LAZY LAGOON DAYS
* adventure at Iles Wallis *
"Where are you headed? Wallis? I've never heard of it."
Great, we thought. That's exactly why we're going there.
* * * *
"Don't mention the Rainbow", he told me, "even if you see one in the sky!" Foster was referring, of course, to the Rainbow Warrior, flagship of the Greenpeace Organization which had been sunk in 1985 by the French in an attempt to keep Greenpeace from upsetting their nuclear activities in the Pacific, specifically at Mururoa. The reason for Foster's anxiety - we had been invited for lunch aboard the French naval warship Jacques Cartier, tied up alongside Mata-Utu wharf and in port to help celebrate Bastille Day in Iles Wallis.
Named for Samuel Wallis, Captain of HMS Dolphin and the first European to come across this small island (1767), Wallis Island seduces very few tourists. It is not only well-off-the-beaten-track, it is perhaps "too far". Iles Wallis, part of France's smallest South Pacific Territory of Wallis and Futuna, lies midway between Fiji and Samoa. Most visitors who do arrive are French overseas workers passing through the airport on their way between Noumea or Papeete and Paris.
On the day of the Bastille Day fête, we had struck up a conversation with a handsome man in white who, like us, was watching the traditional sailing pirogue (canoe) races. I assumed he was off the warship and asked him what he did on board. He answered modestly, "I am the Captain". I invited him to tour our 33-foot FellowShip and, in turn, Captain Oger had reciprocated with an invitation for lunch and a tour aboard the Jacques Cartier.
As it transpired, we never got to discuss the Rainbow Warrior. Instead, starting with escargots and a glass of French wine, we conversed through pommes frites, rosbif, café noir, sorbet and biscuits without international incident. This was a welcome change of diet after too many Tongan feasts of fish and coconuts.
On the after deck of the Jacques Cartier, the tri-color whipped in the wind. We could see several yachts bobbing at anchor three miles further south, off the village of Gahi, - Larocca (USA), Rino Atu (New Zealand), Quenah Guen (Canada), Hibiscus III (New Zealand), Teal (France) and of course, FellowShip. An international mob, all of us had come to Wallis for the Bastille Day celebrations.
Uvea, the main island at Wallis, is volcanic with a number of crater lakes, archaeological ruins and imposing churches. It is ringed by reefs and outer isles which can only be explored by yacht, dinghy or kayak. The lagoon itself elicits wonder and blinds with its dazzling blueness.
The anchorage at Gahi has high green promontories to the south and west and multi-hued waters and reefs around the well-marked entrance to the east. It is protected from most wind directions. Gahi itself is a tiny village of Polynesian fales (pronounced fah-lays) or cottages facing the bay. It has its own shrine, the Oratoire St. Vincent de Paul, and every morning at seven o'clock local ladies stroll down the road, their arms filled with offerings of fresh red flowers.
In the village we met Fano and his family and spent several afternoons on his front porch. As always, my chocolate cake was a hit. Fano regaled us with tales of World War Two and of how wonderful it was when the Americans came to Wallis. He was extremely proud of his Stars and Stripes (an American flag that had been presented to him) and spoke a rather colorful Pidgin English he had learned from the GI's. His inquiries into why we had no children bordered on the obscene - but only because of the rather limited vocabulary the GI's had taught him. Fano didn't like French and I couldn't speak Wallisian. Honestly, if the GI's could hear him today, they'd still be proud of him. Like Bloody Mary in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, his English was of few words and great expressions.
Each afternoon, a pick-up truck loaded with baguettes came down to the waterfront road at three-thirty (see Note 1). The driver always honked his horn, a signal for us to jump in the dinghy and row ashore quickly if we wanted fresh bread for dinner. Pigs are at liberty to wander free through the village and at low tide they venture out onto the reef and dig deep holes with their noses. I almost fell into one - once on a bread run, and again when I went ashore to join the women doing laundry at the freshwater spring.
At Wallis, you can feel the fertility and friendliness of the tropics everywhere. Homesteads are neat and tidy, surrounded by flowering shrubs, gardens edged in hedges of croton and hibiscus, plantations crowded with banana and taro. Men and women often wear garlands of flowers or single blossoms in their hair. Along the main road, men playing a game of pétanque (or boules) invited us to share their bottle of Pastis. Half a mile later, a lady hailed us, fished around in her bag and gave us four sweet, juicy oranges!
