Visitors seeking the calm and beauty of the islands will be deeply seduced by Kauehi and its people. This tiny atoll located in the heart of Fakarava’s UNESCO classified biosphere reserve is home to unique birds and marine fauna.
Located in the northwestern part of the Tuamotu Islands, Kauehi atoll is neither the largest nor one of the better-known islands in the archipelago. Until 2001, it was only accessible by boat. The construction of an aerodrome that year certainly changed things for the population as well as offered tourists the opportunity to discover a true hidden little paradise. With its unique pass, Putake or Noka Noka—which was what Kauehi was once called—is spread over 24 km long (15 mi) and is 18 km wide (11 mi). Don’t be mistaken. 18 km is the distance between Papeete and Tahiti’s sister island, Moorea. Crossing Kauehi’s lagoon can prove to be a real expedition, filled with discoveries that enrich all the senses. Fishing, diving and hiking are a great way to get to know the fascinating world of a coral atoll far away from the regular tourist routes, yet Kauehi is fewer than two hours from Tahiti, French Polynesia’s main island. A visit to the tiny village of Tearavero with its 250 habitants or so is also the opportunity to meet nice people who split their activities between fishing and copra harvesting. To top it off, visitors in search of peace and unique island beauty can be seduced by the welcome they will receive at the only family guest inn on the island, a little architectural wooden gem tranquilly located beside the lagoon.
An island longtime unknown
Administratively speaking, Kauehi is part of the Fakarava commune, the name of the main atoll of a group of seven islands. Today, they are all part of a natural reserve classified as a UNESCO “biosphere reserve” in recognition of their unique fauna and flora. However, before discovering any of Kauehi’s beauty, some introductions are necessary. Like all the islands in this archipelago, this water level coral ring formed around the summit of an immerged ancient volcano that is more than 50 million years old. While some atolls have several passes—and others none at all—Kauehi has only one, Arikitamiro pass, which is 200m wide (218yd) and 9m deep (30ft). This is enough to allow sea water to daily flush the 320 km2 lagoon (123 sq mi) all while offering a passage for boats. This provides a natural barrier that ancient Polynesians knew how to use to control access to the island. At the same time, it is a port of entry in current day for pleasure boats wishing to float on the lagoon, as well as for the cargo ships that give rhythm to life through bringing supplies to the atoll and its inhabitants every fifteen days.
In August 1839, during a passage of the United States Exploring Expedition, the commander of the mission, Charles Wilkes, named the island Vincennes after the ship. Finally, about fifty years later, the famous Scottish adventurer, Robert-Louis Stevenson, described Kauehi in his book, In the South Seas: “Made entirely of green brush and white sand and set in blue transparent water, coconut trees were rare; however, some put the finishing touch on the brilliant harmony of colors through draping their golden yellow fans.” This unforgettable author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also came across an island that was uninhabited. Between the arrival of the Vincennes in 1839 and Stevenson’s passage in 1888, it is true that many things had shifted for the inhabitants of the Tuamotus. The people, who had been Christianized, moved away to villages in the main islands to be closer to a church, so many of the atolls then became abandoned.
If we were to agree with archeologists, Austronesian navigators who traversed and populated the islands of eastern Polynesia occupied Kauehi more than a thousand years ago. This was a veritable odyssey considering the Tuamotu archipelago stretches in an arc more than 1800km long (1100 mi). However, Kauehi was one of the last islands that European navigators identified, even if we know that the archipelago had been part of episodic observations since the 16th century. It took at least three centuries later for world-renowned discoverers to index the 78 atolls that make up the Tuamotu archipelago. It was only in 1835 that Englishman Robert Fitzroy first stepped foot on the island and named it “Cavahi.” Let us recall that this captain of the H.M.S. Beagle had on board the scientist who revolutionized our understanding of the world: Charles Darwin. Sometime later in 1859, Darwin published his famous work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Of note, Darwin was one of the first to become interested in coral with the 1824 publication of a book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, following a series of observations he performed in Tahiti during his voyage on the Beagle.
