Andy is currently rowing to shore, equipped with a saw, freshy sharpened
knife, and half a lemon. Despite the heat, he was wearing full length
trousers, and a grubby t-shirt. It's day two here in Mangareva and he's
off a'huntin – this time for a bamboo pole to transform our rowboat into
sailboat. On his way back he'll no doubt pick up a couple of
grapefruits, a bunch of bananas, and quite possiby a coconut. The
trousers and lemon are incase he encounters wasps or bees in the jungle.
We are living in a Boys-Own Magazine; this is the stuff of his
seven-year old dreams.
And so it is, we have arrived in the Pacific Paradise of books and
films, and anchored within our first coral atoll. At one stage, I
thought this was all the stuff of fiction, a fantasy developed by
dreamers and sustained by the sailing industry.
Our welcome here was something else- for the first day we didn't even
leave the boat due to the steady stream of visitors coming to us.
Indeed, every single Pacific-bound yacht that we knew from the long wet
winter of Puerto Montt, was here to greet us: Nereid, Giebateau, Nanuk,
Wata, Tranquilo, Sangoma, Pupyca, Shana; as well as the new ones we met
in Easter Island: Pursuit IV, Visions of Johanna, Infini, and Soggy
Paws. It was like we were the last to join the party. Fashionably late?
Or just prone to taking our time and, possibly, a more meandering route.
We were particularly happy to see our friends from Chile. Most have been
here several weeks and will stay a while longer still before heading
west; waiting to make sure that the hurricane season has finished before
entering those waters. They each followed a similar route to us, though
some worked their way further up the south american coast first, others
stayed weeks in Easter Island, and all, ofcourse, had their own unique
weather conditions. They knew us last when Zephyrus was only just
floating again, and I could count my sailing days on my toes. I think
all were happy to see the three of us us still smiling, still together,
and still mostly in one piece. I was particularly touched by the folk,
mostly women, who asked how I was getting on, though I wasn't entirely
sure how to answer…
It feels safe here, and I hadn't even realised that I wasn't feeling
safe elsewhere. A place to take breath, to wash the boat, to rest
ourselves, to sleep. A place where the computer or mug of tea can be set
down on a horizontal surface and walked away from without being lashed
down or wedged in. A place that is calm, and still, and large enough for
all these boats to be around without feeling over-crowded, or fearing
for anchors entangling. A place also, where we can hopefully renew
Andy's passport. I think we'll be here a while.
For those more attached to facts, we are moored next to the town of
Raiatea, on the island of Mangareva, within the archipelago of the
Gambiers, a set of islands in the south- eastern corner of French
Polynesia. The language spoken is French, or Mangarevan, the unit of
currency is the French Polynesian Franc, and in the local shop a six
pack of beer costs twenty-four US dollars, but a fresh (french
subsidised) baguette is only 70 cents.
We were last not only because we daydream well. Or because we left
latest, or have a smaller boat than many. We also had the amazing good
fortune of calm weather while passing Pitcairn, and so visited for four
days. Had the winds and swell not become worrying, I think we could have
easily stayed a month.
Pitcairn Island is a British Overseas Territory, pretty self-sufficient
but where outside administration does occur (police, teacher, doctor,
social worker), the support comes from New Zealand (contracted to the
British Government). So, having sailed across half the Pacific to get
there, we were greeted by battered sausages, mugs of tea, and a shop
stocked with Lyles Golden Syrup, HP Sauce, Baked Beans, and Rice
Pudding. The locals have a bizarre language of their own, but when
speaking with us the dialect had a familiar country roundness- somewhere
just beyond Wales or Dorset, with a bit of Jamaica thrown in for fun.
Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open doors, genuine smiles, and
friendly banter in our mother tongue. A little slice of home.
The island itself is lush, fertile, and rich in opportunities. The
residents lack little, except an easy way to leave and return again.
Local food is abundant: bananas, papayas, guavas, coconuts, watermelon,
pumpkins, spring onions, sweet potatoes, lettuce, aubergines,
courgettes, cucumbers, and huge catches of fish: while we were there we
ate freshly caught red snapper, rock cod, and yellow-fin tuna. They also
produce world-famous honey, sold to the likes of Harrods, Fortnum and
Mason, and even, so rumour has it, Prince Charlie and the Queen herself.
The Pitcairn Postcode is PCRN 1ZZ. That had a familiar ring to it,- and
then I realised 1ZZ was the same code as we had on a British Research
Station in Antarctica. I guess Royal Mail reserves those digits for
places where it's fairly ludicrous having a postcode at all, let alone a
seven-digit one. I imagine that "Paul, Pitcairn" is as likely to find
its recipient as "Paul Christian, Pitcairn Island, PCRN 1ZZ". Because,
let's face it, the surname doesn't really narrow things down either.
Why? The inhabitants of Pitcairn are almost all descendants of Fletcher
Christian and his companion mutineers on the Bounty who, in 1790,
accompanied by Polynesian women they had met in Tahiti, set up base, and
hid, on the then uninhabited island. Since that time the population has
outgrown the island a couple of times. On one occasion they were
relocated to Polynesia, on another to Norfolk Island, near Australia. In
both cases a smaller portion of the original inhabitants returned to
their homeland. I can see why.
The island itself, with steep hills, great hikes, rocks, pools, and
continuous Pacific Panoramas, has got to be one of the most stunning
locations in the world. What made it for us, however, was the people.
I'll be honest, I was expecting a fairly close- knit, suspicious, and
quite possibly in-bred community. What we experienced, therefore, was
all the more delightful and surprising. Generous, welcoming, warm,
friendly, traveled, fun, interesting, diverse, ambitious, honest, solid,
and kind. On each day we were invited for lunch or dinner in a different
home, and on our first evening we joined a community pot-luck dinner
that could have fed three times the island's population (of 60). We were
given fruit, vegetables, and fish in abundance, and went to both a
pretty fiery party on the Friday night, and Seventh Day Adventist Church
service the following morning. (Just to add to the bizarreness of it
all, the latter event had a visiting speaker,- a young Indian evangelist
and really good guitarist called Benny Prasad who, by this October, will
have visited every UN-recognised country in the world. Look him up.)
Andy has just returned, the smile on his face almost as large as the
bamboo pole sticking out of the dinghy. Guess I should get up and don a
bikini, looks like I might finally get to learn to sail while we're here….