A SLOW BOAT TO SOMEWHERE
. . . blue skies . . . azure seas . . . golden sunsets . . . coconut palms blowing in the breeze . . . white sand beaches . . . ]
THESE ARE HARDLY NEW DEFINITIONS. Ever since man first began setting out for new lands – by small boats, heading over unknown horizons – he’s been searching for Paradise.
When he arrived here – in the heart of the South Pacific, what we know as French Polynesia – he was sure he’d found utopia, heaven on earth.
I went to take a look for myself, jumping on a cargo ship in Tahiti and riding it for 3,000 miles. I WANTED A FIRST HAND LOOK AT PARADISE TODAY.
It was the only way to reach the thin strips of coral afloat in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean known as the Tuamotus, which are at some risk today. Rising just 6 to 8 feet above sea level, their mere existence is threatened by global warming and accompanying rising seas. As a result, the thousands-year old culture of the 15,000 people who live in the chain – the very heart of Paradise — is also on the verge of disappearing.
I TOOK ALONG TWO PALS, VIDEOGRAPHER ALEX NICKS AND PHOTOGRAPHER PETE MCBRIDE. CURIOUS ABOUT PARADISE, WE WERE ALSO EAGER TO DOCUMENT WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE AND WORK AFLOAT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN.
The 163-foot-long Kura Ora III, makes a once-a-month visit along the edge of the world, stopping at 21 of the Tuamotu’s most distant atolls.
THE CARGO SHIP IS THE ONLY CONNECTION THE PEOPLE ON THESE REMOTE ATOLLS HAVE WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD. Everything arrives by boat and the influence of the ship – and local’s dependence on its monthly arrival – has dramatically changed life here.
Like a floating Super K-Mart, the ship is packed with 600 tons of . . . everything . . .
he Kura Ora’s job is to sell its wares and buy sacks of coconut meat – called copra, WHICH WILL BE turned into coconut oil back in Tahiti.
The boat is manned by 14 Polynesians each the size of an NFL linebacker. Most were born in the Tuamotu’s. Most have done this work since they were teenagers. All are perfectly at home on the high seas.
Remi is the captain. He took the wheel of his first ship when he was 19; he’s now 38 and definitely the boss.
It comes out during the voyage that he’s got families on several of the atolls. His most dangerous cargo? Nuclear detonators, in the days not so long ago when France tested its nuclear weapons here.
Hurupetit is the smallest man on the crew, with the biggest laugh.
George, the ship’s foreman, has sailed around the world on every kind of boat.
Chief mechanic Emile is perhaps the most sophisticated crewman, preferring store-bought cigarettes to rolling his own.
. . . and Cookie . . . well, he’s the most, ummm, eccentric of the bunch. Thanks to a freezer below-deck filled with fresh produce and meat, supplemented by fish pulled straight from the sea, Cookie may not run the most appetizing kitchen but his menu’s are incredible, especially considering we’re afloat in the middle of the South Pacific.
At each stop there’s a routine:
The hold is opened.
Delivery boats are dropped into the sea and loaded.
Passes are threaded and reefs are run, usually in heavily weighted boats. It is hard, often dangerous work. On a few of the atolls there is no natural pass and the delivery boats – like surfboards – skate over the reef.
Locals meet the crew on shore and help unload – and then re-load – the wooden boats. During our voyage we would offload nearly 400 tons of goods and buy up more than 100 tons of copra –
At each stop, they make 20 to 25 roundtrips.
THE TWO HOLDS BELOW DECK ARE STRATEGICALLY EMPTIED OF CIGARETTES AND BEER, DVD PLAYERS AND WEED WACKERS, EVEN THE OCCASIONAL CASKET, TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE COPRA.
Finally, the deck is closed, the boats craned back onto the Kura Ora, and it’s on to the next atoll.
DAY AND NIGHT, SUN OR STORM, THE WORK IS NON-STOP.
HE SAFETY OF HIS MEN IS A CHIEF RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CAPTAIN. WE ARE HUNDREDS OF MILES FROM HELP IN CASE THERE IS AN ACCIDENT.
TRAGICALLY, On its last cruise, one of the Kura Ora’s crew was killed when his wooden boat capsized in the pass at Reao.
When we arrive at Reao the crew is subdued. Just four weeks before one of the crew had drowned here. Two others barely escaped death.
Before starting the days work the crew loads into the wooden whaleboat for a small memorial service. Hio – who was in the boat during the accident and nearly drowned — knows they could easily be remembering him too.
Possibly the most important man on the Kura Ora has the job with the most unusual name. Bob is the ship’s Supercargo – the overseer of all the buying and selling from atoll to atoll. He’s why the ship is here; it is a business, after all.
He jokingly calls the captain his chauffeur and refers to himself as the “Bill Clinton of Supercargoes.” I was never sure if that was because of his superior selling skills, or the fact he seemed to have a girlfriend on each island.
Equal part accountant, salesman and marketing manager, Bob is mostly a wannabe lounge singer. At the bigger atolls he drags ashore his electric keyboard, and throws parties for his customers . . . Las Vegas comes to the real Tiki Room.
After a thousand miles the atolls all begin to LOOK alike. But each has a different personality. The residents of some are more sophisticated, thanks to satellite dishes or a politically savvy mayor. Others seem more insulated, little-changed these past 100 years.
