Tahiti gave its name to our country and comes from a legend about an earthly paradise. Of course, this is a name, but above all, it is an island—the largest due to its surface area, population, and highest altitude. We propose an exploration or rediscovery of Tahiti in a series of three articles. We will start this expedition with a place off the beaten path: Tahiti Iti, the peninsula (la presqu’ȋle) on the far edge of the island of Tahiti.
What most visitors do not know is that Tahiti—which is relatively young from a geological perspective—is actually comprised of two islands: Tahiti Nui, the larger and Tahiti Iti, the smaller part that is commonly known as “la presqu’île” or the peninsula, Taiarapu. This consists of two currently inactive volcanic shields that immerged from the sea during different eras. They are linked by a narrow strip of land, the isthmus of Taravao. Thinking back to these ancient times takes us from an extinct magmatic inferno to the complex formations now present. Tahiti Iti would have emerged during two eras after Tahiti Nui between 450,000 and 950,000 years ago. The Taravao plateau, located between Tahiti Nui and Taiarapu, also immerged from a more recent autonomous volcanic erection. With 12km in diameter (4.6 mi), Tahiti Iti does not have peaks above 2000 m (6562ft) like Tahiti Nui; however, Mount Roonui, its highest peak, still reaches 1332m (4370ft). Moreover, the peninsula is so rich in diverse landscapes that it holds its own in competition with its bigger sister.
A voyage back in time
Polynesians, who are thought to have arrived in our islands during the first millennium AD, never saw the sudden eruptive movements of the lands they settled. However, did they sense the violent beginnings of the islands? One of their creation myths depict the actions of the god Taaroa, who broke out of his shell to create the universe.Several centuries later when the first Europeans arrived in Tahiti during the 18th century, they found people organized around chiefdoms that were quite autonomous yet connected to one another through complex systems of alliance and allegiance based on the family ties of their leaders and powers of war. The Taiarapu peninsula was connected in large part to a division of the Teva clan (Teva i tai or Teva of the sea), which was without a doubt the most powerful dynasty in Tahiti at the time. Several archeological sites attest to an ancient human presence along the coast and in numerous valleys. Unfortunately, many of the sites are still buried underground or hidden in the bush. Although some were subjected to identification digs during the 1970s, they are either difficult to get to or are no longer accessible.
Research has led archeologists to confirm that in pre-European times, a high concentration of the population resided in the interior of the island, which is now virtually deserted. Researchers also hypothesize that it is in this particular part of Tahiti where the worshipping the god Oro would have been introduced from Raiatea in the Leeward Islands. This god of war would have been dominant throughout the 18th century and during the contact period with Europeans. Without a doubt, Maximo Rodriguez, who arrived in Tahiti during the Spaniard Bonechea’s second expedition, was the first to describe the lives of the inhabitants of Taiarapu. Rodriguez learned the language and served as an interpreter during a failed attempt at Catholic evangelization. He established ties with the arii (chiefs) of the district. They took him under their wing and during his ten-month stay in 1774, he kept a journal describing Tahitian customs.
This page in history took place in the district of Tautira, located north of Taiarapu. The famous English explorer Captain Cook also anchored his ship in Tautira on August 12, 1777. A succession of navigator stops followed on the peninsula after 1788. Churchill, one of the mutineers from HMS Bounty actuallysucceeded the arii Vehiatua, who died without descendants…only to be murdered by Thomson, a jealous sailor.
Two priests from the Catholic order of Picpus, Caret and Laval, arrived on this shore in 1836. They wanted to escape the watchful eye of the English Protestant minister Pritchard, who was extremely influential in Tahiti at the time during the reign of Queen Pomare IV and who wanted to prohibit the presence of Catholic missionaries. The arrival of the two priests, what they discovered and an incident that followed—their forced removal—started a politico-religious conflict with Great Britain which led to the establishment of a French protectorate in Tahiti. In 1888, this tiny locality on the northern coast welcomed Robert Louis Stevenson, the unforgettable author of Treasure Island, who stayed for two months. According to Stevenson, this is where he found paradise and the nicest people in the world. During the 1930s, filmmaker Murnau shot several scenes of his famous film Tabou here. The southern coast of the peninsula has its share of souvenirs from time long ago. The book Ancient Tahiti by Teuira Henry reveals how in Teahupo’o following a battle, a marae—or a border wall according to another version—was erected with the skulls of the defeated…
A world to explore
Unfortunately, relatively few monuments or artifacts remain from ancient times. However, with its spectacular landscapes, Tahiti’s peninsula is ideal for nature lovers. Some examples include the bay located at the mouth of Vaitepiha River in Tautira, the view over Tahiti from the Puunui panoramic lookout point and Te Pari cliffs. Let’s discover this bit of the world through taking off from Taravao, a small town located in the heart of the isthmus that separates Tahiti Nui from Tahiti Iti. Although it may not have particularly striking characteristics, Taravao, stretched along the isthmus, is the gateway to a plateau with landscapes sometimes compared to the Normandy countryside in France. Indeed, there are pastures where dairy cows peacefully graze. It is believed the cows’ ancestors were imported between 1772 and 1774 during one of Bonechea’s Spanish expeditions. A winding road leads to a panoramic lookout point at 600m (1968ft), where you can admire the entire width of the volcanic relief of Tahiti and the isthmus of Taravao that lays at its feet. This is the opportunity to discover the legend of Tahiti inscribed on a marker whereas the island is a mythical fish—Tahiti Nui is the body, and Tahiti Iti, the head.
