side of the beach (in case you’re a surfer).
Taravai is a sort of sailors mecca in the Gambier. It’s a good anchorage in most normal weather even big southeast isn’t too bad. But the real attraction is Herve and Valerie. They live on this island with their son Ariki, the only child on the island. Herve’s uncle, Edouard and his wife Denise live at the other end. It’s kind of amazing in the 21st century to see such a gorgeous place so simply occupied. Gambier’s blessing for being enough off the beaten track and a place where sweaters maybe required in winter. On Sunday’s they put on a pot luck BBQ, usually chipping in some fish that Herve has speared and sailors bring food and drink to hang out, play petanque and volleyball. Hard to beat. Valerie greets newcomers with a warning not to beach their dink under the coconut tree which is tall and would be lethal if it let go a coconut as just the wrong moment. The games of volleyball are played with Taravai rules, which include a slightly lower than regulation net and an easy going vibe … Herve’s secret weapon, besides his wicked sense of humor, is the headshot. It never fails to unnerve the opposition. Valerie is a committed player, too, always giggling, saying “Fakarava!” when she misses. Herve calls her “my lady.” The games often persist until it is just too dark to see, so Diana had the idea to ask Wyatt to find a glow in the dark volleyball to bring along as a gift. It lights up when hit, and stays lit for some period of seconds. The first night we played until the only thing people could see was the ball.