The Wild Side
Tahiti’s East Coast is considered the “Wild Side” as it differs greatly in appearance from the West Coast. On the east side, there is very little reef. This is due to the tilting of the northern and southern slopes of the island’s volcanic shield hundreds of thousands of years ago. The coast also faces the wind and therefore receives more sea spray. Rocky shores are swept by the waves yet there are also beautiful black and pebbled beaches. The sky plays with the light from full sun and rain showers to mist and rainbows. This side of the island is predominantly rural and unlike Papeete and the more urban West Coast, time seems to stand still… However, let us begin our journey. Once past the coastal plain that stretches to east of Papeete and contains the communities of Pirae and Arue, a natural obstacle forces the road to climb a steep saddle located several hundred yards above the sea. This is Tahara’a point, the remnants of a small adventitious volcano that came into being during the last eruptions on the rim of Tahiti Nui’s main edifice. At the base of the cliff is Matavai Bay, the historic site where Polynesian and European cultures came into contact toward the end of the 18th century. From that moment, life for Tahitians who converted to Christianity during the decades that followed became transformed forever.
Matavai Bay is bordered on the eastern part by a strip of land that defines a beautiful black sand beach popular among local residents of the district of Mahina, Point Venus (see table). This is a must stop when touring the island. In 1769, scientists on the first expedition chose this location in order to view the transit of Venus across the sun. Today, the lighthouse built in 1867 shines its beams of light onto the horizon for the safety of ships. The small town of Mahina is the main locality on the East Coast. Point Venus and the coast are home to a majority of Mahina’s 15,000 residents. Subdivisions discretely cover the slopes, enjoying the grandiose decor of Tahiti’s highest mountains. Looking back at the island from the beach, you can see the three main peaks of Tahiti, Orohena, Pito Iti and Aorai, which rise to over 2000 meters/6500 ft. (See table, Hikes). However, let’s continue our route around the island. Here on the mountain side is Tuauru Valley. ‘Uru is Tahitian for breadfruit. In 1788, Captain Bligh and the crew of the famous Bounty came to this valley to look for breadfruit plants to transport the Caribbean, which was the purpose of their expedition. This valley, once densely populated, also conceals many archaeological structures mostly covered in vegetation, but that are now in the process of being identified. The valley is also renowned for its basalt columns, spectacular prismatic geological formations that embellish areas along the banks of the river.
A few kilometers past PK 14 and the stunning Point Tapahi viewing point just after the village of Orofara is the true start of this coast and the wind that is dramatically different from the North and West Coasts. There are hardly any lagoons here and a narrow coastal plain. Without a reef, the swells unfold onto a rocky coast sprinkled here and there with pebbles. We have reached the commune of Papenoo with its surf spots that are especially popular from November to April when the swells are favorable. Papenoo is the first of four small localities that make up the associated communes of Hitia’a o t era, which means “Land of the Rising Sun.” Papenoo is home to more than a quarter of a population of 10,000 spread over 40 kilometers of coastline and throughout a few valleys. It is in one of these valleys at PK17 that Tahiti’s main river runs as it drains Tahiti Nui’s caldera. Due to heavy rainfall dams have been built along the river. A 4X4 road starts on the right bank and crosses the entire island of Tahiti, where at the highest peak there is a tunnel with a passage to the West Coast. With a watershed comprising almost 90 km2/35 sq. mi., this valley has stunning hikes, notably across Te Fa’aiti Natural Park. Although today void of any inhabitants except at the mouth of the river, this area was once densely populated. Several remains of marae and other sites of worship and habitation have been discovered. Some have been restored and are open for visits. This is the opportunity to discover a thousand-year old culture rich in legends and traditions. However, we must be on our way. The main road, which winds along a tormented coastline, continues to PK22, the entrance to Tiarei.
In the past, the main road went around Arahoho Point, under which there is currently a tunnel. Automobile traffic is now diverted as part of a tourism development plan to allow a safe observation of the relationship between the sea and rock that can be quite spectacular in times of huge swells. This area, called Le Trou du Souffleur or blow hole (Arahoho in Tahitian, which means the road that howls), is on the traditional island tour itinerary. Here, swells penetrate small underground tunnels created through erosion under the road then slam against the basalt cliff in very powerful surges. The noise accompanying this blast is also quite impressive. The stronger the sea, the more intense the spectacle! A few kilometers away are the three Faarumai waterfalls, located in Vaipuu valley. This location is the site of a traditional legend that tells of the encoounter between a young girl Fauai and Ivi, the genie of the valley. However, a visit here is the chance to discover gorgeous waterfalls in a lush botanical backdrop (For safety reasons, the site is currently undergoing renovations, so it may be difficult to access). The tour of the island continues along a relatively narrow coastal plain bordered by beautiful black sand beaches leading to tree-filled plateaus overlooking small valleys. This is a true gift for the eyes. A simple country village with its numerous gardens surrounding tiny homes, Tiarei joins Mahaena at PK 31.
