A sweat to the summit: The best hike in Polynesia

July 2016

The near-full moon casts an eerie shadow over Maupiti’s stately backbone tonight, and I can hear the roar of surf pounding against the reef. Although lights blink red and green to mark the channel through the narrow reef pass, the beacons are hardly an invitation for vessels to enter or exit this dicey harbor in the dark.

This is a wonderful island. I’m hardly ready to leave.

–Jessie

Break a sweat
Like many of the islands of French Polynesia, Maupiti is fringed by a barrier reef that is festooned with motus. Atop the island stands a towering peak, Mount Teurafaatiu, that plunges sharply from the sky into the lagoon. At the base of the 380-meter (1250 feet) mountain, a ribbon encircles the entire perimeter, just wide for a few houses and a road.

We had read that it is possible to hike to the top of Mount Teurafaatiu, and it took no convincing for us to join Richard and Jude from s/v Sarita for the trek. The hike begins opposite of Tarona Restaurant, where a set of uneven, partially overgrown cement steps invite you inland. If you can’t find it, ask any local and they will point you in the right direction.

We rambled into the tropical jungle, enjoying conversation with Richard and Jude. Our words grew fewer as our breathing grew heavy, and it wasn’t terribly long before we were all panting and quietly wishing we’d gotten an earlier start. We were boiling and dripping with sweat!The winding trail was well-trodden, but the ambitions of the jungle to gobble it up were evident at every turn. Branches laden with large glossy leaves eager for sunlight stretched their arms, shading parts of our hike. There were pandanus and ficus and breadfruit and mango and others we could not name. In some spots, girthy tree roots laced across the clove-colored trail. In others, curvy ferns and spindly grasses arched over the path, and the sweet blush of coral creeper and sultry lips of amethyst-hued clitoria entwined the trailside bushes.

As we climbed higher, the dirt trail eventually dissolved and we began clamoring over boulders, tucking along cliffs, and steadying ourselves by holding tightly to ropes. At a mid-trek lookout, we spied our tiny sailboats below, revealing just how much altitude we had already gained.

Ninety minutes after our ascent began, we reached the 320-meter (1250 feet) summit.

The wind tangled the wisps of hair that escaped my long braid and stung my sun-kissed, sweaty cheeks, as we beheld the most spectacular seascape we’d seen in all of French Polynesia. The trek to the summit of Mount Hiro on Raivavae in the Australs was spectacular, but the view from the apex of Mount Teurafaatiu was even better.From the sky, the bastion that protects the peaceful lagoon—the coral reef—appeared almost delicate. Hotu Parata, a smaller peak that towers over the small town from the water’s vantage point, now knelt regally before Mount Teurafaatiu at 165 meters (540 feet), where it kept watch to the south as it has done for millenia. Just beyond the island, the sometimes-raging reef pass where we had entered days prior seemed but a placid stream. On the western flank of the lagoon, a network of reefs created a maze of shattered glass reflecting shades of aquamarine, cerulean and azure. It was a piece of art that had taken millions of coral hundreds of years to generate. And to the east, a trio of itsy bitsy sailboats, now moored off the town, that bobbed like bathtub toys.

Spectacular. Island bits and bobbles
We expected Maupiti would be devoid of any magasins or eateries, so we had spent our last Polynesian francs before departing Bora Bora. Little did we know, however, that the loveliest of French Polynesia’s shell jewelry would be tucked in an artisanal shop next to the Catholic church on this remote island. The shop belongs to our new friends from the motu barbeque. Today, we met them at their shop, which is also their home. The sand was rinsed from their toes, but their smiles were just as bright.

The shell jewelry was beautiful. I was hellbent on figuring out a way to buy some!

I had some US dollars, but there is no bank or ATM on the island and the post and few local shops we had discovered had been unable to exchange them. I was getting discouraged and dusk was approaching when a truck bound for a pension rounded the corner. I jumped in front of it, arms waving and with a wide grin. In my best Fren-glish, I asked if they might be able to swap a few US dollars for Polynesian Francs. They agreed and a few minutes later, I was the very proud owner of a pair of dangly, handmade multi-colored shell earrings.Pooped in Maupiti
We would have preferred to stroll the 9-kilometer (5.5 miles), crushed-coral road around Maupiti’s perimeter, breathing in the fragrant perfumes of tiaré (Tahitian gardenia) and frangipani and looking for marae during our final afternoon on the island. Instead, we toiled through a few boat projects. I spent the better part of the day being baked by the sun on the cabintop, hunched over our mainsail wielding an awl, a needle and thread, and a sailor’s palm. Chafing along the bolt rope at the head of our mainsail demanded my attention before we set to sea for a multi-day passage. I managed to stab myself in the thigh with the needle, drawing blood and evoking a bout of whininess. The second mishap of the day came when we realized that our watermaker, the precious device that consumes seawater and spits out precious freshwater, was not flushing properly. A flush is the process of forcing freshwater backward through the series of membranes that purifies the water after the watermaker has been run and you are ready to shut it off. This ensures that none of the miniscule critters that live in saltwater remain to gunk up the system while the watermaker is shut off (we only run it every few days). It turned out the solenoid was busted on  this very important piece of equipment…

The deep lazarette beneath the starboard cockpit seat acts as our garage, toolshed, and hallway to the transom, where we stow our sails and where our watermaker is installed. Getting to the watermaker is a real pain in the ass to put it mildly.

I sat on big bongo, our most rotund fender, in the belly of the laz waiting to hear from Neil the next tool he needed or task I could assist with. Exhausted from my sun-soaked sewing project, I cradled my head on my forearms on the shelf between a toolbox and a jug of oil and promptly fell asleep. Some help I was! Fortunately, within an hour or so, Neil managed to jury-rig a workaround to address the issue.

The final cheeky to-do of the day was an engine raw water impellar change that was particularly aggravating for the good captain, thanks to our less-than-ideal engine access! With those tasks checked off, and a final morning swim with the mantas, we were ready to sail on, this time to an entirely new nation.

Vai’ea (town) mooring waypoint: 16°26’870 S  150°14’.726 W

One thought on “A sweat to the summit: The best hike in Polynesia

  1. Pingback: In search of our very first coral ring | s/v The Red Thread

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