vickygoestravelling

my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations

Round the world in 113 days: 65-82 diving & island-hopping in French Polynesia

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The Aquatiki II at the Tetamanu Pass in Fakarava

Our round-the-world trip has two major unexplored dive areas in our itinerary – the first was the Solomons and second is French Polynesia. This area is famous for its passes – the channels between two atolls that separate the ocean from the lagoons, where hundreds of sharks hang desultorily in the blue while the tide washes over their gills for effortless breathing. The Tuamotu islands, where we are headed, has several lagoons with passes and probably has the most famous shark-diving in the world due to the vast volumes of water that swoosh in and out twice a day. We have decided to explore them on a live-aboard, an eight-berth catamaran, the Aquatiki II.

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The pass at Rangiroa from the air. You drop off on the top  side of the photo and are swept through the pass by the currents of the incoming tide.

There is a trick to the passes – you have to get the tide exactly right to maximise the currents and get the best shark sightings, as they can really rip though the pass especially at full moon. The best plan is to catch the incoming tide to drift-dive the passes and the outgoing for the reef dives.

We arrive in Fakarava from Papeete on Tahiti (more about that later) in a huge storm. We hope that this is not an omen for our trip – it is the rainy season after all. In full waterproofs to greet us are skipper Thierry, hostess Sidonie,  plus new crew, dive master Thomas (Toto), and Matthieu and Nina, who will take over the boat after this trip, and Thierry’s friend Clotilde. On the boat we meet Sylvia from Brazil who has dived here many times. So out of eight berths there are only three proper clients which means we get well-looked after.

The rain continues all night as we motor down from Fakarava North to Fakarava South where the Tetamanu Pass awaits us. The next morning the sun is out and the weather changes to more typical  rainy season, sunshine and heavy showers, for the rest of the trip. Our pattern as we move from the various passes –  Kuaehi, Toau and finally back north to the Garuae – is to do two dives per day on the incoming and outgoing respectively.

We dive from a small tender and getting out of the water is most unseemly: I feel like a big fat seal trying to roll back into the boat, until finally a ladder appears on the third day; as the seas can be really rough with huge 12 ft ‘tidal waves’ even this is tricky. The rides out in the tender can be also extremely bumpy, but not as bad as our longest crossing,  7-8 hours in 26 knot winds, where I am rudely awoken but a huge wave dousing me as I sleep, followed soon after by my iPad knocking me for six as it was rocketed by the swell into my temple!

Underwater is a different story. Mostly fabulous clear visibility and hundreds of sharks, above, below, left and right, just being; Napoleon wrasses are fairly common and there are shoals of tiny reef fish in addition to big schools of barracuda, fierce-looking tuna and the occasional manta. Despite the pounding currents there are some pretty coral gardens too. As we progress through our trip the dives get progressively more ‘technical’ as we are forced to ‘mountaineer’ hand-over-hand along the bottom, clinging on for dear life to the dead corals to avoid being swept away into the washing machine where the currents meet. It is quite scary at times! I have stolen some of Ross’s photos but check his website for more pics.E3C35C53-0444-4CBD-ABFC-AA1539F46C1175880574-F946-45FC-9E52-EB0555D2156D939DB876-E1C8-4F90-9A16-17297C058C5CCD227E8C-A3DD-4401-B708-07636AB6B4BF

When we are not diving we play some good card games – Papayoo is a great success – and even dice. We are also eating three delicious meals a day comprising fish, fish and more fish (yes even for breakfast!). Sidonie is a fabulous cook and I am picking up all sorts of tips. The speciality here is raw fish in coconut and Sidonie also makes an excellent Tuna tataki ‘chaud-froid’ as it is known locally. I never thought I’d tire of tuna but by the end of our three weeks I need a break!

There are a couple of land excursions: one to the Sables Roses, pink sandy beaches which can only be accessed by wading through a ton of sea slugs…we also see a rare migrating curlew  all the way from Alaska.

We wander round the deserted village at Fakarava South, which is now a dive ‘resort’ with simple bungalows; you can’t do better than this if you want a remote dive spot! Ross even tries his hand at wakeboarding and gets up first time.

