Thursday, 4 June 2015

French Polynesia, Gambier Islands, 08-04-15

After yet another week long passage we finally arrived in the Gambier. Unlike the other island groups in French Pol that we've seen, this one is just a few Islands all huddled together. The Tuamotus and the Society Islands are spread out over massive areas, but here the islands are all in one place. You can pick which one you feel like anchoring at each day, just ducking round the corner if the wind changes or you want a change of scenery.

Another sunset under way

Approaching the Gambiers

We pulled up next to the island closest to the pass when we came in. There were two boats already nestled in a little bay between the main island and another tiny island but our charts all said it was too shallow for us to venture in. We were losing the sunshine and didn't want to run aground quite so soon, so we went past them to the other side to look for some sand. We eventually found a patch and as we turned the engine down to drop the anchor we heard our name on the radio. We hadn't heard anything on channel 16 for weeks and didn't even have the cockpit speakers turned on. The mysterious callers were friends with Mark and Liesbet on Irie, who had emailed them so we'd have some friendly faces when we arrived. They'd been calling us since we came through the pass, ready to hand out waypoints that would lead us safely into the bay. Doh! We stayed put seeing as the day was getting on and it was incredibly calm, but Birgit and Christian informed us that there had been breaking waves in our anchorage a few days earlier and that the water was never calm enough to hang around where we were. We lucked out because the water was completely glassy.

We were rewarded for our nautical adventures with a beautiful full moon that night. It was so bright that it felt like it was day time we I was sitting out in the cockpit. I had to change the settings on the camera to take a picture. But I was trying to make it darker instead of lighter like you normally would at night. No matter what I did it still looked like it was day time and the moon still looked like the sun.

11pm and it looks like daytime

Our new neighbours came to visit us the next morning, accompanied by a tray of fresh fruit. Fruit! They were both so lovely and welcoming, which was amazing after the month we'd had getting there from Tahiti. After we spent some time tidying up they led us in a convoy to the outer reef so we could go snorkelling. It was ridiculously calm. Christian and Birgit told us that over the whole cyclone season it had only been calm enough for them to get out there once before.

It was so much fun swimming in amongst real coral again! We've had a great time swimming in the crystal clear waters of French Polynesia, but the coral has all been the same. It's mostly scattered coral heads littered with reeds. There was a solid reef here though, littered with gorgonian fans and other interesting corals. There wasn't an abundance of aquatic life, but we did find lots and lots of brightly coloured parrot fish. They don't usually let you examine them up close for very long as a general rule but these ones were fat and friendly, ignoring us completely as they munched away on the coral.

Pretty little parrot fish

We also came across two white-tipped reef sharks and neither of them seemed too bothered by us. The second one showed up as everybody was climbing back into the dinghy and I was the only one with my head in the water. The others were above the surface discussing our previous sharky friend and so didn't really catch on that we were being circled by another one when I yelled out 'Shark!' This meant that by the time they figured it out and replaced their masks he was already gone. I hate being alone in the water with sharks and I'm glad he wasn't too interested in us.

They always want to play with Garth

So we had a lovely swim. In the end we didn't get to take in any of the other beautiful snorkeling spots the Gambiers are famous for, so I was really grateful for the escort out there. We would have had no idea where to go. After we got both boats organised, Christian and Birgit led us to another anchorage on the other side of the island we'd been behind the night before. It was a little bit rolly but we were so happy not to be enroute to somewhere that we thoroughly enjoyed throwing the anchor down and chilling out. They had us over for dinner that night, as well as every single night over the last week. It took us so long to organise the boat after all our passages that by the time we had it tidy and ready to receive guests, it was time to go again. Unfortunately Birgit wasn't feeling well on our last night anchored away from the town and we didn't get to repay their hospitality. But we felt thoroughly spoiled the entire time we were there.

The next day we did some boat work before following Christian and Birgit out to the next bay over. There were quite a few boats there already but everybody was so friendly. Birgit said there were only a few boats in the Gambier for the entire cyclone season (I think she said eight), so they've got a nice little cruising community here. Everybody knows everybody.

