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Delights of the Northwest Tuamotus

By doina — last modified Mar 11, 2003 05:06 PM

Published: 2003-03-11 17:06:19
Countries: French Polynesia

Please remember that the GPS points given are for reference only, re-verify yourselves.

MAKATEA

Hoping to break up the trip a little, and see a place almost no yachts ever see, we stood off Makatea in the night, for 6 hours under bare poles with a light wind, and drifted no more than 0.3 mi.! But only to find no suitable anchorage as it’s too deep to anchor, even close to the old phosphate pier! We heard of a small sailboat with 1 ft draft that docked in the small boat harbor there … but he couldn’t stay there very long because of surge. So, it was with regrets that we couldn’t land to visit the small community on the East side.

TIKEHAU

Very nice atoll with few businesses and not too much going on. The only pass, on the west side, Tuheiava, is very easy to negotiate when entering at slack water or with moderate current. (15 00’S/ 148 17’ W) You won’t see the range markers until you are already well into the pass, so be sure to stay outside and go somewhat north of the pass, as the mid-line angles more from north to east than straight across. The depth looks shallow on the inside, but stay in center with good light and you will see your way. Right after the pass, you can find a small anchorage off the small village N of the pass, turning only after well clearing the fish "parks" on your left. Can be surgey in strong E-SE, but is a good anchorage in N-NE winds. A marked (and lighted!) channel leads you SSE to the main settlement where you have a anchorage next to the town pier. It can be quite choppy in strong NE winds so, in that case, you can anchor 3 miles away in the lee of a small sand bank at a deserted pearl farm (15 05’S/ 148 13’W). The village, Tuherahera (15 06S, 148 14W) was one of the cleanest, and most neatly kept we have so far visited. The local population is making an effort to keep it nice, let’s hope more places emulate them! If you want bread, you may need to wait til the sole baker gets back from his coprah plantation! It’s nice atoll to visit, smaller than Rangiroa and with few tourists of any kind. You can find plenty of suitable anchorages:

Pearl Beach Hotel: The navigation markers end at this exclusive resort, the only luxury hotel so far on the atoll, the setting is idyllic, featuring all the classic scenery of a South Pacific atoll in one small corner. The vibrant contrasting colors of white sand, green coconut palms, gray thatched roofs, pink reefs, and every blue of water from inch-deep green to turquoise, to bright blue to royal blue in the deep drop-offs are the precious jewels that the guests pay BIG money to enjoy for a fleeting few days. And we LIVE here as long as we like! There is a dive center at the hotel that will also take non-guests to dive outside the pass. We did a dive featuring a vertical crevice that turns into a chimney at 50 m. that re-opens into the blue at 70m. Of course, the dive center limits the divers according to their skill level. The hotel does not chase away yachts, as does the Kia Ora Sauvage in Rangiroa, nor does it encourage us to visit or eat at the restaurant, as it is so remote, that all provisioning is carefully calculated and ordered from Papeete and brought from the cargo boat at the town pier in small boats.

Three and a quarter miles from the hotel towards the east, there is a long reef that extends out from the end of the motu (15 04.6S, 148 09.2W) that can give you protection from east winds. You can recognize the motu as you get close to the area as it is very compactly forested w/ tall palms. Check out the snorkeling on the windward side of this long reef, and if you’re lucky, you may be rewarded if you take along your spear. The people say that all of the reef fish are ciguatera free in Tikehau. We ate the groupers they call Kito (a brown-gray mottled pattern) and had no problems. We were given a huge black jack caught by local fisherman, and we cautiously ate just a few bites the first day with no tingling or fatigue, and we ate the rest (fillet only, no ribs or collar) fresh, frozen and canned and had no problems.

