Warm and peace

Jen­nifer Grimwade ex­plores a re­mote atoll in the ul­tra­ma­rine wa­ters of French Poly­ne­sia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Pic­tures: Peter Scott

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