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South Pacific Travel Adventures


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About Gail Howard’s South Pacific Travel Adventures

In her South Pacific travel adventure, Gail Howard tours the Tuamotus and Marquesas islands of French Polynesia by copra schooner with native island passengers and crew. Two close encounters with death – the worst seas the schooner captain has ever seen – nearly end Gail Howard’s Life Plan of seeing the world.

She survives a peeping Tom priest, a rude French governor, a lost rudder, and not to mention the sea taking two swipes at her. Along the way she explores the hull of a 1906 shipwreck in the coral atolls and accidentally almost is married. Gail Howard learns the island ways from her island friend, Rachael, who takes Gail under her wing.

This exciting adventure finds Gail Howard, ever the free spirit, dancing and sun bathing and howling at the sea which at one point strips her naked to the surprise and delight of the happy-go-lucky crew. Gail leaves the islands loaded with shell leis up to her chin, beautiful memories and a tidy profit for all her bargain-hunting efforts.

Gail Howard’s South Pacific Travel Adventures in the Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia

Written by

TUAMOTUS AND MARQUESAS ISLANDS 1963

My arms and legs ached from pressing against the sides of my small upper bunk to keep from falling out. Finally, too sick and emptied to retch anymore, I staggered up to the deck of the Namoiata and collapsed on gunny sacks filled with hard, pungent coconut meat.

I was caught in a raging storm in the middle of the South Pacific. From my bunker of copra-filled gunnysacks, I watched in terror as giant waves threatened to inundate our little 100-foot copra schooner. The Namoiata had lost a rudder and we were at the mercy of a fierce and turbulent sea.

Powerful waves crashed over the deck and buffeted the boat as if it were a paper cup. With each menacing thrust, angry waves thrashed the boat nearly toppling it over. As the wind whipped the waves sideways, I gasped and chocked, inhaling more water than air.

I was certain the boat would capsize within minutes sending me to eternity in a watery tomb. As I waited for death to end my terror, I became enraged. There was so much yet to see and experience! My Life Plan of traveling the world was far from complete. I hadn’t even been to Asia! My anger at fate for depriving me of a future strengthened my resolve not go under without a fight.

I shouted at the sea like a mad woman, “Stop torturing me. You think you can tip this boat over? Go ahead! I dare you! Either get on with it or stop tormenting me. I am not your plaything. You can’t take my life. I want to live!”

Eventually the sea calmed down and so did I. It was as if the sea had tested the very core of my being, and I had triumphed.

It was 1963, and I had come to Papeete for the Tahiti Fete, the July 14 Bastille Day celebration (but that’s another story). After all the celebrations, dance competitions, himene singing and catamaran races were over, I wanted to visit the remote Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.

Tony Bambridge, a man I met in Papeete, owned copra schooners that plied the waters of French Polynesia. His boats carried cargo and passengers to distant far flung islands, where supplies needed by the islanders were traded for copra. Tony Bambridge graciously arranged for my passage on the next boat leaving Tahiti.

I boarded the Namoiata, at five in the afternoon, bound for 17 Tuamotu and Marquesas Islands. Seven hours later, we were still in port and finally took off at midnight. Next morning when I awoke, I was startled to see that we were already approaching land. Motor trouble had forced the Namoiata to return to Tahiti.

Hours later, we were on our way again – only to return a second time that same afternoon, again because of motor trouble. After midnight we made our final start. The third time was the charm. There would be no turning back this time.

During the first few days, I wanted to junk the trip. Maybe fate had tried to warn me with all those frustrating false starts. And then two days of rough seas seemed to press the point. It was either stay flat on my back in my narrow bunk or retch. So I remained in bed and read.

The Namoiata was by no means a luxury cruise ship. Passengers slept on deck. I was fortunate to have a tiny upper berth in a small cubby hole. The ship’s officer in charge of the purchase of copra and sale of supplies, the supercargo, gave up his bunk for me, thanks to Tony Bambridge.

The first night, the bunk below mine was occupied by a Catholic priest in long black garb. I thought, “Fine. That’s as safe as a woman.”

In the middle of the night I was awakened by an intuitive strange, uneasy feeling. The priest had my sheet in his hand and was peering under it, probably hoping my nightgown had crawled up my thighs. Instantly, I sat up and lit into him with a tirade of insults. None of which he understood, of course, because he was French and I was berating him in English. I had not yet learned how to release venom in French.

