Words by Geoff Mueller, Photos by Kat Mueller
UGO ANGALY, a gargantuan Polynesian man, picks me out of the Rangiroa baggage line and throws a ring of flowers around my neck. No dancing. No ukulele serenade. Just straight to the business of hauling roller duffels onto the boat for a ride into remote South Pacific bonefish territory. After an hour and a half run we arrive at Motu Teta – a private island on a mostly uninhabited sliver of crushed coral. It’s flawless: Palm trees. Manicured gardens. Traditional thatched roof accommodations. And a serene bay with resident bones, blacktip sharks and a pet moray eel named Princess Yvonne.
The Motu Teta vibe perfectly fits author James Michener’s descriptions in Tales of South Pacific: “ Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description….the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”
Michener never mentions bonefish. But in the 2008 film, Bonefishing!, adds this in-depth report: “Visitors to the Tahiti atolls should consider packaging a fly rod” But it was a 24 year old Basalt, Colorado, Fishing guide names Raphael Fasi, who showed me Fasi has been visiting and fishing Rangiroa for the past three years. “I didn’t know what bonefish really looked like underwater because I’d only seen pictures of them” he says “Then I started walking around the island and seeing big tails. I’ve been exploring it ever since.”
Fasi’s family runs the place where we’re staying on the eastern edge of the lagoon, near a massive flat called Pink Sands. Pre-trip, he relayed promising fishing reports via email, including crooked, out of focus selfies because he fishes alone. Despite the questionable photos and the fact that Fasi hadn’t seen a flat much beyond his Polynesian front porch, we booked flights to the Tuamotus and kept expectations grounded.
When seafarers first aimed compasses toward Polynesia, they departed scurvy-ridden ships to find swinging hips and topless women. Over time, authors like Michener and Herman Melville helped paint a picture of a mythical, sometimes dangerous, sec-changed South Seas. Melville lived among cannibals on the Marquesas for three weeks. He was never eaten, but fell in lust with a nubile native. Marlon Brando did the same in contemporary times, traveling to Tahiti in the 1960s to film Mutiny on the Bounty, and marrying his Tahitian co-star Tarita Teriipaia.
Polynesia includes more than 1,000 islands scattered over the central southern Pacific Ocean, bookended by Hawaii to the northeast and New Zealand to the southwest. French Polynesia is best known for Tahiti-part of the Leeward and Windward islands that form the Society Archipelago. The Tuamotus, Gambiers, Marquesas, and Australs are the island groups that make up the remainder of this semi-autonomous country—one that still receives large cash infusions from France, its former owner.
The Tuamotu Archipelago consists of 77 coral atolls, spanning more than 900 miles. From the island of Tahiti the closest of the Tuamotus sits approximately 190 miles to the north. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in the chain. On Google Maps it looks like a skeletal blip of ribs, femurs and clavicles, encircling one of the world’s largest, fish-rich saltwater lagoons.
There’s no cell service on Rangiroa and nowhere to check e-mail. The island runs on generator power that turns off every night around 9. Blackout is enhanced by an upside down big dipper and hibernating hermit crabs crawling out of their shells, one spindly leg at a time. We close our eyes to the distant thunder of crashing surf.
When daylight comes, good bonefishing is in sight. Literally, we awake to a tailing fish on a coral flat that we can see from our bed. Rangiroa is made up of numerous small islands Polynesians refer to as motus. On their coral edges, where big ocean beats up on little ocean, there’s a landing strip, coconut farms, two major flats and more than 300 inlets or hoas. Not technically a flat, hoas have wadeable water along their inner edges, where you can trek down one side and up the other without having to cross its deep water center. Bonefish frequent this skinny water, along with plenty of sharks.
Exploring our mini-motu at pre-dawn, with spawning shrimp tethered to a 9-weight, no more tails are found. So we go back and have breakfast – piles of cheese and croissants—and map out a plan. The Pink Sands are about a half-hour run from the outpost, where Fasi has been sticking fish prior to our arrival. Beneath the dock we spot a mega-bone, wide-shouldered and hovering in about six feet of water. Several casts are made before the fish spooks away.
At the other end of the dock is Fasi’s “flats skiff” – a 23 foot tritoon with no casting deck or poling platform. But it’s equipped to party, with plush seating for beer guzzling westerners. The swill of choice, indigenous Hinano beer, tastes like the tropics: light, airy and sweet. And with a Tahitian princess stuck on its sweaty exterior, it has a way better label than Bud. With Hinanos in hand, the tritoon gets us to where we’re going: secluded flats teeming with blacktips and a handful of lemon sharks. Tourists target both Blue Lagoon and Pink Sands flats just for this shark spectacle. Guides chum up the fish and clients feed them buckets of blood and guts. They seem to be habituated to our presence, anticipating the meal of all meals. We spread out and march onto their dinner plate.
