The Beautiful Tuamotus
20 July 2016
Jane, warm and sunny
Russell and I have promised each other that one day we will return to the beautiful Tuamotus. It will not be the same without our beloved Ta-b, the atolls were very hard to leave. The French have kept pretty quiet about this stunning group of 78 islands, with all but two being coral atolls. They spread in a NW-SE direction over 1,000 miles. We have friends who have spent a year or two in the area and we can certainly understand why. We were luckier then most cruisers (having British passports allows us to spend more than three months in French Polynesia) and were able to enjoy a magical five weeks in the area before it was time to continue west.
The atolls are known as the “Low and Dangerous Archipelago” although we lovingly nicknamed them the “Tomatoes”. The motus (islets) on the reefs ring most atolls like crowns. They are clustered on the northern side with palms and grass, but the southern sides are normally awash with coral and often pounding waves. Being only a few meters high they are difficult to see until one is within 8 miles. No atoll is like another ranging in size from 4km to 75km in length. Some are completely enclosed, although luckily there are 30 that have deep cut passes that are navigatable. The currents run up to 8 knots in and out of these passes and often have large standing waves. They make for interesting sailing between the atolls. Timing becomes very important to try and enter/exit lagoons at slack tide; especially as all information available is often out by a few hours We did not always get it right, sometimes we were very slow or very fast entering/exiting a lagoon – exciting stuff and not for everyone; which is possibly why so many cruisers seem to spend very little time in the area.
The Tuamotus were found before Tahiti and the Society Islands probably because they are the largest Archipelago in the world. There is 6000km of sheltered lagoons and the whaling in days gone past was apparently excellent. Many of the atolls are uninhabited, but those that are normally have a small village. There is a supply ship that visits some of the larger islands once a week, but fresh food is hard to find and most locals live off fish, rice and coconuts. There are a few small resorts on the main islands, but otherwise there is no tourist industry apart from the cruising boats that sail through on their way to Tahiti. Until recently most boats only visited the northern atolls, nowadays with electronics, pilot books and boats assisting each other the cruising area has extended south. We visited five atolls.
Our landfall was Raroia after a great sail from Nuka Hiva having to slow ourselves down to catch slack water at first light. Another boat was leaving and we thought our friends on Tiki had just entered ahead of us. For our first pass we clocked 5 knots of current against us, but eventually we got in with both engines working hard. Later we found that in fact Tiki were behind us, not in front, another lesson learned. We went across the lagoon avoiding lots of boomies (large coral heads) to an anchorage off Kontiki island to join four other boats there. When moving around the lagoons it is important to travel when the sun is high in the sky so one can see and avoid every coral patch. We have heard of boats suffering from a lot of damage when accidentally hitting coral so we were very careful.
Raroia was a perfect spot to spend time, with BBQs ashore, snorkeling, diving the pass and boomies, reef exploring, all with great company around us. We got to watch the film with friends about Kontiki who landed on the Motu next to us so many years ago – a fascinating documentary and all the more interesting being anchored right where they arrived.
Our next Atoll to visit was Makemo. Highly recommended by sailing friends and diving/snorkeling the northern pass was an experience I will never forget. The water was crystal clear with a shallow reef and cliff face, home to hundreds of different colourful fish, then deeper down larger fish including numerous reef and black fin shark. Diving the pass is normally done only on an incoming slack tide, we luckily got to experience it three times and it was certainly a highlight of our time in the Tomatoes.
Sadly my underwater camera is no longer working and I did not get my go pro when Edwin was unable to bring it to the Marquesas, however our friends from Tiki managed to get some great footage; so we can share a few pictures.
Makemo has a small delightful village and the locals are charming and very friendly. We were given coconuts and were able to buy fresh bread and pasteries, lucking out with some vegtables and other fruit from the supply boat that had been in harbour a few days before. Sadly though we did have a bad experience. The day we left we went in to pick up some bread and a local dog decided to attack me. He was on a very long leash and totally unprovocked ran across the road. I was bitten on my lower left leg quite badly and was immediately taken to the local clinic, thankfully there was one as there are only a few amongst the islands. I was well looked after, but even with antibiotics, etc. the wound being so deep became infected; which tends to happen in the tropics. I was pretty sick for a couple of weeks, but eventually I came right and am now able to walk without a limp. I was thinking of having a tattoo while in the Pacific, but maybe I will stick with the scar I have been left with ☺
Our next atoll was Tahanea, an uninhabited marine park where one can anchor miles away from anyone else. Sadly the weather while we were there was not great and I was sick so we did not experience the island like we would have liked. Even so it was a safe and beautiful place to be and we are glad that we stopped there on our way to Fakarava.
We had a wonderful time in Fakarava, even when the weather again decided to get windy and rainy on us. Our first stop was by the pass, a worldwide must for snorkerlers and divers alike. You drift dive/snorkel up to a few knots over hundreds and hundreds of sharks with huge basse, rays and other numerous reef fish. The sharks also wait in the shallows for scraps from the restaurant, or are feed by hand, they are very tame. We took our tender numerous times to the entrance and then pulled it along behind us all the back to the anchorage and Ta-b. It was the most amazing experience, slightly frightening at times when a shark got close and curious, but one I will never forget.
We then went to Hirifa in the SE corner when the wind came up and hardly felt it. Great place to wind surf and kite, but totally protected with a lovely family living there. Lisa was like most Polynesians, very large. Every day she would huge me into her huge chest and I must admit I really enjoyed the wonderful warm embrace. We had a lot of fun meeting up with old and new friends. Each evening we enjoyed parties, pot lucks, cards and meals ashore which Lisa prepared for us. A very special place and well worth a visit. From there we went back for a last couple of days diving the pass, and to enjoy the best pizza we have had in a long time with friends, before we moved up north stopping at the anchorage midway to spend a night with friends Lumiel before hitting the big smoke of N Fakarava.
Fakarava is the second largest Tuamotu and is 32 miles long. Its northern part is the most direct route from Panama to Tahiti and it is one of the most visited atolls. The town however is not big, with only about 700 people, but it does have a couple of supermarkets, restaurants, etc. We found it very quaint and easy going.
Our last atoll was Toau before we grabbed a perfect weather window to sail to Tahiti. We met Vanessa, Lisa’s sister, who put on another feast for us beore we left. We were truly spoilt. Most of the time we were in the Tomatoes we travelled with our delightful friends on Tika, they are a family from Perth and we have become great cruising buddies. We have also met numerous other boats, one of the delights we have found crossing the Pacific is how close the community is. Never before have we made so many friends so quickly. With the daily Poly Mag Net on SSB about 25-35 boats are constantly in touch with each other. We always check in when we are sailing offshore and it is good to know that friends are watching out for us. We heard in the last few days of a solo sailor who went up on a reef in the Tuamotos while on his way to Tahiti. He did not arrive when due and a search party was sent out, sadly he was found dead on board, it is thought he suffered a heart attack. Unfortunately many boats are lost in the Tuamotus and there have been quite a few this year.
We are not sure how long we will be in the Society islands as there are at least six more that we would like to see. Completing our last leg to NZ from Tonga will be sometime around mid November so luckily we have plenty of time. We hope you enjoy our latest blog and pictures. A big thanks to Tika, Lumiel and Jackarander for their photo contributions.