Anaa has taken up the development challenge, launching an eco-tourism pilot project that stems from atoll’s history and lagoon. An experience of complete immersion and encounters with the population, discovering the nature and culture of this island in the Tuamotu.
Anaa at a glance
Once the spearhead of ancient Tuamotu society, Anaa has always been off the main tourist circuit. Lying at the edge of the archipelago, the atoll is 340 km East of Tahiti. Ethno-historical and archeological research that have been undertaken for more than a hundred years, as well as tradition, demonstrate that the island had a glorious place in history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a supreme power, dominating many of the other atolls in the archipelago. The tables turned following inter-island conflicts and the far-reaching European influence in the Pacific, accompanied by the region’s conversion to Christianity. In the nineteenth century, Anaa was still the most populous island in the archipelago, up until 1906 when a powerful cyclone devastated the island. Since, it has been recovered, but the population is considerably smaller, and it is firmly off the main Tahitian tourist routes. However, the island hides an amazing cultural and natural potential, and has already started developing a sustainable approach to tourism. Today Anaa fills a tourism micro-niche, offering a total immersion experience within an eminently hospitable community, attracting visitors inspired by the culture and natural surroundings. An educational marine area has been combined with an approach to resource conservation, thanks to the reactivity of a few highly motivated individuals, Anaa also has become a pilot-project for tourism, being an internationally appreciated destination for fans of fly fishing. Let’s find out more.
An unusual natural and geological form
With a striking elongate shape – around 30km in length with an average width of just 6 to 7 km and a 100 km2 surface area of lagoon– Anaa, with its 37.7km² of land surface, spread over eleven motu, is the second largest emergent land mass in the Tuamotu, after Rangiroa. A coral reef that established around the summit of an enormous submarine volcano, formed some 50 to 60 million years ago, this island – like Makatea and Tikehau – is what is called an uplifted atoll: an unusual geological phenomenon, linked to the collapse of Tahiti’s main volcanic shield some 130,000 years ago. The uplift created the feo, blocks of subfossil coral that have spectacular jagged shapes, overlooking the ocean and lagoon, they can conceal caves and some of are even found inland. This unusual geological formation contributed to the creation of a unique natural environment, once extremely rich, because it was less exposed to salt, wind, drought and waterlogging than regular atolls. Another result of the secondary uplift is the absence of a pass into the ocean, but even so there is some connection with the ocean, through hoa, natural channels between the atoll’s motu that allow the seawater to circulate between ocean and lagoon. The feo also created natural fortifications, making the island hard to invade, but it also contributed to the island’s greater capacity for food production. The inhabitants being able to create impressive cultivation channels, called maite, which allowed them to grow root vegetables and fruits (’uru or breadfruit, bananas…) in quantity. This permitted a coherent cultural unit to develop and flourish, dominating its island neighbors for several centuries.
A millennium of history
Anaa atoll, as can be seen, has no real pass. There is, however, a discrete opening near the village of Tukuhora that allows certain vessels to get out into the ocean. It is this entry that allowed the hardy Polynesian navigators to colonize the atoll, around a thousand years ago, allowing a highly structured and dynamic society to blossom here over time. Local oral tradition evokes the island’s formation, its colonization by man, as well as the inhabitant’s lifestyle up until the mid-19th century. This island community notably gave rise to a formidable warrior caste, the Parata, who held influence over the entire archipelago. Highly mobile, they never hesitated to take to the sea, regardless of the conditions, travelling in canoes that were known for their speed. Anaa thus maintained regular though not always hostile contact with other populations, within the archipelago but also in other parts of the Polynesian triangle, a network of trade and exchange. After a final hostile clash between islands in 1815, the inhabitants of Anaa have slipped into a peaceful existence.
