Tales of Tahiti

Story and photographs by PK Duncan           

Our arrival into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, turned into something out of a Stephen King novel. It was midnight when we arrived, our gear was missing, our rental car wasn't available, and our dedication and drive for the trip was now back in Los Angeles. We were stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific with no cell service, no camera gear and no car.

We decided the best route was to bribe a local taxi driver with sorry stories of woe. He bought it and we started the pitch black ride to our bungalow an hour south at Papara Beach. But not before our taxi driver decided to accidentally take us on a tour of the island at 3 a.m. before admitting he was lost.

It reminded me of an Alex Garland quote: “Keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it.” Well shit — if that was true, we were just getting started. We sat on our balcony with nothing to do but watch the stars and slowly drift off into soft dreams of barreling heaven and cute local French girls, leaving the mayhem of the last few hours to wash away.

Papara Beach was a heavy left beach break that crumbled from a rivermouth. With no camera gear to shoot the beauty that lay before us, we took the opportunity to soak in the scenery. Taking a step out of the gate from our bungalow and onto Papara beach was pure paradise; our problems quickly diminished into the black sand that oozed between our toes.

We put our focus onto the Waterman Tahiti Tour, which happened to include bodysurfing this year. Our goal was to take home first place, but after spending a bit of time watching the locals shred the reef, we started to think placing anywhere would be a good accomplishment. This was their turf and we were the visiting team.

Not speaking a word of French between us didn’t stop us breaking the language barrier and becoming good friends with all the competitors. I think in part because no one had the heart to tell my buddy Spencer to stop talking. The Tahitians are immensely hospitable people that won’t hesitate to go out of their way to make you feel like this is where you belong in the world.

The Tahitians are immensely hospitable people that
won’t hesitate to go out of their way to make you feel like
this is where you belong in the world.

We connected with two guys, Simon and Philippe, who were local bodysurfers. They grew up together and bodysurfed along the southern coast of Tahiti. Simon, as our luck turned out, had worked at the airport and pulled some island strings and voila – our camera gear was back!  Simon and Philippe were like gifts from heaven that came down to guide us around the island.

With only 178,000 people in Tahiti and a maximum three hour drive around the entire island, we were bound to wrestle with some first-time experiences. Simon introduced us to someone that owned a restored World War II pirate ship that would be taking us from break to break. Before long, I was climbing to the top of the ship and using binoculars like a modern day Jack Sparrow to point our crew in the right direction of a perfect peeling left. We didn't draw too much attention in the lineup because to my disappointment, our pirate ship wasn't dropping us right in the middle of the lineup. Instead, a three-man dinghy was our water taxi.

The dinghy took us out a half mile to a steady, but steep, left reef break. Spencer focused on getting some of the biggest barrels of his life. This was my first time on a reef and it took some getting used to. I had to focus on not using my head as a stopper on a razor sharp reef, and at the same time, trying to hold onto an expensive $2000 camera. Reef waves tend to come out of nowhere. One moment I was bobbing around taking in the incredible colors and life on the reef and mountain backdrops that would make Bear Grylls drool, and the next moment I was scrambling to make it under the next set before taking one on the head.

 One moment I was bobbing around taking in the incredible colors
and life on the reef, and the next moment I was scrambling to make it under the next set before taking one on the head.

After our session all that our muscles would allow us to do was a long stare into the distance as the dinghy bounced its way back to shore. We were ready for a beer and some relaxing but the locals had other ideas. A traditional Tahitian meal that Simon had been cooking for a solid thirteen hours was waiting for us back at their home. Spencer was asked to make coconut milk while I helped dig the food out of a three foot hole that the locals considered their oven. Both of us thought, “Let’s get out of here” but we couldn't take up the courage to say it. In the end, fish wrapped in banana leaves and coconut milk weren't so bad after all.

On our second to last day, it was time for us to turn in the rental. Spencer screwed up the 5-speed enough to know that there might be a small fine with the hunk of metal we called a car. The guy can drive a tractor, but can’t drive a 5-speed hatchback to save his life. I took over the wheel and we soon met up with our good friend Philippe. It was firing off a reef break an hour south. We knew our flight was not until the next night, so our carefree attitudes took over and we decided not to turn in the car. We weren't going to worry about the police looking for a piece-of-shit blue rental with two crazy Californians behind the wheel.

Pulling off onto the side of the road an hour later, with Philippe guiding the way in front of us, we stopped a few miles away from Teahupoo. The swim looked like miles. I was willing to back out of the situation but Spencer had his mind set on an open lineup with perfect peeling lefts. That’s when shit really hit the fan.

“Can you boys assist me with building the boat?”

We had to actually build a boat. Soon we were strapping a motor down and slotting 2x4s for use as seats. I really felt that my camera gear would be ruined and this home made boat wouldn't make it but 20 feet, but Philippe proved me wrong. The closer we got, the more we were thinking it looked like a miniature version of Teahupoo. Consistent spitting left hand barrels were ridden the next few hours while our cardboard boat floated helplessly near the break’s buoy. This had been the best wave we had ever bodysurfed, and there were just two people in the entire lineup. We floated in what felt like a dream as the exact same wave broke consistently for the next few hours. We stayed until dark because it was so damn perfect – our fingers looked like raisins and our smiles couldn't be wiped away.

After maneuvering our cardboard boat through a reef mangled maze, our bags were packed and our minds were still floating aimlessly in the perfect barrels we just experienced. Arriving at our bungalow close to midnight, I had all the footage and photographs I needed to tell an epic tale. It didn't seem like we were working on a story for the past seven days. Instead it was more like an adventure that would be remembered forever.

P.K. Duncan is photographer and writer currently going to college in Ventura, CA and is also an intern writer for Slyde Handboards. Learn more about P.K. at www.pkduncan.com.