After leaving Pitcairn Island, we continued northwest in the South Pacific Ocean for 3 days before arriving in Tahiti and Bora Bora, back to back. Both are islands in French Polynesia. We have been at sea for 9 days and couldn’t wait to stroll on a hard, stable surface.
TAHITI (February 26)
Tahiti is comprised of two volcanic islands connected by a small land bridge. The population is 180,000. We docked in the capital, Papeete, on the big island (Tahiti Nui), which serves as the capital for the whole of French Polynesia. The islands were originally settled by Polynesians thousands of years ago, and they still make up 70% of the inhabitants. The rest is European, Chinese, and mixed race.
The first recorded European visit was from Captain Wallis in 1767. Captain Cook’s first visit was in 1768. And, Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty (before the Mutiny) visited for 5 months with his crew in 1788. Why so long? He came to Tahiti to purchase breadfruit trees that were bound for the plantations in the British West Indies. It was cheap eats for slaves. But, there was a glitch in the plan. He was told that the seedlings needed several months to become established, or they would not survive the journey.
The Bounty was at anchor for 5 months while the sailors enjoyed daily doses of drunken debauchery with the local ladies. Apparently, the Tahitians would trade sexual favors for a single metal nail, a material that was previously unknown but quickly valued on the island. The kind that keeps ships from falling apart. Bligh managed to get out of there while The Bounty was still seaworthy, barely. After hearing about the tantalizing women of Tahiti, later voyages always had a barrel of nails on their supply list before sailing.
Several of Bligh’s men fell in love, which explains why, after the Mutiny, they decided to take their chances back on Tahiti instead of leaving with Fletcher Christian to find a new place to live. You all know from reading my post on Pitcairn Island, how that worked out for them…
In the 1790’s, thousands of whalers began landing at Tahiti during their fishing expeditions in the southern hemisphere. Their arrival, along with merchants from the penal colonies in Australia led to a further deterioration of “morality” in town. The crews introduced alcohol, firearms and illnesses. They encouraged rampant prostitution, which brought an epidemic of venereal disease. These first exchanges with westerners had catastrophic consequences for the Tahitian population. Thousands died.
The arrival of missionaries in 1797 marked a turning point for the island and has had a lasting impact on the culture to this day. By the 1820’s, the entire population converted to Protestantism. No more loose women making booty calls on the visiting ships. Human sacrifices became a no no. And, the natives were severely disciplined if caught praying to their traditional pagan gods. Some say the missionaries saved the Tahitians from certain annihilation in the early 1,800’s. Maybe so. Nowadays, the island is still largely Protestant, but traditional cultural practices are again intertwined. Except human sacrifice, which is still frowned upon. Cannibalism is somewhat tolerated. For example, our guide for the day ate Steve, and then claimed me as his new bride….
That is, until one of the other passengers called the cops, and my second husband was hauled off to jail…
But, before all that drama ensued, we had a delightful 4 x 4 adventure in the mountains. We traversed up the side of an extinct volcano, then into it’s jungly caldera on nearly vertical, potholed dirt roads. The scenery was spectacular, the mosquitos were ferocious, and the torrential downpours offered a refreshing respite from the heat. All in all, a great day! We got back to the ship exhausted and covered in mud. Queen Victoria was NOT happy with the mess.
It was a Sunday. And remember, it’s summer down here, so the locals were out in force, enjoying the hot weather and cool mountain streams…
Tahiti is really struggling financially, and tourism is down. They only had 120,000 visitors in 2016, compared to 250,000 in 2015. It’s always been about the beaches, and they can no longer compete with their “glitzy” neighbor, Bora Bora.
But, here’s the thing. Buried under the thick jungle brush is a treasure trove of archeological wonders from ancient Polynesian civilizations that if made accessible, would attract thousands to the island. People like us, who are fascinated by culture and history, not bars and jet skis. It makes sense to me. I will put a call into the French Government, and see how that goes.
BORA BORA (February 27)
The next day we were in Bora Bora, another stunning volcanic island in French Polynesia, 143 northwest of Tahiti. The population is only about 10,000 year round residents. The one major town is Vaipate. The focus here is luxury resorts on private beaches.
We made a colossal mistake in choosing what to do with our short time here. We booked an excursion called the “Fun Truck” , and it was anything, but, Fun. We were supposed to get a tour of the island and historic sites. When the guide started pointing out grocery stores, the town dump, and the future site of the High School, I knew we were in trouble. Then, we spent 45 minutes in the broiling sun at roadside craft tables examining poor quality handicrafts that were mostly made in China.
As we continued in our overcrowded bus, sweaty legs sticking to our neighbors, we arrived at a dirt clearing on the side of the road that was full of round tunnel like openings. Our guide threw wilted flowers at the holes, and a colony of large crabs marched out, grabbed the foliage, and dragged it back into their lairs. THAT was the one and only highlight. Vegetarian crabs that are decimating the Islands’ gardens. But, they are good to eat, once you fatten them up. That just sounds wrong.
We did learn that during World War II, the United States chose Bora Bora as a South Pacific military supply base, complete with an oil depot and seaplane air strip. Several defensive fortifications were also constructed. They are all still here, our guide proudly related, but buried under layers of jungle brush making them completely inaccessible. Arrrggghhhh…..
The Island saw no combat and the American presence went uncontested during the course of the war. The base was officially close in 1946. The airstrip, that was never long enough to accommodate large aircraft, was the only air access point in French Polynesia until 1960, when an airport was built in Papeete.
What should we have done? Gone to a beach resort, rented a cabana for the day, and soaked in the body temperature lagoon while sipping Pina Coladas and listening to Bob Marley.
So there you have it.
Tonga is next. I’ll be back soon.