Getting lost on an island with just one sealed road and only 45 square kilometres of tropical land is no small feat, but it happens almost immediately upon my arrival at Tubuai. To lose my way, I pole across the lagoon to the surf-foamed outer reef, feeling stately and over-confident on an 11-foot paddleboard.
Polynesians famously explored the far-flung corners of the Pacific using only the stars as their guide. It is one of the most remarkable achievements in human navigation as Polynesia’s perimeters are as broad as Russia and its islands merely dots in a vast blue expanse. But as I glide about Tubuai, idly appreciating the skills of the ancient way-finders, I eventually arrive at an unfamiliar landmark with one pressing question: where the hell am I?
I paddle to land to find a pig, a horse and then a road, which can only be the road. With my back stained in saltwater streaks, I pass giggling school kids who point me further down the way toward the wipa, my family-run pension. In Tahitian, Wipa can mean wind or island, but locally it’s used as an emphatic greeting accompanied by a karate-chop hand gesture, all because of a man by the name of Willson Doom.
Willson is a silver-haired patriarch with a big belly laugh and infectious teenage enthusiasm, and my host at Wipa Lodge. A former big wave surfer, he took up skateboarding in his 40s when he returned to his home island where he would counter the lack of suitable surfaces by piloting his modified skateboard deck down mountain passes at breakneck speeds. “Yeah man,” he assures my disbelieving expression, “seventy kilometres an hour straight down.” In my mind, I could picture it, as a middle-aged man flies past startled livestock, his life hanging in the balance, and the tropical air filled with a bellowing “WIPE-AH!”
Tubuai is part of French Polynesia’s southernmost archipelago, the Austral Islands. If you’ve never heard of them, you’re in good company. Most of Tahiti’s visitors rarely stray from the popular tourist islands (Bora Bora, Moorea and Huahine) where paradise tends to be refined, enhanced and expensive. Loved up honeymooners and cashed up billionaires are catered for with extravagant dining, over-the-lagoon bungalows and attentive staff. Johnny Depp, Barack Obama and Tom Hanks are among the A-listers rumoured to have visited in the previous month alone.
Tahiti is so associated with luxury and glamour it is often dismissed as being exclusively about these things. The reality, however, is quite different. If you’re keen on unscheduled adventure, fresh fish, world-class diving and a blueprint for paradise, then French Polynesia’s abundant beauty offers a variety of rarely visited islands that can be enjoyed on a modest budget.
Tubuai, the largest of the distant Australs, has two mountains, a placid lagoon that’s almost twice the size of the island and a handful of small atolls, which hug its perimeter like pilot fish. The people of the island live simply, farming in the rich volcanic soil and fishing for protein and sport. There are just two pensions available to travellers, but I appear to be the only current visitor, which means boat rides out to the atolls for snorkelling and fishing are off. Instead, I’m forced to nose about, talk to strangers and get to know Willson. Turns out, I get to experience a lot more of the island this way.
At Wipa Lodge, I find a rusty paperweight that I’m told is a cannonball from the HMS Bounty, and I feel the heavy weight of history in my hand. It was found nearby at Bloody Bay where a mutineer, Christian Fletcher, and his followers clashed with locals on their ill-fated attempt to establish a rebel Eden. The Tubuians became hostile and managed to send the mutineers packing after five months, but not before many of them had been killed and far deadlier diseases introduced.
The cannonball is not a lone historic artefact here. Fish hooks and other ornaments Willson has found in his yard adorn the lodge, and as my host explains their likely origins, he becomes animated. Suddenly, he leaves the room, reappearing with an antique spear, which he throws expertly in my direction. Before I know it, we’re in his wife’s car gunning down the road. There’s something Willson would like me to see.
We come to a stop in a grassy field, surrounded by mango trees. Willson’s face becomes serious as he instructs me to choose three wildflowers in silence, and then invites me to lay down my offering in a cleared area beneath jungle foliage. We are alone in an ancient marae, a public sacred space used on the island as a place to consult gods and make offerings. Willson adopts an earnest tone and a stage whisper as the shadows deepen. He tells me about the gods, demons and visions, and tells me that all around me, babies were born, elders buried, spirits awoken and gods placated. This is where origin stories and hard-won knowledge have been passed down through the generations.
