I'm visiting the Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, starting in Papeete (and going on to Bora Bora and Moorea. The 'big island plane' from Rarotonga has 48 seats, but fewer than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.)
Papeete (Water Basket) is the capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti, the most populous island (69% of the people live here). Tahiti is known for its black volcanic sand beaches. The city developed, primarily, because the French moved their French nuclear weapon test range from Algeria, (which had won independence), to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, some 930 miles to the east of Tahiti. The two detonations were both followed by rioting, on Tahiti.
And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight. And I walked straight through immigration, without even a stamp in my passport.
My hotel, for the one night, has given me a 'lagoon view' room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.
French food and sophistication and stunning tropical scenery. Sublime. Though there are local twists, of course, Poisson cru, for example, is fish marinated in coconut milk.
I've flown into the Cocos Islands from Perth via Christmas Island. A quick bike tour down the side of the runway, to the southern tip of West Island, where there’s a gorgeous beach, islets floating beyond, in shallow glimmering water. The crabs here are mini robots, fast running, with vertical square heads and revolving eyes on top. Tiny reef sharks are so close in I can see the tips of their dorsal fins above the water.
All the Cocos Islands, except one are in the southern atoll and I’m off to explore that on a motorized canoe tour. It’s an idyllic afternoon scudding round little palm topped dots. I’m allowed to be a princess, as Anthony from Perth does the necessary with the little outboard and we follow a rainbow of bright bobbing plastic boats. Sonal and Chris and Donna and Barry from my lodging have come along and there are more folk I recognise - they were on the plane from Perth.
We snorkel in a channel running half way round one island. It’s a natural water park – the current wafts us along the chute, past all the fish who are lurking in the overhangs and then catapults us into the ocean on the other side. Very clever. There are a multitude of garfish (under the surface), clams and sea cucumbers, as well as more small sharks and a couple of turtles. The current is so strong, it’s like watching a movie in fast forward and I’m hanging onto clumps of rock to try and take photos. We walk back the few metres across the island.
Julia and Tony are celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary and the next stop involves champagne, curry puffs, hordes of hermit crabs (I’m sure they can smell food, like robber crabs) and clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. (These can also smell a meal).
We meander round the atoll and take a jungle walk to the highest point in the territory, on another island, used as a lookout during the war. It’s 13 metres high - this would not be a good place to try to survive a tsunami. Then we fill a sack with plastic rubbish that has drifted onto the beach (a dent in the heap) and return to our boats, more alcohol and more meanderings.
The trip is timed perfectly, so that we return as the sun is setting over the islets.
Next, I've planned a trip to Direction Island. You have to go on the special big ferry to Home Island, which then continues on to ‘Australia’s Best Beach’, Cossie Beach. But they’ve cancelled the ferry tomorrow (it only goes on Thursdays and Saturdays). The Visitor Information Centre (who actually seem to enjoy helping visitors here) say they can get me a glass bottomed boat trip that will include a visit to the beach, providing I can find three other people to join in. Sonal and Chris, from Christmas Island, are staying at the same place. And there’s an English couple, Donna and Barry from Essex, in the villa next to mine. Job done.
Today, the north part of the atoll in our glass bottomed boat, with captain, Peter. The journey commences with a stop in the lagoon, for too much fishing, in my opinion. Chris and Peter enjoy themselves hugely, with the aid of some intricate red and white lures. They land some large coral trout, which Peter excitedly explains, are a gastronomic delight.
We motor past some classic Robinson Crusoe islands with just one or two palm trees. Their names are less romantic - one is called Prison Island.
Next, Horsbrough Island, which is surrounded by huge green turtles and more small black tipped reef sharks. We snorkel at a coral bomie with white tipped reef shark lurking and then at a wrecked nineteenth century barge,. It's an apartment home for golden yellow striped goatfish.
Peter promises more sharks on our way to Direction Island and bangs the glass panel with a brush. Nine sharks appear, the usual white and black tipped reef sharks and some larger, two metre grey reef sharks. They circle impatiently, waiting for the fish scraps that Peter feeds to them. Peter invites us to swim with the sharks, but they are much bigger than those I have previously encountered in the water. I decide to abstain. My wound is also open again.
It’s a very good decision. Chris descends the ladder, putting one leg into the water, and then appears again in the boat announcing he has been bitten by a shark. For a moment, I think he is joking, but then I spot the crimson fountain spurting out of his shin. Peter instantly springs into action, grabbing a towel a to fashion into a compression bandage. Then we head for the clinic on Home Island, where a sizeable proportion of the population of the Cocos Islands reside. Peter is bailing out bloody water. Direction Island recedes into the distance. I’m thinking it might be one of those places that’s just not meant to be.
An ambulance waits on the quay and Chris and Sonal are ferried off. Peter then announces that he will take the rest of us to Direction Island. we are to wait on the beach, while Chris is tended to. It’s a hollow victory. We’re all feeling shocked and sober.