South along the main road at Wallis is the Church of St. Joseph, a large cathedral built out of black volcanic stone with contrasting white mortar lines. It dominates the village of Mu'a. A European oddity on the outside, it hints of Polynesia on the inside and incorporates stones from ancient maraes (sacred sites). Behind a one-handed statue of Christ, a kava bowl is painted high on the wall, halo-like, behind His Head. Flowers, mats and Wallisian motifs lend a cheerful aura to an otherwise solemn atmosphere. In the cemetery nearby, tall coconut trees stand guard like sentinels while flowers (crammed into Anchor-brand powdered-milk tins and more conventional vases) embellish the freshly whitewashed headstones.
During the week, one of the island novelties is the sight of parents transporting groups of children to and from school - by motor scooter. These scooters are often overloaded with two, three, four sometimes five passengers, occasionally towing a lawn mower or cement mixer behind. And sometimes you get a fright when you see what looks like a pandanus bush zooming down the road. But if you look closely, you'll see two wheels. It's only someone returning fully laden from their bush garden!
One Saturday, while walking in the hills looking for an elusive Lake Lanutavake, a bell started ringing. Following the sound we found an open air chapel, Chapelle St. Pierre Chanel, named for a Marist missionary - Polynesia's only saint - who was murdered on nearby Futuna in 1841. Although most war equipment was dumped into the crater lakes at the end of the war, the bell turned out to be a recycled World War II acetylene tank, a relic of former U.S. presence. The shrine was decorated with bright lavalavas and fresh flowers, the floor covered with mats. From here, the view of Uvea's blue lagoon and fringing reef was spectacular.
Dying of thirst and nearly crippled by blisters, I accepted an invitation to take the weight off my bones and sat down in the shade of the shrine. Despite the heat of a noon day sun, our hosts husked some drinking coconuts, including four "takeaways". These were welcome - it was a warm afternoon and we had become carried away in our explorations. On the long walk back to the anchorage at Gahi, we passed a chimerical church that, up close, looked like a wedding cake of many layers. From the lagoon we had mistaken it for a lighthouse.
On the evening of the Bastille Day fête we tried hitching a ride into town. While we waited, several motor scooters driven by black Bob Marley t-shirts zoomed by. Each life-sized head framed with dreadlocks seemed to apologize: "Sorry, mon" as it passed. Finally, a car with empty seats came along, and we were off.
We arrived just in time! On the waterfront at Mata Utu, across from the Palace and the severe Notre Dame Cathedral and next to the Fale Fono Royal handicraft center, a traditional dance competition had just erupted between groups representing Hihifo in the north, Mu'a in the south and the administrative center of Mata Utu from mid-island. Elaborately dressed dancers, both male and female, up to forty per group, put on an outstanding show. Food stalls were set up, too, and afterwards there was a concert of electrified music. As the night wore on, the music grew louder and louder and more discordant. Us two fuddy-duddies headed back to the boat for some shut-eye.
The next day was le jour de fête and dancing groups appeared on the wharf and aboard the Jacques Cartier. Young girls wearing tapa outfits, bodies smothered in coconut oil and faces painted orange, descended the ship's gangway after their performance smiling, with sodas in hand. Boys bedecked with purple bougainvillean headdresses took turns at traditional dancing, receiving heaps of encouragement from admiring relatives.
On the water, we could see that the Wallisian sailors had already hoisted their canvas sails and were now racing traditional pirogues from the causeway at Mata Utu wharf to the anchorage at Gahi where they ran onto the beach to tack their sails before heading back. It looked like fun and I mused: "Boy, I'd sure like to sail on one of those!" Adding a touch of color to the scene, windsurfers flitted back and forth like water-bugs in the southeast trades, concentrating on their own style of speed and grace.
When the Bastille Day celebrations finished, we left the anchorage at Gahi and headed to Faioa, the largest of several small and idyllic islands sprinkled in the lagoon and sheltered by Uvea's barrier reef. What a beautiful island, thick with green vegetation and coconut trees and edged with fine white sand beaches on the lagoon side. A coral wall breaks the swells on the ocean side.
