To one of the most remote places inhabited by humankind and the last outpost to be settled on Earth, this is the story of a 2,817-mile sea voyage to Polynesia’s “Mysterious Islands”. Ancient cultures, exotic dances, bizarre anthropological theories and a tiny community whose status is far greater than its physical size – a journey to the edge of the Polynesian Triangle from Tahiti to Easter Island.
On November 1, 1520, after over a year at sea on a journey that began in Spain, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is attempting to find a gap through the tip of the South American continent on his way to circumnavigate the planet. The path he chooses, a strait that would later bear his name, is a maze riddled with countless dead ends and plagued by unpredictable currents, relentless winds, heavy fog, and lots of uncertainty.
Tensely navigating through the strait for 38 days, Magellan emerges from the other side and enters the Pacific Ocean, naming it in light of the relatively comfortable weather conditions compared to the difficult weeks that have passed. However, Magellan is unaware of one important detail – the sheer size of the ocean he has just begun to cross.
The Pacific is the largest of the planet’s five oceans, covering about a third of the Earth’s surface. So immense is this body of water that one could fit all continents within its boundaries (in theory, of course) and still have space left for “another Europe”. The infinite blue of the “King of the Oceans” is interrupted on occasion by 1,000 islands that make up the Polynesian Triangle, an area stretching between New Zealand in the west, Hawaii in the north and Easter Island in the east.
The vast size of the Pacific is an insurmountable obstacle even for today’s experienced seamen; but, for the ancient Polynesians, the ocean was viewed as a superhighway. Thanks to their remarkable navigation skills and courage, this obstacle would be conquered down to the very last piece of dry land that appears like a grain of sand on a world map.
The South Seas journey begins in Tahiti, the beating heart of French Polynesia and the definition of exoticism. The ship that will carry us to Easter Island – the edge of the Polynesian Triangle – is due to arrive in a few days from Samoa in the west, providing an opportunity to adjust to “island time”, a chance to explore this mountainous island so perfectly sculpted by nature and connect with the hospitable Tahitians that call this place home.
Tahiti’s wild interior is devoid of human settlement and the only way to explore it is on a guided 4X4 tour. At the popular surfing village of Papenoo on the east coast, we venture inland and follow the contours of the Papenoo River, the longest in French Polynesia. The river flows through the lush Papenoo Valley, a basin formed by the collapse of a caldera that once topped Tahiti’s volcano. Much of the massive amount of rainfall that falls on the island’s peaks find their way into the valley. Even in the dry season, our jeeps must ford the river and pause for us to admire the cascading waterfalls that drop from the mountain tops, some which rise to a height of over 2,000 meters.
Before the arrival of the missionaries in the late 18th century, the valley was home to thousands of Tahitians. They left their mark in the form of countless fruit trees and ancient temples, known in Tahiti as marae. As we explore what remains of the marae with our local guides, we can’t help it but feel a strong sense of spiritual presence. Polynesians call this mana, the feeling of a supernatural presence that connects man with nature and the heavens. Despite the conversion to Christianity, even to the present day locals frequent these spots and pray to their ancestral spirits.
Before exiting the interior of the island on the west coast, we visit one of Tahiti’s most magical spots. At an elevation of 473 meters, Lake Vaihiria seems to be taken straight out of a tropical fairytale, a peaceful lake perfectly hidden by the emerald peaks awaiting the occasional visitor. In 1791, British troops made the arduous journey to this perfect hiding spot in search of Bounty mutineers from the infamous mutiny.
On the following day, we are greeted at the entrance to the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands by a duo of ukulele guitars and the broad smiles of Teuai Olivier Lenoir’s local dance group. Lenoir is a living legend in Tahiti, a talented choreographer, a personal friend, and an expert in the local culture. His dance group is coming off a recent win in the annual Heiva Festival, a coveted dance, song and traditional sports competition between groups from French Polynesia’s five archipelagos held every July.
We rotate between stations manned by muscular men and beautiful young women wearing flowers in their hair. Each station is a kind of lightning workshop for the aspiring wannabe Tahitian. We learn how to prepare day-to-day utensils from the branches of the coconut tree, how to weave necklaces made from heavenly-scented gardenia and how to turn the inside bark of a local tree into fabric known as tapa.
All of a sudden, the sound of beating drums overpower the tropical bird chatter. It is time to gather on the lawn at the edge of the lagoon facing the neighboring island of Moorea and watch a band of exotic dancers casting a hypnotic spell with their sensual moves. The motif of song and dance will accompany us throughout this long voyage. They are inherently part of the Polynesian DNA, the same identity that Christian missionaries sought to erase but which is now an inseparable part of the island culture.
