29th April: Tahiti (Moorea – Centre, West and South)

Opunohu Bay and Cook's Bay from Belvedere Lookout

Travelling further up the road from the Opunohu Valley maraes, we reached the magnificent views to the north and west at Belvedere Lookout.  This is the view to the north.

Mt Mouaroa from Belvedere Lookout

… and this the view to the west.

Google maps location (ie showing where the images were taken from).

Lower Opunohu Valley, near Cook's Bay

Travelling down from the lookout, we reached this vista as we started to encounter a settled area near Cook’s Bay.

Google maps location.

Marae Nuurua

Coming out at Cook’s Bay, we continued on the coast road round the island and stopped for lunch near the western most point.  Somewhat further on, we encountered the marae above, Marae Nuurua, restored in 1991.  As with the maraes in the Opunohu Valley, restoring a marae is one thing,  keeping it from being overwhelmed with vegetation may be another.

Google maps location.

View inland from the east coast

We kept on driving counter-clockwise around the island towards our appointment with the ferry.  For a while there were many people out on the roads watching a bushfire in the hills and a helicopter dropping buckets of water on it.  This must have been an unusual sight for a damp tropical island.  It seemed that both Australia and global warming had come to Moorea.  I think some of the “clouds” at the centre left were that smoke.

Motu Ahi

From the same spot, turning round in the opposite direction, we see Motu Ahi.  Perhaps you need to click for a larger image to see, but there are huts on a spit at the other side of the island (just poking out at the left).  Here is the Lagoonarium de Moorea, which you can go out to on a small boat and snorkel with rays, turtles and nurse sharks – or else just hang out on the beach.

Google maps location.

Moorea receding at sunset

Here is a view as the sun goes down and we head back to Tahiti on the ferry.

Next morning we flew out back to Auckland and Sydney.  We had to get up an extra two hours early at 4am lest we were imprisoned in a traffic jam, even though the distance to the airport was only six or seven kilometres.

Should you visit Tahiti, don’t be too sanguine about immediately encountering a tropical paradise.  Tahiti itself often seemed more French than Tahitian, though that was no probably in part a tourist illusion since Polynesians are 80% of the population.  We were there only for a couple of days in transit.  If I were to return, I think I would probably allow two or three days on Tahiti, one full day or more on each of Moorea, Raiatea, Huahine and Pura Pura, plus additional days for travel between the islands.

When leaving Auckland, I had to get up even earlier, around 1:30am to catch a 5:30am flight.  I was visiting relatives in Auckland and didn’t take any photographs, so this is the last entry for the trip.  However, I still have a day in the Falklands to post that I missed and then all the posts for Patagonia, Antarctica and the Falklands to revise, for they were posted on the fly from a laptop and there are also many unprocessed images….

29th April: Tahiti (Moorea – Opunoho Valley Maraes)

Towards the middle of the day we visited some archaeological sites in the middle of Moorea. Unfortunately it was a bright sunny day which does not help for photographs in a forest.

Small marae, a couple of small upright stones at the rear.

Google maps location.

Nowadays in Tahiti and Moorea everyone lives on the coastal strip.  In the old days, there was a great population living in the inland valleys.  About 500 ancient structures have been identified in the Opunohu Valley on Moorea though not many are visible as the tropical forest quickly swallows most of them up.

There were 150,000 people in Tahiti at the time of first European contact and 50,000 in Moorea.  At the time of Captain Cook’s first visit, a war party of 10,000 left Tahiti to attack Moorea.  This however, only represented the northern part of Tahiti and the warriors of Moorea were able to deal with it so the Tahiti war party later returned defeated.

Marae Ahu a Mahine


Ahu on Marae Ahu a Mahine

Google maps location.

The functions of priests at maraes included shamanic services.  For example, if a woman were pregnant she would pay the priests with goods and food, the priest would enter a trance to commune with the Gods and then provide a guarantee of a successful delivery.  There were both larger public maraes and smaller family maraes.

Only men were allowed on the maraes (except for some ari’i women (chiefs)) and they could also be places of refuge.  For example, there was a stage in funeral practices when the relatives of the dead person could run amok with impunity (to use a Malaysian phrase from a different culture).  It was just taken to be a natural expression of grief.  Males could take refuge on the marae but women had to hide somewhere else.

Tahitian society was communalistic with marked social pressures to give things away rather than to hoard them.  They had a great variety of natural resources including trees and plants for canoes, huts, baskets, clothes, food and herbs.  They had various cultivated crops, pigs and a variety of marine foods from the reef and the open ocean.

The Tahitians had an easy life in that they didn’t see the necessity to make any great efforts for their food supplies.  Captain Cook left them sheep, goats, cattle and various plant crops.  Some such as the sheep died because they were unsuited to the conditions but others the Tahitians did not exploit because they weren’t short of food and the effort required seemed too great.

Marae (name unknown) invaded by Fig trees

Google maps location.

Tahitian social customs were also quite different from ours in many ways.  Children, for example were sacred and there were ceremonies that removed this sacredness in stages until they became adults.  Objects that they touched, while effectively owned and in use by another person, became sacred and unavailable for use.  When the first male child was born, he automatically became head of the family and the father merely the regent.

Similar social taboos were also widespread.  For example, Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks touched some bread that a woman was preparating (sourced from the breadfruit tree), curious about the process but not understanding the social significance of his actions.  This rendered the partly prepared bread unusable so it had to be thrown away and even the woman’s hut had to be destroyed.

All this changed with the arrival of the Europeans and the advent of the missionaries. There was also an inadvertant overthrow of the main traditional chiefs.  The early visitors anchored at Matavai in the north of Tahiti, which was also the base of those Bounty mutineers who stayed for about eighteen months on the island.  These influences and the mutineer’s muskets led to a minor local chief founding the Pomare dynasty over many of the islands.

Marae (name unknown, close to previous image)

The Tahitians had human sacrifices for occasional special ceremonies but it was not as “barbaric” as that sounds to our modern prejudices.  Rather it was a random form of capital punishment.  The sacrifice was someone who had committed a crime deemed to be worthy of the death penalty; if no such person was available then no-one was sacrificed.  In this, they were much less barbaric than the Europeans of the time.

The Tahitians did have singular practices of infanticide which may as a side effect have helped restrict their population from an Easter-Island-like explosion.  There were two main causes of this.  One was a special society whose members were called arioi which could include people from all social classes.  They included both males and females dedicated to a life of full sexual freedom.  When a woman became pregnant in such a situation, the baby was usually removed before the mother could see it and killed.  The other was procreation across social classes.  There were strict codes against this and the babies of such unions were also killed at the time of their birth.


Google maps location.

It may be difficult to see in the image above, especially in the unfavourable midday light, but you may be able to make out a crescent of green stones in the foreground and a square behind it.  This is the remains of an archery platform, a contest between male ari’i or ra’atira (chiefs), testing strength rather than accuracy.  The archer kneeled in the centre of the stone crescent, facing past where this camera would be centuries later.  The vegetation was cleared for 300 metres (which in itself boggles the mind) and they shot up the hill.  Observers stationed on the hill waved back with flags to indicate how far the arrows went and competitors were eliminated if they did not achieve a minimum distance.

Bows and arrows were not used in warfare, presumably so that the chiefs were not unduly exposed to danger and perhaps due to a person-to-person code of honour in warfare.  This would put them at a disadvantage against French muskets in the key battle of the 1840s; with archery the outcome might have been different.

Ahu at Marae Titiroa


Marae Titiroa looking over the ahu (altar) to the tahua (sacred courtyard), originally free from trees

Google maps location.