On le weekend, locals (both French and Wallisian) jump in their boats and speed or sail across the lagoon from Uvea to the beaches of Faioa. Afternoons are filled with picnicking, socializing and swimming. The water is warm and vodka-clear and, while snorkeling on Faioa's coral border, I came across my first seahorse as he escaped from a colorful coral castle alive with fish and hard-working polyps. Named for their resemblance to fans, whips and feathery plumes, soft ceraceous corals undulated in the gentle current surrounding the fortress.
You can walk right round Faioa in an afternoon and the shelling is grand, though we found that the most beautiful shells were already occupied by tenacious tenants - hermit crabs or bernard hermites! Local ladies collect tiny white clam shells for their handicrafts (and dinners) by combing their fingers through sand as the tide recedes.
While we were anchored at the south end of Faioa, a friend of ours, American yachtsman/writer John Neal and his expedition sail training vessel Mahina Tiare, arrived from the very remote and seldom-visited "Tin Can Island". Other wise known as Niuafo'ou (in Tonga), Tin Can gets its name from the unusual way mail was delivered. With no anchorage or landing site, mail was sealed up in a biscuit tin and then tossed overboard. Strong swimmers would then retrieve the parcels. We watched the yacht come through the pass under full sail, then tack across the lagoon to Faioa and sail around us. It seemed a small world.
Catholicism is the dominant religion here and nearly every islet, bay and village has a shrine or a chapel. The tiny island of Nukuhifala was no different. Dressing up the walls of its chapel were dozens of bright lavalavas, printed with a bold red, white and black design integrating sailing canoes, kava bowls and human figures. A collection of flotsam and jetsam lay on the altar in front of a statue of Mary, her tiny body mysteriously swaddled in an enormous assortment of colorful fabrics and decorated with flower and shell lei.
In the far north-eastern expanse of the lagoon lay Iles Fungalei and Tekaviki. Anchoring possibilities being rather tenuous, we launched our 2-person Klepper kayak and set out on a paddling expedition. The intoxicating color of the water, a luminescent Curacao blue, made us feel as if we were floating on top of a giant cocktail!
At Ile Tekaviki, two women sat on the sand bar at low tide sifting through the fine sand with their fingers, searching for tiny white shells to use in their necklace (collier) making, just as we'd seen at Faioa. Wallisian handicrafts are imaginative - pieces of jewelry incorporate feathers and shells, pandanus mats are interwoven with bright satiny ribbons, wooden artifacts are intricately carved, hand sewn blouses and skirts feature elaborate geometric cutouts detailing the edges.
At Nukuhione islet, a large and prominent white cross on a stepped concrete platform is draped with garlands of flowers and colorful fabrics blowing in the breeze. Surrounded by gorgeous white sand beaches and sandbars, children gamboled in the bright blue and turquoise shallows.
Relaxing on the beach while keeping one eye on his children was a Frenchman who worked at the local RFO television station. He had given us a lift one day in town. With him was French filmmaker-photographer Hervé Tiberghien who had come to Wallis to document the construction and launching of a huge double-hulled voyaging canoe. When we found out about the project, our interest was aroused. We couldn't resist sailing back to Uvea to see the canoe with our own eyes.
We found the building site, a shed, near the village of Alele. Under the direction of Felise Toke (a Wallisian tufunga or master boat builder), a 19.2 meter double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Vakalasi, was under construction (see Note 2). At noontime, the boat builders stopped working and made us an impromptu plat du jour - tins of cassoulet (French baked beans) and corned beef spread on opposing sides of a split baguette, then smacked together and wrapped in a banana leaf.
The Vakalasi was to be biggest pirogue constructed in Wallis since the mythical Lomipeau, a twin-hulled voyaging canoe built at the beginning of the 17th Century under the reign of Tu'i Tonga 'Uluakimata I. Wallisian oral history recounts that huge blocks of basalt weighing several tons and destined for the construction of monuments on the isle of Tongatapu (Tonga) were transported 500 miles from Uvea to Tonga aboard the Lomipeau. Today, the Lomipeau is popularized in Wallisian island designs on stamps, lavalavas and t-shirts.
