Tonga, New Zealand, and Home!
28 December 2010
After writing about Niue back in October, my blog-motivation faltered, and I failed to post entries for Tonga and New Zealand. For those of you who then assumed that we died in a cave in Niue: ALL IS WELL!
After spending about five weeks in Tonga, the crew of the Shannon made the leap down to New Zealand with a quick stop at Minerva Reef. We arrived in Opua, NZ on November 9th after an exceptionally nice easy passage. Whew!
Christina met us at the dock in Opua (along with couple other good friends) and we spent some time cruising the Bay of Islands and the Tutukaka Coast in their company. (Let's just say that 8 people aboard is about all Shannon can comfortably handle!).
On November 29th, we hauled Shannon out of the water at Norsand Boatyard in Whangerei, NZ. There she'll sit in her cradle until we're ready to sail her again, which will probably end up being the spring of '12. Ken and Alina are back in Hawaii, and Christina and I are currently back in Montana for Christmas, enjoying some family time and all the good x-country skiing.
I hope to write an account of our experiences in Tonga and New Zealand before they fade from memory, so just because the Shannon isn't sailing anymore doesn't mean you shouldn't check the blog a few more times!
Christina and I will be heading back to Hawaii on Jan 13th to start work and replenish our severely depleated coffers!
Hope everyone had a great Holiday. Happy New Years!
No photos this time
10 October 2010
Hey All, Having bad luck with this internet connection. Got about 6 photos uploaded to the Palmerston album, but that's all I can do. I'll get them up when I can.
10 October 2010 | Niue
Niue. Let's see, where to begin.
Niue was an awesome place- very different from what we had previously experienced. As an ancient atoll that had been uplifted to a height of 200 feet, Niue is made of limestone and is as porous as a bathroom sponge. Due to this, the island is riddled with caves and chasms. From the ocean, the island looked like a long (9mi) pancake, very unappealing topographically, but as we got closer we could see incredible cliff formations along the coast, and a nicely developed fringing reef. We had just spent the last week or so getting hammered by 30-40kt winds on our run from Palmerston Island to Beveridge Reef and then Niue. We were always running with it, so the 15-20ft seas (sometimes breaking) were really no problem, and our windvane kept us tracking nicely. Just as we approached Niue, the conditions began to improve and we coasted around the southern tip into the lee of the island. As we neared the only major town, a yacht passed us and hailed us on the radio. Turns out it was the commodore of the Niue yacht club, and he offered to guide us to a mooring off the main wharf.. The yacht club is a small, somewhat ramshackle organization that houses its headquarters in the local ice cream parlor, and doesn't have a single yacht of its own. They are more like a social club that maintains facilities for cruisers (showers, book exchange, etc) and maintains the 15 or so moorings laid out for transient boats.
In 2004 hurricane Heta hit the island with 300km/hr winds and pretty much destroyed everything. 60% of the islands residents just up and left, apparently finding it far easier to relocate to New Zealand (of which Niue is a protectorate) than rebuild from the wreckage. 3 out of every 4 houses on the island lie abandoned and falling in, giving it a post-apocalyptic feel. That, combined with the custom of burying all loved ones in large concrete grave-bunkers in front yards, along the sides of the road, in clearings in the woods, and in front of public places (much as they do in Samoa) gave Niue an even more war-torn vibe. In addition to the wreckage on land, all the moorings were destroyed and so the yacht club has been re-installing them over the past couple of years. Now they are super nice, with all new anchors and hardware. We felt good tying Shannon up to one of them. I like the move toward permanent moorings in places where cruising sailboats frequent. They save a lot of coral damage (and it is a heck of a lot easier to pick up and release from a mooring than to haul in 200ft of 3/8" chain by hand ,like we do, when we set anchor).
The first thing we saw when arriving was a banded sea krait swimming in the water next to the mooring. As soon as it saw us, it gave a whip of its tail and dove for the bottom. These awesome creatures were everywhere in Niue, and with a venom purportedly 5x more toxic than a king cobra, were quite something to get used to. When freediving, these snakes would come right up to you, get right in your face or attempt to swim around your appendages. They were really cute, and being rear-fanged snakes with tiny mouths, would probably have a hard time getting venom into any part of you even if they wanted to. We heard reports of the boys on the island picking them up and throwing them at the little girls. Awesome. I wrote a post all about them on RTW. Even got a little video. Check it out if you like, it'll probably be posted in a week or two.
So, after we tied up to the mooring, we made the rounds to the neigboring boats and said hi to a few that we knew. We met a nice couple, Bruce and Alene, on a 40ft trimaran who gave us the lowdown on all the cool stuff to do on Niue, which basically consisted of lots of caving.
Whenever we get to a new island group or country, the first thing we have to do is check in with customs, health and immigration. Usually this means shouldering the pack with our bulging folder of passports and boat documents, and hiking around town until you find that one dusty old building that houses the various offices. Niue's customs office was located in the back of a building that looked like it had been a school, right in the heart of Alofi town (back when there were 3x more kids on the island, I'm sure it was a school). The woman inside welcomed us with a deadpan look that said "great, more yachties" and processed us through with automaton efficiency. Immigration was to be found in the back of the Police station, and was staffed by the most jovial woman. She was all smiles and was curious about who we were and where we had come from. Very nice. After taking care of business there,we set off to be proactive about finding a solution to our broken inverter. A man at the wharf had recommended that we go see a guy named Terry, who lived up the road out of town a ways. Ken, Britton, Alina and I set off along the road, walking past Captain Cook's landing place (where he was immediately run off by several Niueans painted up with red banana dye)and the dilapidated Niue Airlines office. Finally, we reached the abode of Terry, who seemed to live in amongst piles of all kinds of awesome rusting junk. Scooters, weedwhackers, transmissions, batteries, computers, chainsaws, sheet metal, shipping containers, piles of rusty springs, bolts, tires, etc. Terry was an older, slightly sweaty Kiwi expat who seemed to have a monopoly on the used appliance/motorized yard tool/computer repair market on Niue. As we shook hands, I notice that like all good mechanics, he was missing a digit or two. We described to him our predicament and he went immediately into one of his shipping containers and brought out what looked to be part of a computer. "Here" he said. "Wire this up to your battery (indicating two wires sprouting from a hand-poked hole in the side of the casing), and plug this in here (he scrounged for a powerstrip). It's just a power supply for a computer, rewired to be supplied by external batteries instead of the ones inside. It puts out 220 volts AC. I made up a couple of them to use with my wind generator battery bank up at my house. You can have it for free."
We stood there dumbfounded. Ok, awesome! Thanks Terry! We were expecting to have to drop at least $100 for any solution to our problem, if we could even find one.... Still a little skeptical however, we walked away with the new device in my backpack. It looked to be vintage 1991, and was only sightly smaller than a Cray supercomputer. Concerned as we were about whether it would actually work or not, we were actually more worried about finding enough space to put the thing, should it fulfill our needs.
Back in town, we walked around and cased the joint. This took us all of 5 minutes, and after we'd seen the Swanson's Limited Supermarket (definitely limited), the spartan bakery/pool hall combo, and a strange little hostel with built-in junk shop, we decided to call it a day and retired to the boat. A half hour after arrival, we had the new power inverter device wired up and it was pumping out 220 volts like a champ! We had to move out a stack of provisions to make room for it in the sliding compartment under the chart table, but once installed, we barely think about it anymore (that was a month ago). We brought Terry a bottle of wine a couple days later to say thanks...
