Idefix has finally arrived in Australia. There’s a problem with the wiring for the HF modem so I apologize for the previous update posting late. If you’re interested in me digressing on a bunch of topics, you should just scroll down and read it.
Being only a few hundred miles from Bundaberg, I felt that it wasn’t worth the time to troubleshoot the modem wiring to get a weather update. Because Shirley was somewhere between sea-sickness and actual illness, I had been hand-steering almost continuously for the last two days, with only a break here and there. The last forecast had shown mild winds for the rest of the trip. On Sunday, a line of convergence clouds obscured the horizon to the south-west of us. I knew there was a zone of convergence, but didn’t expect it so close. About mid-day, lightning started flashing in the clouds, which were clearing getting closer. At nightfall the clouds were almost on top of us, and around midnight we sailed into the thunderstorm. Lightning was almost continuously flashing all around us, but there was surprisingly almost no thunder. I tried not to think too much about what could happen if we suffered a direct strike. More worrisome was the fact that we were at precisely that distance off the coast where freighters like to cruise when we were surrounded by rain and the visibility dropped to only a dozen feet or so. But the only thing that hit us was heavy rainfall. I took cover in the cabin and steered the boat with our rope contraption, until the downdraft hit us and the boat heeled over dramatically, pinned hove-to with the jib aback. I ran back out to the tiller in the pouring rain and straightened out the boat, heading due south for a bit. The wind then veered another ninety degrees and I jibed and pointed the boat back at Australia, making six and a half knots. Just as the seas started building, the wind shifted another sixty degrees and started easing. By the end of it all I was completely soaked and getting cold, so I hove-to and changed to dry clothes while Shirley made me hot tea. We somehow managed to avoid the other storm cells, and around dawn we sailed past Sandy Cape and into Hervey Bay. The land is so flat here, and the water so shallow, that we had to stand off far enough from land that we couldn’t see any of it. Only about 3 or 4 hours later did the first sign of land appear: “The Hummock”, the only hill in Bundaberg. By early afternoon we had completed our last ocean crossing of this trip and were docked at the marina, which is a little hike away from town, and cleared in with customs. The boat is confined to Bundaberg until the importation paperwork is completed, which will hopefully take less than a week.
It’s funny how people usually set out to cross the Pacific Ocean and visit its islands, expecting to spend countless days relaxing on fine sandy beaches under coconut trees, getting up only to cool off with a bath in clear waters. Well, for the most part it’s not like that. Many of the islands we’ve been to didn’t have any sandy beaches, when they had beaches at all. Often the people, towns, foods, showers, etc. were more interesting to us than sitting on a beach. It’s quite easy to list all the sandy beaches I’ve been to since leaving Seattle:
- Alameda: cold and windy, water murky and freezing, beatiful view of San Francisco
- Hanalei: beautiful, but thieves may steal your clothes/wallet/dinghy/car while you’re swimming.
- Waikiki: hotels, the water smells of sunscreen from the thousands of tourists
- Ovalau (Tonga): peaceful desert island, didn’t swim, bits of trash on the beach, stayed an hour and left when the mosquitoes threatened to carry Shirley away.
- Sisia (Tonga): another desert island in incredibly clear water, spent less than an hour on the island; nice beach but you can’t wade in without stepping on coral. Snorkeling off the boat was amazing.
- Nuku (Tonga): cold water, swam for 5 minutes, got bit by a giant ant, very windy. Snorkeling off the boat was wonderful.
- Baie Papaye (New Caledonia): cold water, had to pay to get to the beach, cut my foot on junk in the water.
As you can see, we didn’t go to any beaches in Fiji or on Fanning, and Niue doesn’t even have beaches, being all cliffs and rocks. However the Isle of Pines was different.
Our stay in the Isle of Pines revolved mostly around beautiful Kuto beach, one of the prettiest I’ve seen, with turquoise water and impossibly fine white sand, shaded by coconut trees and towering columnar pines. The water is colder than one might expect for the tropics, but I could still bathe, swim, and play with the waves for half an hour at a time before feeling like I wanted out. At anchor in the bay, sea turtles were popping up for air all around the boat (it’s sometimes unsettling how much they sound like a person gasping for air), and Shirley got a kick out of feeding the remoras that took up dwelling under the boat. They’re a slightly repulsive fish, with the strange flat area on their forehead, and their habit of attaching themselves to other creatures and feeding on leftover scraps or feces, but they swim well in a sinuous, shark-like motion, and are entertaining to watch.