This beach has been named Cossies Beach after Peter Cosgrave, a recent governor. It’s a classic arc of pale white sand backed by palm trees (not bendy), giving way to clear azure water. I’ll mark it eight, or maybe nine, out of ten. It's lovely but it's not the best beach I've ever seen by some way. So I decide to write my own list of Best Beaches in the World. More small black tipped reef sharks are circling in the bay and I’m not to be persuaded into the water again today (or maybe for a long while). Eventually, we return without Chris and Sonal. Barry accidentally does a Colin Firth impression, his white cheesecloth shirt soaking in the bow spray.
Peter returns for the patient later. It’s a nasty bite, sixteen stitches in a shark’s mouth crescent shape, and there have been Zoom conversations with medics in Australia. He was almost air lifted out. But it's now deemed not life threatening, provided he keeps it clean and elevated. Sonal and Chris have another four nights in the Cocos Islands and Chris will be confined to barracks for all of that time. We’ve booked dinner at Maxi’s restaurant tonight (she only opens Thursdays) and she cooks the coral trout for us. Sonal and I ferry some up the road to Chris. It’s delicious.
Next stop, Perth again.
The islands were uninhabited at the time of their first European sighting, in 1609, by the English mariner, William Keeling, who was working for the East India Company. They were first settled in 1826, by an English adventurer named Alexander Hare, who brought his Malay harem and slaves. But he didn't stay long.
The production and export of copra is the territory’s economic mainstay. The inhabitants are predominantly the descendants of the original coconut plantation workers, mostly of Malay origin, and gain, mostly enslaved. They were brought to the islands by John Clunies-Ross, a Scotsman who also settled here, in 1827–31. The islands formally became a British possession in 1857, but the Clunies-Ross family retained complete control, supported by a royal grant. The press referred to them. as 'Kings of the Cocos'. The locals settled for 'tuan'.
The islands were transferred from Great Britain to Australia in 1955, when n umerous Cocos Islanders moved to the Australian mainland in the, because of overcrowded conditions on the islands. Control and land ownership were gradually prised from the family, by the Australians. Today, some four-fifths of the population - Cocos Islanders, or Cocos Malays, as they are often called, together with the descendants of the Clunies-Ross family - live on Home Island. Most of the Cocos Malays speak a dialect of Malay and are Muslim. The islands' motto is spoken in Malay - Maju Pulu Kita (Onward our Island).
I've arrived from Christmas Island. First impressions are exciting - this is how one expects coral islands to look. It reminds me of Funafuti, the main island at Tuvalu, in that half the island consists of runway and the houses are built alongside it; but this is way more sophisticated. No games on the runway here. In fact, nothing on the runway, unless you want a hefty fine. It’s also used regularly by the Air Force. The bungalows are large and well-tended and the few shops, one supermarket and restaurants are clustered in and around the airport. My lodging, like Tuvalu is just over the road (hopefully no rats this time) and is elegant and modern.
Wi-Fi has to be paid for and even then is only found in certain hot spots. I buy three hours, but then park it, as I realise if I go just up the road I can get a free connection from the airport. I sit on the benching outside for a couple of hours catching up, enjoying the balmy breeze.
More free Wi-Fi very early (the Air Force are in, noisily showing off) and then they cut the connection. So, I go back to my hotspot . Except you have to use your time consecutively here and it all got used up last night, even though I wasn’t online . You win some and you lose some.
The little airport comes alive twice a week when the plane from Perth comes in. It does a triangle via Christmas Island. The café/bakery does a roaring trade as folk congregate round the tables after they have checked in. The enterprising owner manifests again, once we have cleared security, with a chef’s hat and another, tiny coffee bar.
I'm coming from Micronesia to visit Palau and this is another of those instances where I’ve been teleported to a completely different world. As far as I can make out in the dark, as I arrive, Koror, the former capital of Palau, inclines more to Honolulu than Yap. I can see illuminated signs, glass fronted shops and petrol filling stations. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Names are confusing. There's Koror City, Koror Island and Koror State, which consists of several islands to grapple with straightaway.
I’m not sure if I didn’t read the small print properly, or if I was feeling particularly gung-ho when I booked my hotel, but this place is eye wateringly expensive. I recall that the mid-range places were booked out and the remaining options weren’t scoring much above 7 on booking.com which basically means really don’t bother. Anyway, my room has an ocean view to the front and a lagoon view to the back – so double water aspect in estate agents’ terms. It’s luxurious, pleasing to the eye and comfortable (it ought to be), though there is some sort of weird wet room arrangement in the bathroom where the shower is sited next to the bath, so you fill the tub up while you’re showering. It’s also got one of those fancy Japanese toilets. Only maybe not so fancy, as the seat has come away from its fixings.
