We explore Tahiti and are overwhelmed by the wild nature and pleasant luxuries of French Polynesia’s main island.

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Fakarava – Tahiti (PYF)

“I really don’t feel like preparing or having a meal now. Please pass me a muesli bar”, Ivar asks. On the digital sea chart, the passage from Fakarava to Tahiti looked easy. There were no obstacles along the 200-nautical mile route and the weather forecast promised a gentle breeze on a beam-reach course. In practice, it is a different story. The wind is squally and regularly blows over 25 knots, while steep, irregular ocean waves pounce on Luci. They make her rock back and forth at a bumpy cadence. Apathetically we sit in the cockpit. After the Tuamotus’ flat lagoons we obviously can’t handle ocean swell anymore. And the trip is too short to get into the rhythm dictated by three-hour watches. It is only when we see Tahiti’s silhouette in the morning light of the second day that our spirits are lifted. The island’s highest mountain rises to over 2,200 meters, and the low sun gives its slopes a golden-green hue. It is quite a sight after the low atolls of the Tuamotus. “Come and explore me”, Tahiti seems to beckon us.

Boat Parking

We sail on until we reach the lee of the island, then enter a well-marked pass between the reefs. While the ocean waves break violently on the reefs on either side of us, it’s deep and calm where we are. At the end of the pass we follow a well-marked channel. Once again, we are in flat waters. The reefs that surrounds large parts of Tahiti keep the swell out, giving us a smooth ride towards the bay where we plan to anchor. As soon as we turn into the bay a forest of masts appears. “Look at all those boats”, Floris says. The sight confirms stories we have heard about boats crowding Tahiti. When French Polynesia went into lockdown, the authorities ordered all arriving boats to sail to Tahiti. Many obliged and got stuck here, as all surrounding countries were closed to foreign vessels. It has led to the island becoming a busy boat parking ground. All three marinas here are all full and hundreds of boats are tied to mooring balls or at anchor.

Our destination is a lesser-frequented anchorage: Port Phaeton. It’s in the “armpit” of Tahiti’s larger land mass, Tahiti Nui, and the smaller peninsula, Tahiti Iti. Although it’s far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital Pape’ete, when we sail into the bay, we still count some 50 boats. Upon closer inspection, we notice that most of them are abandoned. Some permanently, as evidenced by the plants growing on deck, some probably for as long as the coronavirus inhibits free movement. We find a spot to anchor close to shore and understand why people left their boats here: Port Phaeton is well-protected from wind and waves.

Local Equals Social

That same afternoon we paddle to shore for grocery shopping. “Wow, such abundance!” Floris observes in awe as soon as we walk into the large supermarket. After nine months of visiting only mini-markets on small islands, this oversized Carrefour dazzles us. The enormous choice of cheeses, meats, wines, and other delicacies is quite overwhelming. “Tahiti, the land of plenty”, Ivar comments drily. Prices are steep but we can’t resist the temptation and buy French cheese, American nacho chips, and organic chocolate spread without rainforest-destroying palm oil. In the fruit and vegetable department, we find some local produce, but elsewhere in the store almost the entire range is imported. Unfortunately, those imports caused significant transport emissions, as Tahiti is a long way from everywhere. In addition, we wonder what the social impact of our purchasing behaviour is? We decide to have a closer look.

According to Carrefour’s 2019 annual report, some 81% of turnover is spent on purchasing goods. Although employees’ wages are paid locally and local sales tax is paid, it still means that the largest part of our shopping expenses flows abroad. Only a small part of our money benefits the local economy. In addition, at a large supermarket like Carrefour many employees receive a minimum wage. The annual salary of the CEO, by contrast, is at a whopping € 7.3 million, no less than 310 times the salary of the average employee, who receives just over € 23,000. And € 106 million – half of the net profit – disappears as a dividend into the pockets of – mainly foreign – shareholders. It means that shopping at Carrefour does not exactly reduce income inequality. But what’s the alternative to disappearing money and social inequality?

When, some weeks later, we walk through the center of Pape’ete, we come across the “Marché Municipal”, the city’s market hall. It is centrally located, has substantial floor space, and is well-maintained. On Sunday mornings, the market even overflows into the surrounding streets. They are filled with stalls selling local produce, anything from fresh tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes to bananas, pineapples, and mangoes. The market is clearly very popular with the locals, despite the Covid crisis. Fortunately, almost everyone wears face masks and sanitizes their hands before entering the market. As we follow the locals inside, we understand why it’s so popular. Produce is plentiful and not expensive. And when we ask at different stalls where their fruit and vegetables are from, they all tell us that it is from Tahiti or French Polynesia’s other isalnds. The vendors’ expenses, such as transportation costs, market stall fees, and taxes are also local and as such support the local economy. The money we spend at the marché municipal therefore benefits the people here to a much greater extent than at Carrefour. It means that buying locally is more socially beneficial. What’s more, the money does not disappear abroad but continues to circulate in the local economy for longer, which increases local prosperity. We’ll write more about the social benefits of buying local in a separate sustainable solution item.

