Soon after arriving in the Gambier Islands the chef, Laurent, jumped ship onto another yacht. Rob (the captain) and Laurent had spent considerable periods of the trip from New Zealand arguing and threatening to kill each other, so it was a pleasant change to have just two of us on board as we settled into island life.
All through the long haul to the Gambiers it had never felt as if we were anywhere particularly foreign; the sea is the sea wherever you are, and it doesn't have any cultural or geographical differences between the various seas and oceans (apart from the weather, perhaps). The Gambier Islands, however, were a wonderful culture shock.
'It's the television that's really destroying the island's culture,' said Napoleon, sipping his sake and sampling the latest batch of Rob's award-winning pancakes. 'Before we got TV a year ago, the main street would be full at night with people walking over to see their friends, and the place would be buzzing. Now the town is dead, because everyone's watching TV. They watch it all day, and do nothing. It's destroying our culture.'
Napoleon lived over the hill from the main harbour in a bay called Baie Ngatavake, and he was a real find; one of only three people on the island who could speak English, he transformed us from lost tourists to informed experts in the space of one day. It all started on the morning of Thursday 15th May; we'd decided to get some fruit, not a tricky procedure given the number of communal fruit trees around, but we figured it was only polite to ask the people in the nearby houses if would be all right to pick their fruit. So we waltzed up to this young guy who had just turned up in a jeep, and asked him if he knew where we could get some fruit, especially some mangoes.
He introduced himself as Napoleon, a twenty-six year old farmer from Ngatavake, and he told us that if we wanted some really good fruit, we could hop in his jeep and get a lift over to his house on the other side of the island. That wasn't the sort of offer we could turn down, so before long we were bouncing along the dirt road, hanging on for dear life as the jeep careened over the hill to Ngatavake, a collection of two or three houses looking over the most stunning bay you're ever likely to see. Napoleon's house was surrounded by fruit trees of all descriptions, and as we wandered around, he pointed out all the goodies we could pluck.
Top of my list were the mangoes, which have to be one of the the most delicious fruits in existence. I first came across the sweet taste of mango in Melbourne, where they correctly proclaimed it was the food of the gods and showed me how to eat it by slicing off one side of the fruit, scoring it crisscross and turning it inside out so the flesh stands up like a grid of cocktail cheese cubes. But the mangoes in the Pacific islands are from another world, with a flavour that makes Melbournian mangoes taste like old boots, and I soon became quite an expert at spotting mango trees and hunting for any mangoes that had fallen to the forest floor.
With our mangoes safely stashed, we happily wandered off down the road towards Rikitea, stopping every few metres as Napoleon spotted another fruit tree and insisted that we fill our bags. We had mangoes, grapefruit, papaya, mandarins, guavas, lemons, breadfruit, pistache, coconut, little red tomatoes and oranges, all as fresh as they come; by the time we got back to the boat we figured Napoleon deserved a drink, so we pulled out the bottle of sake that Rob had stashed away in the bottom of the cupboard (the only alcohol we had on board) and treated ourselves to a glass each.
It was then that we cooked up the pancakes and started talking about the island. We learned lots of intriguing facts about the Gambiers that you wouldn't read in books, like the fact that the islanders used to make their own fruit wine, but the French made it illegal so the locals would have to buy beer and wine at inflated prices from the local shops; indeed, the attitude of the local gendarmes (two French and one local) towards the natives was apparently quite arrogant, something the islanders didn't like at all. It's a sad story, but a familiar one if you know anything about the exploitation of the Pacific, and it was made all the more real by Napoleon's explanations. It was a very interesting afternoon.
Meeting the Other Yachties
That night we expanded our social circle even further by meeting some of the other yacht crews in the harbour (there were five other yachts in Rikitea harbour when we arrived). Joe and Janet from the Canadian sloop Tegan dropped by for a chat on the way to their boat; their visit soon extended into a couple of beers and a sampling of my freshly baked mango cake, of which I was rather proud. Joe and Janet were to turn out to be excellent company during our Gambier stay, and told us lots about the other yachties in the harbour. It never ceases to amaze me how the world of yachting is like an extended family, with people just striking up conversations with other yachts, and extending the warm hand of friendship to complete strangers for no other reason than the fact that they have a boat too. It's a very pleasant club, and it makes distant harbours feel like home in the space of a few days.