Alofi town could only be described as comatose. Barely a pulse. The whole week we stayed there, we probably saw less than 100 souls, and half of those were at the yacht club potluck we attended one night. Aside from the people we met in shops or offices, the local people very much kept to the themselves, and it wasn't until we had rented a car and drove out into the interior did we start to see more people going about their daily lives (mostly farming taro in the rocky soil). Culturally, Niue seems to be in trouble. With far more Niueans living oversees than on Niue, the local population seems scattered, tired, disjointed, and a little sad. It was really too bad. We tried to track down the saturday market and the wednesday cultural practice, but couldn't seem to find either. Granted, I'm sure I don't know the whole story, but that is just the feeling I got.
So, with that we turned to full-time caving and exploring. First we rented a car, which at only $20US per day, was a steal split between the four of us. It was a tiny silver Mazda mini wagon, which we named Lord Kelvin, and it served us like no land rover could. Trying to get to some of these caves without a car would have been pretty hard. I'll just list off a description of some of the places we went..
This was pirates of the Carribean all the way. After hiking for about half and hour through the dense forest on the plateau of the island, we popped out near the edge of the cliff above the ocean. A huge ladder made out of telephone poles and 2x4s took us straight down through a slot in the rock into this amazing oasis at the bottom of the shaft. There were palm trees, ferns, moss, and sand dunes. There was also an extremely stagnant pool of cruddy water that Brit decided to taste to determine if it was salt or fresh. Why I do not know. An offshoot from the chasm led to the back end of a sea cave where you could stand on a rock while the huge breakers blasted in through the mouth and washed up all around.
A short hike from the road led us to a crack in the rock, which after entering, led down down down at least 100 feet until you were left standing at the head of a freshwater pool at the bottom of an honest cravasse about 8ft wide(looking straight up, the sunlight was the thinnest crack). We donned our masks and fins and jumped into the pool. It was crystal clear fresh water (about 68degrees though, which was pretty cold)The pool was deep (40 feet maybe) and filled with awesome dribbling stalactite features and overhangs,etc. We dove down through an underwater opening and came up in another separate chamber. From there we climbed up a steep rockslide about halfway back up to daylight and entered another shaft (Brit and Ken did this while Alina and I stayed at the top). Vines assisted their decent into this cave where they discovered another set of deep deep pools in the bottom, filled with creepy roots and crawling vines.
These were some pretty impressive sea arches carved into the cliff along the northwest shore. We came early in the morning at low tide so we could hike around the base of the arches on the reef flat and make it around to Makalea caves further down the coast. Not only did we find Makalea caves, but we also discovered another set of caves further on that didn't seem to be named or marked on any map. (We were searching for a geocache along the coast which we never suceeded in finding) These caves were awesome chambers filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and fully formed columns. The awesome thing about Niue is the feeling you get that you are one of the first to experience the place. There are no signs to any of these caves, and once you get there, there are no ropes or barriers or anything to let you know that you are not the first person ever to have been there (ok, we did see the occasional name carved in the wall) But we were discussing what a similar geologic feature would be like back in the states. Not only would there be excessive signage warning of loose rocks, dangerous heights, deep water,idiot tourists, and potential lawsuits, but the cave itself would be roped off to the point where all the cave formations would be kept so far away that you couldn't really see them, despite the artificial lighting that would have undoubtedly been installed. Here in Niue, if you felt so inclined, you could waltz up and break off several hundred stalactites to take home as souveniers. It appears that no one feels so inclined. Isn't that nice?
Here, freshwater from the subterrainian aquifer pours out into a tidepool at the bottom of a 60ft chasm located just in from the ocean cliffs. The pool was great for swimming and cliff jumping and the mix of fresh on top and salt water below created a fuzzy shimmering mirage-like layer at the thermocline. Swimming along with mask and snorkel at the surface you couldn't see much, as if you just had your eyes open underwater, but as soon as you dove down a few feet, it all became clear.
This one was a nice hike through the Niue Forest Reserve, among huge mahogany trees, banyans, rocky outcroppings and hundreds of spiderwebs inhabited by monstrous yellow arachnids. The person breaking trail had to wave a big stick in front of himself the whole time to avoid being plastered in the face with one of the very intricate 3D webs (that was me). To find the cave, we had to take an overgrown offshoot from the trail (which I think most people must miss) above a steep decent to the reef. Once at the cave, it is an easy scramble back into an inner chamber where there is a skylight and ferns growing amongst the stalagmites.. After investigating every nook and cranny of the chamber we found that this was not quite the end of the road. There was a small hole in the floor with a spiderweb across it that led down into blackness, giving us the distinct impression that we were standing on a gossamer ceiling above a deep chamber. Needless to say, we returned the next day with a rope, and Ken and I lowered ourselves down through the hole. After shinnying down 30 feet of free-swinging line and landing in a pile of animal bones, we looked around at our decidedly different surroundings. Instead of the usual limestone, the interior of this cave was made up entirely of huge slabs of loose sandstone, made up of millions of tiny little shells and coral particles. There were huge chunks and slabs of this stuff hanging off the ceiling, and erosion of the rock had created dunes on the floor of the cave. We saw no footprints on the dunes, which said to us that either no one had been down here in a long long time, or the sand was raining down off the ceiling at an alarming rate... The cave turned out to consist of three separate chambers, the final one containing a large freshwater pool with an island of sandstone in the middle. Hanging off the wall near the shore of the pool was the most gossamer stalactite I'd ever seen. It was about 3 feet long and only as big around as a pencil. It was hollow in the middle, just like a drinking straw, and its walls were paper thin.. After a quick exploration, Ken and I decided not to push our luck and tiptoed back to the opening, trying not to touch anything. We then hand-over-handed it back up the rope and back out the hole (myself somewhat less than gracefully).
This was the Niue motherlode of caving awesomeness. Our friends Bruce and Alene had drawn us a map of all the chambers they'd discovered in their exploration of the cave, so we had some kind of idea of what to expect. A good 45 minutes of hiking led us from the road to the cave entrance, which again was easy to miss and we had to battle our way through a tunnel-trail of dead pandanus leaves to the unassuming entrance. We felt a little like Team Zissou as we suited up in our wetsuits, booties, gloves, lights, cameras, and tucked our fins into our weightbelts, all the while standing in the woods. (All except for Brit, who has his own built-in wetsuit, the lucky #$%) We all slipped down into the crack in the rock and scuttled like crabs down some slippery sloping limestone to another crack, below which we could see a clear freshwater pool. With the aid of a rope someone had put there, we one by one made the Stallone-like move and stepped across the crack over the void. Once across, we made our way into a huge chamber with a wide open skylight 50 feet up. The floor of the chamber was a freshwater pool, crystal clear. We got in the pool, whooping like banshees at the frigid temperature. The pool ended at the far wall of the chamber, but by diving down about 10 feet, you could swim under the wall through a submerged tunnel, and up into another chamber, nearly pitch black. And so it went, each successive pool had an underwater swim-through leading to another chamber. Ken and I had the only two underwater lights, so one of us would scout the next dive, sometimes diving down only to discover that that particular tunnel was a dead-end and would have to turn around. We've all got pretty good breath holds, but when the water is cold and you're not exactly sure where the next air pocket will be, it's hard to keep your heart rate down. So, our bottom times were definitely less than desireable. Once we had found a connecting tunnel, we'd go back to Alina and Brit and stagger our dives so one lightless person would follow a light. The fourth chamber had us all coming up one right after another into a little air pocket, and we all crowded together to get enough room. I took a photo of us in there, and everybody's eyes are a little wide. There were some little fish in these freshwater pools- little cardinalfish looking guys who never see the light of day. Also, there were freshwater eels 2-3 feet long swimming around in there. If you've never seen a freshwater eel, they are probably the least intimidating of the eel family. They all look kind of dopey and lethargic like they should have names like Melvin or Hermy.
