18 Sep Raiatea and Tahaa, Illes de la Societe – Monday, 10 to Tuesday, 18 September 2001
Monday 10th. Something seemed odd. It was 2AM and we’d just finished watching our second movie in the past 8 hours. We relinquished our comfy blankets and had sleepily plunked our way down the plane’s stairs to the tarmac where the tropic weather hit us. This was not Seattle. We stood in a slow moving line while a hearty band of ukulele troubadours kept our spirits up with Tahitian music featuring the fastest wrist in the West Pacific. A sure candidate for carpal tunnel syndrome. There were foreigners here. Actually, I think we were them. High school French was no help. I should have paid attention to Ms. Purcell. Where was she now that I needed her. We eventually got through immigration and then had to decide what to do about customs. There were two lines. One for nothing to declare and one for declaring things. With the various odd parts we’d brought along for the boat, we weren’t sure which to choose. We didn’t want to start our stay by getting caught with undeclared treasures. Then we noticed that the line for items being declared was closed anyway, so we waved and smiled our way past the groggy officials.
A mere 6 hours later, our connecting flight took off from Papeete on Tahiti, to the island of Raiatea to the north. The solid cloud bank broke just south of Raiatea and we got a good look at this French Polynesian beauty, surrounded by its lagoon and its fringing motus or islets. Don and Sharry Stabbert, our friends and hosts for this trip were in the terminal and greeted us with hugs and leis. A friend of theirs, Bill Kolans was also there, and offered to tote our bags back to his house where we’d later collect them. We scooted out in Don and Sharry’s little Peugeot rentacar and checked around the three local marinas on the west side of Raiatea, to see what the local boating world was like. Lots of sailboats, a good number of catamarans and at least one monohull that was having most of its hull replaced, after having probably loaned it to a local coral head. We popped down to the metropolis of Uturoa, where the town regularly greets big (huge, actually) cruise ships that regularly pull right smack into town at a neat new harbor facility. This town was definitely putting serious effort into upgrading itself, and nicely so.
We took the WFI (whole freakin’ island) tour which took us about 42 miles around Raiatea, rarely ever climbing above 10 feet of elevation. About half of the road was paved and we passed the pavers busy finishing the rest. Now there’s a job I’d pass on. Pouring hot asphalt in the tropics. No thankee. The rest of the road was crushed coral, and the little bridges over the streams were one lane configurations of heavy wood planks that were almost spaced too far apart for our little Peugeot’s wheels to span. Along the way we waved at just about everybody we saw and they waved back with friendly enthusiasm. Some even had their chairs set up in the front yards to watch the occasional car go by. Mostly the traffic is little scooters that looked like the Lambretta I pushed up my neighbor on up and down his street at age 15 until I dropped, trying to get the darn engine to come to life. We ended up at Bill Kolans’ house southeast of Uturoa, where we grabbed our bags full of dive gear, and stepped out onto his dock where the MV Starr’s launch was waiting with crew members Rob and Donna. It was good to see them again, having met on a Northwest shakedown cruise of the Starr a year ago. Hopped on board and settled into our room, followed by the first in a week long series of sumptuous meals that would be the source of great smiles and moderate waistline guilt. Hit the sack early at 8 pm, and enjoyed it a lot more than the 30 minutes of airline sleep the night before.
Tuesday 9/11. Woke up to a knock on the door by Don at 6:30 am. Thought that when he said he had bad news, it would be something witty and tropical to make us laugh at our good fortune of being in paradise. Turned out it was anything but. An early morning communication had alerted Don to the trouble in America. We listened together to the BBC on the single side band radio until we’d had enough. We spent the next week with a really strange mix of emotions. Saddened by the events and their incomprehensible nature, yet relieved to be cut off from the incessant reminders of the tragedy that must surely be bombarding our friends and family back home.
Later, we pulled into Bill’s dock to join him on an anthropological tour of Raiatea, which is his business, Almost Paradise. Turns out Bill used to work for the Pentagon in the section that was destroyed. He updated us on what was known from calls and radio transmissions he’d received. The local satellite of TV transmission had been blocked off by its U.S. owners, so info was scarce. Bill took us and a group of guests from the hotel around the island, with a narrative on the migrational and religious habits of the people of Raiatea. Their sacred places were open air stone configurations known as Marae. The most important of these was the Marae Taputapuatea of Raiatea. This religious place was created about 2000 BC. Bill turned out to be an amazing source of info, and we saw him another time or two while on Raiatea. We later took the Starr’s kayaks up to the head of Faaroa Bay where we were anchored, and further up into the Faaroa River, which is the only navigable river in French Polynesia. It’s only about 3 kayaks wide in places, but a beautiful journey among banana trees, breadfruit trees and little homes. Late that night we went into shore and had a great dinner at a little house/restaurant with four tables, and were the only guest on a very rainy night. We watched some CNN TV with Internet clips of the tragedy and listened as the waiter/owner translated for us from French.
Wednesday 9/12. Said goodbye to Bill and went to Uturoa to fuel up. We motored inside the lagoon that is shared by Raiatea and its sister to the north, Tahaa. Anchored on the east side of Tahaa near Motu Tuahotu, and did some snorkeling around a large fish pen that had a wide variety of marine life including beautiful tropicals, a small barracuda and four small blacktip reef sharks – the only ones we’d see this trip. We returned to Starr and moved to the lee of the Motu Mahae to the north and stayed the night. Had a great dinner (they were all great) and watched the stars of the southern hemisphere.
