Oh Rurutu, how I love thee!
You know how every travel magazine has those lists that seem to come out each year with a title that reads something along the lines of “Best Islands You’ve Never Heard Of”? Well, Rurutu is so unheard of that it slips through every single one of those lists, and a part of me is so glad that it does… so I’m not going to blog about it. The end. Just kidding – buckle in, this one is a long one.
Why do I love Rurutu?? Three reasons: Piggies. Whales. Caves.
Why do I hate Rurutu?? Sea Leeches.
When arriving to the tiny airport of Rurutu, we stepped off the plane and were immediately surrounded by locals welcoming their family and friends back from their adventures, carrying coolers full of fresh fish from the other islands. We were promptly greeted by our welcoming pension host, Variamu. How did he spot us right away? Well with only 20 tourists on the island that week (and only one other tourist in the airport), it wasn’t hard to pick out which of us coming off the plane were not locals. He handed us each hand-woven leis that he wove himself that morning, marveled at how two people could need so many suitcases, and then took us along the windy cliff-side road (the only road) on the island to one of only four pensions in all of Rurutu, where we were greeted by his friendly Welsh wife, Elin. Variamu built the pension, Teautamatea, himself on one of the most intriguing pieces of land we have ever seen, with ancient maraes as a backyard and the Pacific Ocean as the front yard. To quote Elin, “If your husband isn’t going to build your house, who the heck is out here?”
Backing up a bit – how does one end up on an island so far removed from tourism? Well, if you know Patrick, you know he loves photography, being underwater, and being a cheapskate. Back in March, Patrick watched a documentary about a photographer who set out to film humpback whales off the coast of Tonga – one of the few places in the world you can get in the water next to these magnificent animals. Immediately, Patrick knew we HAD to add Tonga to our trip – He could be THAT photographer! And then he saw the price… nope, nada, no way – no Tonga for us. Two days later, on the Air Tahiti website, a small text blurb mentioned that the Austral Islands of French Polynesia see a huge influx of humpback whales every year during the months of July through October. We found out that Rurutu was essentially undiscovered, a fraction of the price, and perfect for our itinerary!
So a little bit about Rurutu (other than the fact that it is my favorite place on this planet): Rurutu is the northern most Austral archipelago island of French Polynesia, formed by an old coral reef and a pair of consecutive volcanic hotspots, which eventually rose above sea level to create a mountainous island full of lush rain forests, hiking trails, caves, and a reef sheltering hundreds of humpback whales. Farming is one of the main occupations taken up by the locals, so the island is full of various fruit, vegetable, and pig farms.
For those of you that know me, you probably know that I have an ever so slight OBSESSION with pigs! I LOVE them so stinkin’ much (enough to follow multiple pigs on Facebook and Instagram), so landing on an island littered in pigs (and pig litters, as it were) might have been my dream come true! Even our pension had little baby piggies that ran around and let you pet them! I was warned by our pension host not to get too attached, but I promptly ignored that advice and made best friends with the mama piggy and her babies out in our backyard. They wouldn’t let me squeeze them, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try. Given the time, I definitely would have warmed one up enough to let me to give it a big ole’ squeeze.
But I wasn’t given the time…
One afternoon, I was awoken from a nice relaxing nap to the unbearable sound of a pig squealing a most horrible squeal right outside my window! And then puff!!! NO MORE MAMA PIGGY! I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye properly. The best I could do was to hope that pork wasn’t on the menu for any of the following nights at the pension.
Needless to say, the sea was salty with my tears the next morning… Which brings us to the next adventure – SNORKELING WITH MOTHER F&%$ING HUMPBACK WHALES! Sorry for the language/insinuation of bad language, but seriously… how else do you describe swimming with MOTHER F&%$ING HUMPBACK WHALES?! Patrick and I came to Rurutu with hopes to swim with one or two humpback whales over the course of our twelve anticipated hours out on a boat (broken up into four trips), but what we didn’t expect was to see whales all over the place, and swim with multiples of them every freakin’ time we went out!
