@welcome-tahitiactive 4 weeks ago
28 January 2019 in People
In just over eight years and three albums, Ben l’Oncle Soul and his sunny voice have brought a breath of fresh air and soulful rhythm to the French music scene. When we met him, the artist, who is preparing a new album planned to be released in 2019, had just got off the plane to give a unique concert in Tahiti. He let us into his world of musicality full of humor, elegance and joie de vivre.
What were your first impressions of Tahiti?
Ben l’Oncle Soul: I’m already sensitive to the vibes, so I found the place very peaceful, very calm, very cool. We were also lucky to be greeted at the airport by a group of dancers; it immediately invites you to the heart of a universe anchored in a culture, something strong.
You do not know Polynesia, but you are used to touring the islands … What do the islands mean for you?
It’s true that i don’t know much about Polynesian culture but i’m particularly sensitive to it because I come from the islands, with a father from Martinique. And the islands are a culture in their own right. Moreover each island has its own culture, its energy, its fruits, its flowers, its light, its sand … It is also a slightly different system: I often say that, on an island, we bump into each other all the time, while in Europe it happens less, so it’s not necessarily the same way to speak, to face the problems … because they must not last for too long! In any case, I do not know how it manifests itself exactly (it would actually makes more sense for others to tell me), I’m not completely aware of it, but the islands are a part of me, that’s for sure !
Your tour was over since February, but you still accepted this unique concert in our Fenua, your only summer trip. Why?
At the moment, I’m working on a new album so we’re really on vacation there. So, we declined all the summer concerts … or rather we said we were not available for this period (Ben l’Oncle Soul came with seven musicians for this exceptional event in Tahiti, ED.). But hey ! Tahiti, it’s a destination we did not expect, that really offers something: it’s heaven, it must be said. It is a dream setting, which cannot be declined, for our only summer trip.
For you, does Polynesia evoke pretty vahines, deserted islands, beaches located at the end of the world, ukulele? What are your impressions?
For me, the first came to mind is the island of surf, of the wind. Nature is lush, and the elements are compelling. In fact, I do not know surfing very well, although I think that I share many common values with surfers, in any case that’s how it appears to me. I feel close to the ecology, the elements and the sea as they do.
I am now part of the Surfrider foundation, trying to be active in preserving and safeguarding the oceans from becoming too dirty and deteriorating…so that the oceans are in good condition. The sea, the Mother, for me it’s sacred. So I am longing to see this famous wave of Teahupoo…even that I don’t know how to surf! I’ve never learned it, yet I found it fascinating and I know it’s gaining momentum right now… For the rest, we often use the expression “end of the world” when speaking of Polynesia, because we are in France and shockingly it takes 22 hours by flight, in other words the radically opposite side. However it’s not the end of the world to me, it’s instead, the beginning of the world in a certain way. It is much more “natural” here than in Europe: for me, the end of the world would have been rather the city, and on the other end the nature is the origins. To my eye, that is what Polynesia represents fundamentally.
Can we expect a Polynesian inspiration on a next song, an upcoming album?
Perhaps, who knows. As a matter of fact, it could be the continuation of things that I have been doing with ukulele. Before I actually came here, I already bought one in Australia several years ago, and since then I’ve used it in several songs. On the next album, we will find its use again in a song named Call Me. I find this instrument creates a harmony that resonates and opens the chakras. And I like its user-friendly side; it’s small, it fits in a bag, and it can be played by the seaside, outdoors, at various places around a good time … So yes, we could definitely find a little of all that in the next compositions again.
What are your major musical influences? Did you have the opportunity to listen to some local music?
Frankly speaking quite a few. I admit that I am deeply ingrained in my African-American culture, black music in a general manner. And then, it’s true that I much admire and have always been deeply touched by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who reinterpreted and also played standard American black music- of songs that were sung by Nat King Cole and associates- with the ukulele and many Polynesian sounds in his angelic voice …There it is, despite having my universe of predilection, I remain open-minded and above all, I work to my heart’s content. For instance, there is also Malian music that I love immensely. In fact, there is a bit of music that I like everywhere: I met Gnawas, I adore their music and their rhythm. Music is an exchange, and we are not obliged to take everything. I keep an open mind to culture and sharing first.
The very idea about traveling, what does it represent to you?
To begin with, I am a big traveler by my profession, because we travel all the time to give concerts and to play music. And it’s something that truly nourishes me. Traveling opens the minds and awakens me to many curiosities, moments that we sometime miss a little bit in our daily life. We learn to know a little more about who we are by rubbing against different perceptions of things and life. Traveling has taught me to become a conscious man of what I know, and what I do not know yet … There is always the surprise, it sets a lot in motion … in fact, it awakens, in every sense of the term.
Would you eventually live in a place like fenua?
For now I’m a guy who’s always on the move, I’m not necessarily trying to settle my bags somewhere. I spend much time in the Caribbean for a few years, however up to now I hardly crave for buying real estate or having a place to myself. In fact I go where my heart tells me to, but certainly we have to dig when we have a crush for an unusual place or that awakens profound feelings, thus we have to stay a bit longer there, have to talk to people … to try to understand why it speaks to us, because I imagine that there are not only idyllic sides on this island. For now, it resonates with me because it’s full of positive vibes, which is related to human contact, there is a certain form of tranquility that appeases me greatly. And then, it’s the Pacific Ocean and not for nothing it’s called “pacific”. I guess there’s a sort of harmony … .
What would you like to pack in your luggage when you leave us?
First, I will definitely leave with pearls because thanks to them Polynesia is known all over the world. It can be a nice gift offer for a woman … Albeit I would love to leave also with beautiful conversations, a nice exchange with people here and maybe with a sunset or two. I know that the concert will also be an important moment for me, and for the public also, I hope.
Interviewed by Virginie Gillet
Scattered across the globe, Polynesian works of art showcase our culture and allow it to reach far beyond our islands. We offer you the chance to discover the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. This institution has one of the most important collections of Polynesian objects worldwide.
In 1865 New Zealand’s Parliament moved to Wellington. Shortly after that, the tiny Colonial Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor,) located just behind the Parliament, opened it’s doors. This museum mostly exhibited scientific collections, which included paintings, prints, ethnographic ‘curiosities’ and antiquities. In 1907, with a much wider national focus, The Colonial Museum was renamed the Dominion Museum. The Science and Art Act of 1913 paved the way for a national art gallery to be installed in the same building. In 1930, under the National Gallery and Dominion Museum Act, this idea became reality. In 1936, a new building brought together the Dominion Museum and the new National Art Gallery. In 1972, the Dominion Museum was renamed the National Museum. By the 1980’s, this building was so filled up, it was ready to explode. Unfortunately, this very beloved museum, no longer represented the growing diverse communities
In 1988, the government was searching for ideas to create a new national museum. The Museum of New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, placed the emphasis on collections, giving a much larger audience easier access and better represented New Zealand’s culturally diverse society. In 1994, the construction of this new museum started. On February 14, 1998, Te Papa opened it’s doors to the public. The museum was completed on time and within it’s budget, housing the national art collection. The major acquisitions of Pacific artefacts arrived from England. In 1912, most surprisingly, Lord St Oswald presented his family collection to the Dominion Museum of New Zealand. Many of these artefacts were collected on the three Pacific voyages of Captain Cook. Included in this gift were the ‘ahu ula (cloak) and mahiole (helmet) presented to Cook by the Hawaiian chief Kalani‘opu ‘u on 26 January 1779. In 2016, The Te Papa Museum gave this cloak and helmet to The Bishop Museum of Hawai’I, on a long term loan. The artefacts in this collection were acquired by William Bullock (an English collector).
