Pandemic in Polynesia

Today we received an email saying

It is great reading your blog – what a fantastic trip and I am sure you must be thinking what timing compared a pandemics and lock downs in the populated parts of the world !  Have you seen much impact on your travels because of COVID or are you pretty much missing it ?

Until now, we have tried to avoid too much Covid-19 or Corona or pandemic or whatever in our blogs. It appears to be all the rest of the world writes about so we don’t need to add to the flood of negative news spewing out of the media and Internet. But just this once.

Our current plan is to sail round the world. We had thought we would now be in New Zealand cycling the 3000 kilometre trail from north to south. Polynesia was going to be where we would visit a few islands and atolls to get a flavor before continuing on downwind. But instead, because of border closures further west, we have now been here almost a year and it appears we will be staying a while longer. So yes, the pandemic has massively impacted our travel plans.

Our “refugee pass”. Thank you Hiva Oa!

But it is equally true that we arrived in the perfect place at the correct time. French Polynesia spent most of last March and April in lockdown. We were at sea for 54 days so missed the whole affair and were declared “virus free” on arrival during the last days of April. The border was officially closed so we spent a few months in “official limbo”; we could not clear in to the country but were allowed to stay and move freely among the hundreds of islands. Sort of high end refugees.

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Cycling Tahiti-Iti

When we told the neighbours that we were off to explore Tahiti-Iti with our bikes they commented “We have bikes on board and should use them but they are so much work to assemble.” They were correct on both counts. You should really use your bikes to see the islands you visit and yes it is a bit of work. Needless to say while we enjoyed two days exploring the island they remained on board, sweated in the heat and missed the fun.

Tahiti-Iti is the small, less populated half of Tahiti. Far from Papeete life is a little slower here and it has more the feeling of the outer islands. We are currently anchored in the lagoon so can start and end each day with a swim in clear refreshing water. Just across from us are some houses with gardens running down to the sea so we asked at one house if we could leave our dinghy at their dock and assemble our bikes there. No problem! (of course – this is Polynesia)

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500 miles against the wind.

“Normal sailors” – at least the sailors we know who claim to be normal – don’t sail against the wind. They wait for the wind to change and then cruise down wind to their destination.

But we were in Rurutu in the Austral Islands, three hundred miles south of Tahiti. The weather forecast was for very strong winds the following week and the small, badly protected harbour was not the place to be. The wind was from the north – directly against us – but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

Continue reading “500 miles against the wind.”

Mountain biking Rurutu

Hardly anybody has even heard of the Austral Islands and Rurutu is not a place you read about in mountain bike magazines. The islands are so hard to visit that it is a wonder any tourists arrive at all. If you have crossed the Pacific andreached Tahiti, you still have to take another flight south before you are finally in the Austral islands. Unsurprisingly most people who make it don’t have mountain bikes or the time to explore.

But! If you have a sailing boat and if you have two mountain bikes on board, then Rurutu is “the” bike destination in the south Pacific.

Having sailed overnight from Tubuai, we visited the local mayor’s office and asked if they had a mountain bike map. No! But they do have a map of all the 4×4 tracks and paths which served our purpose.

The first day we met Terry who we knew from Tubuai. He showed us a cave hidden deep in the forest and together we crawled through a tiny opening to explore the hidden world of stalactites and stalagmites. Terry had a plane to catch so we left him and continued around the island.

Rurutu, like all the other Pacific islands, was formed when a volcano erupted and rose above the ocean. As it slowly sank back in to the sea a coral reef developed around the shore. A later upheaval pushed the island back up and the reef became mighty cliffs all around the island. It is all very impressive and the result is many caves in the coral cliffs and steep roads to cycle up and down. The tour round the island is only 36km but has 800 meters of climbing. And that in the middle of the tropical summer.

The next day we cycled up to a view point and then on up through the forest to the summit of the third highest mountain. The route was steep, the temperature was hot and the path not obvious. It was a challenge but the view from the summit, across the island and reefs were well worth the effort. The trail back down was steep and technical. Real mountain biking.

On the third day we took a rest from biking and instead rode local horses. We rode to the same summit as on the previous day and really felt for the horses as they carried us from sea level to above 300 meters. I can now confirm that cycling down steep, rocky tracks is definitely easier than riding down.

The next day we cycled to the highest summit and then along the summit ridge to the south end of the island. Another technical trail downhill and then two passes to get back home. The views were stunning but every local we met greeted us with “It is so hot today!” On the final climb my body gave up and I ended up pushing with no energy left. Heidi picked fruits from the forest to give me sugar but what I really needed was a day off.