In my quick searches for information on the internet I haven’t been able to find much evidence of the Tahitians rendering species extinct apart from perhaps a few species of birds.  Tropical forests grow back quickly and offer many refuges while the many reefs of the Society Islands offered many little-exploited fish habitats.  An arii could also declare a rahui by which a species (often pigs) in a particular location was sacred for a period of time, so numbers could recover.  Mind you,  the Easter Islanders had something similar and that ultimately proved futile for them.

The population density was clearly high and methods of agricultural cultivation were intense.    Even so, they don’t appear to have reached a stage of particularly intense resource pressures.  However, this may not be so true of the leeward group of the Society Islands such as Raiatea and PoraPora (or Bora Bora).  These were islands of dry agriculture (yams and sweet potatoes) as compared to the wet agriculture of Tahiti and Moorea (taro irrigation).  In the last hundred years or so before Europeans, the cult of the war-god Oro had replaced the cult of Tane.  This came from the leeward group, as well as various military incursions to Tahiti and MooreaRaiatea was actually the cultural centre of the Society Islands but the belligerence of the drought-prone leeward islands may indicate that they had experienced some degree of overpopulation and resource depletion.


29th April: Tahiti (Moorea – Cook’s Bay)

Moorea is a smaller island than Tahiti, visible from the north coast.  We spent most of our second day there, taking the ferry there and back.

Approaching Moorea

The view above is from about half-way across the channel between Tahiti and Moorea.

Getting closer ….


Looking across Cook’s Bay

In the image above, we are looking across Cook’s Bay, having driven around to the north side of the island in a rental car.

View from a side road in Cook’s Bay

Clearly, we’re not in Easter Island anymore.  For one thing, there’s lots of vegetation and it’s quite warm.  We just took off along a small residential side road from the road around Cook’s Bay and this is a view we found there.

Lower Opunohu Valley

Then we drove around the coast to Opunohu Bay and this view is just along the road inland in Opunoho Valley.

28th April: Tahiti (Arahurahu Marae)

Coming back from Tahiti Iti, we stopped for lunch at a friendly open air restaurant in Taravao, on the isthmus.  Following that we spent some time at the Paul Gauguin Museum, which is definitely worth a visit but I didn’t take any photographs.  In danger of running out of light, we headed for the Arahurahu Marae, the best preserved or restored marae on the island.

On the way we went past Marae Mahaiatea but did not stop there.  It was constructed just before Wallis visited the island in 1767 and was the largest marae in Tahiti, incorporating an 11-step pyramid 13.5 metres high with a base 81 by 26.5 metres, fronting on to a square paved area 88 by 81 metres.  Chiefteness Pura had it built to assist her bid for power over all Tahiti and nearby Moorea on behalf of her young son.  By the time Cook arrived a few years later, she had been defeated and power shifted to the clan that later became the Pomare dynasty.

That marae would indeed be worth visiting if it were still untouched but these days it is just a pile of stones, having been disassembled by a planter for building materials in the nineteenth century.

The entrance

So we went instead to Marae Arahurahu, which was restored in 1954.  This is the entrance.

Replica Tiki

The stone tiki you see on the left is a replica; the original is in the Gauguin Museum.  It doesn’t even come from Tahiti, rather from the Gambier Islands.    The reason the original ones are not available is because the missionaries did all they could to destroy traditional Tahitian culture.

It is female (and the ring from shoulder to shoulder is a necklace).

Walkway to the Ahu


The image to the right shows the traditional stone pathway onto the marae, all the way up to the tahua (sacred courtyard) and the ahu (altar).

Of course, you’re not allowed to walk on it any more, you can just look.


This is a corner of the tahua.  The front figure shows some similarities to the moai of Easter Island.  The moai were only carved from the waist up.  However, here, as with the moai, the arms are at the sides and the hands meet at the waist.  He also appears to have a topknot and the carving of the face shows, I think, some similarities.


Over to the right, the raised area is the ahu (altar).  There are some similarities with the ahus of Easter Island though they were on a much more massive scale.  Of course, you have to go back something like 2,000 years to reach common ancestry.