The artefacts in this collection were acquired by William Bullock (an English collector). Some of them were acquired directly from Joseph Banks (a wealthy young English botanist, who accompanied Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific.) Others he purchased from private collectors and from the 1806 sale of the Leverian Museum Collection (London.) Bullock opened his own museum in London, exhibiting these artefacts until his entire collection was sold in 1819. In 1948, the New Zealand government bought 3100 pieces of Maori and Pacific art from the collection of the famous London tribal art dealer W.O. Oldman, for £44,000. Their desire was nothing less than making New Zealand the capital for studying Maori and Polynesian artefacts. Upon arriving in New Zealand, the collection was divided on indefinite loan among the four large New Zealand metropolitan museums, with small amounts also going to smaller public museums with adequate fireproof buildings.
The Dominion Museum received the bulk of the Maori, Marquesan, New Caledonian, and Admiralty Island components of the collection together with small numbers of items from other island groups. Because these items had passed through various sale rooms in Britain, they often lack detailed information on their origins or historical context, but their quality is outstanding. In 1955, the Imperial Institute of London (established in 1887) gave the Museum a significant collection of items associated with the voyages of Captain James Cook. These artefacts were once in the possession of Queen Victoria and had been given to the Institute by Edward VII. Cook himself may have given these to George III after his second voyage. Two smaller items are traceable to Mrs Cook.
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff
Special Thanks to : Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Aumakua hulu manu
Without a doubt, one of Te Papa’s most precious objects from the Pacific is this Hawaiian “aumakua hulu manu”. This “aumakua hulu manu” depicts the fearsome head of the Hawaiian war god Kuka‘ilimoku (Ku – snatcher of the islands). “Aumakua hulu manu of Ku” were taken into battle to inspire warriors. When they weren’t being used for war, they lived in a special god house contained within the heiau (temple). The “aumakua hulu manu” was made by tying clumps of feathers to a netting of olona fibre laid over a wicker-style framework woven from the ‘ie‘ie vine. This `aumakua hulu manu was sold in the auction of Bullock’s Museum in 1819. It was described in the auction catalogue as ‘A fine Feather Idol, of the Sandwich Isles’ – the Sandwich Islands being the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook. The “aumakua hulu manu” was bought by Mr Charles Winn for 2 pounds 2 shillings. He also purchased a number of other items, including the Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet. His grandson, Lord St Oswald gave the collection to the Dominion Museum in 1912. The “aumakua hulu manu of Ku” was included in this gift.
HAT, circa 1800, Hawaii
Plant fibers, feathers , Height approximately 150mm, gift of Lord St. Oswald, 1912 .
Small bundles of feathers are tied onto a netting of olana fibers which are attached to the frame of the hat. Records indicate that it was part of a collection purchased by Charles Winn, grandfather of Lord St Oswald, at the sale of Bullock’s Museum in London in 1919. It was in Bullock’s Museum in 1805, indicating that that it was probably collected in the Pacific in the late 1700s. Mr Winn paid two pounds, four shillings for the item (Lot 28).
Taumi (gorget), Society Islands, 1700’s
Feathers, fibers, shark teeth and dog hair 660mm (Length) x 670 (Width/Depth) / Gift of Lord St. Oswald, 1912
Taumi’s were worn in battle by tribal chiefs and their main lieutenants in Tahiti, in the Society Islands. This taumi was collected on one of the three 18th Century Pacific Voyages made by the English Captain James Cook. It was listed in the first catalogue of William Bullock’s Museum, England 1801. Charles Winn bought it for one pound and two shillings at the sale of Bullock’s Museum in 1819. This piece was part of the collection given to the Dominion Museum of New Zealand (renamed the Te Papa Museum) by Winn’s grandson, Lord St. Oswald, in 1912.
Female deity, Cook Islands, circa 1800
A religious object, carved in wood, 345mm. X 35mm.
In 1948, the New Zealand Government purchased this carving as part of a collection from W O Oldman. Truly a miniature Polynesian carved wood masterpiece. As it is attached to a slender tapering shaft, flattened and perforated at it’s base, it could very well be a handle of a sacred flywhisk. Records indicate that this carving was brought to England in 1825 by George Bennett, a London Missionary Society worker based in the Society Islands. During the 1820s, many ‘idols’ from the Cook Islands fell into missionary hands. A number of them were illustrated and described by the missionary William Ellis in 1829 and were subsequently acquired by collectors. The London collector and dealer W O Oldman recorded that it came from the Hervey Islands (an old name for part of the southern Cook Islands), although some scholars have attributed it to the Society Islands on stylistic grounds. It is recorded that it was formerly in the Duke of Leeds Collection.
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff
Air Tahiti Nui Brand Ambassador , he travels the world in search of antique Polynesian Artifacts and their history.
Fire dance is an art in its own right that has evolved tremendously over last decades. From the traditional custom performed during ritual ceremonies to the breathtaking island night artistic show displayed in hotels, this cultural heritage is a source of pride for the Ma’ohi people, highlighting the bravery of a few initiated ones.
Samoan martial origins
Historically, Polynesian fire dance originates from the ‘ailao or knife dance that Samoans were performing during tribal wartime. After winning a battle, triumphant warriors cut off the head of the rival chief and brought it to the village as a trophy for their own leader. The whole tribe was then gathering to celebrate the victory in a ceremony called ta’alolo. Comprised of ta’a meaning « uncontrollable » and of lolo signifying « tide », this ceremony’s highly evocative name was inspired by tidal waves that often hit the area, sweeping away everything in their path. While celebrating this ritual, villagers were sitting around the malae, meeting place in the middle of which their chief was presiding. Before them, a procession of warriors was marching, singing and chanting their feats.
Towards fire knife dance
In the 19th century, following the passing of whale hunters on the island, the end of the war club was replaced by a hard-metal blade, making this knife even more formidable. After the Americans annexed Samoa and the end of tribal wars, this dance continued to evolve through contact with missionaries. For instance, it gradually lost its martial spirit but was however kept in ceremonies held to welcome high-ranking people. The songs that formerly beat time for rituals were replaced by the vigorous banging on percussion instruments. The expatriate Samoans, who exported this dance throughout the Pacific, were occasionally influenced by foreign practices. This is how fire would have been added late, in 1946, by Freddy Letuli, a young Samoan dancer who was touring the United States. Locally inspired by a Hindu fire-eater and a dancer handling flaming torches, he decided to add fire to his traditional dance performance: thereby he became the father of fire knife dance in its modern form.
At the front line, two of them were displaying a pole called amo on which the head of their adversary was hung. In front of them, their leader, covered in the blood of the enemy, was running from one end of the spot to the other in a mad race or mo’emo’e. Then, the latter performed the ‘ailao: while acting out the movements executed during the fight, he was concretely knocking everything out in his path by twirling his weapon. Like a tsunami, he would overthrow plants, trees, animals and even anyone daring to stand in his way. In short, such a practice was no less a show of strength and invincibility than an act of defiance, but also the expression of the warrior’s pride and total respect for his chief and his people. The weapon thus used was a nifo’oti, a short wooden machete whose cutting edge was serrated while the opposite side was ended with a hook. The wood would sometimes be engraved and inlaid with shark teeth or bones.
Moreover, it should be noted that in ancient times Kiwi neighbors were using poïs, a pair of balls spinning at the end of strings, to develop wrist strength and flexibility for the handling of weapons. Similarly, their use was maintained to brighten up traditional ceremonies. However, it was only in the 1950s that the strings of this tool were swapped for metallic chains and their balls for Kevlar wicks to set them afire in the style of Samoan fire knives. Given the great success achieved through the fire dance shows, other fire props were developed and successively used such as fans or hoops.
