Friday, August 31, 2012

Lost and Found in Tahiti

Found:  Friends from Seattle!

I was filling out postcards and looking up my brother's new address on Facebook, when I saw  my friend Alex from Seattle pop up on the chat feature. I never see Alex on “chat,” so I sent him a quick note ending with, “We’re in Tahiti.” A few minutes later, I received a note back saying, “I’m in Tahiti too!” It turns out that Alex wasn’t alone in Tahiti. His work partner and friend Adam was with him. Alex and Adam are pilots whose work takes them all over the world. Adam used to live in Seattle, but I hadn’t seen him in over fifteen years since he moved to Florida. Alex and Adam (who had the use of a car) drove out to the Tahiti Yacht Club to visit us that evening, and we brought them over to Silhouette in our dinghy. Good times.

Adam attempts an arm shot
Lost:  The chance to climb Mt. Aorai

One of the things I really wanted to do while in Tahiti was to climb Mt. Aorai. Aorai is the third highest peak on Tahiti, and the trail starts on the flank of the mountain between Arue and Papeete at Le Belvédère Restaurant. Aorai’s attraction to me is that a climb there gives you access to views of the interior valleys and to the steeply pleated folds of surrounding peaks---such as Le Diadème---a spectacular peak not generally visible from the northwest side of the island. I was also hoping to see some of Tahiti’s indigenous flora, such as the tiare Tahiti, the “flower of Tahiti” or Tahitian gardenia---which supposedly grows better at high altitudes---and some wild orchids.

Due to a confluence of poor timing and transportation issues, I was unable to climb Mt. Aorai before we departed Tahiti. There were high winds on one of the days I had available to climb, and Aorai has a knife ridge to navigate. We only had a rental car for one day, so in order to start the climb at 6:00 a.m. (to beat the heat and descend at a reasonable hour), I would have had to take a taxi to the trail head. Doable, but it didn't happen in a week's time packed full of boat logistics.  However, luck was with me, and as we sailed towards Moorea, the peaks of Tahiti parted like the folios of a book to reveal the sought-after jewel of Le Diadème

Le Diadème
(The Tiara) is the jagged peak near center

Found:  A big city  

Tahiti had all the pros and cons of a big city. The graffiti all over the island (not just in downtown Papeete) jolted one right out of French Polynesia and back to Seattle or L.A. 

Plastic bottles washed down through a creek temporarily caught by weeds:  next stop, the harbor
Some of the graffiti art was sanctioned by the public and more tastefully done. These murals were on the walls of a sports complex next to the Tahiti Yacht Club.

I also liked this mural, found outside their gym. 

Found:  Unpublished photos of Anse Amyot

Patrick took the following photos---not in Tahiti---but in Anse Amyot in the Tuamotus. I hadn’t seen them until now, so I didn’t include them in my blog post from there. They capture the feeling of the South Pacific.   

Tern in flight

Polynesian sunset

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Traveling the Tahiti Belt Road

August 25, 2012

After the better part of a work week spent in Arue and Papeete reprovisioning the boat, taking on fuel, doing laundry, tracking down parts on the “boat buy” list (almost all of which remained elusive), and shopping for souvenirs, we took a break and headed out to see some of the island whose barrier reef we had been sheltering behind. 

The bustling municipal market in downtown Papeete:  A feast for the sailor's senses!
Vendors making and selling leis and flower crowns out of Tahitian gardenia, basil, and orchids

After looking into the bus route and discovering that we couldn’t even visit two destinations in one day due to the bus schedules, we decided to rent a car. Like many islands, Tahiti has a "belt road" that travels the island's circumference. Our trip started at Point Venus lighthouse, where Captain James Cook was charged with observing the transit of Venus across the Sun in order to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. (Apparently, his calculations were grossly in error due to the inaccuracy of the measurement instruments of the time.) Point Venus had at least two previous names before its current one.

The Point Venus lighthouse was built by Thomas Stevenson, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson

We continued on to Faarumai Waterfalls, a series of three cascades. We only made the short trip to the first waterfall due to time constraints. 

The trail to the waterfalls led through a stand of bamboo...

....and over this scenic bridge

Faarumai Falls looked a lot like Le Cascade on Fatu Hiva
The drive along the west coast of Tahiti took us along a scenic coastal road. There were popular surfing spots and rougher areas where huge surf crashed against the rocks along the island’s edge. The road was dotted with villages, so there was a lot of traffic, almost all of which was traveling above the speed limit.

Tahiti is actually composed of two landmasses, joined by an isthmus. The larger portion of the island, Tahiti Nui, is where Papeete is located, and the smaller landmass is called Tahiti Iti. When we reached the junction of Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti at the southern tip of Tahiti Nui, we took a detour to the Taravao Plateau. A beautiful country road winding through grassy hillsides on which cattle were grazing---looking more like America’s dairy country than tropical Tahiti---led us to the viewpoint at the plateau. From there, we had big picture views of Tahiti Nui and its barrier reef. On a clear day, you can supposedly see Moorea from this viewpoint, but we didn’t have the weather for that.     

Tahiti Nui as seen from Tahiti Iti

The white line where surf is breaking delineates the outer edge of the barrier reef

After a stop for lunch, we visited the Gauguin Museum and the adjacent Botanical Garden. These stops were somewhat disappointing. The Gauguin Museum was dilapidated and falling apart in places, and the botanical garden was equally not well maintained. The Gauguin Museum told the story of Gauguin’s life and evolution as an artist, but left out some significant details, such as the age of his Tahitian mistress (who has also been called a child-concubine): 14. The only works exhibited were prints or postcard-sized reproductions. There were some larger works (oil on burlap canvasses) that looked authentic, but---considering they were on exhibit in open-air buildings, exposed to the heat and humidity---were certainly reproductions. Since Gauguin died at Atuona, Hiva Oa, in French Polynesia, I thought the wood carvings that framed the doorway to his house, Maisson de Jouir (“House of Pleasure”) were probably the originals, but Patrick disagreed. There was no docent at the museum, and we were too insecure about our lack of French to ask questions of the only staff present, the woman who took our entrance fee (300 cfp in 2012).

Woodcuts from Maison du Jouir

Gauguin's Tahitian journal

We saw some beautiful plants at the Botanical Garden, but the lack of an interpretive side reduced our enjoyment. There was obviously some kind of self-guided tour at one time:  We saw numbers on some of the botanical specimens and signs (many broken or in disrepair) bearing the names of some others. However, we were not given a map or a guide to the walking tour, and the various routes through the garden (whose paths were delineated on a color-coded sign near the entrance) were not clearly marked once you embarked on a route. We concluded that the entrance fee (600 cfp in 2012) went mostly towards mowing the lawn. 

Red flower or modified leaf

Giant fiddlehead

The size of a Tahitian philodendron is a bit larger than houseplants sold in the U.S.

A purple water lily

The mape forest was one of the most spectacular parts of the Botanical Garden.

Mape trees

Otherworldly Mape roots
Since it was getting late in the day, we skipped the fern grotto (which appeared inviting from what we could see of it from the road.) Like the waterfalls, it seemed like this outdoor destination on the driving tour of Tahiti was one of the more pleasant ones. 

I found the west coast of Tahiti Nui to be the most beautiful. The ocean was on the left, and high peaks that gave occasional glimpses into Tahiti's interior valleys were on our right. 

Our final stop on the belt road was at a restored marae, or ceremonial ground, Marae Arahurahu. The size of the site was much smaller than those we had seen in the Marquesas. In addition, the modern renovations gave the site an almost cartoonish nature when juxtaposed with the ancient ruins. However, I reminded myself that this site is currently in use as a gathering place and ceremonial site and is therefore, living history. 

Small marae with tiki
The site had a "leaning stone," where important members of the congregation could rest while the priest was offering up prayers. The red horizontal platform is a table where offerings of food were (and perhaps still are) placed. 

Leaning stone and offering table on platform

Figures like this have a specific name and purpose, but I didn't take notes.

Altar at end of platform in large marae

Detail of altar with cornerstone

Marlon Brando tiki (I made that up, but doesn't it look like him?)*

*We did learn that Marlon Brando actually owns an atoll north of Tahiti. 

We missed the Museum of Tahiti and Its Islands in Punaauia, which in hindsight, probably would have been a better investment of our time than the visit to the Gauguin Museum.

On the way home, we stopped at the Intercontinental (formerly Beachcomber) Hotel for tropical drinks lavishly decorated with green orange slices and pink frangipani blossoms. We hit happy hour, so the drinks weren’t ridiculously expensive, but we ended up staying for dinner, which was. We wanted to see the Intercontinental’s Polynesian dance show and had time to kill. It was a teriffic review full of young, energetic dancers and eye-catching costumes. The show was amped up for tourists---fast paced and with a corny infusion of humor---however, the dance moves were authentic. We saw many of the same moves we had seen in the Marquesas; and although Patrick didn’t enjoy the show as much as the ones we’d seen there, I felt that the skill of execution and the pace at which the dancers had to perform made this dance show even more physically challenging than those we had seen in a more serious setting. The gala Polynesian dance show was a fitting end to our day out as tourists in Tahiti.     

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Farewell Tuamotus-Hello Societies!

Our last stop in the Tuamotus was a little cove called Anse Amyot, on the atoll of Toau. Anse Amyot is unique in that it is a “blind pass” which is actually located outside the lagoon. The entrance to Anse Amyot looks like any other pass in the Tuamotus.

Entrance to Anse Amyot
However, once you are inside the entrance, you can’t proceed into the lagoon due to a coral barrier that runs across the end of the cove. So you anchor where you are, or more commonly, take one of the mooring buoys that are operated by the couple living on the nearest motu, Gaston and Valentine. 

Coral reef separating Anse Amyot from the lagoon at Toau
Gaston and Valentine wear many hats, but they have made a name for themselves among yachties due to their outgoing personalities and famous Polynesian feasts. After two minutes in Valentine’s presence, you can see what a people person she is---and how affectionate. In a ten minute conversation, she will probably touch your arm or shoulder or give you a hug about five different ways. Gaston is a little more reserved, but he is also extremely friendly and willing to help at a moment’s notice. The people are why cruisers visit Anse Amyot.

