Paddling Rangiroa [23]

By Jacqueline Windh

“Why Rangiroa?” people kept asking me. “I’ve never heard of the place” they would say.

That’s exactly why – neither had I!

I selected Rangiroa because of its inaccessibility (200 km NE of Tahiti), and its small population (approx. 2000). Also, an important feature in selecting Rangiroa over other contenders (Manihi, Maupiti and Huahine) was the fact that at Rangiroa, the fringing reef makes an almost complete ring around the sheltered lagoon – something that as a solo paddler I considered an important safety factor.

Jacqueline’s sea kayak was a novelty for Rangiroan and all of the locals had to try it

Rangiroa is the world’s second largest atoll. (An atoll is a ring of coral which was once a fringing reef around a volcanic island.) Rangiroa’s lagoon is 80 km east-to-west, and 50 km north-to-south. Rangiroa’s volcano sank below the ocean floor somewhere between 5 and 10 million years ago. What remains now is a ring of sandy coral islands. In the northern part of the atoll, these palm-fringed islands are up to several hundred metres wide, stand up to 5 metres above sea level, and are separated by scattered watery passes through which the tidal currents flow. In the southern part of the atoll, these “islands” are really just wave-washed patches of reef. Rangiroa’s two villages, Avatoru and Tiputa, are located on adjacent islands at the northwest end of the atoll. The airstrip is on a narrow strip of land just east of Avatoru, and is serviced by flights from Papeete (Tahiti).

Accommodation on Rangiroa is quite limited. There is one luxury resort with 30 bungalows, and a few smaller lodges with bungalows. Aside from that, there are several family-run pensions, where you can either set up your tent or occupy a little bungalow, and take meals with the family. I had opted to stay Chez Nanua, run by Nanua and Marie Tamaehu, on the lagoon-side of the island near Avatoru. Setting up my tent, and three meals a day (1001 variations on fish and rice) cost about $25 per day. Nanua’s daughter Marguerite collected me at the airport, and drove me to their home, where I set up my tent on the coralline sand.

Paddling a Feathercraft in the lagoon’s sheltered waters

I had left Australia in a mad work induced rush. By the time I boarded the flight from Canberra, I had barely slept for days. With stopovers, each of several hours, in Sydney, Auckland and Papeete, by the time I arrived on Rangiroa I was a wreck. On top of this, I had decided to use my “relaxing Polynesian escape” as a time to give up caffeine, so I had a pounding withdrawal headache.

For the first few days, I did not do much more than rest under the palms by the lagoon – acclimatizing to the heat and humidity, getting over my exhaustion and jet-lag, and, worst of all, suffering from intense caffeine withdrawal. I set up my Feathercraft and went for a few short paddles, and enjoyed the pleasant snorkelling from my doorstep. Two little girls from the seemingly endless Tamaehu household, Faaitini and Annanine, latched onto me, and I gradually regained my confidence in speaking French by conversing with them.

I rented a bicycle a couple of times, pedalling west and east to examine the passes at Avatoru and Tiputa. At Avatoru the current swirled through blue water, at a faster pace than I could paddle against, and met the ocean swell well out to sea. At Tiputa, however, the current was very strong, forming standing waves as big as a car, out of which dolphins leapt and played. I tried to make sense of the timing of the tide changes, but found it difficult. The locals had told me that the tide changes approximately every six hours, but “no one ever knows exactly when”. To the best that I can figure out, this is because of the very few passes between the ocean and the lagoon, and the prevailing easterly winds moving water across the lagoon towards the west – the time that the current in the passes changes depends on both the tides and on the winds. This is the best explanation I can come up with – in any case, the current at Tiputa seemed to always be flowing out, no matter what time of day I went to look.

Finally I was feeling fit and ready to paddle. I made the decision to leave the next morning, only to realize today was Saturday – shops would be closed all afternoon and all day tomorrow, so I could get no groceries or fuel for my stove. My flight out of Rangiroa was booked for the next Saturday – in order to allow time for delays due to weather, as well as time to dry out and take apart my boat, I should plan to return from my paddling trip by the Wednesday. This only left three days for my paddling trip – much shorter than I had intended, but I had not thought that the caffeine withdrawal would be so bad! In any case, if I returned back here on the Wednesday, it would allow me plenty of time for more day trips.

I spent two days quizzing the locals about ocean conditions. With my Canadian-accented French and their Polynesian-accented French, communications were sometimes laborious and often humorous. Nanua was a wealth of information in disguise – he looked like a Buddha, and was so large that he could barely walk. He passed his days ordering the female children of the household to bring him food and drink. However, in a past life he had been a fisherman, and he still owned a black pearl farm in the lagoon. He could give me the Polynesian and French names of every aquatic creature I described to him from my snorkelling activities.