Fire dance pioneers of the Fenua
Nowadays, fire knife dance is mainly practiced across the Polynesian Triangle on the occasion of dance shows or contests. Thus, competitions are regularly organized between Pacific islands but also in French Polynesia. On the island of Tahiti, the symbolic figure of Polynesian traditional arts, Julien Faatauira, devoted his life to developing and sharing his passion for music and dance. Excellent percussionist of the Conservatory traditional orchestra for thirty years, talented dancer and ‘ori Tahiti group founder, he learnt fire dancing but also saber dancing, the ‘ori tipi, which has almost disappeared today. Both disciplines that he managed to master to perfection allowed him to travel around the world. He was one of the pioneers who imported fire dance in Tahiti. Subsequently, he passed down the torch to his nephew Léon Teai by integrating him in his O’Porinetia troup in 1974 and providing his training from a tender age. The latter was declared the winner of the first edition of the contest organized at the hotel Le Méridien Tahiti at the end of the 1990s. During this event, entitled Te Ahi nui, Léon was assessed on the fire handling and the speed of execution of compulsory figures but also on his style, his creativity and his costume. Several years later, after the victory of his own son Dana, he created the association Te Tama Ahi to accompany young Polynesians in the apprenticeship of this discipline and to lead them to the World Championship that is held every year at the Polynesian Cultural Center of Laie in Hawaii.
From local competition to World Championship
Every year, winners of the Te Ahi Nui are offered an airline ticket to attend this international top-level championship. There, they can rely on Leon’s guidance and unconditional support. That is how he took under his wings the Tahitian Joseph Cadousteau, who won at home in 2006, by bringing him wise advise and outside view. Joseph improved his technique year after year and even managed to juggle with three knives. He became the first Tahitian to win the World Championship in 2012 and repeated the feat the following year and in 2015. According to Leon, what led his mentee to the top was his iron discipline, his humility, his immense respect for this art but also the support of his close relatives and team. In his opinion, every dancer carries his own value but unity makes strength. Fire knife dance is a subtle mix of dexterity, speed, creativity, physical and mental force. Moreover, beyond a mere physical training, fire dancer appeal to the mana of their ancestors to learn to master one of the most dangerous elements: fire. Despite the risk of being burnt and cut, the game is worth the candle as its mastery is very much exciting. This special way of « playing » with fire passes from generation to generation, from teacher to student who will become himself the guarantor of this cultural legacy. Today, Leon’s ultimate wish is to pass on his expertise to new generations. And he admits himself that fire dance has somehow become his second wife, for whom his flame is still burning, as if it was the first day. Even if fatigue begins to set in with age, he still has fire in his belly that he promises to keep until his last breath.
TE AHI NUI 20TH EDITION – FIREKNIFE DANCE COMPETITION
To celebrate the 20th edition of this event, the hotel Le Méridien Tahiti will offer you two outstanding evenings on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 of October 2018. Information and bookings at 40 47 07 34 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
As we celebrated the 250 years since the arrival of the French navigator, Bougainville, in Tahiti this year, there is also another first that should not be forgotten. The Tahitian Ahutoru, voluntarily embarked on one of the expedition’s two vessels, arriving in France in 1768, he was presented to Louis XV’s court a year later. His story also deserves to be told.
On April 6th, 1768, half-way through their voyage around the world, two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile were forced to make port in catastrophic circumstances in a small bay on the East coast of the island of Tahiti. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s account of this first scientific expedition circumnavigating the globe was published in 1771. His glowing account of the place, in which he likens Tahiti to a paradise on earth, gave rise to new ideas about human happiness and contributed greatly to the blockbuster success of his Journal de voyage. A book of its time, the age of Enlightenment, a period of history that saw profound social and cultural transformations, and outrageous debauchery, the volume was avidly read by a broad audience including the royal courts of Europe. Bougainville brought back with him the undeniable « living proof » of the existence of this place he called New Cythera. When he started out on his return journey to Europe, he agreed to take a native of Tahiti on his vessel, and later presented him at the court of Louis XV. This young Oceanian become the darling of Parisian drawing-rooms, where he encountered philosophers and academics, during his remarkable adventure. The Pacific « Prince », as Bougainville called Ahutoru (Aoutourou), the first Tahitian to set foot on European soil, also had an opportunity to discover a society – climate, customs, objects, architecture… – that were completely unfamiliar to him. We know of his existence through the descriptions given by the author of Voyage autour du monde and by the accounts made concerning him in the ships log, and journals of other members of Bougainville’s crew during the expedition. There are also letters, news articles from the time that mention him, as well as private correspondence. Two hundred and fifty years later, the remarkable story of this relatively forgotten character and his European visit deserves to be retold today.
It was for the Tahitians a logical progression of the manner in which they themselves had offered their own wives to these strangers. In a custom that much affected Bougainville himself: « (a local chief) offered me one of his wives, very young and quite attractive … », explained the travel-writer who saw a country where « Venus is … the Goddess of hospitality ». Many other anecdotes, related by other members of the expedition, the Prince of Nassau among others, confirmed the existence of these customs, whose description would make the Voyage autour du monde a best-seller. Not without ambiguity and misunderstandings on many levels.
Ahutoru’s presence greatly facilitated exchanges with the French, despite several deadly clashes with the seamen. Ahutoru was in fact the adopted son of the village’s chief. The brief time in Tahiti was an opportunity for Bougainville to make the first description of the island and its inhabitants, an island that he called New Cythera, after its namesake, birthplace of the Goddess of love in antiquity. A friendship sparked between these two men which motivated the expedition’s captain to take the Tahitian back to Europe with him. Bougainville (Poutaveri) and Ahutoru (Louis) in fact exchanged names, as was customary in Tahiti.
Two « worlds » meet
When the expedition approached the coast of Tahiti, after months at sea, many of the crew were dying or had died of scurvy. Given the disturbing state of health of his crew, and despite the difficult coastal access, Bougainville decided to spend several days of rest here. He stayed for nine days, in order to renew his drinking water supplies as well as taking on board fresh produce and livestock. Canoes, that did not appear to be hostile surrounded the ship. One of the Tahitians, who was particularly brave boarded the Étoile offering gifts (bananas, a small pig …) as a peace offering, he even stayed the night onboard. It was Ahutoru. If the exchange was friendly, it was not without disturbing consequences, as the young man revealed the presence of a woman onboard the Étoile. The botanist’s assistant was in fact of the fairer sex.
While it is likely that some of members of the exclusively male crew must have been aware, she had not been officially demasked (learn about Jeanne Baré’s adventure below). It also had repercussions on land, the Tahitians wished to « honor » the young woman, making it necessary for one of the Officers to constantly keep watch over her.
A long journey back to Europe
Bougainville’s expedition had left Brest, in France, at the end of December 1766, not arriving in Tahiti until April 1768. To be fair, there had been several lesser missions on the way there, in the Falkland Islands and South America. The return journey turned out to be no shorter, poor Ahutoru only arrived in St.Malo on March 16th, 1769. The first deception had awaited him just several days after his departure, off the coast of Raiatea (Leeward Society Islands) the destination he had hoped to reach on the ship. He was not allowed to disembark on the Sacred Island. What followed was a journey of many months, fraught with difficulty and sometimes danger, during which the Tahitian, like his shipmates would be tested by many challenges: getting stuck for 15 days inside the Great Barrier Reef, crossing the Solomon Islands then Papua New Guinea, where they were attacked by the hostile local population and pirates, a tsunami….Not least of the dangers was disease. In August 1768, Bougainville noted that 45 of his crew had died of scurvy.
