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This article appears in Volume 18: The Rhythm Issue.
I have no rhythm. This was made obvious to me on my first morning in Tahiti when, having had five hours sleep after spending the two previous days travelling, I found myself catapulted into the middle of a traditional Polynesian dance class in which all the other participants were practising for the regional championships. While beautiful women in flowing skirts gracefully glided to the right, without fail I managed to shuffle in the opposite direction, sweating in my borrowed nylon sarong. Oh, to be a fly on the wall like photographer Mark, who was bent double on the sidelines, tears of laughter streaming down his face. It was the perfect initiation into life in the South Pacific.
As part of my archaeology and anthropology degree, I studied the extensive descriptions of Polynesia provided by explorers such as Captain James Cook, who arrived in the 18th century. These faraway lands piqued the imagination of Europeans – as captured in Paul Gauguin’s colourful paintings – leading to a wealth of anthropological literature on the subject. I never thought I’d make it to the place that, for me, had become an object of fascination and fantasy. I thought ceremonial “kula” exchange rings and shamanistic rituals existed only in the pages of well-thumbed library books.
We had heard that it can be difficult to get off the tourist track in French Polynesia, as American lovebirds flock to resort-y islands such as Bora Bora for honeymoons, but we were determined to dig deeper and find out if those romanticised lands I’d read about existed. Places that pulsate with crashing waves, beating drums and the tap-tap- tapping of traditional dotwork tattooing. We were in search of authentic island rhythm. As such, we were to begin our journey on the main island of Tahiti, followed by a stay on precipitous Mo’orea, before making our final voyage to the wild, unspoilt paradise of Maupiti.
One of the first things that struck me as we walked through the somewhat gritty Tahitian capital, Papeete, was the beguiling mishmash of French and Polynesian cultures. It’s a place where girls adorn their hair with pink hibiscus owers (behind the right ear if you’re single, behind the left and in line with your heart if not), while reggaeton wafts through the hot, heavy air, to which the smell of native vanilla clings. It’s a place where market traders call out to each other in native Reo Mā’ohi from behind towering stacks of coconuts and taro – a Polynesian staple. Yet restaurant chalkboards tout dishes such as moules marinière, beef bourguignon and crème brûlée, and the shops are full of French fare; at breakfast we fill up on fresh baguettes with brie and Bonne Maman jam in preparation for a day of exploring.
Our guide, Hervé, was everything I’d hoped for: a strapping Polynesian man with grey hair down to his waist, a white flower placed jauntily behind one ear and tattoos swirling across his chest and arms. While instructing me to slather my body in a sticky, saccharine oil “to protect against mosquitoes, the only predators in paradise”, he explained the chequered history of tattooing in Polynesia, where it was invented to beautify the body for dance shows, but stamped out by Christian missionaries in the 19th century. Today the art has been revived by younger generations; we saw few who weren’t decorated and tried not to gape at those who were covered right up to and including their eyelids and ears.
As we trundled deeper into the Tahitian forest it became cooler and started to drizzle. “The clouds are making love to the mountaintops and giving birth to water,” Hervé’s friend Moana said softly. Though not on duty today, Moana, a petite woman with kohl-tattooed eyes, jet-black hair and a name meaning “wave”, told us that she was the only mother to have gained the prestigious qualification of island guide. Throughout the day she opened our eyes to Polynesia’s rich spiritual realm, stopping to gather sacred stones, explaining the medicinal properties of plants or demonstrating how particular trees are planted in formation around marae (traditional temples) for protection and good health. I was pleasantly surprised that no other tourists interrupted the lull of Moana’s storytelling as we meandered through the forest that morning. While the infinity pools and buffets of large resorts were just a stone’s throw away, inner Tahiti was a green oasis of calm.
