16th to 31st July
“….just a short trip to any French territory in the Pacific is enough to convince even the most casual observer that the French are among the most self-serving, manipulative, trivial-minded, obnoxious, cynical and corrupting nations on the face of the earth.” This is Paul Theroux writing of his trip through “The Happy Isles of Oceania” a few years ago, and though I think he’s one of the best living travel-writers, I disagree with his views of the French. I’m not sure what prompted such venom; though Theroux does sometimes get a bit carried away with the momentum of his passions. It seems to me more likely that nowadays, the French remain here at least partly by accident rather than self-interest, unable to extricate themselves from their innate national ego and responsibilities derived from years of bomb testing, many generations of international love stories and loads of randy Frenchmen (and others) who have thoroughly mixed their genes with Polynesians’, settled, and no longer see France as their home anyway. The place is a delightful good-natured hotch-potch of blended Polynesian, French, Chinese and more. The French start to feel and behave more Polynesian (warm, friendly, helpful); and perhaps Polynesians more French (confident, businesslike and purposeful). Although there is a French Polynesia independence movement, and I gather the UN gives support to the idea, and there’s a distinctive liberation flag, it is hard to see how French Polynesia’s 280,000 people (75% on Tahiti and Moorea) could maintain their educated tidy healthy orderly lifestyle without the massive financial support of France. But it’s difficult to understand what the concensus is from talking to the people I meet. I haven’t really got a clue and need to read more; better French would help too. Whatever Theroux’s views I generally like the French and don’t think they’re any more arrogant or nationalistic than segments of the British population. Also, one side of me knows it’s not for transient yachties to comment anyway, not my business to probe. So I’ll drop the subject.
It was a 250 mile, straightforward two-day sail from atoll Fakarava in the Tuamotus to Tahiti. I was in no hurry to get to Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. I dreaded the hustle and bustle and crowds and traffic and city anxieties, and the rigger who was to help fix Henrietta’s unhappy rigging was not free for at least a week.
So, as I approached Tahiti I was avidly perusing iPhone chart looking for an alternative place to stop when I spotted an area, “Mouillage de Cook”, about as far from Papeete as possible, on the little bit of Tahiti called Tahiti-Iti (Little Tahiti) in the east. This seemed to have lots of things going for it. First, if it was good enough for Captain Cook to anchor, it might suit me; also, as mentioned, it was nearly 40 miles from the hustle and bustle of Papeete; furthermore it looked to be well sheltered from the forecast strong winds and there might be a sandy beach and walks in the mountains.
So, Mouillage de Cook, Tautira, is where I went first. And it was everything I hoped for; the irony being that though the island of Tahiti is by far the most popular and populous place in French Polynesia with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of yachts, at least two marinas, and every service under the sun, my little spot some 35 miles away was one of the quietest and emptiest anchorages I’ve been on the entire trip. “Henrietta” was the one and only visitor in the three days we stayed. There were views of spiky green-cloaked mountains in the interior, a beach and play park where children and adults played, and a food shop not far away. A few fishermen in outrigger canoes and little open boats milled about but no speed-hog yachtie tenders or posing powerboat playboys. I walked as far as I could up mountains; but it’s mostly unmarked and a lot is private so, without a guide, mountain rambling alone was hazardous and limited.
From there I sailed along the coastline (and I should say that Tahiti is a very beautiful island with its sharp high verdant mountains frequently capped with dark grey cloud), stopped for a night at Venus Point. (For history buffs, this is where Cook built an observatory for the transit of Venus – important at the time for astronomical measurements needed to assist navigation. Captain Cook would have loved the precision and versatility of GPS and iPhone.) Next day, on to Papeete, on past the airport – where, if you have a high mast, you call on VHF to say when you’re passing the ends of the runway – and a mooring buoy at Taina, surrounded by hundreds of yachts of all conceivable shapes and sizes and degrees of scruffiness.
Since then, there’s been a social life with fellow cruisers, bus trips into city of Papeete, walk trips to the nearby Carrefour Supermarket, (whose stock is almost identical to that of any sizeable French town, prices comparable too, except the wine, beer and alcoholic stuff and fresh veg which are three or four times the price!
)…….and the rigger, Mathieu, is to replace some shrouds and check all the rigging next week.
Despite my usual distaste for tropical cities, I enjoy and take delight in the unforced friendliness and casual good-natured hospitality of Papeete, Tahiti and its people. It has traffic and fumes and overpriced tourist tat, but it’s laid-back too, and colouful, and gardens are lush and tidy, and I’ll have mixed feelings when I leave.
Photos around Papeete
It still surprises me that there are so many sailing boats around, and I’ve come to realise that for an untarnished Pacific sailing experience where you’d be a novelty rather than commonplace, and where the welcome might be more spontaneous and less tinged with commerce, you and I should have come 40 years ago. This is not to say that the Pacific is spoilt – very far from it – but you have to look and sail and explore outside the main South Pacific yacht conveyor belt to find totally unsullied havens. Heaven forbid that this sailing area should become as crowded, commercial, grubby, insecure and corrupt as much of the Caribbean. And I’m sure that won’t happen for many decades – perhaps never.