Sunday, January 31, 2016

January 30th – Paradise Lost in Papeete?

As we sailed towards Tahiti's capital, Papeete, last night, we were treated to a wonderful performance of singing and dancing by a local Tahitian group. Looking at those beautiful women doing their sensuous dancing, you could see just why Fletcher Christian and his fellow Mutineers didn't want to leave paradise to return to rainy old England.

It makes you wonder what decision Christian would have come to yesterday, if he'd (like us) walked into the sweaty concrete jungle that is modern Papeete, just as the heavens opened. With its traffic and its collection of rather unattractive scruffy modern buildings, Papeete is a long way from being the tropical paradise that most people imagine.

As the rain started, we headed to the town's best feature, its colourful market, where the goods were exotic and the people friendly. However, the prices were so high, that it makes you wonder how the ordinary Tahitian can afford to survive. With the rain really hammering down, we decided to cut our losses and return to the ship.

After lunch, there was a break in the clouds, so we ventured out for a hike along the coast. Unfortunately, Papeete sprawls a lot further back than it initially seemed, so mainly we were walking along mainly scruffy residential roads – as ever, the people were overwhelmingly friendly, which is perhaps Papeete's greatest asset. We eventually reached a beach, but it was hardly the stuff of a Gaugin masterpiece – black volcanic sand, and lots of washed up rubbish.

This was all proof that to see the best of Tahiti, you really need to have some transport to get out of the city limits – if you want verdant landscapes of waterfalls and mountains, or stunning coastlines of swaying palms and blue lagoons, Tahiti can supply all this - you just need to get out of Papeete.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

January 29th – Le Tour de Moorea

In the past we've explored the beautiful island of Moorea, by bus, by jeep and by boat; so, today it was time to explore by a different form of transport – by bicycle. This lush tropical island is incredibly mountainous, so we were sensibly not planning to climb up any of those steep volcanic peaks – instead, we were going to stick to the coast road, which (from memory) was fairly flat. 

From the pier, we went to a local hotel to hire our bikes, and the extreme unfriendliness of the worker there almost made us give up on the idea. But, we weren't going to allow his jaded arrogance to spoil our view of this island, so we handed over $20 each for 4 hours of bike rental. We'd actually toyed with the idea of renting for 8 hours, but fortunately we worked out that 4 hours of cycling was more than enough for our unfit legs. 

The bikes weren't in bad shape, although they were those fixed gear ones, where you peddle backwards to break and there's only one gear – fine for the flat, but not good for hills (as we were to find out).

So, we merrily took the coast road around the incredibly scenic Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay, enjoying the odd cooling breeze to break up the very hot and humid conditions. Even though tourism has well and truly discovered Moorea, the island still had a fairly undeveloped feel to it, and most people seemed to be enjoying simple Polynesian lifestyles here. We passed small farms, white beaches, historic churches and sprawling villages, all backed by the incredibly blues of the lagoon behind them – as we huffed and puffed our way around, the views were breathtaking in every sense of the word.

The coast road is marked by "PK" markers (Pointe Kilometrique), that denoted our progress in kilometres. As we ticked off 15kms one way, our legs were already feeling heavy and we had become hot, sweaty messes, so it was time to head back. At this point, it seemed that the wind was always blowing against us, and that we were constantly going uphill (although we didn't remember many downhills on the way out). Finally, as we got back to Cook's Bay, it was a delight to see the ship, and a chance to rest our (by now) very weary legs. The cold beer at the end of the ride has never tasted better.

Cycling is a great way to explore Moorea – next time, we'll try to find a bike with gears!

Friday, January 29, 2016

January 28th – Reaching “Dry” Land in Fakarava

After a journey of 4,000 nautical miles and 11 consecutive days at sea (aside from our 10-minute lightning raid on Pitcairn), the sight of any land was going to look good, although our first view of a rainy Fakarava, was not the best. I wasn't really prepared for the mist and drizzle that greeted us as we passed into the atoll – the palm trees on this tropical paradise were meant to be swaying gently rather than bent over double in the gale, and the island's famous blue lagoon was looking decidedly grey. 

However, the need to feel solid ground under our feet outweighed the disappointment at the weather, so we gamely caught the tender in. As we stepped ashore, the rain stopped and we were greeted by girls handing out flowers and a local band playing evocative drum music –gradually, Fakarava was turning into the exotic island paradise that we'd been expecting.

