Sunday, October 5, 2008

Safari in Tahiti

My old memories of Tahiti may not disappear, but after today I have a new one or two to go alongside them. For our ‘Safari’ – a tour utterly free from souvenir shops and plastic hotels – turned out to be thoroughly worthy of its name and a splendid day out.

We were picked up at 9am by a 4x4 Defender canopied truck, under the command of our charming and stunning Tahitian driver-guide, Teiwa, and we headed off eastward, along the coast, through the dispiriting suburbs of Papeete and its satellites, to Mahina. Before turning inland, however, up into the deep valley of Papenoo, which ploughs its way through the heart of the island up to Tahiti’s highest peaks (7000ft), we made a slight detour to the beach at Point Venus.
It is called Point Venus, because it is the place from where, in 1867, from a lighthouse (the only one in the islands) designed by the father of R L Stevenson, somebody official watched the Transit of Venus. It is also the evidently baecahable place where, in the C18th, Captain Cook landed, where Captain Bligh bunkered to take on supplies for couple of months, and where the wretched London Missionary Society ‘invaded’ Tahiti with a boatload (‘Le Duff’) of the interfering Christian proselytisers who began what would be the erosion of the traditional way of life of the islands. The lighthouse is also rather attractive, so photo…

From Mahina we headed inland, up the Papenoo valley. Immediately the greenery got thicker and lusher, and immediately the roads got decidedly worse. There is a huge amount of road and river work (including more necessary hydro electric damming) under way, however, and we passed dozens of brand new yellow diggers and dozers, scooping out the black volcanic mud from the river bed as we scrambled upwards, through forested wilds and through rushing water.

From time to time, we took a pause while Teiwa (in both French and English) gave us nature study hints – the ‘telephone trees’, the plants disastrously introduced in the C20th by nosy foreign naturalists (including convolvulus!) and which now threaten to throttle the native species, a flower whose pistils provide ‘lipstick’, and a wondrous kind of fern which ‘tattoos’ a brown body in white. Teiwa being the brownest amongst us, I got him to model it for me. Well, that’s my excuse…

There were also scenic stops – mostly notably for the 69-metre Vaiaruru Falls ... the singing cascade. I, of course, sang back to it. I think I won. It must have had laryngitis.
The main sight, however, as you wend you way up the valley, is of those two heavily scarped peaks, Orohena and Pito Hiti, towering above you, glaring out commandingly from amongst the clouds like a Chinese cutout…

At lunchtime we stopped at the Relais de Maroto – yes, there is actually a hotel up there, beyond the mud and the potholes and the concrete switchbacks. My guide book (date 2000) says it is fashionable. It also says its expensive. The latter, at least, is right. It is built around the concrete barracks in which the original construction workers for the nearby dam (1981) were housed, and its origins show. It’s well designed, to take in the stunning surrounding views of mountains and forest, but, like all tropical buildings, it has been savagely shabbied by the endless combination of sun and rain. It is also pretty dead. The bar was empty, the terrace, with its green vistas, was table-laid for several groups like ours, and we had a very fair chicken and chips plonked in front of us by the only worker in sight. He didn’t manage to get back to us for the wine order, and when we did our calculations we were glad he hadn’t. The local rouge was the equivalent of 50 euros a bottle! A small bottle of water the equivalent of $10NZ. No wonder the place was dead!
But the terrace proved a fine place for photos, and I shall treasure the picture (top) that Tina from Sidmouth took of me there, with my red flower behind the right ear (ie ‘available’ as opposed to the left ear ‘committed’) …

After lunch we continued onwards and upwards, now driving on little more than a mud track, through the bush and the forest, past waterfalls and towering cliffs where the swallows hang their nests, past endless views of those overglowering mountains, to the archeological ruin of the Marae Anapua, a temple from the days of (?) prehistoric Tahiti, set among a grove of plantain banana trees, hibiscus and wild ginger. It was great to see an archeological site utterly unencumbered with the paraphernalia of tourism, and great to have a guide who we had quickly found is soaked in the history – natural and physical – of his homeland.

Teiwa, however, has more and other talents, as we would soon find out.

Normally, our tour would have continued on, out of the Papenoo valley (the caldera of the original Tahiti volcano), to Lake Vaihiria, the island’s main hydro dam and lake, and down to the other side of the island. However, a series of landslides had blocked and broken the road and, from the marae, we could no further go. So we made a demi-tour, and headed back the way we had come. A short way down, we stopped at a mountain torrent. Now, coming, as I do, from New Zealand, I know a few things about mountain rivers and swimming holes … but this one was a beauty. A small but deep blue hole with, above it, a waterfall pouring over a great rounded rock covered in salady green slime. Even I could not resist, and I plunged carefully in to play under the forceful waters and gambol behind the veil of the waterfall. Delicious!

Teiwa, however, who has doubtless visited this spot hundreds of times, had it under his control, and it was the venue for his party piece. Not only did he perform a perfectly piked dive from the high-up riverside into the very heart of the pool, he climbed the green and glissant rock and, with the power of the seeping river behind him, executed what looked like a barefoot skateboard exercise down the rock and out, way out, over the waterfall and into the pool! Only Eliane from our group was game enough to follow (but seated not standing!) … definitely not I! But, party piece or no, it was a joyous moment, a grand sight…

And then it was ‘homeward bound’. Down the glorious green and bumpy valley, and back into rush-hour Papeete. Oh what a falling away: the grubby, tattered buildings of the sprawling town after the magnificent countryside we had just seen.

By 5pm we were back at the Boularibank, tired but happy, for a shower, a Scotch, a splendid dinner of roast lamb (with a special, deep-pink-to-red cut for Kurt!) and a firm and early bed…

So, there you are. Papeete and the island’s coast are not Tahiti. Next time you come here, forget the town. Telephone TAHITIAN EXCURSION, and get them to take you inland. And if you want the best tour guide I’ve personally experienced, anywhere in the world, over the last thirty years, ask for Teiwa.

There are heaps of firms doing these tours, but I am not the only one to give Tahiti Excursion top marks. Visit their website at, or email them at Tell them Kurt of the Boularibank sent you.

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