Joe and Janet also mentioned that one of the boats had a welding machine on it, and that the owner – known as 'Peeyoo' for no better reason than his initials were P.U. – was a very friendly guy who, if we asked him nicely, would probably help us out with fixing Doris, our broken wind vane. Rob jumped at the chance, and the next day he went over to Peeyoo and enlisted his help to spend half a day welding steel; as a thank-you we invited him round for dinner and yarned the night away. Peeyoo, a fascinating man from Sweden, was sailing round the world single-handed – no mean feat! – and proved highly entertaining company.
Initial Exploration of Mangareva
The next day, Friday 16th May, I explored the southeast corner of Île Mangareva, following the road to what I hoped would be a beach, but which turned out to be a dead-end in the hilly forests of the island. Undeterred, I decided to bush-bash my way to the beach, but I wasn't expecting such seriously spiky plants (it wasn't quite bush lawyer, but enough to lacerate my legs) and towering fern thickets, so after half an hour of struggling downhill towards the shore and getting Pyke-like déjà vu, I turned round, made my way back to the road, sat down and ate a couple of mangoes. The moral of the story: rainforest is a nightmare to bash through, whatever the country.
To make up for my bleeding legs, I got a lift back with a passing jeep, full to the brim with young teenage kids, who were squeezed in between sackfuls of oranges that they'd spent the day picking. They filled my bag with oranges, gave me chilled orange juice to drink when we stopped at one of their houses, and deposited me safely back in town with huge smiles and waves all round. It's a wonderfully friendly world out here in Polynesia, it really is.
You may wonder how yachts survive in terms of water; after all, you can envisage months' worth of food, but water? Surely it runs out?
Indeed, it does, and our tanks ran out along with the month of May, not surprisingly seeing as we hadn't filled them since leaving New Zealand in April. But where do you get water in a place like the Gambiers, where the local mains water isn't fit to drink – even for the islanders – and there are no taps on the quay? The answer is to use a rain catcher.
A rain catcher does just what it sounds like: it catches rain and puts it into your tank. Your average rain catcher is simply a tarpaulin with a hole in the middle, to which you attach a hose that feeds into your water tank. Zeke had a rain catcher – at least it did when we arrived in the Gambiers – and we decided to set it up on the morning of Monday 26th. The rain had been streaming down all night with a persistency that made us think it would keep on going for days, but we'd been entertaining Joe and Janet to a night of cookies and videos, so I'd only put up the small rain catcher, more as a gesture than a practicality. The next day, though, we decided to go for the big one.
Whoops. Zeke's rain catcher, which Rob had never actually used before, turned out to be rubbish, being nothing more than a huge piece of porous (porous!) material and a kinked hose, down two sides of which you put wooden slats to retain the shape. The theory was fine, but in the strong gusts we were having, the material ripped right across the middle where the stitching had rotted, and one of the slats snapped in half as a result. So we got soaked to the skin and remained waterless while the heavens poured down more liquid than even Moses had had to cope with.
Tegan, bless them, had seen our plight, and offered us their rain catcher, seeing as they'd had theirs up all night and had filled their entire tank, as well as all the other containers they could get their hands on. We gladly accepted, and in the next weather lull we dinghied over, picked up the catcher, and installed it on Zeke; as a result the sun came out and the rain disappeared faster than a shoplifter who's seen a blue flashing light.
My only other experience with rain catchers was during a later storm, when we again borrowed Joe and Janet's system. I have no idea how much water we collected, but when Bob Geldof wrote, 'There's nothing more useless than a car that won't start/But it's even more useless at the end of the world,' he'd obviously never had to use a bloody rain catcher. We finally filled our tanks by doing three dinghy journeys to the local school, run by the Frères du Sacré Coeur, filling up jerry cans from their rain water tank until the dinghy was close to sinking, and siphoning it into our tanks. It cost us sweat and effort, but it was still far less grief than getting the rain catcher to work.
