Shore leave! Even though my navy reservist training had mostly been onshore, I still associated trips out of a boat with ‘shore leave’. On my second day, Felix suggested I check out the beach at the southern tip of the island, Teahupo’o. He was planning to go visit his friend anyway, and I could hitch a ride to shore. From there, the beach was a walkable distance.
Looking up at the clouds sweeping the sky, I figured it was as good a time as any. By this time, I had learned enough about Tahiti to regret not having more time to explore the island. This way, I would at least have one other location that I would have visited.
Shore Trip to Teahupo’o
Dropping lightly into the dinghy, I took my seat as we shoved off. The clouds overhead rendered the water more opaque. As we neared the shore it turned teal and eventually green, reflecting the verdant hills.
Felix came alongside a little jetty, alighting to secure the dinghy as I watched. In the days after I’d be helping with the task, while my host dealt with fresh water supplies.
During my stay in the lagoon, I went ashore twice to Teahupo’o. I could have gone more frequently had I wished, and from the way my host spoke about it, I guessed that most of his Airbnb guests typically went ashore. For the life of me I don’t understand why. I mean, why would you book a stay on a boat in the lagoon, if you’re constantly going back to shore? Landlubbers.
That said, I was glad that I did go to Teahupo’o. I discovered, to my surprise, that it was actually Tahiti’s most interesting beach!
Teahupo’o Surf Beach
All that Felix told me was that Teahupo’o is a popular local beach. I wondered at this, because from the bus rides around the island, and my hike with Jon to Faarumai waterfall, I gathered that Tahiti has beaches typical of volcanic islands: dark sand, not too fine, and none too flat.
Indeed, when I arrived to the beach, this was the case. But I quickly saw that Teahupo’o has a very specific claim to fame. In fact, it has a world-class fame, at least in the sporting world of surfing!
Teahupo’o is a freak of nature. It’s almost like God’s gift to surfing. The light is generally perfect from dawn to dusk, the wave is incredibly powerful and then there’s this crack in the reef where media boats can bob.Mimi LaMontagne
It’s the first thing you see when you enter the area – a surf board with the name of the beach on it, next to a curl. There are welcome signs cheerfully explaining to you the terrifying waves of Teahupo’o, waves so fast that surfers must be towed to them rather than paddle, so fast that once you’re in you’re trapped in a vacuum of water, helpfully reminding you of the sharp corals beneath.
For those who are partial to coastal oceanography (like myself), there is a diagram explaining why the waves here are so ferocious and so fast.
But what are words worth? Far better to watch the waves in (slow) motion.
The twins who dared to surf Teahupo’o
The Polynesians are widely considered to be the first people who surfed. In Polynesia’s pre-colonial period, surfing was a royal sport with ceremonial connotations. So I was delighted to find a Tahitian legend described at Teahupo’o.
The legend commemorated the twin princes who were the first to surf the dangerous wave of Teahupo’o, called Taravao-nui-i-te-vaha-‘oro-‘oro. The twins, Hinapu’u and Maraeone, organised a sporting competition with three events: the javelin, the slingshot, and surfing the Taravao-nui-i-te-vaha-‘oro-‘oro.
Interestingly, although the legend said that the winner would be seen as a hero, it doesn’t actually finish by saying which of the twins won. Perhaps the twins were equal in the events.
Teahupo’o surf season
The southern hemisphere winter (~April-September) is when you would go to see these phenomenal waves at Teahupo’o.
This explains why the beach that I saw in November looked nothing whatsoever like that. Instead, it looked tame and innocent. Perfect for family picnics and rambling walks on the water’s edge.
What To Do in Teahupo’o If You Don’t Surf
But what if you’re not a surfer, or came in the off season, like me? Aside from surfing, what is there to do in Teahupo’o?
The beach is pleasant enough, as volcanic beaches go. The sand isn’t very fine, and the water’s edge is trimmed with kelp wrack washed in from the reef. On fine days, it would make a good picnic spot if you’re local.
But I had neither a picnic nor was a local, so I decided to wander around. Here are my notable discoveries.
Tahiti Evangelical Church
Like much of the Pacific following discovery by Europeans, Tahiti is mostly Christian. However, unlike say, Tonga, which is predominantly Catholic, Tahiti has a lot of Christian denominations to choose from. Most of the churches and cathedrals are in Pape’ete, but the evangelical church is down south in Teahupo’o.
Within the compound were trees with signs on it, marking them as tabu, or forbidden. I guess it’s a great way to preserve the most valuable trees.
Poisson cru: Must-Try Tahitian Food
Tahiti was where I changed my mind about raw fish. As a Malay, fish isn’t something we eat raw. We’d cook it and pickle it and dry it and bread it and ferment it, but we don’t eat it raw. Japanese food took a while to take off with my people, and the raw fish part was the last to become mainstream in Malaysia. I could tolerate sashimi, but I’m not gonna look for it.
But everyone said that poisson cru was a must-try in Tahiti. And I figured, since I could tolerate ceviche in Chile, perhaps it would be all right.
It was better than ‘all right’. The freshness of the fish in French Polynesia was out of this world. There are few foods that I’ve tried on my travels that I still miss today. One is a particular chilli fish dish in Pokhara, and the other is poisson cru.
