Adventures in the Gambiers

"J'ARRIVE" Andy shouted top volume as he ran around the desert island
at sunset. He did it, we did it, we made it! At last, I'm happy to
report, the days have started merging in to one, one long and content

I didn't realise that we had a destination (other than New Zealand) or a
goal (other than to survive) but the beaming faces that greeted us here
when we arrived told me something – we had made it. Even for them,
seasoned travellers as they are, the leg from Chile was a challenge. One
solo sailor explained that the main purpose of a landfall is to stay
there for long enough that you forget the bad stuff and get itchy feet
again. Several people told me that various legs in the passage from the
west coast of the Americas to here was the hardest they had yet
encountered. And two women confided that they had worried for me because
although they too, when first beginning, had zero sailing experience,
they had set off with partners who had been sailing since childhood and
emanated confidence and calm.

Andy emanates calm and confidence. Always. That's what gets me worried.

These various friends from Chile, with the exception of the ones we
arrived with, had been enjoying the Gambiers for about 3 weeks. Three
weeks, I thought, THREE WEEKS?! What on earth can they have been doing
for three weeks? Of course they must be itching to move on, I assumed. I
would have been happy if we could stay still for three days.

And then the world stopped. Time stopped. Or atleast my consciousness of
time continuing ceased. Ten days passed before I climbed out of the fug.

In that time the boat also stopped. Literally. Zephyrus stopped moving.
For the first time since January 25^th , when we left Puerto Montt,
Zephyrus felt to be stationary, even horizontal. We slept the sleep of
neverwaking. And slept again with the midday sun. Because not only is it
calm here, it's also hot. Too hot for me at any rate.

Each day we achieved something that made us feel happier about the space
we occupied: scrubbing the decks, rinsing the walls, cleaning the
kitchen, handwashing our bedding, salt-encrusted clothes, and sailing
gear…. cleaning, purging, tidying, resting and recharging. And, of
course, sailing the dinghy. We also had various admin to do – sending
off a passport renewal form, renewing travel insurance…. well,
actually just those two things but at this pace of life those can take a
week. And my brother had to do the insurance bit for me in the end
anyway. Seems I've caught myself out, on air.

We achieved enough to feel good about the day, but it wasn't busy. From
about 5.30pm onwards there was invariably a rendezvous on someone's
boat… and between 11.30 and 3 every day I collapsed, which didn't
leave a lot of time for activity seeing as mornings aren't my forte
either. I have unwittingly become known as the girl who, if you can't
find her, is likely to be found lying on the floor of her boat, melting.
In contrast, this is positively cool for those who have sailed from
Panama or are residents of Florida. Unlike them, I vow that from here we
head South.


As I said, after 10 days I woke up. I was clean, the boat was clean, we
were stocked with local grapefruit and had eaten fresh baguettes with
peanut butter every day. Then the rat arrived and ruined everything.
Life became all about Rat Extermination. Once exterminated, it became
all about Post- Rat Sterilization.

And finally, we were once again happy in the space we lived in, and
ready to explore.

The Gambier Islands are on the south east edge of French Polynesia. They
are what I understand to be a Pacific Atoll – a collection of islands
surrounded and protected by a coral reef. In this case, there are a few
large-ish islands covered with mountains and greenery, and a several
very small islands that resemble the classic
desert-island-with-palm-tree fairy tale. Since we had spent two weeks
doing not very much near one of the former, we set out to explore one of
the latter.

That's a lie.

We set out, I thought, for a nearby green and hilly island, and I
prepared the paper and electronic charts accordingly. Then, watching the
boat on the screen from the comfort and safety of indoors, I noticed
that we were approaching a worryingly shallow space, and not showing any
sign of going where we had agreed. This forced me outside, reluctantly,
whereupon Andy revealed that he had no intention or plan of going
anywhere in particular, it was just a lovely day for sailing and he
really didn't care if no-one had shared a GPS track of this area of the
world with us, it was the space he was drawn to.

I suggested he tack (change course), and he laughed.

I then explained, as calmly as I could, and after consulting the charts
one more time, that if he continued on the current trajectory we would
rapidly become grounded. We tacked, and postponed the argument for a
later date. He still holds that we would have been fine. I maintain that
even if we would, I wouldn't. I guess it's all a question of priorities.
And the priority to sail overrides everything.

I must confess, once I got over my grump, it was gorgeous. The scenery,
the sailing, the sea, the winds, the concept, the reality, the
actuality, the moment.. it was all pretty wonderful. (Until he gave me
the wheel and I froze in fear- but that for another time- at least I'm
now enjoying the sailing as long as I don't have any responsibility for

We arrived at Paradise Island, Bird Island, Ile Tauna. Palm trees,
coconuts, birds and chicks filling all the trees, hermit crabs, coral
beach, coral snorkeling, comfortingly small sharks, wild oysters with
juicy purple lips, parrot fish, yellow fish with purple eyes… it was
all there, and all on an island that took nine minutes to circumnavigate.

On our second day we swam to the island in order to snorkel. Once there
I kind of wished I could have brought some water or a snack….
whereupon we cracked open a coconut lying on the ground, drank the milk
and gorged on the meat. Not quite quenched, Andy then shimmied a palm to
collect a green nut so that we could drink the fresh water inside. We
had arrived!