The Frères were useful for more than water, too. Being the local school – or one of them, I should say, the other being a state school rather than a convent – they were well equipped in the workshop stakes. We visited them on Tuesday 27th May to ask them if they could complete the repairs to Doris by making a new rudder for it, and we spent an interesting morning communicating in pidgin French what we wanted, and making sure that the pupils who did the work drilled holes in the right place and knew what shape we wanted the rudder to be.
The job was very polished, and the cost was peanuts; we paid them US$25 for the piece of wood, and US$25 for something like four hours' labour, probably a quarter of what it would have cost in New Zealand. Some things, like labour, are very cheap in the middle of nowhere, and some things, like chocolate, alcohol and electrical parts, are extortionate. Depending on your lifestyle, it either balances out, or it's a very expensive life in paradise.
That afternoon saw Rob and I climb to the highest point in the Gambiers – nay, in the whole Tuamotu Archipelago. Mont Duff towers above the area to a snow-brushing height of 411m, and the climb up is something everyone who visits the Gambiers should do. We, however, managed to get our bearings completely confused, and ended up climbing the wrong mountain, Mont Mokoto, the second highest peak in the Tuamotus.
Still, with the mountains being so huge, we simply slid down one and up the other, so after beating through some beautiful bush we finally got to the top of Mont Duff, admired the quite stunning view, and discovered a marked path all the way down to the main road, something we'd missed on the way up. The grapefruit we found at the bottom never tasted so sweet...
Six People and a Boat
On our way back to the quay we got talking to a new couple on the block, Laurent and Sonia from Chile, who invited us over for tea and a natter. I remember a number of things about our visit: excellent conversation, despite a language barrier (only Laurent spoke English); two adults and four kids crammed into a boat not that much larger than Zeke; wonderful ham sandwiches, fulfilling one of my most intense ocean passage fantasies; harrowing stories of the family coming through the Straits of Magellan, at the southern tip of South America; the kids showing me their homework, and the courses they had to follow by correspondence; and a delightful caramel spread that transformed toast into something special, created by simply boiling an unopened can of condensed milk in water for two hours.
It's amazing what you can learn from one quick visit to another person's boat.
Walking Round Mangareva
To alleviate the potential boredom and frustration associated with staying in the harbour and spending most of the time fixing things on the boat – our current project was to paint all the rust spots on the deck, which was pretty tedious – I decided to circumnavigate Île Mangareva by foot. The total distance looked fairly large on the map – something like 20km – but that wasn't enough to deter a tramper like me, so armed with lunch, some water and a compass, I set off on the morning of Friday 30th May for a good, long walk.
It went well. The walk round Mangareva is beautiful, to say the least, with bay after bay stretching out into the pale blue sea, with lots of little pearl farms standing in the sea and houses every now and then along the way. As I was leaving the outskirts of Rikitea – if a village that small can be said to have outskirts – I managed to pick up a dog, who started to follow me and wouldn't take the hint when I made a point of ignoring him and not being at all friendly. After a couple of miles I realised that the little blighter was going to hang around for the duration, so I started to make polite conversation, asking him if he knew any good spots for a swim.
The response was pretty poor; all he did was run off the road every now and chase chickens, much to my embarrassment, so I named him 'Colonel' after the finger-lickin' father of Kentucky Fried, Colonel Sanders. Unfortunately, Colonel had one bad trait when it came to human obedience; like an experienced lover he only came when it suited him, which meant I ended up feeling responsible for him every time the farm dogs started their frenzied 'he be a stranger round these parts' barking. Still, he deserved part of my sandwich just for sticking with me all the way round.
The end arrived prematurely; I'd assumed I was no more than halfway round, but straight after lunch I arrived in Baie de Ngatavake, home to Napoleon and just over the hill from Rikitea, and true to form, as I wandered past Napoleon's house, his family called over and asked, in French, if I would like any pamplemousse. Now I was pretty thirsty – thinking I had miles to go, I'd been rationing my water – so I took up the offer and wolfed down the grapefruit like there was no tomorrow. The conversation flowed like the juice dribbling down my beard, despite the low level of my French, and after about ten minutes I discovered that Napoleon's brother, Terii, spoke good English, and we continued the conversation to my advantage. Napoleon was working that day – and, it being pay day, would be getting plastered that night – but Terii, the older brother and more mature, told me all about his 12 years working for Marlon Brando on his private island near Tahiti, the reasons why he moved to Mangareva, what work was like on his own private pearl farm, his experiences of Tahiti, and plenty more. Needless to say, he filled up my backpack with fruit, and when he offered me a lift back to Rikitea, he chopped down the biggest bunch of bananas you've ever seen and handed it to me. Fruit might be ubiquitous in the Gambiers, but the kindness of the locals is still something to marvel at.