Before I say my goodbyes to Tubuai, I go for one last blurt around the island with Willson, who I discover was chosen to be the custodian of Tubuai’s cultural heritage, an honour that he says has transformed his life. In a final moment of solidarity, he farewells me with a bear hug and a small rock, “A piece of my island for you,” he says. I give him a final wipa salute and the special moment leaves my arms prickled with goose bumps. I leave the island with a newfound understanding of Tahitian culture, spirituality and history, but it’s the personal connection with the charismatic Willson and his passion for his cultural heritage that stays with me.
On Tahiti, the Heiva festival is in full swing. It’s one of the longest-running festivals in the world and the two-week celebration of Polynesian culture is celebrated with dancing, music, and sporting contests. I make the most of the festivities, and as I watch Tahitians dance, soar and sashay feathers and plumes across Papeete’s harbor-side auditorium, I quickly understand why European sailors risked rebellion and refused to leave this bountiful island chain.
From feathers to scales, I wing over the Pacific to Ahe, an island in the Tuamotu Archipelago. These low-lying, lightly inhabited atolls are known for their world-class diving and fishing. Ahe, a former pearl farm, is shaped like a necklace and encircles a large lagoon. White sands, aquamarine water and arched palms indulge my wildest escapist fantasies. The water is gin-clear, blood-warm and teeming with life and within hours of my arrival I’ve managed to hook a fish, sight a shark and feed a ray.
“The best fishing in Polynésie Française,” a smiling Tahitian tells me, loading our boat with supplies for our diving adventure. Unlike my soloist trip on Tubuai, there are ten of us staying at Cocoperle Lodge, one of only two pensions on Ahe. Everyone is either French or Tahitian, but they adopt me, the only English speaker, like an endearingly dim pet. I’m grateful for the translations but just as happy to let the conversation wash over me.
The boat takes us across the lagoon and through its narrow opening, the gateway to the outside reef. As my French companions and I splash into the iridescent blue and kick towards the inner reef, we see schools of bright fish and a black-tipped reef shark above a rainbow of hard and soft corals. Many dive experts rate the Tuamotus as the best place to snorkel in French Polynesia, as their lagoons and healthy reefs harbour a symphony of colours and creatures.
The fishers on our boat haul in a seafood feast as we attempt to outrun the storm dramatically building behind us. There’s a chance to return after lunch but I’m happy to laze away the afternoon, wading into the lagoon whenever my skin dries and daydreaming about absconding to Tahiti. That’s exactly what my French host, Frank, did in the 80s when he married a local girl and built Cocoperle up from the jungle.
It’s not hard to see why so many have fallen for Ahe over the years. From my hammock in the Tuamotus, the real world seems harried and hard-edged. I wonder if I could live out the rest of my days here, practising French, learning to dance and raising my children as spear fishers. Instead, I settle for bringing a little of Tahiti home with me. Along with my rock from Tubuai and local recipe for salade de poisson cru (raw tuna salad), I leave this pristine part of the world with an enhanced appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and a newfound relaxed attitude to schedules.
As my plane banks, I steal one last look at this beautiful family of islands. They become mere specks in the distance, and I reminisce, in awe of all I’ve experienced on my visit to French Polynesia’s hidden gems. My window’s view is filled with blue ripples of the Pacific Ocean, and I think to myself how wonderful it is that we may be cultures apart, but it’s the very same ocean that laps at my local beach and connects me to my new Tahitian friends.
Air Tahiti Nui will fly you to Papeete and beyond to the outer islands. Check prices and schedules for your departure city here
Accommodation options are plentiful on Tahiti’s main tourist islands. Hotels start at around US$100 and run into the thousands for more luxurious resorts. Family-run pensions are a much more affordable and social option (prices start around US$50) and can be found on most islands.