A Miniature Circumnavigation

Whenever people who see us living on a sailboat ask me: “So you’re sailing around the world?” my boilerplate answer is: “No, we’re not going around it. It’s too beautiful to pass it by like that. We are sailing into it!” So most of the time the thought of circumnavigation is far from our mind’s daily business. Although it looks like my life, with a bit more of luck on my side, might be a slow motion trod around our magnificent and sphere-shaped spaceship Earth. I’m getting old and cranky, but so far have made it just about half way around the globe since I was born fifty years ago in the land of the brave mountain folks of Switzerland. When it comes to the jewel of a South Sea island, however, it’s all a very different matter. You can’t go into it without whacking yourself senseless cutting a small groove through the pyramidal stilt roots of the pandanus trees, tripping over half rotten and sprouted coconuts and facing the swarms of flies and mosquitoes buzzing about in the damp and sweltering heat. It makes sense then to find your way around it by wandering barefoot in fine bright golden sand and let your retinas be awash in brilliant turquoise shimmer framed by white and rolling breakers crashing out there on the barrier reef.

Uoleva Island is the best, we were told in unequivocal terms by the customs guy in his tiny office in Pangai on our arrival, and you should heed local advice whenever possible! This little island sits next on the string of pearls making up the Ha’apai archipelago to the Southwest of Lifuka Island where we had landed and checked in. The sail out of Pangai harbor through the pass in the reef was most pleasant for once, the wind slightly to the South of East. Then we were on a broad reach for about five miles in the lee of the islands. A whale watching boat was out there and had three swimmers in the water next to a mother and calf humpback whales. The baby seemed to be quite willing to put on a show and breached five times right next to the goggled and neoprene suited humanoids. Then we had to make our way around the extensive Kito reef that sits to the Northeast of the island. Uoleva island is roughly banana shaped if you look at it from space through the satellite lenses of Google Earth, albeit with an extra spit sticking out of its crescent belly. The most protected anchorage is found to the South of that spit where you’re comfortably wedged between the wide bay, Kito reef, and another reef that juts out from the South spit, protected from most weather and swells. Not many cruisers visit the Ha’apais because of this lack of secure anchorages. You’re protected from most weather, but there’s always the possibility of something brewing up that could turn your pleasant tropical vacation into some sort of a nightmare.

That was definitely not going to happen today. The winds were steady from the Southeast, the sea around anchored Aluna flat and calm. We set out on our barefoot circumnavigation by mid morning after our usual sturdy breakfast. Once we had rounded the spit on the banana’s belly and wandered into the next bight, Aluna was out of sight and we decided not to worry about her for a day. The sun was harsh and shone down between heaps of cumulus clouds travelling overhead in trade wind style. The beach was rather steep with an incline just past the curved lines where the highest licks of high tide had left their light loads of flotsam, then up towards a bank of sand and limestone from where roots of plants jotted out gingerly without proper support. Palm trees leaning out over the beach and maintaining their noble attire by recurving upwards made for picture perfect calendar sheet appearances, but on those products of careful editing you never feel the many flies, the scorching sun, the hissing wind and many other of the local annoyances. This real life paradise clearly had many devils and angels coexisting. Tracks of feral pigs meandered through the sand ahead of us and the whole interior of the island was churned and ploughed up by the noisy noses of their kin. A little more walking brought us to the Northern extremity, where a lonely slender sand spit jots out into the reef towards the neighbor island of Lifuka. The sea was all churned up with jumpy white-capped wavelets dancing in tidal currents running against the wind. I stepped out into knee-deep waters and felt the sloshing liquid pull me hence and forth alternatively in an undefined rhythm of not belonging. Looking back from this unsettled vantage point the little landmass we were wandering around had shrunk to a narrow clump of grey green shuddering in the wind.

The stroll down the windward side turned out to be even more picturesque. A turquoise reef with dark green and purple spots stretched out for almost a mile seaward, at the end of which a throbbing line of bright white rolling breakers defined the transition to the deep and dark blue ocean. Beyond that the ocean floor invisibly dropped to uncharted depths, where otherworldly critters with grim faces, haunted eyes and globs of bioluminescence make a living in a world quite literally under tremendous pressure. Does something exist just because we’ve learned about it in geography books and TV documentaries? I had no way to prove it. The visible world around us surely was beaming with all kinds of critters. Clusters of snails clung to the exposed slabs of petrified coral fortresses, waiting for the next tidal immersion to continue grazing the nooks and crannies of this primordial skeleton for a slew of new denizens making their home in the pulses of the tidal zone. Abandoned shells of peculiar shapes and forms in pastel colors with patterned grooves and coated with shiny smooth mother of pearl on their previous insides laid half buried in coarse sand grains, some getting a second life as a protective cocoon for the tender end of armies of Mr. and Mrs. Crabbie, who with tiny suction cups on even tinier little legs cling to the ever narrowing channels leading into the spiral hollow of snail shells whose limber builders have long been assimilated into the eternal karmic recreation of life. As soon as their airborne eyes perceive the slightest hint of an approaching poacher they retreat their holy wholeness into the depth of the spiral cave and seal the entrance with a tight fitting mosaic composed of an interlocking maze of segments from their claws and legs. It took some serious courtship to get this little friend to give up the hiding and say hello to you!

