French Polynesia, or Tahiti as it is better known; a place of dreams, of legends where the sheer beauty of its mountain ranges or coral atolls flanked by the most beautiful lagoons in the world is legendary. Only 260,000 people live on the 120 islands & atolls spread over 5 archipelagos that make up French Polynesia covering an area of almost 5 million km2 – the size of western Europe!
An enjoyable experience & a relatively cheap & relaxed way to travel is by boat, well cargo vessel actually! Its a means of transport between the islands used extensively by locals (the only way to travel if you are accompanied by a car or motorbike) so you’ll get the feeling of being one amongst them – its raw, authentic tahitian island travel! I have surfing friends in search of the perfect wave who have, without any fear of being left behind, arranged with captains to be ‘dropped-off’ at isolated destinations without airstrips & sometimes even inhabitants; allowed to paddle their board ashore whilst carrying a water-proof back-pack & then to be picked up on the return journey some days or even a week later.
Amongst the most popular islands visited are the Leeward Islands – basically Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, & Bora Bora. Staggeringly only 2% of people travelling between the islands use this form of transport – an enormous opportunity for someone serious about providing a cost effective, properly timed service for passengers.
The number of such vessels that ply these waters changes regularly due to a myriad of variables including breakdowns, their state of mechanical repair, swell size & need I add sea-worthiness! There are currently two cargo vessels, the Taporo VI & the Hawaiki’Nui, that regularly service these islands, both providing an overnight service for the longer hauls to & from Tahiti. I was heading to the staggeringly beautiful Bora Bora.
The Taporo VI docking at Tahaa:
The number of passengers on the Taporo VI is restricted to around a dozen or so. Onboard one basically ‘makes oneself comfortable as best one can’ along the boat’s foredeck gunnels. In the case of inclement weather travelers are offered a 20′ container for shelter! The Taporo VI is a great choice at a reasonable cost for moving between individual islands within the Leeward Islands – the voyage, either way, between Bora Bora & Tahaa, for example, currently costs around 850xpf ($8.50).
The Hawaiki’Nui is a larger vessel (but as slow as the Taporo VI) & carries more passengers:
Cars & bikes are loaded below so there can be a wait to reclaim one’s vehicle if the boat is also carrying a large amount of cargo above. Fees from Tahiti for passengers or for freight are the same irrespective of the island on which you disembark – 2000xpf for passengers &, for example, 1000xpf for a motorbike:
On the Hawaiki’Nui the preferred sleeping is atop wooden crates on the foredeck patio so bring a roll-up mat & cover (unless you take a cabin – 3800xpf extra – but with only a small port-hole window it can be hellishly hot). Food is available provided you have made arrangements with the skipper; best you bring a little something for dinner & breakfast:
There is (at times) a further option, the Arimiti Ferry photographed here at Bora Bora. It has plenty of comfortable seating but limited space for cargo. Twice as fast as the Taporo & Hawaiki’Nui it is nonetheless more than twice as expensive & does not operate should the swells attain more than 3m:
To book a place on any of the ferries you will need to visit the offices of the companies concerned on Fare Ute in Papeete, Tahiti. Ask every question when booking – travel times, destinations, what you may nedd & so on. My strong advice – sleep on the deck (except in times of inclement weather where you may consider a cabin), take a rool-up mat & a cover for the night & take food & drinks for dinner & breakfast.
The heavens opened the night we left port (Tahiti) & it poured! Everyone on the deck was forced to seek shelter below & every square inch of corridor, the dining room, even the showers was soon strewn with bodies!
A few shots from the voyage undertaken on a rainswept, cloud-filled night:
The mountains behind Papeete, Tahiti; the shot taken moreso (in an attempt) to show ‘Octopus’ in the foreground, one of the largest private boats in the world owned by the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. Such boats regularly visit these waters:
Moorea under thick cloud just after our departure from Tahiti around sunset:
Huahine, our first port of call at 3.30am. A most colourful, totally authentic Tahiti of yesteryear:
Upon leaving Huahine just before sunrise & with little rain despite still cloudy skies many returned to the deck to sleep or find greater comfort. Note the very colourful ‘tifaifai’, the traditional Tahitian cover with Raiatea in the background:
Raiatea’s south-eastern coastline. My mother-in-law, now 93, attended to the family’s cattle along these shores as a child:
Heading towards the pass we would use to enter the lagoon which encloses both Raiatea & Tahaa:
Entering the pass with Raiatea on the left & Tahaa on the right:
Safely inside the pass with Tahaa in the background:
The coral reefs which surround the islands offer magnificent sites to trap fish using simply the tides & currents. A shot of one such ‘fish-park’ as they are known:
We would dock at Raiatea around 7am & I seized the chance to rush to the markets for some fresh croissants, firi-firi (local doughnut), pai banane (a range of fruit pasties) & other Tahitian delicacies. Its well worth the dash but keep a keen eye on the boat as the time in port is strictly determined by the amount of cargo to be off-loaded &/or loaded. Once complete the boat bolts! It is easy to be left behind.
We would cruise along the western shoreline of Tahaa in perfectly still waters accompanied by around a dozen dolphin who would surf off the boat’s bow & unexpectedly perform great twists & summersaults in the air. MAGICAL (so much so I missed photographing them!)
Looking back at Tahaa through Paipai Pass through which we would exit the lagoon. The dolphins surfed in the boat’s wake for at least a further kilometre out to sea:
Approaching Bora Bora- the yellow vessel is a submarine taking 5 passengers at a time descending to around 30m for about half an hour:
Entry to Bora Bora is via Teavanui Pass, the island’s only pass. A shot from a distance to give you a feel for what you will experience, the waters & their magical array of colours through which you’ll pass:
Who said expensive? You’ve now travelled from Tahiti to Bora Bora for 2000xpf ($20) & had a blast along the way!