Abandoning the car, we scrabbled down the side of the valley, Hervé bounding ahead in his Crocs, pausing to point out an endless array of jewel-coloured fruits, slashing copra (coconuts) from trees with his machete and fashioning us traditional wreath crowns from hanging vines. When Captain Bligh and his men arrived here on the aptly named Bounty in the 18th century on a mission to export breadfruit to England, the men simply refused to leave and mutinied, burning their ships so they wouldn’t have to return home. Mark and I prayed for the modern-day equivalent: our plane not being able to take o due to some sudden storm.
After a sweaty half hour, we heard the rumble of rushing water and a cool breeze hissing through the undergrowth. Emerging into a clearing, we were rewarded with a large, emerald-green pool fed by a powerful torrent of water. I took this as my cue to strip down to my bikini and plunged in head-first, letting the cool, clear water wash away any lingering jet lag.
Hervé then took us to his mountainside house for a traditional lunch of poisson cru – raw tuna mixed with coconut milk, citrus juice, raw onion and fresh tomato. As I was mopping my plate with breadfruit, he mischievously grabbed my hand and led me away from the table to show me his “babies”. The glint in his eye told me I was not about to meet his children. Upon reaching a stream at the end of his garden, he began to throw putrid fish into the water and suddenly I started to hear splashing. Slowly but surely, five glistening brownish-black masses as thick as my thigh and as long as a dining table began to slither out from under the surrounding boulders. I looked on in horror as Hervé cackled and gleefully informed me that the (much larger) parents of these “baby” eels inhabited the pool in which we had just been swimming. Fortunately, before I had time to properly digest this information (and do the opposite with my lunch) it was time to leave.
The next stop was Mo’orea, a misty, mountainous land just a 30-minute ferry ride from Tahiti. With plenty of activities on offer, the island plays host to sprawling resorts alongside smaller guesthouses for those after a more personal experience. Preferring the latter, we arrived at Mo’orea Lodge, a chic waterfront property decorated in soft hues of blue and white with separate cottages and fluttering linen curtains.
We happily filled our mornings here with snorkelling tours and picnics on surrounding islets, swimming with black-tip reef sharks and stingrays, quad-biking through the forest and taking a gruelling hike up to the highest point of the island for panoramic postcard views of pale-blue lagoon waters, which contrasted with the dark expanse of navy beyond. However, afternoons were strictly dedicated to exploring. Foregoing sunset cruises, we spent them strolling along pristine beaches, canoeing out to the reef or borrowing bicycles from the lodge and peddling the one road around the island, stopping to chat to fruit sellers who greeted us with the hang-loose “shaka” hand gesture that has become associated with gnarly surfer types who visit in the hope of catching Tahiti’s legendary wave, Teahupo‘o. Unsurprisingly, the days passed quickly and it was soon our last evening in Mo’orea. Passing up on a “traditional” ($100 dollar per person) dance show at a nearby resort, we stumbled across a local restaurant where we kicked o our shoes to feel the sand beneath our toes, and between drafty bamboo walls discovered pineapple champagne (the most glorious example of culture clash) which we drank late into the night, the ocean roaring rhythmically in the distance.
The next morning that rhythm had transferred to a pounding in our heads, but there was no time to wallow. After a restorative dip we were en route to Maupiti, an island so small that its runway extends into the sea. This became a far less romantic notion when bad weather meant that our plane was forced to divert to Bora Bora. We were given the option of staying put or ominously “trying again” – with the warning that if the pilot wasn’t successful we’d be heading back to Tahiti for the rest of our trip. There was no way were we going to miss out on an island that even locals seemed entranced by, so I grabbed Mark and headed straight to the front of the queue.
After a precarious flight, we disembarked into a storm of Tempest-like proportions. Homestays replace hotels in Maupiti, and we were relieved to find our Parisian hosts, Camille and his partner Anne-Marie, ready and waiting, armed with warm smiles and floor-length cagoules. Their house, Le Kuriri, was on a peripheral island called Moti Tiappa, which has just 25 inhabitants and is only reachable by boat. Faces stinging from the wind and rainwater running o the end of our noses, we revelled in the bad weather which, rather than dampen our spirits, only served to enhance the feeling that we were journeying to the end of the earth.