We knew from Bruce and Alene that there was a way out the other side of the cave system without having to retrace our steps, so despite the fact that everyone was very cold, we kept going. Due to a particular incident involving Britton, my light, and a moving rock, my light started to go on the fritz about halfway through the cave. It would randomly turn off without warning, but would usually come back on with a tap or two from the heel of my hand. Nice. After several more chambers, the roofs of which were very close to the surface of the water, and a scramble over some wedged boulders, we finally found ourselves with nowhere else to go but up. We had dead-ended in a large chamber with a high ceiling and a crack that led up about 70 feet to a dim hint of daylight. Ken and I had taken turns scouting down a particularly long submerged tunnel that extended further back, hopscotching tiny airpockets filled with tiny stalactites (a great way to brain yourself when coming up with a strong urge to breath..), but had discovered nothing but dead-ends. So, after returning to our somewhat hypothermic friends waiting for us in the high chamber, we began to climb up the crack. Sure enough, it led out a tiny hole into the daylight and onto the shelf above the ocean cliffs.
Hiking back to the cave entrance was more exercise in not getting sliced to ribbons than it was hiking. The surface of the ground in that particular spot is probably one of the only spots on earth that I could comfortably call "rugged". I really kinda hate that word. It always conjures images of L.L. Bean-clad yuppies posing on some rock outcropping in Maine, showing off their unscuffed hiking boots.
"Hey Jan, it sure is a good thing we bought all this expensive mountain gear."
"You're right Rick, this terrain sure is rugged"....
So, in all but the most deserving circumstances, I avoid use of that word. But here, trying to walk 50 feet over the ground had you doing at least 200 feet of up and down vertical climbing over what looked like piles of giant 10 foot limestone knives, dropped from the sky, and then aligned with a huge magnet to stand straight up, blade up. These knives were interspersed with wiry scrub bushes which did a good job concealing the many gaping holes and bottomless cracks that filled the area. You could either hop like an insane person from knife-tip to knifetip and hope to not slip and impale your nether-regions, or you could crawl like an old man on your hands and knees. Neither worked very well.
The cool thing about all these fantastic caves and chasms on Niue was that we never once saw another person at any of them. If any one of these caves existed on Oahu, there were be hundreds of people visiting them every day.
A few more days were spent in Niue freediving and checking out snakes and sea caves along the shore near the boat. The underwater visibility there was awesome. I read in one of our guidebooks that the complete lack of sediment runoff from the island (because it is so porous) makes for some of the best vis in the world, up to 250 feet sometimes. We didn't see much better than 150 feet, but it was still nice.
I ran into fellow NOAA co-worker Mike Musyl on the pier one night as I was launching our dinghy. He was in Niue tagging ono for some pelagic fish project. Small world.
We had a fairly interesting predicament while on Niue. None of us had much cash. The only bank on the island didn't have an ATM, and would only either exchange money or give you a cash advance on your credit card. The fees associated with that latter option were scary, especially since it was in international transaction, so we shied away from that. We each had a few bills of NZ money left over from Rarotonga... Thank god the car rental agency accepted credit card. It seemed to be the only business there that did. So, we were very frugal and pooled our remaining cash to keep eating. We bought a couple of loaves of bread, a few cans of tomatoes, and a jar of jam. We eyed a very tasty looking cucumber in the store, but after seeing the price tag of $10, we passed. We had jam sandwiches and oatmeal for at least two out of three meals a day. Departure tax (paid only in cash) was $35 per person, and mooring fees were $15/day. After putting aside enough for that and purchasing our bread, we had just enough to pay for a couple of $2 ice cream cones on our last day- our only splurging.
By the time our week in Niue was up, we were one of only two boats there.
10 October 2010 | Nowhereland
After leaving Palmerston, we set a course for Beveridge Reef, 230 miles to the southwest. The frontal system that had kept winds above 30 knots for most of the previous week was not going anywhere, so we poled out about 50% of the genoa and flew downwind. We had heard about Beveridge Reef from a couple of other cruisers back in Papeete who recommended it as an awesome place to stop over between the Cooks and Niue. I looked for it on our electronic charts, but all it showed was a big green blotch (the color of dry reef) and made some vague comment as to the inaccuracy of the location and soundings. Before leaving Rarotonga, I had downloaded a hand-drawn chart of the reef itself from the internet. This chart at least showed the horseshoe shape of the reef, the pass on the western side, and the lagoon. But, strangely enough, the coordinates on the hand-drawn chart were close to a mile off the coordinates on our E-charts. We had expected this, as often remote reefs and islands like this are relying on bathymetric surveys from the 1800's (I kid you not, some of our paper charts for the Marquesas were from an 1882 survey). So, we just knew we'd have to find the reef the old fashioned way- arrive in the vicinity during daylight hours, and just watch like a hawk for the darned thing so we wouldn't run into it. We tend to do this anyway, even with well-charted places. The captain who ends up on the rocks is the one who trusts everything to his charts or any single source of information.
So, we planned our passage to arrive in the vicinity of Beveridge the morning of the third day at sea. When that morning arrived, and we neared the supposed location, we just kept watch for any sign of breakers, discolored clouds (green above the lagoon) or whatever. Sure enough, we saw breakers ahead, and as we rounded the southern side of the reef, plotted the actual position of the reef to be nearly 2 miles away from either of our charted locations. Go figure. Imagine trying to sail past the thing in the middle of the night, thinking you're giving it a two mile leeway, when BAM! It has definitely happened, as the fairly recent wreck of a longline fishing boat on the eastern side of the reef can attest to. When we entered the lagoon and swung up into the wind, we were blasted in the face by the force of the wind we'd been running with the whole time. It made us glad we hadn't been trying to beat into it! There were no other boats there. We motored dead upwind across the lagoon about a mile to the eastern side, and anchored a quarter mile from the wreck just off the edge of the sand margin in about 30 feet of water. This was where it transitioned from 6ft reef flat depths to the deeper (30ft) lagoon. We dropped the hook in 8 feet, with Shannon's keel just above the bottom, then drifted back over deeper water. Even the short fetch between the reef and the boat was kicking up pretty significant chop that occasionally found its way on deck. As it was, all the chop was right on the nose, so it was comfortable enough down below. The place is called Beveridge Reef, and even though it is not spelled quite the same, warranted a round of beverages for the crew. We sat up on deck in the brilliant sunshine and blasting wind and took a self-timed picture of the four of us on the bow with our beverages. It was so windy the camera kept blowing over.
We felt it was a little unsafe to go anywhere in the dinghy due to the high winds and our puny and occasionally less-than-reliable outboard (if it died, we'd be blown all the way across the lagoon and probably out the other side very quickly). So, we decided to take our exercise, and swim over to the longline wreck. When I jumped in the water I realized the incredibly good visibility of the place. With no land to cause sediment runoff, the water was super clear, despite the wind. On our way to the wreck we saw lots of stingrays, and a strange migration of thousands of nudibranchs, all crawling along in huge trains to no obvious destination.. The wreck was , well, a wreck, with the usual broken dishes, soggy matresses, empty engine room, and huge scar in the reef. We played around on it for a while, watching all the blacktip reef sharks swim around it in the shallow water with their dorsal fins out of the water . There was a whole school of Parrotfish lounging in a shallow spot next to the wreck, availing themselves of a thin stream of cool water coming in over the reef from the rising tide. Their tails and dorsal fins were out of the water too- something I'd never seen parrotfish do.
When we returned to the boat, I couldn't help but take advantage of the awesome visibility to take some photos of Shannon from below.
