E2. South Pacific Adventure: Les Iles Gambiers

The two-day jaunt to Margareva Island in the Gambier Archipelago (at 28* South and 135* West) of French Polynesia was uneventful – predominantly 10 -15 knot tail winds with our spinnaker.  Woohoo!  Since we arrived at night, we sailed to the furthest of the three passes to enter the islands waiting for daylight. 

The Gambier Island group is comprised of the main island of Mangareva with 4 or 5 sizable nearby inhabited islands, and several more outlying motus ringing the lagoon. The population of the entire archipelago is about 1500.   

You may recall from earlier stories, we had hurried across the Pacific in order to meet strict arrival requirements for our long-stay French Visa.  Accordingly, we proceeded directly to Rikitea, a French Polynesian port of entry where we completed the requisite paperwork in time to get it onto the next plane to Papeete.  Rikitea is also the principal port of the Gambiers.  The small town boast a few small groceries with precious few hardware items.  Fresh baguettes (of couse!) pomplemous (grapefruit), bananas, avacados, limes, mangos, papayas, and coconuts are plentiful but other fruits and vegetables are available only when they arrive every few weeks on the supply ships from Papeete.  Apparently, the local populace prefers to buy frozen foods from Papeete rather than cultivate them locally.  We were pleased to see that the local university is training young people how to farm the fertile land. 

Pearl farming is BIG business in the Gambiers – in fact, it’s pretty much the ONLY business in the Gambiers.  A large percentage of the population is active farming pearls or supporting the farmers.  Of course, Cindy couldn’t resist befriending a prolific pearl farmer and bought a nice little sack of jewels for future jewelry.   This was our first introduction to the Corona Virus.  Farmer Eric was lamenting that his gifted Chinese pearl grafters were not being allowed to come back to Mangareva after celebrating their Chinese New Years in China.  Little did we know that this little virus so far away would soon turn the entire world upside down. 

John’s girlfriend, Ana Brinson, joined team Pazzo for a week of exploring the Gambier Islands, hiking the hills overlooking the turquoise lagoons and vibrant reefs.  We sailed to the eastern fringing reef and Motu, Totegegie, to meet her at Mangareva’s airport (which is more of a landing strip, really)  She was kind enough to bring duty-free wine and gin along with much-needed boat parts from America.  It is commonly understood in the cruising community that guests are particularly welcome not only for their company but also for their courier services J.  

French Polynesia is a VERY expensive cruising ground as most everything is imported from France.  The outlying island groups (Marquesas, Australs, Tuamotus, and the Gambiers) are EVEN more expensive as goods bear the additional onward shipping from Papeete.  A cheap bottle of wine or a 6-pack of local beer is $20USD and a fifth of Jack Daniels is $175USD!   We were glad for our stores of Chilean and Argentine wine.  Not everything is costly, however.  French baguettes baked daily and sometimes twice daily cost less than $1USD and the Mangarevan locals are incredible generous with their fruits and vegetables – normally refusing payment. 

Over 6 weeks, Pazzo visited all the main islands in the archipelago and several of the motus as well.  Navigating the lagoon through the maze of suspended oyster baskets (typically 3 meters below the surface) demands constant vigilance.  On more than one occasion, concerned pearl farmers zoomed to our rescue to help us out of their maze before we destroyed their gear with our propeller.   John and I spent a day with a local welder repairing our Spade anchor after the damn thing rusted out, rendering itself useless.   John was masterful in engineering the repair but the welder was a bit rough in his execution.  In any event, the repair is robust and will serve us until we can replace the anchor.   We found a warm welcome wherever we sailed – even on Ile Kamaka, the private island we visited to deliver beer to the charming young French couple keeping watch over the Island.   They made it clear that visitors are not welcome on their island, but appreciated the beer and sent us off with a delicious Papaya. 

Nowhere in the Gambiers is the welcome equal to Ile Taravai where Herve, Valarie, Ariki (son) and Taravai (dog) host their famous Sunday BBQs for visiting yachts.  Each yacht is expected to bring a dish, help with the preparation and cleanup, and buy fruits and vegetables from Herve’s garden.   For these weekly events, Herve typically hunts goats, or slaughters a few wild chickens for Valarie’s curried stew-pot.   On rare occasions, Herve delights guests with a wild pig roast – the successful yield from his pig trap.   After lunch, guests and hosts alike move on to boisterous games of petanque (similar to lawn bowls) and volleyball while enjoying lemonade, cold beer, and wine (of course).   Valarie is a masterful artist, creating amazing “sand” paintings with only multicolored sands from the Gambiers.  Ariki is particularly fond of yachts bringing kids to play with on this island with kid population:  1. 

Ile Taravai is also home to the picturesque Saint-Gabriel church built in 1863 when the island was home to about 2000 Polynesians and missionaries.  Sadly, with a lack of funding and maintenance, the church, along with others in the outlying islands, has fallen into disrepair and is now condemned. 

The Gambiers are not known for snorkeling and diving.  Nevertheless we found A+ coral, fishes, sharks, and turtles in “False Pass” on the eastern fringing reef near Erik’s pearl farm and on the reefs on the NW corner of motu Tauna. Like the rest of French Polynesia, the lagoon fishes often carry ciguatera, a toxin that causes paralysis in people.  Fortunately, the locals know which fish are safe for consumption.  Ocean fishes don’t carry ciguatera and local fishermen know how to harvest Mahi-Mahi (also known as Dorado).   They don’t drag lures at 7 knots like we do.  Instead they chase the fish with high-speed skiffs and harpoon the fish when they tire.  Interestingly, Mahi don’t dive when chased; they swim on the surface until exhausted.  It’s not uncommon for bring home a dozen or more fish.   With this kind of fishing success, it’s comforting to remember that Mahi reproduce prolifically and grow fast.   

The limited snorkeling was more than offset by incredible hikes offering stunning views of the lagoon and neighboring islands as well as territorial vistas from rainforest trails.  Our hikes were both rewarding and punishing.  On the plus side, we’d often find delicious berries, passionfruit, papayas, and pomplemous (grapefruit) – no need to carry lunch.  But on the opposite side of the ledger, wasps attacked Cindy and John on one hike thru the jungle grass and the afternoon sun is always brutal.  

After 6 weeks in the in-frequently visited Gambier Islands, we unceremoniously sailed thru passe Nordouest for the 800 mile reach thru the Tuamotu archipelago to Fatu Hiva, the southeastern (and upwind-most) island in the Marquesas Island group, also part of French Polynesia. 

We are pleased to report that our hurried schedule across the Pacific was rewarded with issuance of 12-month long-stay visa for all of French Polynesia.  This would al

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