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987 Polynésie Française: September 2018


After a short Brisbane-Auckland flight with our preferred airline, we spend 3 days in our preferred city. Our 5th visit confirmed again that Auckland is the city to be! Quality of life here is the highest, we ever experienced in all the places we visited around the world. The weather is the only criterion that is not optimal, however it’s much milder than most European cities during wintertime. We will miss this city with its stunning spots and exquisite restaurants! Haere Ra Aotearoa!!

We continue our journey to Papeete with Air New Zealand (our 5th flight with them). This is a fabulous airline: their premium economy is better than the business class of many European carriers! The services on ground and aboard are a dream … and it’s excellent value for your money.

French Polynesia is composed of 118 geographically dispersed islands, of which 76 are inhabited. French Polynesia is divided into five archipelagos: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands. Tahiti is the most populous island with Papeete being the capital of this French collectivity. Close to 70% of the total population is living in Tahiti, mostly around Papeete.

The largest lagoon in the world is the one that surrounds Grande Terre in New Caledonia with 23'000 km2. The second largest lagoon is that of Rangiroa with 1446 km2 and the third largest lagoon is that of Fakarava with 1121 km2.

French Polynesia is infamous for its nuclear testings performed on Mururoa and its sister atoll Fangataufa until 1995 under widespread protests. Well known is the murderous bombing attack against the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship, in the Port of Auckland by the French foreign intelligence services.

While we’re here, we’re going to visit the archipelagos of the Society islands, the Tuamotu and the Marquesas. A total of 6 islands …


Tahiti - Society Archipelago (670 km and 15 days) 

Once out of the plane in Papeete the dream of South Pacific disappears rapidly … welcome on Earth and French reality again … poor roads, terrible traffic, pollution, degraded houses …
Our apartment is located in Punaauia at the end of an unpaved road, the outside of the residence is not very inviting but the apartment itself is large and comfortable.
Similarly to New Caledonia, nearly all goods in Tahiti are imported. However, there is a larger choice of fresh vegetables and fruits … if you like to buy local products then it’s more expensive: local tomatoes cost 590 XPF/kg and imported tomatoes from the US only 250 XPF! For the wine, the situation is worse … we have to forget the excellent Kiwi and Aussie wines … the only choice here is over-priced French wine with a terrible taste! Maeva France ...

After 3 days of continuous rain, we finally see the sun this morning for a few hours … luckily, this is the dry season! The wet season starts end November … we don’t wanna be here!
So, we use the time to find a storage for our luggage and to locate the best supermarkets, the best bakery, make some laundry and fix everything correctly  in our apartment.

Today, we visit the Plage Vaiava at PK 18 (PK stands for “Pointe Kilométrique” i.e. the distance in km from the Cathedral in Papeete). Very few businesses or individuals have an address defined by street name and number. In Papeete, Polynesians use some major points of interest as a referral and for the locations outside of Papeete, the PK followed by seaside/ mountainside.

Plage Vaiava at PK18 is rated as the prettiest beach in Tahiti ... well, we left this overcrowded stretch of rocks and grayish sand after a couple of minutes … Want to know why Vaiava is considered the prettiest beach in Tahiti? Because most other beaches are so narrow that they don’t really qualify as a beach. If we think about the thousands of kilometers of pristine sand beaches in Australia where you can drive for hours with your 4WD and be alone! What a difference...

At PK 19.2, we stop at Marae Taata, an ancient complex of three temples. To note that the marae in NZ are part of the contemporary life and the center of cultural and religious activities for the Maori. Here, it’s only historical remnants of the past. We continue to PK 22.6: Marae Arahurahu, one of the best-preserved marae in Tahiti. Here you can see two ti’i statues, though the originals are housed in the Gauguin Museum. This marae has an ahu – the altar that stands high at the very edge of the rectangular temple and a fata ‘ai ‘ai, a wooden platform for the gods’ offerings.

It’s our 6th day in Tahiti and the weather is supposed to be fine today. So, we’re excited to tour the island. It’s the most awful day since we arrived ... uninterrupted heavy rain! … and we’re in the middle of the dry season!

Next day, cloudy, but we try our first hike in Tahiti. We start from the Jardins d’Eau de Vaipahi and walk in a pine forest for 5km. Well, the “trail” is actually a 2 m wide 4x4 road … After this quite boring walk in a pine forest (hey, we’re on a tropical island and we don’t want to see planted pines), we drive to the belvedere of Taravao on Tahiti Iti. From there, you have a nice view of Tahiti Nui. 