To cap it all, Terii gave me a lift over to Zeke in his canoe when we got to Rikitea. Mangarevan canoes are very fast (they use outboard motors to burn through the surf) and have outriggers to make them really stable. Arriving at Zeke via local transport with sacks of fruit felt pretty good, and we happily ate bananas for the rest of our stay in Mangareva.
The Supply Boat
On Saturday 31st May a huge boat came into port, docked, dropped off lots of containers and fuel, and left again. I only say this to highlight the supply system here: you wait for the supply ship, buy everything you can while the shops are well stocked, and then you hold out for another four weeks or so until the next one arrives.
The only other commercial traffic is by air, with three flights a month to Tahiti that are mainly used by the locals to get to Tahiti for medical treatment or to discuss business there. The flight costs a lot of money – not surprisingly when you consider the remoteness of the islands – which might help to explain why the Gambiers aren't a major tourist spot.
Even when the supply ship has unloaded its goods, it can be challenging to buy anything. The shops shut for siesta in the Gambier Islands between 12 noon and 3pm, even the shop that sells sandwiches...
Welcome to Rikitea, the only place in the world where the lunch bars shut for lunch.
Tuesday 3rd June was party night; Richard and Gail on the schooner Jan van Gent invited everybody who was anybody to a 'bring a dessert and a musical instrument' evening, a very well attended do that saw some amazing desserts (oh, and some of my ANZAC cookies from Zeke). I took my penny whistle, on which I could play 'Molly Malone', but that was about all I could manage until Laurent fished out his guitar. I scraped together a solo performance of The Senators' 'The Girl I Adore' and Billy Bragg's 'The Man in the Iron Mask' – it was good to play a guitar after so long without one – and we all saw the wee hours in with beer and good cheer.
It was a wonderful evening, especially as we arrived with a bowl of ANZAC cookies and left with a goody bag filled with chocolate cake, guava and peach pie, chocolate cookies, coconut balls, and a couple of leftover ANZACs... quite a trade!
Come and Go
Sometime during our stay in Rikitea, the gorgeous yacht Illusion arrived, complete with Jim and Ami, the American couple sailing it. Joe and Janet from Tegan had met Jim and Ami in South America, and their induction into the Gambier knitting circle was swift and welcome.
Illusion was also interesting because it was there that I got my first look at an American map of the world. As a European I'm used to seeing maps with the Americas on the left, Australia in the bottom-right, the zero degrees line sensibly arranged in the middle of the map, and the equator halfway down the page, equidistant between the top and bottom. Of course this is a fairly Euro-centric view of the world, and I've seen amusing maps in Australia and New Zealand where the world is upside down, with south at the top and north at the bottom, thus showing Australia at the top of the map. However, every map in the USA – yes, apparently every map, because Jim said he'd never seen a Euro-centric map until he left the States, and it had blown his mind – has the Americas in the middle of the page, with Europe and Africa on the right, and Japan, Australia and so on to the left.
That's not the weird bit though, because it's only fair and understandable that the Americans should have USA-centric maps; but on closer inspection, they've also moved the equator down the page, so the northern hemisphere is bigger than the southern, making North America look huge and pushing Antarctica off the bottom of the map; and, even better, they've arbitrarily chopped Asia down the middle, with one half on the right and one on the left, but without any real overlap, so some countries simply disappear, or become so crushed onto the periphery that they're easily missed. The position of the dividing line? Uncannily close to Vietnam. At least we have the decency to chop the world in half along a line between Russia and Alaska, which doesn't cut through any continents and only sacrifices a couple of mid-Pacific islands that wouldn't show up on a map of the world anyway. I suppose I should be grateful that the landmasses that aren't in North America weren't labelled terra incognita... but if you've ever wondered why Americans consider Vietnam to be at the ends of the earth, perhaps this might be the reason why.