But he got the point because he cowered back with a frightened look in his eyes. He weakly gasped, “Non! Non!” in an effort to defend his innocence as if I had misinterpreted his intentions. But he didn’t dare try anything again after that. Fortunately he got off at Takapoto, the second island we visited.

The Tuamotu Islands are coral atolls – palm tree-covered islands with white sand beaches enclosing a lagoon of blue or aqua water. None of the islands are more than 20 feet above sea level. The Tuamotu Islands are usually formed in a circle enclosing a lagoon, like beads in a necklace.

Our first stop in the Tuamotus was the island of Kaukura. It felt good at last to have solid land under my feet. I walked up the wooden pier to the white sand beach, then into the palm tree jungle. I was attacked by thousands of mosquitoes, so I made a hasty retreat for the beach.

Kaukura was the only island in the Tuamotus infested with mosquitoes. Legend had it that a century ago, a sailor on a whaling ship fell in love with a local girl who spurned his advances. He vowed to put a curse on her and on the entire island for generations to come. On his next trip to Kaukura, the sailor brought a container filled with mosquitoes, which he released on the island.

Our next island stop was Takapoto, another palm tree-covered coral atoll with white sand beaches. As I was exploring the island, I saw crew members from the Namoiata feasting on cooked breadfruit and raw giant water snails they had gathered from the shallows. Rachael, the wife of one of the crew, offered me both. The breadfruit was blah but not unpleasant. I forced myself to eat a raw snail, called ma’oa, which was chewy-hard. I was relieved that it had the innocuous taste of a raw egg yoke.

Next day we dropped anchor near the island of Apataki to search for something that had been lost in the water on a previous trip. Teariki, a crew member with rippling muscles and a square face, fitted his goggles into place and dived deep out of sight.

Moments later he was up at the side of the row boat handing some treasure to another crew member. It was his false teeth! Teariki disappeared again for what seemed several minutes. The crew was excited when he surfaced and produced a foul smelling rope.

They pulled and grunted until the rope was in the boat, dangling an anchor off the side. Teariki climbed back into the boat, pressed a finger on his right nostril and deftly emptied the left one into the ocean.

After Takapoto, we docked at Takaroa, the only island on the entire voyage with a wharf sufficient to dock. Takaroa also had the largest village in the Tuamotus. Some 300 inhabitants lived scattered throughout the long narrow islands of Takaroa. Painted wooden shacks cluttered the shoreline with a large Mormon church dominating the village. Mormon missionaries must have been the first to arrive because the entire island was Mormon.

It started raining heavily. The drops came down like a spray of bullets, so strong they stung my skin. I ran to seek dry solace in the church, but it was locked, so I stood against the building away from the slanted rain. After the rain subsided, I set off to explore the village. Although Takaroa was famous for shell necklaces, I found they cost twice as much as in Papeete. Disappointed, I continued my walk.

On the way back to the boat, crew members offered me some freshly caught fish roasting over an open fire. A few bites into this delicious snack, I noticed that Paniora (one of the crew), had his brother’s speed boat, I dropped the fresh fish into a green leaf (Tahitian waxed paper) and ate the rest of it on the way as I scurried to the beach to ask for a ride on the speed boat.

Soon we were bumping over the waves getting thoroughly splashed. I was shivering, but as we passed mile after mile of paradise, I felt so content that the wet and cold didn’t bother me. When we reached our destination, we hiked across the island to the ocean side to explore the wreck of a huge ship. Rusted and corroded, the iron hull lay permanently at rest on the reef. We walked through holes in the hull and across the vast skeletal system inside. In 1906, an English passenger ship, hit by a typhoon, crashed into the reef. Passengers tried to escape in small boats, but huge waves snuffed out their lives.

We leisurely made our way through the palm tree jungle back to the speedboat. On the way, Louis, a 17 year-old passenger from the island of Makemo, showed me how to rob young palm trees of the tasty central shoot. Once the shoot is plucked the tree dies. There were so many young trees between two and three feet high that I gorged myself on palm shoots until Louis – probably fearing that I was denuding an entire generation of palm trees – steered me onto another delicacy.

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