Few days later, the weather is still mostly cloudy. So, we decide to take a short walk to the three waterfalls of Faarumai. Actually, only one (Vaimahutu Falls) is officially accessible. It’s only a couple of minutes walk from the car park on a large artificial path and a horrible concrete viewing spot. Any city park in the world would provide more nature-feeling than here. Well, we also take the “forbidden” (closed) path to the other two waterfalls. It’s about 10 minutes away on a well maintained trail. The two other waterfalls are less spectacular, but at least you can walk in the nature.
One of the best ways to discover Tahiti’s interior is on the Fautaua Valley trail, our first real hike on the island. Before that you need to get a 600 XPF access permit from the Papeete Town Hall … really? The access to Fautaua Valley (Papeete watershed) is protected with a gate open from 07.30 to 15.30 (working hours of Polynesienne des Eaux) but the access permit is only checked on weekends! 
The hike begins at a large unpaved parking area and from there it continues on a closed 4x4 road. At the end of the 4x4 track, there’re two trails in different directions. On the right, it approaches the bottom of the falls. On the left, over the green bridge, it’s the upper approach. We opted for the ascending trail. After 40 minutes hiking from the bridge, you finally see the impressive Fachoda Falls. This is the only view point. The uphill hike continues beyond this "bellevue" to reach the ruins of the Fachoda Fort after 20 minutes. There, you can access the river above the falls for a swim.
We took a larger loop after crossing the river, to the top of a plateau with some plantations before returning to our car. All in all, it took us about 5h15’ for the extended loop.

Two days before leaving Tahiti, we finally have a sunny day. We drive to PK18 at the Plage Vaiava for snorkeling. The water is absolutely crystal clear, never seen such transparency. You can clearly see the 10 m deep ground and at least 40 m horizontally … of course, we forgot to take our waterproof camera today ... We swim out to the barrier reef delimiting the lagoon, about 400 m from the shore. The reef is surprisingly in a good shape, with much less damages than in Australia. Unbelievable, if you think that this is the “only beach” on Tahiti and thousands of people come here every day for their aquatic activities ... We had one green turtle swimming with us for a while.
We return to Plage Vaiava the day after, armed with our camera to capture the best aspects of this inviting reef … but the waves are at least 3 m high and the water in the lagoon has lost its absolute transparency … Never mind ...

We’ve not found one good reason to make vacation on Tahiti: the island is unattractive, overcrowded, traffic jammed and terribly expensive (about twice the prices than Paris).



Moorea - Society Archipelago (640 km and 15 days) 

On day 16, we drop-off our Duster at Ecocar (the most convenient car rental in Tahiti), and leave Tahiti for Moorea. We take the big Aremiti Ferry … a mistake! ... The smaller Terevau is much faster and cheaper! 

Moorea (meaning "yellow lizard" in Tahitian) is a geographical marvel: several sharp cut, steep and strongly eroded mountains rise from the lagoon, creating a distinctive and rugged silhouette. Two parallel bays (Cook's and Opunohu Bay) split the North coast. Moorea is a scenically striking island ... we hope to see more of its rugged interior when hiking (tropical "dry season" permitting!).

Captain Cook did not anchor at Cook's Bay in 1777 but at Opunohu Bay. This bay is historical because of the famous Mutiny of the Bounty. The crew turned on their commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, setting him afloat on a small boat. Attracted by its lifestyle, the crew stayed in Moorea and burned the ship to avoid detection. However, Lieutenant Bligh made it back to Britain and reported the mutiny, and some of the crew members were arrested.

Honeymooners believe that Moorea is shaped like a heart, that’s the reason why they’re here … actually the shape of Moorea is more like a flying bat!

The main activity on Moorea, besides tourism, is the cultivation of pineapple. The Moorea pineapple has originally been imported from La Réunion, the delicious Victoria. It goes without saying that the Moorea variety is at least as delectable and succulent. So, while we’re here - Every day is Pineapple Day!

On our first day, we circle the island by car (approx. 62 km) to get an overview. We visit the Manutea rum distillery and its fruit juice factory (they also make a good dry pineapple wine and a demi-sec sparkling wine), check where the hiking trails are starting and finally, a trip to the supermarket to fill up our nice kitchen for the week.