Thursday 9/13. Moved to Haamene Bay on the east side of Tahaa to avoid the swell, and got our scuba gear ready for a dive along the Toahotu pass. It’s a beautiful shallow water coral area that borders between two motus and drops off rather steeply to, oh maybe 90 feet or so. Didn’t get down that far, as we moved along the coral and rock wall at 50 to 60 feet for a good look at beautiful fish, wire coral, black coral, undercuts and visibility of well over 50 feet. After the dive, we took the boat around the south end of Tahaa to Hurepiti Bay on southwest side of Tahaa and anchored in the bay.
Friday 9/14. We were met at the boat in the morning by an 18′ skiff from the Tahaa Grill, with a display of fresh baked breads, croissants, fresh juices and other morning treats. The skipper/owner was a young Swiss fellow named Guiliane Tognetti who made the rounds of all the boats in all the bays of Tahaa, selling them fresh goods and inviting them to dine at his family’s new restaurant on Motu Atara on the east side of Tahaa lagoon. He was accompanied by his 4 year old Marianne on board. We decided to motor around the north end of Tahaa to enjoy the string of motus along the north, and anchored just west of Motu Atara. We went in and met Guiliane’s wife Severine and 2 year old daughter Zoe, who was running around getting a full body tan. Zoe, not Severine. We made our reservation and returned by shoreboat that night with a bottle of wine to enjoy a superb mahi mahi, lobster and shrimp dinner, to the sound of a slow turning Lister diesel generator in the background and Polynesian music from the radio. This young couple built this place in about 2 weeks, complete with a nice open air kitchen under palm front roof, a place to live, dining area and wash rooms, mostly made from branches, trunks and leaves of the trees on the motu. The kitchen equipment was definitely very pro though, as Guiliane in his white chef’s clothing looked very Euro, except when we rolled up his pants to wade into the lagoon to retrieve lobsters from the shoreline pen.
Saturday 9/15. Our chef from the night before, delivered our fresh morning pastries to the Starr, and we said goodbye and gave him a little gift of swim goggles, crayons and colored pencils for his little girls. We motored into Teoneroa-haaoa Bay to find a friend of Paul Gay’s, an Oahu based canoe rebuilder that Don and Sharry knew. The friend, Hugh Laughlin, runs a black pearl farm on the deep water shore of this bay with his family. Hugh’s from Tahiti and his mother was Marquesan, and he founded the Faa Canoe Club on Tahiti when he was 18. He remained president of this group for 40 years, until he moved his family to Tahaa 9 years ago. A remarkable man. Extremely knowledgeable on the subject of canoes, pearls, politics and family. His family’s business and the sons and daughters who we met were delightful, engaging and quite accomplished in their fields, including music. We spent the morning talking with these nice folks and then moved the Starr to Motu Taoru on the south side of the channel to Uturoa on Raiatea to the south. There we anchored and brought the shoreboat into the Hawaiki Nui Pearl Beach Resort’s dock, where we dived the 1900 wreck of the steel sailing ship Nordby in 60 to 90 feet of water, literally at the foot of the hotel’s dock. The wreck was on its port side with the remaining 2 masts facing out to sea. We swam down the mooring line which was tied around the bowsprit and traveled in 60 feet of water along the keel of the boat to the stern, where we dropped down to 80 feet and began swimming along the deck which was a vertical wall. The deck was virtually just a metal grid with large openings to swim in or out of, and the interior of the metal hull was remarkably bare. No equipment, no bulkheads and not much marine life. Actually it was very friendly for divers, and there were enough beautiful fish skirting along the upper edge of the deck to make the dive very enjoyable. We found 2 lion fish as we ascended into the shallows and a quite large green moray eel that was probably used to being fed, although we declined.
Sunday 9/16. Left Raiatea early and headed inside the lagoon northwest, traveling within the protected waters as long as we could, up to Tahaa and along her west side til we exited at the western channel through the reef to open sea. About 25 miles later we were outside the western channel entrance to Bora Bora where we motored into Bora Bora’s lagoon and calm waters once again. The ride had been a little bouncy, but not too bad. We stopped in at the Bora Bora Yacht Club and were underwhelmed by the welcome. We’d had a thing about getting to the Bora Bora Yacht Club someday, and frankly, we’d built it up too big in our heads. It was a very modest little bar and restaurant with a bartender reading the paper and not a lot of style or flare to its presentation. They were of course, out of anything we’d like to bring home. T-shirts, hats, pennants. They’d sold out their meager supply and wouldn’t get more til the first of the month. We decided not to wait the 2 weeks, and instead departed for the east side of Bora Bora. Rain and clouds followed us, and kept the beautiful top of the island hidden, but we found good anchorage on the east side and stayed the night. Gusts of wind were clocked at over 32 knots, and we were definitely better here in the lee.
Monday 9/17. Last full day here, and last entry as Tuesday’s a travel day. We confirmed by e-mail with the travel agent that our flights had not been cancelled, and that with only one small delay in LA, we’d get home alright. Won’t know til we go, but it looked pretty good considering the situation in the U.S. airports. We went snorkeling one last time near the Hotel Meridian and had a great swim. Beautiful fish, blue lipped clams, lots of coral and 81 degree water. Couldn’t be better. We even set up the tandem kayak with the twin sails and outrigger, to take advantage of the brisk winds and had a romping good sail in this little rig. Got plenty wet but when the air’s 81 and the water’s 81, life’s good. That’s about it for now. A great trip with fine people. Don, Sharry, Rob and Donna treated us like royalty and were wonderful traveling companions. We’ll remember this journey always and hope we can meet up again sometime soon for more adventures.
Aloha – Geoff and Candace