Cool Colombia

The purpose for visiting Curaçao was to catch up with a delightful Dutch couple, Robert and Ellen, whom we had met in Hobart several years earlier.  It was our first night of staying off the boat since 30 September 2016 (over 4 months) and we thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful home cooked meal and a bed that didn’t move all night!! To top it off, a shower that you could stand for as long as you liked! Such wonderful hospitality.

Our passage to Cartagena in Colombia took a couple of days and sailing in this area requires vigilance – we were very conscious of not getting too close to the coast of Venezuela and thus opening up  potential risks of piracy. The coast of Colombia is well known for its strong winds and several other OWR yachts had gusts of 40 knots or more and large seas – we were lucky and had a very easy time of it, to the point that we had to motor the last few hours. From the boat, Cartegena looks like the Gold Coast with tall modern hotel buildings and office blocks, but once into the marina we discovered secreted behind its modern facade, one of the most beautiful old walled cities that I have ever visited! Add to that the totally “cool” vibe of the Colombian people and we knew we were in for a treat!!

Overwhelmingly, the Colombians are happy and helpful and welcoming, however sometimes they overlook the finer details! Example…we were requested to move our Marina location on the first morning in – no problem! Soon after Miss T was hard aground in the marina with the Marina Manager watching on and indicating that we should keep trying to get into a berth that was clearly too shallow. Luckily there was a helpful power boat alongside who were happy to assist!
Some years it is hard to remember where you had your birthday, but I will not forget my 59th! We stayed in a small historical boutique hotel, had dinner with some of our Oyster friends who were in town on the night before the big day, and then came the day of pampering that had been prearranged by Sal and Will at the hotel spa…a 2 hour massage, a facial and then 2 hours at the hairdresser to try and tame my over blond, undernourished hair back into a more decent head of hair (if that is ever possible). As an aside, James and I are particularly bad with the Spanish language (no surprises there) and my concern was how I was going to describe colour and style! Amazingly the owner of the salon was a Colombian born hairdresser who had spent 20 years in a salon in Double Bay in Sydney and was very excited to have an Aussie in his shop!

Charlie had told us about a local guy he had met called Henry, who was passionate about his city and a great guide. We organised to meet him near the Old Town to take us on a walking tour that same afternoon for an hour or so. Four hours later we bid him farewell after having been introduced to the history and culture of Cartegena. It was entertaining, interesting, informative and just what I would have imagined a Topdeck Trip Leaders’s walking tour should/would have been like!  We were the ultimate tourists and enjoyed every moment, including a strong gin and tonic/ beer on top of the old city walls. The highlight for me was the story of their own Indian Pocohontis (Aracka Wacka) – my kind of girl!! We downed some tapas on our way back to the boat and witnessed a fast and colourful Zumba session taking place in a local square – hundreds of back packers mingled with the locals to put on a great display!

The work is never done and completing tasks on the boat is a constant….it is very hot and daytime temperatures sizzle in the mid 30’s on most days….it is clear we are getting closer to the equator!


Whale of a time!

In Vava’u, Tonga it’s all about the whales. Here, deep in the South Pacific Ocean, is one of the rare places in the world where you can join a local whale watching operator, don your snorkelling gear and slide into the water to observe the huge hump back whales lolling about in the bays of the Vava’u group of islands. What a truly magical experience to plunge your masked face into the water and swim within metres of these huge gentle creatures while observing the antics of their offspring at close proximity. But, there are rules which must be obeyed to protect them and the industry that has successfully grown up around them in order to maintain the continuity of their annual visitors to the islands – the fines for breaking them are hefty!

The people of Tonga are friendly and welcoming and always happy to help out. Deeply religious and outwardly conservative, Sunday’s are off limits for shops and activities – even jogging or exercising publicly will raise eyebrows and the possibility of a fine from the local police. It is the Lords day and most family’s spend it at their chosen church followed by a Tongan lunch normally cooked over a fire in an earth pit in their back yard. We visited the Catholic and Methodist services to listen to their magnificent singing – rich voices in complete harmony and sung with from the heart. Afterwards we needed a ride to a restaurant to meet friends for brunch and with no taxis available on a Sunday, we were hoisted into the back of a family van, happy to collect us from the side of the road, and dropped off at our destination.