I’m desperate to see the fabled Rock Islands. Both scenery (UNESCO) and snorkelling are touted as world class. The resort is, unsurprisingly busy, mainly with Japanese guests and I’ve already been informed by email that the dive shop isn’t doing any snorkelling this week as it’s booked up with divers. I emailed the hotel direct for alternatives, but didn’t get an answer and now they’re telling me there isn’t any availability today.
So I’m on the resort private beach, which I have to own, since I’ve stopped being grumpy, is actually very nice, especially as there aren’t many beaches in this part of Palau. It’s quiet, with powdery white sand and I have one of those little blue cabana things to hide under. What’s more the snorkelling directly off shore is entertaining. There’s a spread of coral that’s seen better days, but the marine life doesn’t seem to mind, there are plenty of giant clams and the fish here are seemingly unfazed by human company. The reef echoes to the chomping of huge parrotfish, who are quite happy to hover just below me as they chew. So I spend most of the day out there chasing photographs.
There are a couple of gala dinners going on here, but they’ve sold out of tickets. Nobody pointed out that they were happening, but I’m not too disappointed when it transpires that tickets are 150 dollars a pop. The beach bar is still open (only till ten as they have to do an inventory - on New Year’s Eve?) and I eat fish and chips with an American pilot called Bob until we are ejected. His co-pilot joins in our chat. Their ignorance of geography (and other airlines) is a little worrying. I’m asleep well before midnight, though there aren’t any fireworks to miss. They’re banned in Palau (along with firearms).
The only snorkelling tour with any space available is run by a Japanese company. The concierge who booked it told me that there would be 8 to 10 people on the boat. There are 16. And at least three other boats (all chock full) converge at every stopping place, so this is definitely mass tourism with a vengeance. The snorkelling is especially frustrating. The fish must think there’s a huge school of some type of whale passing above them. In the end I swim to the tail-end and wait for the thrashing melee to progress ahead of me. The Japanese, as usual, take every opportunity to pose for photographs, leaping up and down on sand bars and even pushing me out of the way in the water, flailing their Go Pros and frightening away the striped trigger fish I’m trying to capture with my own camera.
Our Japanese whale school drifts along an impressive reef that’s 300 metres deep, unsurprisingly named The Big Drop Off. I’m less enthusiastic about the stop in a small bay, known as The Milky Way. The bottom is very runny white clay and everyone smears themselves and each other with it – and takes pictures, of course. Maybe it functions as a free spa treatment. I notice a statuesque totally mud covered figure posing on one of the other boats. It’s the Russian guy from Micronesia. His little boy, like me, has abjured the clay and his wife/girl friend and I exchange New Years’ greetings.
On-board are upright seats with backs and nobody moves around; they are not interested in photos of scenery and some of them have their eyes shut as we speed along, bumping over the waves. This is a little trying, when the backdrop is so fabulous and my view is obstructed. The lift up seats to store your gear in the dry seem like a good idea until you’ve had to disturb the guy next you more times than he is comfortable with. But he’s Japanese, so he just smiles in a pained way. The refreshment bucket contains oolong, apple and green teas rather than coca cola and every time we arrive at a new destination the tour leader proclaims the name of the place twice like a herald’s announcement and everyone cheers. It’s both annoying and entertaining.
The scenery though is worth all the discomfort. The limestone Rock Islands are the granddaddy of (aptly named) Floating Garden Islands, like Halong Bay in Vietnam, El Nido in the Philippines and Kabira and Matsushima Bays in Japan. They spread over a huge area in the lagoon round Koror and are utterly gorgeous, covered in bright emerald foliage, featuring the odd white sand beach and surrounded by turquoise, sapphire and cerulean seas.
I’m booked on a ‘super snorkelling tour’ of four sites with the same Japanese company, but they called at six last night to cancel. I wasn’t amused - it was too late to re-book and most of the tours, as I’ve reported, are full this week anyway. The concierge says he can get me a private boat for the day. I know these don’t come cheap so I’m hesitant, but he says he can get me a good price, considering I will need a sandwich lunch and a snorkel guide. He checks to find out where the tour company was going to take me and says he will find a boatman who will do the same.
Carter the boatman has turned up as arranged this morning. The good news is he has a very smart little vessel. The bad news is that he says the price agreed will only cover half a day, the sites mentioned are all too far away and the only person he’s brought along is his petulant eight year old son. So my snorkelling outing is a mixed bag.
Nothing as spectacular as yesterday’s Big Drop Off with its sharks and turtles, but it’s a pleasant morning and I get a much better view of the islands having a boat to myself. In addition, the weather has continued to defy the pessimism of the forecast. It’s been perfect blue skies with puffy white clouds for the last three days. I try not to think about the mounting cost of this sojourn in Palau. It probably equals the last three weeks in FSM combined.