Felise was an interesting old fellow, fascinated to learn that we had sailed all the way from America in our small boat. We invited him aboard FellowShip and showed him our tiller set-up, our rigging wires, our sail plan, etc. Communication was difficult with our limited French and non-existent Wallisian but it was fun. Pictures helped. (So did having the two French film makers Hervé and Corrine aboard). Felise asked lots of questions and with plenty of grunts and gesticulations, barriers were finally broken. He seemed ready to join us on the next leg of our voyage.
FellowShip eventually sailed out of the pass in company with the Australian junk-rigged yacht Anagarika - together we crossed tracks with an inward bound Swiss yacht. Behind us, a couple of local canoes raced across the lagoon. Wallisian families, on the reef at an extreme low tide, were harvesting shellfish and taking advantage of unusually calm conditions. It seemed like a lot of traffic for such a remote dot on the ocean.
Three years later, we returned to Wallis. The ocean passage was perfect, with light winds and flat seas. FellowShip arrived off the pass at first light and negotiated the deep-water channel into the lagoon at slack low water. Entering the postcard perfect lagoon once again, I was completely bowled over by the screaming blues of sea and sky. There was not even a hint of the adventures that lay in store for us.
In the center of the lagoon, the main volcanic island of Uvea is carpeted in rich red earth and lush green gardens overgrown with taro, kumara and bananas. Though most gardens are neatly fenced round with colorful hibiscus or croton plants, we found one with a unique border of old pipe valves, all set in a straight line.
The main administrative center at Mata-Utu has a somewhat exposed rolly anchorage, so we headed for the bay at Gahi, a familiar and calmer, more-protected spot. Some mornings, though, the cove was quite noisy with children yelling and roosters crowing long before sunrise. And when the tide is up, the swell reflects off the seawall, making the water in the anchorage lively. Several small runabouts moor here.
In the anchorage we met up with friends aboard Roll On, a blue-hulled steel boat from Sweden. We had spoken to skipper Lars by radio from Niuatoputapu a couple of weeks earlier when his Tongan friend Tui had come aboard FellowShip to make contact. He had been expecting our arrival. Lars, his wife Karin, and baby Maria completed their world circumnavigation in 1998, though after battling the oceans right round the world they faced a bigger challenge, a fire which completely burned down the big old home where he and his family had settled into life ashore. Lars nearly killed himself by running into his burning house to save the ship's logbook, the only record of his global friends and Roll On's world voyage, but he got it!
The morning after our arrival, I looked sleepily out the companionway. Mid-yawn and arms stretched, I gulped.... a sudden call to consciousness! Ten great outrigger sailing canoes were racing across the lagoon and heading straight towards us. What a sight! Here at Wallis, these big pirogues are built specifically for racing. Their huge canvas sails are nearly square, with the upper corner poled out to give maximum sail area. They look unwieldy but once underway, they fly. Each is 40-45 feet long and carries about eight men as crew. I simply had to sail on one!
After completing our normal 'landfall routine' - checking-in with officials, provisioning (see Note 3) with fresh food and collecting mail - we shifted to the peace and quiet of our favorite anchorage at Faioa, the biggest of several tiny uninhabited atolls strung like baubles along the barrier reef. We enjoyed halcyon days in the sun, lying under the shade of our awning, listening to music and shortwave radio, reading books.
Ashore, in the middle of Faioa island, we unexpectedly stumbled upon a small water hole. Fos quickly rowed back to the boat to fetch our two big bags of laundry and we spent the day scrubbing our FDC's (filthy dirty clothes). Somehow, sitting in the shade of a little fale on the windward side, in the breeze, daydreaming - with bucket, soap and water at hand - was a delightful pastime. What should have been drudgery was really not so bad at all. We rigged up a clothesline between two coconut trees and everything dried quickly in the moderate trade winds or, as the French call them, les alizés. Later, when we returned to the boat with arms full of freshly washed, dried, and folded clothes, it felt like we'd had another fantastic day. Faioa had that magical effect.
After several lazy days at anchor, the tranquility was broken. We were monitoring VHF Channel 16 when a Mayday (M'aidez! - Help me!) call suddenly shattered the silence. I waited. Nobody responded. The call came again. Nobody listening? I picked up the microphone and pushed the PTT button. "This is yacht FellowShip. I copy you. Go ahead with your transmission."