Provisioning was more difficult here – oh how I miss the supermarkets of the French colonies! Ask a local where to find particular foods and the answer is always the same…the Chinese store. Problem is that all the small grocery shops are owned by the Chinese which all sell the same stuff. There are a couple of specialist deli operators who can offer some meats and small goods but the prices are high as they are brought in by container ships. The local market is open daily, except Sundays, and offers basic fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs etc. One gem is the “Tropicana Cafe” operated almost single handedly by Greg an expat Kiwi who offers everything from a great flat white to garbage disposal, gas refills, laundry and IT support. I even bought a Yoghurt Maker from him! To top it off the Vava’u Villas and Glamping is owned and operated by Ian an ex Launceston Grammar student (James’ school) so we were entertained at dinner by “Rick, Rick, Rickedy, Dick…” – their old war cry!

Mary-Anne and Sandy Wilson joined us for a week on the boat and were immediately thrown in at the deep end with an Oyster beach party and socialising on tap, finishing their stay with a 70’s night of dancing in the local tapas bar with a Spanish DJ.  

Amongst the whale watching, snorkelling, G&T’s and enjoying everything Tongan we managed to watch the Dees wiggle into 7th on the ladder only to lose their last game of the season to Collingwood and drop to 9th by a hairs breath and miss out on the finals…such a disappointing end of a better season. Simultaneously we were being sent articles and pictures of Nick (Riewoldt) as he finished his spectacular career with St Kilda – such a champion. 

Our last day in the Vava’u group presented us with sunshine and fair winds (we had a lot of unseasonal rain during our stay) and a mother humpback and her calf glided by us as we prepared to leave. A few hours into our passage towards Fiji we received warnings from friends still in Nieafu of bad conditions with particularly big swells. Luckily their information was incorrect and apart from an uncomfortable first night of rocking and rolling we had a fast sail to Vanau Balavu in the eastern Lau group..Fiji is next!

Tonga can wait

Our plan was to depart Bora Bora and head straight for Tonga – with may be a short stop at Niue on the way. A last minute decision to visit Mauputi, described as a gem and Bora Bora 40 years ago, was as an epiphany; a moment in time when it dawned on us (together with a couple of other Oyster boats) that this could be a place that was incredibly rare in our world – an uninterrupted timeless and understated haven. Somewhere not to be missed. Thus, we diverted our course (by very little) and began to traverse the narrow passage from the Pacific Ocean in to the shallow lagoon. James had rung ahead a local pension owner, Camille, considered by yachties to be the “pass expert” and with thumbs up to proceed we slowly made our way forward. Only 75 meters wide with clearly visible coral reefs on either side just below the surface and breaking waves above – no room for mistakes! Once in we have to wait for jus the right weather to exit.

 All around were were surrounded by turquoise waters of varying depth, fringed by beaches and coral reefs overhung with greenery – paradise indeed. The beauty is similar to the much visited Bora Bora but the way of life is starkly different. Anchor dropped and dinghy down, we headed for the centre of town – typically made obvious to the onlooker by a large Catholic church. Right or left? We turned left and walked along the main (and only) street stopping at several local shops advertising “glacé” but which did not have an ice cream to sell…in fact they laughed when we pointed to preferred choice – “no glacé!!” We arrived at a sign to the local boulangerie and took the path to find a friendly French Polynesian woman hanging out of a window who unlocked her shop to let us in and buy a cold drink. There were at least 3 dogs tied up around the designated shop area that barked incessantly until we turned the corner and were out of sight. 