Then there was a stay in Batavia (Jakarta) where Ahutoru caught sight of his first city, but where he also fell sick. The expedition then dropped anchor at Port-Louis – île de France (today the island of Mauritius) – during the a monthlong stay the Tahitian got a taste of French « high society » through the ex-pat community, which included the colony’s administrator Pierre Poivre (pepper or poivre in French was named after him), and the author Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. From there the Boudeuse headed towards the Cape of Good Hope, once ashore, Ahutoru had the opportunity to see giraffes. In February 1769, off the coast of the Azores, he fell sick once more but the journey was nearing its end and the vessel finally arrived in the St.Malo’s harbor, almost a year after leaving Tahiti.
Ahutoru at Louis XV’s court, before his ill-fated return to Tahiti
In France, primarily in Paris and at Versailles, Ahutoru was Count de Bougainville’s protégé and was presented to Louis XV at court, where he witnessed the French king’s wake up ceremony. Certain courtiers made fun of his clumsy behavior, and his poor pronunciation of the few French words he had learnt. But that did not prevent him from meeting certain well known scientific figures of the time. At Bougainville’s side, he made the rounds of the fashionable drawing rooms of the time and came to learn the Parisian way of life. It is said that he loved watching opera performances. Apparently, he was also very popular with the ladies, who were titillated by the accounts that Bougainville and his seasoned travelling companions gave of the Tahitians open sexuality. The philosopher Voltaire wrote in his book Les oreilles du comte de Chesterfield et le chapelain Goudman (The Count of Chesterfield and chaplain Goudman’s ears) that « with the arrival of the Tahitian in Europe … we discovered a country where the sexual act was neither sacred nor forbidden ».
The Tahitian, nevertheless, while taking advantage of his visit to learn more about things unknown to him, suffered enormously from the winter cold and was undoubtedly homesick for his islands. Bougainville kept his promise to return Ahutoru to Tahiti, and he left France on March 4th 1770, first travelling to Mauritius, where he met up with his shipmates and acquaintances Philipert Commerson and Jeanne Baré on October 23rd. He stayed there for almost a year, sailing onwards, Tahiti bound on September 18th, the following year. Unfortunately, there was an epidemic raging, and the Tahitian was reported as having succumbed to smallpox several days after boarding the vessel. His ship was put under quarantine off Fort-Dauphin, in Madagascar, and Ahutoru passed away during the night of November 7th, 1771, nearly three and a half years after leaving Tahiti. His body was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean by the Royal Navy with Christian burial rites. Philippe Prudhomme has written a novel about his adventure.
Ahutoru : « What he lacks in beauty he makes up for in intelligence » (Bougainville)
This portrait, entitled « portrait of Otoo », is considered to be that of King Pomare I. But, Ahutoru (whose name resembles Otoo phonetically) may well have looked similar to this. Originally from Raiatea, he was the son of a Tahitian chief – and thus held both the title and standing of an arii (nobility) – , his mother was a captive from a neighboring island. He belonged to one of the two physical types that Bougainville described. One was tall and light-colored, the other, wrote the famous explorer in his book Le Voyage, « was of a medium height, with frizzy hair as thick as horsehair; the color and traits differing little from mulattos. The Tahitian that has embarked with us is of this second type, even if his father is a district chief; what he lacks in beauty he makes up for in intelligence ».
Jeanne Baré, the first woman to travel around the world
Bougainville’s expedition is remembered for another world first, implicitly linked to Ahutoru’s voyage. A woman, disguised as a man travelled on one of the vessels, as a scientific assistant of the botanist Philibert Commerson. Strictly forbidden by Royal Navy regulations. On their return journey, Commerson and Jeanne Baré (Baret or even Barret, depending on the author) were left in Mauritius, Bougainville wished to avoid a scandal on his return to France. The colonial administrator Pierre Poivre gave them excellent lodgings which allowed them to continue their botanical studies. After Commerson’s death Jeanne opened a cabaret-billiards hall and married a French naval officer. The couple returned to France five years later, in 1776, where she inherited the legacy Commerson had left her. Despite the fact that her gender was hidden during Bougainville’s expedition, she was later acknowledged as being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She was even received by Louis XVI’s at court, in November 1785. He called her a « remarkable woman », and awarded her a pension of 200 pounds for « the great courage, hard work and danger » she had faced as Commerson’s assistant. She died on August 5th 1807, aged 67. Her adventure has inspired several novels and comic books .
An internationally renowned scientist, researcher and professor, Bernard Salvat has dedicated his life to studying coral reefs and their conservation. In 1971 in Moorea, he created Criobe, centre de recherches insulaires et observatoire de l’environnement (Center for island research and environmental observatory). He is our guide as we discovery this fascinating ecosystem that is an essential part of life and the environment in French Polynesia. A vital perspective at a time when corals are threatened worldwide.
Can you tell us how long coral reefs have existed on Earth?
Bernard Salvat : Present-day reef-building corals have extremely old ancestors and have existed for hundreds of millions of years. Coral reefs in the time of dinosaurs looked much like they do today, even if they were made up of different species.
How are corals able to build these imposing reefs and build islands?
Their secret lies in their association with microscopic algae that we call zooxanthellae; they are just single cells no larger than several microns (editor’s note: unit of measurement, one micron is a thousandth of a millimeter.The living part of the coral are the polyps, tiny sorts of sea anemone growing side by side, there are millions in a cubic centimeter. It is through this association between an animal and a plant, which can also be called a symbiosis, that corals are able to build their limestone exoskeletons. Corals covering a surface of one square meter can, on average, produce around 10kg of skeleton every year. When corals die, the limestone skeleton remains and that is how the reef grows. Today there are around 800 species of corals that produce coral reefs.
Are there different « types » of coral reefs ?
Yes, there are several different types of coral reefs, at least we try to classify them neatly, even if nature is not easily categorized. The most common in French Polynesia are fringing reefs and barrier reefs that surround high volcanic islands, forming a highly developed reef complex, starting at the coastline and stretching out to the reef face that is battered by the ocean waves. And then beyond that there are other coral populations that grown on the external reef face, to depths of around 80 meters if the water clarity is good. And then there are atolls, where there is only coral, the debris of limestone skeletons are what make up the motu that rise out of the water, the atoll’s crown, with living coral populating the steep reef face and form coral heads in the lagoon. The difference between the reefs of a high volcanic island, like Moorea, and an atoll, are that in the atoll the volcanic edifice has sunk down under its own weight, back into the oceanic plate while the corals continue to keep growing upwards piled one atop the other over time, countering the sinking. The volcanic portion of the atoll is found deep underwater ; for an atoll like Mataiva or Takapoto it is several hundred meters down, or even further.
You mentioned – 80 m. Why can’t corals live deeper than this?
Quite simply because their symbiotic algae need light for photosynthesis. Below that there is not enough light. However, at greater depths, right down as far as the ocean abysses, at depths of several kilometers, other kinds of corals that do not possess zooxanthellae can be found. Such corals are called « ahermatypic » as opposed to the reef constructors at the surface (hermatypic). They manage to build what are incorrectly called « deep-sea reefs » that are « bioconstructed ». The term “reef” is inappropriate because the word’s meaning is an obstacle on the ocean’s surface.
Have our islands’ reefs been well studied and are they well understood ?
The first descriptions of coral reefs date from the 19th century and early 20th century, but in reality it is only after WWII that in-depth research began. It was not until 1969 that the first coral reef researchers – around fifty of them – gathered for the first international conference and the creation of an international association. The most recent « reef » congress was attended by more than 2,500 research scientists. For our islands the first descriptions date from the start of the 20th century with L-G Seurat and the zoology laboratory on Rikitea in the Gambier Islands, who visited and published work on many atolls in the Tuamotu, like Marutea. Since 1965, research on our islands reefs has multiplied. There must be more than 3,000 published scientific articles. The Tiahura reef in Moorea has been a focus of study for over 300 scientists and is known worldwide thanks to the work of Criobe, that you mentioned at the start of the interview. It can be said that French Polynesia’s reefs are relatively well known, even if there are still atolls that have not been studied.