A man and his 15-year-old son were in trouble. While fishing outside the lagoon, both motors had broken down - they were "not going around." The skipper was excited and spoke so quickly I couldn't understand him. Parlez-vous anglais, monsieur? He switched to English.
Thanks to an on-board GPS, he was able to relay their exact coordinates. Their position - 13 degrees 22.8 South, 176 degrees, 17.2 West - put him about 6.5 miles distant and drifting away from the island. We had to make a decision.
While I plotted the location of their 5.4 meter Bonito runabout on the chart to determine our compass course, Foster got FellowShip ready to go to their assistance. An American yacht lying at anchor off the administrative center at Mata Utu had been monitoring the VHF too and they raced ashore by dinghy to inform the gendarmerie. We took down our sun awning, removed sail covers, made things ship-shape below decks, hauled the anchor and headed for the open ocean.
It was exactly slack water when we exited the often-tricky pass and weather conditions were perfect - skies blue, winds 10-12 knots from the southeast. We were lucky because the pass can be dangerous if a sea is running. We sailed at about 5 knots, our sails being more efficient than our tiny 13 hp Yanmar diesel. We found the disabled runabout easily and, after passing a long tow line attached to a bridle, headed slowly back towards the pass, close hauled, motor sailing, beating into the wind. As we approached the pass, a local fishing boat - with heaps of horsepower to pull him through the narrow opening - took the tow line from us. By radio, the much-relieved skipper invited us for dinner later in the week.
The following morning, our friend Yves picked us up in his noisy car and took us to the Kafika Grill for coffee and French pastries. François Guillemoteau, the man we'd rescued, was there too. Much to his dismay, it was contaminated fuel that had clogged both his engines. Murphy's Law of Sailing is: Shit Happens. I felt it wouldn't translate, so abstained from trying.
That week, François treated us to a "heroes' dinner". A natural science teacher at the local high school, I soon discovered he was an ultra-light machine (ULM) pilot, too. When I murmured, in the best French I could muster, "To fly, it is my dream!", he said, "I can take you up!" So three days later at 8 am I found myself laced into a life jacket and soaring over the lagoon in a tiny aircraft with a man who's boat motors had broken down in a Mayday situation five days earlier. Was I nuts? Or brave? Who cared? I was rapt.
What a view! A marvelous melange of azure, peacock, royal and aquamarine passed underneath as we flew slowly over the luminescent blues of the lagoon, soaring above the necklace of tiny white-rimmed green islets which dot the barrier reef, following the line of pounding surf right round the island in a yellow Coyote II ultra-light.
The local gendarme and his wife Catherine had been invited to the dinner, too. We quickly discovered that they shared our love of kayaking and made plans for a paddling expedition. Catherine picked us up in her car and, after loading the kayaks onto a small trailer, we drove to the village of Vailala in the north. Here, we found two sailing canoes hauled up on the beach. A third, named for the local Church of St. Jean-Baptiste (Sangato Soane Patita) and brightly painted in green, orange, red and white, lay under some trees. Little did I realize at the time that before we departed Wallis I would find myself flying across the lagoon aboard this particular racing canoe.
We paddled across to Bird Island - Ile des Oiseaux or Nukufotu in the local dialect - then beached the kayaks at Nukuloa to try and find a spot to sit and enjoy lunch. Phew!! There was no doubt that birds were nesting nearby - we could smell them! Fairy terns, sooty terns, frigate birds - all soared overhead. The wind picked up during the afternoon, as did the chop on the water, making the return rugged. Aware that even a day-trip in the lagoon can be dangerous, since squalls often give little warning, we were well-equipped with hand-held radio, emergency flares, drogue, emergency light, food, water. None of this emergency gear was needed.
One never turns down an invitation for French cooking so, that evening, when Catherine asked, we accepted. It had been a long and exciting day - flying at first light and kayaking all afternoon. While Catherine sauteed garlic and mushrooms in the kitchen, her three-year old daughter danced alongside. Little Alizée, mixing up her butterflies and mushrooms, kept chanting "papillons, papillons" as she munched "champignons, champignons". Butterflies had never tasted so good.
