First Round: Gambier 2019, with Maddi, Wyatt and Heather

 

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. 

And Tahitian dancing to round off the impromptu concert!

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).

Tehoto shared his island and told stories of being raised and homeschooled here. He now lives in Mangareva, but comes to tend to the place often.
Thanks Heather, for taking this group shot, but we’re sure missing HALEY!

 

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.

Lovely Humans ©MPS
The spectacular setting of many a volleyball game and Di’s mean calf pull at Herve and Valerie’s idyllic Taravai setting.

I’m working on adding some ‘Through the Lens’ shots from Maddi and Wyatt, so check back here soon!

 

 



 

Australs with Wyatt

In a calm but northeasterly breeze we decided to anchor on the west side of the island of Rurutu. The southwest swell wasn’t big and it was a pretty spot. The next morning the sea began to build with an eerie feeling as we lifted on long rollers at anchor and watched them break bigger and bigger onshore until it was pretty clear the dinghy pass there was no longer navigable. 

Still, it was a pretty day and we set sail to the south to see the rest of the island before heading for the small harbor on the NE side. Not far along we caught a small Yellowfin tuna, what Diana calls ‘the perfect size.’ Then as we approached the harbor we spotted whales and drifted for a while watching what seemed like two juvenile humpbacks playing, left behind as though reluctant to leave the tropical waters and join the rest who were already headed south to Antarctica. A last hurrah, for us too. It was calm and lovely and there was only one boat in the very small harbor (friends from the Gambier last season) when we ventured in and anchored, tying a long line to the wharf to keep from swinging. We were the 4th boat to check-in to Rurutu that year (in November!)~MS

The Australs lie a few hundred miles south of Tahiti, some just barely within the tropic of Capricorn, more remote islands like Rapa lie distinctly out of the tropics at 27 degrees south. We’re talking water temps below 70 degrees. Brrrrr. The weather is often challenging here and so these islands get few visitors. Intrepid tourists fly to Rurutu (where Wyatt met us) for the whales which winter around the island to raise their calves, but there aren’t enough visitors to support even one taxi. Still, whenever we needed to hitchhike, the first car would always stop to pick us up. 

Rurutu is a hybrid island, half lifted makatea (limestone from petrified coral) and half volcanic, caves with stalactites like the atoll Makatea in the Tuamotus, but also real peaks and steep rock faces. No lagoon. 

One day as we prepped for Wyatt’s arrival, a man swam by Allora and stopped to chat with us. The next day he appeared again, this time at the wharf with a pickup and three huge bunches of bananas, two giant squash and bucket of limes. These were gifts. Welcome to the true heart of Polynesian culture. We told him we could not possibly take three bunches of bananas, but he insisted. Obviously, he knew more about bananas that we ever will. They were timed perfectly to ripen one bunch at a time. Bananas for a month! A couple of days later two women showed up waving half of a tuna. We got one half and Charlotte and Pierre (the other sailboat here) got the other half. A gift again. We gave them what we could quickly scrap together, some cartons of juices, an uneven bargain indeed. 

Picture Rurutu, an island with a few moderate peaks, Wyatt with his trail running shoes running circles, mountain to mountain, with occasional breaks to explore limestone caves with his relatively more sedentary mom and dad. 

Rurutu grows coffee and strawberries. Yum!

We threw out a second anchor when the wind started blowing from the east northeast, and it got a little bouncy and rainy for a day or two, but nothing worrisome. Could have skipped the extra hook. A real northeast blow would not be good, but even twenty knots was fine in the small harbor. 

We sailed passed Tubuai, reluctant to miss out on it’s vegetable gardens, and burned a little diesel to make it to Raivavae before dark. Like Bora Bora without the tourists, jets skis and cruise ships. Dodgy weather keeps it that way, but it was fine for our short visit. Lychee nuts were in season and we were given bags full. 

There are bonefish in Raivavae. Wyatt and I spent the first afternoon fishing what looked like a classic flat. We caught Brassy Trevally, but saw not a single bonefish. The next day I decided to follow Diana’s advice and ask a local, and this woman very confidently pointed us to the unlikely looking shallows along the motu away from the “classic” flat. Wyatt spotted the first one a hundred feet down the beach and hooked the first one a hundred feet later. There were lots of fish, but they were very picky. It took a while to get the presentation right. 