A population somewhere between tradition and modernity
In the 1840s, more or less inadvertently caught up in a geopolitical situation, that saw two great colonial powers of the time, France and England, pitted against each other, the inhabitants, under the French Protectorate, became part of a new entity that would later be called the Établissements français d’Océanie (EFO, French Overseas Settlements). Soon after the influence of the Catholic Church also began to spread throughout the Tuamotu. From the 1850s the missionaries of the Congregation of Jesus Christ gradually restructured the society to conform to its values. Most notably they built churches on the existing village marae and encouraged the intensive planting of coconut groves. At that time Anaa had the largest population in the Tuamotu, with almost 2,000 inhabitants living in five villages, that is until a particularly devastating cyclone and swell hit on February 8th 1906, killing around a hundred people and causing major damage to the island’s infrastructure. The island, that was hit by yet another cyclone in 1983, is today home to around 500 people, a resilient population that are not afraid to rebuild their lives when faced by the forces of nature. The population is centered in the main village, Tukuhora, and have integrated modern technology into their lives with moderation: Internet, cellphone and satellite television… But they mostly make a living from the traditional past-times of coprah drying and fishing, which allows them to temporarily and regularly stay in the other abandoned villages, where only the churches have been rebuilt and maintained, but where you can also find the traces of ancient structures (maite, marae…). Some of the inhabitants also have a complementary activity, a craft (pareos, sculpture, weaving, monoï…) or agriculture. An unusual and dynamic eco-tourism is also emerging, creating an authentic way of experiencing the island, its population, its history, and its sites of natural and cultural interest. This idea of developing tourist activities that are ecologically sustainable and adapted the population’s existing way of life, is the result of serendipity
Three years ago, The Island Initiative foundation launched a pilot project on the atoll, to help the inhabitants develop new economic activities. This foundation, based in England but created by the Polynesian Hinano Bagnis, aims to create greater autonomy on islands and atolls, encouraging sustainable management and promotion, involving the local inhabitants and using their own resources. This innovative partnership, that was created with the consensus of the population of Anaa, has put in place a rahui – a temporary restriction – on the exploitation of a zone of the lagoon once called the “royal space” and the nursery grounds of a fish, the kiokio (Roundjaw bonefish or Albula glossodonta).Getting the atoll’s population to agree on this limitation of resource exploitation was made easier by the fact that it is also a zone that is part of Anaa’s Educational Marine Reserve (Aire marine éducative, AME), another fairly recent scheme, put in place as the initiative of Jean-Pierre Beaury, principal of Tukuhora’s school. The students are involved in a civic action which aims to protect and develop the participative management of their marine environment. Management practices are supported by scientific studies funded by the foundation, allowing a better understanding of the life-cycle of the kiokio in Anaa’s lagoon and its exploitation by the local population. This bonefish is indeed the island’s favorite eating fish, as well as being one of the most sought after « trophy fish » for fly fishing enthusiasts across the world. The Island Initiative works together with Fly Odyssey, a travel agency specialized in fly fishing holidays around the world. Together they have created the « Anaa community fund », that grows with the contribution of every fly-fisherman that visits the island and is used to support local economic projects as well as the scientific monitoring of the rahui’s impact, which is also assisted by Anaa’s school.
