Exploring the Gambier Islands of the South Pacific on a Catamaran
Imagine you’re about to make landfall in the South Seas after a 21-day odyssey on a not-so-Pacific ocean. You’re envisioning lush mountains, beautiful beaches, turquoise water, a bright blue sky and local beauties awaiting you with baskets full of tropical fruits and fragrant flowers in their long black hair. The crossing and its challenges are finally over. You are almost there. Land ho!
Then reality hits with a thunderclap and a giant gush of water. That depression you hoped to avoid or beat into the anchorage (it’s not like you could have planned around it) is coming right at you. Douse the jib, run the engines at full power, and bash into the wind, chop and an outgoing current to enter the long-awaited lagoon, doing barely 3 knots, while heavy rain drives into your face and salty waves crash over the bows.
That is the story of the last five hours of our Pacific crossing. The raging lagoon swallowed us. Our Pacific paradise appeared to be a gray, wet hell.
My husband, Mark, and I arrived drenched and exhausted in the misty anchorage of Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva in the Gambier Islands. It was the end of May and the Southern Hemisphere winter was approaching. Our 35ft catamaran, Irie, had brought us safely to our destination. And, thankfully, nothing broke! Being a small boat—only since being in the Pacific do we realize she is “tiny” compared to other cats—she had achieved a big feat. The other cruisers in the anchorage acknowledged her courage and accomplishment by blowing their horns, waving and welcoming us to French Polynesia. Our friends onboard Pitufa delivered a basket of French goodies—without tiara flowers in their long hair—and we crashed out down below. The beauty of the South Pacific would emerge after we passed out and the bad weather passed by. We hoped.
Rikitea, the capital of the Gambiers, is a small town with about 1,400 inhabitants, a few basic grocery stores, a gendarmerie (police station), a post office, a modest clinic, a couple of schools, two eateries, no bar to speak of, no bank and a few hotels. There is an airport on one of the motus (low-lying barrier islands) and two cargo ships bring supplies once a month. We would learn early on to stock up on cabbage and carrots in order to have enough veggies to last until the next—unconfirmed—delivery from Tahiti. Fruit is easy to obtain, and if you know the right people, “luxury vegetables” like tomatoes, eggplants and green peppers might come your way. Highlights on the main island of Mangareva are the impressive Cathédrale Saint-Michel, a white-washed cathedral built in the 1800s, hikes to the top of Mount Duff and Mount Mokoto that offer spectacular views, walking the trails crisscrossing the island and the annual Heiva festival, held the second week of July.
The Gambier Islands are scattered in a clear lagoon emitting all hues of blue. While sailing from one pretty spot to the next is a joy, a careful eye must be kept on all the protruding coral heads, patches of reef and abundant pearl farm buoys. The famed Tahitian black pearls are the most exquisite (and affordable) of French Polynesia; something we were told when there, but didn’t quite believe until we looked at pearls on many other islands in the territory. The lagoon water here proves to be the perfect environment for pearl farming, which keeps many of the locals employed and boosts the economy. We found this island group to be the most affluent in the country, often wondering what all those big SUVs were doing on the one road around the main island and being baffled at the ease with which people spent over $10 on a bag of chips and a bottle of Coca-Cola. Being so far removed from civilization due to their location, the Polynesians are anything but lagging behind with their gadgets and standard of living.
That said, there is a very strong sense of culture and tradition, as expressed in tattoos, dances, songs and local instruments. This infatuation with past rituals and the desire to continue these traditions is best experienced during the Heiva festival. This native dance and music competition is at the core of every man and woman in the Gambiers—nowhere near a performance for tourists—and participants of the two competing troupes practice all year long. The closer to the Austral winter, the more frequent the rehearsals become, the drumming vibrations and singing sounds floating over Rikitea’s lagoon into our floating homes. Finally, right before Bastille Day (July 14), for several days in a row, both troupes perform Polynesian and Tahitian dances in elaborate and diverse costumes, while their bands play traditional instruments and their voices exude heavenly songs. Food and games are available in the stands around the sandy stage, and the prize-giving ceremony on the last day is extensive, emotional and festive, though alcohol is banned.
