Sitting on the southeastern edge of French Polynesia, the Gambier Archipelago is a highly unique destination marked by history. Among the many islands scattered within the vast lagoon of Mangareva, Akamauru has several treasures well-worth discovering.
Akamaru and the Gambier Islands
Despite it’s small size, Akamaru is full of natural and historical surprises. The island’s name means “shading cloud” in reo tahiti (Tahitian) and the unique ambiance of this place will resound deeply with anyone who makes it this far off of French Polynesia’s beaten path. The island is part of the Gambier archipelago at the eastern limit of French Polynesia and is over 1,700 Km (1,056 miles) away from Tahiti (about the same distance as Los Angeles to Vancouver or Paris to Helsinki). The Gambier Islands are an extension of the Tuamotu Archipelago but the difference between the two island groups is profound. The Tuamotu only consists of low islands, but the Gambier has a half a dozen high islands (including Akamaru) as well as atolls. All the islands of the Gambier are enclosed by one, single lagoon and are the remains of what was once an immense volcano that rose several million years ago then progressively eroded. The archipelago was populated by Polynesian explorers around 900 AD and they developed a complex civilization here. Even though it was long protected by its relative isolation, the society was not immune to the shock of its discovery by Europeans. In 1797 British explorer James Wilson arrived to the archipelago and named it after the admiral who had financed his expedition, James Gambier.
The cradle of Polynesian Catholicism
Catholic missionaries arrived in 1834 causing an immense upheaval in the community. The inhabitant’s speedy, and massive conversion was accompanied by the rejection the old beliefs and the destruction of the objects and places associated with them. Whole pieces of the culture were the victim to this heavy-handed Christianization. From 1834 to 1871, the missionaries, with Father Laval at the lead, founded a “theocracy”. The Gambier Islands are considered the cradle of Polynesian Catholicism because the first cathedral of the Pacific – South, Saint Michel of Rikitea – was built here. Meanwhile, the French colonial administration in Tahiti realized what was happening and soon took action. Laval was exiled, and in 1880 the archipelago was annexed by France. Many of the religious edifices found today on Akamaru come from this era. The 20 or so inhabitants who live on the island today will attest to the incredible energy that emanates from this place. Modern day life on Akamaru consists mostly of fishing, working the land for agriculture and Tahitian pearl farming. Tourism is developing slowly but surely thanks to the magnificent landscapes and the rich and intriguing history of the archipelago.
Akamaru, Prayers and stones
From the 19th century, evangelization inspired a frenzy of construction in the Gambier Islands, all with considerable effort from the community. On Akamaru, the well-preserved buildings of today are a living testament of this period.
When Father Honoré Laval arrived on Akamaru on August 7th 1834 he was impressed by the faith of the inhabitants who he knew had only recently been converted to monotheism. Laval would stay in the archipelago for over 35 years (1834-1871) and said in one of his correspondences: “We have already made it known that these people have a great confidence in the missionaries . . . I believe that this confidence comes from the fact that they already hold the idea of a big god and that is what they call our god. They now call the other gods Etna Aka rarerure, meaning false gods or gods who mislead.” (1) The new beliefs, taken from the Picpus Order, which Father Laval was a part of, were taught with conviction and effectively persuaded the inhabitants of the Gambier. Little by little the polytheist temples (marae) disappeared to be replaced by Catholic edifices. It was in this particular context that Catholic churches began springing up all throughout the archipelago. These harepure (“houses of prayers”), an expression coined by Father Laval, were often constructed on ancient marae that have been discovered because of their perimeters of stones and/or basalt rocks. This process unfortunately explains why there are so few archaeological sites and ancient Polynesian vestiges in the Gambier – most places would have been destroyed during the intense evangelization of the archipelago.
Notre Dame de Paix Church was constructed in 1845 in Vaikato village on Akamaru by missionaries and islanders. All was built under the will and direction of Father Laval who lived on the island for a few years. History buffs will appreciate the architectural resemblance of this church to the cathedral in Chartres, France (where Father Laval was born), especially in the asymmetry of the two bell towers. The striking church on Akamaru has detailed ornamental details that was sculpted into the coral with remarkable skill. The colors of the building’s exterior – blue and white – make all the surrounding greens of the jungle and gardens feel more intense. This vast contrast hasn’t lost its allure and still charms and fascinates visitors today. To better understand the style of life of Father Laval, it’s important to make a detour to his presbytery. It is here at the back of the north facade of the Notre Dame de Paix Church where the missionary passed his days in a small house and in a well-maintained garden. The area has been kept up by the island’s inhabitants and today the kitchen, wells and bread oven are still in excellent condition. The beautiful neoclassical paleo-Christian church is reached by walking up a grand and gorgeous walkway lined with coconut palms. These buildings are only a small part of the structures built under the religious directives of the Picpus Order by the Gambier people. In all they built more than 116 (as counted in 1909) edifices that eventually gave them the name the “Father builders.”