After a day of lounging around, swimming and eating, we returned to the bikes and managed to cycle every trail on the map before we finally set sail back north.

Mountain biking the hills of Rurutu is a challenge. Steep uphill, technical downhill and the hot sun combine to suck the energy out of you. But it is absolutely worth it. The tracks are lonely, the views are beautiful, the people friendly and the trees are loaded with fruit.

GPS tracks:

Neue Bilder von den Austral Inseln, New Pictures from the Austral Islands

Endlich haben wir wieder die Möglichkeit euch die genialen Bilder von den Austral Inseln zu zeigen 👍 hat ein bisschen gedauert aber wir hoffen, dass sie euch genauso gut gefallen wie uns 😀😀🤣🤣.

After a long break we managed to upload the fantastic photos from the Austral Islands. We hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed these amazing islands 😀😀🤣🤣

Austral Islands photographs

Mila singing on the summit of her island

Here is a link to our private “polynesian concert” on the summit of Tubuai. The singer is Mila!
Hier ist der Link zu unserem Privatkonzert auf dem höchsten Gipfel in Tubuai mit Mila, der Sängerin

Live in Tubuai

A local singer made a video on Tubuai. Everyone in the video except the singer is from the island.
Dieses Video ist in Tubuai gedreht worden und alle außer der Sängerin sind von Tubuai.

The same singer sang the “Mermaid song” which Heidi learned to dance to.
Diese Sängerin sang auch den “Meerjungfrau Song” bei dem ich den polynesischen Tanzstil gelernt habe.

MOÏRA (Steve et Dalida)

Finally. Two other great musicians from Tubuai who we met at an official dinner.
Diese zwei Musikanten sind berühmt hier in den Austral Inseln und wir haben sie getroffen, als der Präsident von Französisch Polynesien in Tubuai war.

Tubuai continued

Before we sailed to Tubuai we heard from other sailors that they had spent a month anchored off the island. We had philisophised about what you found to do for such a long time. When we finally left, after over two weeks, we could easily imagine being stuck on this beautiful island.

We cycled every track on the island with Arnaud ( chief of the gendarmes and our guide) spending three days ensuring we missed nothing. He showed us hidden temples, jungle covered ceremonial stones and unknown petroglyphs. We climbed the mountains from three sides and cycled everything you can ride a mountain bike along.

Ina & Hervé – two amazingly friendly people – fed us great food, organized a gas refill, visited us on board, told us everything about mountain life and lent us their kayaks. We paddled across the lagoon to the tiny basalt island of Motu Ofai. This is the summit of a volcano that is slowly sinking in to the reef. For us it was our private tropical island to snorkel and sunbathe on totally alone.

The president of French Polynesia visited the island so there was a sit down meal to celebrate. Our friend Mila ensured that we were invited to represent the few sailors who reach this far flung island. Mila also invited Heidi to a traditional dance lesson with some local ladies where they swayed to the sound of Meherio – the mermaid song.

GPS tracks

Rurutu generosity

We were cycling across the hills on the stunningly beautiful island of Rurutu, enjoying the gentle breeze and panoramic views across the green slopes and fringing reef. We had already passed coffee bushes, grapefruit and lemon trees and our rucksacks were full from “wilderness shopping”.

another day of generosity!

In a small village we asked three taro farmers sat under a tree where we could buy avocados. One told us to follow him as he pushed a wheelbarrow of grass and roots home. Once we reached his garden he picked and opened two coconuts for us to drink the refreshing juice. While he fed the contents of his wheelbarrow to the pigs, his wife brought us fresh bananas to eat. The farmer returned with a bag full of avocados which he tied to the back of my rucksack. He and his wife then filled Heidi’s rucksack with taro. We tried to pay. We begged to be allowed to pay but they insisted everything was a present and wished us “Bonjournee” as they waved us off.

The next day we cycled back to the farmer’s village to give his wife and him some home made chocolate cake. As we passed the village hall it began to rain but there was a party in progress. One lady gestured to us that we should come in out of the rain. The next brought us fresh coconuts to drink and others asked us where we came from and explained that the party was a celebration of traditional crafts.

The world is full of wonderful people.

Welcome to Tubuai

We had heard that the people on Tubuai are friendly and that the island is beautiful. The truth is the people are incredibly friendly and the island stunningly beautiful.

Things could have started badly as we entered the lagoon through a secondary pass and just as we passed through the reef were hit by five big waves one after another. Luckily we hit no coral but it was an exciting introduction.

