We are anchored in a truly lovely spot, I like it a lot. We are on the
south west side of Huahine, nestled in a tranquil bay, but not too
protected- there is always at least a breeze and quite often
substantially more wind blowing us about. Some might not like the
constant boat rotations this causes but for me it’s a welcome change
from too-hot and too-still. The shore line is a continuous stretch of
sandy beach, gentle on the toes. This is surprisngly uncommon – often
the classic palm tree atolls are lined with crunchy pieces of white
coral, quite sharp underfoot. There is a gentle undulating hill covered
in green: tall coconut palms near the shore, denser firns and deciduous
trees further up the slope. One section is clearly a cliff, another has
been terraced for farming, but mostly it’s just thick tropical jungle,
unexplored by people in the last few decades at least.
The island is surrounded by one large lagoon, with reef on the
outskirts. Sometimes there are also motu – small islands sitting on the
reef, Pacific on one side, lagoon on the other. We visited one such
yesterday with two friends who have a dinghy with outboard motor – it
would have been too far and too windy for us to row there. Our main
intention was to have a picnic and go snorkeling. Well, mine was to have
a picnic, the rest were excited about the snorkeling. To be honest, up
until now snorkeling has been a nice way to cool down in the sea, and
has illuminated some pretty cool creatures, but hasn’t the been
gasp-inspiring wonder that some people shape their lives around.
We first went swimming in a small protected bay. Protection from the
wind meant hot sun, and mosquitoes, so it wasn’t long ’til we were all
in the water. Andy was the first to see the danger: a stone fish.
Doesn’t sound very dangerous, or even look it. Infact, it was entirely
camouflaged by being dull. But indeed, there amongst the stones and the
sand, identical colour and texture, was an ugly lumpy rock, with eyes.
And then another was spotted, smaller, maybe about the size of a small
grapefruit, utterly still. Stand on them and they spike you. Spiked, and
you have two hours to either get to a hospital or die.
Suddenly snorkeling seemed even less appealing. I retreated to my
sandwiches and the non life-threatening mosquitoes.
After lunch we walked around to the ocean-side of the island. This was
more my kind of place. Roaring ocean, rocky ledges, swaying trees. While
my three companions prepared for a new snorkeling experience, I sought
out a shady spot to practice some much-neglected t’ai ch’i. We all have
different ways of engaging with a place, and this is one of mine.
Barely had I planted my feet, however, and Andy’s waving and nodding at
me, shouting through his mask so it sounded more like a drowning gurgle.
No, I had made my decision, I was following my course of action. Not
convinced, he went to the effort of standing up, removing his
mouthpiece, and telling me to put my snorkel on. An instruction less
easy to ignore. This had better be good.
A minute later I was in the sea, snorkel and fins on, being carried away
by a strong current. That was fun, like going down a sideways slide.
Pulled, but not by gravity. Fish were in abundance around me, especially
the flat ones that are the shape of a square on the side, really thin,
yellow and with black stripes. Not clown fish – that’s nemo, the other
famous one you see in cartoons. I like them, they seem so unlikely.
Andy was gone. I guess he didn’t have something specific to show me, or
rather, he did, and this was it. Though I like exploring with others,
he’s not really the tour-guide kind of guy. Other people help me to see
things I would never otherwise notice. Damn him, so patronising to
expect me to do observing all of my own. Maybe I’ll go back to the beach
after all where my t’ai ch’i practice awaits. But first, I might just
look over here….
Swimming back against the current is hard work but I make decent headway
and then hold onto a piece of dead coral, a piece with no obvious
animals on it. Just trying to stay in one place. There’s an anenome on
the coral, and something fluffy and yellow that instantly disappears
when I go to stroke it. My favourite though, the clams. Big purple lips
with electric blue cracks in. And green-lipped ones too, that remind me
of The Little Shop of Horrors. What would they say if they spoke? The
purple and blue lips look like rich velvet. They also retract when I try
to touch them. In some cases the clam is as large as my two hands
pretending to be a clam. But of course I can’t do this imitation
underwater as I then get swept away again.
I go exploring somewhere else. Underneath and beside almost all the
corals are intimidatingly spiky sea urchins. Long black poisonous
spikes. I once stood on an urchin and got twelve spikes in my foot a
week before a planned ten-day trek. It hurt like hell. Following local
advice I regularly soaked my heel in fresh urine and sure enough by the
time the day of the hike came around I could walk again.
Needless to say, I didn’t want to touch one. Or a stone fish. Or meet a
shark. Or a sting-ray. What I did want was a guide. Even a child’s eyes
would have been good, maybe the best.
Guide-less, I remained within swimming distance of the shore, and soon
adapted to my new environment. The sea was warm, the fish happily
ignoring my presence. There were small yellow and electric blue ones
that darted around like flecks of brilliance. There were white ones,
perfectly transparent against the sand, and there were various others.
Does knowing their names make it easier to take it all in?