Two kinds of poisson cru
There is a cafe at the end of the road in Teahupo’o where you can get a lunch meal of poisson cru. Curiously, they both tend to be served with rice, even though – quite obviously when you consider the terrain of French Polynesia – it must be imported from Asia.
The traditional style of poisson cru is heavy on vinegar, and has coconut milk mixed in. The flavour palate reminds me of Filipino cuisine, which also tends towards sour flavours.
On my second visit I tried the other style, poisson cru chinois. This one is sweeter, and has radishes mixed in. Between the two, I preferred this Chinese version. One of my hosts later on in Rangiroa taught me how to steep the ingredients in sweet vinegar, as taught by her Thai friend. But I couldn’t get it to taste right when I tried making it at home.
Cuisine influences in Tahiti
Frankly, I was surprised there even was a Chinese style of poisson cru. But the Asian cuisine influence is pretty solid in Tahiti. It is not hard to find Asian cooking sauces in the grocery stores, which suggests that Tahiti is very much a part of the Asia-Pacific region today.
As a Malay, I completely understand. As a general rule, the seafaring tribes of my region also readily absorbed ingredients from trading nations who came to our shores. Many ingredients we consider ‘local’, were in fact imported into the region a long, long time ago.
As if to remind me of the other strong cuisine influence in Tahiti, a local girl cycled past with groceries on the handlebar, and one hand grasping a couple of French baguettes.
River walks in southern Tahiti
Another unexpected sight in Tahiti was the presence of freshwater streams. They ran roughly parallel to shore a little bit inland, along the walk between Teahupo’o and Vaira’o.
Writing this now, I’m struck by how readily I knew they were freshwater streams and not saltwater. After all, it’s not like I tasted the water! I suppose I knew from the vegetation that grew on its banks. A lot of cultural knowledge is like that – indirect, and inferred.
As I crossed one of the streams, something caught my eye. There was something odd about the roots of the tree growing from the base of the bridge. I don’t know what; perhaps a glint on its surface, or a smoothness that shouldn’t be. So I crept closer, and got the shock of my life!
There, near where the stream met the sea, were the biggest eels I had ever seen. I mean, they’re massive. I would’ve tried to get something in frame for scale, if they didn’t freak me out so much! Easily a couple of feet long at least, they didn’t move much. After a few seconds, I calmed down enough to take some photos.
Now that I am writing this, it occurred to me to run the photos through the iNaturalist app. They were indeed river eels (genus Anguilla).
- Thoughts from a bilingual traveller
One of the reasons why I like to read tourist explanation boards (and really, also book introductions and footnotes), is because of the secondary knowledge. By this I mean, things you learn by inferring it using other things you know, rather than the actual subject the board is talking about.
From the Teahupo'o legend, I learned that apparently there is a local insult, translated into English as 'backyard poultry'. It doesn't take a big leap to guess it is basically calling someone 'chicken', or a coward. But, as a Malay, I could not help but wonder whether the 'backyard' portion had a similar connotation to our 'jaguh kampung' diss, meaning someone who's only a champion in his own village, but can't make it when he has to compete outside. It seemed plausible given the context of its use in the legend. (We also used to have cock fights in the villages, which makes the correlation even stronger!)
The corresponding phrase in the original Tahitian seems to be Eiaha outou ia pi e moa tito pae fare – I'm not sure which part is the 'backyard poultry' diss, but if you know any Tahitian, absolutely comment below!
- What does Teahupo'o mean?
I found another interesting sign that gives the history of the name Teahupo'o. The name is actually Te-ahu-po'o. Knowing that, I remembered that ahu is Polynesian for a ceremonial platform, like those on Rapa Nui where the famous Easter Island moai are erected.
It turns out that Teahupo'o has a history as fierce as its waves.
There was a border dispute that ended in battle between two districts, one to the north and the other to the south. The southern warriors won, and beheaded the defeated enemy, placing their heads along the border. It was an 'Altar of Skulls' – or, Te-ahu-po'o.
Carbon offsetting information to Tahiti
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Fa’a’a via Auckland produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,280 lbs CO2e. It costs about $51 to offset this.
Would you pop down to Teahupo’o while visiting Tahiti?
I’m still dreaming of visiting Tahiti – and after I’ve read your post, I’m longing for going there even more. However, it’s really, really far from Europe. Anyway, you describe it as beautiful as I imagine it.
Although raw fish can be really delicious, since you are Malay, you already have some of the world’s best cuisines, anyway ;-)
Haha yes, and that’s in part because we have the attitude of ‘I can haz all your foods’!! We do love food, and over time have embraced many kinds of cuisines, so that’s why Malaysia is great for foodie travellers. But I must say, we haven’t got poisson cru, and I don’t know if we could manage it outside of islands where you really can get fresh and healthy enough fish to make it right. I think it’s the fish that’s the key.
Tahiti is indeed really, really far from all the continents, actually. If it weren’t for literal migrants, perhaps the only outsiders they’d ever see are wealthy travellers. I didn’t feel it as much in FP, but I discovered in Tonga that this can be quite an unhealthy lens to see the world through. It’s probably a good thing if there were more diversity in travellers to the Pacific.