Friday, December 12, 2014

Mesmerizing Maupiti (Part 2)

The longer Mark and I stayed in Maupiti, the more this little atoll in the Society Islands captured our hearts. We can’t quite point a finger at what it is that enchanted us so much, but it just did. Being there felt “right”; the vibe of the island and the people, the quiet way of life, the remoteness and lack of visitors and French cruisers, the availability of underutilized and working internet, the abundance of local tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and eggplants, the space, the peace, all of it. In my previous blog, I wrote about certain aspects of Maupiti, and in this one, I continue with that theme.

The motus

In Belgium we have the expression “Beautiful from afar, but far from beautiful!” which is often used in regards to describing a woman. It comes to mind when you look at most motus (low and flat barrier islands) in French Polynesia. From the boat or across the channel, you spot what you think are beautiful white sand beaches, framed by palm trees. Upon closer inspection, the color white resembles broken coral on which it is impossible to walk barefoot or sit, and the palm trees are growing in a thick underbrush or prickly vegetation. We were fooled by it in Maupiti, just like in many of the Tuamotus. Bora Bora seems to be the exception, but there the nice beaches on the motus “belong” to the high end resorts or are privately “claimed”, bearing “tabu” signs. Coral or no coral, these small islands look very pretty from afar. That being said, there sometimes are sandy stretches to be found and in Maupiti’s case, we particularly enjoyed hanging out for sundowners on motu Tiapaa’s northern sand spit with our friends Monique and Garth (SV Heartbeat). The other motu beaches required flip flops.

The snorkeling

On a sunny day, our friends joined us to brave the strong outgoing current near the pass and see what the underwater world had to offer. We swam on both sides of the channel and crossed it twice, finding the eastern side more interesting, because of the bigger fish population. Most of the coral was dead, but there was enough to see to keep us busy and in shape for a few hours. In the lagoon, I took some short snorkeling excursions, but unfortunately, the water was very cloudy and the visibility poor. When swimming from the boat towards shallower water, I would basically run into the sand bank before realizing I was on top of it. Once, a big fish startled me, while I scared him; neither of us had noticed that we were only two feet apart!

A few times, we set out in the dinghy to try and find the manta rays, said to frequent the lagoon, but we were never quite sure where to look and the water was too cloudy to spot them from the dinghy. On the last day of our stay, our local friend John called us and shared the location of their usual hangout. At the same time, I saw a little tourist boat hovering in that area, so we buzzed over to one of the white floats, donned our snorkel gear and jumped in. Soon, we were floating above three of these giant, gentle creatures, and enjoyed observing them in their natural habitat. It reminded us of the unique experience we had with mantas last year in Tahuata.

The people

It seems the smaller the communities, the friendlier the people. While the Marquesas still rank number 1 with a big margin, the people in Maupiti (1200) score high compared to many other Society Islands. Like in the Gambier Islands, locals greet each other and send friendly waves from cars and boats. After a week of staying near the village, our faces became recognizable and the “Ia Orana” greetings sounded more genuine. One day, I went ashore with two empty jerry cans and a small bag of garbage. A fit-looking man awaited me and suggested to take the rubbish. I preferred to toss it myself, to make sure the recyclables went in the right bin. So, he took the 6 gallon jerry cans, helped me fill them with potable water and carried them back to the dinghy for me - a very nice and welcome gesture in the heat of the day. When the produce lady found out I was looking for a frozen chicken and some juice, and had not been able to locate any, she ordered her husband to drive me around to all the different stores, until we discovered that all the chicken on the island had sold out. It would be another week before the monthly cargo ship from Tahiti would pull into Vai’ea. Then, the nice man drove me to relatives to pick up a breadfruit, so we’d have something substantial to eat, since potatoes had been unavailable for weeks, if not months. Another day, we were ready to leave motu Tiapaa by dinghy, when the long haired Polynesian man who lives on the beach called us over and gave us two green coconuts and a bunch of bananas! Yes, the people are friendly here.

