It’s been almost 3 months since we arrived in the Gambier Islands and now we’re saying our goodbyes and getting ready to leave. I’ve enjoyed visiting all the places on this trip so far, each place seems to be even better than the last. I’m absolutely in love with Taravai – the people are so wonderful and welcoming, they have really made our lives so much easier and very enjoyable. Jesse and Jack (and also John before he left) have been our friendly neighbours and made us feel right at home. Herve and Valarie and been a wealth of information about the Gambier Islands and the way of life here and the other sailors have also been wonderfully accommodating. I love the lifestyle here – it’s focused on building friendships, eating well, making the most of natural resources and being active. I love the scenery here, after nearly 3 months it still completely takes my breath away. We wake up on the boat every morning, usually there’s glorious sunshine which highlights the different colours of the reefs. We take a short dinghy ride to shore where we hang out on a farm with its own animals, fruit trees, vegetable patch, private beach and surrounded by woodland. At night, the stars fill the sky and the Milky Way is as clear as I’ve ever seen it.
We’ve made some really great friends and I’m very sad to be leaving them. The sailing community I think is one of the friendliest communities you could ever come across. Cruising around on a yacht and being constantly on the move means that you have to form friendships very quickly, otherwise you would have no friends at all! Alex is very used to saying goodbye to his friends knowing that their friendship will remain way into the future and maybe at some point he’ll run into them once again. I, on the other hand, am very bad at saying goodbye. I’ve done this a lot over the past year and every time I do I find it exceptionally difficult and hope that I won’t have to do it again for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to make such great friends here and I’m now finding myself saying goodbye to people on a very regular basis. I suppose I’d better get used to it. On the plus side, many cruisers have the same rough plan as us so there’s a good chance we’ll see them again in the Tuamotus, Marquesas and beyond.
We leave for the Tuamotus in a few days time, to an island called Hao. From there, we’ll head to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, possible making a few stops at some small islands on the way.
Ariki is a young local boy who lives on Taravai in the Gambier Islands. The island has a population of just 7 people, of which he is the only child. He lives on what many people would consider a ‘paradise island’ and has almost free reign to go and play wherever he wants. At first I thought it must be very difficult for him being the only child on this entire island. What will his social skills be like when he’s older if he only ever interacts with the same 7 people? There are no shops on Taravai, his family mainly live off the land – growing their own fruit and vegetables, fishing and hunting their own meat. His dad makes the 10-mile journey to Mangareva once every few weeks in a motor boat to buy some supplies and from what I can tell, Ariki usually stays on Taravai. Would this child grow up to even understand the concept of buying something from a shop? Would his education suffer from being home-schooled rather than having a formal education? Was he sad to not have any other children to play with? His upbringing is worlds away from my own and it got me thinking about how different people place priority on different values. I have some really fond memories of my own childhood and I can’t imagine it being the same without many friends to play with, a school where I could get a formal education and lots of toys! Surely Ariki is missing out on so much?
I soon realised, however, that my views were incredibly narrow-minded and that just because his upbringing is so different to my own, that certainly doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, in many ways it’s a whole lot better. He doesn’t have computers or Iphones to play with, or any fancy toys in fact. Instead you often see him with a stick and a saucepan lid, climbing a tree pretending to be a heroic warrior with his sword and shield – climbing the castle walls to save a stranded princess. Or he’ll be entertaining himself with a box and a broken oar, frantically paddling to escape from the evil sea monster that’s chasing him. He is incredibly healthy, active and independent precisely because of his upbringing. His parents, Hervé and Valarie, are incredibly friendly and welcome many passing sailors into their home. They host barbeques, coffee afternoons, volleyball games and dinners, and everyone is welcome. Because of this, Ariki is constantly exposed to a wide variety of people – all from different parts of the world, speaking a multitude of different languages and all with their own stories. He also meets many other children this way, and whilst his main problem is learning to share attention, overall he is a very sociable boy who communicates very well with pretty much everybody. He is home schooled by his parents and this means that he has two full time teachers. He learns his education in a fraction of the time it would take in a school because the focus is 100% devoted to him. This frees up time for him to be creative, learn other life skills such as living off the land (very useful in French Polynesia) and to be active. It’s precisely because he lives off home-grown organic produce, freshly caught wild fish and meat, is active in the outdoors, has focused education from his parents and is constantly meeting new people that he is creative, intelligent, sociable, healthy and most importantly, happy.
We were invited to his fifth birthday party last week and he absolutely thrived on a day that was completely dedicated to him. His parents made him a birthday cake and bought him a new pair of flip flops. They weren’t particularly fancy flip flops but he had lost his last pair and didn’t currently own any shoes at all. It’s not because his parents couldn’t afford to give him shoes (the Gambier people are fairly wealthy from the pearl farming trade), just that he didn’t really need them on Taravai and the local culture puts less of a focus on material things. He also got a few more birthday presents – Alex and I gave him one of Alex’s caps and made him a second birthday cake. He was also given a water bottle and a bar of chocolate from Mehdi and Karine (the owners of another boat) and a homemade ticket machine from Jesse and his brother Jack (NB – John has now sailed to Tahiti in the 26-foot Sparrow and Jack flew in to help Jesse take care of the farm in John’s absence). Ariki loves to give people tickets for events that his parents host so Jesse and Jack made him a ticket machine out of wood and some rolled up paper, it was a perfect present for him. I can imagine many children in the western world being disappointed with this array of presents, but Ariki was thrilled. He loved the day dedicated to him with all his favourite foods, lots of attention and lots of fun and games on the beach. He was even allowed to join in with the adult game of volleyball which made him very happy indeed.
Ariki is growing up in a way that is very unusual to me, but seeing how he is being brought up made me take a step back and contemplate the things that are really important in life. I still don’t have a clue really, but I’ll try and be more open-minded in the future and take the positives from the amazing people I am fortunate enough to meet.
Well, it’s been quite a while since either of us posted a blog. To be honest, in comparison to Tsunami evacuations and medical rescues, nothing particularly out of the ordinary has happened recently. Writing about our exploits over the past month won’t be too dissimilar to
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.