Because of the conditions, we decided we had seen most of what we could, and departed the next morning. Just prior to our departure, I realized that our power inverter had crapped out on us. Yes, the new one we had bought so recently in Tahiti. Well, it just refused to work, and so did our old one. What that means is that there's no way to charge the computer to run our chartplotting program. Ok, I thought, We'll just turn on the computer from time to time and do spot-checks of our position, and if we do that, the laptop battery should be able to last a few days, long enough to get the 130 miles to Niue. Well, the computer battery was stone cold dead. Hmmm. So, we broke out the backup computer. Its battery was also stone cold dead. A secret smile spread across my face as I realized that yes, technology had failed us and we would have to revert back to more traditional methods. So, we poured through our rolls of paper charts, looking for a chart of the vicinity. Well, I can tell you we have just about every other corner of the entire pacific covered, but not the no-man's land between the Cook Islands and Niue. I found one chart that covered the larger western pacific, but the exact area we needed to consult was covered by a map legend. Ha! So, with no other options, we consulted our sailing directions to at least assure there were no other uncharted reefs in our path to Niue, and busted out the plotting sheets to hand-draw our own chart. So, off we set thus, recording DR positions every hour in the log, and plotting our position from the backup handheld gps every so often. All the while I was secretly hoping that the backup gps would fail, requiring the sextant to be broken out and a noonsite to be taken the next day. Alas, it was not to be so, and we sailed into Niue a day and a half later under GPS and jury-rigged chart.
10 October 2010 | Cook Islands
Hey All, currently sitting in a nice little cafe in the town of Lifuka in the Ha'apai group of Tonga. Got a good internet connection here! I fininshed catching up on my chronicles of the past month or so, so here you are!
A small atoll on the western extremity of the southern group of the Cook Islands. Inhabited by a single extended family, they are somewhat sovereign, but still fall within the jurisdiction of the Cooks.
I've written so much about this place for Reach the World and in my own handwritten journal, that I just can't re-write it all again in utmost detail here without banging my head against a wall. Instead, I'll just transcribe my journal. Apologies for choppy sentences and poor flow!
Palmerston. Arrived at 10am after sandbagging at 2 knots all night to avoid arriving in the dark. Still blowing 30 knots. A sight greeted us as we rounded up onto the western side of the atoll: 10 other sailboats and the tall ship Picton Castle. Didn't expect much other vessel traffic at all. Can't get away from it! We were immediately intercepted by a local man in an aluminum skiff who raced out through the pass to meet us. He said "my name is Edward and I will be your host. I'll try to find you a mooring. This boat needs to leave" and he motioned to one of the boats to the south and sped off. Ken was at the helm and we motored up towards the tall ship Picton Castle, and impressive white three masted barque. We were gawked at from the rail by what looked to be the whole crew. Edward returned and said we'd have to drop anchor as the boat on the mooring was not leaving. He guided us to a good spot and indicated where to drop the hook. We set the hook, but we drifted back too close to a neighboring boat so we re-set. Edward motored back to the island to go get customs for us. Soon he returned with two other local guys Terry and Simon who were more than nice. Even though there are only 60 people on the island, these guys took their jobs seriously and wore uniforms etc. They took some tea and chatted amiably while filling out the paperwork. After they left, we listened to some Cat Stevens (first music in a week due to battery charging issues). Edward returned to pick us up to go ashore. He expertly guided us, and a couple of other cruisers (a castaway looking father and his two daughters) through the tiny pass at low tide, almost scraping bottom. Earlier we had dinghied out our second anchor for better holding in this steep-to anchorage. Edward led us ashore to his house, which was very open air. Main living area was poles with sheet metal roof, no walls. Kitchen looked like a chicken coop across the sand yard. Met Edward's mother, who was a sweet chatty old lady 80 years old who sat under the tin roof in an old ratty chair with ratty footstool and said "I don't walk too good anymore" and showed me her swollen legs and an old scar from a broken bone. Strangely, she was still able to easily touch her toes and massage her own feet. She told me the story of how one of her grandchildren had been born on the island in less than ideal circumstances and how she had been the mid-wife. I understood about 50% of the words she was saying, but followed along fairly well.
Edward's 15 year old son Davie soon took us on a walking tour of the small island, strutting ahead like he wanted to get it over with. Showed us the school, the packed sand tennis court, the original house built in 1862 by William Marsters of massive timbers from shipwrecks (still there but looks like a sponge from all the termite damage).. William Marsters (an Englishman) was the first colonizer of the island when in 1862 he settled here with three local wives from Penrhyn Island (one of the other Cook Islands). He then distributed the wives among three of the motus and made strict rules about interbreeding. What those were I cannot imagine, because nowadays, every single person on the island has the same last name: Marsters.
Davie also showed us the generator for island power, which runs for 6 hours a day, the admin offices (where we paid our $5NZ each for clearance), and back to the house. There are massive mahogany trees growing on the island, much to our surprise. Davie wants to be a policeman and is actually already training for the job (rarotonga). He asked if I skateboarded (probably a novelty for somebody from a place with no pavement) and if we surfed. No surf on Palmerston. The one guy who tried was apparently a professional surfer and ended up breaking his leg and having to be rescued.
Around 4:00, we all gathered at the village gathering area for a barbeque and performance from the crew of the tall ship. All crew were young (teens and early 20's)mostly americans and were covered with big polynesian tatoos, mostly across their chests...eeeesh. All of them got them in Rarotonga from the same guy. They're going to love those in about 10 years. The Picton Castle is here to deliver some cargo (picked up in Rarotonga) and to take some passengers up to Puka Puka from here. They are on their way around the world. Each crew member pays $40K to do the 14 month trip. The last supply ship to come to Palmerston was 6 months ago, so they probably needed it. While we waited for the performance, we mingled with the crew and a multitude of locals. I talked for some time with Goodly, Edward's brother. He told me about everything and graciously answered my question about sewage disposal and septic tanks on the island. The told me the story of how he, twice, had outboard motor problems while out fishing with no radio and only narrowly escaped drifting out to sea forever.. (he set his sea anchor etc, then figured out if you pull out the kill switch all the way and hold it there, the motor would run) I don't know why these guys don't save up for kickers.
The dancing by the male crew was pretty terrible. They had worked with one of the villagers to come up with a haka routine to a local song, and they went all out with palm leaf skirts etc. The women crew were a little better, and a couple of them had really mastered the Tahitian hip shake. All in all a valiant effort, but one that left us on the Shannon chuckling for many days after. The villagers from Puka Puka also put on a little show to say thanks for the hospitality of the Palmerston Islanders.. They sang some great songs in that awesome three part polynesian harmony the just gets me to my bones.
Feast! Every villager brought food and so did the crew of the Picton Castle. Breadfruit, beef, fish, chicken, pancakes with buttercream, rolls, breads, coconut dishes, oh my. I stuffed and stuffed, with an eye over my shoulder as squall after squall rolled in and the boats swung around a bit on their scope. Wind from the west would have had us up on the reef, the way the bottom is..
As it was getting dark, Edward loaded us up again in his boat and delivered us back to the Shannon, promising to come for us again in the morning. Standing outside to take a pee just now, I noticed the whitecaps stirring up the bioluminescence....
and recalled that at the BBQ I had been solicited casually for my, ahem, "genetic contribution", by the friend of the reverend's wife. Those strict rules on interbreeding, I guess.