Further on we were joined by 4 ugly, seemingly ownerless, tough looking muts of various breeds, several with chunks of flesh missing. Amused by the fact that they had adopted us, we watched as they rushed around upsetting all the dogs in the neighbourhood, chasing the chickens and generally running amok….until to our horror when they were confronted by a territorial rooster (bad decision) they proceeded to form a killing pack and bring the poor cock to an unceremonious end in a gutter on the side of the road. Spitting out mouthfuls of feathers they preceded us along the road where they caused havoc with oncoming traffic (one was even hit by a scooter) and caused several fights with other local dogs. All the time they checked on us to make sure that we were still “part of the gang” – not happy when we’re boarded the dinghy for our return to the boat.

All over French Polynesia we had commented that, although many of the homes. are quite basic, the gardens are cultivated with pride and are very beautiful. Swathes of hibiscus bow down to the streets curbs and delicious tropical fruits (mangoes, pamplemousse, bread fruit, limes) hang off trees tempting you to pick them…rule of thumb I believe is every tree belongs to a local who often sells them roadside so do not touch! Back yards also act as the family cemetery and it is not uncommon to see shell decorated marble tombs take up most of their land. We did ask one local what happens if the family moves house – he raised an eyebrow and said, “we don’t!”

The island is lorded over by Mt Tiriano and our aim was to climb to the top with the intention of seeing one of the most amazing views to date. We followed a surprisingly well defined track from the main road and climbed up, clinging to tree roots or anything overhanging until to our delight we encountered several well placed ropes for assistance. Huffing and puffing, with cameras at the ready, our sweaty group reached the summit to see this……

Frustratingly, I cut my hand preparing dinner the night before going diving to swim amongst the huge Manta Rays that reside in the warm sandy waters of the lagoon.  Standing in as bag lady I sat in the dinghy in the rain while the others either snorkelled or used a tank of air to sit under water while the huge rays swum over and around them. So gutted to have missed the opportunity (the risk of infection was too high) I was stilled so pleased that James and the others had the chance to see these amazing sea creatures in their own environment. Next time….??

Passage planning complete, and at just the right time and weather conditions, we navigated the pass ready for a 5-6 day journey from Maupiti to Beveridge Reef, recommended  by a fellow Australian, and described as a sunken atoll with incredible marine life.

As we know, plans are meant to change – the wind had died off and we were back to motoring, when we received a radio call from Dave on “Sea Flute” suggesting we visit Palmerston – an atoll that makes up part of the southern Cook Islands group. “It is only 10 degrees out of our way and we may never come back this way again” This ability to be flexible and change course at the last minute has been an important aspect of the rally – if it suits then let’s do it!  A couple of nights sailing and only 20 miles to go, a wind change meant the anchorage at Palmerston was now on a lee shore (for the non nauticals that means that the wind was blowing on to the shore). On top of that, the location of the island’s mooring lines (which also looked dodgy) meant the back of our boat would have only been 50 metres off a coral reef…not ideal for a good nights sleep! So altered course for Beveridge Reef….and once again were defeated by the  weather! Finally after 7 days of pitching and rolling and little sleep we reached Niue but not before James was slapped in the face at 4am by a flying fish (I actually picked the scales off his face) which resulted in a brilliant deflection back into the ocean for the fish and a facial bruise for the skipper.

Niue is amazing – a tiny nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the clearest water (visibility about 300 metres), whales jumping out of the sea to greet you and a happy, friendly population of English speaking, Kiwi accented people, all willing to help and have a chat.  There are no beaches or rivers but stunning chasms and gorges hewn out of the rock face around the island, a grand Yacht Club (NYC) which facilitates the allocation of buoys to visiting yachts and anything else that needs to be sorted and 9 holes of mini golf, the view of which would rival “Pebble Beach”. And that’s just for starters. On arrival at the dock the dinghy had to be hoisted out of the water and parked next to the cars in the car park.  We had our first “flat white” coffee for many months topped off with 2 spectacular dives to view underwater caves and a large number of sea snakes as well as another opportunity to dive with dolphins.

Setting off at 2am we sailed, bounced, rolled our way to Tonga 2 days later – we crossed the international date line sometime in the early hours, missed a day and motored into the spectacular Vava’u group, the northern most islands of Tonga.