Gaston and Valentine's home and restaurant on the motu
We had also hoped that by arriving late in the cruising season, we would have a chance to visit Gaston and Valentine’s pearl farm. Previous cruisers had been able to work alongside Gaston and learn about the pearl farming operation from him. We thought that might be a more personalized experience than touring a pearl farm at Fakarava's north pass.    

We were the only boat on a mooring the evening we arrived in Anse Amyot. The next afternoon and evening, six more boats arrived---including several large catamarans with large crews---bringing the total number of people on boats in the anchorage to twenty. We had heard that Valentine likes to prepare her feasts for groups of eight to ten, so we thought she must now be planning two feasts! (The feasts are served restaurant style. Guests pay to dine but then do not have to pay for moorage. If you use a mooring buoy but don’t dine ashore, the fee is 500 cfp* per night.) Unfortunately, we had bad timing. Just as we were arriving at Anse Amyot, Gaston and Valentine were planning to leave:  to meet the supply ship we hadn’t waited for at North Fakarava. The night all the boats arrived in the anchorage, our hosts were busy filling coolers of fish from their fish pens in Anse Amyot to sell at the north pass.  It turns out Gaston’s brother works on the supply ship, so it was also time for a little family reunion. This was on a Thursday.

*Polynesian francs

Gaston and Valentine were planning on coming back on Saturday and announced to the boats that a dinner would be held on Monday. Although we truly wanted to experience a Polynesian feast, the clock was ticking on our remaining time in French Polynesia, and Patrick and I decided to move on.

We enjoyed our brief stay at Anse Amyot. There were probably more fish in the reef there than any other reef we’d seen---including Fakarava south pass (sharks excluded.) In fact, there were very few sharks in Anse Amyot (I didn’t see any while we were there.) I don’t know if it was the absence of sharks or spear fishers, but there were groupers everywhere. Marbled, hexagonal, and blue-spotted groupers came out of hiding and were running all over the place. We saw some new fish that we hadn’t seen on the other reefs and also saw some old friends. I finally got a recognizable (though not good) picture of a green moray eel!

The under-the-boat fauna was even more dense than usual. A huge school of Vlaming’s unicornfish would join the remoras any time we threw food scraps overboard. 

This picture of a Vlaming's unicornfish was actually taken at Fakarava
The remoras themselves became more “attached” to Silhouette than ever!

Remoras stuck to Silhouette's hull, facing the current

I left our last Tuamotan anchorage with a wistful sigh. I truly loved our time in the Tuamotus spent relaxing, wandering the motus, and snorkeling in the colorful and ever-changing reefs. 

Raccoon butterflyfish

Unidentified reef fish with Tridacna

Sailfin tang

I finally found a starfish!

Unidentified reef fish at Anse Amyot
After a two-day and two-night passage (only the first day of which had wind), we arrived in the Society Islands. The highlight of the passage was the large dorado we caught along the way. 

Big mahi-mahi

We were sailing when we caught the fish, and we had to slow the boat down to bring the fish aboard. You can see the skipper's feet in the "brace" position behind the helm, getting the boat back on course; so we don't have a shot of someone holding the fish.  

We could see the lume of Tahiti from 42 miles away. It was still dark outside when we were ten miles away, and our excitement built as the lights of Papeete and the signature of Point Venus lighthouse came into view. At dawn, we got our first clear views of the island.

Dawn in the Society Islands

Sunrise over Tahiti

Papeete at dawn

Cloud caps over Tahitian peaks
Off Silhouette’s bow, we could also see the island of Moorea, just across from Papeete. 

Moorea is just off the bow pulpit with Papeete to the left

It has been interesting watching the transition of islands in French Polynesia. The verdant volcanic peaks of the Marquesas gave way to the flat coral atolls and blue lagoons of the Tuamotus. Here in the Society Islands, we will see the best of both worlds:  volcanic peaks surrounded by lagoons and barrier reefs. Geologically, the Societies represent the middle stage in the transition from new volcanic island to atoll. 

Tahiti is a small island with a big city! In fact, Papeete is the biggest city we’ve seen since Puerto Vallarta, over four months ago.  

We arrived on Sunday morning and took a mooring buoy at the Tahiti Yacht Club. 

View from our mooring at Tahiti Yacht Club in Arue
We were too dazed and sleep deprived to do much else. On Monday, we set about overstimulating ourselves by visiting a large grocery store (whoa---the selection!); walking next to busy traffic (the exhaust smells the same as in Seattle, but they actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks here!); and having our first good beer since leaving San Diego, over seven months ago (we love you, 3 Brasseurs !) One of the plusses about being one of the last boats in the American cruising fleet to arrive in Papeete is that we knew immediately where to go to get a cold one. (Thanks, Estrellita and Sockdolager!) 

We are here for a major reprovisioning (enough canned and dry goods to last until New Zealand) and resupply. Hopefully, we'll actually see some of Tahiti, too!