Thinking about surfing French Polynesia? Think again.

Being in a tumultuous relationship is not one way I would recommend spending time in paradise. Especially a two month trip. I would have loved to have done this adventure solo however, without my involvement in a particular surf project, my dreams to travel to this part of the world, would continue to remain unfulfilled.map_ga-tahiti

Traveling for a surf project

I quit my job rather suddenly (and not the 1st time) to pack up and head to the islands for what was a surf project I worked very tirelessly on.

To cut a long story short, I had applied for a role working with a ‘company’ teaching local surfers in remote islands how to shape timber surfboards in their own back yard.

Given lack of money, access to fibreglass boards and ding repair, it seemed like a perfect scenario and one that was relatively unchartered by Westerners at the time. The discovery of surfing by troubled youths living in remote islands would be a life-changer.

Somewhere along the way, I fell for the guy behind the movement. Things quickly progressed into a relationship. By quickly I mean by rocket-ship type proportions. 

We discussed project launches in PNG where he originated from. Solomon Islands was also a heavy polynesiacontender. But in the end, my ultimate dream destination won hands down.

There were many red flags along the way, but I was committed to the project and to French Polynesia come hell or high water.

This would be my first planned trip away with another man, rather than flying solo.

Little did I know, I would be leaving him on a remote island somewhere in the archipelago.  

The beautyFrench Polynesia

The trip was nearly two years ago, yet I still find it quite hard to put into words just how spectacular French Polynesia is.

Ribs of jagged coral reef in rainbow spectrums meet turquoise blue waters, contrasted by deep channels of dark purple waters. Unexplored lush green islands appear sporadically with unmissable volcanic mountaintops rising from the ocean.

Tahiti Nui

Flying into the capital Papeete is an experience rich in culture, big smiles, seafood, cruise ships and lively markets. Not to mention spectacular island backdrops. I only had one thing in mind, and that was to touch down at Teahupoʻo, a dream I’ve wanted to fulfilltahiti since I first learnt to surf.

My ex however had other ideas, with zero interest in helping me reach that very spot by rental car. Instead he erupted into an endless tangent about how commercialism is killing the soul of surfing. Red flag number 248.

The village of Teahupoʻo was a lot further from the capital than I expected, around an hour’s drive to the south-west coast. Oh, yes I had won the uphill battle to make it there. The drive is littered with fruit stalls, care-free kids, lush mountains, valleys and creeks and no shortage of black sand beach breaks.

The swell was small but I was so stoked to arrive at the dead-end street and stand at the foot of the infamous Teahupoʻo sign, that I’d seen in some of the best surf movies  growing up. The energy of the village is pretty special. It’s just raw.

I could only imagine what it would be like when the swell is 20ft with guys towing in. I’d still love to return to sit in a boat in the channel, watching fearless locals drop down the faces of monsters.

Island hopping

While I’d love to tell you where we next flew to for the two months that followed, I simply can’t. But I can fill you in on what one might experience if they choose to visit.

My ex had explored this particular island for a couple of tahitimonths prior, which allowed him to get to know the locals, the waves and ideas of where our shack could be based for the project.

And of course to skip out on some expensive nightly rates. I’m sure our experience would have been vastly different had he not worked to carve the path ahead.

I’d never before witnessed the type of waves that we would soon discover. The shack was set up in a small bay, caressed by the most perfect grinding right hander I’d ever seen. On the other side, an equally as perfect left hander. I’d heard that professional guys had died on the right before.

Luckily it wasn’t the season for it and I was quite happy I had missed it. The wave however continued to run relentlessly perfect spitting barrels. It was just too shallow.

The locals

I’d done my research. It wasn’t pretty. But I was confident in the captain that was leading me into the project and didn’t feel I had anything to worry about.

The lineup

The level of respect in the lineup here is next level. The waves are an epitometahiti of perfection, depending of course on your level of surfing.

Whichever way you look at it, the locals make sure to strongly protect their ground.

I noticed there was no such thing as crowds.

Taking your camera

If you think you’re going in with a camera to shoot the waves, from land or from sea, you’ll quickly end up on the wrong side of any local. I heard many stories of cameras being carelessly ripped from visiting surfer’s hands and tossed into the ocean.

Along with violence.

The Red Bull team visited a nearby island on a big swell and it wasn’t a good ending.

Surfing in groups

You’re not going to just paddle out and start taking waves without first approaching and acknowledging each local in the water. There’s barely any lineup in the world left with this level of respect. Enough to leave you speechless. Tattoos. Bisects. Some big humans.

You just do it. But paddle out with more than two of your mates (especially two males) and you’ll be sent in. I know of one local who brags about the amount of blow-ins he’s knocked out in a day.

Each lineup is continually patrolled by locals with binoculars on hillside shacks, ready to call out boats if any trouble is spotted.  Be prepared to paddle. Some breaks sit 1KM offshore and include some brutal currents and bone crushing sections over dry reef to leave you out of breath

Other efforts to fit in

Refuse to take up an offer to drink tequila shots at the bar when it’s one of the guy’s polynesiabirthdays, well you’ll probably lose some respect too.

And they know how to drink.

Try too hard to fit in without invites, you’re likely to be sniffed out pretty quick and asked to leave the island.

Nine out of ten locals you have nothing to worry about, but there certainly are some that will take it to the extremes. 

The level of surfing

Some of the waves had me on the edge of crying with fear. I wrote about one particular session here.