Lagoon, Plentiful and beautiful
A unique and enormous lagoon encircles all of the Gambier Archipelago’s high islands. This vast stretch of water holds innumerable surprises but beyond its beauty, it’s also the heart of the islander’s way of life.
Te rua mago, The shark cave
The waters around Akamaru famous for, among other reasons, housing the impressive shark cave at the south of the island. Accessible only by sea, Te rua mago (as the cave is called in the native language Mangarevan) is a favorite hang out for South Pacific sharks because of its currents, perfect temperature and abundant fish. The waters throughout the Gambier have water temperatures particularly favorable for the growth of marine algae, which in turn attracts fish. The abundant presence of trevally and bonito helps explain why so many sharks make their way into Akamaru’s lagoon. The most frequently seen species in these waters and around the Gambier are the Carcharhinus melanopterus (black tip reef shark), the Galeocerdo cuvier (tiger shark), the Negaprion acutidens (lemon shark), and the Triaenodon obesus (white tip reef shark).
Gambier pearls, Among the world’s most beautiful . . .
The quality of the waters around Mangareva (the main Gambier island) has lead to major pearl farming development and this has become one of the archipelago’s main industries. The pearls from this region are reputed as being some of the most beautiful in the country. Long before pearl culturing, natural pearls from this area were known and much-coveted, particularly in the 19th century. It’s very rare for pearls to form naturally; only one pearl is found per 15,000 to 20,000 oysters! Because of this, pearl fishing meant collecting a massive amount of pearl oysters (Pinctada margaritifera). Various merchants, adventurers and traffickers devoted themselves to a quasi-plundering of the Gambier lagoon looking for this precious gem and also to collect mother of pearl. Fortunately, this era has long come to an end and today a major interest is protecting this natural resource and bringing it to its highest potential. Many pearl farms have now been built in the lagoon, all dedicated to the culture and harvest of the jewels of the Gambier.
While having this many sharks in the lagoon might sound scary, the animals pose little threat to humans – in fact humans are a much greater threat to the sharks! Therefore it’s possible, and encouraged to visit the shark cave or even better, dive with the superb creatures. According to some Polynesian legends, sharks can and help humans in trouble and will transport them with their jaws to dry land. Other legends describe them as guides and companions for Polynesians who travel between islands in outrigger canoes. Sharks have now been protected by Polynesian law for over three years and it’s illegal to fish for them in any manner commercial or not; law-breakers will be punished. Furthermore, “shark feeding,” the act of drawing in sharks with food in order to observe them, is also illegal. These restrictions are necessary to protect sharks, a species that plays an integral role not only in the ecosystem, but in Polynesian culture.
Discover . . .
The lagoon isn’t only an indispensable part of life for the locals, it’s a fabulous place to visit as a tourist. Just the beauty of this lagoon, without taking note of the other astounding aspects of this archipelago, makes it worth the effort to get to the Gambier. The aquamarine interior sea is dotted with steep green isles creating a surreal tapestry of color. With a mask, fins and snorkel you discover yet another dimension: the rich underwater world. Boat trips and excursions are the best way to visit the region. Getting out on the water makes it possible to appreciate the huge diversity of landscapes including the tiny sand islets scattered across the lagoon. It’s a treat to visit these motu (the Tahitian word for coral islets) as well as the high islands, to get a view of the lagoon from different perspectives. Many motu are found along the barrier reef including Motu Teauaone, Motu Tekava, Motu Kouaku et Motu Tepapuri.
"The flying world"
According to oral tradition, legendary warrior sailors built a mysterious outrigger canoe on Mangareva. Once finished, the boat’s hull flew away towards Tapaeture hill. When it arrived at the summit, the hull rested on a shaking rock before flying off to Akena and then to Akamaru. Here, the boat finally become motionless and the three warriors who had built it were able to board it. They then took the canoe to the big Pacific Ocean to explore islands that their ancestors had spoken about to them many times. It is in this way that the island of Akamaru, formerly called Ao-rere (“the flying world” or “the flying heron”), entered the world of legend.