Picton Castle had an open-house. Edward picked us up around 11 and ferried us over to the ship where we climbed aboard via rope ladder and were immediately taken on a tour by Tammy, a trainee aboard from Canada. She wasn't cleared to go aloft just yet, but stuck to furling headsails on the bowsprit. The whole village was also there, checking out the ship. The steward made tons of food for everyone and laid it out on deck amidships on the cargo hatch. Brit, who always gets roped into rough-housing with local kids, in an effort to hoist a little girl up in the air, bonked her head against the overhang of the coachroof. I had to laugh. A group of people from Puka Puka are catching a ride home on the tallship due to the infrequency of cargo ships heading there. It kinda feels like we're back in time a century or two- a sailing ship delivering cargo and passengers to remote islands.. pretty cool. One nice lady from Puka Puka was sitting along the bulwark off to one side with a plastic bag full of skinned cooked seabirds (tropicbirds). Later we saw a derelict carcass on the seat of one of the small boats. Once again, I had to laugh.
There was a little local kid with long flowing black curly locks who was getting waaaaay too much attention from the crew of the ship and everybody else. He was pretending all the food was his, hitting people (he slapped me in the face when I tried to take a handful of popcorn), stealing hats and riding on people's shoulders...
Once the tours were over, the cruisers and locals gathered on the main deck by the cargo hold. Locals gathered on the starboard side, and cruisers gathered on the port side, with very little mingling. I tried to break the mold, but only succeeded in talking to a few locals and generally looking lonely and slightly creepy. Eventually, I met all the other cruisers: Graham and Julie, Alex and Amelia on "Artimo". Big Texas and wife Jules on "Simpatica" and Lisa and John (heli-ski guide) and kids on "Tyee".
The captain of the Picton Castle was a soggy fleshy looking man with droopy-dog eyes, who still managed to somehow look like a famous movie star, and was just as charismatic. He gave a speech, and all gathered (probably 100 people)to hear.. Something cheezy about hospitality and emotional generosity, then the reverend spoke, and then the mayor Bill. Then, once again, the crew of the Picton castle performed their dance again, utterly unimproved from the day before. The guy's routine went as follows:
Villagers on ukuleles and guitars sang this song:
"Welcome to Picton Castle,
Hello, kia orana to you,
I assuuuuuuume this is whaaaat
You want to seeeeeee!"
While the dancers did the haka and motioned to their crotchal regions on the last line..
After the crew dance, four local Marsters got up and did a nice dance to a more wholesome song, with a last line of
"You'll never find another Marsters girl like me..."
At least they can poke fun at their own strange geneology!
At the conclusion of the performance, Big Texas shouted "All ashore thats going ashore!" and was immediately reprimanded by the captain: "I did NOT say that"...
One of the PC crew was only 17 and had seen the Picton Castle on TV when she was 9 years old, and had been saving ever since to come aboard for a voyage. She was Irish. She must have had one heck of an allowance to affort the $40K ticket.
After about 3 hours aboard, Edward dropped us back off at the Shannon. We watched as the Picton Castle got underway. The entire crew gathered on the focsle and took turns pumping up and down on the huge manual windlass. As the ship crept towards her anchor, several of the square sails were unfurled. When she finally broke free of the bottom, she stood off to the north and picked up speed as more and more sail was put on her. It was like watching pure poetry. Now, a quiet evening aboard while the winds continue to rage outside.
During the night, one of the other yachts, "Calypso" broke free of their mooring and drifted out to sea. In the morning we heard talk on the radio of plans to set down a new mooring. So when Edward came to pick us up, Ken and I jumped in the boat with our dive gear (me with scuba stuff too) and went to the spot where we searched for the old chain to no avial. Must've ripped the whole thing out. Canadians Lucy and John showed up with more scuba gear and got in the water with us. Found a good spot for new chain and did it up through a nice big puka in the reef. John dropped his pliers and they shot off down the reef slope like a spaceship. I never saw anything so cool. Luckily I kept my eye on the place where they landed and was able to retrieve them. Eddie told us about the local politics of moorings- how cousin Bob has two moorings, but never maintains them. And how he once received a gift of chain and line from a cruiser, but never shared any with Edward. Also how his brother Terry has two moorings, but sometimes places the boats he hosts on Edward's moorings (as was the case the morning we arrived). Not all is without competition! We gave Edward one of our Penn trolling polls and he was definitely surprised. "I did not expect this!" He immediately jammed it into a hole in the gunwale and said "I will put it here", then jumped aboard Shannon to chat.
Later, after making a trip to another boat, Edward returned to pick us up to go ashore.
Also in Edward's boat was another cruiser named Per from Sweden, who we had met in Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas when we anchored right next to him. Unbeknownst to us, he actually nearly died there from shallow water blackout while spearfishing, but was resuscitated with CPR by a doctor on a neighboring boat. Anyway, he was fine now and all smiles
. When we arrived at Edward's house, we could see that lunch preparations were under way, with a big table set in the shaded lanai. Alina and I wanted to go to the school to interview some kids for Reach the World, so we asked Edward and he radioed ahead to the school. At 12:30, Alina and I, along with some others, headed over to the school. But, not before sitting with grandma in the lanai, listening to her story of how she broke her leg in a crab hole on an outlying motu while packing a load of copra on her back... Then, how her foot was stuck in the hole with the bone bent backwards. After a long time, her son Simon came in a boat and picked her up to take her back to the village where he reset the bone and and splinted it with maori medicinal herbs (root of Pandanus). Every day she would massage the break in the ocean and apply more medicine. After a month she could hobble around the house. Now she has a visible divot in her shin, which she showed me by lifting leg up on the bench. Pretty flexible, old grandma. I asked her what had changed here on Palmerston since she was a child, and she said "Nothing is the same".. "Very different". When further prompted, she said that everyone used to be relaxed and not so uptight. Now everybody bickers and fights. She is 80 years old, so we assume she must be only 3rd or 4th generation Marsters.
At the school, all the kids were out at recess. We talked to the young friendly teacher's aid, and she snared a couple of kids for us to interview for RTW. Julianna, age 9, and Moe, age 9. Julianna preferred to stand up, and gave good answers to all questions. Moe, who seemed intimidated by the four questions he saw on my last page, got the abbreviated version. They seem very sheltered. Julianna did not seem to know any famous people, save for Michael Jackson, and when asked if she had any questions for kids in the U.S., it was "What kind of pizza do you have? I like cheese and chili"....
She liked all her subjects and wanted to be a teacher someday. And a hairdresser. When asked where she would go if she could go anywhere in the world, she answered "stay right here in Palmerston"...
After returning to Edward's from the school, we feasted on potluck lunch. Edward had cooked up some delicious ono (wahoo) which I ate!! and fried rice (which we brought), along with a couple of other dishes. Awesome.
Then it was another short walk with Edward to see a little more of the island (some pig pens and old graves and such), and then a short snorkel in the lagoon. The coral in the lagoon was awesomely healthy and everything looked quite pristine. Catamarans used to be able to make it through the pass into the lagoon, but the family council has since banned boats in the lagoon after one idiot cruiser repeatedly ignored Simon's requests and continued throwing their garbage in the water.
After getting out of the water and returning to Edward's house, Edward said "All four of you need to go to the admin office. Terry would like to speak with you." So Edward escorted us down there and Terry welcomed us into the office. Terry said "Sit down please". "I would like to speak with you regarding an incident that occurred today"..
My heart skipped a beat. Incident? "Oh shit, we're on a weird inbred island and now they're going to hold us prisoner, or frame us for some incident..."!
Turns out all he wanted was for us to go through the proper channels for visiting the school and interviewing the kids. (Which I assumed was asking permission from the teachers) He wanted to see our credentials (of which we of course had none) and to see the questions we asked the kids, along with their answers (which was a little Big-brother-ish). He asked if Reach the World was religiously affiliated, and when we said no, he seemed somewhat disappointed. He then told us how he received his masters in theology, which prepared him spiritually to come back to live on isolated Palmerston, but in no way did it prepare him practically for driving boats, fishing, etc.
