Yeah, we made it over 3500nm from Chile to the South Eastern side of French Polynesia. It certainly wasn’t an easy passage, but it was much better experience than what we later hear from other cruisers. Many crossed from Panama, Mexico, and Ecuador. Some of them took up to 42 days to cross, but most took around 25 days. And nobody arrived to the Gambiers Heritage Festival. If I might be so bold to say…we chose a better route.
We first saw land in the wee hours of the morning. There are 14 small islands that make up the Gambier archipelago, but there are only 5 that are visited by outsiders. It was a beautiful site to see this lush hill side.
It was smooth sailing until we turned to enter the channel. The wind was howling at over 30 kts, we were burying the bow of our boat 2-3′ of water and it was a skinny pass between coral reefs. Thank goodness we have good charts.
Rikitea is the main town of the Gambiers Islands and it is located on Mangareva. This anchorage was better than the channel, but it was still rolly and we were seeing white caps all around. 90 meters of chain was dropped in 18 meters of water. We were immediately greeted by fellow cruisers that we had met in Bonaire and Panama. There were also several boats that we recognized as are part of the Panama Posse, a group we joined to get to know other cruisers heading to French Poly.
It was fortuitous that we arrived just in time to participate in the Gambiers Heritage Festival. We of course did not know what the Heritage Festival entailed, but we did know it was a party or sorts!
The festival actually started the day before we arrived and would last for 4 days. The entire island is on holiday even the festivities are only in the evenings. Dancers and musicians from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hao, Makemo, and Mangareva were competing for prizes.
Regardless, it appears they have learned how to shake their hips in a way that fascinated me. I too will learn how to do a French Polynesian dance, some day soon!
A theme is designed first, then each dancer creates their own costume. The outfits are made from local plants and flowers and accented with feathers. So, even though they look similar from afar, up close they are an individual display of beauty. Solo dancers, who were highlighted throughout the night, had their own unique costume that accentuated their beauty.
The women had a variety of costumes as well. There were at least two women who were singled out in a few dances.
The musicians from each island mostly played a variety of drums. Or at least what we westerners would call drums, I am sure they had Polynesian names for each instrument. Each island group had a very different beat and sound making their performances enchanting.
In addition to the variety of dances each night, they had vendors selling their local wares including pearl jewelry, hand carved oyster shells, and Polynesian scarves, hats, and wraps. What was more surprising was that the majority of the local women all wore pearls. Either earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hair clips, but something had a pearl in it. Their every day jewelry. Surprising when I am used to only seeing pearls at formal events.
At the end of the last day, they had spiritual leaders (standing on rock) ask the dancers to go into the crowd, gather a partner and bring them out to the center area for a dance party.
In addition to the performances at the Heritage Festival, they also had several booths selling Polynesian items including pearls, clothing, and sundries.
After everyone was done dancing, they fed everyone! And I mean everyone, all the dancers, performers, locals, cruisers, and tourists. I completely failed to get a photo of the food, but I promise you, it was unique!
This was a magnificent way to start off our time in French Polynesia. As if they were welcoming us to their country, their islands, and their homes. The Heritage Festival will always remind me of the Gambiers.