Our first night was long … during the first half an intensive rain was falling, followed then by 70-80 km/h strong winds. The storm-like wind did not stop the morning after. Nevertheless, we decide to go for a walk in the forest, although one should avoid hiking during strong winds … indeed, there was a tree falling on the road just before us … but we have good brakes on our Peugeot 108!
A short pause at the Tropical Garden at PK 16 for a fresh juice with a nice panoramic view. Then, a brutal stop … a huge cruise ship is anchored in the Opunohu Bay. This monster with 2’124 Carnival cruisers is polluting like millions of cars!! (a study published by Transport&Environment on June 4, 2019 calculated that Carnival Corporation with its 47 ships emitted 10 times more SOx than did all 260 million European cars in 2017, that means 1 cruise ship is polluting like 55 millions cars!). Every single day! The cherry on the cake is that all the surroundings are full of buses with cruisers … Hawaiian shirt, white sneakers and a beautiful badge around their necks! Let’s forget this cultural shock ... 

There’s a high density of Ma’ohi settlements in the Opunohu valley: 63 house sites, 111 habitation terraces and 145 temples (mahae). The Ma’ ohi settlement in Opunohu Valley begins in 1250 AD and continues up to the European contact in 1767 AD.
Near the car parking at Marae Ti’ i rua, we start the trail (Sentier des Ancêtres, a 5.3 km loop) well marked at the beginning, the ancient Ma’ohi path gets less obvious when we get deeper into the forest. We observe approx. 20 marae and house terraces in this eerie forest with century-old mape trees (Tahitian chestnut). 

The interior of Moorea with its rugged mountains is really beautiful, so we decide to take another hike from the Belvedere: the Col des 3 Cocotiers (4.3 km one-way).
The Opunohu Valley has a large network of trails across the valley or heading up toward several passes. The only difficulty is the understanding of the very unique route markers and the lack of adequate maps (the IGN map, the official territory map made by the French Geographic Institute, is totally useless).
We start at the Belvedere with a downhill section towards a couple of creeks along a lush forest of Tahitian chestnut trees, Banyan trees, overgrown jungle vines and bamboo. The trail eventually turns up to the mountainside with a few switchbacks up to the lookout at 419 m. A fantastic panorama: the Opunohu Valley in its entirety. Mt Rotui (899 m) between the two bays, Mt Tohiea (1207 m) on the right, Mt Mou’aputa (830 m) further East, followed by Mt Tearai (770 m), and on the left Mt Mouaroa (880 m). Further away, W-NW Mt Matatea (714 m) and Mt Tautuapae (769 m).

On our 6th day on Moorea, we walk to the most spectacular falls of the island: the Putoa Falls. In Afareaitu, we take the bumpy and rocky access road until we find a nice parking slot under a tree. Our hiking shoes on, we follow the access road for a while, and then continue on a narrow path to the base of the cascade ... less than 30 minutes later, we’re in front of a few droplets of water gently landing in a circular pool of non-inviting water ...

After the short morning walk, we drive to Papetoai for our first attempt of swimming with the whales. We board an inflatable dinghy and … navigate all the way back to our bungalow in Temae and then to Vaiare … Well, the humpbacks here are not as numerous as in Hervey Bay or Cape Range, Australia. You really have to look for them … we’re all standing on the side of the boat holding to the sunroof and eagerly waiting for the first whale. Not the best day as the waves are 2-3 m high, so it’s quite difficult to notice a whale from a dinghy, even if it would be only 100 m from you. In addition, the strong wind is immediately dissipating the whale’s blow. However, we finally find one whale but it swims away quickly. We then return to Temae and exactly in front of our bungalow, probably 100 m from our beach door ..., we see a mother with its calf! They’re so close to the shore... but again, they leave quite quickly … It’s already time to go back. On the way, we notice a juvenile male playing with the sea grass but again no swimming is possible besides the fact that now the visibility is nil … It’s time to drink the bottle of planteur the skipper brought with us to alleviate the disappointment.  

On Saturday, we relax at the Temae Beach, the largest beach of Moorea. Apparently, there’s some great snorkeling towards the reef edge but today the ocean current is too strong. It’s almost impossible to swim and as soon as we stop we’re swept all the way back. At least, we see a couple of huge stingrays. We do need to come back another day when the current is less strong.