That evening the fun continued with a BBQ on the beach. We were joined by a nice German guy on a catamaran and a young guy called Jan, who has sailed his tiny boat across the Pacific all on his own. He's the first person we've met on a smaller boat than ours. Its really tiny for a liveaboard, 28 feet I think. His boat is also the first we've encountered that was designed by Bianca as well, just like ours. It has a similiar racey feel to it but is much smaller. It rocks back and forth like a dinghy if you move from one side to the other, which means he gets absolutely slammed by waves as well as from the wake as other boats zip past.

It was a lot of fun to just head over to the beach and light a fire. We sat around until quite late in the evening, drinking and being social. Birgit even made stick bread to put over the fire. I've never encountered anything like it before but Garth was quite familiar with the concept. We each got a stick and wrapped our bit of dough around the end of it in a spiral pattern. Then the stick went over the fire as if there were a marshmallow on the end. It quickly went crispy and golden on the outside and was an amazing addition to our dinner. I wish we could cook more things on sticks over fires.

Stick bread!

The only thing I didn't love about the beach were the centipedes. We rocked up bare-footed like we always do, to the surprise of everybody there. Apparantly there's centipedes everywhere in the bushes. I had a brief brush with one when we were building our dinghy on the dock in Bora Bora, but it was quickly destroyed and forgotten about. I did not love the idea that the mat we were sitting on could at any time be overrun by dangerous bitey things with lots of tiny legs. Luckily Birgit has a keen eye for the little buggers and she both spotted then removed a few babies from our circle before they bothered anybody.

We were also shocked to find out that it was Easter. How on earth did that happen? We had absolutely no idea. Our new German friend passed around chocolate to celebrate the holiday, which was more than welcome. He also supplied us with some fresh pamplemousse juice which was absolutely amazing. I'd only just tried my first Pamplemousse in Hao when our French neighbours on the dock next to us handed one over as a parting gift. The're giant, sweet grapefruit and they're as big as a small melon. In France i'm sure a pamplemousse is just a regular grapefruit, but here in French Polynesia they're giant and awesome. I hadn't even thought to juice it before and now I'm really disappointed that I've missed out on them the whole time we've been here. Every single house has a tree laden with the fruit. Both Juan and Birgit said that to get free pamplemousse in French Polynesia all you have to do is compliment somebody on their beautiful tree. The people here are so nice that they then force you to take some of the fruit. If only my French was better I could try this out.

We moved to another anchorage the next day. You really don't have to go far here to be surrounded by completely different scenery. There's so many bays and they're all gorgeous. This next anchorage was around the corner from where we spent our first night. There was a shallow channel in between two islands where the wind was funneling through, which was nice for our wind generator. It would have been a lovely spot to go kiting but the wind died by the time we wanted to give it a go.

There was a nice house with a concrete dock to tie up to nearby. Christian and Birgit know the owners, who were on holiday for a while. So we were able to go ashore to try and find a path up the mountain for a nice view. The Gambier used to be heavily populated, with thousands of people living on the island we were trekking over. I think Birgit said there's only something like four people living there now. All the houses are long gone but some of the tracks remained. They led us through the forest over an invisible path - there was no way in hell we would have been able to find the way on our own. All the mountains here are populated with pine trees, which is really bizarre. It was like stepping into another world. One minute we were climbing through soggy dirt in amongst the tangled roots of old trees and stepping over rotting coconuts, and the next we were engulfed by the unmistakble scent of pine trees as we made our way over all the needles scattered on the ground.