After two nights the wind picked up and changed direction so we were off
again, and once again it was glorious. Really glorious. This is the
place I think I might learn to sail, for real; enough wind for forward
motion, extensive tippiness, and squalls, but all within the safety of a
protected atoll and under conditions where I don't even mind falling in.
Infact, that could be quite nice. Yes, maybe it's time to face my fears.

The island of Taravai, and it's neighbour Aggakauitai, were our
destination that afternoon,- and the use of other people's waypoints
meant we could navigate through uncharted waters and anchor in an
idyllic puddle of paradise. The bay was surrounded on three sides by
hills and greenery, each lined with a perfect strip of tropical yellow
sand or coconut palms. First thing the following morning we were off on
a stomp, characteristically setting our sights on the biggest peak of
the largest island.

I should backtrack; there are some basic ground rules to going on an
adventure with Andy.

1. Never take a map
2. Never ask where you're going
3. NEVER ask how you're going to get back
4. Don't expect to see him ahead of you
5. Never retrace your steps
6. Trust that it always works out well in the end

And so it was that we set off. Leaving the rowboat on a little beach, we
first found ourselves in a pine and palm forest… soon to be eerily
surrounded by hundreds of recently halved and emptied coconut shells.
Humans had clearly been here chopping the coconuts, but what could
warrant such a decimation, or feast?

The forest soon became unnavigable so we moved back to the shore,
paddling, wading, scrambling, then wading more.. knee-deep, thigh-deep,
waist-deep…. the usual stuff for a day hike. A bit more scary rock
climbing instigated familiar curses and mutterings from me but I was
completely stumped when faced with MANGROVES. I had no idea how to
proceed through these. The base of a mangrove tree looks a bit like the
spokes of an inverted umbrella. Stand on a spoke and you're safe, step
in the void between them and you twist your ankle. Jump between the
spokes of different trees and, well, it all depends on how much you
trust your jumping ability…

Somehow I survived that section, only to discover that beyond the
mangroves came prickly cacti, and after that tall grasses with thorns
down their spines. Tall like taller than me.

The hike felt like an endurance test, and at such times my mind usually
starts to wander. On this occasion, it took me to a reality TV programme
in which I was, ofcourse, a participant. This was a two-week desert
island challenge, and hidden behind every other tree were, no doubt,
cameras and people lounging on sofas, drinking coconut and rum cocktails
and laughing at us. I mean, me.

It's ok, I was imagining, this is only for two weeks. How bad can it
get? I can do it, I'll get through it, I'll show them. And a fortnight
from now (or maybe only 10 days from now as I was already deep in
jungle), I'll be home in my gorgeous New York apartment surrounded by
safe white walls and air conditioning. My friends will come round and
I'll show them photos and we'll laugh and sigh and talk about what fun
Adventures are. After a weekend of socialising I'll go back to my day
job inside a computer where I'm happy and comfortable and life is good.
And I might even blog about it.

A wasps nest next to my face rapidly returned me to reality. And a
prickly situation around my feet that I couldn't get out of. And no Andy
in sight or sound. Then there was the sudden dawning that this wasn't a
two week adventure holiday- this was my life. I've gone and married into
a flipping adventure movie. Too-real reality TV. This was not the first,
won't be the last, and was by no means the worst. It was just familiar
stuck-ness. Which thankfully, I pursued, always has a happy ending.

I can't recall exactly how or what happened next but somehow I caught up
with Andy while scrambling up a hillside on slippy soil, hoisting myself
onwards by pulling on not very stable grasses.

"This is no fun", he said, "let's turn back".


NO! NO! We always get through these, we never turn back, that would be
Oh my god, maybe those weren't just Andy's rules of Adventure – they
might be mine as well. And almost unbelievingly, I hear myself
convincing him to continue, just 'til the top of the hill… adventures
ALWAYS have a happy ending as long as we persevere and trust.

Top of the hill came, no joy, so we turned around and slid all the way
back, bumps, bruises, scratches, squeezes, down the grass, through the
cactus, past the mangroves and wasps, and across the rock…. landing at
each others feet back at the sea whereupon Andy takes one look at me and
proclaims that I look terrible. I am indeed scratched to bits and the
salt water we have to wade through doesn't help the stinging. One rule
has already been broken and the day is not ending happily.

We're rowing back now, in the dinghy, past the only house in the area.
We vaguely know the people who are visiting them so swing by to make

Did I make this up? Next minute we're drinking wine with four new
friends and eating freshly caught tuna, really freshly caught, like they
just returned from the deep sea after that morning's catch. It's served
in an enormous bowl, marinated (raw) with lime and turned into a ceviche
salad. The table also offers homegrown sweet potatoes, an enormous pot
of pasta, freely flowing wine, and freshly baked cake .

I've not lost the plot, he's gone and done it again, or rather we have,
we've landed on our feet. Eduoard and Denise welcomed us as though we
were expected, and after lunch whisked us off in opposite directions to
tour their land. Denise walked me first around the gardens – ducks,
papaya trees, lettuces, yams, herbs, mint, aubergines, spring onions….
and then into the woods where the lime trees grow wild between coconut

We are collecting limes for the next round of tuna when who do we happen
upon but Andy and Eduoard. They are sat on a log smoking roll-ups,
enjoying a shared joke that transcends linguistic boundaries . At their
feet are two large machetes and a huge pile freshly halved coconuts.

And pigs. Happy, coconut-blissed, friendly, pigs. Big pigs, little pigs,
and medium sized pigs. Pigs that come right up to me to have their
snouts scratched. Pigs. Ofcourse. Pigs.


The day does have a happy ending after all.

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