I had optimistically expected that my room cleaner would report the broken toilet seat, but as it’s Day 3, and he hasn’t, I instruct him to do it when he finally arrives, in the middle of the afternoon. Now, they’ve replaced the whole ‘Washlet’ unit and it has a blue permanent light, while the bowl illuminates whenever I approach. The seat is much too warm for my liking. It’s like leaning against an electric fire, which is just what you need when it’s constantly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
This morning I’m blowing the rest of my budget on a flight over the Floating Garden Islands. It’s worth it. For an extra ten dollars they’ve removed the side of the Cessna (to pay for insurance I’m told). There is an amazing clear view of these strings of islands and the swirling iridescent water. We track all the channels and swoop over the renowned Diver's Blue Hole. My fellow passenger is an American student who’s also a qualified pilot, so I have a backup if necessary. It’s a truly wonderful 40 minutes. It has to be one of the best views in the world.
Then I travel north, away from the Honolulu like Koror, through jungle covered mountains that are much more reminiscent of the wild FSM. This island is called Babeldoep (it’s like being in Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and the highest point is Mount Ngerchelchuus (242 metres).
The accommodation is also a huge contrast. I’m in a small darkish bungalow, just behind another stunning beach with shallow sand banks out to the distant edge of the lagoon. There are hammocks, slung between the palm trees, which are amusing for a while. Then I drag a sunbed into the shallow water and spend the afternoon there. It’s difficult to concentrate on a book, when the views are so dazzling and constantly changing in the light. And the Russian trio have turned up yet again. I’ve been taking their pictures frolicking in the water and making sand castles. (Female Russian appears to enjoy this as much as, if not more than her son.) The father has asked me to send the pictures on, so I’ve discovered his name is Anatoly.
Dinner is a solitary affair, but a delicious one. Coconut fish curry with accompaniments in curled leaf baskets. One of these is koroke – a fried vegetable fritter. If anyone else is eating then they’re doing it in their bungalows. There are lights strung all around the walkways. It would probably be very pretty if someone turned them on.
I’m risking another Japanese tour today, to Kayangel Atoll at the very north of Palau. It’s a bumpy ride, as the swell is almost bad enough for the trip to have been cancelled. This time there’s one dry box and it’s under the captain’s seat. He’s Palauan and not nearly as amenable about being disturbed as my previous Japanese neighbour. Maybe that’s why my belongings are all soaked when I finally remove them. There are no Japanese proclamations today, but there is a lot of leaping up and down for photographs again. And our male guide seems to feel the need to add showers of seawater as an additional effect. I’m again, not very amused.
There is fishing - the snapper seem to be queuing up to be caught. But I’m much more impressed by the very tasty sashimi and tempura the guide subsequently produces. The beach is literally heaving with hermit crabs. These have congregated, in what looks like a mass of crawling pebbles, all attempting to snaffle the barbecue remains. We are taken on a mini tour of the main island - 57 inhabitants. Our guide is explaining about the uses of the tropical plants. ‘The underside of the banana leaf is exceptionally soft’, he says. ‘You can use it for toilet paper’.
The atoll itself is exquisite. The most turquoise of water, the most striking of sand bars. The bay is dotted with young turtles, swimming on each side of the boat as we glide in. More time to sit and wonder at the horizon. In these lagoons it melds with the reef edge and is an extraordinary solid indigo line laced with surf. The lagoon is a dappled stretch out to the reef and the skies are astonishing. They are huge, with amazing snowy cloud patterns laid on an azure background.
In hindsight, it would have been better to stay admiring the view, but I’m keen to try and get a better photo of the turtles. So I’m off, clambering over the rocks on the beach. Until I slip on a seaweed covered slab and land heavily on my coccyx. It’s still hurting - I’ve commandeered a bag of ice and I’m sitting on that. My trusty Nikon camera hasn’t come out of things too well either. Parts of the lens went flying. I’m hoping it will last the course.
While I’m trying to balance on my ice I’m savouring another solitary dinner, sweet and sour parrot fish. Yet again its’s incredibly good. I might have made yet another bad decision though, as I’ve chosen to eat outdoors. There are hordes of night insects. My banana in coconut milk is covered in a great deal of additional protein by the time I get to it. The bungalow area is teeming with other wild life. There are enormous toads hopping around the path and the wall and roof are festooned with lizards. Both are fine by me - they will help to keep the insects off my food. I'm glad I've got my room refresher with me. They definitely help to keep the mosquitoes away from the bed.
I’m walking wounded today, so I’m sitting on ice as much as possible. It doesn’t help that I’ve also got a gaping hole underneath my toes, where my replacement flip flops have disagreed with my feet.
A honey moon couple, Professor Dan and his new Japanese wife, are staying in an adjacent bungalow. They’ve just come by and given me some champagne. It will help to anesthetize the pain.