Tiapaa is as close to a desert island as you’re going to get – unless you fancy commandeering a traditional Polynesian va’a (outrigger canoe), launching yourself into the South Pacific and hoping for the best. Simultaneously wild and tranquil, volcanic black rock meets powder-white beaches and cobalt lagoons fight off reef- gnashing waves, beyond which, between July and October, humpback whales glide past on their annual pilgrimage from Antarctica. With the weather abating and evening drawing in, Mark and I dumped our belongings in thatched huts and scampered like excitable children down to the beach, pausing on the shoreline to gaze out across the ocean in wonder at the fact that the closest land to us was Chile in one direction and Australia in the other. Not another person in sight, both of us agreed that – if we were on our honeymoon – this was how we’d want it to be.
That evening, we gathered around the communal dining table with our fellow guests for a supper of tuna steak, papaya salad and potato dauphinoise while Camille, a kindly septuagenarian with a weather-beaten face and piercing blue eyes, entertained us with tales from his time sailing the high seas; of a three-month voyage from India to Polynesia, of pirates, of sinking ships and of untold adventure.
Thirsty for our own adventures, Mark and I awoke at dawn to photograph the sunrise and scout out what we’d nicknamed the “Lost” island. We set off at a lazy pace, slowly picking our way between sun-bleached coral, conch shells and washed-up coconuts in front of a background of low, pink clouds and a mauve sea haze. We walked separately and in silence, drinking in our surroundings, stopping occasionally to exclaim when effervescent shoals of fish darted right up to the shoreline, or to marvel at clams the size of salad bowls. Daydreaming, it took me a while to notice that the entire beach appeared to be moving ahead of us. Focusing glazed eyes, I suddenly realised that hundreds of tiny, white hermit crabs were scuttling here, there and everywhere, making the whole beach ripple like a magic carpet. The island was, quite literally, alive. This was the Polynesia I’d dreamed about; it really did exist beyond the pages of library books, and we’d finally arrived.
Several cups of strong black coffee jolted us back to our senses, and Camille whizzed us over to mainland Maupiti, where we rented rickety red bikes (the first I tried was missing a chain and had neither breaks nor gears). We made two turns around the island’s circumference, waving to locals hanging washing outside pastel-painted wooden houses, stopping to devour citrine-coloured mangoes until the juices ran down our faces. We found a quiet beach and swam in bath-temperature water for far longer than is advisable in the beating afternoon sun. Then with salty, rose-hued skin, we slowly made our way back to the pontoon.
As we sped back across the water, boat smacking on the waves, Camille came to an abrupt stop and gestured to a dark mass moving stealthily along the seabed. Quickly tossing us snorkels and flippers he told us to jump in, with the simple instruction: “Mind the tail!” Putting my trust in the kindly Frenchman, I obeyed, swiftly dropping backwards into the water in an attempt to hide my trepidation. A giant manta ray at least two metres wide with a barbed tail just as long was gliding just ahead of me, prompting Mark and I to gesticulate wildly at each other beneath the surface. We stayed bobbing there a while, watching little fish dart up to feed off its gently oscillating back (a complimentary cleaning service) and trying to forget that tomorrow was our last day.
While our flight back to the mainland was delayed for an hour, our hopes of living out the rest of our days in paradise were dashed as we successfully made it back to Papeete the following afternoon. With time to kill, we settled into a lively port-side bar where we were soon beckoned to join the table of two locals – one of whom had full facial artwork. The group was ordering a pitcher of Hinano beer when a well-known song came on the stereo, prompting one of the men to begin twirling me about between the tables. When the tune came to an end, he reached deep into his pocket and produced a native black pearl, which he presented to me with a grin. “Island pearl for an island girl”, he said. A pearl for my dance efforts? Somewhere on my journey from the forests of Tahiti to the mountains of Mo’orea and the wild beaches of Maupiti I must’ve picked up some of that island rhythm.
Return flights from London to Papeete via LAX from £1,500 with Air Tahiti. Air Tahiti serves 47 islands in French Polynesia, as well as the Cook Islands.
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