And, if the dancing wasn’t enough to impress the newly arrived popa’as, aspiring “Mr. Tahiti” champions scale a fully-grown coconut tree with lightning speed and, on reaching the ground, hoist a basalt boulder weighing over 200 pounds onto their wide shoulders.
“The connection to our roots, the language, the dance and the tradition, imparting to our children and sharing our culture with those who visit our islands, are the foundations of our cultural survival”, Lenoir notes.
The Romantic Island
One cannot visit the islands of French Polynesia without paying a visit to the most famous of them all. Bora Bora is blessed with rare beauty, even in a part of the world filled with so many stereotypically tropical wonders. A magnificent high island with its signature peak of Mount Orohena, surrounded by a majestic lagoon with the bluest of waters. What else can you ask for? How about a dreamy resort like the Pearl Beach, with a perfect view to all this beauty…
We head out on a 4X4 tour to reach the island’s best panoramic lookouts to get the best views of this paradise. Bora Bora is without a doubt beautiful, but it likely owes its claim to tourist fame thanks to a very dark period in history. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States built a major base on Bora Bora as part of Operation Bobcat. An airstrip was laid (the same one still used today), roads were paved, wells were dug and cannons were positioned to defend the only entrance into the lagoon. Thousands of servicemen spent time in paradise without much action (at least of the military type) and upon their return, the secret of Bora Bora was out. Our tour takes us to the remains of the cannon stations, now rusting away and pointing in the direction of luxury overwater bungalows.
By far, the top highlight in Bora Bora is its lagoon, three times the size of the actual island. I reconnect with Didier, the local multitasking guide who took me on this very same tour back in 2015 (can you believe he’s almost 50?).
Didier first leads us outside the lagoon, where he seems very comfortable with adult lemon sharks. We then head to the coral garden to visit the tropical fish and moray eel, but to my surprise, Didier’s sharp eyes catch a stonefish hiding within the coral, a first for me. We wrap things up with some playful time with stingrays, before enjoying a delicious BBQ lunch on our own private island frequented by birds and baby reef sharks.
Coral Gardens and Nukes
With our biological clocks fully calibrated and with the arrival of our ship – Le Boreal – we are ready to embark on a voyage that will retrace the steps of the most daring ancient Polynesians settlers. There is a complete contrast between the luxury experience that awaits us and the hardships which most likely dominated ancient discovery voyages on outrigger canoes. However, in the absence of commercial flights linking the islands on our route and even the absence of landing strips in some, this is the only way to uncover the secrets of the “mystery islands” of Polynesia.
The first stop is Rangiroa atoll, about 300 miles from Tahiti. Part of the Tuamotu Islands – the world’s largest chain of atolls – Rangiroa is the second-largest atoll in the world, known as “the infinite atoll”. As our ship enters through one of only two openings in the reef, a pod of spinner dolphins comes to greet us, leading the way in front of the ship’s bow.
Image by Morgane Monneret
Rangiroa is a “mecca” for underwater adventurists, and with our ship safely moored, we get the chance to visit “the aquarium”, a snorkeling spot abundant with marine life.
As the sun begins to set, we are accompanied by a local rowing in an outrigger canoe on our way out of the lagoon back to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The colors of Rangiroa are forever in our hearts and minds, both the dazzling blue of the daytime and the changing shades of gold ahead of nightfall.
From Rangiroa, the captain must now cautiously navigate between the 76 atolls that form the archipelago to our next destination, the Gambier Islands, 870 miles or two days of sailing due east. This route has subdued many seamen over the years, the last of them just a few weeks ago, for these waters hide many coral reefs and its low-lying atolls lack clear signs of land. Separating us from the ocean floor is 2.5 miles of water but, when the midday sun shines and illuminates the abyss, this distance seems much smaller.
As we near the tip of the chain of atolls, the captain steers as close as possible to Mururoa Atoll, one of the atolls used by the French government for nuclear testing. Between 1963 and 1996, over 150 nuclear tests were conducted in Mururoa and its neighboring atolls. This dark episode in French Polynesia’s history still serves as an open wound. The French government refuses to offer transparency as to what took place and what are the known effects. This is perhaps the reason why the French Navy stationed on Mururoa caution Captain Garcia to stay away from the island which is off-limits to civilians and reporters.