But what is the broader significance of this research ?
I was coming to that, researchers work within a cultural, economic and social context. Understanding helps us to better manage and the researchers participate and are committed to establishing marine protected areas, combating pollution, and creating laws… But they can only provide their opinion, the final decisions are political .
The Society Islands, Tuamotu and part of the Australs have flourishing reefs, why is this not the case in the Marquesas and Rapa the southernmost of the Austral Islands ?
As you know, during the last ice age sea level was around 140m lower than it is currently. The polar ice caps locked up a large part of the world’s water as ice. When the ice melted, around 14,000 years ago, the sea-level rose. We have been in an interglacial period these last 14-millennia, with sea-level rising to its current level. In the Society and Tuamotu Islands the corals continued to grow and, as their skeletons accumulated, the reefs kept pace with the rising water level. About 40m of layered corals have accumulated over the last 14,000 years below Tahiti’s barrier reef. This rate of growth has been possible because water conditions, particularly temperature, have allowed the corals to thrive. However, in the Marquesas the local conditions have not been favorable to coral growth, undoubtedly because the water temperature has been too cool, due to the upwelling of deep ocean currents, and so the corals have not been able to keep up. The oldest reefs are now 110m below the surface. In Rapa, in the Australs it is the ambient temperature that is just slightly too cool, and so coral reef formations not been able to establish.
Are there any fundamental differences between the coral reefs from the different archipelagos possess them ?
There are morphological differences that we refer to when distinguishing high island reefs and those of atolls. We can also note that poorly developed reefs on the volcanic island Mehetia, to the East of Tahiti, where the last volcanic eruptions occurred within the last thousand years and where reef formation has just started. But where reefs have formed, there are no real fundamental differences between the archipelagos except in terms of the coral species and their diversity. It is the Society Islands reefs that contain the greatest number of coral species, mollusks and fish, but that does translate into a measure of their abundance . The different archipelagos have seen species evolve that are specific to them, as in the Marquesas where levels of endemism, in several groups, exceeds 10% of all species.
Other than providing emblematic landscapes for French Polynesian tourism, what are the other advantages of having coral reefs and lagoons ?
Of course, as tourism based on these emblematic landscapes is only just a very recent aspect of our Polynesian islands’ economy. Foremost, without corals and reefs the 85 atolls and 118 islands that make up French Polynesia simply would not exist. In fact, the corals attach themselves to the underwater slopes of volcanic islands when they first form and continue to grow as the volcanic edifice subsides; the basalt disappears under the corals that now form an atoll. A second advantage of having a reef is that it protects the island from rough seas and cyclones. The third and quite important advantage of having a reef is that it provides a food source for the inhabitants, an aspect that has deeply influenced the Polynesian culture. And let’s not forget about pearl farming.
What is the current state of the coral reefs in our territory and what major damage have they suffered ?
The state of coral reefs in the world is not very encouraging because of damage and pollution caused by human activity and demographic pressure. Researchers started to sound the alarm in the early 80s, and at a time before climate change was a concern. French Polynesia’s reefs are in relatively good condition on the scale of the 118 islands, which includes around thirty uninhabited atolls. Of course, reefs in urban zones have suffered, but this is only within the lagoons, not the outside reef slopes, which are the living part of the ecosystem. Aside from human impacts, reefs are also devastated by cyclones, or by abnormally warm water, which triggers bleaching (the corals lose their algae and their color) which can result in coral die-off, or the invasion of taramea, the Crown of thorns starfish, that feeds on coral polyps. All these phenomena have always existed, it is the increased frequency and intensity of these events that are raising questions about the future of coral reefs.
Are you referring to climate change ? What is going to happen to our reefs ?
Obviously, there is great concern about the future of coral reefs and certain islands. The rise in ocean water temperature is the greatest worry. Corals cannot tolerate an increase in summer water temperatures of more than 1°C above the norm. If the water stays warmer than 29-30 °C for several days, they will bleach and die. It is expected that by around 2040 or 2050, according to estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, with a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2.5 °C, bleaching events risk becoming annual phenomena, and under this scenario the reefs will lose their “resiliency”: and will have difficulty to recover. An associated acidification of the water, causing a reduction in the pH, will also reduce the calcification potential of corals, creating a serious long-term threat. In the short-term, however, it is the temperature that is the most worrying. As for cyclones, the predictions are not in agreement: there may be slightly more of them, but undoubtedly they will be more powerful.
But you didn’t talk about sea-level that is going to rise ? What about our islands ?
The previous question focused on coral reefs. Sea-level increases are a good thing if anything for them, as they will have more space to develop. But for the inhabitability of an island that’s another story. Researchers are not in agreement about what will happen to atolls, who have an altitude of no more than 4m. Staying within French Polynesia, where sea-level has increased by some twenty centimeters in 70 years (since 1950), observations made on atolls in the northwest Tuamotu (Mataiva, Rangiroa, Takapoto…) show that most motu have stayed the same size (77 %) or increased in size (15 %) with just a minority (8 %) seeing their surface area diminish.
What should be done to protect our reefs ?
Aside from the global responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are public policy measures and citizen-based initiatives . For the political leaders, it is important to minimize pollution and physical destruction of reefs by humans, processes that have been damaging reefs for years now, because a healthy reef will be better able to withstand the effects of climate change. Coral reefs must therefore be better managed to ensure their resilience. On an individual level, it is necessary to respect the environment, particularly to bear in mind that « everything ends up in the ocean » and to support associations that protect nature against destructive development that is all too often focused on short-term profit. It’s our survival that’s at stake here !
Interviewed by Ludovic Lardière
Island of contrasts, where the volcanic vestiges are still clearly seen, this far-flung corner of the earth gives the visitor an opportunity to discover a Polynesia that is way off the beaten track, with its raw beauty and preserved environment.
Discovering Ua Huka is guaranteed breath of fresh air. Lying near the Equator, around 1,300 km Northeast of Tahiti, fourteen kilometers long by eight wide, it is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Marquesas’ so-called “northern group”. About a 20-minute flight from Nuku Hiva the archipelago’s main island, you can get there on board a small fifteen-seater aircraft.
You land at the airport that was built in 1972 –the oldest in the Marquesas – situated between the villages of Vaipaee and Hane. Quite different from the Land of Men’s other islands, Ua Huka is known for the arid soils of its plateaus, the sparse vegetation grazed by the many semi-wild horses that are found there. This is also why it is sometimes called « the island of horses », as it is said there are more horses than people. Relatively young – in geological terms – it was formed by several distinct periods of volcanic activity, that occurred between 3 and 1 million years ago. Shaped a bit like a giant croissant, facing the South, Ua Huka is lower than the other main islands of the archipelago.
A complex geological origin
The geological process that formed the island, with its highest point Mt. Hitikau reaching 884 meters in altitude, also created the current landscape. The northern part of the island, called the Terre déserte or no man’s land, rolls gently to the ocean forming small valleys while the southern coast, is deeply cut by the largest valleys. Formed around 3 million years ago by a shield volcano, similar to those found in Hawaii, the southern part of the island gradually collapsed towards the end of the volcano’s activity, creating a large oval caldera (depression) bordered by a vertical cliff. Within this caldera, two smaller volcanos grew. Finally, around a million years later, volcanic activity started again, at the island’s western tip. The two craters Tahoatikihau and Teepoepo, with their characteristic circular forms remain clearly visible today, and can be visited on a spectacular hike.
An interesting natural and human environment
Relatively isolated for a long time, up until the 1970s, when the small aerodrome was built, the island has been cushioned from the changes that have impacted other destinations. For this reason, Ua Huka will seduce travelers looking to find a preserved environment and a population that have maintained the tradition of hospitality and kindness. The inhabitants, (678 according to the 2017 census) live mostly in the villages of Vaipaee, Hane and Hokatu, clustered along the South coast. Today, the islands economy rests on three types of activity: the primary sector is craft and tourism.