The island is basically a long sand bar, less than a mile wide, so we just wandered lazily down its one road, looking into its couple of shops and greeting the friendly locals with a "bonjour" or too. As the rain picked up and got increasingly heavy, there was only one thing to do to stop getting wet – jump into the huge lagoon that's the feature of the island. 

So, we found a stretch of beach, got our snorkels out and paddled around the coral reef – visibility was good and we saw lots of colourful tropical fish. There might not be much to do on this remote island, but when you can just step into that fabulous lagoon at any point, life can't be too bad.

The weather steadily improved as the day went on and the skies brightened, although the incredibly moist atmosphere never lifted (how do clothes ever dry here?). It was a shame that those early rain showers had driven many of the passengers back onboard, because the island was really starting to unveil its natural beauty.

As we move on into more mainstream French Polynesia, the islands will get more developed and more touristy, so it was nice to start in somewhere as unspoilt and as simple as Fakarava. If the island can look as good as this with grey skies, imagine how stunning it is when the sun shines?


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January 22nd – Following the Bounty Mutineers to Pitcairn

An oft-quoted statistic about Pitcairn Island, is that more people climb to the summit of Everest in a year than visit the Island. Today was our Everest. 

It didn't start promisingly. As we approached this incredibly remote island, we could see huge waves crashing against the sheer cliffs of its rockface, and even when the islanders came out to the ship in their longboats, their boat was bouncing around alarmingly, and it took a long time for them to get themselves onto the ship.

Of course, the extreme difficulty of landing at Pitcairn (in addition to its remoteness) was the very reason why the Bounty Mutineers chose this unpromising location as their home in 1790 – they didn't want the Royal Navy (or anyone else) finding them. By the time they had finally been discovered 18 years later, all but one of those original Mutineers (including Fletcher Christian) was now dead.

Yet, somehow, against the odds, this tiny island (less than 2 square miles in area) has sustained the descendants of the Mutineers in the years since, leaving the current population of just 48 permanent residents living a precarious, isolated, but generally contented existence.

In fact, the islanders are very jolly people who love to talk about their island and the unique culture that's developed here. Pretty much every able-bodied islander came onboard to set up stalls selling island souvenirs and local products – they don't get many visitors, so the income from this visit was vital to them. We had some fascinating chats with them, as we tried to imagine what life is like in such a small, inter-dependent, isolated community, where so many people are related to each other.

We spoke to the island's policeman, a New Zealander who is stationed here for a year with his wife. We didn't go into the island's well-publicised abuse case of a decade ago, but he said that there wasn't much crime as such, and his job was to try to keep the community on friendly terms with each other – to sort out problems and disputes before they turn into crimes. In such a close-knit community, any fallings out would be major affairs, so he has his hands full. What a fascinating job.

Just as we'd given up hope of actually getting onto the island, the Captain announced that conditions had improved, and that the islanders were offering to ferry us over to the island on their longboats, so that we could briefly step foot on this most hard-to-visit of all cruise destinations. So, we ran down to the boarding area, donned our lifejackets and began to pray.

It was some exercise getting us onto the longboats, which were pitching up and down by about 2 metres – somehow, the ship's crew and the hefty islanders got us on safely. If it felt like a rollercoaster ride - as the adrenalin levels shot up, we had to remember how dangerous this could be if it wasn't done properly.

We then made our way through the pounding surf to the jetty, skilfully steered in through the dangerous rocks – the ship's tenders would never have made it. But, the fear factor ensured that the sense of exhilaration of actually stepping ashore, made it feel like the moon landing or ascent of Everest for us cruisers. I've never had a feeling like it, just to step foot on an island.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to do much more than take a few photos and get back on the longboat – because, the trip back onto the ship was obviously going to be even trickier than getting us over here. But, we ploughed our way through the breakers coming straight at us, and we made it back to the ship. This is where the fun and games started. The boat was bouncing around even more than before, so it was a painstaking exercise of waiting for the exact moment to step off, before the boat violently lurched up or down.

Once safely onboard, I felt distinctly jittery – this was the most exciting tender ride I've ever had, where the destination was almost of secondary importance to the journey to get there. I wish I'd had longer to explore this unique island, but my brief glimpse of it was a blast.