A school of little foot-long sharks bobbed up and down in the troughs and peaks of wind-induced ripples a couple yards from shore. I imagined them being youngster submarine predators who without the oppressive restraint of a classroom are learning the tricks of their trades on their own applying the ancient pedagogical method of trial and error. Again and again I observed them dashing towards the uncertain shallows of the surf, snap up some prey unperceivable to my range of optical receptors, then snap their slender bodies seaward just before a rolling mass of water could flip them belly up onto the sand. On that same sand a flock of sand pipers with upturned beaks took flight on our approach emitting scornful squeaks into the wind telling the tale of hard earned meals spoilt by two plump legged and flightless intruders into their stilt walking world. A row of grass seeds has sprouted in the curved groove of a fallen and slowly rotting stem, nourishing their gleaming green from cellulose fibers through a web of roots into the soaked darkness of decay.

The sun had slid across its zenith point and a bight in the vegetation provided some shaded shelter for a lunch snack. Two cucumber sandwiches came out of the rucksack, a handful of sliced coconut meat donated a hint of culinary variety, and two yellow bananas were resting like twin sisters on the spread out picnic cloth, ready for their ultimate saliva-induced transformation into hydrocarbon fuels for our final leg around the South end of the island.

There was a short palm tree next to us, its nutrient-manufacturing crown not yet dizzyingly high in the sky and its trunk inclined towards the sea. I was able to pull my tired body up the stem and with a good amount of persistence and patience and with the help of a sturdy stick I could nibble two nuts from a dangling cluster. They dropped through the air along the gravity induced space-time curvature and landed with a mottled thump in the wet sand below. A little flip-up knife I happen to carry with me for just these kinds of occasions helped me carve a funnel shaped opening in the head of the nut, where a moment ago it had been attached to the nurturing juices of the mother plant. Looking for the soft spot within the biggest of three eyes in the nut’s shell I stuck the sharp blade tip into it and twisted the knife in a circle around its longitudinal axis. That’s everything needed to get at the sweet and refreshing reservoir of water available to man and many other beasts during even the toughest draught on most any tropical island.

Bodily refreshed we went about completing the roundabout that took quite bit longer than we thought. The South extremity turned out to be more rocky, for some stretches we had to climb over slabs of sharp and abrasive coral rock, and were glad to have taken our sandals with us just in case. Plastic flotsam was wedged between the dark grey pieces and had been strewn about the sandy beach all along. This is quite unfortunately an ever-present nuisance on just about every beach I have seen on our travels so far. It’s been transported all across the globe by the powerful ocean currents. Today we saw a blue plastic wine bottle from Ecuador; fragments of PVC pipe from Peru; plenty of sneakers and flip-flops, all lonely individuals having been separated into uselessness from their complementary partner on a long and watery journey of planetary circulation; fishing floats smashed to pieces by the surf; literally hundreds of plastic bottles of any imaginable shape, with and without lids and labels; remnants of marker pens devoid of any color; pale toothbrushes with uncombed bristles; shavers with their blades gone, rusted away by the salty ocean; the fuselage of a red toy airplane; a fluorescent tube without neon shine; and finally a blue plastic cup in such decent shape that we rescued it to become part of Aluna’s kitchen arsenal. Here’s yet another piece of the landscape of reality that most likely would not make it onto the calendar sheet or the cover picture of the travel brochure. Always question what you see and be very weary of any dream that’s being sold to you!

The sun was hanging low in a hazy sky to the West when we finally turned the last of the many corners on our girdling stroll of the banana island. Aluna could be seen from afar floating peacefully on anchor in this harshly real dreamscape. The long and many years that went into building her from a stack of plywood sheets at the foot of a giant Redwood tree in the welcoming backyard of some very friendly folks are fast fading away into a distant past with no more pain and suffering. And we continue every day to work as hard as we can on staying awake with wide-open eyes while pursuing what we want to emerge from deep in our hearts and what we wish for high in the sky and down here on Earth.

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