Everyone wanting to experience the solitude and uniqueness of the Gambiers pays a price - even if it is just like our short ‘hop’ of 450nm. Coming from Makemo in the Tuamotus we must wait for a suitable weather window. The Gambier islands are situated in the eye of the predominant trade winds blowing from ESE. When the winds backs to N or even NW it is favorable for sailing but also means bad weather.
We catch the tail of a weather front coming from the W and set sail. Underway we meet with just about every weather condition there is: rain squalls with no visibility, strong and shifting wind, and the following lull, lighting and thunder, clear sky and sunshine… everything short of a full gale!
Highlight: Koaku and Tauna
“There’s a lot to explore here, let’s go!” This seems to be Ruby’s mantra since we have arrived here and the two tiny islands on the SE outer reef reward us richly. On the overgrown islands with a fringing beach of white and rose colored sand breed a lot of different species of sea birds. We approach them carefully so as not to disturb them. The fluffy white chicks of a surprising size are super cute to watch as the are watching us! On the lagoon side we find clear waters with large coral heads, aka ‘bommies’ - an invitation for snorkelling. The corals are very much alive and diverse and so are the many colorful species of fish. My sport: Discover a new kind of fish every time I snorkel. This has been working for an entire year in French Polynesia! So, either there truly are countless species and subspecies, or I am just growing forgetful!
Highlight: Taravai, Hervé and Valérie
“We are not like you, we live from day to day and are open for what every day may bring. We do not make many plans.” We are standing on Taravai’s highest peak looking down onto the small neighbouring island. Hervé’s cousin lives there with his wife. His answer to my question how they live and survive impresses me deeply. It is my impression that a happy human life is meant to be lived like this. A simple life living off the land and sea. Solar panels provide electricity for lights and basic appliances. There is not television, mobile connection is weak and intermittent, surfing the internet? Forget it.
Every Sunday Valérie and Hervé together with their sons welcome all the visiting sailors at their home for a barbeque. In front of their house in the lawn there is a beach volleyball field bordering on the beige sand beach with a view across Taravai’s sheltered lagoon and the highest peaks of the Gambiers. This weekend there are around a dozen boats at anchor. Everybody brings their own meat or vegetables for the barbeque together with another salty or sweet dish to share. Hervé has been spear fishing in the morning and offers the fish for all to taste. After dessert we launch into pétanque, ping-pong, and beach volleyball. Our ball skills are a bit rusty, so we first play with the kids. But by sundown the competition has picked up and it is adults only!
The next afternoon we are welcome again and play for a few hours which is great fun. The third day we hike the peaks and crest with Hervé and his oldest son Alan as our barefooted guides. However, we must pass on playing volleyball later in the afternoon- too exhausted, too many sore muscles…
Every couple of weeks most sailboats converge on Rikitea, the main town and harbor of the Gambiers. The supply ship Taporo 8 is arriving. This is one of the main events in the local agenda. But first everything must be unloaded and delivered to the many little stores. For us, who have not placed a food order to be picked up directly at the ship, this means getting up early the next day, very early, Polynesian early.
At five in the morning it is still dark and we don our headlamps to find our way between bommies to the little pier. Jo Jo’s opens at five sharp and outside locals are already queuing. Everybody is keen on fresh fruit and vegetables. With carrots, cabbage, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, as well as apples and oranges from the US the choice is not very great. But it has been low tide in our fridge for a while and anything fresh is more than welcome.
Sometimes we are gifted with fruit if we ask people in town with gardens. But surprisingly, there is hardly anyone here on these fertile islands who grows veggies for themselves, let alone for sale.
Polynesians love to eat, a lot, often. Their diet consists of a lot of meat and fish. Traditional side dishes are steamed maniok, taro, or sweet potatoes. Spices are rare and dishes are often cooked in coconut milk. Nevertheless we find their food tasty, if sometimes a bit monotonous. In the past few years the consumption of junk food like potato chips and sweet sodas has also become very popular.
The main island of Mangareva with Rikitea counts a total of 1300 inhabitants. During the long school vacation in December and July with all the youths returning from Tahiti the number rises by a couple of hundred. Most families cannot afford the plane tickets for their college students to fly home during the short spring and fall breaks, however. This means the teenagers are only united with their family every five or six months. The three hour flight from Tahiti to Mangareva is priced at 500$US and only slightly less for children and teenagers.
Highlight: Akamaru - Goats and Pearls
We dock the dinghy on the little concrete pier. The freshly mowed lawn path leads through well maintained gardens to a lovingly cared for church. Even though permanent residents on Akamaru number less than a dozen. Essentially we want to visit Rémy, a French sailor moored here and married to a Polynesian and now running a pearl farm growing the famous dark pearls.
When asking them for the way, Diana and Stan immediately drop their work and invite us to their house, no objection possible. After three hours and three cups of freeze dried coffee with lots of sugar, a pleasant conversation in simplified French, and richly gifted with papaya, sweet potatoes, pak choi, and vanilla pods we return to the boat.
The next morning early I am meeting Stan to climb the peaks of Akamaru. From the centrally located island I am anticipating a sweeping view of the whole archipelago whereas he is anticipating a good catch, hunting for goats for the upcoming Easter celebrations. The extremely steep descent with four dead goats, his firearm, and our backpacks in a straight fall line amounts to some of the most adventurous experience I have ever had! For me Stan is the epitome of the Polynesian warrior, strong and fierce. He is a traditional dancer and has attended many Pacific dancing festivals including trips to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. From each region he has brought back a traditional tattoo in the local style, by now adorning his whole body. He proudly explains all the different meanings to me.
The following day we are invited to help harvesting on the pearl farm. Rémy and I dive down to the submerged lines that hold the pearl oyster baskets, untie them and bring them up to the boat. He collects two with every breath, whereas I am lucky to get one. After a half an hour I have regurgitated my breakfast at least twice and am completely exhausted!
But on goes the job: first the oysters are cleaned with a pressure washer on top of a floating platform, untied from their baskets, hauled ashore, broken up and the pearl finally removed. We have harvested over 1000 pearls in one morning, fortunate to experience the fruit of their labor of three years effort! The pearls are sorted according to quality, shipped to an agent in Tahiti who sells them on the international market. We each get to chose one as thanks for our help and buy a few as gifts and souvenirs.
The isolation of the Gambiers has attracted and fascinated us. Nowhere else is this more palpable than if we want to contact the outer world, which has by now grown quite abstract. In a world where broadband internet connection is largely taken for granted we are finding out that this isn’t true in every corner of this planet. Phone and internet connection arrive here via satellite in 2G speed. Think a quarter of the speed of the dial up modems of the 90ies and you get the picture - or you don’t, as it were! In total there are only two mobile antennas in all of the Gambiers. One of which has been out of order for lack of spare parts for weeks.
During most days we lose the bandwidth battle as there are just too many of us connected. In the middle of the night we can sometimes have a phone conversation via internet, open a web page, even download a weather report! Because you do not only pay for data volume but for time connected to the network, not only our patience suffers but also our wallets!
But who else to blame but ourselves. After all, we wanted to sail to the end of the world! Having arrived we do not want to complain but enjoy and appreciate being in this fantastic place in this challenging time, largely unscathed by the global pandemic.