It’s my last United flight this evening, on to Manila and I’m consolidating my bags and trying to offload the excess before I’m back on a one piece of luggage limit. I’ve sold the Filipina cook my bought in Guam bag (when the airline lost my luggage) at a knock down price. I've also given her and the Girl Friday who manages the bungalows some of my now surplus clothes. And the offending flip flops. Now I’m savouring the lagoon for the last time, trying to commit its perfection to memory. Honeymooner Dan has designated himself my barman. He has set up his table on the sandbar and is concocting cocktails for us from soju and oolong tea. Amazingly, magician-like he produces all the ingredients, including ice, from a cool bag. Ah perfect…….
Read more about Palau here.
And today I’m off to Yap, the last of the states of Micronesia. There must be potential for really bad puns there too. From Chuuk I have to go back via Guam, so I leave Micronesia and come back again. It’s a long day, with a six hour wait at Guam Airport before I board exactly the same plane and sit in exactly the same seat.
A bare breasted grass skirted lady, slips a flower garland round my neck to cheer me up after enduring yet another queue for immigration. There are three Russians standing just behind me. The male is typically tall, well turned out with dirty blond hair. His wife/girl friend is like a delicate china doll with dark hair in bunches. She seems to be having a good sulk. Their little boy is hovering between the two of them and deciding that his father is the better bet for entertainment at the moment. Finally, bed at 2 a.m.
Things are looking up all round. I slept well, if not for long enough and even though, I discovered to my surprise that I have a waterbed. It’s a little lively, but it seems quite comfortable. My room is lovely and everything works. It’s yet another lagoon view. The hotel is called Manta Ray Bay Resort and it’s definitely a place with a theme (or two). There are photographs of the (many) mantas of Yap, all named; I like Newbie for a juvenile best. The rooms are all called after fish (I’m barracuda - read into that what you will). There’s a hand-painted manta sea scene on the bed throws. Manta shortbread biscuits are supplied and even the towels on the bed have been artfully crafted into a manta shape. The restaurant and bar is atmospherically housed on a hundred year old schooner moored by the dive shop.
And I’m engaged in a tour of the island with my guide Theo. He carries a small holdall with him everywhere. It transpires that this is crammed with betel nuts. The chewing isn’t as prevalent in Micronesia as it used to be. It causes the teeth (except the gold ones which are still seen as a sign of wealth here) to become red and stained, and making it looks as if the gums are bleeding. Theo says his mother gave betel to him while he was a child, to keep him warm while she worked in the fields. so he became addicted.
And he’s disgruntled because his wife wants to grow flowers in the garden, rather than more betel nut palms. I can see why he would want to grow more, as the nuts in the bag are diminishing at a rate of knots, but at least he waits till I’m looking the other way to spit. And he’s a relaxed and attentive guide, if not fully appraised of all the historical facts.
There are, of course, Japanese bunkers, planes and guns from World War II to be seen, but I’m more interested in the Yap culture, which is uniquely fascinating. This is Indonesia meets Samoa. In complete contrast to Chuuk the main island is almost (not quite) litter free. The roads thread through nipa and mangrove swamp, like Kosrae, but here they well maintained and are neatly lined with crotons, hibiscus and other tropical delights. The villagers stay quietly out of sight.
The roads skirt the villages and they are entered via a network of stone paths which criss-cross the island. There are traditional, very tidy, woven long houses, with their pointy roofs, meeting houses for the men (with the best breezy views out to sea) and community halls. Slabs of stone protrude from the ground around all of these. They look like gravestones, but they are back rests for the men while they sit and rest or talk.
Theo tells me that the villages here are still very traditional. Most Men wear the th’us”, a type of loin cloth and women, urohs, the traditional brightly coloured dresses or grass skirts (bare- breasted) for festivals and ceremonies, though there are a few villages where this is still everyday wear. All the land in Yap is privately owned and we have had to acquire permission in advance to visit everything on our itinerary.
Theo has also carried a small branch with him throughout. In Yap, you should never enter a village without anything in your hands. If you have nothing, then it is understood that you have nothing to do there and have ill intentions. The world wide web tells me that carrying one green leaf will suffice, but apparently the internet is wrong and one leaf alone is viewed as insubstantial and the bearer therefore someone asking for trouble. So maybe there are observers, even though I can’t see anyone.
I’ve read about the Stone Money Banks located throughout the island. Massive pieces of Stone Money (roughly circular with a hole in the middle) line stone pathways in the villages, so displaying their wealth. Here, size does matter as each piece has a value based on where it came from and how it was made. Many of them were quarried in Palau. (The hotel soap is Yap money shaped, with a hole in the centre, and so are their pizzas!) I happily wander the stones I have been given permission to visit. It’s quiet and serenely beautiful. Only lizards, crabs and butterflies accompany me on my excursions along the moss covered paths.
The slight fly in the ointment are the over excitable dogs that roam the roads, as in much of the Pacific, singly or in groups. (I can feel a Yap pun coming on here and I’m desperately trying to avoid it.) On the return journey Theo asks me what I will have for dinner. He says that one of his favourite meals is fruit bat. I don’t think it’s on the schooner menu.