To paint a picture of what it’s like to go whale ‘watching’ in Rurutu: Around 8am island time (always allowing for a one hour window), we were picked up by our guide in his truck, driven along the cliff side road, where you could look out into the blue and see whales jumping, blowing, etc. all over the place. As we arrived to the dock, we suited up, and headed out onto the tiny boat in which we shared with only the captain and our guide. We then drove out into the lagoon area, and waited for the whales to mozey on over, which rarely ever took long. Our guide would jump into the water to check if the conditions were favorable, and would signal with a quick wave of his hand. Following the signal was a mad dash to get our asses in the water and to the whales as fast as possible, kicking like freakin’ ninjas – our guide didn’t necessarily have what most would consider an ’athletic’ body, but damn he could swim! Then the magic happened – we would float like blobs on top of the water as one or two humpback whales would curiously wander around us, flapping their fins on the water, singing to each other, swimming right under us, and then eventually leaving once they got bored of the flailing little creatures on top of the water – mind you them getting bored sometimes took over an hour.
So to help paint an even better picture, here are some actual pictures taken by my amazing photographer of a husband, Patrick:
And a video by me (I am aware that my GoPro skills need some work):
What’s crazy about Rurutu is that it is as beautiful above water as it is underwater. The island is lined with oceanside caves that with enough determination and lack of fear of heights, you can climb up to! Patrick and I signed up to have a guide take us to the more difficult caves of the island where we scaled cliffs, pet piggies (of course), and watched our guide smoke his way through no less than 18 cigarettes over the course of the hike. Getting up to the caves was no joke – at one point, our guide had to tell us exactly where to put our hands and feet as we scaled up what looked like an unclimbable cliff. Oh and did I mention that our guide did this entirely in flip flops and was missing several fingers?!
On our last day in Rurutu, we ditched the guide and did a bit of exploratory hiking ourselves, intending to tackle a hike that our pension host told us to make sure to do at low tide. Patrick explained to me that it was low tide (it wasn’t), and that we had plenty of daylight left to do the hike (we didn’t). I was expecting more of a walk along the beach, but Patrick had different plans. He told me to put on my scuba diving boots just in case we had to walk through any not so sandy bit of water – I agreed that it might be a good idea, and set out on our romantic beach walk in my hot pink skirt and booties.
Our beach walk started on sand, sand became rocks, rocks became bigger rocks, and then finally the rocks became caves. We scaled up to a sweet cave system that sits right above the beach practically screaming, “come explore me!” Watching whales play in the ocean during golden hour, while sitting in a cave was a picture perfect ending to our week in Rurutu. However, whilst in the cave, two other observations were made: 1) That the sun sure is setting fast and 2) If I didn’t know better, I’d say the waves are starting to crash over our hiking trail.
Fast forward one stressful hour of hightailing it across the outer reef, we found ourselves trapped on a thin scrap of exposed reef 400 meters (yeah buddy – we use the metric system now!) directly out from our pension. With no choice left, we started our trek through the water – hot pink skirt and all. Fine, we can deal with a little late night swimming, normally… but normally, the water is not filled with these bad boys:
Sea. Leeches. Two leeches for every square meter? Sure. Why not make it three? Done. We picked our way over the leeches, carefully and slowly, and then, ATTACK! Sea leech velcroed (yes, it felt like velcro) onto my exposed ankle! “AHHHHHHHHH Patrick get it off me right now!!!! WHAT IS IT? WHAT IS IT?” Then my hero: “NO, I’m not touching that!!!”
Surely enough, after flinging it around his face enough times, he eventually came to my rescue, swatting at the sea leech with his back pack.
Moral of the story – don’t go with Patrick on a ‘romantic walk on the beach’.
Forever Extending Our Honeymoon,
Samantha & Patrick (whale speaking extraordinaires)
p.s. For more whales pics, check out Patrick’s website: http://www.saltyshutterphotography.com/whales/