A Tale of a Mad Priest
The Gambier Islands are sometimes referred to as the “forgotten islands.” Due to the great distance from Tahiti, visitors are uncommon, as in the past and the present. Fourteen islands are enclosed by a large lagoon but only about 1,300 inhabitants call this place home, most of whom live on the main island of Mangareva. The pace of life around here barely makes it to second gear and, if it weren’t for its flourishing black pearl industry, the island group might still justify its nickname. However, this isolated archipelago is considered the cradle of Catholicism in Polynesia and bares a fascinating and tragic history marked by a sequence of events whose effects will be felt thousands of miles away.
These isolated islands were likely settled from the Tuamotus in the 10th century AD. Its Polynesian pioneers would go on to establish the mighty Mangarevan Empire, characterized by a rigid hierarchical structure with an omnipotent chief at the top of the social pyramid. Over the years, the kingdom traded with tribes in the Tuamotus, Marquesas Islands and even with distant Pitcairn Island – our next stop.
With a need to feed a growing population, locals converted forests into agricultural plots – a disastrous move with devastating effects on the island’s environment. Rain fueled soil erosion and the failure of crops. In the absence of mature trees, replenishing canoes for fishing and inter-island trading became impossible and hunger soon followed. Eventually, the kingdom spiraled into a civil war in which cannibalism was part of the game.
Into this vacuum enter missionaries. After the re-discovery of the islands in 1797, a race between English Protestants and French Catholics began. In 1834, the French priest Honore Laval leads a mission to save the savage cannibals. With a surplus of motivation and self-confidence, he wins the hearts of the locals and persuades the chief to convert to Christianity, a move that makes Laval the de facto ruler.
He immediately orders the destruction of temples, introduces a rigid constitution known as the Mangarevan Code and begins the implementation of a megalomaniac and unnecessary construction project of churches, palaces, watchtowers, and religious institutions. Laval’s workforce consists of the subdued local population and funds are raised by taking over the island’s most precious tradable commodity – the black pearl.
The crowning achievement is the Cathedral of Saint-Michel, whose construction cost the lives of hundreds of islanders. Fashioned in Spanish style and made of bricks carved from the coral reef, its altar is adorned with hundreds of exquisite black pearls and magnificent mother-of-pearl shells. Saint-Michel can accommodate 1,200 worshipers, far beyond the demand of the dwindling local population by inauguration date. Eventually, French authorities in Tahiti woke up and the mad priest was sent packing.
We sail towards Rikitea – the capital of the island of Mangareva. On the way, I recall the accounts of Robert Louis Stevenson from his visit to the island in 1932. At his first glance at the massive cathedral, the author of Treasure Island notes how detached it is from the surrounding virgin landscape. The path to the church and the village square passes through main street, crowded on both sides with countless colorful hibiscus flowers and trees laden with fruits such as lychee, papaya, mangoes and oranges.
The dampness inside Laval’s church is suffocating but this doesn’t seem to bother the village women who are busy preparing for an evening ceremony honoring the Virgin Mary. Before we embark on a walking tour among the Laval-era ruins, we catch some shade outside the cathedral under the leafy branches of a huge breadfruit tree and enjoy a traditional Mangarevan dance which freely translates to “foot drumming.” This slow act greatly differs from the sensual Tahitian dancing and is very much in tune with the slow pace of the island.
Black Pearls and White Sand
The Gambier Islands are not known for their tourism figures but rather for their black pearls. Before leaving the archipelago, we visit the island of Aukena. The tiny island is privately owned by Robert Wan, the “father” of the black pearl industry in French Polynesia. Wan’s pearl farm has turned the production of black pearls into a perfectly orchestrated process. One of the local workers takes us through the various working stations and we finally learn how the process works, from an oyster to a pearl in a matter of a few years.
Robert Wan’s black pearl island is also blessed with one of the finest beaches in French Polynesia. After learning about the making of a black pearl, we finally get a few hours to rest and snorkel on this beautiful stretch of tropical paradise.
Continue to the next page for the second part of the return voyage from Tahiti to Easter Island!
Mutiny on the Bounty
Bidding farewell to the Gambier islands also marks our official farewell to French Polynesia. The captain now shifts into high gear and begins the journey to the next stop – Pitcairn Island. The increased velocity is well felt in the stomach and the reason for this will be uncovered in about two days. At night, we change the clocks forward, a ritual that will repeat itself several times, further demonstrating the vast distances we are covering.
Pitcairn Island is 1,400 miles southeast of Tahiti and 1,200 miles west of Easter Island. During the 12th century AD, Pitcairn was likely settled by Polynesians from Mangareva. They traded with the prosperous kingdom until its collapse, a collapse that caused the tiny native population on Pitcairn to perish.
