Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Last Stop in the Tuamotos, Apataki

Surf at Pakaka Pass, Apataki

After leaving Fakarava, we had a great sail over to the atoll called Toau, stopping overnight at the small inlet known as Amse Amyot.  There is no pass to get into this spot as it’s more a closed basin in the reef where an enterprising family has provided some mooring balls and will make dinner for cruisers if there are enough to make it worthwhile.  We got there just as the sun was setting and so had to pick a spot pretty quickly.  The wind had been in the 20’s all day, so there was a lot of water coming out of the lagoon – making it seem like we were in the middle of a raging river.  The family was motioning for us to pick up one of their mooring balls – which in the middle of a 4-5 knot current can be pretty challenging, but I’m happy to report the captain made it seem easy.  Trusting that unknown mooring ball overnight in the 4-5 knot current with winds still in the 20-30 knot range – not so easy!  I can tell you that I did not exactly experience a good night’s sleep, but thankfully it did hold and all was well in the morning.  Knowing the conditions were unlikely to change for the next two days, we decided not to push our luck and so left for Apataki.  

The town at Apataki
With winds in the 17-20 knot range and a 7 foot swell, we had a nice downwind trip to the south pass called Pakaka Pass.  The atoll of Apataki is about 18 miles (north to south) by 15 miles and we hadn’t heard much about it – except for the fact that the south pass can be pretty tough if the winds have been high (which they had).  After careful consultation on when slack tide would occur (and you know how successful we’ve been with that if you’ve read my last post!), we approached the south pass.  Seeing a local paddle out of the pass in his outrigger canoe, we decided to go for it.  Even though the surf was running pretty high, it looked passable.

Passing port to port...
Pakaka pass is actually a two part pass as there is the main outer reef, followed by an open area where the town is, and then there is another pass through a narrow reef which will actually take you into the lagoon.  We got through the outer reef with no issues – unless you count our hearts stopping when we discovered that the local supply ship had decided to exit the pass right as we were entering.  After a brief radio discussion, we passed port to port and thankfully had enough room – but it still made the heart go pitter patter!  

It felt like we went as slow as this hermit crab!
While the “town” area looked pretty nice, we had our sights set on the south end of the lagoon, which would be more protected in the high winds.  Unfortunately, we would have to get through the inner pass to get there.  The book we have reads as follows, “On the lagoon side of the pass it bends toward the south, with a coral bank of 6 to 7 meters provoking an acceleration of outflowing current.”  As we approached, doing our standard 2000 RPM’s on the engine, we started to experience the….um……”accelerated outflow “, especially pronounced by the excess of water in the lagoon due to the recent high winds.   About half way through we really started to lose momentum – five knots…..four knots……….3 knots……..2  knots…….”Um – honey, I think we need to bump up our RPM’s!”, but Brett was already there, pushing up to about 2800 RMP’s.  Unfortunately it’s not enough……1 knot…..1/2 a knot…..it’s not looking good.  Did I mention how wide it is here?  About 40 feet…..and the current is slowly pushing us sideways towards the reef.  There are no pictures of this part because we are fully focused on just trying to get through.  We bump it up to 3200 RPM’s and are now barely making about ½ a knot against the current.  After about 10 minutes of excruciatingly slow progress, we finally begin to pick up speed and make it through without hitting anything.  Phew!!!  

Our little slice of heaven!
I’m happy to report the inner lagoon was worth every minute.  Since Apataki is a little “off the beaten path”, we saw very few other boats and it was absolutely breathtaking!  After a short sail, dodging various pearl farm buoys, we found a little slice of heaven in the south end, behind a motu called Rua Vahine.  We stayed here for four days and even thought the wind was howling almost the whole time, the spot was well protected and we hardly felt any swell.  When we first arrived there was a catamaran a ways off with some hard core kite boarders that were out in that wind almost non-stop.  You wouldn’t believe the air they were getting – check out the photo.  Amazing!   

Look at the height this
kite boarder is getting - wow!
After some great beachcombing and a few restful days at anchor, we decided to move up to the southeast corner where the only boat yard in the Tuamotos is located.  There is something really strange about seeing a bunch of masts peeking out of the palm trees, but this yard is well run by Assam and his family – who also happen to sell some of the best eggs I’ve bought yet!  As we were hunting around for a good spot to anchor (trying to avoid the MANY coral heads in the area), Assam’s son came out and quickly led us to one of their free mooring balls – which we later dove and found to be well placed and very strong.  The whole family was incredibly nice and eager to help us with anything we needed.  We stayed here for two days and had some great snorkeling around the end of the motu Omira.  What a beautiful spot!  

