Is it truly paradise? In many ways and by most people’s standards it is. Turquoise waters, white coral beaches, palm trees, lush and steep volcanic mountains, fertile valleys, thriving life under water, sunny and blue skies almost every day, friendly and generous islanders and fellow cruisers. All of these create a unique experience for each visitor, especially if travelling on a sailboat.
Polynesians have populated these islands many centuries ago and have found an abundance of food on land and in the sea. They introduced a few staples such as the undemanding coconut tree and the nutritious taro and maniok roots to sustain themselves. Whatever they needed they were able to take from their immediate environment. Sounds like paradise? In many ways it is…
But with growing human impact sustainability and preservation of natural resources has become increasingly important, even though those do not seem concepts Polynesians grasp just yet. For example, there is very little recycling and communal garbage gets dumped in large and remote ditches where it is burned and left alone for the most part. Most houses have a simple cess pool for human waste, but there is no waste treatment by communes in remote areas and, mind you, probably 90% of French Polynesia is remote. In fact, when looked at on a large scale map of the Pacific Ocean which covers an incredible third of the surface area of our earth, the Polynesian islands look like bread crumbs - quote by my mother and right on.
It is not easy for us to leave all this beauty behind, however tiny from far. But a number of factors make this decision easier for us. Covid cases explode as Polynesians have largely been averse to getting vaccinated and French Polynesia goes into a second lockdown. Sailboats are required to stay put unless they check out and leave. Fiji, on the other hand, has remained open for cruisers throughout the pandemic. The government had the foresight to realize that sailors who arrive in Fiji waters coming from Polynesia are not a risk to their communities, as they have been underway for about two weeks, effectively doing quarantine at sea. In normal times tourism contributes 40% to Fiji’s GDP and cruisers are helping a hurting economy in a time when there are no other tourists.
The passage from Tahiti to Savusavu, Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji takes 13 days and we cover almost 2000nm, 3600km. Wait, didn’t I already cross the Pacific? French Polynesia is only about half way to New Zealand in this vast and likeable great expanse of water! I am happy that my daughter Tara joins me in Tahiti and is up for this long passage. It holds everything from moderate winds, to a few days of total calm and the grand finale of a lot of wind and waves of 3 to 4 m for the last three days. The trade winds are not so reliably steady anymore and it feels like the season is starting to change with the moody South Pacific Convergence Zone taking precedence with frequent wind changes, rain, squalls, and later in the year breeding full blown cyclones.
On day three we are pretty much becalmed and decide to heave to in the lee of Motu One, a bird sanctuary and one of the last islands belonging to French Polynesia. I drop in the crystal clear blue and bottomless water to fix the rattling rope cutter on the propeller shaft causing a lot of noise whenever we want to motor. I am amazed to find a small school of black aquarium sized fishes seeking shelter under the boat. It moves my heart how these little fellows live and survive on the open ocean. All of a sudden I can hear whale song! It is probably a bull humpback whale calling his mate. Most of us have heard the hauntingly beautiful and slightly melancholic song. But hearing these sounds while being in the water myself is a really touching experience. It is a bit like going from mono to surround sound - the cries come from deep down out of the vast ocean cathedral space.
Exiting the water there are no sounds at all. Usually the wind and waves cause whistling sounds in the rigging and gurgling or splashing sounds along the hull. The boat works in the waves under the pressure of the sails and we can hear all kinds of creaking sounds in the woodwork inside the cabin. But now, with no wind and lazy, oily waves there is no sound. This must be a first and it reminds me very much of being in the desert, where the silence feels like a huge thick blanket being spread over you.
And we sure would like to motor given the fact that there is no wind in our zone for the next few days and it might pay to make some west and north to reach the predicted trade winds sooner. The rope cutter silenced we turn on the engine. This is a bit strange because you know you are in the middle of the ocean with thousands of miles of water around you and you are moving at perhaps 6 miles an hour! In hindsight it proves to be a wise decision to go as far north as Suwarrow, an out of the way atoll belonging to the Cook Islands. But unfortunately we cannot stop at any of the islands along the way as this would set our quarantine clock which starts running the moment we leave Tahiti back to zero. Boats who opt to sail along the rhumb line (shortest distance) have to motor up to five days. Our distance sailed is about 100nm longer but we still arrive about 10 hours sooner and probably burn a lot less diesel.
We arrive on Saturday at noon and the whole clearance process goes very smoothly. We are greeted by the Fiji Navy and escorted to our quarantine berth, where they also help tie our landlines. The fully suited lady from the health department comes on board, filling our forms for us. Later that night the mobile swab team is brought out to the boat in the dark and we get our negative test results on Monday morning, when we are allowed to move to a berth in Copra Shed Marina and the rest of the officials come aboard. All of them very friendly, professional, and openly curious. What a contrast to the convoluted and disfunctional check out process in Tahiti!
Fiji greets us with a heartfelt “Bula!” and a big smile! Bula means life in Fijian and acknowledges that life is for living and enjoying - what a great attitude!