I have a good friend, Frin, who loves fish. I wish she was here now.
She’d be the most magical mystical knowledgeable guide. This is,
however, definitely the best snorkeling we’ve done yet. And I confess
Andy did the right thing to call me in. I could never have imagined this
without experiencing it myself. My imaginations of great snorkeling are
inspired by gorgeous documentary footage of the Great Barrier Reef. This
wasn’t as rich or as exuberant as that, but it was fun. And fun is good.
It challenged me to find my natural curiosity again, the kind of drive
that keeps kids playing in the sea ’til their lips are blue.
When we finally emerged, I expressed that this was the best snorkeling
for me yet, and our hosts were surprised. In that case, they emphasized,
you must go to Taha’a – the next island over. There’s a great spot there
packed with fish.
And so we’re going to Taha’a. And I’m really looking forward to it.
During the last few days we’ve not really known where we’re going next.
There’s an obvious route through the Society Islands but the truth is,
we’re pretty much ‘done’ with French Polynesia. Indeed, Andy even
expressed the other day that he was bored. Imagine! Finally we find
tropical paradise complete with coconut palms, colourful fish, warm sea,
safe anchorages, and a gentle walks.. and his life is lacking in excitement.
Are we ungrateful? Not at all. This is an amazing place. We just have to
remember that this adventure was always driven by the journey rather
than the destinations. And the journey aspect has lately dissolved into
one long and delicious coconut-flavoured siesta. No complaints from me.
So, back to Avea Bay, Huahine. It’s a delicious spot and I feel very,
very relaxed. I’m not even sure that we need to visit the other islands.
Several hours later, and it’s an incredibly tranquil night. There are
slight ripples on the water around the boat. A light at the far end
flashes rapidly seven times, holds on bright for a count of four, turns
off for a count of five, then returns to the seven flashes. There are
three other boats in the bay and two of them belong to friends so they
don’t feel obtrusive. The third is far enough away for us to not notice
them or they us. In the last few days there has been quite an exodus
from here – for a while charter catamarans with yellow sails were coming
and going every day. I wonder if the new quiet here is connected to the
recent and dramatic calming of winds. Since we haven’t been planning a
passage, we also haven’t been following the weather and its forecasts.
Some people are almost addicted to the weather prediction services, and
there are occasions when I feel that I should be too. They are, indeed,
amazing tools. But sometimes it’s nice just to let today be today, and
tomorrow bring a fresh experience.
The sky is very dark, especially black after looking at a computer
screen. A two-third moon illuminates low clouds and a few stars sing
strong. A dog on the shore barks. I can hear the roar of the ocean far away.
This afternoon I climbed a nearby ridge and thereby gained a unique view
of where we are anchored. The area of the lagoon is vast; the ocean is
in fact much further away than I realised. So, despite our recent
rotations, we have been in a very safe spot. Wind can’t knock you down
for too long, – it’s the mighty waves to be fearful of, and here there
I think this might be our last night here. I have really enjoyed this
spot. Really muchly a lot. It’s quiet, beautiful, warm, breezy, gentle,
easy, and somehow kind. I imagine it’s a good place to heal wounds, a
place where you can really feel far from ‘it all’, whatever the it. And
for me, happily, I discover my it is here, in this bay, on the boat,
gently ambling through each day. As far as I’m aware, there’s no it to
get away from, or meditate upon. I feel very free of mental gymnastics.
The only ponderances I have concern where we might go next, and that’s
not stressful, or even particularly important. Wherever we go will be
the right place to go as we won’t be able to experience the alternative.
Indeed, our original plan missed the Society Islands altogether, opting
instead for the Australs and Southern Cooks after Iles Gambiers, and I’m
sure that would have been just as enriching an experience. So now that
we’re in the heart of the Societies, is it really necessary to tick them
all off in order to say we have ‘done’ them.
What a terrible term. “We did the South America and think we might do
Europe next year. We are doing the Pacific this year.”
The current debate is whether to visit Bora Bora, the next-but-one
island from here, and apparently the pearl of the Pacific. It has a
stunning landscape with magnificent, towering, peaks and a crystal azure
lagoon. It is also the focal point of high-end French Polynesian
tourism, adorned with hotels and even more expensive prices, an escape
for the rich and famous, and a classic honeymoon location. Are we
prepared to miss the former if it also means missing the latter? How
many ‘must-sees’ must one see?
I feel very happy here, very peaceful, very relaxed. No mountains or
azure lagoons can better that, and the omnipresent tourism could
definitely distract from it. And anyway, the water here has it’s own
very special turquoise-blue (is that azure?) by day.
Perhaps we’ll go to Taha’a, the next island over, and then move on.
Taha’a where I dream of vanilla plantations, a turtle reserve, and many
colourful fish. Sounds like a perfect final destination. A place to
start tuning in to the weather, and preparing for a longer passage ahead.
The journey continues.