I cursed under my breath as my elbow came down – hard – on the back of my seat.
It was my own fault, of course, for sitting sideways, half hanging out of the 4×4 as it bumped and jumped through the soggy potholes that littered the road leading to the interior of the island of Tahiti.
The potholes were disguised as puddles, and even though our driver weaved in between them as best he could, it didn't stop us from hitting a few deceptively deep ones quite hard.
I guess this is why you need a 4×4 to drive into the center of Tahiti.
Call me ignorant, but I always pictured Tahiti and the surrounding islands of French Polynesia as nothing but beaches and resorts and places for large cruise ships to dock. And, while it's true that you CAN find all of those things on Tahiti, I quickly learned that there's much more to this island.
Our driver was named Fabio – a European implant to Tahiti some 13 years ago who now considers the country home. His shirt came off as soon as we turned off the main road, as did the tarp covering the back portion of the 4×4 where I was sitting on a cushioned bench across from two travelers from Spain.
The vehicle reminded me of the songthaews I had ridden around in in Thailand – except it wasn't red and the top could come off to let the delicious sunshine in. This truck also had much better suspension. Probably for those potholes.
As we drove down into a valley, dodging pothole-puddles along the way, Fabio pulled over to let us know that we were entering the equivalent of a national park – already in the distance we could see towering, lush mountainsides and a few cascading waterfalls, even though it wasn't even rainy season yet.
Tahiti is one of the “youngest” islands in French Polynesia, geologically speaking. It was formed by volcanoes millennia ago, but still remains quite tall compared to older islands in the chain. The tallest peak on Tahiti stands at more than 7,000 feet. And these tall, sheer mountains “catch” the clouds and bring Tahiti rain and plenty of fresh water.
This is one of the reasons that the interior of Tahiti looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park.
Waterfalls fall out of the sky, fern leaves grow to be the size of umbrellas, and low wispy clouds aren't uncommon to spot drifting around the mountaintops, promising a drizzle.
We trundled through the wilderness, passing very few vehicles along the way. The road, Fabio told us, was built originally by the French military as a way of crossing the island. But, due to flash flooding and the difficulty of upkeep, they soon decided that it was much easier to maintain a ring road than deal with the hilly, uneven ground in the island's interior.
Hence the potholes, and the fact that you are required to have a sturdy 4×4 vehicle to tackle this road. As we forded a shallow river later, I was extremely thankful that I wasn't the one behind the wheel.
Not being behind the wheel meant that I had plenty of time for gawking and banging elbows and snapping photos. Fabio stopped quite a few times to show us particularly pretty waterfalls and view points. We also stopped in a valley where locals from Fabio's village are permitted to claim a bit of land and grow whatever they want – the only caveat being that they can't sell what they grow. They can only trade it for what others are growing, or eat it themselves. I loved this, and thought it captured Tahitian culture better than any dinner-dance show at a fancy resort ever could.
We stopped at a river for a swim, splashing around in cool, mountain-fed water to wash off the sweat that the humidity and sunshine had brought on before heading to Fabio's favorite place. As he pulled over, the John Williams Jurassic Park theme song was blaring in my mind.
We couldn't see the tops of the mountains here, but the clouds hanging overhead helped us picture what they would look like in the rainy season as dozens of waterfalls cascaded down their sides. Fabio said he once counted 76 waterfalls here at once, and that the beauty of it nearly moved him to tears.
Eventually, after another stunning viewpoint, it was time for us to turn around and head out of the jungle. I had only booked a half-day tour, but I desperately wished at that point that I'd booked a full day. There was still so much to see. Maybe even a few dinosaurs…
Did you have any idea Tahiti had THIS hiding on the inside?