We leave our last atoll in the Tuamotus around 18h00, exiting Fakarava’s north pass at slack tide. The wind is light from behind at 10-15 kts, almost 180 degrees, and we fly the spinnaker the entire time, day and night, for two nights and two days.
We approach Tahiti on the third evening – a massive mountain rising from the ocean surrounded by a reef. We drop anchor in the first possible bay just behind the eastern corner- Tautira Bay or Cook’s Anchorage, renamed after Captain Cook, who landed here during his voyage. One other yacht arrives in the dark after us. There are no other boats. We spend the night here, in the calm of the bay, after two nights of sailing. Early the next morning we continue all the way to the west side of the island and at noon we arrive in Papeete – the largest port and heavily populated capital of French Polynesia.
Tahiti is the biggest of the Society Islands archipelago with land area over 1000 square kilometers, where more than half of all French Polynesians live. The island was part of the independent Kingdom of Tahiti until its annexation by France in 1880, when it was proclaimed a colony of France, and the inhabitants became French citizens. French is the only official language although the Tahitian language (Reo Tahiti) is widely spoken, as in all other islands of French Polynesia.
It’s full with sailing yachts- some huge super mega yachts- and we have two options- either go to the downtown Marina Papeete, where most of our friends are- right at the heart of the big capital city with all the shops and restaurants and the beautiful seaside park, or drop anchor for free further- much further- near Marina Taina- one of two anchorages near Papeete. We choose the free option, even though we have to hitchhike every time we go to Papeete. At least hitchhiking is great on the island, as everywhere in French Polynesia, and we never have to wait for more than 5-10 minutes for some super friendly local to pick us up. Also, the biggest and cheapest Carrefour shopping mall is within walking distance from our anchorage and cruisers are welcome to push their shopping carts all the way to the dinghy docks- an employee picks up the empty shopping carts stacked at the docks every day.
It’s great being on land again. After the low-lying coral atolls where the highest natural landmark is a coconut palm it’s nice to find mountains, forests, and rivers again. We put on our hiking boots and together with our friends from catamaran Runaway – Reinhart, Claudia and Launce start for the Fautaua valley and falls. First we hitchhike- six people separated in two groups. Reinhart is a blond German guy- very blond- and cars stop for him even before he sticks his thumb up, I don’t know why. So their group gets picked up first and 2 and half minutes later- our group gets picked up too, even though none of us is blond…
We get to a place in the city, where we pay for a permit to enter the trail for the waterfalls, and from there we hitchhike again to the actual trailhead, where no one wants to see our tickets…
We walk for a couple of hours through the lush jungle along the river, on a path covered with large red flowers, surrounded by massive trees. Tahiti is not just the largest, but also the highest French Polynesian island born as a volcano. Its highest peak is Mont Orohena at 2,241 m (7,352 ft).
We reach a river-crossing and then another one with a small pond at which point the group splits in two and some of us (the girls) return to wait for the others (the guys) near the gate, thinking that we have reached the falls. Turns out the falls are much further and the guys who continued actually saw them. Thanks to Launce, Ivo has some really nice pictures at the falls, and we have some nice photos from the hike too, where the entire family is present for a change. Thanks Launce!
We spend a few weeks in Tahiti, shopping and stocking much needed products (good old forgotten Shopping, we missed you!), we visit the Museum of Pearls, the big market, and many of the sporting events taking place during the month-long Heiva festival each July.
More than just a festival, Heiva has become the symbol of Polynesian culture and ancestral tradition. An iconic event for a people proud of their heritage and a showcase for traditional music, dance, sports and games.
The traditional sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include:
A stone lifting competition, during which very big Polynesian men lift heavy boulders up to 175kg. They have to be able to lift the rocks on their shoulders and hold them for a few seconds. The one who can lift the boulder for the fastest time wins.
A fruit carrying competition- groups of women and men compete running for two kilometers carrying on their shoulders up to 50 kg of fruits attached at the end of a long wooden stick. The fastest runner wins.