I promised to return the next day with a copy of our interview, and all was well. Edward was somewhat apologetic for the dramatic nature of the meeting, but acknowledged that those rules were in place for the protection of the residents of Palmerston. Check.
Terry takes his job very seriously here on this small island, and I respect that. Still, it was a little scary.
Edward dropped us back off at Shannon before dinner, and for a reason unbeknownst to us, also dropped off his son Davie and cousin John on the Shannon. I didn't even realize it until I popped my head back out of the hatch after dropping my stuff in the cabin only to those two standing on the bowsprit looking like scared puppies. So, we all hung out in the cockpit, ate cookies and listended to music from Ken's Ipod. They specifically requested hiphop, so we played them the good old Hot 93.9 mix. We talked for more than an hour, with no clue as to where Edward had gone, or if he was even coming back that night.
I asked Davie if they ever get tired of sailors coming to their island day after day year after year, and he answered with an unequivocal "No, not at all." "It is no problem, and it is our custom to welcome visitors". No kidding. They'd been feeding us, ferrying us around in their boats, having us in their home, and all for nothing. Nobody ever once asked for a contribution, donation, or anything. Awesomeness.
I awoke to the sound of an outboard motor, and poked my head out of the companionway in time to see Edward drift past, madly reeling in his trolling line. With a grin he glanced over at me and yelled "Got away!"
He immediately came over and tied up to Shannon and hopped aboard.
"Good morning my friend!" he said
He said "Another sailboat coming in this morning. I woke up early to be the first out so I could host them. I put a slipknot in my mooring line so I could just go! If I go below into your cabin right now, my brother and cousin are watching closely from shore, and as soon as they see me disappear, they will get in their boats and come out here and beat me to it!"
Wow, I thought, a little fiercer competition than I thought! With no monetary gain in it for anyone, what is the driving force? Competetive hospitality?
Not only do they watch each other, but every word spoken on the VHF radio is listened to by at least someone on the island. Whether it is between yacht to yacht or yacht to shore, or what, somebody is listening. I witnessed this firsthand while sitting on Edward's lanai. He has a VHF base station mounted right there and can listen at any time. He overheard two yachts calling each other and jumped up to listen in. He even followed them up a channel when they switched from 16. We all heard the two yachties talking to each other about the history of the island (of course thinking they were on a private channel), and related to each other the story of William Marsters and his polygamist tendencies. As they said this, Edward looked back over his shoulder with a grin and a gleam in his eye and said to his brother "They know about the wives!"
As we sat in the cockpit, I gave Edward some tea and chatted as we watched the new boat slowly come in from the north. Edward described how sometimes his brother and cousin get lazy and don't report the sailors they host through the proper channels, consequently causing the island to miss out on government dollars for tourism... Interesting. I had wondered where all their money for outboard gas comes from. But doesn't tourism imply people spending money in a place? No one who visits Palmerston ever spends a single dime there. I asked him if there were any other ways (besides being a customs official) that people could make money on the island. He said that they export parrotfish to Rarotonga for the restaurants. Every time a supply ship comes (about every 6 months), they export a couple of tons of parrotfish.
Soon the new boat arrived and he hustled off to greet it. While I readied my stuff to go ashore to meet Terry, Ken and Alina dinghied over to Artimo to say hi and interview their daughter Amelia for Reach the World (what it is like to live on a sailboat as a kid). Wind still blowing 25-30knots, and the motor died as they were partway there and they rapidly began drifting out to sea. We always carry a VHF and an aerial flare onboard the dinghy for just such an eventuality. Ken soon got the motor going and they were off. Until he did, however, there was much radio chatter from other cruisers watching. Cruisers definitely like to watch each other over the garden fence!
When I arrived ashore, grandma, Simon, and Shirley (Edward's wife) were sitting around on the lanai listlessly. Shirley had her head leaned up against one of the posts and looked like she was going to die of boredom or sadness, I couldn't quite tell. Edward called Terry to see if he was there in the office, but there was no reply, so I sat down with the family to wait. Life is slow here, so everybody smokes like fiends. They all have their little pouch of tobacco and paper and are constantly pausing to roll up a cigarette (except grandma). I sat there, listening to another one of grandma's stories, this time about how she'd been to New Zealand six times in her life for medical treatment, but how now she just wanted to stay on Palmerston. I talked to Simon for a while about outboards and the various merits of two stroke vs four stroke. Soon, Edward's other brother (#2 of 10) showed up, nodded to me, and sat silently smoking with everyone else. He passed out a new pack of tobacco to Shirley, who looked for a moment a little less like she wanted to die. It soon passed however, and she literally dragged her feet in a slow shuffle over to the chicken wire kitchen where she shooed a couple of little piglets away and began making dough.
When I went to see Terry, all was well and he reviewed the document with me. Telecom had just that week installed the first internet on the island, so Terry had attempted to find Reach the World online. All he succeeded in finding was the "Reach the World Foundation" which is some whack religious charity. He asked me again if we were religiously affiliated like he didn't quite believe me the first time. I assured him that no, we were not affiliated. After a very amiable visit, I went on my way down the path to Edward's again (no cars on the island, and no roads. Only footpaths).
I think that everything is kept purposefully sheltered on the island, and in addition to the bureaucratic side of things, they are concerned with what outsiders may introduce or push on their kids. I didn't see a single TV on the whole island. But, I think the intentions of sheltering are good, despite the obvious grip that religion has on the island. Seriously, what do these kids need with exposure to western culture anyway? It always just ends up making things worse. I applaud little Palmerston for making their strange insular world work as well as it does.
Back at Edward's, I commented on how good Shirley's bread looked. She replied that it didn't turn out very well. Too dense. With a hint of a smile, she dumped the whole batch into a big bag and handed it to me. Sweet!
After saying goodbye to Grandma, Simon, Edward and I motored back out to the anchorage, Edward telling me stories of how in the past he had had to kick out a couple of the yachties when they weren't obeying the rules. One night he rowed his boat out through the pass and slipped one of the boats off its mooring, casting it adrift! Renegade!
And at that, our permit at Palmerston was up, and we had to move along. After fighting with the kedge from the dinghy for about 15 minutes, I had to don my snorkel stuff in the cold wind and go free it from the bottom by hand. (Note: Do not attempt to swim a 45 lb anchor up from 30 feet by yourself. You will not succeed, and will have to drop the anchor halfway to avoid blowing a blood vessel).
As we stood off the shore and raised sail, a mother humpback and her calf surfaced right alongside the boat. I was at the helm, but everyone else ran forward to get a better look. Just as they did so, the mother released a big stinky fish breath spew out of her blowhole, which misted over Ken, Britton, and into Alina's open mouth. I had to laugh.
The Real Rarotonga (post)
22 September 2010 | Rarotonga, Cook Islands
So, I think I left off right around the time the Shannon was to set sail to the Cook Islands from Tahiti. We said goodbye to our friends on 'Aura', or at least attempted to as we tried to shout over the sound of their running engine from 80 feet away, and motored out of the lagoon. There were some surfers tearing it up on the break to the south of the pass, and we got a great view as we glided by on the outgoing tide. We set our course for Rarotonga, 600 miles to the southeast, and were immediately met with a fresh breeze right in the teeth. After tacking back and forth all day, we'd only covered about 2/3 of the 8 mile distance between Tahiti and Moorea. I spent most of the day lazily reading a sail magazine from the book exchange on the side deck, trying to keep my pillow from catching too much spray. It's going to be a long passage, I thought to myself. By dinner time, the wind had finally clocked around about 150 degrees and we were rolling along on a nice broad reach in the direction of our intended destination, barely squeaking by the southern tip of Moorea without having to jibe. We had decided to completely forgo the rest of the Society Islands in leiu of the fact that we were running out of time before hurricane season started. The Societies looked gorgeous, but judging from the reports of other cruisers, and the frightening number of mega-yachts we'd seen heading down the chain, we decided there were many other more remote and untrammeled islands to see in this big ocean. We still had two and a half months left, but with the Cooks, Tonga and Fiji to see, there just wasn't time for everything.
