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2013 - 03 Ten thousand miles across the sea&

James column for the SligoWeekender

 
One of the perks of my job is that I regularly get to dodge Irish winters. Don't get me wrong, I love my country and am 200%  Irish, but don't we Irish all have a little dose of S.A.D. (Seasonal Adjustment Disorder)?

So when I got news I was going to spend 3 weeks from mid-January in Australasia and Polynesia my spirits swiftly soared, leaving family and friends inaudibly fuming. I had been to Tahiti before, but had quite forgotten how far away it is. In fact I'm not sure it's possible to get further away without coming back on yourself.

The Society Islands are one of five island groups making up French Polynesia, and are situated approximately 10,000 miles from Ireland, an 11-hour flight to Los Angeles and a further 8? to Papeete, Tahiti. Tahiti is the largest (28 miles wide) and most populous of the islands. Around three-quarters of Tahiti's 180,000 friendly welcoming islanders live in the capital Papeete, disappointingly a somewhat seedy city with many of the big city problems. Captain Cook and his "Endeavour", Captain Bligh and his "Bounty" and Charles Darwin and his "Beagle" all sailed through, stopping off on their travels. French painter Paul Gauguin famously settled here in the 1890s.

For me however, the neighbouring island of Moorea (9 miles away) was my unexpected highlight. Just 10 miles wide, Moorea was formed by volcanic eruptions around 2 million years ago, resulting in its striking jagged almost Gotham-esque landscape. A popular honeymoon destination with those idyllic (but expensive) over-the-water-thatched-bungalows-on-stilts, the waters surrounding these islands exude that crystal clear, tropical, azure hue. Having swum with dolphins off the Zanzibar coast, it was time to swim with rays and sharks. Avoiding their barbed tails, the silky-bodied rays brushed past and below me, at times triggering a rather embarrassingly girly giggle (from me, not the rays). Our guide warned us not to swim too closely to the black-tip sharks as they could be aggressive, but that they only liked "white meat"  Ha,Ha, funny guide. He also warned us not to swim beyond the reef, where bull sharks and tiger sharks lurked. The Society Islands were a World War Two South Pacific military base, and remnants of a German warship lay wrecked on the Moorea reef - like myself, a long long way from home.

140 miles northwest of Tahiti lies the most renowned "Society Island"  Bora-Bora, where thirty years ago the Hotel Bora-Bora was the first to start the trend of those trademark stilted thatched bungalows. Another extinct twin-peaked volcano rises in the centre of this unique landscape. The Society Islands were originally inhabited by Polynesians (probably Tongans) around the 4th Century, but then "re-discovered" by Captain Cook in the 1770s, and later claimed as French colonies. With a population of less than 10,000 Bora-Bora is encircled by a vast calm crystal azure lagoon, coral garden and barrier reef, which is actually three times the size of the island itself. I took a taxi from the main town Vaitape to the nearest tropical white sandy beach at Matira Point, passing "Bloody Mary's" (the island was the inspiration for "South Pacific"), and then spent three hours until midday snorkling in the shallows, with the strains of "Bali Hai" lilting through my senses. For a short interlude a warm tropical shower beat down on my back as I savoured the coral delights below.

On the way home (about 30 hours in the air from Auckland via Dubai to Dublin), after our album release and publicity tour of Australasia, my mind began to really focus on the distance I was from home. We are heavily involved in "The Gathering", the year-long celebration of all-things-Irish. 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry  that is astounding for our little land. Every time I fly the 3000 or so miles to the USA, I always spare a few thoughts for those who never made it and are littered along the sea-bed. But Australasia is three times that distance. I tried (and failed) to get my head around the deportation of around 30,000 supposed `convicts' (many truly trivial offences) to Botany Boy and Van Diemen's Land in the 19th Century. No flights, no Suez Canal, but rather an horrendous hellish smelly journey around the Cape of Good Hope which took months. So as I watched "Lincoln", "Argo", read my Kindle, and dozed, I thought to myself  you have no right to moan, you really don't.