Early this morning we docked at this beautiful tropical island in the city of Papeete (pronounced Pa-pae-ett-ae because the Polynesians sound every syllable). The word ‘city’ is an exaggeration as it is probably smaller than most of our towns. But Tahiti is the largest of the 130 islands which make up French Polynesia and the next time I see the Olympics I will watch out for the “Society Islands”, of which Tahiti is a part. It is certainly remote – 4,100 miles from Los Angeles, 3,800 miles from Sydney and in the South Pacific, so not exactly a hop, skip and a jump from the UK.
Of course, Tahiti is known for the famous people who have lived here. Captain James Cook started the trend in 1769 and in 1788 William Bligh stopped by in HMS Bounty to collect breadfruit for the slave plantations in the West Indies. He stayed too long, his men enjoyed life with the happy-go-lucky Tahitians and the day of departure was not greeted with any enthusiasm. Hence the legendary mutiny and the departure of a group of beautiful Tahitians who sailed to the Pitcairn Islands with Fletcher Christian and his crew (having dispatched Captain Bligh and his supporters in a long boat). Moving on a year or two, Gaugin, Somerset Maughan and Rupert Brooke all chose to live on Tahiti.
You realise that it is a tropical island when the craggy volcanic mountains (covered in lush vegetation) peek in and out of low cloud and steam appears to rise from the tops of the trees. The beaches, with their black volcanic sand, remained in the sunshine as we toured the island. The surf was spectacular although the undertow is fiercesome and sea swimming is only recommended for strong swimmers.
We were taken to Point Venus where the early navigators landed and there stands a rather spectacular 75 ft high lighthouse. It is also the spot where the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty (with Marlon Brando) was filmed. We were taken to see the Arahoho Blowholes where waves force themselves through a tunnel in the rock so water then spurts out at the top of the cliff.
But by far the most spectacular part of the tour was a visit to the Faarumai Falls. The first waterfall is set in a lush green valley and we were able to climb to the point where it cascades from a great height into a deep pool. The noise was deafening, the rocks were slippery with the spray but the reward for perseverance was a breathtaking view.
Lunch included local specialities such as poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and topped with coconut cream, onions and oil) and fafa (spinach served with young suckling pig). But the local breadfruit (a bit like potato but drier and sweeter) served as fries was a gastronomic experience in its own right. Fabulous.
Even the locals say it is expensive here and my goodness they do not exaggerate. The unit of currency is the French Pacific Franc but American dollars are very welcome. The island specialises in the sale of black pearls, which are really beautiful. However, family and friends should not hold their breath… the shop’s credit card machine had broken!! The local market hall (where you cannot barter) actually had some hand made ‘grass’ skirts but, sadly, I couldn’t think of an appropriate occasion to show up in one.
The locals are delightful and the children especially are spectacularly beautiful. For anyone with ambition to live in the middle of nowhere, this is indeed a ‘nowhere’ worth considering.
Early morning in Puerto Montt was anything but promising with clouds so low we appeared to be surrounded by fog. Perhaps not the best day to be taking a trip up a volcano, scrambling around waterfalls and visiting a lake. Fortunately, the forecast promised better things by mid morning.
On the basis that we were probably going to get wet around water falls anyway, this was the first stop. I couldn’t work out whether it really was raining or whether it was the spray from the cascading water.
Whatever…it was wet! Huge volumes of icy water hit rocks and boulders all around us and fell into deep green pools. Power boats took those who wanted to get seriously wet right up to the cascades, and whilst it looked fun it is slightly less fun sitting in wet clothes for the rest of the day.
Although the falls were not necessarily high, they were impressive and spray was everywhere so, when the sun shines, there are rainbows all over the place – but only one today.
Then it was off up the Osorno Volcano. Where’s the volcano? It’s that huge glacier topped mountain which is tucked behind the clouds. The coach suddenly lurched steeply upwards and continued to climb through lush vegetation.
There was a huge lake at the bottom, allegedly, and snow and ice at the top. All I knew was that we had now come out of the forested area onto rocky slopes and were negotiating 42 hairpin bends along the incessant climb. The coach had to stop for 10 minutes to cool the engine whilst we were shown a crater on the side of the mountain.
