Sometimes I look around me and can’t quite believe we’re here. I guess that’s the issue with flying; in Central America we travelled from A to B overland. In this case, I mean, how is it possible that places like this exist?
We had breakfast in the open-air restaurant, with the view of the ocean in the near distance. It’s early morning in February. It’s warm and sunny.
At 8:45am, our taxi arrives. Destination Uturoa, the second largest town in French Polynesia after Papeete in Tahiti. ‘Greater’ Uturoa has over 8,700 inhabitants. But we only glimpsed at the town. After a quick visit to the ATM and a rapid walk through the market (mostly fruit stalls), we boarded our boat for our half-day excursion.
We picked up another couple from a hotel on the other side of the island. It’s near a small fishing village, there are only four people staying at the hotel right now. Why go there? If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, this is the place to be. It is isolated. There are fewer people living on this side of the island. The rooms are gorgeous bungalows, colonial-style. I’d be quite tempted to stay here next time… but then again, I really like our lodge, and the food is very tasty.
Our first stop, and the one I had been looking forward to most was Taputapuātea. We docked and explored a number of marae and other structures. This was once considered the central temple and religious centre of Eastern Polynesia. Our captain and guide, Teva, was a mine of information.
Raiatea has much cultural and historical significance. It is believed to be the original birthplace of Polynesia, and is rich in ancient legends and temples.
Raiatea means “faraway heaven”. Its original name – or mythical name – is Hawaiki, “the homeland”. It is thought that this is where the great Polynesian migration began towards Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Rocks from the site were taken to establish marae in these new islands.
The migration was only made possible when five kings came together in Taputapuātea to sign a peace treaty. This brought about a period of prosperity and new possibilities.
The site is believed to be the final resting place for the spirits of the ancestors and archaeological research was stopped so they would not be disturbed.
One structure has a gruesome past. This is where enemies were skinned – grated on the rocks. This would deprive them of their identity, which they wore on their body; the ink telling were they were from, how many battles they had been in, how many they had killed.
And this is something that is still very much evident today. Men and women have intricate geometrical and ancestral tattoos. Men are generally topless; women wear bright floral dresses and most sport a flower behind their ear.
One thing we didn’t quite appreciate when we planned this leg of the trip is how big French Polynesia is. Surface wise, it’s as big as Western Europe. The ring road in Raiatea is 100 kms (too much for us to cycle!). A flight from Tahiti to one of the remote islands in the Gambier archipelago takes 3.5 hours.
Next, we sailed into the Faaroa bay and up the Faaroa river. This is the only navigable river in French Polynesia. The landscape’s instantly different. It felt like being on the Amazon. Lush vegetation around us; a small passageway… a real sense of adventure. We only went up for three miles, after this, the river narrows down further and goes up steeply. Our boat’s not meant for this type of adventure. The hotel manager had suggested we canoed up the rest of it to reach the waterfalls. We did well not to laugh in his face.
Leaving the river behind us, we headed straight for the Iriru motu. It is public and owned by the community; everyone has access to it. Most land in French Polynesia is private and you need permission to access it. Lunch for us was watermelon and we tried sugar apple. It’s like a ball with a thick rind with knobbly segments. It’s green, the flesh is fragrant and sweet and quite creamy (some people think it tastes like custard).
We walked around the motu; it afforded great views of Raiatea and Huanine. I went for a swim; a ray glided by.
Back at the hotel, I went for a quick swim in the pool. My (non-alcoholic) cocktail arrived, ‘L’île Sacrée’. Of course.
Andy made the mistake of asking me what we should be doing next. Without hesitation, I said ‘let’s canoe to the motu near the hotel’. In the hotel guide, it says it’s only 10 minutes away. We know we’re not very good at canoeing so we estimated 30 minutes. A few seconds into our journey, we ran into difficulty. The tide was low, which meant it was quite tricky to navigate around the corals. Once there, we walked around the motu which we mostly had to ourselves, and made the journey back. Let’s keep this simple: we are not canoe people.
After a welcome shower, we went to the bar and treated ourselves to a bottle of white wine from Tahiti. Yes, you read that right. Andy was doubtful. I had done a tiny bit of research and decided we should give it a go. Verdict: a good move! You can read about the vineyard here, and here are tasting notes.