We managed to tear ourselves away from the beach enough to see some of the island, hiking through the bush to Pic Nga, checking out creepy ruins of the 19th-century penal colony, and hitch-hiking to the town of Vao. We thought we’d seen about all we could when our new friends Don and Priscilla, a couple we’d met in Nouméa, sailed into Kuto on their boat Chatauqua, hired a car, and invited us to join them on a tour. Priscilla outdid herself researching sights and activities and we got to sail on beautiful Baie Upi on a traditional dugout pirogue, checked out some impressive caverns, and toured a vanilla plantation.
Ilot Brosse lies a few miles from Kuto Bay and looks remarkably like a hair-brush lying on its side, with columnar pines playing the part of dark bristles. Reefs encircle the island, and we threaded Idefix past coral heads into the sandy shallows alongside the island and I took advantage of the clear water to scrub her hull under the watchful eye of a cuttlefish. There were one or two other boats, but they eventually cleared out and we had the small island to us. Makeshift barriers probably erected by the tribe kept us from wandering up from the beach, but we did get to see a handful of the local sea snakes (tricot rayé), and a beautiful sunset, complete with the famed green flash.
Eventually the weather turned to clouds and rain and I came down with a sinus infection (I’m now being treated by a retired German doctor on a boat across the dock), so it was time to make our way back to Nouméa. Before leaving Kuto we sailed by the Tabarlys on Eclipse, back from a tour of the Loyalty Islands. If only we had a little more time… but it’s time to start thinking about heading on West. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts and it seems like we have a decent weather window for the next week. Today I walked across town to the border police, customs and port captain’s offices to get or clearance, so we are committed to leaving this weekend. Hopefully the weather will be clement for crossing the Coral Sea.
On Thursday we visited the parc forestier. Perched on a hill above Nouméa, the park showcases indigenous plants and animals. We were lucky to arrive around feeding time, and followed a volunteer around while he fed the cagous (a flightless bird and symbol of New Caledonia) and flying foxes (the only native mammal and a favorite target of hunters).
We rented a car and drove around a bit. First to the Parc de la Rivière Bleue: mountains, dry brush, red dirt everywhere, thick forest in the wet parts, a dammed river with drowned trees. We saw some giant pigeons, but no cagous. Then to Mont Koghi. A splendid view of Nouméa unfurled below us, and we hiked through cool forest to a waterfall.
New Caledonia has a strange feel. I could almost be remiss for thinking myself in France, yet there is a rough, unpolished, almost violent aspect lurking below the surface, something of the western U.S., or maybe the Australian bush, with a tinge of what Algeria might’ve been like in 1960… Behind the scenes, the island seems to be holding its collective breath until 2014, when a territorial vote will determine whether New Caledonia stays a part of France or becomes an independent Kanaky. Hence the ever present graffiti: “Kanaky 2014”.
Today we are out exploring the lagoon, and I’m sniping internet from a resort on a little island with my hi-gain wifi antenna. The winds here are very influenced by diurnal heating of the island: they stiffen to 20-25 from midday to sunset, then die down or even switch to a light land breeze at night. The temperature is in the low to mid seventies, much cooler than anywhere else we’ve been; it is still early spring here, at the edge of the southern tropics. We’re hoping it warms up before we leave for Australia, as the nights were downright cold on our way in. It’s starting to feel like this trip is coming to a close, with only one long ocean passage left. I feel a mix of sadness and relief at the thought; in any case it’s not over yet.
I couldn’t help thinking of what October in Seattle must be like: the cool fall breeze starting to blow, clouds and rain, trees taking on their autumnal colors. Meanwhile, in Lautoka I was sweating profusely in the hot and humid sun of the tropical spring.
Nick has left us to return to the real world, so it is just Shirley and me now. We celebrated our independence with another day on the town, enjoying cheap Indian food, ice cream and a fun bollywood movie. We took Idefix out of Vuda Point yesterday and anchored off another picturesque island whose name is completely unknown to me, and worked at brushing three weeks’ worth of slime off the hull. The water was much warmer than the last time I was in it, scuba diving off Vanua Levu. Idefix thanked us for the brushing by spending the night wrapping her anchor line around coral heads, so we had an exiting morning of untangling. Anchor wraps have been an unrelenting hassle everywhere we go, and the lack of an anchor roller, windlass, and scuba tanks put us at a serious disadvantage over the coral. Once we were free we came within about 3 feet of colliding with a coral head lurking under the surface.
Today we went to Lautoka for some last provisions for the trip to New Caledonia, and accomplish the checkout formalities. I wish the US had places like the markets we’ve found here and in Tonga, with mounds of cheap fresh produce. The so-called farmers’ markets in Seattle are an absolute rip-off, and Pike’s Place market is a tourist scam. Thank god there are places like Rising Sun and Oak Tree market.
After clearing out the customs official wanted to inspect our boat. We walked out to where our dinghy was tied up. He took a long look at our half-deflated dinghy with no engine on it, another at our midget-submarine of a sailboat, and wished us a good trip. Thankfully some kind Swedish cruisers we knew were going back to their boat and offered us a ride, towing our once-again leaky dinghy. After untangling another anchor wrap (I can’t wait to be in a place that doesn’t have coral), we are on our way to Nutelladonia.
Idefix spent last night at the dock – a first since Honolulu, over two months ago. We’re in Vuda Point Marina, a little concrete crater a couple miles from Lautoka, Fiji’s second-biggest city, on Viti Levu. Here we’ve found a couple boatloads of thirty-something cruisers to hang out with, a pretty rare species. Unfortunately, my partying skills have gotten quite rusty in the last three months.
Viti Levu means “big Fiji”, and it is quite big indeed – about the size of Hawai’i. The sail over from Savusavu took three days, as we had to find a safe anchorage every day by mid-afternoon before the reefs get too hard to see. Despite the stress of threading our way through reefs and shallows, I enjoyed sailing in flat and protected waters and watching the scenery go by, anchoring in tranquil coves, watching women wading on the reef among the mangroves while singing and casting hand nets, and watching people fish with handlines from little skiffs. Fiji has an incredible diversity of landscapes: rainforests, rolling meadows, arid plains, pines, palms, hills, mountains, sandy beaches, deserted islands, little villages, busy towns, fancy resorts, mangroves, and lots of coral. The people are extremely friendly and open, greeting each other with a loud “Bula!”.
The sail over also gave us a break from the rain. Aside from those three days, it’s rained every day we’ve been in Fiji, and it’s supposed to rain for the next three days straight. The islands seem to be stuck under the South Pacific Convergence Zone. I’m starting to look for a good wind window to make the dash out to New Caledonia, which is under clear skies.
I wasn’t originally planning on stopping in Fiji, but enough cruisers recommended it that I started considering it, and finally Nick mentioned that he would probably have to fly through there to get back to so-called civilization, so we decided we would take a detour to let him off. Actually it’s not much of a detour because we would’ve had to sail through a bunch of Fijian islands to get to New Caledonia (nutelladonia in Idefix parlance). I’m really glad we did, because Fiji is big, beautiful and relatively cheap.
We were greeted into Fijian waters by an amazing sunset, rainbow, and clouds rolling over the 3700-foot rainforest-covered crests of Taveuni. We bobbed off Vanua Levu for the night before mooring at the Copra Shed and delving into curry, Fiji Bitter beer, and hot freshwater showers. Today Nick and I are probably going to spring F$4 apiece for haircuts before going scuba diving tomorrow. Unfortunately the Fijian feast has been delayed til tomorrow by weather – it was pouring most of the day today. Anyways, life in Savusavu isn’t too bad.
We ran into a cruiser from Edmonds, WA. He’s been cruising for 4 years with his family, including two kids – ages 7 and 10 – who are going to school here. They’re taking their time on a trip around the world.
Life goes on in Tonga. Nick and I went scuba diving some of the impressive coral reefs and caves of Vava’u. The owner of the dive shop, Ap, a dutch expat, told us of escaped pigs on Ovalau, which explained some of the sounds, smells and tracks we saw there. Once back on the boat we went out for another round of island hopping, hitting up Nuku and Sisia, both deserted and beautiful, with impossibly clear water. We threaded Idefix through a frighteningly narrow pass into a lake-like lagoon on Hunga Island and spent two nights there in quiet repose, and visited the sleepy little village on Hunga, in which the only visible activity was a woman giving a child a haircut. Now back in Neiafu for a round of provisioning before heading off to our next destination – Savu Savu, on Vanua Levu, Fiji.