A javelin- throwing event- teams throw long arrows at a coconut on a long pole and try to hit it. Each arrow has color ribbons indicating its owner. At the end, the arrows are being counted and the team with most arrows stuck in the coconut wins.
A copra competition- the tradition of breaking coconuts and making copra has been turned into a great competition during Heiva. Each team or individual has to break exactly 50 coconuts, to take out the meat from the shell and put it in bags. The fastest one wins.
Climbing the coconut palm competition- this one is obvious- the fastest one up the coconut palm wins! This years’ record- 3 seconds!
But the most important and magnificent part of the Heiva festival are the dancing shows featuring a war dance reminiscent of the Maori haka, and a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.
Music, choreography, and costumes are based on historical or legendary themes and are uniquely created for each Heiva, prepared for months in advance by the dancers. Each dance tells a story with many parts, in which the rhythm and costumes change a few times. The stories are legends about gods and volcanoes, ocean storms and sharks; or historical events like clashes and wars, or the arrival of the Europeans, and their influence on the islanders- the things they brought with them, the new fabrics used for sails, the new religion- all this can be featured in the story of each dance.
Heiva brings together thousands of Polynesians from all the islands of all five archipelagos, here to compete in the sporting events, dancing and beauty pageants.
The main event is the dancing shows at Toata Square in Papeete- every night for many days dancing groups from the islands perform and compete for the first prize. Tourists from all over the world arrive to watch the most beautiful and sexy of dances performed by hundreds of dancers and musicians. Photographing and filming is not permitted; eating or drinking during the show is also forbidden and the rules are strictly enforced by the organizers of the event.
We buy tickets for the last night- to watch the winners and best groups perform- together with our friends from catamarans Invictus and Mercredi Soir.
The show is truly impressive. Groups of close to one hundred exotic dancers – beautiful young women with long dark curly hairs dressed in grass skirts and flowers in their hairs, and young energetic guys in colorful miniskirts perform in perfect harmony to the sound of powerful drums and wild rhythms. Ivo, Tobi and Gilles, as well as 14-year-old Tom, are very pleased to see the beautiful semi-naked Polynesian girls shake their hips with impressive grace and skill, like palm trees during a storm. In fact, the Polynesian dances are so sexy, they were once outlawed.
The pre-European Polynesian culture was an oral culture where stories, legends and knowledge were transmitted from one generation to the next by the ‘orero- storytellers, singers and dancers of great artistic talent and impeccable memory. The traditional rites and exotic dances reflected an isolated “sexually liberated” culture where the social constructs of the “civilized world” didn’t apply.
In the beginning of the 19th century, the first British puritan missionaries arrived and were shocked. They declared the dances, music and costumes “morally questionable pagan activities”, even “vulgar” and inducing “debauchery”. When the local king Pomare II converted to Christianity, he forbade dancing. For many years it became a marginalized and clandestine activity but the Polynesian people never stopped doing it “illegally” and kept the tradition though the ages, even though they did suffer a great loss of culture. Not until 1956 Polynesian dancing and music, costumes and traditions were once again legally celebrated. Today, Heiva is a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.
Other than the restricted and expensive dancing performances at Toata Square in Papeete (but worth it), of which we have no photos or videos, there is the free-admission two-day event at the Museum of Tahiti, which happened to be much closer to our anchorage than to downtown Papeete. The museum’s backyard bordered by the sea covers large grounds with beautiful gardens, many big ancient tiki statues made of stone and wood, as well as a few vast lawns, perfect for dancing and sport competitions. The public consists mainly of locals and not so many tourists, sitting on the lawn. The atmosphere is chill and authentic. There are food stands selling local delicacies, ice cream and souvenirs. The weather is perfect, sunny and warm, no wind on the lee side of the island. The whole event resembles a massive pick nick or a fair. Here, we are welcome to film and photograph all the activities in day light. Spectacular, powerful, unforgettable.
Watch our 20-minute video Heiva- Celebrating Polynesian Culture featuring the world’s sexiest dance, once outlawed by the European missionaries for being too erotic!
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