This is a serious dive resort, the dive boats are smart and extremely well organised, (roofs with no holes to boot) and it promises a lot of its dives. To reach the reef we have to slowly navigate the very narrow channels through the mangroves that divide the four flattish, main islands of Yap. The banks are alive with tiny, scurrying red crabs.
Because I’m the only one not diving I have my own snorkel guide, Joe, in attendance. And he is very attentive. He brings me drinks, carries my bag and escorts me along the reef for a front row view of the manta rays and the reef sharks. He grabs my fins and twirls me around, pointing me directly at the mantas to take my photos, as they sweep gracefully into their cleaning station. (The wrasse on the reef nibble away the parasites that inhabit the manta’s wings, so the mantas tend to favour spots where they know the fish gather). Joe is also a betel nut addict. He and Nico, the dive guide, are sharing a Rasta bag full of the nuts, which they open and inject with lime powder. They spit into the sea, which isn’t quite so interesting and not very alluring. ‘Caring is sharing’, smiles the captain.
Later, Joe hangs grimly onto my fins again, this time to make sure I don’t get swept onto the reef while I’m shark watching outside the lagoon. There’s a huge swell on and I’ve been told to float in the water until the divers have finished – the boat at anchor is not a comfortable experience. I’m even feeling a little queasy bobbing about in the water. No wonder this site is called Vertigo. I’ve taken so many pictures on my thrilling big animals of the sea safari that I’ve exhausted my fresh battery. My butler dispatches my camera to the boat for me. And naturally eight sharks immediately swim right up close. How do they know? Nevertheless, it’s been an exciting trip and a surprise contender for Uepi’s thrilling snorkelling crown.
Dinner in the schooner bar. The Russian family I saw at the airport are at an adjacent table –we’re on nodding terms now.
There’s a sunbathing area next to a small shallow pool (with mantas painted on the bottom, of course). Space is tight and it faces east, so sunny spots are at a premium. There were four Germans on the dive boat yesterday and as soon as we had docked one of them headed for the only bed still in the sun and put her towel on it…I had planned to spend as much of today in the sun as I could and I’ve succeeded in beating the Germans to the optimally placed bed. But the forecast suggests that the weather isn’t going to comply.
I’ve noticed that there’s a brass ship’s bell to ring if you want to be served. Very nice. Though not to be confused with the bell on the top floor of the schooner which indicates that you intend to buy for everyone in the bar. There are also two working (loud) cannons on the schooner. They fire those when it’s happy hour.
I was going snorkelling today, but there’s been a continuous downpour again all night and the weather forecast is all doom and gloom. I’m told visibility won’t be good and it will be cold. Naturally, it stops raining as soon as I have made my decision to cancel. But it’s still very damp and muggy. My sarong is still really wet and it’s been hanging up to dry for three days.
I saunter into town (Colonia with a C) but that takes five minutes. There are four general stores in a row in one direction. The rickety shelves, cans, hands of bananas and racks of cheap clothes are now a familiar sight. Towards the port are a handful of restaurants and the local version of a mall. This is a lime green roofed corrugated iron building containing a variety of dilapidated shops and offices. It’s very sleepy and I’m not sure that anything is open. There’s no sidewalk through town, but the few cars are careful to drive slowly round me. I consider walking further, but I can see some dogs prowling in the distance. And I don’t have a stick.
My flight on to Palau goes at 11 pm. There’s a leaving garland too. And at the airport I’m talking to a flower bedecked family seeing off their son, who is returning to college. They insist on presenting me with a flower crown as well. Also seated close by are the Russians – the lady is smiling today.
Read more about Micronesia (FSM) here.
Nothing was going to live up to the last three days. I would have deemed this hotel in Moorea very pleasant if I had visited here before the over water bungalows of Bora Bora. There are water bungalows, though not nearly as nice. (And this is where they were born.) There's just a view over the lagoon to the reef beyond and a teeny beach. No flower or shell garlands on arrival either. My room is tucked at the back, categorised as garden view, which works if you have a good imagination. Being positive, there is a great infinity pool that really does look as if it dissolves into the sea. And there is a lovely view of the mountains looking back behind the hotel.
I'm back in the Windward Islands. Moorea is known as Sister Island, as it's so close to Tahiti (44 kilometres). The word Moorea means Yellow Lizard in Tahitian. the, slightly astonishing legend tells that long ago, a happy couple lived on the island of TupuaiManu (now Maiao), The woman got pregnant and gave birth to an egg, which hatched to produce a yellow lizard. The couple were not initially fazed by this and they raised the animal, in a cave, until it grew so huge they became frightened. So, they abandoned it on a canoe. The yellow lizard was upset (not surprisingly), set off to sea and eventually died. His body eventually washed up on the shores of Aimeho (the former name of Moorea). The locals found the dead body and ran round proclaiming their 'lucky find', shouting: “A yellow lizard! A yellow lizard! ” So, Aimeho changed its name to Moorea.