One of the highlights during our stay in Maupiti, was meeting the American Johnny Coconut. In 1989 he had read an article about Maupiti (probably one of the first ones ever written about this atoll) in the sailing magazine Cruising World. He was so enthralled by what he read about this remote and then undeveloped South Pacific island, that he decided to move here part time. We became friends and he invited us over for a delicious lunch at his house one afternoon. He also told us about Maud and Louis, an interesting French-Tahitian couple, who we visited and later joined for lunch as well. Maud and Louis have been living on Maupiti, on motu Pitihahei to be precise, since 1996. They built an amazing house – round, open and airy - out of natural materials, with a coral floor. The interior design is very creative, authentic, and practical. Their “million dollar view” looks out over the pass and the reefs, with Bora Bora and Raiatea in the distance on a clear day. We had a wonderful afternoon with them.

Although Maupiti had us in its grip, the cyclone season is upon us (there is no hiding and being safe in this lagoon if a named storm hits) and Mark and I needed to get back to civilization. So, sadly, we said our goodbyes to new made friends and to a place that will evoke fond memories.

Windward side of motu Tuanai

Irie and Heartbeat at anchor near the southern motus

Picture window, looking out to the pass, in Maud and Louis' house

View from the balcony of Maud and Louis' house on the point


Part of the kitchen downstairs

Louis in his living room

Coral along the channel near the pass

View from motu Pitihahei

Motu Tiapaa

Delicious and extensive lunch at John's place

Nanu, John, Mark and Jennifer in John's yard

Full moon over Maupiti

Maud and Louis' extraordinary house

One of the new residents of the house

Louis cooked a wonderful lunch in an amazing setting

One of the guest bedrooms in a separate fare (house/hut): the bed rests on a va'a. Creativity galore on this property!

Even the "vacuum cleaner" is part of nature!

Friendly company on motu Tiapaa

Sundowners with Monique and Garth on motu Tiapaa's sand spit

Monique playing with her "poi" at sunset

Monique putting on a show for us!

Getting ready to snorkel Maupiti's pass

Some kind of sea snake

Blackspotted sole (kind of flounder)

Particular butterflyfish

Two manta rays underneath us in the lagoon

And the third one - this one is huge!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Maupiti - Bora Bora’s Subdued Sister

About 30 miles east of Bora Bora in the Leeward Society Islands, lies another, little known atoll, also with a mountainous interior. It is called Maupiti, which has one village, Vai’ea, and about 1200 inhabitants. The Polynesians say it is like Bora Bora was 30 years ago, for some cruisers the island is one of their highlights in the Pacific, but most sailors skip it on their way west, mostly because of its notorious pass to access the lagoon and safe harbor.

The Pass

The only pass (cut in the outer reef) to enter Maupiti’s lagoon is located on the south side of the atoll. This is also where the surplus lagoon water leaves through on an always outgoing tide. With the predominantly south west swell of the Pacific Ocean coming into the pass, this combination can be very dangerous, causing standing waves and making the pass inaccessible and deadly at times of high winds and big swells. Needless to say this is a tricky pass and a quite narrow one at that! All the guidebooks warn that entering the pass should be attempted in less than 20 knots of wind and a swell lower than 6ft. Mark and I waited for such a moment in Bora Bora, but as we have long known since being here: the weather predictions are rarely accurate.

Leaving from the leeward side of Bora Bora, it was dead calm the morning we decided to sail to Maupiti. The forecast called for 10-15 knots of wind and a 4ft swell: ideal! “If there is no wind, we are not going!” Mark said, when we lifted anchor at 7am. Not wanting to motor for six hours, I grudgingly agreed, hoping that we could at least make another attempt later in the week if we had to turn back that morning. It is always a double edged sword: no wind meant not getting there under sail, but perfect conditions to enter the pass. But, we wanted a decent amount of wind to sail there swift and comfortably… If the wind and the swell would be too high, however, and the pass therefore inaccessible, one would have to tack and beat back into that strong wind (no fun and a tiring and long effort) all the way to Bora Bora, getting in at night!