When the weather settled into reliable trade winds, we hauled anchor and sailed, via Sail Rock, to the village of Halalo on the west side of the island and anchored FellowShip off the end of the wharf. Nearby was the partially reconstructed Kolo Nui Fortification - an ancient Tongan marae (also called malae or sacred place) discovered by French archaeologist Daniel Frimagacci (see Note 4).
Over 500 years old, the site is called Talietumu and features a central marae and a huge oval shaped platform for the chief's house. Raised volcanic stone walkways radiate from the marae in all directions and kept the nobles walking head and shoulders above the common man. The fortification was surrounded by an extensive defensive wall, part of which has been reconstructed. It lends an awesome aspect to the site.
In the bush nearby was a huge gutu 'umu' ta'o tagata which Frimigacci delighted in describing as a big underground oven for cooking "baskets of men". Luckily it is not used nowadays! According to Wallisian oral history, Uvea's most famous cannibal was Kafoalogologofolau, a chief with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Given a gift of three beautiful girls, rumor has it that Kafoalogologofolau ate one before the chief who made the gift grabbed the other two girls back! Their flesh had been intended for other pleasurable purposes, I suppose. He resided in a fort on a nearby promontory at Gahi. Thirteen ancient sites have been identified on Uvea and all may be linked by royal roads
We'd originally visited the Talietumu site with archaeologist Daniel Frimigacci two years earlier. But when Yves volunteered to drive us back, we said "Yes, please!" We'd met Yves on the front lawn of Notre Dame church in Mata Utu during one of the festivals. Nearby, the local paddling team lay stretched out in front of their newly built double-hulled fibreglass canoe. In the course of taking photographs, I started talking with one of the young ladies, Adrienne Tanolevai, and soon found myself wrapped in garlands of flowers and friendship. We found out that Yves, builder of the popular V-12 (a fibreglass12-seater) paddling canoe and owner of local business Technic'eau, was standing nearby. We introduced ourselves.
Later in the week when we stopped to say hi, he was in the middle of fixing some broken-down bit of machinery. It was midday, so he wiped his greasy hands and off we went to a small café where a delicious plat du jour was complimented by a cold beer, chocolate mousse in flaky pastry with cream and coffee. The French sure know how to enjoy life. Yves confirmed our suspicion that there was no farmers' market at Wallis, though we'd heard rumors. The local people grow only a few traditional foods and buy imported vegetables at the supermarket.
This time when we ran into him, he fixed us an impromptu lunch of steak brochettes, sauteed mushrooms, eggplant and tomatoes, followed by crunchy baguette, brie and Swiss cheese, strawberries and cream, Oh my god, it was a nice change from Tongan tubers and coconuts. I always thought paradise would (or should!) have good food. In his home, after lunch, he showed us prints and sketches by local artist Saone (Jean) Michon whose fantastic fetish for big boobs, bigger bums, voluptuous lips, vibrant colors and long hair produced interesting results. His drawings and paintings are generally of Polynesian women in unusual postures, with exaggerated features, somewhat in the Gauguin tradition of painting native women, but amplified. I loved their vitality.
On his coffee table, the local weekly paper Te Fenua Foou had a report on our rescue of the fisherman and a report of a car accident. In a perfect example of Island Journalism with no names just events, no waves are created, no flaps fashioned. In fact, people seemed incidental to reporting that has cars (not drunk drivers) hurling themselves into rocks. The coconut wireless must fill in the details.
We later met Jean Luc (Luka) David, editor of Te Fenua Foou. He was an ex-cruiser who had arrived at Wallis about four months earlier aboard his yellow thirty-foot plywood boat and had found a journalistic niche to fill. We found his tiny office across from the gendarmerie - a simple set-up with a small digital camera, a Macintosh computer and a two-person staff.
After lunch, Yves and his girlfriend drove us back to Halalo wharf where FellowShip lay at anchor. We made arrangements to meet them at Faioa Island on Sunday for a picnic and barbecue.
