August 2000 : The Society Islands



We celebrated the anniversary of our departure from Bristol at the beginning of this month. A year ago we could not have dared imagine ourselves in an exotic Pacific island anchorage, but our anniversary was spent in the serenely beautiful island of Moorea. A very good day – a five hour walk up the Oponohu valley in spectacular scenery, past pineapple plantations and a site of several marae up to the Belvedere Lookout with fantastic views of Moorea’s two deep bays. Then a slap-up meal on Perdika – all of this with Simon and Sarah from Vagabond who, having left Gosport the day before we left Bristol, share our anniversary. We were, to say the least, impressed when they produced – out of their 27 foot boat – a magnum of champagne! Amazingly they also carry full diving gear aboard – handy friends to have around in case of a fouled anchor!

After some 12,000 miles of cruising, what have we learned over the past year? Hard to say. Having dropped the hook about 50 times, our anchoring technique has certainly improved and no longer necessarily involves a row. I now can definitely be relied on to tie a bowline! We seem now to be proceeding at a more relaxed pace – at least Chris doesn’t seem to be doing so many jobs! Some defects we have learned to live with, and others can safely and reasonably be put off until we reach New Zealand. Generally we are more relaxed and confident in ourselves and the boat. We are very comfortable aboard and Perdika has given sterling service, suffering no more than the average number of breakdowns or mishaps for boats covering this sort of distance. The sailing has not, by and large, been tremendously difficult. We had at one time thought of circumnavigating the UK before embarking on this trip – as a ‘shake-down’. Now we feel that perhaps this is the shake-down – circumnavigating the UK would be more of a challenge!

This current leg of our voyage continues to be very sociable. We have found ourselves moving along westwards at about the same pace as other boats leaving the Galapagos at the same time as we did in May. They include, as well as Vagabond, An Cala the boat which left Bristol a few weeks before we did - also heading for New Zealand. Anita II is an Australian boat – Don and Joy in their late 60s - heading for home after a five year circumnavigation and a great fund of knowledge and experience. Kiwel Meleya is an American/New Zealand yacht. Tim is a ‘60s surfer from California and Adrienne was brought up in Chris' (NZ) home town of Tauranga – they had the same teacher at school! There are others of various nationalities, and when not sharing anchorages, we keep in touch sharing all sorts of information on the short-wave radio. This is all in addition to the ‘Pacific Islanders Net’ – a mainly American run radio net which runs a controlled schedule every day, giving weather information, taking check-ins from boats on passage and facilitating the sharing of information.

As planned, we left Tahiti for Moorea a mere 20 mile hop. This was without doubt the most stunningly beautiful island we had ever seen viewed from any angle, and especially from either of its two deep bays. It is impossible to describe the sensation of wonder and sheer pleasure to be experienced by simply gazing at the magnificent skyline of precipitous mountain ridges and peaks …. Unfortunately, the island, being so close to Tahiti is rather ovewhelmed by tourists – although this was hardly a problem for us, out of the way at anchor offshore. Aside from the scenic beauty, a prime attraction for us was to observe sting-rays at close quarters - these having been effectively tamed for the entertainment of tourists. We mingled with both the rays and tourists in waist deep water as they (the rays!) were fed raw fish. They are the most amazingly alien looking creatures and it was a most peculiar experience to have them gliding around totally unafraid of all the clumsy humans sploshing about.

Next we moved on to Huahine, 80 miles or so away to the north west. Less dramatic and consequently less overrun, this island had a particularly relaxing atmosphere in which to catch up on the regular round of boat chores. The small town of Fare was one of the nicest in all the islands – the image of a sleepy South Seas port. The island also contains a superb site of ancient Polynesian marae. Well kept and partially restored, the site comprises a whole row of maraes – massive stone terraces and buildings – belonging to all the chiefs of the island - all situated atmospherically along the shores of a lagoon.

From Huahine, we continued on, via the double island of Raiatea/Tahaa, to Bora Bora – the ultimate South Pacific island, hyped as the most beautiful on earth. Its dramatic outline was just visible from Huahine – 50 miles away – and inevitably we were drawn there. As we see more and more, we are becoming harder to impress, but Bora Bora was spectacularly worthy of its reputation – scenic beyond belief. Typical of the Society Islands, its dramatic cluster of sharp mountain peaks are set in a large and beautiful lagoon, whose vividly turquoise water is so bright that it is reflected on the undersides of bird wings. The water is crystal clear – we could see all manner of fish just by looking down from the boat – sting rays we had thought extraordinary on Moorea were common- place here. We had be warned that the island had been ruined by tourism, but we found this not at all true. The shores of the main island and smaller ‘motus’ are undeveloped and pristine. Some days a cruise ship would come into the lagoon and most of the other mainstream tourists are ‘contained’ in a few rather tasteful thatched hut villages, the typical model for French Polynesian hotels. Highlights of our week-long visit were an incredibly arduous, but ultimately rewarding almost vertical climb up Mount Pahia - 2,030 feet – straight up from sea level. I thought I would never recover the use of my legs. Another good day was a sociable day sail on An Cala around the lagoon to a spot where manta rays are sometimes seen. We were lucky enough to see two of these gigantic sub-aquatic vampire-like creatures – each about 16 ft. across, gliding up mysteriously from the depths, flipping and then disappearing down again.

French Polynesia generally was something of a revelation to us. The existence of this French ‘empire’ – 118 islands over an area of 5,030,000 square kilometres and a population of 188,800 was not something of which we had previously been particularly aware. The ‘Frenchness’ is overwhelming. Leaving aside the issue of nuclear testing in the Pacific, French rule seems materially beneficial – the place runs smoothly and efficiently and there is no evident poverty. However, we could not begin to relate what we have read of the remarkable exploits of the pre-Christianised and pre-westernised Polynesians – incredible and daring voyages of exploration - to the present day population, which seems lacking in real spirit or identity. The Polynesian culture seems to have been emasculated – apart perhaps from a strong revival of traditional sporting activity – especially outrigger canoe racing. The dancing too is obviously a ‘genuine’ activity and not merely for tourist consumption. But there seems nothing to compare with the spirit which must have induced the great voyages, and the great temples. Perhaps the population is just too thinly spread – perhaps a critical mass is required for a culture to become truly dynamic.