Moorea is billed as having the most beautiful scenery in The Society Islands (the Tahitian group of French Polynesia). I can see why; it has glassy peaks that soar up, in jagged ridges, from the ocean. (I shouldn't have used up all my superlatives on Route 66). This must be why this island is also another contender for the original Bali Hai (the last suggestion was in Vanuatu). Some of the media suggest that one of the peaks, shark fin shaped Mount Mouaroa (often now known as Bal Hai), is actually the one used in the film South Pacific, based on James Mitchener's novel. It seems that James Mitchener did say that Moorea would have made an ideal setting for his book (he saw it after writing the epic), but the film was actually made in Hawaii.
Whales today. Three big ones and a calf all jumping in unison. More stingrays (literally more than before, though no names this time), more reef sharks. Unfortunately, more tourists pursuing them too. Most of the visitors in Polynesia are American and Italian (cheap promotional flights from Rome I'm told). There are far fewer conversations to be shared than in the Cook Islands, though I can hear the conversations of both nationalities quite clearly. Unfortunately, also a lot more hanging around on a motu while the captain does his act. I have seen coconut husking demonstrated three times now. It looks much too strenuous to attempt to me. Good job I have my book. Good job it's still sunny. There have only been small amounts of rain, at night, this last week. Very clever.
Very little done today. I saunter along the reed edge and watch an octopus desultorily dragging his girlfriend along on the end of one long tentacle. That’s marine romance in action. I sunbathe, read and do a few laps of the pool, avoiding the French aqua exercise class. Un, deux, trois. I also eat Polynesian buffet. Raw tuna, tuna salad, tuna steaks.
I'm leaving later today and feel guilty about yesterday's sloth, so at the last minute I (literally) jump on a 4WD that is leaving early for a tour of the interior. Good decision. Amazing views, from the Magic Mountain viewpoint, down to the reef and across the mountains, including Bali Hai, across to Tahiti and to Cook's Bay, where the explorer might or might not have first landed. I'm told that all of these mountains are extremely difficult and dangerous to climb. Even in our vehicle, the ascent is possibly the scariest ever, with part of the uphill track running along a narrow ridge, strewn with boulders, which falls away steeply on both sides.
A drive up to another viewpoint, the Belvedere, below Mounts Mouaroa and Tohiea (the tallest on the island). Lines of quad bikes shower us with dirt, as they bump in the opposite direction. Pineapple plantations, long lines of spiky fruit, on the slopes of Mount Rotui. (These are Queen of Tahiti pineapples, huge, sweet and juicy). Another legend says that an octopus used to live on this mountain and separated the island into two deep bays. Moorea is an extinct volcano, with part of the rim blown off, leaving a heart shaped island.
Neat little fruit farms tucked under the hills. Breadfruit, soursop, citrus, pawpaw (papaya), mango, barbadine, coconut and bananas. A few sacred open air temples, known as Marae, that date back 500 hundred years or so, complete with altars for the sacrifice of animals and the odd human.
I'm late for the bus to the airport, as I have been give the wrong time. I'm faced with a sea of glowering faces when I finally manage to pay my bill and clamber aboard. So it's not great news that I almost miss the flight itself as well. This too has been called before the stated time and I am sitting outside reading. I am waved onto the plane by an angry little man and it takes off early. Also possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on, Moorea back to Papeete. As soon as we are up in the air the tannoy announces that we are landing. It must have taken all of six minutes and we land one minute before we were due to take off.
(Read more about French Polynesia here.)
Another island - Bora Bora. Now I'm in the Leeward Islands, in the Society Islands. Another contender, after Aitutaki, for most beautiful lagoon in the world. It's a very close call. The views from the air are sublime. This is an extinct volcano (two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu); surrounded by a fabulous deep blue lagoon and scattered motu, with the turquoise shallows on the edge of the lagoon. The airport is on one of the motu, rather like the one in Gizo, in The Solomons. But here the motu is part of the outer reef and the boats meeting us are all tricked out speedboats. Just to spoil things a little, I've learned that the Tahitian language only has 14 letters. Apparently, ‘b’ isn’t one of them, and iconic Bora Bora is actually called ‘Pora Pora’, meaning ‘first born (of the Gods)’.
But onwards and upwards. I have joined the jet set and I have an overwater bungalow. They were invented in French Polynesia. How can you not?
OMG, possibly the most wonderful room I have have ever slept in. The volcano peak is framed in the window. I can sit in bed and look at it. Or I can sit in the bathroom and look at it. I have my own private jetty and sun deck, so I can snorkel or swim to the perfect powdery white beach. There is coral beneath my room and I have a glass coffee table that I can slide back to feed the fish below.