Our snorkeling buddy...
Leaving Assam and family behind we traveled up to the NE corner of Apataki – where there was not a soul to be seen for miles.  We found a lovely little spot to stay the night and enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the lagoon.  Unfortunately it was time to prepare the boat for the trip to Tahiti as high winds were again being predicted and we fervently wanted to avoid a repeat of our passage to the Tuamotos.  So we decided to leave while the winds were lighter and ended up having a really lovely passage to the Society Islands – what a nice change!

Sunset in the north end of Apataki
We were sorry to say goodbye to the Tuamotos – they are unbelievably beautiful and if we had one piece of advice for future cruisers, it would be to spend less time in the Marquesas and MORE time in this area.  It’s relatively untouched, the people are very kind and not nearly as affected by the tourism, so it just felt like a more “real” experience rather than one tailored to meet certain expectations.  While it was a little windy and the passes can be challenging, the landscapes are everything you ever dreamt of – absolute perfection.  This was our favorite spot (by a long shot) in our travels thus far…

Goodbye Tuamotos!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fakarava, Tuamotos

Leaving Kauehi was not easy as it was by far one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.  But leave we must as we are only allowed 90 days to explore the entirety of French Polynesia and the clock was ticking.  So with tide tables in hand, off we went to the popular atoll of Fakarava. 

Starting into the pass, note the
calm water on the other side!
Fakarava is one of the largest atolls in the entire Tuamotos and has two entrances into the lagoon – the north pass and the south pass.  Being fairly new at traveling these passes (and having heard of a few harrowing experiences from cruising friends) we opted for the larger and downwind option, the north pass.  Arriving at what we thought was slack tide (based on two different sources) we took a look and decided it seemed…um….passable, so started to make our way through.  

At first, things seemed fine – we only had about 1 knot of current against us, so not too bad.  As we got farther in however, the current against us began to climb and soon we were fighting a 3.5 knot current!  Yes – 3.5 minus what was currently our 5 knot boat speed (due to a little furry growth on the bottom) now meant that we were only moving forward at 1.5 knots.  I CAN WALK FASTER THAN THAT!

The view from within the pass - not as nice!
Needless to say, we did make it through without any mishaps, but now having a total distrust of all sources of tidal information, we just try to watch the ups and downs over the course of each day and do some estimating on our own.  With our EYES!  Of course, that will only get you so far since if the winds are high (which happens OFTEN) extra water is likely filling the lagoon, potentially creating a continually out-flowing current in the pass – so then who knows when it might be slack (um…never?).  Have I mentioned how frustrating this tide/pass conundrum is here?  It is a FAVORITE topic among cruisers.

But enough of tides and passes!  Let’s move on to the fascinating process of pearl farming.  Many of the atolls in the Tuamotos are renowned for their pearls – just like the ones women everywhere wore in the 50s, only these are dark grey instead of pearly white.  They are quite beautiful, so we wanted to visit a farm and hopefully purchase a few quality samples at a good price.  

Through our friends on Cassiopée (thanks AGAIN guys!) we soon had a reservation to visit the Hinano Pearl Farm (ironically the same name of the only beer you’ll find in this area).  What a great experience!    We were thoroughly educated on the process of pearl formation.  For someone like me who had zero idea of what it takes to cultivate a black pearl, I was amazed at the long and fairly complex process that needs to be followed before one single pearl is created.  Now I understand why they are so expensive!

Where the pearl surgery is performed...
One might THINK that you simply find a qualified oyster and throw it out in the salt water for a couple of months (years?) hoping for the best – but of course it much more complex than that.  First the “farm” will purchase oyster shells of a certain quality, taking particular note of the colors of the inside of the shell – which will often determine the color of the pearl the oyster will create. 
Next, they place a precisely formed “fake” pearl – usually a bead made of shell and approximately 3 millimeters in diameter – in a small pouch within the oyster.  This is a very important step as they must take out what was already growing within the oyster and carefully replace it with the perfectly round replica without doing any harm.  The goal here is to implant the fake without the oyster realizing anything has changed.  If it does, it’s highly likely the oyster will reject the surrogate and stop producing altogether – which of course they won’t discover until many months have passed.  So it’s rather a fine surgery of sorts, all done without opening the oyster more than about ½ an inch!  

