On a whim, I decided to spend the afternoon of trying to get to the houses above Tahiti, from where I imagined the view would be something special; the problem was, the only map we had of Tahiti was over ten years old, and it stopped short of what was obviously a relatively new housing development. This didn't deter me, and after striking out from Papeete towards the interior, I discovered a road that I assumed would take me into the mountains. Of course, it did nothing of the sort, and instead it led up a valley, following the River Tipaerui up the Vallée Tipaerui, heading towards the mountains of the interior rather than the hills of the coast.
The road passed a huge industrial estate and eventually came to a little housing development, a terrace of scraggly little flats where a number of islanders lived in relatively poor surroundings, obviously a long way from prying tourists' eyes. I wandered along the road, which soon came across a little building full of locals taking the opportunity of a sunny Saturday afternoon to play boules and get slaughtered on Hinano beer, the local brew. As I walked past, noticing that the road had by now petered away into a rough dirt track with a chain across to deter vehicles, a couple of the louder men yelled «Attention!» at me, gesturing up the road. When I asked them why I should be careful, they replied that a big serpent lived up that road, and that I should make sure it didn't eat me. It would have been quite effective, except for the fact that the alcohol meant they couldn't keep a straight face between them for more than five seconds, so I told them I'd watch out for the monster, and headed up the track.
At last, some real bushwalking! The track crossed the river a number of times, slowly becoming thinner and thinner and winding up an increasingly gorge-like valley, and I began to wonder where on earth it went. Right into the interior of Tahiti? Up Mt Aorai, the highest peak in Tahiti? Or did it go nowhere, just petering out?
After a fairly easy but humid walk, I reached the end at the bottom of a beautiful waterfall that had managed to carve an almost tubular niche in the valley wall, forming a deep pool at the bottom and a sheltered spot that would have been perfect for a picnic. The only drawback was the immense population of no-no flies (the rather colourful Tahitian name for sandflies) that smelt me coming and flew over to make friends, so after naming the falls Sandfly Falls for want of a better name – it didn't even appear in the maps of the area – I ducked back down the track and headed downhill towards Papeete.
Passing the locals again, they asked me if I'd come across their serpent; one of them even did a fearsome impression of the monster said to inhabit the pool at the base of the waterfall, holding his arms up in the air, throwing back his head and roaring as his eyes rolled in his head. The performance was made all the more impressive by the fact that he had no front teeth, making his mouth look not unlike the fanged jaws of a monstrous snake.
I told them I'd managed to escape the clutches of their monster – at least, I think that's what I said in my rusty French – and they laughed as I ambled back down to Papeete, with me wondering if the monster had perhaps left the waterfall and was now lurking in the bottles of beer they were necking like water. Aboriginal, Maori, Polynesian... the Europeans might have invaded and screwed up these cultures, but it's alcohol that's continuing the effect. No wonder they hide it from the tourists up dead-end valleys with serpents guarding the waterfalls.