That afternoon we paddled our own Klepper kayak over to tiny Nukutapu island, sighting several turtles as they surfaced for air in the calm blue lagoon, creating rings of disturbance that marked their existence. After landing on a small white sand beach we climbed a path lined with fragrant tiare blossoms, burning off a few calories in the process. Reaching the hilltop chapel, we were afforded a view of the fabulous blue and turquoise tableau.
Next on our list of things to do was "Visit Lake Lalolalo". It was, however, so far off the track that we knew getting there would be a bit of an adventure. So, early in the morning, we rowed ashore. After walking through the village of Halalo, we stood on the main road with our thumbs out, patiently waiting for a ride. It was already so hot. Finally a car stopped so its driver could apologize - he wasn't going our way! The second car wasn't going to Lake Lalolalo either, but he said "Jump in!" Our expedition was underway - though we made a quick detour to our driver's mother's house where he unloaded his laundry, some yams and promises to return soon. Then off we went to the lake.
Spectacular! Lake Lalolalo is a large and deep circular crater about two thousand feet in diameter and surrounded by bare red cliffs nearly a hundred feet high - sheer volcanic walls with streaks of oxidized iron and red rock that drop to the water's edge and then down, down, down to the bottom of the crater. At lake level, a small shelf covered by thick green vegetation makes the lake nearly inaccessible. Foster persevered and eventually found a path marked with painted red blazes, then followed it to the bottom.
The water was pea-soup green, thick with plankton, very warm, with tropic birds and bats flying overhead. According to the Wallisians, there are big eels in the water - des anguilles. These creatures are blind due to the acidity of the water in the lower layers.
We didn't see (or feel) any of the blind eels but it was creepy anyway. Trees overhang the shore and you have to swim out from underneath to get a view. The Americans dumped their ammunition here after the war. Later, local fishermen dived to the bottom and retrieved the explosives, using them to blow up fish in the lagoon! The fish population is slowly recovering from the trauma and destruction.
Eventually we hoofed it back down the red dirt road to the main road, passing houses, scores of banana trees heavy with fruit, a school where an old U.S. Navy bell hangs outside to call the kids to class. Though we weren't hitchhiking - gravity was on our side for the descent to the harbor - a car stopped and two lady teachers gave us a ride. They wouldn't let us walk. It was much too hot, they said.
When Saturday came, we returned to Faioa. Yves and two attractive Polynesian sisters, Kivoi and Kati, came alongside about one o'clock and, after a quick tour of FellowShip, they took us to the beach in their motor boat. We spent the afternoon picnicking and paddling the V-12 double canoe Ofolaga around the lagoon; getting roasted in the sun, then cooling off by standing around fully clothed in the water; barbecuing chicken, breadfruit, etc. and then eating! Boy oh boy, how I wished I'd spent more time on my French homework.
On Sunday, Yves and Kivoi came for breakfast at nine. I went all out, making waffles from scratch and serving them with a zillion toppings - real Canadian maple syrup, blueberries, bananas, grated coconut, butter, whipped cream, yogurt. Only later did I discover that the French generally eat a very light breakfast.
Photos came out and Yves, as a boat builder, was especially interested in my collection of canoe photos, some of which had been taken at the National Maritime Museum's 1996 Waka Moana Symposium in Auckland (New Zealand) and used in a subsequent publication. Yves is a great character with a fabulous sense of humor which was frustrating because we often couldn't completely understand his stories! Born in Morocco, Yves had spent the eighties and nineties in Wallis, and loved it.
The American yacht whose skipper had raced off to the gendarmerie during Mayday alert sailed over to Faioa Island to join us in the anchorage. After a foray ashore, Anita, James and son Sparky stopped by FellowShip to introduce themselves. We talked non-stop for a couple of hours before deciding to continue with dinner aboard their boat, Starlight of Santa Barbara.
Anita prepared a divine meal but an ill-advised mix of green home-brewed beer, pastis and cheap red wine contributed to a migraine next day, for me. I think Anita probably had a headache, too. Her husband had been lighting firecrackers on the aft-deck as pre-dinner entertainment - scaring us all!
As luck had it, our stay at Wallis again coincided with a festival! When we arrived back in Mata Utu, the Lavelua (King) and assorted dignitaries were sitting under the eaves on the palace porch, facing nearly forty large cooked pigs and assorted baskets of yams, taro, sugar and flour which were all set out on the massive lawn. Two big "trees" were erected on the marae with colorful lavalavas attached to each branch. These hung limply all morning, but by afternoon they resembled psychedelic streamers flapping in the rain squalls.