After they have successfully implanted the “fake” pearl the oysters are “put out to pasture” (if you will) in just the right depth and sea conditions for 6 months to start cultivating the lovely dark grey layers that make these fakes into the real beauties they become.  After 6 months the oysters are collected and carefully opened to see if the process was successful.  If it was, the new pearl (consisting of the original fake now covered with many layers of “real” pearl growth) is removed from the oyster (using that same careful technique) and a new “fake” of the exact same size is inserted in its place.  

Our guide showing where the growth pocket is.
WHAT???  You mean you don’t just leave it in there to get bigger and more beautiful with each passing month?!?  Apparently not!  We learned that a pearl left for a long time hardly EVER turns into the big beautiful pearl some lucky duck just “discovers” in the movies.  In real life that pearl would be lumpy and misshapen – plus the layers would not be as strong and so the pearl could be easily broken – making the customer who paid big bucks for it VERY upset!   Because of this, it’s highly important to regularly introduce a new, perfectly round fake for the oyster to keep covering up.    Sounds strangely similar to our government….but I digress.

So!  This is how they get different sizes of pearls – by replacing the newly grown pearl every 6-12 months with a new like-sized fake.  Then the new (larger) fake is covered with beautiful layers until its a few millimeters larger yet….and so on and so forth.  It turns out those really large black pearls that are so incredible valuable if they are perfectly round and without blemishes cost that much because they can take up to 6 YEARS TO GROW!!!  Yep – that’s some serious time invested!  These are obviously very patient people.

"A" grade pearls on display.
Just like diamonds, black pearls are graded by size, shape and blemishes (or rather a lack thereof).  Top grade is an “A” and just like school – the lower you go the less quality you get.  “B” pearls are still of very nice quality and to the untrained eye a “C” quality pearl might also be acceptable.  But after that things start to go downhill pretty quickly.  We actually liked some of the “lower quality”, misshaped pearls as they were often pretty interesting to look at.  These pearls are often relegated to a quick leather necklace or bracelet for not very much money (now owned and proudly worn by yours truly).  While I love my “imperfect” cheap pearl, we also decided to purchase a couple nicer samples as this chance is unlikely to ever present itself again, especially at these prices.  Overall, our visit to the pearl farm was a fascinating and educational experience. 

One of the best (non-environmental) aspects of French Polynesia is the access to quality baked goods – which one soon becomes addicted to.  Prior to leaving North Fakarava, we made an early morning run to get a few (much sought after) baguettes at the local bakery/market.  This is one of those cases where the early bird will get the worm and the late bird will get……..nothing!  The residents here, being governed by the French, have developed a fine affinity for perfectly baked baguettes (crunchy on the outside but soft and airy on the inside) and they are baked fresh every day.  When they are gone, they are gone for the day – so get them while you can as they are a real treat and one of the few items in French Polynesia that do not cost an arm and a leg.  If you are REALLY lucky, you might also find chocolate croissants (pan chocolate) that are absolutely delicious!

The moon mid atoll - beautiful!
Baguettes on board, off we went to the south end of Fakarava.  Fakarava is approximately 30 miles long (north to south) and 10 miles wide – so it can take a while to make it to the opposite end.  There are many lovely (non-charted) spots to stop along the way – so you don’t have to travel the whole way if you get a late start.  We chose to stop half way down in an uncharted spot for a night and had the place completely to ourselves – which is much rarer than you might think.  After moving to the SE corner – called Hirifa – for a few days, we proceeded over to the popular anchorage on the west side of the south pass.  

The south pass of Fakarava is almost legendary in diving circles, with folks arriving from all over the world to pay for a chance to dive these shark infested waters.  How cool is it that we were able to drift snorkel them for FREE!  Yes, yours truly, proud member of the JAWS generation, actually got knowingly in the water with SHARKS!  Thankfully most of the sharks here are of the black or grey tip variety, which are only about 3-4 feet long and not very interested in humans.  The ones that swam near me did take an inquisitive look, but when I showed them my menacing fist (HA!) they quickly darted away.  Take that long anticipated fears!!!  Of course if you dive here you actually get down to a level where you would be surrounded by 100’s of sharks – some that are fairly large.  Definitely not something this girl was ready for, so we just stuck to the drift snorkel – thank you very much.  

And what an amazing experience it was!!!  Basically you take your dinghy over to the beginning of the south pass just after the turn of the outgoing tide.  We’ve learned that you want to give it maybe 20 minutes after the turn as the clear water from the outside of the lagoon translates to much better visibility in the water.  Than you tie the dingy to you and let the incoming tide carry you (and your dinghy) past a wonderland of exotic and beautifully colored fish – FANTASTIC!  