On MAKEMO we meet Paulina, who fixes us egg sandwiches, makes us palm-frond hats and remembers her days as an extra during the making of Marlon Brando’s version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
n RARIOIA, this fellow remembers when Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon Tiki washed up here in 1947.
William Perry claims to have had relatives who fought at the Alamo . . .
HIS FATHER HAD MANY WIVES . . . AND 58 CHILDREN. WHICH EXPLAINS WHY THERE ARE “PERRY’S” ON SEVERAL OF THE NEARBY ATOLLS. EVEN THE OWNER OF THE KURA ORA, BACK IN TAHITI, IS A FIRST COUSIN.
On Pukarua, THIS 88 YEAR OLD OCTOPUS HUNTER REMEMBERS WHEN THE FRENCH TESTED NUCLEAR WEAPONS ON NEARBY MURORA.
“THEY WOULD HERD US ALL INTO A BIG CEMENT BUILDING, USED ONLY FOR THIS PURPOSE,” HER NEIGHBOR EXPLAINS.
THIRTY MINUTES AFTER EACH EXPLOSION, THE IMPACT WAS FELT ON PUKARUA. (imitates sound)
PEOPLE WERE SCARED BY THE TESTS, UNCERTAIN IF THEY WOULD HAVE AN AFFECT ON THEM, OR THE SEA. STILL, THE HUNTRESS SAYS HER LIFE IN THE ATOLLS HAS BEEN NEAR-PERFECT. WHEN SHE GOES TO VISIT IN TAHITI SHE SAYS HER HEART STAYS ON PUKARUA.
Black pearls ARE the biggest economy in the Tuamotus; we meet a variety of oyster entrepreneurs and dive with them to their farms. THIS YOUNG COUPLE LIVES ON A TINY SPIT OF SAND IN THE MIDDLE OF A LAGOON AND KEEP THOUSANDS OF OYSTERS IN BOXES HUNG JUST BELOW THE SURFACE. SHE PLANTS THE NUCLEI INSIDE THE OYSTERS AND HE MONITORS THEM ONCE SEEDED.
THEY WORK HARD, BUT THERE IS A PAYOFF. THE NECKLACE SHE IS WEARING WOULD SELL FOR TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN TAHITI.
AT HIKERU, A MYSTERIOUS VIRUS HAS RECENTLY KILLED OFF ITS OYSTER POPULATION . . .
It’s not all work for the crew. There are long stretches of open ocean between atolls. They spend their off-hours in various forms of repose. IT TAKES US AWHILE TO GET USED TO THE FACT THAT BETWEEN ATOLLS THE BOAT IS STEERED MOSTLY BY AUTOPILOT.
When we arrive at FANGATAU it is near midnight and find its southern pass filled with 15-foot waves, too dangerous to enter. The Captain makes the decision to head up the western side of the atoll and make deliveries over the reef. No pass, big waves, total darkness.
If timed badly, the result will be like having the boat hurled at 50 mph into the side of a cliff.
DESPITE THE DARK AND LURKING DANGERS, THE CREW ACTS AS IF IT’S JUST ANOTHER STOP, BUSINESS AS USUAL.
AND WHILE THE RIDE IN IS A BIT MORE TENSE.
BUT THEY PULL OFF 20 SUCCESSFUL ROUNDTRIPS THIS NIGHT, WITHOUT INCIDENT.
angatau is Maru’s home. He lived here, w/3 sisters and 10 brothers, until he was 14 and then went away to school in Papeete. He proudly takes us on a midnight tour. We meet the mayor, one of his sisters and the school director who remembers him as a so-so student . . . .
BUT HIS SISTER TELLS ME SHE AND HER FAMILY ARE EXTREMELY PROUD OF WHAT MARU HAS ACCOMPLISHED.
At TAUERE we must again cross the reef, through pounding surf, since there is no natural pass. At least there is plenty of daylight.
Everything must be unloaded – and loaded – by hand. Including those 100 sacks of copra.
Tauere is the least-populated atoll we will visit – a family of SEVEN: just mom, dad, 2 grown sons, WIFE AND SMALL CHILD and a girlfriend.
Everything goes fine until the girlfriend announces she wants to leave the atoll, which means she’ll be gone for a month . . . or more . . . . . Her boyfriend isn’t wild about her plan.
PUKA PUKA is as far as we’ll get before turning around, 1,000 miles east of Tahiti, one of the most remote spots on the planet.
Magellan was the first Westerner to see Puka Puka, in 1521. Today as then it is a hot, dry, always windy place.
espite its isolation, it’s hard to miss the influence of the west here. Sodas, cigarettes and beer all come in familiar packages. The kids are fishing less, watching television more, locked into Discman’s. A downside of the cargo boat’s regular arrival is that a culture that was entirely self-sufficient not so long ago –dependent on what it could catch from the sea or grow on the land – has come to depend on its monthly deliveries from the world.
Thankfully the natural world here is less changed. Bob introduces us to Rafael, who has a small fishing boat and knows where we can find dolphins.
After 30 minutes of motoring out onto the ocean the dolphins begin to jump. We join them in the water and within minutes are scratching their bellies, looking straight into their eyes. Only to be joined by a 35-foot humpback whale, who is as curious about us as we are about him.
Racing back to the Kura Ora at sunset we are accompanied by dozens of flying fish, setting the stage for a long, slow, beautiful ride back through Paradise.