There’s a point of sand that separates the classic flat and the long beach where the bones actually are. It’s a steep drop off and the trevally cruise the edge. We were having fun chasing those, Wyatt with popper, when a Giant Trevally (GT) swam up on the flat, in about two feet of water. I finally got a cast to it and it swirled on the fly, but didn’t hook up. It looked at the fly one more time, unconvinced, and then swam back toward the edge, right toward Wyatt. I yelled to him that it was coming and he cast the popper out into the deep and waited until the fish was close. I’m not going to be able to adequately describe the excitement of watching that huge fish (guess 80 pounds) charge after his fly, straight at him. It finally engulfed the popper with a furious and massive gulp just fifteen feet in front of Wyatt. Holy shit! At first it didn’t quite seem to know what’s up. I played Dad yelling, “Let it go, let it go!” afraid it would break him off immediately, and Wyatt’s yelled back, “He’s not running.” And then he did (may I say holy shit again) and never stopped. Finally Wyatt had no choice but to start adding drag and inevitably the fish broke off. It would have been a miracle to land a fish like that on an 8 wt fly rod. But who cares? That was unforgettable. If you want to get a real idea of what it looked like watch BBC’s Blue Planet II Part I, “One Ocean” about 14 minutes in. Let David Attenborough explain it to you. Giant Trevally gather at a particular South Pacific atoll to feed on fledgling birds, literally jumping out of the water and grabbing them mid air or swallowing them whole when they make the mistake of resting on the water. The whole series is awesome. 

We hiked the peak, watching Wyatt traipse ahead in the distance, spec of a red shirt bobbing on the steep green slopes of the peaks. The view from the peak was beautiful, but all I could think about was a chance lost to get one of those GT, this time with a 12 wt rod that might stand a chance. We had to leave the next morning. 

The sail from Raivave to Rapa wasn’t too bad, but like all the sailing in these latitudes, the winds were fickle compared to the steady trades we’ve been accustomed to in the Tuamotus. Very light from the east when we arrived. We took a rare opportunity to anchor in one of the northern bays. In stronger winds no doubt the waves wrap and make the anchorage uncomfortable at best.

Wild horses, cattle and stone foundations, the remains of earlier settlements. We explored the valley and the next day climbed the ridge, aiming for a nearby peak, but halfway up we spotted a group of outriggers paddling toward Allora. We weren’t sure who they were, but they finally spotted us up on the hill and paddled over, we climbed down to meet Alain and , the one Rapa policeman, plus paddling friends. They’d figured out we were here (having not checked in), so they came to greet us. They returned in the morning, we thought to check us in, but really to have coffee and muffins. They looked at our papers but then asked us to come see them in town to really check in. It was an elaborate process considering we were still in French Polynesia, but super nice guys. It probably didn’t help shorten the formalities that Diana kept making the yummy muffins and cookies, no doubt it could be done in one stop instead of three. 

We heard somewhere that there was a compressor on the island for filling scuba tanks, owned by the community. To get our tanks filled we had to go see the mayor of Rapa, who is also the main guy at the post office (used for banking and many other purposes here). Once we got the nod, they would not take money, and sent three young guys to collect them, and then return them to the dinghy on the dock.   

Everything in Rapa went like that. We were given as much tuna as we could carry. “No money. No money,” and bags of peaches and nectarines and a local berry kind of like a blackberry. We tried to gift back, Diana baked peach muffins and banana bread, and we gave them little things from the boat and fishing line, but really you can’t win a gift giving contest with a Polynesian. They have the home turf advantage. It was all light hearted and a real pleasure. 

To manage their fisheries, the island has a general ban that is in place most of the time for the east side of the island called the Rahui. From time to time they lift the ban and the boon of fish is piled up on the docks and shared among the whole community. Everybody gets fish. 

