Tahiti: Pacific pastimes

By Alan Perrott

They'd been puzzling me all week. No matter what corner of Tahiti's main island I visited, there'd be a lonely pole standing in a paddock topped with a single coconut.

I'd been keeping the observation to myself in case I'd rumbled some embarrassing cultural secret like, oh I don't know, maybe some kind of Polynesian maypole dance.

But their purpose was to be finally revealed - the villages of Tahiti were gathering for a homespun Olympics to honour the death of Fortune Tessier, a local fire-dancer of some renown.

After a week of standard, if informative, sightseeing, this promised an opportunity to kick back with the locals, offer my respects and get a taste of something you won't see highlighted in a brochure.

As a sports event, I expected something far from standard. Take the venue: I'd seen modern suburban stadia dotted here and there, but for some reason we were assembling at the seaside Museum of Tahiti, about 20 minutes drive from Papeete.

Then there were the team strips: without a swoosh or triple stripe to be seen, it was all bare feet, garlands of woven grass, and patterned lava lava, worn either long or tucked-up sumo-style.

Pre-match stretches were restricted to the competitors' bellies as everyone downed a hefty, carb-laden feed - a perhaps unnecessary word to the unwary traveller, the rotten fish option is exactly what the box says - before settling down to hear the Culture Minister, native Marquesan Joseph Kaiha, rattle off a speech in at least five languages, which provided plenty of digestion time.

Finally the seven-a-side dancing girls kicked off and things started to get sweaty. Look, officer, aside from everything else it was damned muggy.

Like the parched ancient mariner surrounded by undrinkable water, I was in a garden full of trees with no shade. I'd quietly scoffed at the danger of sitting under coconut trees until I heard the ground wince when a nut thudded beside me. Best to keep moving. Besides, people were assembling around the mysterious coconut pole. I found about 30 blokes on hand, divided into teams denoted by skirt colour, brandishing an armful of metal-tipped, colour-coded bamboo spears. It didn't look good for the coconut. Things started orderly enough, one spearman from each team fanned along a line, taking a squinty-eyed bead with one hand cupping the shaft and the other pouching the blunt end, primed to fling. Then someone blew a whistle and hey, ho, hup, volley after volley of wobbling sticks zoomed away until the arsenal was empty.

In terms of aim, the coconut possibly had the safest seat in the house, except for whenever this grizzled guy in green had a crack. From where I sat, his quiet and methodical attempts were getting consistently closer until thwack, his spear spliced the nut in twain, an achievement that aroused a coconutty bloodlust in all of us. Soon the target was being struck with impressive regularity and much rejoicing, but none could match our Robin of the Glen and as his eventual reward he got to help clean up.

But enough of the artistic stuff, it was time for the grunters. Here, hefty competitors, male and female, were oiled up and left to manhandle lumps of rock on to their shoulders as their audience sang encouragement. After warming up on a 60kg pebble, they progressed to 80kg, then 100kg - with techniques varying from a simple clean and jerk to a complex method of wriggling the rock up like a particularly difficult and enormous cat - until the strongest was left to successfully tackle the 150kg edifice. His mum beamed with pride as two men then struggled to lift it back on to their hand truck.

Then it was the turn of the skinny boys as we brazenly gathered under a lofty coconut tree. The standard of athleticism wasn't looking promising when the boys hopped forth, their feet bound together by short strands of fibre, but they were poetry in motion once they hit the trunk.

One after another they flew up, slapped a metal band, then dropped down as a marshal scrutinised his stopwatch and eliminated the slowest. Eventually it was down to two. The first again made the extraordinary look effortless and the pressure was on. Taking a leaf from the All Black playbook, his opponent promptly went belly-up when it mattered most, but seemed happy enough with the round of vigorous backslapping that met him on the ground.

By the mood of the stories that were swapped as everyone watched the sun sink into the sea, I think Mr Tessier would have approved.

GETTING THERE: Air Tahiti Nui has regular flights from Auckland to Tahiti; see www.airtahitinui.co.nz or ring (09) 308 3360.

FURTHER INFORMATION: To find out about accommodation and activities see Tahiti Tourism's website at www.tahitinow.co.nz

Alan Perrott visited Tahiti as a guest of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.

- NZ Herald

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