Perhaps it was because our arrival came at the end of the most tranquil ocean passage we’d ever experienced, a far cry from the guttural relief we felt at the end of our passage to the Gambiers. Or perhaps Raivavae is just that beautiful.
A more spectacular landfall can hardly be imagined. Raivavae is an emerald that towers from the sea, with a jagged spine that etches the blue of the sky; a portrait of tropical paradise. We’d been lured there by stories of her charm told by the Maddox family (Red Thread’s prior owners). Of all the places they visited on their 44,000-mile Pacific loop, Raivavae was one of their two favorites; an endorsement impossible to disregard!
We reached the island through a pass in the northern wall of the barrier reef, and motored westward and south over small wavelets tickled by an easy breeze. Encircled by a ribbon of coral that that safeguards the shores of the island, Raivavae’s lagoon is Bombay Sapphire gin and dotted with several low-lying, bushy motus.We dropped our hook off the township of Rairu, pumped up Miss Sassy, and met Mike and Gill ashore. The first order of business in each of the French Polynesian island chains is to visit the Gendarme, a member of the National Police who often plays a dual role as Customs and/or Immigration agent. As when we arrived in the Gambier Islands, we were thankful for Mike and Gill’s fluency in French. The Gendarme was a sweetheart and wouldn’t let us leave without an armful of pamplemousse and a big, toothy grin!
Bon anniversaire, Mike!
The day of our arrival coincided with Mike’s 70th birthday, and we invited he and Gill for dinner and drinks. We’d sailed together for nearly 2,500 nautical miles, sharing the fears, challenges, and glories of the cruising life.They were proof that we, too, might be able to continue to live this life 40 years from now, and we’d grown to admire their adventurous spirits. Neil poured for he and Mike the last couple fingers of the scotch he had opened with his dad who died in 2015, in honor of those sentiments.
On a mission to a motu
The next day, we set out exploring, with Neil aboard the kayak and me atop the iSUP. We paddled half a mile across the lagoon to Motu Tuitui. We assumed we’d be greeted by a sandy island, but discovered something far more interesting!
The tiny speck of earth is only about 200 meters in diameter, and instead of sandy shores, we discovered a graveyard of large shells and coral. Those near the vegetation line were bleached shades of gray by the sun and eroded with pits by storms, salty sea winds, and time.
Yellow crabs, unlike any we’d ever seen, crept among fallen needles of conifers and newly sprouted palms.
We also found an enormous and beautiful tritons trumpet shell that stank to high heaven. I poured a putrid black soup from the shell, its former inhabitant decaying inside.We dipped into the lagoon for a snorkel and at first saw only a few coral heads, small schools of colorful fish, and oodles of bloated sea cucumbers. Then, we saw our first giant clams, some at least 12- to 18-inches in diameter! Many shells were slightly open, revealing the creatures’ flamboyant mantles, their lips. The mantles were all manner of neon color and psychedelic pattern; electric purple, dayglo yellow, fluorescent blue.
A few days later, we returned with Mike and Gill in tow, eager to show them the curious little motu, with the steep, shell-strewn shores and strange creatures.
Circumnavigation by cycle
For 10XPF ($10USD) for a day, the 4 of us decided to rent bicycles and circumnavigate the 22-kilometer island. Our bikes were not typical rentals. They were a local family’s personal bikes and of the rudimentary sort, their fanciest bell ‘n whistle being a basket. There are two main roads on Raivavae, one that crosses its center via a saddle between the peaks of two long-extinct calderas and one that goes fully around island along the lagoon. We rode the latter, less difficult route. Some parts were paved, while others were potholed and rough. The ride was lovely. We pedaled past quiet sand beaches, where fishermen’s nets draped over tree branches, and past outrigger canoes that lie aging in the sun. The scent of wild hibiscus hung in the air and sun beams from the dawn of the southern-hemisphere summer kissed our cheeks. We cycled past a church with a bright red roof and lime green window trim and another that was surrounded with a baby blue fence and was chockablock with rows of butterscotch chairs for pews!
As the day heated up, the ride became a bit strenuous, a testament to the fact that our leg muscles had atrophied at sea (in contrast with our upper bodies, which had grown stronger). We stopped at a tiny magasin (i.e., shop) to buy cookies and walk a pier, where we saw hands of bananas hanging from poles staked in the bay, a strategy we later learned was to deter the chickens from eating the fruit! The most charming stretch was a mile of dirt road along the town of Anatonu, where tall, leafy trees offered reprieve from the sun’s glare. We poked our heads into a small shop in the foyer of a family’s home. The matriarch and her daughter weave baskets, thread shell jewelry, and construct hats of the most elaborate variety.
Toward the end or our ride, Gill’s bike got a flat tire, and she took tumble onto the pavement. All in a day’s adventure, the ever-perseverant Gill dusted off her knees, and kept on. As a silver lining to her flat tire, we stumbled upon a drove of the cutest piglets I’ve ever seen soon thereafter. Had we been zipping along on our bikes, we may never have noticed them! In the waning afternoon heat, we enjoyed the walk back to the modest pavilion where our ride had begun. We dropped our kickstands and propped the bikes in the shade. Their owner would retrieve them at her leisure. There were no locks and no rigid return times. On an island of just 900 people, where Polynesian hospitality still reigns and tourism is virtually nonexistent, life is simple. Trust is given without hesitation—there is no waiting period to earn it—even for us, a quartet of foreign yachties.Cruising commentary
Raivavae is a truly magnificent stop and an almost logical one if you are heading west from the Gambier Islands or east from New Zealand. The main pass is well-charted and easily navigable due to reliable beacons and channel markers, a hallmark of islands colonized by the French, as we were discovering. Although there are several anchorages around the island, the one off Rairu is most popular due to being well-protected from prevailing southeasterly winds and most easily reached. Holding is very good, which we learned with certainty when we rode out a two-day gale at anchor. Routes to anchorages on the southeastern side (near the town of Vairu and “swimming pool” motu) are poorly charted and bommie strewn (the tale of our not-so-pleasant effort to get there will be described in our next blog…). Do not attempt to get there unless the day is perfectly clear, the sun is high overhead, and you have at least one person on the bow as a bommie lookout. You’ll be glad if you can get your hands on a copy of Guide to Navigation and Tourism in French Polynesia by Bonnette and Deschamps. Even though the book is now dated, it is fantastic.
Rairu anchorage waypoint: 23°51’.985S 147°41’.347W