We’ll continue our journey through connecting to the northern coast of the peninsula via a small mountain road that leads to the sea through crossing forests and cultures. The peninsula is an important farming zone in Tahiti, especially the district of Afaahiti. From Pueu, we will attain the point of Tautira and the mouth of the Vaitepiha, Tahiti’s second largest river after the Papenoo River. Before entering the village, we’ll come across a grandiose panoramic view over the valley with its stunning peaks. Hikers can trek this valley, and once having gone up through the pass, they can reach the other side through a tropical forest (it is advised to go with a guide). Tautira exists to the rural rhythms of yesteryear, and as we saw, it has its place in the history books. It is also a cul de sac. The paved road that follows the east coast of the peninsula to join the road that goes around Tahiti, ends here. From this point, we are in Fenua Aihere (the land of brush), that is only accessible on foot…first on a path, then a trail…or by boat. One can also opt to get to Te Pari cliffs through the west coast of the peninsula after having passed by Vairao and its shrimp farms.
Through traveling along Vairao’s coast, you’ll see the immense docks in Tahiti’s deepest bay large enough to handle the liner France and French aircraft carriers Foch and Clemenceau. At the end of the 18km road that separates Vairao from Taravao, there is the village of Teahupoo (Te ahu-Poo, the wall of heads). This name no longer evokes this ancestral battle in which walls were erected with the skulls of the defeated. Today, Teahupoo is synonymous with a wave—a surfing wave renowned among the most famous surfers in the world and home of the Billabong Pro Tahiti, one of the biggest international surfing competitions in the world. Just as in Tautira, the road also stops here in this village. This could also be a departure point to explore the west coast of Fenua Aihere to meet up with Te Pari cliffs.
A wild understated beauty
Fenua Aihere is located between Tautira and Teahupoo. It faces east with Te Pari cliffs. This 30km coastline is the wildest on the island. It still does not have a road, although it was once inhabited. This is evident through the petroglyphs on the east coast, which are only accessible on foot or by boat. During the 19th and even 20th centuries, its remoteness did not deter diehard nature lovers from coming here for a holiday, thrilled to find somewhere to go far from civilization. Today, this coastline has a few scattered fishermen’s homes and is still a secret hiking area. On the west coast, a little before the steep Te Pari cliffs and about 10km from Teahupoo, is Vaipori grotto. It is classified as a legendary site within its lush tropical environment.
Te Pari Cliffs
In 1952, Te Pari was classified as a site due to its cultural, archeological, historical and legendary qualities. In 2000, it was officially reclassified under the main heading of “protected landscape” under protection of natural and cultural elements. It is a major hiking destination, but ocean swells permitting, it can also be reached by boat. The coastline opens onto the high sea and not a lagoon and can be thrashed by violent waves. This is the only hiking area in Tahiti that combines mountains, rivers and the sea. One must proceed with extreme caution because the area lacks signs and ends with trails on ledges. It is critical to engage a professional guide. However, a visit is well worth the trip with is series of natural sites across flatlands, river mouths, passages along the cliffs, ledges, sandy and pebble beaches, caves and unusual rocky crevices that vibrate sound…
Stunning sea depths
Tahiti’s peninsula also has diving spots, notably at Vairao, where there is a “hole in the lagoon,” a sandy basin home to white tip sharks and leopard rays. Ideal for beginner divers, Marado is known for its sprays of sea fans that shelter an entire marine fauna. In Teahotu, Tetopa is a sea grotto 8m deep (26ft) filled with lobster, crab and red mullet fish.
Teahupoo legendary wave
Situated at the end of the road that connects it to the rest of the island, Teahupoo village is today the port of entry into an internationally renowned surfing spot. Violent Pacific swells and the configuration of the reef make this wave one of the most powerful and dangerous surfing waves in the world. Each year, the Billabong Pro Tahiti is held here on the ASP World Tour circuit. The waves fling themselves against the oceanic floor to rise quickly toward the island, which is an ancient emerged volcano. The best surfers in the world confront each other on this wave, including Tahitians, who regularly put on a good show.