There is no airport in Rapa, and it’s quite isolated, so things have to work differently. Not much room for disparate income levels, and the pretense of independence that underscores our western culture. No doubt there are tensions that go with that. Everybody knowing everybody’s business. It’s a small island. Centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans, things got really, really tense on Rapa, which is just five miles across. There are the remains of fifteen forts on the island, occupying all the peaks and high ground to be found. 

Wyatt and I cleaned Allora’s hull in preparation for our passage to the Gambier. Deep water under cloudy skies. We were circled by curious Galapagos sharks for the whole hour or so underwater. 

Before leaving we visited church, for the hats (amazing) and the singing (magical). We were told everyone went, but in fact, only about seventy out of the four hundred some odd souls of Rapa showed up. Alain, who told us everyone went, wasn’t there either. Children attended, minded by an imposing man with a very big stick. The program was dismally long, and heavy on patriarchal themes, but it concluded with a feast and more music, the insistence that we bring lots of leftovers away with us. 

We prepared to weigh anchor in the rain, but our chain was trapped between two towering bommies in the deep anchorage. Diana had to put on scuba gear and dive sixty feet in the gloom among the sharks to free it. 

On our way out, we spotted Raymond, our tuna and peach benefactor who was running shuttles across the deep channel to take people back from church. Wyatt scooted over in the dinghy with a Montana hat to give him. He laughed because we got him, he had nothing on him to give back! ~MS

THROUGH WYATT’S LENS:

Follow Wyatt and his buddy, Tully, as they embark on their northern Russia expedition: https://www.summerinchukotka.com

 

A Brief Glimpse of Makatea, Tuamotus

Makatea is the name of the island, but also the Polynesian word for a coral reef that has been uplifted, above sea level. This makatea is the highest of its kind in the world. The dramatic cliffs make a stunning sight after months of low lying atolls, barely above sea level. They are limestone, and so they are riddled with caves and spectacular formations. The island was extensively mined for phosphate from 1917 until 1966. The mayor of the island of 90-something people, not counting children, is an eloquent and passionate man. Julien Mao is proud of his world travels as a choreographer of Polynesian dance, particularly coming from such a remote and isolated part of the world. Diana contacted him by phone to find out about the three rolly moorings they have off the eastern coast, and he met us at the dock and led a tour of the island. We arrived to find a sportclimbing team wrapping up after a week scaling cliffs on the west side of the island. They showed us drone shots of themselves climbing while humpback whales, a mother and calf swam just off shore below them.

Makatea is laborisouly working on unearthing the remains of the mining operation to create an open air museum.

Because there is no pass, no lagoon, Makatea is unique in the Tuamotus, and not an easy place to make a living. They dream of eco-tourism and climbers, but it is hard place to get ashore unless the sea is in a hospitable mood. 

Our mooring was very, very close to the reef, and still it was set in 150 feet of water. The swell rolled by and then onto the reef uncomfortably close. Built out to the reefs edge are the ruins of the mining’s operation, the towers that used to support bridges for loading the ships with phosphate. 

It’s not a particularly flashy mineral, but it must have been valuable. The first stop on the tour is a future outdoor museum being painstakingly reclaimed from the brush; all the machines and steam generators they used to fabricate the railways and infrastructure for getting the phosphate to market. 

Not surprisingly, the early days of the mining brought almost no direct benefits to the islanders. Cheap labor to dig the phosphate was brought in from Vietnam and China. It wasn’t until World War II that Polynesians began to be employed in the mines. The video we saw of the work was all done by hand, digging phosphate dirt out of eroded holes in the top of the island. What was left behind reminded me of the beaches of Normandy, bombed incessantly in the weeks preceding the invasion. The forests are gone, most of the topsoil too. 

For fifty years since Charles De Gaulle came to French Polynesia  to announce that their future was in the Atom, there hasn’t been much economic activity on Makatea. Schemes were hatched and mercifully scrapped to turn it into an island for refining oil. There was an attempt at some commercial agriculture which also failed. 

