Magical Day on a Tropical Island

Maureen, Tahiti 1962I have never returned to Tahiti. I prefer to remember it as it was one special day in February, 1962. When I think of that day, a melody from the musical “South Pacific” fills my head.

Play “Bali Ha’i”

aerogrammeIn a letter to my parents I described coming in to port: “We got up early in the morning, in time to see us come through the passage between Moorea and Tahiti. Moorea is the most enchanted shape of any island – fantastic contorted peaks rising up out of a faint mist, and shimmering in the morning sunlight. … The sea perfectly calm, glassy inside the reef, and a sparkling sunny day.“ We had plans to explore the island by motor scooter, so after wandering around Pape’ete until we found the rental place, we “followed our noses and found ourselves on the coast road.

View of Moorea

View of Moorea from the lookout point. By the shore is the airport, still under construction.

“Took a turning up into the hills – very steep, narrow winding road up to a lookout point – excellent view over Pape’ete and out to Moorea. Hibiscus everywhere, vivid red, pink, yellow – any colour you can think of. The vegetation is all a bright yellowish green, and the soil is bright red.

“Coming down – discovered that scooter’s brakes were practically nonexistent – slightly hazardous! Continued along the coast road, looking for somewhere to swim, asking the way in our best French. We were agreeably surprized all day that we could understand and make ourselves understood. Of course they speak much more slowly than the French of Paris – hotter climate.

Canoe outrigger & fishtrap on the beach

Found a good beach after a ride down a track through a coconut grove – i.e., very large rough boulders – every so often the scooter would jam and we would have to get off and lift her over. Came out between the houses of two Tahitian families. Fishing nets hung along the beach to dry – used them as a changing tent – not that one would need to worry in Tahiti. Just wallowed in the lukewarm water – crystal clear, and watched the tiny tropical fish nibbling at our toes. Pretty little things, mostly black and white, though some coloured ones, all spotted and striped. Eavesdropped on the Tahitian families at home – fascinating. A very happy, leisurely people – we were amazed with the genuine friendliness we met everywhere. women fishingWe saw a fishing canoe come in, manned by six men – and with an outboard motor. Also watched women fishing along the shore – four of them splashing about in their sarongs and laughing and singing as they pulled in the net.”

My letter goes on to describe people-watching at an outdoor café back in Pape’ete: “Easy to pick tourists from the ship – they stood out a mile – the footsore look, paler complexions, brand new plaited straw hats – we got one each too, very fine models for roughly 6/- [about $US 0.42] and were very glad of them all day.” Then an evening visit to a tourist hotel for a display  of Tahitian dancing. I commented: “The tourist trade is thriving here, especially since the Americans have just finished making a film here, Mutiny on the Bounty. They have sent prices up. The hotel was one of these places that you know are touristy and a bit artificial, but exciting all the same. Guests sleep in native-style bungalows, and the dance floor was also in native style, with carved supporting poles, thatched roof, and open sides. Dimly lit with coloured lights inside bamboo fish traps. Tables both inside and outside on the grass on the shore of the lagoon – that was where we were. All round the edge, kerosene torches on poles to keep away the insects. A huge full moon shimmering on the water, a jetty to wander out and watch the fish. European dancing (Tahiti version) with floor shows – native dancing. The most exciting dancing I have seen. Fantastically fast hula to the urgent throbbing of native drums. Later in the evening the slower, more graceful hula to drums and singing.Hibiscus flower

“When the show closed – about 1 a.m., there was a general move toward “La Fayette,” which turned out to be a pretty low dive several miles the other side of Tahiti, and was the most terrific entertainment yet. Dim lights, floor jam-packed – mostly pretty well under the weather. Lots of people from the ship – stewards and passengers, with Tahitian girls. No inhibitions – man, what an education! Got back to the ship about 4 a.m. – shore leave finished at five – and wandered round on the wharf, where women were still sitting patiently at souvenir booths – they had been there all day. Spent our few remaining coins on postcards, etc. Many of the passengers waited up to see the boat out, but we piked and went to bed. Very hard to say goodbye to the place.”

tahiti letterIn closing my description of the day, my first in a country other than New Zealand, I wrote: “We found it rather difficult getting used to being tourists – you feel so brash and raw, and totally ignorant, and tolerated by the local population mostly as a useful source of income. I think I would much rather go to a place to live for some length of time – it would give you a much better idea of what it is really like. We were lucky in getting a glimpse of Tahitian families about their ordinary life – that I think was the best part of the whole day. But it was only a tantalising glimpse – enough to whet the appetite.”


All photographs are by Tony Eppstein.

 Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes and memorabilia.


2 Responses to “Magical Day on a Tropical Island”

  • Maxine Binning:

    Maureen, I too have feasted on the delights of Tahiti, but a little later than your time. I was living in Christchurch then and the opportunity arose for me to take a break from teaching, so of course I took it and spent 4 days in Tahiti on the way to Mexico City and then on to Los Angeles. I loved the colour, the intensity of the colour, the greens, the reds, and above all the blues of the ocean. I remember all this because I had been booked into a hotel and on arrival discovered it had not been completed! Oh they said we can book you into the American Hotel down the road but who could resist the sight of the Tahitian workmen carving, the women weaving mats, more like carpets really, the training of the hotel personnel and the general easy atmosphere. It was the most wonderful stay in any hotel that I can remember. Dining was by the sea with a pool nearby. The head waitress was the leading lady from the film “Mutiny on the Bounty” the second film made with Marlon Brando. She was gorgeous and needed help. What do you do with girls waiting on tables who refuse to wear shoes on their feet because they never wear shoes? I said they do not need shoes. This is a casual dining area and the only shoes they might wear would be a good pair of thongs (jandals we called them in NZ). The girls were delighted and delightful and within a couple of days they all had thongs! Sometimes you make the world a little happier without trying. Maureen I could spend many more words on Tahiti but this is supposed to be a comment only for your newsletter so I will close now and look forward to your next writings. Cheers

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