Sunday is an important day for Polynesians … It’s the day for a long and big brunch – the “Ma’a Tahiti”: polynesian meals cooked in the traditional polynesian oven. We also have a big breakfast too … po’e banana-pumpkin (with coconut milk), bread made with coconut water …
We start our walk to the Col de Vaiare (320 m), South of the Vaiare harbor near the “Bayside” shop. At the beginning, along a track in the valley and then steep through the forest up to the pass and its view point. It’s a nice 360 degrees panorama with view over Moorea and Tahiti. With the heat and our breakfast, it’s tough to get to the top. Only after the walk, could we finally digest our rich breakfast …

The best maps for hiking in this area are the free OSM maps. These are the only accurate maps for the region showing correctly the topography and including the trails.
All other maps: IGN, Google .. etc. are totally useless or even wrong. Therefore, we switch our Garmin GPS device, loaded with OSM, to pedestrian mode and … ready for easy hiking



We were wondering what would be better between another snorkeling trip at Temae Beach or going to the Lagoonarium … we chose the Lagoonarium and glad we did so!
It’s located on Motu Ahi, a small coral cay near Afareaitu. After a short boat ride, we land on a small emerged reef just behind the motu itself. There, we have a small hut for the day, sufficient to stow our belongings, have some shadow and eat our picnic. The place isn’t overwhelmed with people, probably 15-20 people. At anytime, some are in the sea and others in the huts, so it feels quiet. It’s quite a nice place. The corals are not exceptional but you see some decent ones if you go further out where most people are afraid of going due to the current and waves but there’ re ropes to grab if need be.
The number of sting rays, blacktip sharks, bluefin trevally, moray eel, clown fish, trigger fish and more is incredible! It was so great that we stayed 4 hours in the lagoon snorkeling.
Twice-a-day near the huts, it’s feeding time at 11:30 and 14:00: it’s fun to watch. At the beginning, we were critical about this tourist show but it offers good photo opportunities if instead of watching the feeder and the crowd around him, you look out to the open sea … Half an hour before feeding time, tens of sharks are arriving and circling around the feeding area along with tons of fish of all sizes and stingrays … many people don’t realize it as they’re watching the fish-feeding.
The place is pleasant and quiet, the price including hut and kayak, is very honest (3,900 XPF for the entire day)… so we returned for a second relaxing day … only 3 hours snorkeling this time. That’s because the water was quite cloudy due to stronger current and swells.

Ta’aihimana Beach on the Opunohu Bay: this is a really nice public beach located between the Hilton and the anchorage point of the cruise ships. Our first stop here to visit the large reef in front of it for an … awful snorkeling! Despite having wonderful turquoise waters and being on the pictures of thousands of cruisers, the reef underneath is clinically dead ... overgrown by algae, lots of rubbish and even dead fish ...

Day 14 on Moorea: Based on the weather forecast, it’s the best day for a hike before leaving the island. So, that’s the day we select for our hike to Mt Rotui (899 m).
At 05.00, the alarm goes off. It’s dawn and we realize it’s cloudy and it rained overnight … Meteo France forecast was again wrong! We’re at the end of our stay in Moorea and missed several good opportunities because of the useless weather forecast … So, today that’s our last chance to give it a try.
The trail is well visible and there’re even some red & white plastic stripes to mark it, at the beginning.
The trail is steep right from the start and remains very steep all the way up, initially through some forest and then along the shrub covered ridge. There are some spectacular views of the Opunohu Bay from the peak at 490 MASL (meters above sea level). From here onwards, watch your steps: the trail gets very narrow, muddy, slippery and is strongly overgrown by vegetation. Sometimes you don’t see where you actually walk and you may be on an overhanging bush and over the edge of the cliff. Often, you must cling to vines and grass while climbing up steep sections. The challenges of this hike are the heat and the trail itself, narrow, overgrown and very slippery with a deep escarpment on both sides waiting for your mistake. We had to stop our ascent at 650 MASL mainly due to the lack of visibility, the clouds were so low that it was dark and foggy but also because of the slippage on the humid trail, making it too dangerous to proceed.
We realized walking back that this was a wise decision … indeed it was nearly impossible to walk down … rather sliding down on muddy toboggans or wet grass ... getting up was much easier! After one of the many slippages, the edge of the ridge collapsed and suddenly one of us was falling down the cliff … a sapling broke away as the impact with the body was too strong. Luckily, there was a second tree further down to stop the free fall … now, how to get back to the ridge from that position with a deep gap in between? Well, we managed it by taking additional risks... We were very happy once we reached the road only with a few scratches, swellings and some other minor injuries…
Despite all that, it was a very beautiful day in the mountains!

Moorea (1)

Moorea (2)

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