Tailing bones press up against shallow edges, where palm trees jut skyward. And in the knee-to waist deep water, singles and doubles cruise in and out of view. At midday we’re met with high sun, prevailing easterly winds, and disappearing fish. But Fasi’s eyes are good and we hook a few more. Back at the ranch, resident blacktips are waiting on the innards of two Bluefin trevally we’ll cook for dinner. With wire tippet Albright knotted to an 80-pound leader, we fire off into the darkness. Sharks burn line toward dock pylons and their skin feels like sandpaper when we tail them on the beach. This becomes an evening ritual for the next few nights. Sharks. Cocktails. Fish dinner. Sleep.
During daylight hours, DIY wading is the bonefishing way. Ugo, a Polynesian native who lives on Motu Teta seasonally with wife/chef extraordinaire Celine, takes clients on excursions. And Fasi has ambitions to run bonefish specific trips in the future. Ugo plays guide on day two and has me casting to everything that swims; jacks, snapper, and the occasional bone. The first fish is a large single that speeds toward deep water, then hauls ass even faster when a couple of blacktips race onto the scene. The bonefish takes its final gurgle of salt and explodes in the shark’s maw, while I reel in a lonely, fly-less leader.
At Rangiroa we see more singles and double than large schools and most days we hook about a half-dozen a piece. They’re fish in the 4-to 6 pound range and not shy to eat a fly. But it’s the big one under the dock I want. Fasi has caught several battleship fish in and around this motu oasis, and on our last day we forgo the pink and run 15 minutes south to explore the hoas.
Fasi beaches the boat, kicks out an anchor and wanders shallow. I stick to the deep-water edge and soon we’re chasing three bones. The last one is larger with a tail throwing salt spray left and right as it buries its nose into the crusty bottom. It follows my fly within feet of where I’m standing and I farm my shrimp directly from its hungry lips. So I make a Hail Mary, drop it back in and he eats it.
It’s a beautiful specimen, like it was raised proper on brie, pastries, and good Polynesian living. Fish in hand, I can’t help but think that the waiting – that “timeless, repetitive waiting” – was worth it.
By Michael Gebicki,
“EH, mes amis, come on! Let’s go and get some fish, its a nice day, no?” Actually, no. It’s raining off and on, the wind is howling, the sea is quarrelsome and I see no reason to leave where I am, thanks very much, because it’s pretty dishy. I have a cook at my beck and all, a well-stocked fridge, lots of books and a 100cm flat-screen television with a pile of DVDs. But it’s Ugo Angelic doing the talking, and this is not a man to be denied. “We meet at loam, at the jetty,” he says. We clamber aboard his boat and set off east along the chain of motus, the string of sand and coral islets that form the necklace that is Rangiroa in French Polynesia.
Each motu is a slightly different variation on the same elements of sand and coconut palms on an upside-down coral saucer. On the ocean side is a limestone platform with a live coral ribbon where waves batter against the reef. After about 45 minutes we reach the most easterly of Rangiroa’s motus and in its lee we beach at a sand cay, a comma of pink tinted sand about 100m long, rising to just half a metre above the waves. As our bow crunches into the sand, several dark shapes converge on the stern of the boat. “Come on my babies,” booms Ugo. “Ah, here’s Odette and Henri, and look, there’s Paul come to say bonjour.” Within a minute a dozen black tipped reef sharks are circling the stern. By this time we’re standing ankle deep and Heiarii, Ugo’s wingman, is heaving chunks of raw fish into the water while the sharks zoom in and snatch. Meanwhile, Ugo has installed a noose of heavy black rope in the water, with the bottom buried in the sand and the top floating. Slowly, Heiarii is working the sharks toward the noose. They circle closer and closer as they chomp the hunks of bloody fish, darting away from the noose at the very last moment. Heiarii is almost down to his last piece of fish when one of the bigger sharks glides through the noose, Ugo pulls and the beast is hauled thrashing on to the beach.
Ugo loosens the rope, grabs the shark just below the pectoral fins and heaves it into the air. The shark is not taking kindly to this; it’s thrashing violently from side to side, 20kg of muscle and jaws fighting for its life. “Go ahead,” says Ugo between clenched teeth. “Touch it.” So I do, tentatively, on the stomach. Finally he lays it gently back in the water and the shark swims off. On the way back we stop to snorkel among the coral bommies that blotch the Listerine-blue of the lagoon. It’s the standard roll call of tropical marine life, with the addition of more sharks and a big cod. Ugo stops at each bommie for about 30 seconds for a quick look, then swims like mad to the next, which might be 30m away. In a choppy sea with a current, it’s the most energetic snorkeling I’ve done.
Now it’s time for a spot of fishing. Ugo loads up his Shakespeare Ugly Stik rod with his favourite squid lure and the Penn reel sings as he drops a 65m cast within the shadow of a reef. On the third cast, Ugo winds in a perch, which he releases. A couple more and there’s a trevally. He wants to let it go but it’s swallowed the lure. Death is swift. “Dinner,” says Ugo. It’s mid-afternoon by the time we get back to the jetty at Motu Tetaraire, or Motu Teta for short. This is my island home, because for the duration of my stay, I am sovereign lord of this barefoot, pint-sized kingdom of crystalline sand and coconut palms. Motu Teta is a private island with two villas, a rare thing in French Polynesia. This is the native home of the overwater bungalow, a species that thrives in the sheltered lagoons that are the distinguishing characteristic of French Polynesia.