Would I recommend solo travel for a female surfer?

The island is full of 360 degree views of every colour spectrum of flowers and tropical fruit you can imagine. It is a rich ground for deep sea pearls and sacred blue-eyed eels. It truly is something you could imagine out of a dream.

My experience however, was not without being woken from an afternoon nap, with death threats dished out to my ex, simply for making one silly mistake. The relationship turned into a brutal mess and in the end, I decided it was not a place for me to stay and once again departed solo. Narrowly missing out on a wedding proposal but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Would I recommend another girl to travel here solo? Papeete and Tahiti waves yes. Outer islands I would suggest bringing a guy that has experience with locals of smaller islands, unless you have contacts in the area. Oh, and your surfing needs to be at a pretty high level.

Advertisements

Wild Island Escape

They had been tracking the swell off the coast of Africa for two weeks. A slow moving, season defining system making its way across the Indian Ocean- our little island’s home wide open to accept its almighty power. Waking blurry eyed after a restless night sleep, the light was yet to show on the horizon to bring another day. Making my way to the hut barefooted, I gasp as I stub my toe heavily on a large chunk of coral. Limping off in pain I gaze across the green grass, the light from the porch revealing several hundred more chunks of coral far up the bank. I’ve not known the water to ever come up this high before. This wasn’t a good sign.

I pour myself a strong cup of coffee and sit quietly, hearing the roar of the ocean towards the darkened sea, the lull between sets softened by the usually loud sounds from the jungle behind me. “It’s not a good day to go”, the voice of the surf camp owner breaks across the room with concern. I respond “I can’t stay, I’m not putting my life in his hands, I just don’t feel safe here with him”.

I’m alone on a remote island densely covered in jungle. All outside guests of the surf camp had left two days prior, leaving just myself and two owners of paradise bikinis
the camp, one of which is my now estranged boyfriend. In a heartbeat he had dictated my own love for him as non-existent. His delusion and insecurity just wouldn’t cut through the truth of how strong my feelings were for him. I’ve seen too much of his aggression to negotiate any possible terms to stay. My time in this tropical paradise has felt like a dream but so quick it can turn into a living nightmare overnight.

My journey ahead (as I find out) requires navigating one of the biggest swells in years in a dugout canoe with outboard for close to three hours, before anxiously waiting twelve hours in a small fishing village for a public boat. This unforeseen wait only adds more time to my already twelve hour overnight boat ride, sleeping top to tail with hundreds of locals. From the mainland I wait six hours for a connecting flight, travel by car for two hours to the small airport where an hour by plane lands me in an international airport. From here I can catch a three hour flight to Bali where I plan to touch down at around 3am- two days from now. The fact I face this journey solo rules out any chance for emotions to break through as they are quickly overruled by hits of adrenaline.

Standing on the shore with a group of local Indonesian workers, my surfboards are firmly strapped in the wooden canoe and wrapped under a large torn tarp. I bear a flimsy poncho, well and truly not up for the task ahead. We wait for the sets to pass before we can escape out to sea, via the narrow reef passage before us. My eyes nervously scan over the dark eyes of the workers who wait in silence, looking equally as fearful as each other. It’s hard to gauge the size of the waves in the stormy conditions but it’s easily fifteen to twenty feet and building rapidly. The entire front section of the camp is flooded out, with coral strewn across every square inch of land. The darkened skies above threaten downpours. Further up the beach my old bamboo hut is starting to give way, as the tide gushes ferociously under its floor and over the embankment, filling the lagoon that lays behind it. With every set the water races up the beach smashing broken coral against my ankles and I’m constantly rushing behind a palm tree for protection. I push the thoughts out of my head that this was the very location the Boxing Day Tsunami tore through only years before.

Twenty minutes pass and there’s still no safe break between the relentless sets. We continue to patiently wait before I hear the voice of the camp owner “Ok go, go, go, go, ocean stormShannon get in, satu, dua, tiga, puush, satu dua, tiga puush”. I scamper into the boat, heart racing out of my chest and adrenaline filling every vein in my body. The group of workers use all of their strength to push the boat off the coral sand. Whitewash races over the edge of the boat instantly soaking everything within. The engine splutters as it attempts to start and we slowly begin to head out towards the rough sea. I glance back towards land with a heavy heart, as I see no sign of the man I thought I was in love with. I pull my hat down over my red ravaged eyes, not wanting to look at the site ahead. Each time we reach the peak of the ocean swell, I cling to the edges of the boat as we drop violently onto the flat water with a loud thud, almost shaking me out into the rough waters. Every few seconds it feels as though someone is holding a large bucket of water and releasing it onto the boat. My intense love for the ocean fades in this moment as fear washes over my body.

I’m relieved as we miraculously make it around the back of the lineup. I glance up and am speechless at the sight of open ocean swell. Scenes from the movie “The Perfect Storm” flash in front of me, I feel the boat climb a very steep section of swell for what feels like eternity in this moment, I continue to hide under my hat. “Uh oh”, I hear from the Indo guy, as he switches the engine off. I shut my eyes tightly and crawl below the broken piece of wood I’m sitting on and brace my knees. We decline down the opposite side of the swell and violently hit the flat surface, as gallons of water are thrown onto us once again. The entire boat gives way to the right side, forcing the edge to catch and sink beneath the surface where we come close to capsizing. The price we pay to ride waves of perfection.