It is Sunday the 5th of February, 2023. We are at anchorage in the lagoon offshore from the village of Rotoava, on the island known as Fakarava.
I must confess, I still can’t believe that I’m starting a blog with those words. We left Papeete at four o’clock yesterday afternoon, hugging the coast and getting a Cook’s-eye view (Bougainville’s-eye? Bligh’s-eye?) of Matavai Bay from the sea. What that must have been like to them, ten months out from England or France, weeks of open ocean since they rounded Cape Horn, I cannot even imagine. To make landfall on a black sand beach, beneath the shade trees that fringed the towering basalt palisades of Mount Maran (1493m), Pito Iti (2110m) and Mount Orahena (2241m), must have been awe-inspiring.
As Anne Salmond described it: “Tahiti … is a jewel of a tropical island – jagged volcanic mountains black rock rising out of blue-green sea, waterfalls tumbling through forests of flowering and fruiting trees, bright birds flying across the clearings – a world away from Yorkshire and London” (p. 34). Now another Yorkshire lad, born and raised in the industrial heartland of Leeds, finds this a world away indeed.
Caption: Matavai Bay, Tahati, showing the Pointe Venus light
We boarded our ship, the Aranui 5, in the early afternoon. The vessel is a strange hybrid. It is half-freighter, delivering goods and supplies to the Tuamotus and the Marquesas every six weeks or so. The bow area is piled high with shipping containers, fuel drums (diesel, not petrol – there are tourists on board!), building materials, and two converted landing craft. These have been fitted with seats and look rather like something one might climb into for the Haunted House ride at a county fair. Large cranes tower over the forward deck, ready to unload all the necessities of life.
We actually look down on the freight deck from our cabin at the front of the back half of the ship, which has been built as a cruise ship. We decided “to heck with it, we’re only going to dothis once” and splashed out on a suite with a large balcony, a bedroom, a small living room space and a separate office, plus a toilet and shower room. In retrospect, that might have been an unwise precedent – if we return in the future, a ‘regular’ cabin just won’t do!
The cruise ship is licensed to carry 295 passengers, but our current load is 113. Of these, about 38 are English-speaking and the others divided between French and German language groups. I think that anyone outside of those three language groups is simply assigned to one and told to muddle along as best they can. We have a Chilean couple in our group, and some Swiss who seem to flit from group to group, showing off their language capacities. There are also 104 crew members in the various functions required to operate both the mechanics and the social aspects of the ship.
It is the rainy season in Tahiti, which may explain for the small passenger manifest, but most of the crew to whom I’ve spoken think that this is a remnant downside of COVID. People are slow to travel long distances, and in the early months of the pandemic cruise ships developed a bad reputation as 21st century prison ships. Another reason for the suite with the balcony; if one of us does in fact end up with COVID (or anything else), I want to be quarantined in a place that has got access to the outside air. My claustrophobic and other neuroses could not survive the prospect of eleven days in a small cabin with only a sealed porthole.
We sailed through the night, a gentle swell lulling me to sleep. Well, that and a small(ish) rum, enjoyed on the balcony under those stars not eclipsed by the full moon. These first twenty-four hours on board have been rather like a journey on the ferry to PEI, albeit one with luxurious cabins, warm oceans breezes, and a fantastic dining room, which in French fashion serves wine at every meal. Including breakfast, I discovered this morning. We raised Fakarava long before we saw it, a thin line on the horizon that slowly took shape as we approached. We came in through a gap in the reef, then anchored off the village.
Fakarava isn’t really an island, it’s an atoll, the remnant crater of a huge volcano that over the years (centuries – millennia – eons) has shifted both laterally (as the tectonic plate from which it sprang has continued to slip-slide it’s way around the globe) and vertically, as wind and rain and tide have eroded the rim down to a metre or so above sea level. There are lots of these atolls here in the Tuamoto group, located about a third of the way between Tahiti and the Marquesas. Cook and others called them the ‘dangerous’ islands, and many a mariner has come to grief on the reefs and shoals that surround them, all but invisible during inclement weather. Until you hit them, of course.
We have been blessed with the most clement of weather. There has been no mal-de-mer, no panicked lurching from stanchion to stanchion, no nauseous review of a dinner plate or a dessert dish. Those who chose to go ashore on Fakarava were able to step easily from ship to landing craft, requiring only a steadying hand, and have disappeared off to the beach. I decided not to go and see the shell chandelier in the Roman Catholic church, nor to dodge the stone fish in the shallows. I have my snorkel mask and fins, and look forward to other reefs, other lagoons.
But today, the second day of this adventure, I decided to have wine with lunch, then to sit on the balcony and write this blog. As a result, I happened to see the crew perform a lifeboat drill. We passengers did one yesterday, but that basically involved finding the correct muster point, donning a life jacket, and then going to stand on the outside deck beneath where the lifeboats are hanging. Then we went back to our cabins.
Today was much more fun. I watched the lifeboats being extended and dropped to the appropriate level, and am relieved that (a) the crane pivots seemed to work and (b) the crew appeared reasonably proficient in conducting the drill. There was no angry shouting [“the other left, idiot!”] in either French or Marquesan, and one of the lifeboats from the other side came ambling by to see how our side was doing. The boats rolled a bit from side to side as they reached the place at which we will have to climb in, should something catastrophic happen, but at that point I don’t suppose we’ll really be noticing a little rock and roll.
Caption: Life-boat drill on the Aranui
Now I’m going for a swim. The small pool on deck 9 ought to be more or less empty now, both of people and the large waves that sploshed all morning as we cut through the Pacific swell. I’m not sure when I’ll get the Internet connection required to send this, or whether it will have enough bandwidth to support some photographs as well; but writing it has been a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon hour in paradise.
4 thoughts on “Fakarava”
Loved the blog… feel as if this is truly a once in a lifetime experience…. Love to all! Keep it coming 🥰
Sounds wonderful. So enticing and thanks for sharing
div>Glad your travels are going well. MMM Sent from my iPad
Your trip to the south Pacific islands is fascinating! Thank you for sharing your adventures!
Awesome trip. Sounds wonderful.
Hugs to you both,