Camping in total privacy on a sparsely populated Polynesian atoll

It turned out that Nanua owned some land at Teavatia, 15 km to the west of Avatoru, at the northwest corner of the atoll. He said I could camp anywhere that I wanted to while paddling, but suggested that I camp on his land at Teavatia. I thanked him for the offer. He, Marie and Marguerite all took an interest in my paddling. Marie warned me not to stop on any island where I saw people – in particular, the islands immediately west of Avatoru. “They are copra plantations. The men there work hard and drink a lot. When they see a woman, who knows what might happen”. Nanua talked to me about the winds and the tides. Marguerite asked for details of where I would be camped, and when I expected to be back. I was grateful for their kind concern – it is often difficult for a solo paddler far from home to organize a “check-in”, in case for some reason you don’t return. I told them I expected to be back on Wednesday afternoon – however, if a strong easterly was blowing, I might not be back until Thursday. If I hadn’t returned by first thing Friday morning, they would come out looking for me.

Another local told me about the mara’amu, a strong southeasterly that blows from time to time, day and night. “It usually lasts for three or four days, but once it blew for two weeks. You cannot paddle against it – you must just sit tight. So you must carry lots of water.” He told me how, several years ago, some Americans had shown up planning to circumnavigate the interior of the lagoon (approximately 200 km) in a double folding kayak. Halfway around they were hit by the mara’amu. They camped for several days, resorting to opening coconuts for their water supply, and eventually were rescued by locals.

But the one main concern I had was sharks. Rangiroa’s lagoon and passes are known, especially to the diving community, for their abundant sharks. In the pass by Tiputa is an underwater cave which regularly has about 100 sharks in it (together with dolphins, debunking that myth!). When I asked, Nanua said not to worry about sharks; they are mostly black-tipped reef sharks, and they do not attack people. Marie told me the only attack on record was provoked: a fisherman had speared a shark, then fallen overboard, and had his arm eaten. Nanua said that, if you are going to worry about something, forget sharks, worry about the barracuda!

Finally, on the Monday morning I set out. My groceries were purchased and stowed (the lack of choice made shopping quite quick and easy). I had purchased a Trangia stove before leaving Australia, thinking that metho would be the easiest fuel to find here – but I didn’t know how to say metho in French! So I asked in French, literally, for “alcohol, not to drink, but alcohol to burn”, (in French, “alcool a bruler”) and thought myself quite clever when I was shown a bottle that had “Alcool a Bruler” written on the side of it.

I paddled westward from Nanua’s place, with the prevailing easterly pushing gently against my back. As usual, it was hot and humid, with a blue sky and patches of grey rainy cumulus cloud. I had a map that Nanua had given me – an A4 photocopy of a fax of the whole atoll. At that scale, the narrow island strips show up only as black lines, and it is difficult to tell which gaps between islands are true passes, and which are simply lower-lying sandy areas that are only washed by waves during a storm swell. As I paddled, I soon realized that none of the passes west of Avatoru connected the lagoon to the ocean during calm conditions. And that explained why the tidal currents in the passes at Avatoru and Tiputa raged so strongly – these two narrow passes were the only drains for a huge area of this giant lagoon.

The scenery remained the same as I paddled – no topography, just palm-fringed sand to my right, and open turquoise lagoon to my left. I did not see any people, but heeding Marie’s warning, I did not land until I was over 10 km west of Avatoru, and could see the curve of the atoll at Teavatia ahead of me. I had a quick, late lunch, then continued my paddle westward. The sun by now was in the west, silhouetting my destination, and reflecting more and more in my face as it sank lower in the sky. I reached the corner of the atoll, and turned to the south, looking periodically to the right for the bungalows Nanua had described.

As the sun got lower, it became harder to make out details on the land, and a large shallow reef was forcing me to paddle several hundred metres out from shore. Beyond the reef I could see what looked like a pass to the ocean, and from the map it appeared that this should be Teavatia, but I could see no bungalows. I paddled up and down the reef, trying to look for a gap I could paddle through towards shore, but my investigation was hampered by the sun reflecting from the water into my eyes. I finally made it through a tiny gap in the reef, with minimal scratching and bumping, only to find that there were more reefs ahead. I squeezed back out through my gap (a bit easier this time since I could at least see into the water), and headed back north along the reef to a pretty little beach I had seen just to the north. I found a gap of dead and broken coral in the reef very close to shore, and dragged the boat over it, then paddled up to the little beach. I asked myself why I had been aiming for the bungalows at Teavatia when heaven awaited me here!

I was parked at a beach on a lagoon within a lagoon within a lagoon. The innermost lagoon was a still, shallow pond of coralline mud, with sea cucumbers, mud crabs and a few darting fish. Baby palms sprouting from coconuts lined the beach. Behind the beach was a mesh of intergrown coconut palms and a stagnant pond. I could hear the roar of the ocean through the palms. A quiet, Polynesian paradise all to myself! Exactly what I had hoped for, but had not dared to think I might find.