The Main Villa has two big bedrooms with king-sized beds and another with a single bed. Each of the main bedrooms has an ensuite bathroom. In the middle is the lounge, dining room and kitchen. From waist up, the panels that make up the walls can be swung open to the trade winds. At the front is a big deck with couches and loungers from where coconut palms and pandanus frame the lagoon of Rangiroa. Guest Bungalow Royals is smaller, but it still has two decent sized bedrooms with queen beds, a lounge room in the middle and a timber deck at the front. The entire island and its two villas are sold as a package. The price tag might cause an initial attack of giddiness, but if you can put together a group of six or eight, it’s about par for the price per person of an overwater bungalow on one of the better establishments on Bora Bora. And at Motu Teta, there are the advantages of sovereignty and significantly superior add-ons. I can walk around the 3.6ha island in less than 15 minutes, but there are distractions. There are sea vistas framed by swooning coconut palms, and red-clawed hermit crabs the size of a mandarin that will only emerge if I am quiet and patient. I might slip into the deep water by the jetty for a dip, with a quick check on the whereabouts of Princess Yvonne, an enormous moray eel that lives under the jetty. I can also snorkel among coral that begins in the knee-deep water right in front of the Main Villa. There is also the intangible advantage of the privilege of exclusivity.
There is no sound that is not made by wind and sea, no boats on the horizon, no sign of human habitation and nobody else can come on board without my say-so. Motu Teta also comes with a charming cook, Celine, Ugo’s wife, who brews up fresh coffee when she hears me stirring shortly after daybreak. And then there’s Ugo: boatman, naturalist, multilingual guide, as brown as a nutmeg, shoulders like a charolais bull and then some. Ugo is here to do my bidding, in theory. But in fact we’re in no doubt who’s boss here. By virtue of the fact that he knows where to fish, where to find water, where to shelter if the weather kicks up, because he can find coconut crabs, because he hauls me outside at night and shows me the stars that he would use to navigate across the oceans and because he knows the stories of this place, Ugo holds the keys to this world.
This is his domain. I’m just along for the ride. Every day Ugo conjures up something different. One sunny afternoon we paddle out and explore the reef that protects Motu Teta, where the sea has chewed the fossilised coral into fantastic shapes. “We’re going to find turbo shells for dinner… you know turbo shells?” he says one morning. “You see them and you have to step on them very fast before they get away.” In fact the turbo is a large snail that bolts itself to sea rock, but we relish the joke all the same. Celine serves them up as an hors-d’oeuvre with a bottle of Moet & Chandon Reserve Imperiale Champagne (part of the house’s supply) while Heiarii plays the ukulele and serenades. On the way back to the airport we stop off at Tiputa Pass, one of the few places where the motus of Rangiroa Atoll are broken by a deepwater channel. Powerful currents sweep through the pass from the open sea, delivering nutrients that spark an explosion of marine life.
Tiputa Pass is famed as one of the world’s most spectacular drift dives. Drop in at Shark Cave on the oceanside and the current sweeps you into the lagoon, past hammerhead sharks, manta rays and dolphins. Ugo tosses fish scraps over the side and the water boils. We gear up with snorkels and fins and slip into the sea. I’ve never seen such a concentration and variety of tropical marine life in such a small area anywhere. We were swarmed by triggerfish, fusiliers, angel fish and butterfly fish, while black-tipped reef sharks and a huge Napoleon wrasse glide below us. We spot three of the fattest and scariest moray eels I’ve seen. “Look here, it’s Ugly,” says Ugo, and he ducks under to coax a particularly impressive moray eel from its hole. There’s barely time to dry off before it’s all over. Ugo leaves me at thejetty near the airstrip, from where a two-minute stroll will take me to the air terminal for the flight back to Papeete. “Come, I will hug you,” says Ugo, and as he does, I can’t help noticing that although I am not small, my arms reach less than halfway around his back.
Michael Gebicki was a guest of Tourisme Tahiti, Motu Teta and Air Tahiti Nui.
I just returned from a wonderful stay in French Polynesia. I will review my stays in Moorea and Papeete separately but wanted to let everyone know my thoughts on Motu Teta. For anyone looking for a place to honeymoon in luxury and isolation or looking for a great place to take their family for some quality time with their kids, I highly recommend Motu Teta. I stayed at Motu Teta for five nights during Christmas/New Years holidays with my wife and three kids. Motu Teta is a private island in the far end of the motu chain surrounding the lagoon in Rangiroa.
The general consensus was that the trip was a hit. And how could it not be. The staff at Motu Teta, particularly Celine and Harry catered to our every need. All food, drink, and activities were included. Read more »
Immerse yourself in splendid isolation. Very few places are left on earth where one can inhabit their own private island paradise with no other tourists within miles. Your 9 acre (3.8ha) Dream Island is unique in that you are the only one on the island during your stay. This privacy allows for the ultimate in relaxation. You will be surrounded by vivid blue water teeming with tropical fish and lush coral reefs, where the palm trees dance in the wind above pristine white sand beaches… a haven untouched by civilization. Motu Tetaraire offers total seclusion in a sophisticated setting.