Clean Water

Back on board at the calm anchorage, it’s high time we address a maintenance job that has been haunting us for a while: the water tank. After each sail, we found our drinking water a bit cloudy, so we suspect that the tank is polluted. Fortunately, our tank has a manhole, meaning we can climb inside. To reach it, however, we have to dismantle the stairs and remove no less than 40 bolts from the lid. Ivar is drenched in sweat by the time the manhole is finally open, so he takes a refreshing dive in the bay before climbing into the tank. We take turns cleaning the inside of the tank and find another problem. The tank has rusty spots here and there, including along the pipes inside the tank. “They need to be replaced” Ivar assesses. Fortunately, there is a well-stocked hardware store nearby – an advantage of being in Tahiti. We find all necessary materials, such as eco-cleaning agents, paint brushes, hoses, and clamps. It still takes a whole week to finish the job, so when we drink our first glass of water from the clean tank, it almost tastes like champagne. Almost.

Stretching Our Legs Again

After all the snorkelling we did in the Tuamotus, our legs are longing to go on a hike again. It turns out Tahiti is a great place for that. Using Port Phaeton as our base, we explore the south side of Tahiti Nui. Despite this larger part of Tahiti being more densily populated than the smaller Tahiti Iti, it is very easy to get immersed in nature. All we need to do is cross the road that runs around the island and pass a few houses. We can then walk for kilometres through lush, green valleys without meeting anyone. Along the route are various types of plants which clearly thrive in the island’s tropical climate. Even the steepest mountain slopes are covered with vegetation. The combination of mountainous terrain and heat gives us much more trouble than the plants, so we regularly take breaks and drink plenty of water to recover. Fortunately, the water from streams is clean and wonderfully refreshing. Our cooling off efforts reach their pinnacle when we find a waterfall beside the road. We strip off our clothes and just let the falling water pour on us. Floris beams from ear to ear. “The best shower ever!” 

Wild Tahiti Iti

To explore Tahiti Iti, we sail to the village of Teahupo’o. The sea is wonderfully flat, as we can stay within the shelter of the reef that runs parallel to the coast. The further south we venture, the more rugged the mountains and valleys become. At our anchorage just south of the little town, we are the only boat. That surprises us, as the place is famous among wave-surfers. A “perfect wave” attracts top surfers from all over the world to this place. Of course this year, the main event, Tahiti Pro, has been cancelled due to Covid. When we paddle out to see the wave up close, only a few local stars show off their impressive skills.

We paddle on to explore more of Tahiti Iti. In contrast to Tahiti Nui, the road does not go around the peninsula. Rather, it ends half-way down the coast, in Teahupo’o. Without a road to walk on, we paddle through well-sheltered bays and see one virgin valley after another opening up. The mountains’ black cliffs lay bare Tahiti’s volcanic origins. The landscape looks like it has been for thousands of years. There are only a few simple houses close to shore. After two hours and 10 kilometres of paddling, we finally reach our destination and head towards the coast. A lady living on the waterfront kindly shows us the way. “Just paddle up the stream, leave your kayak – no-one will take it – and follow the path”, she explains. We follow her instructions and find a natural cave which was of spiritual significance to the original Polynesian population. Energized by this magical discovery (and our packed lunch) we paddle another two hours back to Luci. “It’s great to see that there are still such original, quiet places on this large island”, Floris says. Too exhausted to tackle the famous wave ourselves, we settle for the replica in the village instead.

Sent Away

A few days later we head to Tahiti Nui again. We read about a calm anchorage close to a botanical garden, in the bay of Atehiti, and look forward to a few days of staying there. Yet just as we drop the anchor, a policeman arrives on a jet ski. He politely explains that anchoring is prohibited here because they are constructing a mooring field there, and firmly sends us away. Although we doubt the truthfulness of his explanation, we oblige. It’s not worth causing a scene when we are not welcome. We had heard similar stories from boats elsewhere around Tahiti. Sadly, sailors are faced with more and more restrictions here. Back in nearby Port Phaeton, our disappointment quickly turns into joy as our friends from SY Sea Jay, SY Stormalong and SY J. Henry all join us there. We have drinks and dinners on board and celebrate birthdays in a restaurant. “What a treat”, Ivar says with a smile. “We haven’t eaten out in so long. I am so glad we went to this Land of Plenty!”

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