The Tahua

The tahua from beside the ahu.  The Y-shaped object was the base for a small platform to place offerings on. There are mangoes here, scattered on the tahua and tahua walls, fallen from the trees.

The Tahua and the Ahu

The whole raised square in front of the ahu is the tahua.  No women were allowed on the tahua except for femal ari’i and their attendants.  (Ari’i is chief, same as ariki in Easter Island and New Zealand).  Only the priests and the ari’i were allowed on top of the ahu.

Large numbers of tropical fruit trees have been planted around the tahua.  However, whether they were always there or not, this is not entirely authentic.  Different trees were planted to make the area dark and mysterious.  These included miro, tou, tamanu, ‘aito and pua.

28th April: Tahiti (Tahiti Iti)

We arrived at Papeete airport very late on the evening of the 27th and next day hired a car to drive around.  Tahiti is the largest island in the Society Islands and comprises two volcanic cones joined together, the larger Tahiti Niu and the smaller Tahiti Iti.

We were staying quite close to an important museum which we didn’t actually visit because were short of time and preferred to see what we could.  The rental company didn’t open until 10, we had to wait in a queue and then drive back to get our gear so quite a lot of the morning was gone before we got going.  Then we drove without stopping to the end of the road on the South-East of the Island at Tautira.

Looking North-West from Tautira

Robert Louis Stevenson stayed here for two months in 1888 and described it as “the most beautiful spot, and its people the most amiable I ever have found”.

Tiki at Tautira

There was a tiki or stone statue beside the beach.  I understand that this would have had an ancient function for ancestor worship, somewhat like the moai on Easter Island.

Fishing at Tautira

While we were there, a fishing operation was underway, with a net being drawn in a semicircle and slowly closed.

Colonial History of Tahiti

The colonial history of Tahiti was really quite savage.  The first European visitor was Wallis in 1767 followed by de Bougainville in 1768 and Cook in 1769, 1773, 1774 and 1777.  Some of the mutineers from the Bounty stayed there from 1789 to 1791 and destabilised the political situation by making themselves and their firearms available to war parties of particular tribes.

Meanwhile, due mainly to disease, the population fell catastrophically from about 150,000 in 1767 to 16,000 in 1797 and to a low of around 7,000 by 1865.  De Bougainville had reported back on the idyllic life of the Tahitians, providing support for the Rousseauian concept of the “noble savage”.  From 1815 British missionaries tried to put paid to all that, depriving Tahitians of their traditional pleasures and undermining their culture, even prohibiting the wearing of flowers in the hair.  French missionaries who arrived some years later appear to have been even worse and Queen Pomare Vahine IV initially succeeded in expelling them.  Through a mixture of trickery and military force, the French took over Tahiti in the early 1840s and nearly provoked a war with Britain.  The Tahitians appealed to Britain to take over instead of the French and waged a war of resistance for three years but eventually had to concede.  They held out for some time in Tahiti Iti but the French blockaded them in by barricading the isthmus.

In 1880, Tahiti became a French colony rather than a protectorate and was administered directly rather than indirectly through local chiefs, as with British Pacific colonies.  The local Polynesian population had little or no political influence.

The population now numbers around 170,000, of whom 80% are Polynesians.  From the 1960s there have been various campaigns for independence, associated until the mid-1990s with campaigns against nuclear testing.  The current President of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru, born in Tahiti, leads a pro-independence party but his coalition partners do not support him in this.

View of Tahiti Nui from Tahiti Iti

Here, from the Vaiufaufa viewpoint on Tahiti Iti, you can see the isthmus and Tahiti Nui behind that.  In the 1840s, Tahitian warriors may have looked out from here contemplating how to drive the French from their land.

Also, here’s another link from the blog of my friend David Hooper in a remote corner of Ethiopia:  The Mursi – stretched lips and AK47s.