South Fakarava after one of the frequent squalls.
We did the drift twice as there was so many fish to see, from tiny little clown fish to huge brightly colored parrotfish, that you just couldn’t see everything in one pass.  The drift takes about 20 minutes and the farther in the faster you go.  At one point I actually tried to slow my progress by swimming against the tide but soon discovered it was completely hopeless.   You just have to let the water carry you along and see what you can as you go.  Next item on the Christmas wish list????  An underwater camera!   I was dying to post some pictures of all the amazing fish we saw, but alas – no ability to shoot underwater at this time.  Sorry folks!  

Other than the snorkeling there is not a lot to do in south Fakarava other than enjoy the beauty of the area, so that’s what we did.......for 5 heavenly days!  We did accomplish several boating projects (which never end), such as repairing a tear in the mainsail and a major cleaning of the bottom of the boat – but we also got in a fair amount of relaxing and enjoying our surroundings.  South Fakarava is a little slice of heaven and we were happy to spend a good amount of time there.

Stay tuned for our further adventures in the Tuamotos when we travel to the river that is Anse Amyot and explore the wonders of Apataki…

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Our Time in Kauehi

After a particularly bad passage, one spends quite a bit of time drying out the boat and then putting it back together – but there is also much time spent being glad that we are safely anchored and taking note of the small details around us.  I’m happy to report that Kauehi is probably one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.  The water is that wonderful bright turquoise color you see on postcards of exotic places, there are white sandy beaches with palm trees swaying and the water within the lagoon of this atoll is smooth and calm – even though we can see the waves breaking on the ocean outside of the lagoon.  I think we’ve officially reached a little slice of heaven.

The mess while we dried out the v-berth
While we were getting the boat back in order we had a visit from the only other cruising boat in the anchorage – Claudine and Gérard on Cassiopée – a French couple that has been out cruising for over 8 years.  Since meeting them we’ve spent a fair amount of time together and I must say they’ve blown all of my preconceived notions about French people out of the water.  Now I’m not so naïve to believe that I should judge all by this one example, but you just couldn’t meet two more open and friendly people and so we are very happy to have made their acquaintance.

After getting all our “chores” done we decided it was time for some fun, so dropped the dinghy in the water and headed into “town”.  Considering the population here probably only numbers around 200 or so, there is not a lot of “town” to actually see!  However, as soon as we landed the dinghy we were greeted by a man named Samuel who showed us the way to the street (through a yard) and to his house.  He let us know (mostly in mime since we don’t know French and he didn’t know English) that if we needed anything this was where he lived and he would be happy to help.  Thanks Samuel!

Now that's efficient travel!
So off we went to explore the town and the surrounding area.  Other than a large church and a bunch of houses, there really wasn’t much to see – especially since the “Mayor” was out of town on business (because of recent elections).  The Mayor owns the only grocery store, the only hardware store, the only hotel and the only operating black pearl farm on the atoll and the only road on the island other than main street leads from the Mayor’s house to the airstrip!  Apparently when the Mayor is gone it means everything is closed and this time he’s gone for the entire MONTH!  Can you imagine that happening in the states???

Next we took a road that looked like it would take us to the opposite side of the atoll so we could look out at the ocean and see if it was still as rough out there as we remembered.  It was a little disappointing to find that when we got there the coral (no beach on this side) was strewn with trash – all plastic and all items that had obviously washed in from the ocean.  There were pieces of lawn chairs, plastic bottles, and smaller pieces of plastic from more items than I can count – it was very disheartening.  This was the only area of the island that we saw any trash – all other areas where completely clean, so the people here obviously take care of the town, but likely can’t keep up with what the ocean deposits daily on their doorstep – very sad.

Yep - that's a homemade boom box on a bike!!!
While walking back to town, we were passed by a truck that screeched to a halt after passing us.  Inside were Claudine and Gérard with some locals that had taken them out to see the airstrip.  They offered us a ride (even though it’s just about a ½ mile back) and so we hopped in the back with the locals as you always say yes to a ride to see where it leads! 
Where did we go?  Right back to Samuel’s house!  With Gérard doing the translating we found out that Samuel and his wife (Flo), live there with Flo’s mother (Martine), who has given birth to 18 (!!!) children over the last 25 years.   Wow – that’s a lot of kids!  Only two of them are currently living on the island – Flo, who is child number 5, and another son who I think was child number 17.  