I set up my tent, then started cooking my meal as the sun set – a standard one-pot affair to be eaten out of the Trangia pot. By the time it was cooked, it was dark. The meal was too hot to eat, so I placed it on the sand to cool while I read a book by the light of my headlamp. Five minutes later I turned to my pot of food – it was surrounded by a ring of giant hermit crabs, waving their antennae against the sides of the pot, obviously trying to work out where the delicious smell was coming from. As I ate my meal, the crabs scoured the ground around me for flecks of onion peel, and bits of spice that had blown out of the pot. These crabs became my companions in my days of solitude here, and I got to know them both by appearance (their shell “house”) and by personality – which ones would march up and eat out of my hand, and which ones would duck into their shell, not to re-emerge until late in the night, after I had gone to bed.

By the next morning, I had decided to stay in this idyllic spot for my second night. I went for a day-paddle south, past Teavatia. I saw the bungalows this time, lit brightly by the morning sun. I continued south about 5 km, until I could see the next big pass. South of here the islands are much smaller and lower, more wave-washed and less vegetated. Then I turned around and paddled back to my camp for lunch. After lunch I went for a snorkel over the reef. The water was so warm that I stayed in for a long time, floating in 1 to 2 metres of water, looking at brightly coloured fish and clams. After a while I ventured further out, to where the reef dropped off and the sandy bottom was only dimly visible through the blue water. A flash of movement caught the corner of my eye, and I turned to see a shark cruising directly toward me. The photographer in me took over, and I clutched my Minolta Weathermatic. However, as the camera clicked against my mask, the shark turned and with a powerful flick of its tail it was gone. It had been close to 1.5 m in length, and had been only 3 or 4 metres away from me when it turned. My heart was pounding with excitement. However, that encounter allayed my fears of sharks, and from that time on all of my snorkelling outings included moving out beyond the reef, looking for sharks (I saw four in all).

I spent another evening in the peaceful company of my hermit crab companions, this time feeding them veggie scraps as I cooked. Above the water, there was little wildlife to see – a few frigate birds and the occasional sea turtle by day, and the crabs by night (they spent their days roosting in trees!).

The next day was Wednesday, the day I had planned to return. The weather was so fine that I really did not feel like paddling back to Avatoru so soon – my flight out was not until Saturday. But I knew I should not take any risks with that – I wanted to pack my boat dry, and at Avatoru it dumps rain several times a day. After a leisurely lounge on the beach and some snorkelling, I broke camp and paddled back to the east. The gentle headwind was a welcome change, and did not hinder my progress.

As I approached Avatoru, I skirted wide around the pass. The tide was going out, and I knew from my previous day paddles that it could pull you into the pass quite quickly. Soon the green bungalows Chez Nanua came into view, and I landed at the beach. The children came to greet me, and to carry and examine all of my gear.

I had not known what to expect in going to Rangiroa. What I found was a small island community that has only been slightly “Frenchified”. Although French is spoken by everyone, the natives still speak Tahitian at home – in contrast to most Polynesian cultures where the language has been lost to all except the universities, e.g. Hawaii, Tahiti. The men walk around town playing their ukeleles and singing; men and women both would smile and say hello to me on the road; and the children grow up in and near the ocean.

As a sea kayaking destination, it ranks in the class of “use your kayak to get to where other people can’t”, rather than “paddling for paddling’s sake”. Paddling in the passes would be very exciting in the right kind of boat – either a whitewater boat, or a technically skilled and experienced paddler in a good, manoeuvrable sea kayak. However, it would be difficult to get anything other than a folding kayak there. A large boat which will take passengers sails regularly from Papeete to Rangiroa, so presumably a rigid boat could be brought on that, but getting the boat to Papeete in the first place would be expensive. From what the locals told me, mine was the third sea kayak ever to have been there. If I was going back there, I would plan on allowing plenty of time to circumnavigate rather than do the short paddle I did, and I would bring a really big knife to open coconuts with.

For diving, Rangiroa is considered to be one of the best spots in the world. Since it is an atoll, with no land mass and therefore no rivers, the water is crystal clear and the sea life (sharks, dolphins, spotted manta rays, and the usual pretty coloured things) is amazing.

For those whose vacations must always have high adventure and danger, Rangiroa might not be for you. For those who like something a bit more slow-paced and relaxing, and who value the opportunity to see and get to know a very different place – the people, the geography, the animal life – I highly recommend it. And if you don’t want to go somewhere you have heard of before (by reading this article), the Tuamaotu Archipelago has 77 other atolls in it (including the infamous Moruroa), most of which are even harder to get to than Rangiroa.

Fact Box
Boat: Feathercraft K1 Expedition
Paddles: Werner Little Dipper 4-piece breakdown and Werner San Juan 2-piece breakdown
Tent: Eureka Autumn Wind
Stove: Trangia
Water: five 4-litre wine-cask bags was more than enough for the three days
Travel: Qantas to Papeete, then Air Tahiti to Rangiroa