The same fish keep loitering there, luminous jade edged trumpet fish and angel fish. I can also watch them through the bedside table or the ledges round the bath; there is even a spotlight to illuminate my coffee table reef at night. The room is all Polynesian wood, art and weaving. And it has a TV. There are even ice machines in little thatched huts along the decking.
I sit on the restaurant terrace and watch all the guests parade into dinner. It's like Paris Fashion Week as they saunter along the catwalks in all their designer gear. There are no overweight female tourists here - though quite a lot of evidence of surgical intervention. Interestingly, quite a few of the men, even the young ones, are sporting little pot bellies. I suppose that's the affluent lifestyle. And, as usual, many of the locals are amply proportioned.
The staff are all togged out in their floral dresses. Both the men and women have long hair (often wound into a bun) and flowers behind their ears. I've discovered that putting a taire (the national flower of Tahiti) behind your ear is used as a symbol of your relationship status; if it’s behind your left ear you’re taken, behind your right and you’re single!
The flip side to this paradise? OMG (again) is it expensive. My buffet meal last night (with Polynesian dancing) cost £70 flat rate. Time to start that diet I think. There are plagues of flies that descend instantly if you attempt to eat outside. Water bungalows are pretty noisy at night, with the wind and the sea, not to mention the clattering of suitcases being rolled across the wooden walkways. The only English TV Channel is CNN and I can only stand five minutes depression. I also have another dodgy stomach.
Nevertheless, another Cycle Tour beckons. The road round the main island is exactly 20 miles long, just like Rarotonga. And this is France, so it's only appropriate.
I am well prepared this time. Sunscreen, water, map, shorts. I even work out which way the wind is blowing and head off into it so that I shall have the easiest leg to finish. Except that it doesn't work out like that. The wind is over 30kph and coming from the west. (It's been buffeting my bungalow all night). The island is long and thin and north orientated. The upshot is that the wind seems to be against me for most of the journey.
The road is mostly flat, as I circumnavigate the volcano, but there a couple of hills. So I push up them and resume my journey at the top, reaching for the brakes as I career down. Except that there aren't any. Not supplied on this bike. Terrifying. I discover that the only way to stop is to leap off the saddle, trying to avoid getting my calves bashed by the pedals in the process. I nearly end up in the water a few times. The car drivers come pretty close and almost force me into the deep drainage ditch the other side too. It takes a huge effort of will to finish this one. So I award myself the King of the Mountains green jersey. This is especially appropriate, as I spend most of the journey trying to cycle past one or other of the peaks.
The Bora Bora scenery is lush and dramatic. Some gorgeous white beaches. Out in the lagoon I can see the bungalow dots of the various motu resorts. Inland, the locals live a less luxurious lifestyle. The major settlement, Vaitape, is on the western side of this island, opposite the main channel leading into the lagoon. Most dwellings have corrugated tin roofs and the people surround their houses with colourful pot plants. And, deja vu, the odd cockerel running around. Washing lines are laden with bright tie dye and floral patterned clothes. There are numerous old cars around, some piled up alongside the houses. There are also family graves with headstones in front of some of the dwellings.
The small schools are just for primary aged children. The secondary school is on another island and the state pays for the students to board. They get to come home every five weeks or so. The islanders survive on fish and coconuts. Some of the men are bringing in today's catch, gutting the fish on the edge of the lagoon. They use little boats that are hoisted up on double wheeled winches, keeping them out of the water unless they are needed.
OMG, lagoon cruises here are amazing too. The coral is mainly soft pinks and purples, very Rennie Macintosh. There don't seem to be huge numbers of small fish, but I have been snorkelling with rays and sharks this morning. The sharks are reef sharks and lemon sharks; the reef sharks are dainty with dark pointy fins, while the lemon sharks are larger and keep their distance. There are small sting rays named Julie and Samantha (for some reason) who come to be fed; they are soft and velvety. However, the truly incredible experience is swimming with the manta rays. They are huge and so graceful.
Some joker has set the alarm in my room to go off at 6 a.m. every day. And all my efforts to turn it off, including disconnecting the power, have failed. But at least I'm up to see the sunrise over the mountains and have a last sun bathe on my deck. It's breaking my heart to leave my beautiful room on the water. All in all a great deal to see and much character in evidence,
But I can't declare Bora Bora the lagoon winner; it really is ridiculously expensive. As I said, this is France, but it's not in the EEC, so the currency is the pacific franc. They'll accept euros as well then? No, but they'll take American dollars. For twenty dollars, in the supermarché, I purchase three cans of coke, a small tin of cashews and two bottles of local mineral water. The roughly 70 pence change is just enough to buy me a plastic carrier bag to put it all in.
On the plane trip nearly all the passengers sit on the right hand side of the plane to get their last glimpses of Bora Bora. I am so concerned that the plane will flip over I almost say something to the stewardess. And I sit on the left, resolutely denying myself the view. But there was no accident, obviously. Moorea next.
(Read more about French Polynesia here.)
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