This crater looked like a big hole to me but there was no way of seeing how deep it went. The coach set off again and chugged reluctantly upwards. The only coaches that can make it up there are the ones with engines in the front. Rear engines weight down the back ends and are too dangerous. And this wasn’t?
Finally at the top we found how true it was that it would be cold and windy. But suddenly the wind began to move the clouds to reveal the snow and ice capped volcano in all its majesty. Wow. We were up above the clouds and immediately in bright, bright sunlight which glared off the snow capped peak. This was really special and we were promised excellent photo opportunities on the way down. The 42 hairpin bends going down the mountain became 42 very hairy hairpin bends and it was obvious why the trip was not suitable for anyone troubled by heights or motion sickness. I just couldn’t get ‘The Italian Job’ out of my mind and was thankful to be sitting towards the front!!
Down, down to the lake and the views were indeed stunning as the clouds parted for us. The lake appeared to reveal wonderful lakeside farms. We had lunch at one and were visited by llamas, emus and various animals who were keen to see such strange creatures walk amongst them. Having had my head pecked by an emu in New Zealand, I was giving them a wide berth. Then it was on to one of the small lakeside towns (this one a German town created by original German settlers).
It was strangely reminiscent of Bowness in the Lake District but here the children paddled in the water from strange, black volcanic sand. We were back in time for the final tender to the ship and after only being on board for about 15 minutes we are already on our way.
It’s a sea day tomorrow and time to catch our breath after a very long day out. Then its Valparaiso and Santiago on Sunday, where it promises to be even warmer than today’s very pleasant 20C.
We have spent an amazing two days cruising the Chilean fiords and visiting a number of spectacular glaciers.
What I found incredible was our ability to get so close but I almost choked in an effort not to laugh out loud when I heard this morning, “I’m so disappointed that we didn’t dock and get to walk on the ice”.
Most glaciers in the world are shrinking but this morning we visited something quite unique. The Pio XI glacier is actually growing. This massive flow of ice is currently over 20 miles long and 6 miles wide – the size of Santiago – growing about half a mile per year. You don’t quite get the perspective when you sail up close but you do see, very clearly, the towering ice formations, the rock being swept down to the water and the incredible colours.
Ice is white, right? Wrong. There are some deep blues and aquamarine colours in there, along with pinks and the grey of the rock which has been carved from the mountains and carried to the sea. I think it needed a better camera than mine to do it justice but I have still managed to capture a little of the majesty.
It would appear that my geographical ignorance knows no bounds, or else I have long forgotten what I was once taught. On the way to yesterday’s viewing of the Amalia glacier, I couldn’t help but notice, with some surprise, we were passing the odd small ice floe or two. Of course glaciers shed ice into the sea, hence icebergs… doh!!! By the time the glacier was in view, we were totally surrounded by small (and some not small at all) ice floes. A boat was launched from the ship – did that mean we needed to worry? Apparently not; it was the ship’s film crew at work making a film of the ship amongst the ice floes and right up against the glacier. That should be worth seeing. Hats off to the Captain and the incredible skills of the navigators who made it possible to almost reach out and touch. I did hear there had been a few bumps along the way and some of the floes are now proudly sporting the ship’s paintwork!
Within the fiords, the weather seems to change constantly, and minute by minute the views also change. The sun breaks through on one side to reveal snow capped mountains from the Andes range, whilst on the other side of the ship the clouds descend and completely obliterate a view which was clear just moments before. The prevailing feature throughout is the intense chill and it is not sensible to stand still on the upper decks for too long. Hot chocolate and hot soup are served on deck during glacier watching and how comforting to wrap icy fingers around a steaming hot mug whilst appreciating the wonders of the world. If you are going to ‘do cold’, how much better to do it in comfort!
Tomorrow, we are out of the fiords and back into the Pacific as we head north for our next stop in Puerto Montt and from there onwards towards warmer climes. In many ways it will be a relief to warm up but what truly awesome spectacles we have seen and, for me, it has been another opportunity to marvel at the beauty and diversity of our planet.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller