Formerly named “Bay of Dicks” after its imposing phallic rock formations, missionaries apparently took offence and renamed the “Baie de Verges” to “Baie de Vierges” – the Bay of Virgins. Several sources had named this Marquesan anchorage one of the most beautiful in the world, so we could hardly miss it on the way out to the Tuomotus, 500 miles further westward.
It lived up to its name and fame, and we ventured ashore to trek up to the waterfall. We climbed trees to fill our bags with pamplemousse (a local grapefruit) and cut off a bunch of bananas a metre long.
A few other cruisers visited our boat that night, beginning a theme of getting wildly drunk on rum, getting the guitar out and singing loudly into the night. These ended up happening so often that I will probably stop mentioning them.
The following day we were on our first significant passage as a new crew, the 614 mile (534nm) trip to Fakarava, in the Tuomotus.
I’d suggested Fakarava to John and Harry because I wanted to snorkel with the hundreds of sharks that congregate there. After four days at sea we arrived at the Northern end of Fakarava in order to transit through the lagoon to the shark filled waters. Although the tide only rises and falls by 50cm each day, multiply that by the 290 square miles of lagoon and you get a lot of water coming in and out of a couple of gaps less than a mile wide. The result was a hardworking engine and a boiling sea as thousands of tons of water fight against the persistent trade winds.
A quarter of a mile wide, the sea and wind ravaged iron shore east coast contrasts with the calm coconut-fringed white sand of the interior, where after just a few seconds glancing into the lagoon you’ll see the black tip of a reef shark peeking through the surface as it patrols the shoreline.
With no waves to object, Jandamarra glided to the South pass and anchored up for the evening. The routine scraping of kitchen waste into the sea attracted some local reef fish which prompted six or seven sharks to investigate the back of the boat. I donned my mask and snorkel and jumped in. Even though I knew these were not going to bite me, I couldn’t resist the primal urge to get out of the water when a couple of them stared at me in the face and headed straight for me. Tomorrow I would be braver, I told myself. It’s funny how much safer you feel with other people in the water – I guess it splits your risk.
The next day we got in the dinghy and headed to the south pass itself on an incoming tide, so we could glide back to the boat effortlessly with the current. Literally hundreds of grey, black tipped and white tipped sharks hunted in the shallows or rested deeper down as the current flushed their gills with oxygenated water. I watched scuba divers hiding behind rocks to catch a glimpse of them as we got just as good a view up on the surface for free.
Back at the boat John decided he wanted fish for dinner. He grabbed his spear gun, jumped in, and quickly impaled a large parrotfish just a few metres from the boat. Having been hit in the body, it didn’t die immediately, and it swam down under a rock, taking the spear, attached to the gun, held by John, with it. In less than a minute, at least eight sharks had arrived and began to take chunks out of the wounded fish. Limited by his breath, John came back up and waited for the sharks to calm down before retrieving his fishless gun.
Learning from John’s experience, Harry and I tried again. After about half an hour of fish stalking (I’m sure those fish know what you’re up to), Harry got one, but again the fish ducked for cover. I dived down and wriggled the spear free, fish attached, and the sharks were already after it. I handed the spear to Harry, jumped on the dinghy and he passed the gun and fish up to me and quickly got in himself. Triumphant, we returned to Jandamarra with a giant parrotfish.
Alas, after some online research we read that parrotfish in this area were a high risk of ciguatera, a neurotoxin that algae eaters accumulate, which causes a chronic illness to those who eat it. We had to return the parrotfish to the sea. It felt bad to have needlessly ended its life, but the sharks very quickly made use of the protein.
From there we navigated through the smaller South pass and 30 miles North to Anse Amyot in Toau, tying up to a mooring buoy owned by Gaston and Valentine, a Polynesian couple we had read about. Dinghying ashore they made us immediately welcome with a beer and a game of boules (petanque). Having played this as a child I thought I might have an advantage, but it turns out he Polynesians are very serious about their petanque.
Day turned to night and we were invited for dinner, whereupon rum flowed and before long the guitars and ukulele were out and I was learning the chord patterns for all the Tuomotus music. Which are all subtle variations of G, C and D. But all the songs were so happy, they sang the words from the depths of their hearts, and we were accompanied by Gaston on his self-made dustbin bass, constructed from a plastic bucket, a stick and some nylon fishing net wire. I want to make one.
The next morning Gaston asked us to hold down his pig while he cut its balls off. He said it had become too aggressive and this was a standard procedure. I found myself holding onto a rope attached to its leg and lashing him around a tree. Gaston then performed the surgery with great knowledge of the task and the pig’s anatomy. I mindlessly videod it, and now can’t watch it – it is one of the most disturbing things I have seen in my apparently sheltered life. The all male audience winced as testicles were twisted, cut, then the bits and bobs tied together and the cavity cleaned with lemon and salt. The pig’s squeals will echo in our minds for a while. Untied, defeated and ashamed, the pig walked away a different beast.
At lunch, a metal bowl was uncovered with some meat braised with some onions in a dark jus. Surely not. Bien sur! It was un plat de boules. The package had been dispatched to a cruiser from Reunion, who returned it as a French delicacy. Of course we had to eat it. I can’t say it tasted bad. It was expertly prepared – very tender, as you’d imagine a pig’s dark meat to taste like if it was a turkey. I wish I had enough control over my mind to nonchalantly munch on a pig’s bollock, but I didn’t. I had two polite mouthfuls and unconvincingly protested that I was full – if only I hadn’t eaten so much pasta… For the record, John and Harry both ate a plateful of the stuff. Harry always needs to be the man, and John will just eat anything. The meal concluded with more music and rum mixed with sugar into the night. I am sure this is a very unhealthy way to drink rum.
The chores did not end there. The next day would be a big feast so Gaston needed help with his fish traps. That guy just did not stop. Suffice to say that there is apparently no ciguatera problem with any of the fish – parrotfish were all on the menu.
As darkness fell, lobsters from Gaston’s own trap were cut in half and still quivered with life on the barbecue. The fish was chopped up and presented raw as “poission cru” in freshly milled coconut milk from their own coconut trees.
A dozen or so cruisers attended, which at $30 a head is surely a big earner for Gaston and Valentine. I was then wheeled out to accompany them on guitar as they entertained the crowd with some more G, C and D Tuomotus classics. They kept me on my toes and surprised me with an Am at one point.
With French the common language in French Polynesia, you would expect us non French speakers to be ostracised but this was not so. While Gaston and Valentine did speak fluent French like all Polynesians, their first language is Tahitian. There is little love for France, as they were conducting nuclear tests in the area as recently as 1995, displacing people and prompting riots.
In Anse Amyot I also started to work on my auditions for music college, which was now going to be what I was going to be doing in Australia (I can’t get a working holiday visa anymore being over 31). Thankfully singing “My Island” on the beach didn’t work out and I figured out a better way of doing it later. But Gaston and Valentine were at about verse three of that song in terms of development – with us having donated them a ukulele tuner instead of “a stone that made fire and the sweetness of bees”. John did ask me to play that song for them but of course they had no idea what it was about and we had to quickly return to happy ukulele G C and D songs soonafter.
The next day we had to leave. We could have easily stayed weeks, their welcome was so enveloping. But we had a schedule to keep. We were looking to make the scheduled rendezvous in Tahiti of all the Pacific Puddle Jumpers – the loose group of cruisers who left the American continent in March/April. I myself wanted to get there to see if any other Australia-bound boats needed crew. But things were going well so far on Jandamarra – I was starting to think this may be the boat to take me all the way.
It was sad to leave but you only get to see such places because you left the previous one. So off we sailed – next destination would be Papeete, Tahiti. A big city in comparison to where we had been for the last two months.