Tahiti: Off paradise's beaten track

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade embarks on a high-octane inland safari through Taihiti.

Water-smoothed rocks are an irresistible temptation on a hot day.
Water-smoothed rocks are an irresistible temptation on a hot day.

When Rodrigo spun the wheel and sent the Landrover hurtling off the edge of the road down towards the river below, the lean and sporty French couple hanging on to the roof bars next to me just grinned fiercely and flexed their knees like the downhill skiers that they no doubt were.

The Aussie honeymooners behind seemed to welcome the opportunity to cling together, so rather than appear a wussy Kiwi, I gritted my teeth and tried not to regret forsaking Tahiti's beaches and turquoise sea for this inland safari.

Bouncing over the rocks, we stopped thankfully short of the river and piled out of the truck to admire a waterfall that was breath-taking. No, really. Plunging over the cliff far above, the force of the water sucked the air from my lungs, making a mockery of my hope that we might be having a dip here to freshen up.

Not unsympathetic, Rodrigo promised that would come later, before loading us all up for some more racketing along bumpy tracks and across bridges of only two metal tracks for the wheels.

Splashing through a ford, we stopped again for a short lecture on what we were seeing: the sharp jagged 2200m mountains rising up around us, the only remnants of the original volcano that once loomed here, and we were standing in its immense crater.

Everything below the bare, shark's tooth peaks was swathed in vivid green, highlighted by scarlet, yellow and purple flowers, the plants luxuriating in the heat.

For us it was more a case of wilting, so we were delighted when Rodrigo stopped at a waterhole where, with practised insouciance, he stepped off a high boulder and disappeared beneath the surface. The French pair scrambled up the rocks for a bit of canyoning, while the honeymooners canoodled in the shallows. Afterwards, cool and civilised again, we were able to relax over lunch at the mountain relais where the food, cooked with French flair, was almost as good as the view.

Travellers visit a breathtaking waterfall.<BR>
Photo / Pamela Wade
Travellers visit a breathtaking waterfall.
Photo / Pamela Wade

Tucked into one of the secret valleys was an ancient marae. Despite his name, Rodrigo was a local, and he removed his jandals before we stepped over the wall to stand near the stone ahu, or altar, where he explained customs, beliefs and some uncomfortable rituals including tattoos, circumcision and cannibalism.

Back on the road, there were more tall waterfalls springing down the cliffs, some permanent, some only present after rain: these were a compensation for us, a recent landslip having blocked the tunnel that would have taken us through to the blow hole on the other side of the island. Instead we had an extra swim before bouncing back out of the crater and down to the coast, to cruise back to Papeete.

There, tall, rangy cockerels stalked around stalls that sold bananas and drinking coconuts; dogs lay in the shade and children kicked balls on the bare dirt. On the way out, it had all seemed quaint, simple and very Pacific: now, after exploring the magnificent rawness of the island's interior, it looked like sophistication.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Tahiti Nui flies Auckland to Papeete direct.

Thing to do: For half-day and full-day safaris into the interior see
tahiti-safari.com.

Further information: See tahiti-tourisme.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourism.

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