This is one reason why it catches fewer clouds. Which gives it a drier climate, characterized by the yellowish plateaus that contrast strongly with the darker and more lush greenery found in the protected valleys. Huge coconut groves also climb up the hills. For its part, the coastline offers an attractively rugged mineral landscape, the rock grading through shades of ochre, set against an ocean in a symphony of deep blues. Thousands of birds wheel around their nesting sites in the cliffs and rocky islets that surround the island. Thirty-five different species have been recorded, both marine and terrestrial, 8 of these are endemic. The island also overflows with archaeological treasures, you find me’ae (sacred sites, called marae in Tahitian), tikis and petroglyphs engraved in the rock at some point in the past. Despite its small size, Ua Huka has several museums and a botanic garden, the famous Papuakeikaa arboretum. It is also renowned for the quality of its handicrafts.
The sixth island of the land of Mankind
It was only much later, at the end of the first millennium of our era that Ua Huka was colonized by humans, during migrations that reached across Eastern Polynesia and particularly the Marquesas. There are many archaeological sites on the island; evidence of the ancient population that inhabited the South coast, as well as some small areas in the West, up until the early 19th century. For around sixty years now, several archeological expeditions have documented the remains, whose traces are mainly stone structures: foundations of walls, agricultural terraces, tohua (communal meeting places), paepae (paved dwellings)… Traces of this period have also remained within the Marquesan oral tradition, starting with the island’s name. According to the creation legend of the six main Marquesan islands, Ua Huka was the final piece that finished god Oatea’s house, each of them being assigned an architectural role. Ua Huka was the hole (ua) where the remnants were placed (huka) during the construction process.
Breeding free roaming horse, coprah and fishing are another economic base. There is also hunting feral goats, the gathering of shells and crustacea (lobsters, crabs …), seabird eggs, as well as fruit. So many culinary riches that you will find on the menu at your guesthouse who propose a local cuisine that is simple but tasty. The island’s artists are master wood-carvers (war clubs, lances, bowls and bracelets…) (casse-têtes, lances, récipients et bracelets…). But others also work stone (tikis, pestles…), bone (hair pins, pendants), feathers (body ornaments), or produce monoï, preserves or other fruits products. Tourism allows the population to sell their craft products, particularly to the passengers of the mixed cargo and cruise ship Aranui 5, that passes every 2 to 3 weeks.
With its four museums and three craft centers, Ua Huka offers beautiful examples of domestic, ritual and war objects, once used by the population and now continue to inspire the pieces made by the craftsmen today, who are reputed for their skill. You can also visit the Papuakeikaa arboretum, a collection of endemic Polynesian plants and more than a thousand species of trees from across the world, including a large collection of different types of citrus trees.
A “different” destination
Less well-known than Hiva Oa, once home to the French painter Gauguin and Belgian entertainer Brel, or Nuku Hiva, the administrative center of the Marquesas made famous by the writings of the American novelist Melville, Ua Huka is nevertheless worth discovering. A short stay of two or three days will allow you to visit the coast, cliffs and rocky islets, overlooked by the tortuous road that links the island’s three villages. The view over the bays is impressive, as is the often rather precarious operation of unloading freight from the cargo boat the Taporo, which provides Ua Huka with a sealink to the rest of the world. Visiting Meiaute, an archaeological site above Hane, with its tiki carved in red tuff, will give you an idea of traditional architecture. The cross-island trail that links Hane and Hokatu, after leaving the site, makes for an easy and pleasant hike between the two bays.
A longer stay allows you to really explore the fascinating aspects of this island with its grandiose scenery shaped by the elements, far from the hurly-burly and noise. Take an outing to visit the perfectly circular craters of Tahoatikihau and Teepoepo, with a guide or the owners of your guesthouse, it is a hike in the mountains that lasts several hours and offers a unique Polynesian panorama over these ancient caldera, reminders of the volcanic past, with spectacular viewpoints over a jagged coastline. A walk through Vaikivi park, a protected nature reserve in the island’s center allows you to journey through vegetation that has been preserved for centuries, hiding archaeological treasures, notably petroglyphs. With its rich bird and marine biodiversity, Ua Huka, still free of the black rat, is also the island home of terrestrial bird species endemic to the archipelago. As for seabirds, they are found nesting on the many cliffs and rocky islets. Motu Hemeni and Teuaua, one flat and whitish in color, the other steep and red, are particularly valued by the locals, who visit them to harvest eggs, in a sustainable manner. Getting there is rather arduous and can be done (if the sea conditions allow) by those who are interested. At the same time, you can also watch the majestic forms of Manta Rays feeding in the rich coastal waters below.
In each village (Vaipaee, Hane, Hokatu) there is an arts center where objects are exhibited and sold by the islands art and craft associations. Every year in June, a competition where ancient objects are copie dis held between Ua Huka’s craftspeople. The winning objects are put on show at Te Tumu, in a hall adjoining the archaeology museum. Here the craftspeople of Hokatu busy themselves making traditional ornaments and leis, engraving coconut shell, carving wood and stone, making fragrant monoï or weaving nape (cord made from coconut husk fiber).
The municipal archaeology museum
Previously situated in Vaipaee, it moved to Te Tumu in 2015, above the airport. It presents ethnographic documents about different subjects (wood, stone…) in an interesting and clear manner, precious accounts of the Marquesan culture: familiar traditional objects, anthropomorphic wooden posts, tikis…
Museum of the sea
Located in Hane. You can find an exhibition about traditional fishing techniques, a collection of canoes from different periods, made by Joseph Vaatete, the archaeology museum’s curator.
The house of pertroglyphs
This small museum, on the edge of Hokatu’s beach, contains moulds of the petroglyphs found on the island, many of which are located in inaccessible areas now.
Te Tumu Center
Ua Huka a accueilli en 2013 une édition du festival des Marquises regroupant des délégations des six îles habitées de l’archipel. Un site de spectacle, Te Tumu, a été construit pour l’occasion et il accueille depuis lors le musée municipal.
The expansive Papenoo valley, on Tahiti’s East coast, is scattered with hiking trails that pass through a rich archeological and cultural history as well as natural treasures. We invite you to journey along one of these trails, one that crosses a territorial park, that has been listed since the late 80s, in order to conserve its uniqueness and beauty.
Te Faaiti is, as the name suggests, a « small valley » enclosing the Vaipaea river. One of the tributaries of the Papenoo river, a coastal river, that empties straight into the ocean. The source of the Vaipaea river can be found on the face of Pito Hiti (or Pito Iti, according to the spelling and legend of your preference), the second highest peak on Tahiti, with an altitude of 2,110 meters. Te Faaiti is also known as the only territorial park in French Polynesia, officially listed as such on June 5th 1989, an initiative of Jacqui Drollet’s, then Minister for the Environment in Alexander Léontieff’s government.
The objective was to preserve an untouched « corner of paradise », at a time when the nearby Maroto valley was undergoing enormous changes, linked to the installation of hydroelectric facilities. While the largest valley in Tahiti was being profoundly altered, the natural and cultural riches of Te Faaiti were being fiercely defended by a handful of people, volunteers and members of the Te Ana Opae (« the tilted cave») association, who succeeded in preserving the site. They also gave their name to the picnic spot there. A spacious and pleasant area with a small waterfall and large pool, with several «jumping ledges» between 4 and 7 meters in height. Incidentally, one of these has been nicknamed the « leap of death » by the large numbers of hikers visiting the valley. This toponym surely comes from the presence of an oblique rockface nearby, that was probably used as a shelter in the past.