With a surface area of just 4.5 km², Pitcairn is swallowed by the vastness of the ocean and is easy to miss. This feature is precisely what attracted the Bounty mutineers upon arrival on the uninhabited island in 1790. Nine months have passed since the daring rebellion against the tyrannical Captain William Bligh. The mission to carry breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean slave colonies ended badly for Bligh. After months of waiting in Tahiti, his crew is in love with the Polynesian way of life and is in no hurry to return to the high seas. Their new leader, Fletcher Christian, finds Pitcairn completely by chance and nine British sailors and eighteen Polynesian men and women establish a community that goes on to live in complete isolation for the next 18 years.
Over the following centuries, countless books and articles have been written about the famous mutiny and its aftermath, and Hollywood has even devoted five films starring its finest stars. The descendants of the mutineers still reside in Pitcairn and their presence is the necessary excuse for the journey to such an isolated point, even by Polynesian standards.
We arrive at Pitcairn a day before the original plan and are in Bounty Bay by a mother humpback whale and her newborn calf. Mother Nature has graciously created a narrow window of opportunity for us to land on the island with Zodiac boats and our captain recognized this in Mangareva. With unpredictable weather and in the absence of a harbor, many of the few who reach the shores of Pitcairn will never set foot on the remote island. There is a tense feeling among passengers on deck and the only question on everyone’s mind is, “will the captain give the green light to make landfall?”
To ease the tension, we chat with Pitcairn resident Simon Young who has just boarded the ship as a representative of both the border police and the Ministry of Tourism. Young tells us about life on the remote island which currently numbers only 42 souls, most of whom are part-time civil servants. The island is visited by a cargo ship from New Zealand every three months and just like the tourists, all goods must be ferried to the island in small boats. “We grow everything here, such as taro, banana, and breadfruit, but whatever nature cannot provide we must import from outside.”
With a stroke of luck, the green light is given and we make our way into Bounty Bay as waves smash into the rugged coastline. On the wharf, we must now conquer the “Hill of Difficulty”. This legendary path is the only way to reach the fertile plateau and the only settlement on Pitcairn – Adamstown, named after John Adams, the last mutineer to survive a bloody civil war. There is a bizarre feeling on Pitcairn, a combination of surreal natural beauty and a sense of accomplishment. All the books, movies and thoughts blend into a half-day visit before the weather turns sour.
On the way to the center of the village, locals on quad bikes pass by. Even the island’s sole police officer helps passengers overcome the steep incline. Following the highly publicized sexual assault trial in 2004 that threatened the very existence of the settlement on Pitcairn, there is a permanent police presence on the remote British territory.
It’s a busy day in Adamstown. The entire local population is on hand with an improvised market erected in the village square. Collectible stamps, wooden models of the Bounty, locally-produced honey and other memorabilia are all for sale and any currency is welcomed. Around the square stands the small Adventist church, the community hall and post office, but the star attraction is the anchor of the Bounty, salvaged from the depths in 1957.
On the outskirts of the village, banyan trees mark the way to the local school, whose current roster of two students is outnumbered by toilet stalls. Towering above is the cliff that houses “Fletcher Christian’s Cave”. It is said that the leader of the mutiny spent many solitary hours gazing into the endless horizon, perhaps out of fear of being caught and brought to trial by the British Crown or perhaps out of longing for loved ones never to be seen again.
Pitcairn is a paradise for nature lovers and, as it turns out, for quad bike enthusiasts as well. The island is irrationally crisscrossed by dirt paths that also reveal Pitcairn’s fertile soil. As I hike to another spectacular vista, I meet the island’s doctor who turns out to be the police officer’s husband. He mentions that most of his time is devoid of action and that is a good thing because, in urgent cases, it is better to pray than to wait for evacuation. “This place is a paradise for those who can adapt to its simple way of life and sense of community but, with only two residents between the ages of 18-30, the future of the settlement is unclear.”
At the summit overlooking Bounty Bay and Adamstown, the doc and I are trying to locate the remains of the Bounty which the mutineers burned upon arrival. Rumor has it that, on a good day, you can spot the wreckage from up here, but today is not one of those days. With Zodiacs sailing in one direction, our ship is preparing for departure. The time has come to descend the Hill of Difficulty and restore Pitcairn to its natural state as a lonely paradise.
The Edge of the Triangle
Our talented captain awaits on board with a great sense of relief that is hard to miss. He is now free to embark on the last leg of this journey, 2,100 miles or three days of sailing to Easter Island. We cross more and more time zones and sail on starless nights. How the ancient Polynesians sailed these lonely waters more than 1,000 years ago is incomprehensible, precisely the reason for Norwegian researcher Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of a South American origin to Easter Island. In 1947, he set out on a well-publicized journey to prove his theory on board the Kon-Tiki.
