Five hours west of the Easter Island the beautiful islands of French Polynesia (Tahiti) await eagerly to be explored and dived! It is composed of 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretching over an expanse bigger than entire Europe. Yet, its total land mass only accounts for 4167 square kilometers, around a tenth of Switzerland´s area. Around 70% of the barely 300´000 inhabitants are local Polynesians.
I flew with an AirTahiti ATR Turboprop from the capital Papeete on Tahiti to the tiny dream island of Maupiti (1200 inhabitants, highest peak 380masl), 40km west of the far more famous Bora Bora. Due to the lack of any hotels on the island, the island never really attracted huge groups of tourists. Most came by ferry from Bora Bora on a short side trip, to see how Bora Bora looked like 30 years ago before all the shiny honeymoon hotels opened. The ferry service was stopped last year due to economic reasons, and even less people visit now Maupiti. Bad for them, good for me. It´s an extremely charming island, you´re greeted by everybody when biking around the island and doors as well as bikes and cars are never locked as there is no history of theft, respectively no way to hide and handle stolen goods.
In addition, Manta Rays flock during the night in the sheltered lagoon and leave in the morning through the only channel to the open sea. On the way out, some of them stop at a cleaning station (small wrasses eating the parasites from the Manta skin). There´s almost a guarantee to see the Mantas while snorkeling or diving. Unfortunately the wind/current/tide pushed some murky water into the lagoon and the visibility was barely good enough to see the entire huge Manta (wingspan of 3.5m) who was just circling above our head. Besides diving, hiking the "mountain" of Maupiti, sunbathing and kayaking to the palm-fringed white sand beaches of the Motus (small islands around the main island) are the main activities.
The next flight was one the shortest I ever did, around five minutes after the start the pilot announced, that the landing procedures for Bora Bora were initiated…
Bora Bora might be great place, if you spend hundreds (or even thousands) of Dollars for a single night in a water bungalow of one of the five star resorts on the island. But the island is less suited for the adventurous and independent traveler, the diving is quite poor and everything is overpriced. Fortunately, there was one real challenge left: Ascending the 660masl peak of Mount Pahia. Guidebooks, locals, all travel homepages and the guest house owner, all of them told me that it´s too dangerous to hike alone to the summit. But the only guide on the entire island that sometimes leads tourists to the top was unavailable. Equipped with some basic way descriptions (1) and a GPS, I tried to conquer the step mountain by myself. I succeeded and got rewarded with a great panoramic view (see above) and some squeezed ribs as I slipped on my way down. Fortunately, nothing serious. The next day I flew to Rangiroa, a world-renowned diving atoll.
(1) Way description for anybody who googles Pahia / Guide / Map / Independent: In Vaitape across the parking lot of the ferry terminal, look for Europcar and Vave'a Shop. Hike the road between those two buildings towards the interior, until the road ends at a farmhouse after around 10min of hike. Just before, turn to the dirt track on your left, walk for around 50m and take the first track to the right, again uphill towards the mountains. When this way ends, you´ll find the beginning of the track on the right hand side. On the beginning, the walking way is marked by some empty bottles and lots of yellow and blue tapes around trees. Be aware, the way is slippery and steep. See also Gus Lindquist´s detailed description of the way.
"Rangi" is one of the biggest atolls of the world and the lagoon measures 1500 square kilometers with 80 km in length and a width up to 30 km. One of the main passes between the ocean and the lagoon is Tiputa, offering incredible drift dives. The strong current attracts sharks, rays and dolphins. Especially the dolphin encounters are truly unique, as normally dolphins avoid divers. But in Tiputa some of them come to play and cuddle with divers! Another novelty to me was the first sighting of a young Tiger shark, injustically one of the most feared sharks.
While Rangiroa is famous for the dolphins, the main draws of Fakarava (less than 1000 inhabitants) are the sharks. Grey reef sharks flock in the current of the two passes (Garuae/North pass and Tumakohua/South pass). To my big surprise we saw on the second dive more massive, but stunningly elegant Manta rays than sharks. Around a dozen Mantas accompanied us during almost the entire dive, circling above our heads, gliding by in the deep blue or sneaking up on us! Despite 26C water and similar air temperature I got a cold due to extensive use of the fan, and the fear of not be able to dive while staying in a diving heaven pursuit me during the entire week. Equalizing worked more or less fine, therefore I dove, despite feeling not fully fit.
Moorea is the closest neighbor-island to Tahiti, the fast ferry Aremiti 5 takes only around half an hour to cross. Beside biking and hiking in the pristine rain forest and steep mountains, it´s a perfect place to spot humpback whales (from May-Oct). The whale population on the Southern hemisphere spends the summer in the cold but nutrient rich water in Antarctica, before travelling around one month to warmer waters in Oceania, where they rest and breed for several months. During travelling and resting, they never eat. During six to eight consecutive months they do not feed! A mother that lactates the calf during that time, loses around one third of the weight! Obviously this is exhausting, therefore females have only every third year a baby (roughly each one year of pregnancy, breastfeeding and baby break).
It´s amazing to see the whales swimming, showing-off their flukes and breaching. If they sleep and stay it´s even possible to snorkel close to them. Especially the calves are curious and sometimes approach the snorkelers. Unfortunately there are lots of whale watching boats often around the same animal, and I felt sometimes more like in a zoo than in the wild untamed nature.
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