We made our last sortie from Rikitea on Thursday 5th June, accompanied by Tegan as per usual (no other yachts joined us, as they seemed to be far more interested in simply lazing around off Rikitea, probably a side-effect of visiting too many island paradises). Our mission: to head a couple of miles east towards the airport motu, Totegegie.
A motu has to be one of the most classic tropical formations – or, at least, an important part of one of the most classic tropical formations, the atoll – and Totegegie is a classic example. A motu is an island that forms when debris and sand collects on top of an atoll reef, normally in a long, thin line, and the motu at Totegegie stretches for about five miles (with a couple of small breaks where you can dinghy through to the ocean), is only about 100m wide at its widest point, and is smothered with coconut palms, firs and pandanus trees. It's also the site of the Gambier Islands' airport, a one-and-a-half mile sealed strip, presumably left over from the days of the military tests in the area, and which now hosts just three planes a month. One thing's for sure: living under the flight path in the Gambiers doesn't bring the property prices down by much.
The motu stretches north-south along the eastern side of the Gambier atoll, and we anchored just inside the atoll, opposite sandy beaches and swaying trees, and with the Pacific Ocean peeping through gaps in the reef. The sound of the sea crashing against the outside of the reef was particularly soothing as we relaxed in the smooth waters of the lagoon; when there's a huge, living coral reef between you and the swell, it takes one hell of a storm to spoil the tranquillity.
Rob and I explored the airport and terminal shacks – which were surprisingly modern considering the total lack of tourists who fly to the Gambiers – and plunged into the bush to the south of the airstrip to tackle the rough-looking road that would, we hoped, lead us to a collection of abandoned buildings that we'd spotted from the boat. Sure enough, after wandering down the road for some time – avoiding the countless hermit crabs who were sunbathing right in our path and who would roll themselves into balls at our approach – we reached a group of old warehouses, relics from an earlier age when machinery was fixed on the motu. The buildings were totally abandoned and crumbling, a hopeful sign that the French have finally pulled the stopper on the military activity and tests that have plagued the area for far too long.
The day was rounded off with Joe's homemade pizza, probably the best pizza I have ever tasted anywhere (not surprisingly, given my lucid dreams of pizza on the way to the Gambiers). Goodness knows how he did it – practice, he assured me – but his pizza dough was as good as any restaurant's that I'd come across, and his jalapeno peppers really added zest to the experience. I might have been proud of my cooking on board Zeke, but some people are just born to the kitchen (or, rather, the galley).
Barbecues, Cigars and Scuba Diving
We spent the next day preparing for another beach barbecue, this time on the motu. As with our Île Akamaru barbecue, it all went swimmingly, with my first attempt at a marinade going down a treat. The cigars made an appearance – José Llopis Churchills, maduros and naturals, just for the record – and we all spent a sizable portion of the evening scouring the outside of the reef, exposed at low tide, for crabs and lobsters, but failed to catch a glimpse of even one. Never mind, walking round an exposed reef by torchlight after a large barbecue is an interesting experience even if you don't spot anything.
The conversation turned to cigars, naturally, but this time with more gusto that at the last barbie. The reason? A couple of days before I had borrowed a copy of an American magazine off Joe called Cigar Aficionado, a wonderful and decadent quarterly publication that pays unbridled homage to the cigar. It contains interviews with famous people who smoke cigars, it discusses the latest Cuban harvest, it does taste tests on cigar types, it discusses anything to do with being a rich jetsetter... it was completely fascinating and surprisingly a rather good read, even if it shamelessly promoted an image of the incredibly rich that left a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Still, I learned an awful lot about cigars in one brief reading, and it helped to break up the afternoon of cooking, washing up and singing along to a Neil Diamond tape I discovered in the back of one of Zeke's draws (which just goes to show how tolerant one becomes after months in a yacht).
The next couple of days we lazed and snorkelled, fixing the odd thing on the boat, and on Monday 9th, Rob and I decided to do a scuba dive, a momentous decision, for this was to be my first dive on coral with my new scuba equipment. It's all very well snorkelling and Hookah diving, but scuba is the only real way to explore, and explore we did. We ended up diving separately, one after the other – which you should never do, if you follow the rule book to the letter – because Rob wanted to go spearing fish, and with sharks in the water, it's a good idea to have someone in the dinghy ready to pick up any fish you might catch before the predators get in there. He didn't get any fish, but it meant that I got an hour of solo diving round the reef, exploring and just sitting there watching the sea life, quite overwhelmed by the experience.
Diving round coral is hard to explain. The geography of the ocean floor – 'bommies' of coral pushing up from the sand; sheets of flat coral that you can poke your head under; valleys through coral that are great to swim down and thrilling to catch the ocean swell in; caves full of hiding fish – makes the exploring far more interesting than with a flat-bottomed sandy sea. On top of that there's the life surrounding the coral: huge, brightly coloured fish in shoals that all turn to flee at the same time, like herds of swimming sheep; eels three metres long that hug the floor, slipping in and out of coral corridors; large, ugly grouper that look miserable but taste good; sharks that you basically try to avoid; coral trout hugging the bommies... the delights never end.
And on top of the fish and coral are the shellfish, from which I collected two spider conch and two trochus (the former proving to be delicious when smashed open, gutted and fried in a little flour and oil, a process that Richard from Jan van Gent showed us on our return to Rikitea). The whole dive, lasting an hour, was again a confirmation that despite the initial cost of scuba training and equipment, it's worth every penny.
We returned to Rikitea through rain and high winds on Tuesday 10th, and spent the night watching videos on Illusion with Jim and Ami and the Tegan crew. We spent the last few days before our planned departure from the Gambiers living the harbour life, finalising preparations for the journey ahead, and cooking as many meals in advance as we could, ready for freezing, to make things easier for me in my new role as ship's cook. Not that I was complaining; if you're in charge of the food, you never go hungry, though that wasn't much use as the seasickness returned for the trip to Amanu...