Easter Island marks the eastern boundary of the Polynesian Triangle. The triangular-shaped island was likely settled by Polynesians from Mangareva who may have lived in complete isolation from the moment they arrived until re-discovery on Easter Sunday in 1722. This remote land is shrouded in mystery and filled with theories, including some implying an extraterrestrial connection. About 300 religious platforms known as ahu and close to 1,000 stone statues known as moai are scattered throughout the island, averaging 5 tons in weight and some towering over 30 feet in height.
These monolithic giants are evidence of an obsessive competition between rival tribes that exploited the island’s already limited natural resources. Competition and food shortage led to a civil war that included cannibalism and the toppling of all moai statues. In the following decades, diseases brought by European visitors and slave-raiding expeditions decimated the remaining native population. The few who survived forgot their ancient religion and lived in abject poverty.
The rising sun above the horizon reveals a distant landmass and raises smiles on the faces of passengers who have seen nothing but water for the last three days. This joy surely must have engulfed the fragile outrigger canoes of the brave Polynesian pioneers on this very same course. We anchor near the capital Hanga Roa – population about 7,000, all Chilean citizens (some to their dismay) and half of whom are native Rapanui. The landscape is strange, more Ireland than Polynesia. The impressive peaks and rainforests to which we had grown accustomed have been completely replaced here by barren hills, further testimony to the “life of luxury” that preceded the great collapse.
A Celebration for the Eyes, a Challenge for the Soul
Most of the island is part of a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. We begin the quest for uncovering the secrets of Rapa Nui in temples where moai statues were strategically placed in points bearing astronomical significance. When examining the statues from up close, the concrete archeologists used to bond the heads to the bodies are clear signs of inter-tribal violence. This is evidence of the destruction of temples that characterized the civil war which took place when the island’s original religion began to collapse. In response to the constant violence and food shortages, tribes developed a new religion centered around a new god and the bird which represented him on earth. Every year, rival clans would gather in a small village on the edge of the Rano Kau volcano – our next stop.
The volcanic crater of Rano Kau is the most impressive natural feature on Easter Island. Thanks to a diameter spanning nearly a mile wide and a depth of over 650 feet, its crater doubles as a freshwater lake with a unique ecological system in which reeds flourish. Sediment samples taken from its muddy bottom yielded the discovery of many species of prehistoric vegetation and possibly evidence of native palm trees that once covered the island.
At the edge of the crater, we walk along a path that leads between the circular stone houses of the abandoned village of Orongo. Until the 1860s, island tribes would gather in Orongo for the strange Birdman competition in which a tribe’s athletic representative would swim across a mile of shark-infested waters and scale an isolated cliff and wait for the first-laid egg of the sooty tern bird. The victorious chief was awarded the title of “Birdman” and, as representative of the (new) god Make Make, got to call the shots on Easter Island for a full year.
From one crater to the next, we visit Rano Raraku in the center of the island. Better known as “the quarry”, it is the source of 95% of the island’s nearly 1,000 moai statues. After completion, members of the sculpting tribe would carefully lower the finished statue to the bottom of the hill. If not broken on the way down, the moai would then be transported via a network of roads to its designated ahu, perhaps in a standing position as the legend tells.
Wandering among the unfinished statues left behind is a chilling experience. Some are buried neck-deep, their heads with an expression frozen in time. Some were clearly broken on the way down and must have caused great hardship to the tribe. Some were simply left unfinished. The largest of them is known as “The Giant”, a monolithic monster equal in height to a five-story building and in weight to two Boeing 737s. What fueled this out-of-control sculpting frenzy and what was the feeling like during the “last shift” before the quarry was abandoned?
We conclude our tour of Easter Island and the entire journey on a high note. The Tongariki temple is near the “factory shop” – the moai quarry we have just visited. This is the most impressive temple in the Polynesian Triangle and its monumental platform is adorned by a row of 15 giant Moai statues, all gazing in traditional fashion towards the interior of the island. It is difficult to fathom how an ancient primitive culture created what our eyes are seeing, but it is easy to understand why this impressive backdrop is most often used to advertise this mysterious destination.
The visit to Easter Island and the rest of Polynesia’s “mysterious islands” is not only a celebration for the eyes but also a real challenge for the soul. Can the region’s history tell us anything about our own future? Will the exploitation of natural resources link our future to the fate of the Mangarevan Empire in the best case, or at worst, with that of the Rapanui?
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