Meryle Thomsom's world circumnavigation is now long behind her, but there is one place in particular that she will always remember – Suvarov in the Cook Islands.
“Suvarov is the most beautiful place on earth, and no man has really lived until he has lived there.”
When we sailed across the South Pacific Ocean, one place my husband Helmut and I definitely intended to make a landfall on was the island of Suvarov. An image of the island had been planted in our minds from the day we had first read the story of Tom Neale and the above words.
New Zealand born, Tom had spent a considerable time roaming the Pacific before learning of Suvarov. A well thumbed copy of the book he wrote describing the years he chose to live there in solitude, An Island to Oneself, had been passed on to us by fellow cruising sailors, with the above sentence heavily underlined.
Reading the account of his self-sufficient lifestyle – and the determination with which he pursued his dream of living alone on a tropical island – had certainly struck a chord. Tom was of course no longer there because ill health forced him to return to Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, where he died of cancer. But his legacy remained. We knew the hut he lived in was still standing.
We were sailing to Suvarov from our last port in French Polynesia, the island of Bora Bora.
Another German yacht that we had shared several anchorages with was about a day ahead of us. On our daily radio schedule we kept track of progress. Guenther and his crew member aboard the Nova were covering the 600nm very smoothly until he noticed his GPS was no longer giving him a position reading.
The sextant was duly retrieved from its box and Guenther, ex-German navy, plotted his position the old-fashioned way. However, as we drew closer to the low-lying atoll, the thick clouds of a thunderstorm rolled in. Guenther knew he was getting close to Suvarov, but would have felt much better if he knew precisely how close. A plotted position accurate to within a few miles is fine when you have plenty of sea room, but not when you are approaching a reef.
As Fallado closed in on the entrance into the atoll, we conferred over the radio. We had our eyes pealed for the few tell-tale clumps of tall palm trees that would indicate the islets that dotted the encircling reef.
Soon our radar was picking up intermittently the waves breaking onto the still unseen reef. Could we see him on our radar screen? Guenther queried. No, but the Nova was only a small boat and a nine-metre boat rising up and down in the swell was not easily picked up. Guenther did not have a radar, so there was no chance of him seeing us on his screen. What could he do to make his boat give off a better signal for us to receive?
A radar reflector mounted high on the mast would certainly help. How could he improvise one? Winched up the mast by his crew, Guenther wrapped a length of aluminium foil tightly around the mast. For good measure he then attached all the pots from his galley to the main halyard and winched them up to the top as well. Good in theory, but the result wasn't any better. Scanning the horizon for any sign of our friend's boat, I took in the banks of cloud ahead. If I could describe them, and our bearing in relation to them, maybe Guenther could work out our position in relation to his? Aha! He could. But from the position he could now place himself in, we realised he wouldn't be able to make it to the entrance before nightfall.While we were able to make it through the reef pass and drop anchor in the peaceful lagoon, Guenther had to stand off until the following morning.When we poked our heads out of the porthole the next day he was already anchored beside us, keen to share his side of the excitement of his approach to Suvarov over several cups of freshly brewed coffee.
The following days we spent anchored off the island were not without further excitement.
First was the buzz of taking the dinghy ashore to Anchorage Islet and entering Tom Neale's former home. Built originally to house watchers sent from New Zealand to monitor enemy shipping movements during World War II, the dilapidated shack was home to Tom for about 17 years. Now part of it was being used by a family from one of the neighbouring islands, appointed caretakers by the Cook Island government, because the island was now a wildlife reserve. The male members of this affable family checked our passports, officially welcoming us to Suvarov and invited us to a beach barbecue that evening. Along with the eight or so other cruising boats in the anchorage, we enjoyed a lovely night ashore, with each crew adding some sort of dish from their onboard stores to the mounds of barbecued seafood and coconuts the caretaker family supplied.
Suvarov has a reputation for having a healthy population of resident sharks, and that day Helmut got much more “up close and personal” than he ever cares to be again with several of the “locals”. While spearfishing in the pass with the caretaker's family, the young boy had handed him a freshly shot parrot fish and instructed him to swim back up to the dinghy with it. Attracted immediately to the blood in the water, several black-tip reef sharks zeroed in.While Helmut swam furiously towards the dinghy, struggling to hold the bleeding fish out of the water, the young boy attempted to kick the sharks out of the way. I don't think I have ever seen Helmut leap out of the water as fast as he did that day. An excursion to one of the other motus in the lagoon to look for coconut crabs and frigate birds was quite an adventure too.
A week or so later, as we sailed away from Suvarov's pristine and idyllic shores, neither of us had any reason to argue with the description of the island Tom had so aptly recorded in his book.