Preserving this species is thus of utmost importance, as much for Polynesian heritage as for its medicinal properties.
Not far from there, you find an unusual sort of zoo, a 200-meter square enclosure. For the moment no animals can be found there, but the reintroduction of a species of endemic snail that was widespread in French Polynesia up until the 1970s: Partula. These snails were at one time so common that they were once used to make the shell necklaces that are offered to visitors on their departure from our islands. In 1967, another species of snail was intentionally introduced, the Achatina or « Giant African snail » (a large plant-eating snail that is found in the garden), with the idea of breeding it for food… But, it took to its new habitat all too well. To the point of becoming a plague, much to the distress of agriculturists, islanders and food crops! Following this, the Rural Development Service decided to take action, introducing a third snail, Euglandina, a carnivorous snail, that would curb the spread of the giant African snail and protect the local fa’a’apu. A job that the species did, more or less effectively…. except that it also attacked the small and fragile endemic Partula, as a sort of appetizer. And this is how Partula has come to the brink of extinction in Tahiti. Nevertheless, it still can be found in low numbers in certain valleys at high altitudes (>1,300 meters), an environment that does not suit the carnivorous snail. They should not be disturbed or collected under any circumstances; partulas being listed as a category A protected species.
A sign-posted entrance
The trailhead is located eight kilometers along the cross-island road, off the ring road (two kilometers after the metal bridge). There is a visitor carpark here, at the end of which you find an information panel and lush plantations that indicate the entrance into the small valley. Straight away you get a chance to cool your feet, as you cross the Papenoo. On the other side of the river a magnificent flower garden as well as fruit trees then a wooden refuge have been all been created to welcome visitors, many of whom go no further. But it is from here that we truly begin to enter Te Faaiti, crossing through a forest of ‘ofe (bamboo). If we listen carefully, you can hear our friends the reedwarblers, always to be found in this type of habitat. Very quickly, by the side of the trail, you can make out a subtle sort of fa’a’apu – the Tahitian word for garden – that has been planted by the Department of the Environment, with the assistance of botanists and trail guides. It is filled with endemic plant species that are in critical danger of extinction, most notably the tamore mou’a and ‘autera’a tahiti, rare species that can still be found in the mountains but have been replanted here to save them. For the first species mentioned, for example, just twelve surviving plants are known, a couple of which are producing seeds.
Wonderful secret spots
After the zoological detour, we return to the hike. The path that has been cut is wide (four meters), which is very unusual for Polynesian trails. It is thus hard to get lost, except at certain river-crossings. Nevertheless, a guide is to be recommended, for your security (in case of flash-flooding or other incidents), but also to learn more about this valley (its flora, fauna and archaeology) and above all to find the interesting aquatic attractions that are scattered along the way, not necessary on the main trail (jumping spots, entertaining activities). The following natural curiosities can be found here, among other things (starting from the Papenoo) :
– 4th ford: « the tree spot ». The place got its name because of large tree trunk that was washed into place, ten years ago, by a huge flood, and is now firmly wedged under two huge rocks. If you cross this obstacle (under water) it is possible to get engulfed in a current that takes you back upriver.
– 7th ford: « the little jump and the three bends ». This is a large pool that is filled up by a 2-meter waterfall, into which you leap from a 3-meter high ledge, as well as trying to navigate not two but three bends. The challenge involves free-diving under different rocks of varying sizes (and should be done under careful surveillance);
– 8th ford: The site of Te ana opae often called « the leap of death » offers bathers a gigantic pool, and for the braver souls there are jumping off points between 4 and 7 meters above the water. This is often a favorite place for a picnic. It is easily recognized from the presence of ‘ava, fe’i, and star-apple tree, all planted by the association;
– Fifty meters above, along the same river bed, you can find the « nut-crackers» loop, where you first of all let yourself get taken away by the flowing water, before climbing back up the riverbed and crawling under a huge boulder, through a “mouse hole”;
– Another hidden spot that’s worth the detour, a 5-minute walk downstream of the 7th ford: is the « dantesque block». To find it you must leave the main trail and follow the river (the fork is marked by a small orange tree). You will probably stop here on the way back, in order to make the journey a little different from the way in. It is possible to take a (6-meter) leap off this enormous boulder. But youcan also get by this block by following the passage of the “Last of the Mohicans”, passing behind a 4-meter high waterfall. From here there is a watery « survivors challenge» that allows you to get back downriver following different fun passages. If you look up, you can see the outline of Pito Hiti above you, jutting above the clouds ;
– Finally, fifty meters before returning to your vehicle, the Papenoo allows you to rinse off in a small pool that is warmed all day long by the sun;
There are two versions of this hike : it can be done simply as far as the 8th ford, the site of the « tilted cave », with children of 7 years and older (around 2 ½ hours one way), taking your time to enjoy the different sites of interest described above, otherwise it can be continued as far as the second refuge set in a grassland( a further ¾ of an hour’s hike, ½ an hour of which is uphill), nestled below the face of Pihaiateta and Pito Hiti’s summits, just like the trail itself it is maintained by the association. It is a real garden of Eden, with marae remains, groves of fruit trees and flowers, chickens and even isolated toilets. It is possible to reserve this magical place for the weekend by contacting Mike(87 33 78 87), Te Ana Opae association’s president. It is strongly recommended that you let them know beforehand, not only to be sure that there is room for you, but also so that the association can continue to receive financial assistance from the territory. To get right to the top, if you want to keep going further, it is possible to access the waterfalls that tumble down the valley’s steep walls, though the trail is completely lost under vegetation, as few people have used it in recent years .
We will explore the valley jungles, more typical of the terrain encountered on Polynesian hikes. What could be more natural than to choose one of the most striking and grandiose of Tahiti’s valleys, the Fara’ura with its four impressive waterfalls.
In the pre-European era, Polynesians shared the island territory according to the specialty of their respective castes and the valleys were more populated than the coastline. Everything changed with the evangelization of the Polynesian society which was initiated by the English Protestant missionaries, arrived in 1797, then continued and amplified by the French Catholic missionaries from 1815. The gathering of the populations around the churches built on the coasts led an exodus from the mountains to the coast. From the middle of the 19th century, the company reorganized itself by favoring the exploitation of sea resources and market gardening near the coast. Only a handful of pig hunters, goat fishermen (small freshwater crustaceans) or fruit pickers continued to survey the mountains for food needs.
Hiking associations only started to revisit these valleys in the 1970s. The trails, early versions of the cross-country race courses, like the « raid Painapo » in Moorea and « raid Transpresqu’île » in Tahiti Iti that started in the late 90s, as well as the dozens of mountain races that are today held across districts in Tahiti as well as further afield on different islands, have contributed to the development of mountain sports. In 1997, a band of friends, members of the association « Te Feti’a o te mau mato » wandered off the trail that lead to the famous lavatubes to climb the back of the valley. The view they found was startling, a panorama over two waterfalls, one of around fifty meters, called « les Jumelles, the twins » because it split in two, the other of one hundred and eighty-four meters overlooking it. The temptation was too much, these mountain enthusiasts opened a hiking trail over the four years that followed, using their intuition and mostly just their trusty coupe-coupe the local name for a machete used to clear paths through tropical forest.
At one time, every tributary, every waterfall, every place had a name. Many of these names were lost, with the breakdown of Polynesian oral transmission and westernization, when the written word replaced oral traditions as the primary means of recording information. Today, you will only find the names of summits, valleys and coastal rivers (downstream from the last river fork in the valley, as far as its mouth) on maps. Fara’ura (« red pandanus» in Tahitian) is the valley’s name. The river that flows there is called Mahateaho « catch your breath, rest», a name that comes from a legend about a princess of the valley.