Coconuts all around!
They quickly set about getting us fresh coconuts to drink from and then taught us the differences between different stages of coconuts.  First there are those that are green and fresh off the tree – which are full of coconut water (very refreshing and not too sweet) and the “meat” inside is fairly soft, about 1/8 inch thick and very sweet.  Then there are the coconuts that have recently fallen off the tree - these tend to be a little older and don’t have as much water inside.  The “meat” of this coconut is what we’re used to seeing in the stores – more firm and about a ¼ inch thick.  Lastly, they cut open an “old” coconut which had sprouted.  This one had no water inside and the “meat” had a strange puffy consistency – almost like Styrofoam.  It was okay to eat – but not something I would look for.  What a great education in coconuts!   Oh – and for you foodies out there – we also learned how to make coconut milk!  Basically you shred the coconut and then you put it in a handkerchief, soak it all in water and then squeeze the juice into a bowl.  Cool!

That's Samuel with the knife and his wife Flo
After sampling this cornucopia of tastes and textures, I told them if they gave me one of coconuts (they had now cut open about 8-10 total) I would make banana-coconut bread for them.  They immediately offered ALL the coconuts that were left!  I quickly assured them we only needed one and then it was time to go back before we could no longer see the coral heads to avoid on the way back to our boats!  But before we left they invited us to be their guests at church the next day (Sunday), which we agreed we would be delighted to do.  The people from this area are renowned for their singing and church is a great place to hear it! 

The next morning, dressed in our finest we showed up at the appointed time and happily passed along the bread I had made to Flo – who seemed very touched to receive it.  We watched a lovely service at the church as the guest of Martine (the matriarch of the family – pronounced Marteeen), though we couldn’t understand a word of it as most of it was either in French or Tahitian.  Martine was so sweet – very warm and wanting to make sure we were comfortable – often fanning us with her fan as the church was rather warm – charming!

Kids before church - they were pretty fun to watch...
After church, we were stunned when they invited Claudine, Gérard, Brett and I to join them for Sunday dinner with their family.  Wow!  Not only would we be a part of an authentic family gathering, but after missing countless Sunday dinners at home – this seemed rather special to share a meal with another family when I can’t be with my own.  There have been several “opportunities” to have a traditional local meal – but they were all meals that you pay for.  Getting an invite to just come for dinner is much harder to come by – so we felt very lucky to receive one.  It was communicated that we should go entertain ourselves for a couple hours and come back around noon when we would eat. 

Prepping the pumpkin dish
We returned later with some lemonade and cake to contribute and the meal was almost ready.  It was fun to see them in the final prep for their guests – obviously as big a deal for them as it was for us!  They had made several dishes and the table outside was all laid out with plates and glasses and the food.  There were whole cooked fish (grilled on the barbeque), a sort of coconut bread, Poisson Cru (similar to ceviche but with coconut milk), grilled green beans and onions and then a last dish which I think was some sort of pumpkin with coconut milk.   

Dinner was delicious!
As we all sat down it was made clear to us (thanks to Gérard) that we would be eating with our hands – certainly a first for me – but one must do as the locals do, right?  Samual, sitting beside me, quickly slapped down an entire foot-long, charred black fish (head and all) onto my plate.  Um…..what do I do next???  And how do I convey that this is WAY too much fish for me without offending?  Samuel quickly taught me how to de-skin the fish and scoop out the flesh with my hands – and indicated I should share it with Brett.  Phew – what started out as slightly uncomfortable feeling (not wanting to offend our hosts) ended in an entirely delicious experience – the fish was moist and fantastic!  

Claudine, Martine and Stacey
I don’t know that I have ever met such a group of warm, inviting and giving individuals as this family.  After dinner we guests were given gifts (as if the food wasn’t enough!) and not allowed to lift one finger to help with the cleanup – that would apparently be unheard of!  Claudine and I were each given a pareo from Martine and many beautiful shells from Flo, while the men were given shell necklaces.  For people that obviously have so little, we were overwhelmed by their generosity and their giving spirit.  I found myself completely overcome by their kindness and how wonderful it was to be with a family again on a Sunday.  Thankfully they understood my tears were tears of happiness.  

Since we were leaving the next morning, we had to say goodbye that afternoon and there were many hugs and kisses (they are part French after all!) and lots of waving goodbye.  I will never forget the kindness these people showed to us and will clearly remember it as one of the highlights of our trip through the Tuamotos.  This is exactly the kind of experience we were hoping to have by taking a trip like this.  I can’t thank Martine’s family enough for inviting us, or Gérard and Claudine for helping to translate so that we could all understand each other.  Amazing!

At the beach on Kauehi