French Polynesia Part III: The Island of Tahiti
Part III: Unexpected Adventure, Welcome to Tahiti
Words by Chelsea Yamase, Photos by Travis Burke
Dec. 6th Day five takes us from remote Rangiroa to the main island in French Polynesia, Tahiti. Besides being home to the capitol city of Papeete and the infamous Teahupo'o surf break, I don't know too much about Tahiti. After the white sand perfection of Taha'a and incredible oceanic life in Rangiroa I'm worried that Tahiti, often seen as just a “stopover” place on one's way to outer islands, will be a little underwhelming.
For our first morning, we schedule a guided hiking tour with Tahiti Reva Trek. We meet Angelina Tevahitua, a Tahiti native and professional hiking guide, who started the company in 2009. Today she will be taking us through the Hitiia Lava tubes.
We pile six of us in the bench seats of their awesome custom built LandRover Defender and hit the road. It's an hour and a half drive to the start of the trek and it gives us the chance to see much of the north eastern coastline. Here, it is mostly black sand beaches and rugged coastline. Surfers dot beautiful breaks right on the shoulder of the road. Tiny volcanic rock islands, some with just a single gnarled tree, remind me of the Oregon coast.
The second half of the drives turns us away from the coast and up a steep switchback dirt road. After outfitting us with with headlamps and lunches we follow the river up and into the lush valley.
For the next five hours Angelina and her husband take us through a series of three giant tunnels all formed by the cooling and rapid hardening of lava thousands of years ago. It is quite possibly the most fascinating and actually challenging tour I've ever done. We climb ropes up the sides of waterfalls (you have the option to be harnessed in or not), scramble over boulders, and wade down rivers. The hike is so unexpectedly adventurous that all of us don't quite know what to make of it.
A few of us take the opportunity to do a 25 foot cliff jump into a slot canyon carved by one of the many waterfalls. In another area we tromp high in the cave ceilings over naturally formed rock bridges. Our guides show us yet another jump spot and a few of the boys decide to make the plunge into the cave's river below. On three we all shut off our headlamps and they jump – into compete darkness. As someone who canyoneers regularly I can't believe I haven't hear of this place.
Although all the jumps are optional, there are still many portions of the hike that require a level of fitness and upper body strength. The actual tubes themselves have expansive ceilings ranging from 10 to 40 feet high, but two areas do require getting on our hands and knees to navigate narrower sections. By the end of the day we are all thoroughly exhausted and cave stoked. We sleep soundly knowing we have a boat tour the next day and that “tour” in Tahiti doesn't mean the same thing as it does in America.
“This is Living”, the words are stenciled in black huge letters across the side of flat bottomed aluminum boat and make me excited for our day with Teahupo'o Tahiti Safari. Cindy, our local guide, is fit and well spoken. After earning a business degree she started this operation out of Tahiti Iti. A true family affair, her father is our captain for the day and her brother is assisting with guiding. (Her other brother is professional surfer Matahi Drollet.) All in all a family of established watermen and women whose local expertise I am happy to be a recipient of.
As it is only our group of six on a private charter, we have free reign to explore as we like. Our first stop is at the infamous surf break Teahupo'o. Placid today, we opt for backflips off the upper deck and a lazy swim around the channel. Even without the waves it is still an iconic view I've seen so many times in surf magazines - electric blue ocean butting against emerald mountain peaks arrayed across the horizon like a handful of cards.
We spend the day in much this way, alternating between sightseeing from the boat and swimming to land to explore the stretch of coastline north of Teahupo'o which is only accessible by boat. Cindy seems to know every gem and secret spot. We learn to trust her lead and when she jumps in to show us something - it's going to be good. We swim to a waterfall with no name which flows through the jungled canopy directly into the ocean. Except for one small arched opening, the base of the falls is protected by lava rocks forming a natural circular 20 foot pool. To access the pool, we duck one by one under the archway on an incoming wave then pop up in our fresh water oasis.
We break for lunch to feast on a simple meal of crisp vegetable sandwiches and tropical fruits. Without meaning to I eat six lilikois and a whole plate full of mango, but Cindy just laughs and indulgently keeps cutting more for our fruit-happy group. There isn't another boat around for as far as the eye can see and I revel in the seemly secret and awesome world we have somehow stumbled into.
After a few more stops Cindy asks us if we mind changing plans. She wants to show us a place she's never taken any other group to, but it requires a bit of hiking and climbing if we want to go all the way. We look at each other – umm heck yes. It is the last adventure of the day, and in fact the last of our whole trip, as we fly out tonight on a midnight flight back to Los Angeles.
Jump off the boat, swim to shore, shoes on, up the river we go; our bodies are used to the routine now. The hike up the canyon is slippery, but not too arduous. We swim the deeper portions, crossing fallen logs, heading further and further upstream.
An hour in, the river narrows and the walls seem to get steeper... as does the ground itself. Vines hang down over the 100 foot rock walls and water streams down them forming cascading waterfalls on both sides of us. We help each other up enormous boulders until we reach the end of the canyon. We're sitting in wonder at the base of one waterfall with two others lightly pouring down either side of the canyon in front of us when Cindy arrives a minute later. She points to the left of the falls where I see a few bolts and a small bit of chain, but not too much else. “Want to go up?” she asks with a smile. One day and she knows me too well.
Before the day is over we scale three more waterfalls then jump and swim our way back down canyon. It is magical and spiritual and I feel so honored that Cindy would show us this part of her home. More than anything I'm also deeply impressed by the beauty of Tahiti and the knowledge of the strong women guiding us the last two days.
No, Tahiti was not what we expected. For those willing, it is infinitely more interesting than the postcard perfect shallow lagoons and sunshine. I welcome these opportunities for deeper experiences. For seeing someone's home through their eyes and with their helping hands.
As our flight takes off I turn 28 and really I have nothing left to wish for. This week was incredible; friends, adventure, indulgence, unspoiled nature...“this is living” - a sentiment I will keep, alongside my memories, treasured forever.