Being so far removed from civilization due to their location, the Polynesians are anything but lagging behind with their gadgets and standard of living
A stone’s throw away from the “hustle and bustle” of the capital but still protected by the outer reef, you will find this archipelago offers some real South Pacific charm. Taravai, Aukena and Akamaru rise out of the azure waters with a decent altitude and a unique attitude. Their picturesque scenery invites you to drop anchor and stay indefinitely. While each island has its own character, the trio has a few things in common. The hilly surroundings provide a beautiful backdrop and an opportunity to go hiking or exploring the interior, with each top revealing a superb view. Some of the beaches are perfect for swimming or for lounging in the shade of a palm tree, or, surprisingly, a pine! Healthy reefs host a plethora of colorful fish and with the great visibility, snorkeling is a pleasure, despite the chilly water. There is an attractive little church in each settlement, where the grounds are impeccably kept and some ruins add to the atmosphere. The few families that live here take good care of their heritage and are friendly, generous and welcoming to the occasional visitor. The anchorages remain little visited, and a feeling of peace wafts over the boat and its crew.
Mark and I will never forget the scenery of the southern bay and the attractive Onemea anchorage in Taravai; the pleasant walk through the charming village of Akamaru; the day we received an abundance of fruit from Aukena’s caretaker after we cleared the obstructed walking trail to a point where a lookout and amazing snorkeling is to be found; and our determined attempts to reach the peaks of the islands by bushwacking our way up and down. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very consistent and the winds kept whipping down the valleys and along the points with a mighty force that set Irie flying from one side to the other, buzzing along the spectacular reefs. When fronts were predicted during this winter season, every cruiser would move back to the then crowded, but protected, anchorage of Rikitea. After buying groceries, including a pile of baguettes, and catching up online, most would set off again in different directions.
The north and east sides of the magnificent Gambier lagoon are framed by several postcard-perfect motus, one of which is Totegegie, where the airport is located. During settled weather, it is fun to venture out to these exotic isles, which are similar to the atolls in the Tuamotus. No rocky outcrops or verdant hills here, but long stretches of white sand and plenty of coral. The seawater is crystal clear, the snorkeling some of the best we have seen and the coconuts are plentiful. It is a place to stroll the beaches or the dirt road of Totegegie and to totally unwind. As with every place you visit by boat in this archipelago, the view from the cockpit is outstanding, the colors of the lagoon awe-inspiring.
After two months of moving around the archipelago and enjoying its treasures, from the intriguing culture, historical churches and friendly inhabitants to the beauty of the surroundings, the challenging hikes, pristine reefs, attractive beaches and general remoteness of the place, Mark and I decided it was time to move on to the Marquesas. Usually taking our time wherever we go or visit—we had a whole cyclone season in this part of the world ahead of us—and honestly admitting that we really loved this place, we couldn’t stay any longer. The reason? It was winter time in the Gambier Islands, which are located near the Tropic of Capricorn, and we hadn’t fully understood the concept of colder weather when we arrived. We had been used to tropical climates for the last seven years, and the relatively cold temperatures (lower 60s) and the icy southern winds in the archipelago did not sit well with our warm-blooded bodies and preferred outdoor lifestyle. A seven-day journey would bring us to majestic Fatu Hiva, where our long clothes and warm jackets were stored, our wetsuits packed away and our roomy cockpit put to use again. A dramatic scenery, a strong local identity and culture, hospitable people and more adventures awaited!
Liesbet Collaert is a freelance writer from Belgium. She and her American husband, Mark Kilty. sailed, lived and worked on their 35ft catamaran Irie for eight years. They left from the East Coast of the U.S. in 2007 and recently sold their boat in Tahiti
MHS Summer 2016