Story & Photographs by Michael Powers
first appeared in Kayak Touring 2005
“Wasa Nui. WASA NUI,” Michael Venziano recited, smiling broadly at the cryptic words beneath a big breaking wave on a sign hanging from a small shop. “How’s that for a tribal name for our expedition?” We were wandering along the waterfront of Uturoa, the main settlement on Ile Raiatea, in the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. Michael, a powerfully built arborist from Berkeley, California, was in high spirits. He loved nothing better than paddling along a distant and exotic coastline by sea kayak.
There are more photos in our Outakes Gallery.
We’d just arrived in the Leewards, one of five archipelagoes scattered across more than two million square miles of tropical ocean wilderness that is French Polynesia. Our long journey from California had concluded with an overnight ride on a rusty freighter from the island of Tahiti, in the Society Islands, 200 kilometers to the east. We’d come to paddle around two islands that were sacred to the Maohi, the first Polynesians.
Michael and I were also excited to be kayaking again with two old friends and professional adventurers. Leo Le Bon founded one of the first adventure travel companies and led mountain-trekking expeditions around the world. His face and hands were cracked and lined from years of exposure to the wind and high altitude. He eventually sold his travel business and became a passionate sea kayaker. Leo’s Italian wife, Nadia, a skilled and confident paddler in her own right, was also joining us.
It had been Leo’s idea to travel to the Leeward Islands and circumnavigate the island of Raiatea and its smaller neighbor, Tahaa. Months before our departure, he acquired the French nautical charts of the area and began researching for the trip. A final, essential piece of our expedition plan fell into place when Leo made contact by e-mail with Frank Murphy, an expatriate American scientist turned kayak guide who lives in Papeete with his Tahitian family. Murphy had recently assisted another group of paddlers making a TV show elsewhere in the islands. They had shipped over roto-molded polyethylene sea kayaks for their relatively big-budget expedition, and left them behind with Frank when it was over. We felt fortunate to find modern hardshell boats in French Polynesia.
A tropical storm swept over Raiatea Island the night before we launched. The rain beating on the tin roofs around town sounded like the Maohi war drums that may have resounded here long ago.
Shimmering curtains of light rain still swept across the sea as we paddled away from Uturoa. We could see the storm racing on to the east through the thick tropical sky. Still, the barometer in my wristwatch indicated that the air pressure was creeping upward, promising good weather. Just as we cleared the harbor, shafts of god-light began to break through the clouds and shine on the surface of the sea ahead of us. We turned and paddled south along the deeply convoluted eastern coastline of Raiatea. The trade winds that blew steadily from the northwest felt refreshing.
I was intrigued with paddling in the wake of the ancient Maohi. Those legendary sea people, with hand-hewn wooden canoes and no modern navigation aids, crossed unknown seas to colonize one of the very last regions in the world to become inhabited by humans. In the centuries before Europeans reached the South Pacific, the Maohi discovered and settled hundreds of islands spread across a vast area. Their eventual domain, known now as the Polynesian Triangle, reached all the way from New Zealand to Hawaii, then southeast to Easter Island.
Even the lagoon on which we paddled appeared to stretch on forever. Along our port horizon ran a barrier reef, where tiny islands called motus were strung like dark pearls. The charts Leo kept on his deck showed the reef to run about one nautical mile or more offshore as it encircled both Raiatea and Tahaa. There were nine narrow passes in the barrier reef, through which deepwater sailors could approach the islands from the open sea. In some places the lagoon was deep enough for bigger boats as well, but the numerous shoals where razor-sharp coral grew nearly to the surface presented a constant peril for unwary navigators.
When the wind was light and the sun was shining, it was easy to spot the shallow areas. The water changed from deep blue to green and then to a multitude of colors where the bright-hued coral appeared. We didn’t worry much about the shoals in our shallow-draft kayaks with their tough plastic hulls.
From his research, Leo knew there were few beaches on the two islands where we could land to camp. Most of the good camping spots were along the barrier reef, on the sparsely populated motus. Out there, we were more exposed to the trade winds. Still, the breeze from the open sea felt good and blew away the tiny biting flies, the tropical equivalent of no-see-ums, that we encountered on the main islands.
The rain beating on the tin roofs around town sounded like the Maohi war drums that may have resounded here long ago.
On our second day of paddling, the sun had descended to a range of sharply chiseled peaks and deeply shadowed valleys when we came upon a little pension, or guest house, that nestled invitingly along the edge of a sheltered bay. Since the alternative was to paddle out to the distant reef in the gathering darkness in search of a camping spot among the motus, we elected to spend the night at the pension.
Fortunately, Le Bon was fluent in French, the prevailing language in the islands since colonial days. The Polynesian fisherman who owned the pension turned out to be a valuable source of information about the route ahead. After dinner, Leo spread out his charts on the table, and our host pointed out which motus would be best for camping, as well as the locations of maraes, the elaborate temple sites the Maohi had constructed of stone and coral. He explained that the best fishing and diving was always near the passes in the barrier reef. The currents and surf surged through these openings, bearing nutrients and pelagic fish from the open sea.
As we paddled along the next day, an intoxicating and ever-changing medley of aromas—vanilla, plumeria, and drying copra—drifted out from the island’s interior. Finally, Nadia exclaimed, “Kayaking here is just so . . . sensual!”
Everyone agreed that our journey was a never-ending feast for the senses. The tropical sun felt warm on our skin, yet the gently blowing trade winds kept us from overheating. Sun-faded flags fluttered above pearl divers’ huts propped on slender wooden poles above the water. Music from a boom box throbbed through the open windows of a little schoolhouse along the shore. Dorsal fins of rays cut the smooth surface of the lagoon as they circled each other in mating rituals. While crossing the opening of a large bay, we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a large pod of spinner dolphins. Living up to their name, they leaped repeatedly into the air and pirouetted like ballet dancers before splashing back into the jade-colored lagoon.
Nadia was hardly the first visitor to notice the sensuality of these islands. After his 19th-century wanderings, Herman Melville wrote of “trade winds filling our swooning sails and air languid with the aroma of a thousand flowering shrubs.” Melville also acknowledged how quickly the mood of his tropical Eden could change. “As every sailor knows, a spicy gale in these tropic latitudes is far different from a tempest in the howling North Atlantic. We soon found ourselves battling with the waves, while the before mild Trades, like a woman roused, blew fiercely, but still warmly, in our face.”