Mangareva was as interesting as we’d hoped, although I was surprised at how many other yachts were there, several of whom had very little experience. GPS, electronic charts, large engines, SSB radio and, of course, the fact that you can now ‘phone home’ for help, if you have the appropriate EPIRB, have completely changed voyaging. Independence and self-sufficiency are quaint anachronisms in this new world. Iron Bark is a fine and functional cruising home, but we are considered cruising fundamentalists because we don’t have refrigeration or pressurised water and don’t use our engine to keep to the 6 knots of the passage plan. While we consider our boat adequately large and comfortable, other cruisers regard us as Spartans. After spending several years off the beaten track, it was something of a shock to realise how isolated we have become. The norm of a decade or two ago is now eccentric and the remote places of the world are now become accessible. I’d be happy to chuck my GPS away, if everyone else would do the same.
One of Mangareva’s attractions is a number of excellent walks. The roads are reasonably empty (one wonders that there are any cars on such a tiny island) and there are several trails that are managed and marked; we spent quite a lot of time ashore, walking and exploring. Some of the trails are obviously very old and some follow roads built by the tyrant priest, Père Laval. Between 1836 and 1871, he forced the islanders to build a cathedral, 10 churches and a convent, in addition to roads and other buildings. Many of them died in the process: his response was they the got to heaven sooner! I’m sure he had the best of intentions and he set up schools so that the islanders could learn to read (the Bible) and organised threading and weaving mills using locally grown cotton. But overall, although many islanders revere his name as the man who converted them to Catholicism, he must have done more harm than good. The local mairie had a small tourist brochure, which portrayed Laval as an enlightened benefactor, but when I questioned one of the locals about this, he told me he’d laughed aloud when he read this bowdlerized version of what was obviously a mad man. (This same brochure says that the ‘era of the French nuclear test … gave a new life to the Gambier’!)
One of the best walks we took was to the top of Mount Duff, which overlooks the anchorage. This entailed a long hike through undergrowth and forest, which kept us pleasantly in the shade. We followed a ridge up the side of the mountain, occasionally hauling ourselves up using ropes provided for that purpose, and finally came out into the open, well above the town. At the top of the mountain, the ridge became a razor back and it was frankly daunting picking one’s way along the narrow track with sheer drops on one side or the other and, finally, on both. But the view and sense of achievement made it worthwhile.
The island was generally well wooded, with a surprising number of Scotch pines, which seemed inappropriate in the climate. Wandering through the woodlands was a delight with vast numbers of marvellous fig trees, which covered large areas, sending down aerial roots and creating great wooden cages. Water (coco)nuts abounded and a machete was worth taking. I included a couple of plastic drinking straws in the backpack, which made the nuts a lot easier to drink! We had to resist the temptation to scrump delicious pamplemousse and papaya that grew in abundance and often fell to the ground. One or two other yachties had been helping themselves or simply asking for fruit. Approached in the right way, the islanders were very generous, but not surprisingly, they took rather a dim view of visitors who felt that they had a right to their produce, even if it were otherwise going to waste. Because of the extraordinary way in which the French run their Pacific colonies, there is very little incentive for people to go in for a bit of market gardening to increase their income, and this makes it ridiculously difficult to buy local fresh produce. When it is for sale, it’s often at least as expensive as imported food. Bread is subsidised and we could buy the standard yard of bread for about 20p, but in an area with high levels of diabetes, it seemed stupid to be putting a huge subsidy on white bread while wholemeal loaves were about eight times the price and completely unavailable on the smaller islands. We soon discovered that it was worth ordering bread in advance. If you arrived when it was delivered – about 0645 – you could sometimes buy one of the extra few loaves ordered on spec, but these were all gone by 0715. But there are worse ways of starting the day, than taking down the anchor light, climbing into the dinghy and rowing ashore to collect warm bread for breakfast. Tinned butter was also affordable and I would often make a litre or so of café au lait to wash down the crusty bread and butter.