French captain Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed in Hitia’a 1768. Unaware of Englishman Wallis’ arrival in Matavai Bay a year before, Bougainville’s account of his voyage launched the myth of the paradise of Tahiti. A marker on the side of the road commemorates his passage. It is actually a site that is not ideal for mooring and one of his two ships lost two anchors. It is also from this spot that Ahutoru embarked on Bougainville’s ship for his return voyage and became the first Tahitian to arrive in Europe. This small district is also renowned for lava tubes, which are tunnels formed hundreds of thousands of years ago by the rapid external cooling of lava. Crews from Nicolas Hulot’s television show Ushuaia shot an episode here about twenty years ago. A 4X4 road (that leaves from PK 40) allows access to a hike that is now available to seasoned athletes and tough hikers. It is more like a canyoneering adventure than a simple hike. It is mandatory to have a guide as the trail is not marked and there are many tricky areas. Finally, we attain Vaiha Valley, the second largest watershed on the island of Tahiti. On horseback between Hitia’a and Faaone, a small district on the outskirts of Taravao and the Tahiti Iti peninsula (see Reva Tahiti N° 67), this valley is rich in archeological sites and endemic plants (guided visits available).
This is the smallest of the localities comprising Hitia’a o te Ra; however, two rivers here join into one at the mouth. Today, this is a place to swim and surf. The book Ancient Tahiti by Teuira Henry tells of ancient accounts from around the 16th century (well before the arrival of Europeans in Tahiti) that evoke the memory of Hina Rau’era, a legendary female surfer who rode the swells in this spot. Surprising perhaps, but not so much since the first European explorers reported that Polynesians regularly practiced this activity on large wooden boards. On a more morose note, this site was the setting of a lively conflict between the French colonial forces and Tahitian rebels during the 1844 Franco-Tahitian war. There is a monument to serve as a reminder. A motu, Taaupiri islet, located at several hundred meters, also goes by the name of the midshipman Max Marie Paul Adrien de Nansouty who is buried there after having been killed during this battle. You will notice several flower beds dedicated to the decoration of hotels at the entrance to the valley where athletic hikers can go on trails with several viewing points (a guide is necessary).
Most of the explorers at the end of the 18th century chose Matavai Bay to set anchor. The bay provided a safe haven as it was protected by Te Fauroa point, now known as Point Venus. In fact, the expeditions of Wallis (1767) and Cook (1769) set anchor here. It is also here where sailors disembarked from the SMS Bounty in 1788, a ship famous for its mutiny which became an adventure recounted in several novels and films. It is also here that in 1797, Protestant missionaries from the London Missionary Society landed. Dominated by this 19th century lighthouse, milestones recall the passage of these three missions. This strip of land that heads north into the ocean is lengthened by a coral reef. Two small motu to the east of the reef border a protected lagoon zone rich in marine wildlife.
Hikes throughout the mountains and valleys
Tahiti Nui is dominated by steep mountains sliced with deep lush uninhabited valleys that only curious visitors can experience. For them, the East Coast is a chance to discover the lesser known parts of the island and gain precious memories. This coast is loaded with hiking trails that range from pleasant walks to climbing up peaks for a strenuous workout. Some of the outings include swimming in the cool rivers. The fresh water from the mountains is a fabulous way to cool off from the tropical heat. However, with the often treacherous terrain, lush vegetation and the surprises of suddenly changing weather (notably in the hot season from November to April), it is important to be careful. Having a guide is often absolutely necessary, especially for those who would like to attempt to climb the island’s highest peak, Mount Orohena (2241 m/7352 ft) or discover the lava tubes in Hitia’a as well as several waterfalls hidden in the mountains that are often unmarked. What memories you can create through embarking on such adventures! (Information is available at the tourism office (Office du Tourisme). In book form, available in French only: Laudon, Paule. La montagne, histoire, nature et randonnées. Papeete: Au Vent des îles, 2010).