Idyllic ... the coral atoll of Tikehau. Photo: David Levin
When every day involves a hunt for your dinner, paradise can be delightfully exhausting, writes Ben Groundwater.
THE fishing line has been in the water 20 seconds – 30 at most – when it happens. Bang! The reel starts whirring, the rod whips and bends as whatever is on the line beneath us dives deep into the ocean, its mouth full of hooks and plastic.
Chris O'Callaghan rests a hand on the boat's throttle and nods his head at Richie, one of the passengers on board. “You're on, buddy,” he says, eyes gleaming.
Richie fumbles with the fighting belt, straining to get it clipped on before grabbing the rod and commencing the fight. He wasn't expecting a hit this soon; none of us was. Fishing is a game of patience, of long afternoons dangling slack lines into empty water. It's not big hits on the open ocean.
But this is fishing, Tikehau-style. It's amazing – everything from tuna to trevally to barracuda seems to be queuing up for the chance to join us in the boat. The reels keep whirring, the rods keep jumping.
Chris doesn't look fazed as he calls out encouragement from the front. He saw this yesterday, he'll see it again tomorrow.
The French Polynesian atoll he calls home – part of the Tuamotu archipelago – is paradise for lovers of water sports and fishing is just one of them. Today we were up surfing at first light and there'll be scuba diving in the afternoon.
Chris, an Australian expat, is our skipper, our surf guide and our hotelier. The guy should be in a beer commercial.
He's the fantasy mate you never had. The one with the beautiful beach house, the boat, the fishing gear, the surfboards, the kite-surfers, the wind-surfers and the open bar.
He runs Ninamu Resort, a small group of bungalows set among the palm trees. It's a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts. There are no over-water bungalows, no teppanyaki restaurants or day spas. There is, however, the chance to go free-diving to hunt dog-tooth tuna with a spear gun.
A few weeks ago it was giant marlin, as Chris and a resort guest – a former Mexican matador – took to the deep ocean. It was The Old Man and the Sea stuff, Chris says over lunch, with the Mexican guy as Santiago during the two-and-a-half-hour battle to bring the monster fish in. It took a major operation in mechanics just to get it into the boat.
“When's marlin season here?” one of the new guests asks hopefully.
Chris shrugs. “All the time, mate. That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for that Mexican guy. For me, it can be once a week.” Then he smiles. “Right, I'm goin' fishin'. Who wants to come?”
It's the same every day, only substitute fishing for any number of sun-and-sea activities.
There are the surf trips out to a reef break near the fishing spot, where perfect left- and right-handers curl away to either side of the lagoon mouth.
There's a family excursion to Bird Island, home to thousands of nesting black terns, white terns and boobies. The kids also get to go fishing, dangling hand-lines into the clear blue water and pulling up an adult-sized bounty.
Time is supposed to pass slowly on an island but here it's a blur of activity. Ninamu is largely self-sufficient and the guests are free to join in the process of feeding themselves. Every day seems to involve a hunt for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast. Most days that means fishing; others it means setting traps for the large blue coconut crabs that scuttle in their hundreds across the island.
By the time the sun goes down each day, most of the guests are knackered – it's all you can do to drag yourself to the dinner table and feast on the day's catch. Sometimes it's tuna sashimi, sometimes poisson cru, or pan-fried marlin.
The kids have still got energy, though, so Chris leads them on a crab hunt under millions of stars, showing them how to pick the critters up without getting pinched. “These things have got a problem,” Chris tells the kids while waving a kicking crab in the air. “They taste great and they're easy to catch. If you're going to be reincarnated, make sure you don't come back as a coconut crab.”
The kids nod, wide-eyed. When school goes back, they'll be retelling this yarn for weeks.
Despite this need to hunt for your own food, Ninamu isn't exactly roughing it.
The bungalows are simple, with thatched roofs and jagged walls that open to the surrounding bush, letting in the sound of crashing waves far off at the edge of the lagoon. But they're apparently comfortable enough for Hollywood stars.
One entry in the resort's guestbook reads simply: “The best of vacations. Signed: Johnny Depp.” You can't really picture Depp chasing coconut crabs for his dinner, but the resort is extremely private and paparazzi-free and it doesn't take much imagination to see a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean in our surroundings.
Next morning, it's more of the same – an alarm clock of crashing surf and rays of sunlight; the air smelling of sea salt and freedom. Guests wander barefoot across the wooden boardwalk to the dining room, where Chris is dishing up baked whole fish and coffee for breakfast. Then, of course, it's time to get back in the water.
There's a quick scuba dive this morning at the mouth of the lagoon, where reef sharks lurk in the shadows as huge schools of tuna flash past on the hunt for food. That afternoon we putter back in the boat to the very same spot, only this time armed with fishing rods and lures. We're chasing dinner.
Again, it's only seconds before the big fish bite and pretty soon Richie has a giant trevally flipping around at his feet. As we're pulling the hook out of its mouth, there's a familiar sound: the whirring of a reel. Another hit.
And Chris's eyes are gleaming again as he looks straight at me: “You're on, buddy.”
The writer was a guest of Tahiti Tourisme.
Tahiti Travel Connection has a seven-night “Tempting Tikehau” package, which includes a five-night stay at Ninamu Resort (including all meals and most activities), plus two nights at the Tahiti Sofitel Maeva Beach Resort, return economy airfares with Air Tahiti Nui and all land transfers. Prices start from $4055 a person. 1300 858 305, tahititravel.com.au