We didn’t bother setting any sails, since we had no idea what the ocean conditions were and, if we needed to fly the spinnaker, the mainsail would have to be dropped again anyway. Once outside Bora Bora’s pass, we motored for half an hour, when the wind cleared the island and filled in. For the first bit, we managed to stay on course with both sails, but then we had to furl the jib in and let the (bigger) main out to collect as much wind as possible from dead behind us. A preventer was rigged to avoid an accidental jibe. We considered rigging the spinnaker, but were too lazy at that moment and our decision proved to be a good one. At times the wind was blowing over 20 knots and we were happily cruising along at 5 knots with one sail! Of course the waves started to grow with the wind increase, to about 6-7ft, and we began to realize the downside of our steady progress: what would happen at the pass?

We gave the southeast corner of Maupiti a wide berth as recommended by the guides and started to approach the pass dead on under motor and with a tightly trimmed mainsail. The conditions had mellowed a bit and the visibility was OK. Our concentration was solely on the pass. Forget about the charts; navigation is purely visual here! Lining up the first set of range markers perfectly, Captain Mark did a great job steering us through the entrance, in between breaking reefs. At the first set of green and red markers, we lined up the second set of range markers to guide us into the dogleg of the channel. From there on, the water was calm and the rest of the way very well-marked and straightforward. We had safely arrived in Maupiti! We dropped the hook in front of the church and took a breath, while grey clouds gathered and the rain began to fall. Even though Mark said the whole experience was a bit nerve racking and not something he’d want to do again, through the photographer’s lens, it didn’t look all that scary! :-)

The Mainland

Maupiti is relatively small and encircled by one road of about 7 miles. Most of the people live along the south and east coast of the mainland, while five motus and exposed reef frame the lagoon. One cloudy day, Mark and I set out to walk around the island and see what we could find. Not much, but it was good exercise. Except for a few churches, a school, some small grocery stores, a covered market place, a bakery and one government building, the village of Vai’ea consists of private houses and friendly locals. We passed high cliffs, tons of breadfruit, coconut, banana and mango trees – all in season! – and lots of empty space. On the west side of the island, we ventured out to the only beach, a white sandy stretch called Tereia, to take a break in the shade, before returning to our dinghy at the conveniently located floating dock in town.

The View

This last Sunday, we woke to blue skies at 6am and decided to tackle the mountain top in the middle of the island. About an hour later, our “Kiwi” friends Monique and Garth (from New Zealand) on SV Heartbeat (now the second sailboat in the atoll) joined us for this endeavor. In the span of roughly two hours, we climbed the nearly vertical trail and steep rocks, where help was provided by knotted ropes. While we sweated like crazy (the heat and humidity are not to be underestimated in the tropics), drank heaps of water and took a couple of breaks, the view improved with every step we took! When we finally arrived at the top, the surroundings looked awe-inspiring; truly breathtaking. Mark and I agreed it was right up there as the best view we’ve seen in the Pacific. Photos were snapped, snacks were eaten and enjoyment was had, while gazing at the expansion underneath us. High up, the breeze cooled us down enough to spend about 45 minutes on the top, but the sun was still burning like hell. The descent was as challenging as the hike up, and brutal on the knees and other joints. It took us a good hour to head all the way back down, but we all agreed this incredible experience was worth every huff and puff!

View from the anchorage

Town hall on the lagoon

Irie at anchor - the only sailboat in Maupiti

Market place in the village

Breadfruit - every yard has at least one tree!

Vegetable stand along the road around the island
Motus on the northern edge of the lagoon
The mangoes are finally in season!

Messy, but yummy!

Different stages of the banana

Tereia Beach on the SW point

Walking on the (quiet) road around Maupiti

Bounty of the day

Thanksgiving dinner on Irie - just the two of us this year :-(

And a BLT as a birthday lunch the following day

Vai'ea town and the church, with the steep mountain top behind

Climbing to the top of Mt. Teurafaatiu

The view keeps getting better!

Monique pulling herself up with one of the ropes

Maupiti's airstrip extends from Motu Tuanai into the lagoon

Best view in Maupiti, and French Polynesia!

Maupiti's only pass, between the southern motus

Garth admiring the magnificent view

Maupiti's NE side

Posing in front of the reef-filled western part of the lagoon

This view made the challenging hike more than worthwhile

Interesting reef pattern in the western part of the lagoon

Mark and Monique taking a break on the top of the mountain

Church of Vai'ea underneath us and the rickety airport shuttle

Heartbeat and Irie at anchor in the lagoon of Maupiti