We had heard from the locals that there was a shipwrecked Frenchman in the south of the atoll, and sure enough, about 2/3rds to the end of the lagoon, we saw a boat on the beach. We anchored close by (15 03S, 148 05W) and decided to have lunch before going out to see this sailor, but in no time, we saw he had his dinghy in the water and was motoring to us. We thought, "This poor man, he must be starving out here!" So we made extra food. He gave us a big hello then excused himself because he thought we were the trimaran of his friends. We asked him aboard and offered him lunch and were astounded when he said "Oh thank you so much, but I have just had a huge brunch of leg of lamb!" And then he told us his amazing tale. Sailing his small boat w/o motor in the night, he was fighting a strong SE and kept getting perilously closer and closer to the reef when suddenly a swell sucked up his little craft and "wham" he was on the plateau of the reef. He got himself safely out and to the dry for the night, and in the morning was smiling because he was saying to himself, "What a lucky person I am!" He was saying that, not because he had survived, but because of the location where the boat had been thrown on to the reef! His boat has no keel, and a draft of only 18”, and by the "luck of the Gods" landed on the reef plateau in front of a channel of water that separates one motu from another (an “oa”).... he had only to get his boat into this little “river” and he could float his boat to the lagoon inside! And so began an 8-month endeavor! This unassuming, modest man, begged no help, demanded no aid, but single handedly carried his ballast, bar by bar 600 meters to the lagoon edge, spent 4 months breaking a path thru the coral, then cut coconut trees and used them to roll his boat to the Oa, then using the fortunes of weather and high tides, pulled his boat the beach at the edge of the lagoon, and started the repairs! This man represented a lesson to all of us: he was content! He lived each day at a time, he was going to fix his boat, he had gained the friendship, and admiration of the locals, and he apologized when he served us coffee, that he had only instant, for a Frenchman, a real cause for regret!

At the very E end there is a pearl farm/gardens run by a Chinese Christian sect. They will give tours and you may be able to buy or trade for organic vegetables. It’s good to see how they have made the land productive. We anchored in front of some very pretty oas...you can find clear, warm water pools to relax in, or cross the motu and see Rangiroa across the way. (15 00’S, 148 03’W)

From the last anchorage you can see a motu inside the lagoon, this they call Bird Motu, where there are tons of nesting birds, in the trees, this time. We made a quick day-stop then from there, headed on a direct line for the pass. The path was free of reefs on a bearing of 248 T from the bird motu until about the last 2 miles where you need good light to see the easily avoidable reefs and to make a dog leg to the left to avoid a large shoal area just in front of the pass. It’s marked in places by sticks. We glided right out the pass on a light outgoing tide easily staying to the side of the small overfalls caused by the current.

RANGIROA

This famous Tuamotu atoll is most known for it’s excellent diving! Despite being the most "touristy", this atoll deserves a visit! The clear water is phenomenal! We recommend entering via Avatoru pass, as the few times we did look at both passes (at almost the same time) it was much calmer than the Tiputa pass. Both passes are wide and deep enough. Try to time it to go in or out at slack or ingoing current to have less current against you and calmer seas. The anchorage off the Kia Ora hotel (14 58S, 147 38W) is quite protected (even in Maramu SE winds, if you can tuck in enough). Depths between 15 and 50 feet, good sand with scattered coral heads. Can be dangerous if a strong South wind is forecast; boats broke chains or windlasses because their chain was in coral, and short-scoped. Easy access ashore in the little harbor on the west side of Tiputa pass. The road goes from that harbor all the way to Avatoru village, where you can provision and look at the beautifully decorated church (mother of pearl shells).

One store is located just off the Kia Ora anchorage: you can dinghy ashore and get your bread and basic provisioning. Or conditions permitting, dinghy across the pass to Tiputa Village markets. The main activity here around the passes is the scuba diving (world famous). You can snorkel or scuba dive at the Aquarium (small motu inside Tiputa pass on the lagoon side), tie your dinghy to one of the numerous moorings placed by tour operators – (please respect their right to use their mooring when they need it!). It’s a perfect place for inexperienced divers.

The drift diving in the pass should be done by experienced divers with one of the local dive operators for more safety and fun. Tiputa Pass especially, can have some wild conditions (counter currents, overfalls, whirlpools) As dive instructors, and former live-aboard dive boat operators, we saw that local knowledge of the pass was essential to exciting diving in safety. We had contacts with all the dive centers and dove with most. We recommend the following: The Six Passengers: located in the Tiputa pass anchorage east of the Kia Ora, professional & congenial staff the6passengers@mail.pf With several boats and dive guides, they can set up groups according to experience. Very good organization, briefings, and good equipment.

Top Dive: newest center, located just west of Kia Ora, professional & congenial staff (Eric & Stephane), The advantage of the 10-dive package is ability to use any of the discounted dives also at their Moorea & Bora centers! info@topdive.com Top equipment, thorough briefing with diagram of site.