We anchored off the village and took the dinghy to shore. The first person we met greeted us with “welcome to Tubuai!” We reported to the extremely friendly Gendarmes who answered all our questions as if they were the local “office de tourisme”. The internet hotspot wasn’t working but the town secretary let us use her computer during her lunch break.

The dentist fixed Neill’s teeth and invited us to his house to use his Internet and give us iced coffee and amazing dried fruits. His cousin made Heidi a floral crown and then his wife dressed her in a polynesian outfit and taught her to dance. The next day Mila – the wife – guided us to the top of the highest mountain and performed a folk song and dance on the summit.

We decided to move to the harbour wall so went and asked the Gendarmes if that was OK. They sent us to the polynesian authorities who told us the mayor was responsible. The mayor’s secretary (Mrs Internet) told us to see Adrian at another department of the polynesian government. Adrian insisted he was not the Capitaine de Port but allowed us to tie up on the quay.

So now we are “downtown”. The dentist’s family visited with all five children for pizza, gateaux de Heidi and swimming and today a french engineer and a local stopped by for coffee. A local policeman stopped for a chat and promised to return with bananas.

Just writing about Tubuai is exhausting.

Raivavae – deep south

Raivavae is far south in the Austral Islands. It is at the furthest point south that the sun reaches at Austral midsummer so still in the tropics but only just.

We sailed some five hundred miles south from Taputapuatea on Raiatea with good winds and, after less than five days at sea, could see the island only thirty miles away. After another twenty four hours of fickle breezes it was still five miles away so we gave up and switched the engine on.

We anchored off the “town”, reported our arrival to the Gendarmes, chatted with the vice-mayor, visited the snack bar, were given fruit and generally enjoyed our first days on this super chilled island.

There is a road around the islands and two concrete tracks across it so we assembled our bikes for a day of exploration and calling “Io arana” (hello) to all the locals we passed. There are about 900 people on the island and they are 99.7% very friendly. Apparently three people don’t like sailors. The rest wave, chat and ask where you come from. A few men tried teaching us boules and the next day one of them gave us bananas, papaya and a root vegetable called manuk. We received so much produce while on the island that we had to make chutney again.

We moved round to the opposite side of the island and anchored inside the coral fringed lagoon. With the Motu (coral islet) on one side and the mountainous island across the water, we understood why people say that Raivavae is the most beautiful island in the Pacific.

Mount Hiro is the highest point on the island and there are two extremely steep, very narrow paths to the summit from each side of the island. We walked up one side and down the other. On the summit we met some locals who had carried a pile of bananas with them so enjoyed the stunning vista while eating them. Unlike on the Society Islands, there are no trees on the summits so you have an uninterrupted panoramic view.

Between Christmas and New Year the locals come out to the Motu to party so there was plenty happening. We tried canoeing in a local boys outrigger canoe and it was impressively fast. Not the most stable vessel but great fun. We also enjoyed lieing in “la piscine”, a protected, shallow, warm inlet made for relaxing in We sailors barbecued on New Years Eve and on our last day a local family prepared a lunch with coconut bread, manuk and six different fish dishes.

Raivavae is going to be hard to beat.

GPS tracks

Taputapuatea – the heart of the Octopus

Long ago, on the Pacific island of Havaii, the ancient kings and their priests built the temple of Taputapuatea and in its middle they set a white stone higher than a man to mark the heart of the giant, mythical octopus Tumu-Ra’i-Fenua. From the coral sand beach next to this holy place, sailing rafts set out to discover and colonize the far flung islands of Polynesia. They used the wind to sail out through the holy pass of Teavanoa, leaving the gentle waters of the reef, passing through the small notch in the circle reef and voyaging thousands of miles across the open ocean. The vast tentacles of the octopus joined islands as far apart as New Zealand and Hawaii and bound them together.

The island is now known as Raiatea but the stones of the temple are still there so we visited them while cycling the ninety-six kilometers around the island. I am sure that we, as fellow voyagers who have sailed the Pacific, felt a much deeper attachment to the builders of Taputapuatea than the tourists who arrive there for a quick visit by plane and taxi.

Today we weighed anchor after a swim amongst the corals of the lagoon and worked our way south to Taputapuatea. The wind was against us (as always) so it took eleven tacks across the lagoon but finally we saw the standing stone shining white amongst the temple ruins and turned out to sail through Teavanoa Pass. Hard on the wind and with full sails set, we just managed to pass between the coral walls and then turned south.

And now, just like those who sailed this way a thousand years ago, we can only hope the wind carrys us along Tumu-Ra’i-Fenua’s tentacle far south to the distant Austral Islands.

GPS track of our tour round the island – 20201206 round Raiatea