Right from the start, there’s a historic reminder, at the mouth of the Mahateaho a monument has been erect for Bougainville, who dropped anchor in this bay on Tahiti’s East coast for nine days in 1768. We know, thanks to the toponym, that canoes were built in this area in the past, or at least the prows of Polynesian boats called pano ’ahuru. It is here at PK (kilometer point) 37.7, in the district of Hitia’a o te Rā, that you must leave the ring road to get to the starting point of the hike, a kilometer further on, at the first river ford. The route is welcoming, callings us on ahead, through a small neighborhood, modest in appearance but, as always, overflowing with colorful and well-kept gardens as well as the sunny Polynesian disposition. The visitor is welcome, even though the properties at the back of the valley are private, undivided and undeveloped for the moment. The individual and shared gear is shared out, as well as the ritual briefing, beside the river. We are met by a slew of friendly dogs who live in the last small agricultural hut, belonging to the Toa family. They grow an impressive quantity of flowers, sold at the market in Papeete.
Vaitopatea, « the white/pure falling water»…
The first leg consists of climbing up to the first waterfall, called Tapatea by the elders (or rather Vaitopatea, « the white/pure falling water »), at an hour and a half’s walk from the start, after eight river crossings. The plantations give way to a weedy brush of sensitive plant (pohe ha’avare), Wedelia and Lantana, which have covered the old trail. Trousers and walking boots are required, to avoid getting scratched by these recently introduced and invasive plants. If you look up, you’ll see Red Ginger or ’opuhi, Torch Ginger, Ylang ylang (moto’i), African tuliptree, here and there in the spaces left by pūrau (a native tree that is common in the valleys forming dense thickets, often over old Polynesian dwellings). Finally, and sadly, there is abundant Miconia , a plant introduced in 1937 by Harrison Smith, founder of Tahiti’s botanic gardens, the most devastatingly invasive plant in French Polynesia, it now covers 70% of the land surface between zero and a thousand meters. The Fara’ura valley is no exception. These plants are interspersed with native ferns, plants and trees, right up to the foot of the fourth waterfall, which is a hundred and eighty-four meters tall.
Then at the end of the old trail, a different landscape unfolds : valley vegetation, greener, more luxuriant, with more large native ferns (nahe, ’ō’aha, māma’u) and bamboos (’ofe) introduced by Polynesians, for various qualities, including their sharpness, cutting like glass, being used for example during circumcisions. You can feel the atmosphere of the valley: you can feel freshness in the air, radiating from the plants, the water gushing and surging nearby, the birds that take refuge here, and us, humans entering this calm and serene environment offered to us by Mother Nature. Before reaching the first waterfall, we come up against a huge roundish boulder, as big as a large truck. According to valley legend, it was the entrance to the highlands and mountain villages. This was Ha’ura (later renamed Te’ura)’s lookout, the valley’s princess, always clothed in red tapa, the color of royalty. It is here that she decided the fate of warriors (’aito) running up the valley, seeking bananas and plantains (fë’i), in times of coastal famine. These men had to prove their peaceful intent, by carrying a coconut filled with seawater.
They were then allowed to continue further up the valley and onto the ridgeline. If one of them was foolish enough to offer a coconut filled with freshwater, they were destined to be cooked in the Tahitian oven (ahi ma’a) and eaten by the mighty princess… Te’ura is no longer there today. Some tell a story that she was captured by a red caterpillar, who had moved from cave to cave, twelve times as it grew and grew. The lavatubes of Hitia’a o te Rā were perhaps her last resting place ?
We now enter the valley and cross the largest river fork of our journey : to the right, a tributary leading to the foot of a waterfall of two hundred and ten meters high ; to the left, a tributary that leads to the foot of our first waterfall, twenty-five meters tall, the beautiful and powerful Tapatea ! The legend behind this waterfall tells that a young man wished to run away from his mother, called « vahine taehae » (raging woman) because of her bad conduct towards her family and the community.
He asked her to go to collect water, the purest being found at this waterfall. He made holes in the calabashes she used, to trick his mother. By the time she realized what had happened, he and his wife had already fled Tahiti. Incensed with rage, she swam after them. Her son, determine to escape, forced her to swallow a burning rock from the Tahitian oven, and she sank to the depths of the ocean. The young man became an important prince of Raiatea. Some even believe that he was one of the first members of the Tamatoa dynasty … It’s now time for a well-earned rest and first swim, at the back of this watery canyon. The most fearless amongst you can try the six-meter high leap into the deep pool. This is also the end of the hike, for families with children, as there was almost no climbing up to this point. A more physical challenge starts from here on in, the aim being to skirt this first waterfall, to get to the second or directly to the third waterfall. The trail, open since 1998 and become popular these last five years, has been suffered « human erosion », being worn by passing hikers and running water, in times if heavy rain. It is steep, there are large steps, sometimes as tall as a man.
Several conveniently placed knotted ropes and hand holds have been installed along the trail, by professional guides and hiking associations, to make the climb easier. A scant half-hour of acrobatic ascent will get you to the top of the first climb. Right there, nature’s magic is unveiled : a panorama over the third and fourth waterfalls, one of the enduring memories that these keen hikers will take with them. These majestic falls, appearing to tumble out of the sky, piercing the surrounding forest green with myriad hues. Opposite, above the famous « Jumelles » twin falls, we can see our picnic spot. We have yet to get down to the base of this double fall, before attempting the final climb around it. Once more there are vertical sections, the mud can reach up to your knees at times. For lack of tree trunks, you must often grab hold of roots and use your four limbs to advance.
The second summit is reached, there is another ten minutes before reaching the back of the valley, then dropping down onto the picnic spot : an admirable view over the valley downstream, from a stretch of rock dominating the 47 meter fall. As if the setting alone were not enough, add to it two jacuzzies at 22 °C, the smallest, shaped like a bathtub, flowing over into nothingness (to be visited accompanied by a guide). Thrills guaranteed !
A 180 meter waterfall …
The « show stopper » is yet to come, however. It is the return journey to the base of the fourth and final waterfall, cascading down from 180 meters above. Slowly but surely, climbing the slippery riverbed, its monstrous beauty is unveiled. Like a curtain rising on a spellbinding performance, as you enter the big top of this natural circus you are left speechless. Most often this moment is enjoyed in silence, internally, by hikers lucky enough to experience it. This waterfall must certainly have represented a deity, seducing anyone who comes to visit it with its splendor. Perpetual, fresh and powerful, it touches our five senses and awakens in some a dormant spirituality. Like all goddesses, she can also roar in fury, helped by the tropical rains. When she is peaceful, however, it is possible – and even recommended – to bathe in the large basin, cooled by the blasting fall. It is usually quite cold, and it is hard to stay longer than half an hour here.
The sun and the best pools for a picnic await a few hundred meters downriver. Once you’ve wolfed down the snack, you can always offer yourself the luxury of a small siesta, lying back on the warm basalt, rocked by the sound of the ever-running water. The guide sounds the call. It’s 2pm, time to hit the trail, for a descent that is more technical than physical. As is common, a few surprises have been kept for the return journey, we switch paths to visit the foot of the second waterfall, a thirty-five-meter-tall one, in two parts, with a small basin in mid fall and a huge pool at the bottom. If you look up you’ll see the series of three waterfalls, those that we just visited earlier in the day. A landscape worthy of the blockbuster Avatar, a priceless treasure. A view that shows us the route taken, a perfect end to the hike. From here an hour and a half is needed to return along the same path taken in. Arriving back at the vehicles, where a cooler awaits, it’s not unusual to be greeted by the Toa family, working in their plantations of ’opuhi (Red Ginger), with their friendly dogs, who seem to take pleasure in sharing the euphoria that comes at the end of a great outing, as is so often the case in French Polynesia.