« An authentic experience in a setting of extreme beauty »
Anaa offers a qualitative « niche » in the tourist market today, that is ahead of its time and aimed at the type of tourist seeking destinations that are truly « off the beaten track ». These visitors can participate in a variety of activities according to their budget, as well as a total immersion experience, almost like a voyage through time, between cultures and lifestyles, through a variety of activities. Among them : catching your own lunch in the lagoon, a Tuamotu style picnic on a motu or reef ; encountering local craftspeople, who are using traditional techniques ; visiting the ancient villages where the spirit of the tupuna is to be found, with ancient burial sites and other archaeological remains; or maybe trying your hand at patia fa (traditional javelin throwing) a sport that originates in Anaa, without mentioning the different traditional dishes and local specialties, finishing the day in festive paumotu style (in music and song) etc. There are two guesthouses on the island, but there are also homestays, an accommodation option that offers you a stay with a local family. It’s an opportunity to discover a destination that is worth visiting, immersing oneself in the life and taking time, in order to share a true experience, much as Mathew McHugh, the head of Fly Odyssey attests: « I had an authentic experience on an island of extreme beauty, like nothing I had ever experienced before ! » To put it concisely, you arrive in Anaa as a tourist, you leave as a friend …
A rich history, that’s been studied and recorded
For more information about Anaa’s ethno-history, it is worth referring to Frédéric Torrente’s study : Buveurs de mers, mangeurs de terres, histoire des guerriers d’Anaa aux îles Tuamotu (Seawater drinkers, island eaters, the history of Anaa’s warriors in the Tuamotu), published by Te Pito o te Fenua. This (2010) doctoral thesis uses information taken from a large body of traditional knowledge (a several thousand page-long transcript in the local language) from an inhabitant of Anaa, Paea-e-Avehe, born in 1889, who had received the information from his uncle. This information was corroborated by archaeological and botanical research.
The work of interpretation, documentation and translation was carried out in collaboration with local informants, specialists in the parata language (one of the archipelago’s dialects), members of the pau’motu language academy, created a decade ago. The work was also carried out in partnership with learned members of Anaa’s cultural association, Pu tahi haga no Ganaa. In comparison to most of the atolls in the Tuamotu, the island of Anaa has « soils that are richer and more variable, numerous freshwater sources and more abundant plant resources. The reef provided a greater potential for fishing and gathering sea-food », notes Frédéric Torrente. Which « provides an unprecedented insight into the creation stories, the mythical foundations of social organization, ancient religion, resource use techniques, legends and the epic journeys of great warriors, songs praising the prowess of warriors or great chiefs of the island and their genealogies, linked to their main cosmogenic beliefs », says this academic, who sees Anaa as « an inexhaustible subject of research ».
This body of information, as well as information preserved in the puta tupuna (family history books) continues to be the focus of reconstruction and clarification. This work is carried out by focal individuals, able to document and transmit this information, came from an uncertain past, where it could so easily have vanished from memory. It is also worth noting that in 2016 the Putahi haga no Ganaa association received EU funding through the BEST program, to undertake multidisciplinary scientific studies on the atoll’s endemic flora and fauna. Training courses oriented towards careers in tourism have also been organized for the island’s youth (on ethno-history, botany, archaeology).
The coconut trees
Coconut trees were brought to the Polynesian islands long ago, but, were generally only planted near living areas. The dense coconut stands, that can be seen in the Tuamotu today, are a recent phenomenon. Never the less, it appears that in Anaa this all-purpose tree was abundant, the inhabitants claim that it was from here that this palm tree was spread across the archipelago. This tree is a factor that may have contributed to the island’s expansionist attitude, maintaining an oppressive power over other atolls, via a group of fearsome warriors, the Parata. There is a legend that makes an analogy between the coconut and the human head. It is also said that the Parata would never think twice about decapitating their defeated enemy, using their heads as targets for spear throwing practice. A tradition said to be the origin of the traditional Polynesian sport the patia fa, which involves competing to plant javelins in a coconut attached to pole, several meters high. Later, in the nineteenth century, after becoming part of the French Protectorate, the island produced large quantities of coconut oil. These days, coprah production (the drying of coconut meat) is the island’s main economic activity.
« The Jade Lagoon »
With a surface are of nearly one hundred square kilometers, the lagoon is divided into three pools. The Western pool is separated by a long coral barrier, (kifata) and narrow islets opening via two passes. Thanks to its morphology – it’s shallowness- the water is a palette of hues ranging from turquoise to pale green. This is why it is sometimes called the Jade Lagoon. This striking array of colors can even be seen sometimes reflected on low lying clouds. This unusal phenomen was used in the past by Polynesian navigators and later by the captains of schooners, as a way of locating the island. Called taeroto, it remains a useful indicator of the atoll’s location for those at sea.