On the palace grounds, an elaborate kava ceremony - replete with almost religious overtones - unfolded. Rituals, formalities and protocol were strictly followed. Chants and jerks of the head accompanied each swoosh of the kava around the bowl, then cups were presented to each of the dignitaries, one at a time - a long slow process. For the ceremony itself, I noticed, there were no Wallisian observers (who were conspicuously absent), only a handful of patient pa'alangi (Europeans) like ourselves. Several large men policed the area, making sure that we all remained seated and quiet until everyone of importance was served a bowl of kava. The moment that was done, and as if scripted, local families from all over the island began arriving on the scene. Shortly thereafter, the main entertainment began.
Four different groups took it in turn to sit facing the palace porch and sing for the King. Large denomination bills were dropped into baskets laying on the grass or tucked into performers' floral headdresses. Children had one, two and five thousand franc notes (US $10, $20 and $50 bills) stuck in their headdresses and down their shirts. According to the local newspaper, more than US$45,000 was collected in a few hours. I'd never seen so much cash! Donations would support the learning disabled, a church-related overseas trip and two village projects.
Afterwards, a crowd gathered down at the wharf for the start of the canoe race. Ten sailing pirogues were rigged and ready to depart. Now was my last chance. If I wanted to sail on one, I'd have to act fast!
I blathered away in broken French to a skipper whose canoe was still beside the wharf and pleaded: "Please! Let me sail! It's no problem. I'm a sailor!" I can't believe I had the nerve to ask and was stunned when the Wallisian captain, after a moment's hesitation, said yes. I scrambled on board before he changed his mind and made myself as tiny and inconspicuous as possible.
The teamwork was great! The race course was about eight miles long, from the wharf at Mata Utu to the beach at Gahi and back. It was fantastic to witness the seriousness and competitiveness of the Wallisian sailors and to see how well the canoes sailed.
Our canoe led the competition most of the way but we lost our wind, and our lead, near the finish. After the race, I threw the skipper a small gift and scrambled ashore on some rocks, beaming. I had sailed on a big canoe!
CHAPTER NOTES :
Note 1 - This had changed on a return trip 3 years later... A small shop on the north side of the bay had opened up, run by a friendly family who also enjoyed my chocolate cake! In the end, they insisted on giving us bananas, then coco-cola, then they wouldn't let me pay for my bread. A little niceness (in both directions) often goes a long way! We had no problems leaving the dinghy on their beach and when we were short of water they let us fill our jugs from their tap - which only worked at certain times of the day. From time to time, individual yachts reported stressed relations with the chief at Gahi. We never figured out why.
Note 2 - When we returned to Wallis three years later, we found that the Vakalasi project was never completed. It is reputed to have cost 20,000,000 cpf (about $200,000 US) in grants and donations to build the double-hulled pirogue but the boat was a bust. An estimated 20,000,000 cpf more was needed for the proposed 3,000 mile epic voyage which was to have followed the Lapita Trail from the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern coast of PNG to New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Futuna, Wallis.
Note 3 - Finally we had a choice beyond fish, yams, bananas and coconuts. All kinds of foodstuffs are available at Wallis, but luxury items like black forest cake, exotic cheeses, escargot and strawberries, everything (except baguettes) are imported and expensive. Prices for fruits, vegetables, eggs, sandwich bread, etc. were three to four times higher than in New Zealand. On the bright side - (1) there are no quarantine regulations so you can provision before arriving and (2) there are no fees associated with checking in or out of the country which, in my mind, offset the high cost of food.
Note 4 - As an archaeologist working in France's Pacific Territories, Daniel Frimigacci has impressed the Wallisians and nearby Futunans with the nature of his work. By excavating tombs and prehistoric garbage dumps as well as ancient building sites and fortifications, he has been busy digging up the past and earning his nickname "The Doctor of Tombs". In fact, he told me, "They were absolutely bewildered when I returned the next year and I was still living, and touched me to see if I was a ghost or a real person ..." More recent discoveries include a Lapita pottery site on Wallis.
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