Tahiti: Lost world found

By Antony Phillips

Tahiti does not reveal her inner secrets to just any visitor. Commitment is required.

Charles Darwin had what it takes, and he comfortably beat me, and many others, to Papenoo. And while they were not so time poor in 1835, I like to think Darwin would not have objected to a 4WD expedition if he had been given the option.

Just don't go thinking it's a soft option - the bumpy, twisting road, which snakes into Tahiti's lush Papenoo Valley will test your intestinal fortitude as you hang on to the roll-cage bars while the sun beats down. Your commitment will, however, be richly rewarded.

The journey begins with a morning pick-up by Tahiti Safari Expedition, the originators of eco-tours into the island's interior.

Rodrigo, our wiry guide, grew up in Papeete and knows Papenoo intimately.

An easy drive along the coast to road marker PK17 - a magnet for surfers thanks to the famous waves here - gives a false sense of comfort to the seven of us perched on bench seats in the back. The fat lady from Paris is smiling broadly.

Here we turn right onto the valley road and the overhead canvas is rolled back, exposing us to a rapidly warming day.

Clouds of dust billow behind as Rodrigo guns the Land Rover along the gravel towards the massive rock walls on the horizon. The fat lady from Paris is sweating profusely. Papenoo is Tahiti's greatest valley, and vaituoru, which cuts through it, her longest river. Together, they are the entrance and pathway to a primordial world in which 6000 foot peaks tower over valleys of rainforest, and where as much as 30 feet of water can fall in a year, feeding more than 500 waterfalls, which plunge down rock faces into Vaituoru and her tributaries.

The image of Tahitians living blissfully in a seaside idyll is somewhat misleading. Prior to colonisation, most dwelt in valleys such as Papenoo where there is abundant fresh water. Evidence of their role in the great Polynesian diaspora is all around, most obviously in language. A civilisation closely related to New Zealand Maori thrived in this valley. Papenoo hides the remains of sacred dwellings and meeting places called marae. Stone statues are tiki, a house is a fare and the river which gives life to the valley is vai, just a heartbeat away from the Maori word wai.

So much water pours into Papenoo, that when the heavens open and the river rises, guides like Rodrigo can be stranded at the top of the valley in as little as 15 minutes.

We drive very slowly past Topatari waterfall, the Fall of Death, Vaiharuru, the Pounding Falls, and dramatic, twisted lava formations from the eruptions which formed Papenoo 340,000 years ago and beyond. The towering trees, ferns and knots of lianas kindle an urge to explore but hiking without a guide is not recommended as the valley is pitted with lava holes, dangerous bluffs and rock slides.

Safer is a dive into the pristine water at either of the two glorious swimming holes we stop at.

Modernisation has resulted in the building of dams in Papenoo and its neighbouring valleys - they account for 30 per cent of the island's power in the dry season and almost 50 per cent in the wet. But even these signs from the industrial society outside Papenoo's walls can not smother an overwhelming sense of having trespassed into a lost world when you stand in the centre of this ancient volcanic crater, 6000 feet above sea level.

Around the very next corner you can get a hearty lunch with a view at Maroto Restaurant, sited in a sprawling building which once housed hydro dam construction workers.

Maroto is a long way from the heavy tourist traffic so do not expect to see a menu as such. The day's itinerary stipulated "you will have fried chicken, chips, green beans and salad". And so we did.

From Maroto you can drive to Tahiti's west coast via Lake Vaihiria, and explore a few of the 190 archaeological sites so far identified in the valley.

Fare Hape should be top of your list.

Here you will learn that the first priest sent by the gods was named Maui, and the start of a new summer is known as Matariki. New Zealanders can not help but marvel at such familiarity so far from home.

Tahiti Safari Expedition
An eight-hour 4WD Papenoo expedition costs 6500 XPF adult (NZ$106) and 3200 XPF child (NZ$52).
Half day tours start at 4000 XPF (NZ$65) adult and 2000 XPF (NZ$32) child.
Lunch at the Relay Maroto is 1250 XPF per person.

Email: Tahiti.safari@mail.pf
Web: www.tahiti-safari.com
Getting there: Air Tahiti Nui has economy class flights from Auckland to Tahiti from NZ$1157 return. Costs correct as of August 21, 2007 and exclude airport and government taxes.
Go to www.airtahitinui.co.nz

*Antony Phillips visited Tahiti with assistance from Tahiti Tourisme.

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