The Tuamotus, called the ‘dangerous Archipelago’ in account of its treacherous currents and lurking reefs, are in complete contrast with the Marquises.
It is an Archipelago formed of seventy six atolls. The atolls are high sand bars on low-lying ring shaped coral reefs, encircling volcanoes that sank into the ocean million of years ago. Some atolls have navigable entrances into the lagoon and some have no entrance at all. Many known and unowned vessels came to grief around the atolls; they are currently littered with wrecks:- Kon-Tiki expedition, Sir Francis Chichester’s ketch – Gipsy Moth IV are just a couple of the casualties.
The entries in the atolls are particularly challenging and they have to be timed right (ideally after a period of no wind, on either the oncoming or outgoing current depending on their geographical position, and with the sun on your back for eye ball navigation, particularly where there are no marked channels). If the wind is against the tide you may find yourself in a whirlpool, with no or very little control of your vessel.
The passage from the Marquises takes between four to five days. Regardless of how well you plan it, there will be things outside of your control, which can make entry in the atoll a challenging experience (e.g. weather forecast can chance). We timed our entry after two days of no wind, and we were lucky to manage to get there during daytime. The exact timing was not ideal as we had four knots of current against us. But with no wind the situation was manageable. The passage to the anchorage was marked which was one of the reasons for choosing Ahe for our stop in the Tuamotus.
In fact, our intention was to visit a couple of atolls. However, pressed by time (we did not want to miss the 14th July celebrations in Tahiti) from the seventy six atolls we settled on Ahe for a taste of the Tuamotus.
Ahe is a small authentic atoll in Northern Tuamotus. It is the place where Moitessier spent two years after deciding to forego everything associated with eventually winning the GGR ‘69, for which he was the favourite. The rebuilt house (on suspected pillars) where Moitessier was lodging is overlooking the turquoise anchorage welcoming adventurers in their own mythical journeys.
In the Tuamotus there is no cultivable land, the only resources being ‘the copra’ (coconut), breadfruit and fish. The scarcity of resources made people come together and help each other in every way. Another unifying factor is the inhabitants’ vulnerability to the weather. About every four years they experience a cyclone, that takes everything with it. In addition, ever so often they have to put up with devastating tsunamis…This vulnerability to the adversity of the elements have created a very united, resilient and resourceful group of people.
In order to fructify the limited opportunities on the islands pearl farming was born some fifty years ago in the atoll of Manihi. Pearl farming is an activity that have its roots in the 13th century China. The Chinese were grafting the oysters with small figurines of Buda, to retrieve after a couple of years the same figurines in iridescent sheens. Nowadays there is a myriad of pearl farms, especially in the northern atolls. We learned a lot about the tedious work performed over a few years to obtain the perfectly round or elongated gems (poe rava) in various iridescent sheens from dark grey to gold, blue, peacock or pistachio. The fishermen on the islands trained themselves to free dive to a depth of up to forty meters and they can hold their breath for up to four minutes!
The few inhabitants from the Tuamotus are as hospitable and lovely as the people from the Marquises, but they do not share the same customs. There are no wild animals to hunt, no tree bark to tap and no rocks to carve. They mainly express their abundant creativity and artistic spirit through singing and dancing. Overall they are a gentler breed. This softness is apparent also in the Paumotu language that sounds less abrupt.
Stepping on shore we had the pleasant surprise of stumbling upon the villagers celebrating gaining their governing autonomy from France some thirty years ago. Welcoming faces all around – some involved in the singing, some just chatting away whilst enjoying the local delicacies from plaited palm trays.
We quickly became friends with Dora and her cousin Anna. Probably the fact that Dora (a local who currently lives in California) is married to a Romanian contributed to us becoming instant friends. We were ‘adopted’ by Dora’s family for the week we stayed in ‘the motu’. They shared with us all the great Polynesian wisdom, delicacies and customs. We felt very spoilt, so thank you beautiful people of Ahe!
During the week in Ahe, we were ‘fortunate’ to experience one of the yearly July storms which transformed the sunny turquoise paradise for a few days into a grey, wet and hostile environment. When the sunshine returned in all its glory we walked on the windward side of the atoll. The fifty meters coral strip separating the still angry ocean from the unflappable waters in the atoll was eaten by the furious waves that spat a carpet of coral heads ripped from the sea bed. The entire village got flooded. One of the locals stepped in a seawater pool in his house when he got up in the middle of the night.
The storm must have had an effect on the underwater life too, as there wasn’t much to see. On the last day we saw a lemon shark around our boat, scanning the area for cruisers!
Life is simple in the atolls. It evolves around copra, fishing, pearl farming and the regular arrival of the supply ship. Every two weeks the atoll becomes fully animated. There are locals coming in the village by boat, cycling or by foot from all ‘the sectors’ (parts of the atoll that are linked by ‘hoa’ – channels allowing the lagoon and the ocean to meet). The locals bring goods to be shipped to other islands, they pick up their deliveries and/or buy the goodies ‘off the shelf’. Fruit and veggies are at high price and queues form quickly to ensure the family needs are covered. The good thing is that there are only under six hundred people in the atoll, so the queues aren’t too long. But they are slow!
Some people board the supply ship to travel between the atolls or to Tahiti. So did our friend Dora to visit her family in Manihi. The alternative would be to catch a plain to Tahiti, Ahe having recently built its own airport.
We left the same day for a two day sail to Tahiti. We visited the rest of the Society Islands, each with its own version of paradise: from colourful Tahiti to buzzy Moorea, rural Huahine, nautical Raiatea, Vanilla scented Taha’a and breathtaking Bora Bora. We are now ready to move onto Cook, Niue and then Tonga.