Thursday, June 23, 2011

South Pacific Expedition - Raiatea & Ta'haa

Raiatea and Ta'haa islands are so close in proximity we actually switched anchorages form one island to the other every night.  First, we sailed to Raiatea and fueled up and topped off the water tanks.  It was the last place to do so before the next 800 miles to Rarotonga.  Baxter and I also did some laundry using water jugs and then headed ashore for a tasty ice cream.  Raiatea was a bustling little island town compared to Moorea, but still very small.  We walked around and perused all the vegetables and artisan offerings in the market.  Afterwards, we slipped off the dock and sailed to Ta'haa where we picked up a mooring and went for a swim.  It was so hot with very little wind, I couldn't wait to jump in and cool off.  Ta'haa is a really quiet island that is shaped like a flower and turned out to be one of my favorites.  

The next afternoon, we sailed back to Raiatea and anchored in Faaroa Bay where we met "James, not James Bond" paddling by the boat in a kayak.  We jumped in the dinghy and James guided us up river to his friends farm and gave us a tour of all things growing wild on Raiatea.  It was a fun adventure where we almost ran aground in the dinghy in the shallow river and we had fun trying to communicate with James (only speaking French, Tahitian).  He knew little English but "it is good for you, not good for me" was a common theme and something he continued to repeat.  We all had a good laugh, headed back to the boat for class and pulled anchor to sail back to Ta'haa as our tour of the vanilla farm was the next morning.  

Here is an excerpt of the summary I did for John's (expedition leaders) blog:  Tahaa is a small island of only 5,000 people but produces over 25 tons of vanilla annually.  It seemed appropriate to understand a bit more of the island culture and economy so the crew set out for a Vanilla Tour with Alain and Christina Plantier. Alain began the tour describing a traditional Tahitian housing structure and the methods of construction using coconut leaves and bamboo. The communities would build structures by function (one for laundry, one for cooking, and another for sleeping) and the entire village would live together within the structures. Considering this was the first ten minutes of the tour, we were excited to hear more. Alain continued to discuss the varieties of plants and trees that are indigenous as well as those introduced by early Polynesian migration and European and Asian settlers. It turns out that of the 2,800 species of plants on the island, only 250 were originally grown on the island and the first people to arrive on the island were from Taiwan.
Panoramic view with fresh coconut on the vanilla tour
We then jumped into the Land Rover truck and headed out to the vanilla farm. As we climbed a steep jungle-like hillside, we looked for vanilla trees or vanilla bushes, but as it turns out, vanilla is actually a vine that is grown using another tree as support and shade. It produces a beautiful white flower that has no aroma. Vanilla originates from Mexico and is very sought after in many countries because it can thrive in a tropical climate and become a valuable agricultural industry. The requirements for a successful vanilla crop include a winter that dips below 68 degrees and a good source of pollination. Many countries such as India have even attempted to import Mexican bees as the indigenous insects were not interested in the vanilla plant. Those imported bees died and the result has been a labor intensive cross pollination process where each flower has the pollen removed from the stigma and inserted into the stamen by hand. After two days the flower begins to develop fruit and nine months later a brown vanilla bean is produced. The beans are picked individually by hand and then still need to be dried correctly in order not to mold. It is hard to believe the quantity of vanilla produced with the care the vines require and the lengthy process of producing the vanilla bean.
The tour continued for another hour as we took a dirt road that meandered across the island for amazing panoramic views where you could see three bays. The road has been used to cross the interior of the island for hundreds of years and had bumps and potholes filled with water. Alain stopped along one of the lookouts and prepared a feast for us of star fruit, bananas, lychee, and more. He even chopped fresh coconuts so we could sample the water and meat. The wild chickens at his feet knew him well and appreciated the fresh coconut scraps. As we drove back to the boat along the riverside with copra, vanilla and taro plantations along with jungle, we all felt that we were extremely privileged to be seeing and learning about parts of the island that most visitors never realize exists.  

Also in Ta'haa, we had the opportunity to snorkel the coral gardens (see GoPro video here) - definitely one of our favorite activities of the trip.  See a video here.  We anchored just east of two motus (small islands) and dinghied to the beach.  There is a small pass between the motus where a "coral garden" has developed.  This area is about 300 yards long and about 100 yards wide and there is only about 6 inches to a foot of water above the coral in some places.  No swimming required - the current is so strong moving at about 6 knots so you just put your head down and watch the bottom drift by.  Since you never want to touch the coral (it is a living animal and touching it or walking on it actually suffocates or breaks it), you have to carefully touch a rock or put your feet in a sandy spot - minding the sting rays and sea urchins- if you want to stop.  The abundance of angel fish, parrot fish, needle fish, clams, and millions of other tropical fish were amazing!  After the snorkeling, we all relaxed and enjoyed the breathtaking sunset, with Bora Bora as a back drop.

Mike, Annika, Pehr & Baxter enjoying a nice Hunano
The next day was busy with classes on anchoring, radar/AIS, knots, sail design, and sail trim.  We sailed back to Raiatea and docked at the marina in Uturoa for a visit to the two boat yards - both of which were unfortunately closed.  There was a restaurant at the marina so the crew enjoyed a nice cold beer before dinner.  As we were sitting in the outdoor lounge, we met and American group who were from Oriental, NC (20 miles from New Bern).  We couldn't believe that we were literally on the opposite side of the planet and ran into people who are virtually neighbors - such a small world.

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