Rangiroa Paradive: Located just before the pier, older center & equipment, nice people, lower prices, more for Europeans & experienced old-school divers paradive@mail.pf

Blue Dolphin: in the Kia Ora Hotel, cater to hotel guests mainly and cruisers only if space available, mixed gas & rebreather classes

For a private dive guide on your boat, contact Atelier Corinne For a daily fee, he will guide you thru Rangiroa and other islands of French Polynesia, as he does from time to time on megayachts.

The dives?? Dolphins, Manta rays, all type of sharks, Napoleon wrasse, turtles, maybe a marlin or swordfish, and tons of fish in a swirling current is what you may expect. Do not miss!

If you didn’t visit a black pearl farm: you should visit the Gauguin’s Pearl. It is a school and thus can show you all year long all the phases of the black pearl industry. The tour is free.

Now, if you have more time, you can sail everywhere in the lagoon if you use changing winds to your advantage. It’s essential to have good weather bulletins, and forecasts (as anywhere in the Tuamotus). We sailed and anchored in about 10 places in the lagoon, getting wx forecast daily to try to anticipate which side would be sheltered. We went in whatever direction the sailing was best, tacking comfortable tacks, and then went in close to shore found a good depth, a good, large-as-possible sand patch, and anchored, explored, and spent the night. In general, the lagoon is relatively free of hazards, the reefs are easily seen in good light. There are some especially good spots which we’ll describe:

Sable Rose (Pink Sands): (15 16’S, 147 14’W) this anchorage is a classic, located in the SE corner of the atoll, you anchor in good sand facing the bank of pink sand that has emerged from the sandy shallows all around. You can carefully motor, paddle, then tow your dinghy as close as you can to 2 small forested motus, with tons of birds "nesting" (just laying the egg in the sand or coral rubble). From the same anchorage you can take the dinghy thru oas to the very SE corner and beach comb after crossing the wide motu. Some great pools in the shallows of the plateau.

In the NE corner you’ll see the only habitations in the area. (15 14S, 147 15W) There is one family living here year-round, Papa and Mama “Marama”, and daughter, Leivana. Believe it or not, they make necklaces from shells mined out of the ground, not just from the sea. This labor intensive activity is a family tradition, and we could never guess the work involved to get, and prepare these tiny yellow, orange, and rose colored shells. These people are so welcoming and love to see people. Take your bug juice tho, there are no-nos. Old village with cistern: (15 18S, 147 28W) Sand bank, with great snorkelling on the coral heads, colors like aquarium. (15 13.1S, 147 40.2W)

Super Oas : (15 14.1S, 147 42.5W) Can take the dinghy up the little “jungle river” oa and it connects into the big oa. The water in the oas are crystal clear, super snorkeling. Walk toward the outer reef and pass through fantastic Maketea formations (fossilized coral ) eroded into jagged gothic castle-like apparitions, like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. The razor-sharp edges form a kind of deadly lace, as you delicately wend your way to the reef as if running the gauntlet! And between, the “moats” of crystal water create mini waterfalls and blue pools as the surging waves push their way thru from the large flat plateau of the barrier reef. The pink color of the reef is surprising and beautiful. There are white/pink sand beaches to the east as you continue following the reef. And more great oas.

From the Super Oas to the Lagon Bleu, the waters are shallow 12ft-30ft, and you have to be more attentive to dodge reefs, but we had the best trolling on this leg, bagging 2 nice blue speckled Jacks, that the locals told us were ciguatera free.

Lagon Bleu: Must have perfect wx to go here otherwise 40 mi of fetch from an E wind can be a killer. We had the chance so we HAD to see it. This is a tourist attraction, and many day boats stay til 2PM or so. After, you have the place to yourselves. There is dinghy access to one of the picnic motus, but the lagoon itself is closed off by sand... in effect, a lagoon w/in a lagoon. If you had kayak or windsurfer, you could explore, otherwise, you see it better in an aerial photo on a postcard.

Rangiroa is worthy of all the hype it gets. The waters are crystalline, diving exciting, exploring easy and varied, scenery, a living photo. We think it’s worth more than just a quick stop over. Hope this report tempts you.

And remember to let the local businesses that you patronize know that you are a cruiser, so they realize our impact on the local economy! Each of us gives an image of cruisers to the local population! We are truly ambassadors for future cruisers passing thru!

Luc Callebaut, Jackie Lee and Zoetje.

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