Warm and peace
Jennifer Grimwade explores a remote atoll in the ultramarine waters of French Polynesia
N the small French Polynesian atoll of Ahe, in the northern Tuamotu group northeast of Tahiti, only boats are moored at the airport. Not a car or road in sight; just a big lagoon in the middle of a necklace of motu , or islets.
Ahe is home to one-fourth of French Polynesia’s Tahitian pearls. Pastel-coloured buoys dot the aquamarine lagoon and huts built on stilts above the water around the edge of the lagoon house million-dollar pearl operations. The only village, Tenukupara, is totally off the tourist trail, despite being little more than one hour by air from the capital, Papeete.
A skinny mongrel dog is hovering around little boys fishing with a rod handcrafted from a hibiscus tree branch. A boat is parked outside the principal’s office at the only school. It is school holidays and the children are free to roam. Over-excited little girls cuddling pet roosters like teddy bears queue up for photographs.
This village, population 350, is eerily quiet; I realise it’s because there are no cars. A fine coconut plantation stands smack bang in the middle of the village. On the periphery, a toothless old bloke sits shaded by a couple of coconut fronds.
A mass of solar panels looks incongruous amid the small pastel-painted, tin-roofed houses. Powder blue predominates; the sandy yards are freshly and neatly raked, hibiscus-patterned clothes hang on hand-rigged washing lines and polished pots and pans dry in the sun next to satellite dishes.
Speedboat engines are propped on the front porch and frangipani and bougainvillea shade family tombstones in front gardens. Some residents set up shop in their front garden to sell tiare , or wild gardenias; capitalising on our visit, an enterprising soul wheels out a wheelbarrow overflowing with plastic sandals, flowerpatterned thongs and batik children’s shorts.
There is no accommodation for us in the village so we hop back in the speedboat for a 45-minute trip across the shimmering lagoon to Coco Perle Lodge. Crossing the lagoon, our host Franck tells us all French Polynesian islands are originally volcanic; in the middle of some, the volcano sinks back into the sea, leaving an atoll with a chain of islands separated by channels in varying sizes, invariably small. As the tide changes, the ocean rushes through these channels, creating currents carrying nutrients, ideal for feeding pearl oysters.
This explains all the pearl farms we pass and the unusually large residences on the edge of this pretty lagoon.
When we drop in on Coco Perle’s neighbours to deliver stores from the village, the dogs stand on the sand barking as the family’s pet pig swims out to greet us. And we are greeted like long-lost friends when we finally arrive at Coco Perle, a family-run pension with six simple but comfortable bungalows along the edge of the lagoon.
Our bungalow is surrounded by the ubiquitous tiare bushes and is shaded by coconut fronds. The veranda has a view over the lagoon, which turns pink in the setting sun.
Dinner is a delight; our hostess Janine is not only a good cook but an artist and she has decorated the dining table with flowers, candles, leaves, shells and driftwood. We dine on pearl meat lightly tossed in butter and garlic; it is as good as abalone. After a wonderful sleep with our door wide open to the sound of gentle waves tickling the shore, Coco Perle’s waitresses kiss us on both cheeks when we arrive for a bountiful breakfast.
We jump into a boat for a day exploring the atoll and first up is snorkelling on the ocean side of the lagoon where the coral forms a continuous band, like a continental shelf. There is the most astonishing array of fish and we drift along in a current seemingly made to measure, in the company of five black-tip sharks. It is magical.
Lunch is in the shallows of a lagoon, literally. As Franck sets up, we stay in the turquoise shallows, watching more fish and sipping from coconuts. We sit at the lunch table with our feet dangling in the cool sea, and little fish come up and kiss my toes. We are overlooking the lush Teararoa National Park, where the only sign of life is a dog prancing along the pale sand. We tuck into fish marinated in freshly squeezed lime and coconut juice, and Hinanao beer, the excellent local brew.
The next morning we are taken by boat to a pearl farm where there are no organised tours but if you are lucky, it might be harvesting and grafting time, and you can watch technicians at work. Considering the high value of Tahitian pearls, it is incongruous that this delicate operation is performed on a battered table in a tiny shack on stilts. The instruments are sterilised in a plastic bottle sawn in half and filled with saltwater. Prized pearls are tossed into an old plastic ice-cream container with the saltwater. The greatest marvel is watching the technician delve into the slimy dark depths of the oyster to release a beautiful pearl.
Residents of Ahe are also particularly proud of their Motu Manu rainforest. A rarity on any atoll, these trees were planted by the Spanish 300 years ago. It is a marvellous refuge for migrating sea birds and for very large spiders.
From the calm lagoon we walk through the rainforest across the small island and reach the ocean pounding a shell-covered shore. Within minutes, I collect a handful of big cowrie shells, but I soon toss them aside when Franck shows us the rare oursin tortue, a strange sea creature endemic to just 100m along this beach. This is a favourite place for turtles to lay eggs each November.
We leave the rainforest and again plough by boat across the lagoon to the island’s communal fish trap. Franck dons mask and snorkel and dives in, trying to persuade us to join him. But we are reluctant starters, because although there are good-sized parrot fish ready for the pickings, there is also a shark, bigger than us, swimming around the trap.
In the ocean outside the lagoon the fishing is frantic; anything small is tossed back, as are the reef sharks, for sharks are sacred in Tahiti, and it is illegal to keep them. Within 20 minutes, four of us have filled a large plastic tub with enough fish to feed half the village.
When we return to Coco Perle Lodge, Franck says he wants to give me a present, but somewhat unusually, in the same breath he says it is a lottery. What could it be?
Next thing, I am wearing a snorkel and swimming frantically to stay with Franck, as he forges out into the lagoon. Mysteriously we stop when we come to a line of wire across the sea. Lengths of interlocked wire baskets, each holding a pearl oyster are suspended from the wire.
After many hand signals, as we madly tread water, I realise he wants me to dive under and choose an oyster. Then we swim back to his disused pearl hut and he hastily hacks open the oyster. Out pops a perfect peacock-green pearl. I have indeed won the lottery. What a souvenir. Jennifer Grimwade and Peter Scott travelled with assistance from Tahiti Tourism. www.cocoperlelodge.com www.tahitinow.com.au
Totally off the tourist trail: The sleepy village of Tenukupara on Ahe atoll
Glory be: The Protestant church at Tenukupara, set among neat houses and gardens