After dinner, I turned the watch over to Britton, and crashed for the night. When I woke up, we were plodding along at 3 knots on a rapidly calming sea. We made 110 miles that first 24 hours, followed by 60, 30, 10, -12, and so on, as the wind and swell became absolutely non-existant. We've been becalmed before, but never so absolutely as this. Usually, when the wind stops, the boat rolls incessantly from the lack of the lateral stability of filled sails and the residual swell in the water. This time, the sea was so flat that we were able to cook gourmet meals, play jenga, and build card houses.. No wind means no wind generator, so our battery bank took a huge dive and we had to go into power rationing mode. Only one cabin light at night, intermittent computer charging (no watching 'Weeds' during night watch), and no music. God forbid we should be without all our electronics in this modern world. It's always nice when mother nature brings you back down to the basics. So, we read huge quantities of books, gazed at the horizon longingly every couple of minutes, and made friends with the spider that had set up its web between the boom and the topping lift (to me an indicator of being truly becalmed). And, as it always goes, after luffing around for several days, a light breeze filled in from the north and we cruised into Rarotonga around dawn on the 9th day at sea.
We puttered around outside the mouth of tiny Avatiu harbor, waiting for the harbormaster to roust himself from bed and come on duty so we could gain clearance to enter. There are no anchorages on Rarotonga, being that it has a very steep forereef, so the only place to get any shelter is inside the harbor. After making contact with the overly-chipper radio operator on VHF, we dropped sail and motored in. Only about 200 feet wide at its widest, Avatiu is built around supply ships and local fishing boats, not cruising sailors. That said, I liked the rusty grittiness of it all, having a soft spot in my heart for places similar to Keehi Lagoon. We dropped our bow anchor just off the nose of a NZ navy patrol boat and drifted nicely back into a slot between that and another sailboat. A couple of other cruisers came to meet us and handled the two stern lines that we heaved across to the 8 foot seawall. I guess you would call this the 'Med moor' style, and this was our first experience using this technique. We positioned ourselves just far enough away from the wall to make coming and going from the boat a serious ordeal. Just to our stern was a tide gauge station, complete with solar panel, and fancy NOAA sticker. I was so proud! Although it looked like the Rarotonga representative to NOAA had been slacking off recently- rarely (or never) painting the thing, and apparently overlooking the rather fatal-looking rusty gashes and dents where some hapless cruiser's boat had bashed into the main upright of the gauge. Maybe somebody should give Dole Street a call about that one.
Before we'd even finished adjusting our lines, we were descended upon by customs and health officals, both of whom were quite possibly the friendliest people we'd met in the south pacific yet. The customs official, whose name escapes me now, sat us down at a picnic table and leisurely filled out some very unofficial looking forms and scribbled something unreadable every now and then in his notebook, all the while giving us a rambling lesson on the linguistic structure of the Maori language, and the differences between even local dialects in the Cook Islands. We were interested to learn the tonga means 'south', and Rarotonga means 'more south'. I like their system of nomenclature. Kia orana means hello, very similar to the Iaorana in Tahiti, or Kiaora in NZ. For the first time on our voyage so far, we spoke the local language, and it was like a whole new world opened up to us. We could ask questions! Make friends! Say stuff like "what do you do with your garbage here?" and not get a blank look in return. My favorite Mark Twain quote (thanks Molly!) pretty much sums up our experience prior to Rarotonga: "In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." -MT
After the customs offical had answered more than his share of questions, the health offical took a turn. We paddled him in the dinghy across the 15 foot gap to the boat, and he (with difficulty) clambered aboard. We sat in the cockpit and chatted casually for about 5 minutes, as if jumping right into business would have been rude. His name was Jeff, age 25-ish, and he had come from the small island of Mauke to the northeast to find a job in the big city (Rarotonga, administrative capital of the Cook Islands, population 20,000). As health inspector, he was obliged to give the boat a cursory inspection, and a cursory squirt of aircraft insecticide. His tiny sprayer, the size of a silly string can, yielded feeble asthmatic little poofs of chemical (that smelled like peaches) and was wielded with such timidness as to suggest that he rather liked insects. Bugs fell from the ceilings in laughter. Afterwards, he asked for $15 New Zealand for the inspection fee. I told him I didn't have any New Zealand money yet, so he took a US $10 bill, which he stuffed into the cap of his insecticide and hopped in the dingy. His parting words were "Rarotongan women don't like us locals. They like the white dudes! You're lucky man, but you gotta find a fresh one." I assumed he had breathed too much insecticide.
After we got the boat in order, we all went out to explore the town. Much to our surprise, we were among many white, foreign-looking people walking down the sidewalks. Little did we know, but Rarotonga is to the Kiwis what Waikiki is to Americans. Tourist traps abounded. Restaurants were plenty. Bars outnumbered the people, and everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE, tourists were riding rental mopeds. Despite the touristy nature of the place, Kiwi touristy is vastly more tasteful than American touristy. The knick knacks in the giftshops were of slightly better quality, (which usually means the carved wood has less laquer on it), the bars actually had locals in them, the signs were hand-painted, and I didn't see a single ABC store anywhere. Granted, this place had about 10x less population than waikiki, so some adjustments have to be made. After a week and a half at sea, we could not resist the rows of little lunch wagons and food stalls that were set up in the park, and immediately sat down and had a delicious lamb roll, served by a very sweaty but jolly local woman who somehow managed to make three plates of lamb rolls and a smoothie in less than 45 seconds while holding her phone to her ear with one hand.
Usually, we all prefer to travel more or less off the beaten track- seeking out the more remote places, getting around by foot or bike, cooking all our meals on the boat, saving money, meeting local people. But in Rarotonga, we just forgot all about that stuff and kinda went tourist crazy. Naturally, we rented motorcycles. Not just the cheezy mopeds that the rest of the tourists were riding, but honest 125cc Suzuki motorcycles, able to hurtle a rider along the highway at at least 35 mph with a tailwind. At around $20 US per day, we splurged and rented them for two. Ken's was black, new, and shiny and said RAD on the license plate. Mine was older, red,kinda rusty, and said RAB on the license plate. Can't win em all, I guess. Alina rode on Ken's bike, and Britton rented his own moped, as he wasn't familiar with using a clutch (although he learned in the parking lot in about five minutes). In a moment of super-cheese, Ken and I posed for photo after photo, trying to look as tough as we could while straddling our steeds. Helmets were not compulsory, which was a moot point because not a single helmet seemed to exist on the whole island anyway. So, we rode bare-headed. On the wrong side of the road. Remember, this is part of the Commonwealth. In a stroke of genius, some Cook Island bureaucrat, decided it would be a good idea to require all operators of motor vehicles on Rarotonga to obtain a Cook Island drivers license. At $20 a pop, and doled out at a rate of 120-150 per day (I asked), it seems to be a major contributing factor to the country's gross GDP. Always being the straight shooters that we are, we all popped for the licenses, and now have one more thick plastic card taking up space in our wallets. My wallet is roughly the thickness of a big-mac, and has ceased to even fold up anymore. The good news is that my smile is huge in the license photo (I learned that from you, Sean Gould).
Rarotonga is very small, only 6 miles across the middle, so you can ride around it nonstop in about an hour. If you like taking the scenic route, however, there is a little country backroad that parallels the main highway just a little further inland that will also take you the majority of the way around the island. Every now and then there are roads that cut up into the mountainous interior. This is where we spent our hours riding. Once off the main drag, Rarotonga was one of the more beautiful islands we visited. The local farming community is healthier than any we'd yet seen, with all kinds of diverse crops being grown- tomatos, pumpkins, arrowroot (a main export), greens, taro, noni (also a main export) etc. We passed farm after farm after farm. All small. All looked to be family-run. It was nice to see regular people out working in the fields. The local grocery store had a nice big local produce section.
Exploring the mountain roads was definitely the most fun. One partiular road led quite a ways up into the mountains. It had long since turned to gravel when we encountered a smiling young kid of ambiguous gender riding a moped. The kid excitedly indicated that he/she would love to ride with us and show us the way up the mountain. Sure, why not? We thought. With a high piched "wheeeeee!" our androgynous young friend took off like a shot up the road. Soon we passed a pack of mud-splattered ATV riders heading in the opposite direction. With a questionable look at Britton's overloaded looking moped, they wished us luck and continued downhill. Our friend, who we'll call William, just for the sake of clarity, was very exited at the prospect of being our guide. For no reason other than the sheer novelty of it, he would command us to halt at periodic intervals, after which he would giggle furiously, hoot and holler and take off again in a spray of gravel. By the time we decided to turn around (much to William's chagrin) we'd forded three streams, cracked the underbody of Brit's moped, and stalled out numerous times attempting to navigate across wet slippery boulders. On the way down, William was summoned back to his little house by an unseen bellowing parent, and was gone without a word before we knew what had happened. "What a weird little girl.." Ken said.
The next day, we decided to try the cross-island trek, which is just simply a hike from one side of the island to the other. We were feeling a little less than chipper, due to meeting a fun crew of young cruisers in the harbor the night before, and discovering the local micro-brewery (which we toured). The hike was fantastic, and led up to a sheer rock spire in the interior of the island, and followed a stream through a Cretaceous-era fern forest back down the other side. There were so many awesome plants- enormous ferns, epiphytes, elephant ear taro, gigantic flowers of unknown species, that I took a ton of pictures and wrote a Reach the World post on "awesome jungle plants" Coming soon to a website near you.
After an awesome solo ride around the island the next morning, watching the sun come up over the taro fields (while simultaneously freezing my butt off), I returned my bike and hopped across the street to the Saturday market. Which, in comparison, was busier than the Punahou carnival. It was too tempting to stay there very long, what with all the food stalls and delicious smells wafting about, so I took off to go fill up a jerrycan of diesel and set about prepping the boat for sea. (At $22/day mooring fees, we could only afford about 4 days). I bummed a couple of hoses from some other sailors and bridged the long gap from the spigot out to the boat, all the while thanking my lucky stars that it reached and that we wouldn't have to ferry jerry jugs.
The next day, I tromped off to the other side of town to clear out of immigration and customs. Both were housed in an enormous wooden firetrap of a building, 4 stories high. It reminded me almost exactly of the commercial building at the Missoula county fair. The immigration office was on the third floor, and hadn't appeared to have changed much since the Carter administration. The carpet was orange, there was a vinyl couch along one wall that looked like it belonged in the back of a '78 Eldorado, and everything was mildewy. There was no air conditioning, and being on the third floor, the air temp was approaching triple digits. A couple of sleepy looking people labored among stacks of moldy immigration forms, and glanced up at me with glazed eyes and beaded brows. Nobody seemed to know what to do with me. After arguing with her co-worker about what was the proper procedure for me, one of the women disappeared into a back room to look for some forms. She promptly returned 17 minutes later. After I filled out all my passport information and muddled through the rest of the form, she stamped all our passports and sent me off to Customs with a weak but genuine smile. Customs was on the second floor, on the side of the building and had a powerful air conditioning system. They even had a sliding glass door/airlock with a big sign on it that said "Please keep door closed". I walked in, and the woman right behind me left it wide open. Nobody seemed to care much about that. Again, there was no real streamlined procedure for clearing out of customs. A short, surly looking woman was dispatched to deal with me, as the receptionist had no clue what to do. After looking perplexed for a while, and digging around for a form for me, she reviewed my documents.
"I see here your next port of call is Palmerston Atoll"
"Yep, that's right"
"Are you bringing anything with you to Palmerston?" she looked hard into my eyes.
"ummm, what do you mean?"
"Are you bringing any illegal substances with you?"
"Are you sure?"
Are you bringing anything ELSE with you?" she stared into my soul.
"Are you bringing any people with you?" her eyes narrowed.
"You mean like passengers?"
"Local people wanting to travel to Palmerston."
"Uh, no. Just these three other people that are part of my crew."
"Ok, then!" she said with a warm smile. "You can be on your way."
Later, I related the tale of my immigration and customs experience to my friend Lee, a nice young guy we met in the harbor who is singlehanding around the world. I mentioned to him my distinct impression that it seemed like no one had ever attempted to to clear a boat out of the country before. I couldn't figure out how so many yachts (probably on the order of 100 every year) come through Rarotonga, and yet no one I talked to appeared to have ever even seen a yacht captain, let alone know which form to give them. He said, "Oh yeah man, they just changed the policy last week. The harbormaster used to handle all customs and immigration themselves. You're probably the first boat to ever clear out that way.
I reflected a bit on Rarotonga. Perhaps it was the absence of the language barrier, but to me, the local people in Rarotonga were the friendliest we'd yet encountered. Everyone was stoked to meet you, to find out all about you, to serve you food, to give you directions. Even the poor guy who was sweating over the hot grill in the back of the burger stand took the time to give us a smile. The Rarotongans seem to have struck a happy balance between the tourist economy and local subsistence agriculture. Despite the large numbers of foreigners on the island at any time, the Cook Island culture did not seem to be diluted like you might find in Hawaii. A modest way of life and a sense of economic autonomy combined to give a feeling of cultural security to the place. We hitched a ride with a local guy who was a member of the Cook Island Voyaging Society. Just like in Hawaii, there has been a resurgence of the traditional methods of ocean navigation, and the Cook Islanders have built themselves 7 large ocean-going canoes. (One of which they'll be sailing to Hawaii for a rendezvous this year). He was so stoked on this revival, even though he didn't really know how to sail. His enthusiasm was contagious.
We left Rarotonga around dusk and listlessly drifted along at about 2 knots on a glassy sea. The weather report on the door of the harbormasters office had that morning forcast 10 days of calm winds. By 8:00 we were very nearly at a standstill. Ken poked his head up from the cabin and said "At this speed, we'll reach Palmerston in a little over 15 days"... I grumbled to Brit about what a drag calm weather was. "I'd rather have 30 knots over 2 knots any old day" I blurted arrogantly. I knocked off watch and turned it over to Alina for the 10-2am shift. Right around midnight I awoke to a change in motion of the boat. I lay there for a minute or so trying to get a feel for what was happening. Soon, a timid voice called down the companionway.
"We're going really fast."
When I popped my head up, I was blasted full in the face by 30 knots of wind, and immediately helped Alina drop the main and furl half the headsail. It blew 25-40 knots for the next 9 days.
Palmerston was such an interesting place that it deserves its own entry. There is a certain lag time for writing these posts. Sorry, it's not exactly real-time. Currently, we're riding on a mooring just off the town of Alofi in Niue, and will be headed for Tonga this afternoon. In the mean time, I've posted all our Tuamotus photos in two different albums, along with Tahiti photos and shots from Rarotonga. I didn't have time to write captions for all of them, but I'll get back in there and update them next chance I get internet.
Hope everyone is doing well!