Julien has come up with a controversial vision for Makatea’s future, what he calls its new story, and it sounds like it may very soon come to fruition. He would like to team up with an Australian entrepreneur to mine phosphate again, though this time on different terms. The plan, which does not sound like it has seen much in the way of environmental impact study, is to initiate secondary mining on the northern part of Makatea where the potholes riddle the landscape, abrade a layer of topsoil off and save it, take a layer phosphate stone away and then fill the holes left with gravel and rehabilitate the area by reapplying the topsoil. Basically use secondary mining to rehabilitate the damaged part of the island. 

What Makatea gets in exchange, besides a chunk of the action we hope, is a new dock and a commitment to restoration projects and conservation which the mayor hopes will lead to a boom in ecotourism. 

I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge the merits of his project. More mining doesn’t sound, on the surface (no pun intended) like the greatest idea. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any other source of money out there that could be dedicated just to restoration, and a viable dock for Makatea. 

We had a fascinating day on this beautiful island and counted ourselves really lucky to have the cooperation of the weather so we could. ~MS

s/v Chaos

The kids got to name the family catamaran. Alex and William made a deal. Whoever got to pick the boat name, the other got first call on bunks. Alex chose Chaos. Her choice is so recent, (they just bought the boat in Raiatea), that it’s not yet painted on the stern. We met the family in Rangiroa, when they offered us some Dogtooth Tuna and then later met us again by the SE bonefish flats. I took William and his dad for a little bonefishing expedition. The fish cooperated, but William’s legs were no match for his enthusiasm, so Scott had to give him a piggyback ride back to the dinghy. Converting a Kiwi to fly fishing should not be necessary. Scott said he had always planned to take it up when he got older, now I think he’s reconsidering.  

They surprised us again by pulling into Makatea early on the morning we were scheduled to take our ‘tour’ of the island with the Mayor. Miraculously, they were ready to join us just an hour after picking up their mooring. The kids got a little restless during the Mayor’s presentation on the future of secondary phosphate mining while we looked over black and white pictures that for them might as well have been from the dark ages. But they had a blast exploring the limestone caves. These are filled with fresh water pools, so you swim through them with flashlights. Fresh water feels particularly good to salty sailors. Our guide for that part (Julien’s son) was barely more than a kid himself, which he demonstrated by climbing high up the walls and doing back flips into the dark pools. 

That evening Diana proposed a movie night. Catamarans are made for screening films outdoors. She made popcorn and we brought over our Lenovo tablet/video projector, and set up the giant folding screen across their trampoline. Louise brought out every blanket they owned! The kids picked the movie which is a classic, apparently, in Australia, called “The Castle.” It was the perfect choice, quirky warm humor, and it gave us a glimpse of Haley’s new home of Melbourne. 

They headed off for Raiatea early the next morning, bound for Tonga from there and then back to New Zealand, where we’re hoping we can catch up with them next year. ~MS

Rangiroa -The Tuamotu Folks Have Heard Of

Our first instinct, on our initial pass through the Tuamotus last year, was to avoid Rangiroa. It seemed too popular – with actual hotels for tourists, including those ‘elegant’ thatched roof bungalows out over the water that plague Bora Bora. But on our second pass this year, we ended up spending a month in this largest of the Tuamotus atolls. 

I’ll keep my part of the motivation for staying so long to one sentence: Rangiroa has the best bonefishing in the Tuamotus. Okay, moving on. Okay, well maybe not moving on. I broke both my nine and eight weight rods on these fish. I used up my entire stock of number 4 hooks. I fished everyday, and there were bonefish wherever we went, even at the touristy Blue Lagoon. We’re not talking armies of tourists, lets say a couple dozen for a whole day in three or four small boats. One group even waved me over and fed me lunch. The tour operator was an avid fisherman and pure Polynesian friendly. He told about a spot where he’d seen a giant bonefish, so big that at first he’d mistaken it for a shark. 

Unfortunately, I never got over there. The wind shifted and we had to pull up anchor – which is a short sentence for describing a pretty harrowing situation where our anchor windlass failed, and we had to untangle the anchor from some nasty bottom, manually, and then with a little luck and jimmying of the windlass control, we raised the Rocna, just as the waves and wind built in earnest. Fortunately, we figured out the wiring problem at the next anchorage and it was an easy repair. ~MS