Having arrived in Mangareva on the morning of July 13th we dropped the anchor in 60-feet of water in the first properly-sheltered harbour since the Galapagos Islands. Things have changed here since my last visit 13 years ago aboard the Barque Picton Castle. Gone are the locals paddling out with bags of black pearls to trade for cheap rum and T-shirts. Gone are the roads made from beach sand and sea shells, and gone are the deserted anchorages. Now the roads are paved, the pearls are sold in a shop and the local boats are well-built out of aluminium and sport brand new powerful outboard engines of several hundred horsepower. Thanks to the pearl industry, the Gambier Islands are one of the most affluent areas in French Polynesia. They now have a supply ship every 3 weeks and can buy the things that they need, so the custom of trading has become an antiquated practice. The Polynesian spirit is still alive and well however. Everyone we pass on the streets (or zooming past us on their scooters) says ‘bonjour’ with a smile. The fruit trees are all owned by someone, but we are told that if you ask to buy some fruit from someone they will invariably offer it to you free of charge. Indeed, while paddling in our dinghy the other day a pearl boat came zooming up to us and the skipper began telling us in rapid French to help ourselves to the coconuts and that he had some bananas and lemons.
“To buy?” I inquired.
“No! Free! This is the Gambier Islands!” He replied.
I had expected one or two other yachts in the anchorage but there are no less than 13 here as I write, from all over the world but with a definite bias toward France and French-speaking nations. We have made friends, and their stories often put ours to shame. Two boats that we know of have come up from Argentina, having rounded from the Atlantic contrary to the winds and currents by way of the Straits of Magellan. They hopped from port to port during periods of fine weather and though one said they would not do it again, both are very glad that they chose that route. One of these boats worked it’s way up the West side of South America only to be harassed by pirates off the coast of Ecuador. They were able to implore the assistance of a 900-foot-long freighter which contacted the Ecuadorian navy on their behalf and then motored in circles around them until the pirates in their fast boat finally gave up and sped away. Many boats have come from Europe, including two young Englishmen who have worked their way here over the last two years on their Contessa 26 – a boat that most would say is appropriate only for day sailing or perhaps a weekend at a stretch.
The Gambier Island Group has a rich and often unpleasant history; a distinct shame for such an otherwise idyllic place. The four main islands are Mangareva, Aukena, Taravai and Akamaru. Mangareva is the largest and most populous (about 1600), Taravai, Akamaru and Aukena have a handful of inhabitants. In the 1800’s the native population was converted to Christianity by a French missionary and literally worked to death by this man, who forced them to build churches and a cathedral on the islands. The population crashed; thousands were killed – well over half of the inhabitants I’m told, and it has never recovered. The churches on the smaller islands can still be seen today and are maintained to some extent but are not used and are often hidden in the vegetation. The cathedral, built out of coral blocks like all of the other older buildings, remains the largest cathedral in Polynesia and is the primary landmark in the town of Rikitea – the capital of the Gambier Islands.
This missionary finally left the survivors alone, but the islands were once again a site of abuse of people and nature from 1966 to 1996 when they were used as a staging base for the controversial nuclear tests conducted by the French government during this period. Apparently the locals were employed to build concrete bunkers for the officials to shelter in but were themselves packed into a building and told that the sprinklers installed on the roof would protect them from the nuclear radiation. The story of the nuclear testing (which took place on the nearby atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa) is a very dark and interesting one (all the more so for it being contemporary); I’d encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with it to do a quick google search. The French government today monitor the health of the inhabitants of the Gambier Islands, including taking hair samples and monitoring cancer rates and incidence of thyroid abnormalities as part of an on-going (but as yet unpublished) study on the effects of nuclear radiation. Don’t worry, the radiation is not a safety risk for us, although it is generally accepted that the fish and other seafood is inedible due to the high levels of radioactive contaminants that are present in the lagoon sediments.
The weather recently has been decidedly British. We’ve had a moderate blow over the last few days; it has been windy and rainy. Prior to this, however, was a period of bright sunshine and light winds the conclusion of which provided us with the most spectacular display of sheet lightning I think I have ever seen. We were anchored alone on the north side of Aukena Island on a shallow plateau of sand perhaps 200 feet across that rose to the convenient depth of 18 feet (from the surrounding waters of 90-feet or so) and with only one or two potentially-hittable coral heads to look out for. As night fell the clouds appeared dark and ominous. At about midnight lightning was seen in the distance and the deep sound of thunder rolled across the lagoon. I put all of our electronics into the oven in case of a strike (there’s nothing better for lightning strikes than having a 50-foot metal spike sticking up into the air!) and went back to bed. At about 2am we were awakened by blinding flashes of lightning lighting up the interior of the boat as though it were daylight. The air felt very, very odd indeed, as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of it, and the scene when we looked out across the lagoon was awesome; discharges twice per second right over our heads that would turn the clouds a bright purple colour and reveal the shape of a bolt in their midst, searing through them between one cloud and the next. The discharges were so bright that they would hurt our eyes – we needed sunglasses at night! – before plunging everything back into a deep darkness during which we couldn’t even see the silhouette of the land 300 metres away. There were no cracks or bangs, just the occasional deep-throated and powerful growl, but for the most part the lightning was completely silent – almost serene – and this gave the whole scene an intensely eerie feel to it. I wasn’t a fan myself. Sarah had the time of her life, made herself a hot chocolate and stayed up to watch the display.
Our plan is to stay here for a little while longer and keep an eye out for a weather window that will allow us to get back to Pitcairn, since we didn’t get much of an opportunity to enjoy it during our brief stay before. We need a day or two of good winds followed by absolutely flat calm in order to be able to get there and then anchor in safety. We can afford to be patient.