We headed up and up, clinging onto trees as we tried not to slip over on the nasty combination of soft dirt and loose pine needles. We eventually made it to a ridge where we had a nice view of the Gambier islands and the water down below. But the sun had run away so it wasn't exactly picture perfect. Birgit suggested we wait for the sun to come back, but the boys disappeared into the woods like a couple of mountain goats. Garth found some animal tracks leading up the mountain, so up we went. The reeds we were walking through were deadly, slicing through your hand if you slipped and grabbed for them. They whipped at our arms and legs as well, leaving me covered in tiny cuts. We had been warned about them though so at least I wasn't surprised. Birgit and Christian had obviously done this before. They came prepared with a machette to hack the path and a lemon to squeeze onto Garth's hand when he got bitten by a paper wasp. Four months surrounded by the cheeky little buggers and that was our first attack. I think we got off pretty lightly... probably because I'm not the one who got bitten.

The goat tracks through the reeds were annoying. Because the wild goats are goat height, their paths were little tunnels through the reeds instead of sensible human sized paths. We got down on all fours to crawl through them, which made life a lot easier. Eventually the path disappeared completely and we were left with some tricky steep bits of soft dirt to clamber up and some big rocks to scale. I would have ended up at the bottom of the mountain a few times if Christian hadn't caught me.

But we finally made it to the top, and the view was well worth the hike. It's been ages since we've made it up a mountain! The last one was probably in Moorea, but we didn't really hike up it. The view is always more rewarding if the walk is a bit of a mission. We all hung out taking pictures of the pretty islands for a while before trekking back down, tired but triumphiant.

I stole this one of all of us from Birgit 

When we got to the bottom again we spent some time raiding the garden that belonged to the house. Because the owners were on holiday and Christian and Birgit knew them we weren't bothering anybody. Their garden was huge. There were several big lemon trees all heavily laden with fruit and we each gathered bags of lemons from off the ground to make lemonade with. Christian found a big pole to knock some green papayas down and I stood at the bottom with Birgit trying to catch them. They also cut down some green plantains to share with us and we all got into the green coconuts. I even managed to score the only ripe breadfruit, which i acquired by sitting on Garth's shoulders.

Our anchorage from the top of the mountain. You can just make out the house next to the water

I was interesting to see how these two seasoned cruisers did things. They've been living aboard for a long time and have systems in place to make life as easy as possible. They do washing every morning in the water from their shower the night before (everybody out here washes in the ocean and rinses the salt water off with fresh, so it's essentially fresh water that would otherwise go to waste). They bake fresh bread every morning. And they collect coconuts by taking a machete, a spoon and a heap of jars to shore and getting stuck in. The water gets poured into a jar to drink later. The jelly gets scooped out and saved to cook with in leu of coconut milk. And the bits of husk and shell get left on shore while Birgit and Christian escape back to the boat with nothing but a few jars. All this time I've been dragging coconuts back to the boat and making a slow mess in the cockpit, for fear of cutting the boat. It obviously makes more sense to deal with all the mess away from the boat!

We've been seeing things like plantains and breadfruit all the way across the South Pacific, but had never tried to cook with them. I hate bananas and no matter how many people tell me that they're not the same as plantains it's hard to believe when they look so banana-y. Neither of us is too fond of papaya either, so we've avoided those as well. But Birgit and Christian had us over for dinner yet again that night and made a curry from the green papaya, plantains and the coconut jelly. And it was delicious! They explained that whilst green, both can be used as generic vegetables in pretty much anything. Birgit fried up some plantain chips as well, which were also amazing. So now we're a lot less scared to cook papaya and plantains at least. I even had a go at cooking breadfruit for the first time after they told me how to figure out if it was ripe. I cut up and boiled the whole thing like Mark and Liesbet had told me to and now we're putting it in pretty much everything. So that was exciting, both because we learned a lot and because we had fresh food again for the first time in a long time.

They told us that we could go round to the village where we anchored the first night to get vegetables. For $10 the lady there sells mixed bags of whatever fruit and veges she has to cruisers. I absolutely loved the idea of just being handed a bag of unknown produce and putting it to use. But unfortunately we didn't have time. After two days in that beautiful spot the weather started looking promising for us to leave, so we had to say our goodbyes to our new friends and head over to the town to stock up for our big passage. Eep!

Xxx Monique

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