Sidonie’s family owns most of the Toau atolls – we see the seasonal fishing shacks but there’s nothing much else to show – and one day we venture ashore for a lesson in husking coconuts; Toto is sent up the tree to fetch some green ones to drink, despite battling a mild bout of dengue fever. (He recovers much to our relief).

We love the experience in the catamaran (18m) in our VIP cabin wide enough to swing the proverbial cat, moored in the middle of nowhere, watching the waves, the weather, the sunsets, while sipping Thierry’s special Ti Punch. This really is about as far from civilisation as you can get, and the stars, and full moon, are magnificent. No internet is a great blessing.

After Fakarava we spend a couple of days in the more famous Rangiroa. To be honest we find the diving here disappointing – it is probably due to the tides being incoming too early in the morning and too late in the pm, but no carpet or walls of sharks such as we saw in Fakarava. However we did dive with 13 dolphins on my 400th dive, saw a sailfish (rare) and a lemon shark, plus some huge shoals of barracudas so not all bad.

In Rangi we take to the bikes but it is drenchingly hot and we give up after a 10 kms aller retour to the ‘town’. Perhaps the most interesting thing we see in Rangi is the arrival of the weekly supply ship which disgorges containers carrying everything the island needs, from beer, fruit, veg to bicycles, building equipment, ovens and mattresses. There are long queues of cars as people come to collect their stuff. It puts island life into perspective – not quite the paradise you might think.

Having come all this way to French Polynesia we feel we have to do more than dive. We arrived  in Papeete from Auckland – crossing the dateline we have 28th January twice which is a bit confusing – and spent a couple of nights in Tahiti either end of our travels plus one night in Moorea. These islands are so different from the atolls, with steep and verdant volcanic  outcrops rising directly from the sea, and are much more densely populated.

We caught the ferry to Moorea and tootled around in a hire car, spent the night a local pension, went  liqueur tasting and sampled the fine beaches and French wine!

On our return to Tahiti (the main island where Papeete is sited)  from Rangi, we picked up another car and drove round the island, again staying in simple pensions. The Musee de Tahiti des Iles had a well-curated anthropological  display of artefacts – these islands were populated much earlier than New Zealand, around 1000 AD. One of Polynesia’s finest marae, or sacred temples, is on Tahiti and it has been impressively restored. Tahiti is also a great surf centre and we enjoyed watching people catch the breaks.

After three weeks here, we are left with a warm feeling – people here are very friendly and helpful, from the singing check-in clerk at the airport to all the smiling ladies with flowers behind their ears. Polynesians come in all colours, shapes and sizes, mostly (X)XL, though there are a few beautiful Gaugin-esque ladies too.  As well as a poor fat-rich and processed foods diet, this reflects the long-standing mix of Polynesian, with Asian and  French  genes – there are lots of expats here as well! Everywhere we go we are garlanded with cowries and flowers, and the planes are full of passengers, locals and tourists alike, looking like a floral version of Carmen Miranda, bedecked in intricately woven and perfumed headdresses.

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Sidonie and Nina demonstrate ubiquitous national flower behind the ear – behind left “I’m free”

I get an uneasy feeling that all is not well in Paradise: for years dependent on France and now largely cut loose, things are tough; beneath the smiles there is a big drug problem in Papeete, a pretty run-down sort of place, and outside of tourism there can’t be many opportunities for the young – who have to go to other islands for secondary and France for university education. Scruffy-looking men of all ages mooch around the place. On Tahiti the beauty of the place is spoiled by rubbish, recycling is hit and miss and the buildings are ugly – huge French supermarkets  are everywhere while the remaining old buildings look ramshackle and unloved. I have to wonder how long it can remain an idyllic tourist destination especially if the water levels rise – the atolls will be swamped. But feast your eyes on the photos! Tomorrow the Cook Islands…

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Author: vickyunwin

I am a writer and traveller. Our darling daughter Louise died on 2 March 2011, aged 21 (www.louisecattell.com) and I started writing as therapy. We never know how long we have on this earth, so I live for every day...in November 2013 I was diagnosed and operated on for a malignant soft tissue sarcoma in the calf, followed by 6.5 weeks of radiotherapy, so am embarking on a different kind of journey which you can follow here. I also have another site www.healthylivingwithcancer.co with my blueprint for health and well-being.

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