A peaceful haven, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the modern world
For decades, the island lived the tranquil rhythm of the archipelago between fishing and coconut farming that the French colonial administration and the missionaries established after the 19th century. The island became animated by the end of the 20th century. In 1996, during a time when cultured pearls became a major development within the Tuamotus, there were numerous pearl farms. At that time, there were about 700 inhabitants on Kauehi. Today, with a smaller population, the atoll has only one pearl farm and the inhabitants have returned to cultivating copra that they had previously abandoned. Now, they are dedicated to replenishing coconut plantations. However, the island is not as isolated as it once was. The availability of air service once a week has made the atoll accessible and now village has a town hall branch. Since Kauehi is an associated commune of Fakarava, it manages the two other atolls in its network—Aratika and Raraka. The inhabitants of the latter, situated 17km/11mi to the north must take the boat to Kauehi in order to fly to Papeete.
A true oasis in the heart of the oceanic desert
Like the other six atolls gathered around Fakarava, Kauehi will certainly be appreciated by those who love nature, especially as it flourishes on and around evolving coral, a true oasis of life within the heart of the oceanic desert. Since the UNESCO classification of its first Tuamotuan atoll in 1977 (Taiaro, a small closed uninhabited islet), the entire group of seven low islands is now registered within the renowned international network that make up the reserves of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere program (MAB). On Kauehi, there are coral formations, marine spermatophytes (rare flowering or seed-bearing plants), and pools of kopara (red algae) that give a rust-colored hue to vast stretches of semi-moist areas. Further, Paleozoic forests of puatea trees (Pisonia grandis, a flowering tree of the Bougainvillea family) remain as relics of the atoll’s original vegetation before the intense cultivation of coconut groves. These forests offer large trees where several bird populations thrive in harmony, and besides coconut groves, there is other vegetation characteristic of French Polynesia. The island also offers diverse landscapes that are home to birds as well as underwater worlds containing unique marine fauna. There is also flora that has been able to adapt to the difficult dry salty conditions of coral substratum.
For about six years, Kauehi has had a family guest inn. It was the first and is still the only one on the island. To stay there a few days is definitely worth the detour. It is located about 2km from the aerodrome and 12km/7mi from the village. Kauehi Lodge guarantees peace and quiet for visitors wishing to find a peaceful haven far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. This does not mean they will be without modern conveniences, since the guest inn has running water and power. A thirty-minute drive on a coral track separates the inn from the village where you’ll find St. Marc’s church and the town hall, both built with coral rocks mortared with lime and dating back to the 19th century. Seeing Kauehi is the opportunity for visitors to experience a very Christian community, especially during times of religious festivals. It is also the occasion to discover the strange cemetery with men and women buried separately, according to a curious blend of traditional customs and Catholic traditions…
Accessible by plane and being a manageable size makes this low island one of the easiest to explore within the distinctive world of the Tuamotus. Jean-Claude, the owner of Kauehi Lodge, guides visitors by boat from one end of the island to the other to discover egg-laying sites that are home to thousands of protected sea birds and sea turtles. On the other hand, he may take advantage of the calm sea and take visitors over the pass. If they are lucky enough, they will get to witness the interesting collusion between deep sea fish (such as tuna or bonito) and terns as they close in on schools of small fish frantic from attacks coming at them all at once from the deep sea and the sky.
Seven Polynesian atolls classified as UNESCO “biosphere reserves”
Taiaro atoll, lost in the middle of the Pacific, was classified as an “integral biosphere reserve” in 1972 upon request of its American owner, W.A. Robinson, who bought the atoll in 1946. In 1977, it became a UNESCO biosphere. The evolving organization’s Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB) was a new strategic project introduced in 1995 at the international conference over biosphere reserves. The registration of Taiaro, an uninhabited atoll, was put into question, stressing that UNESCO should promote long term sustainable development based upon the combined efforts of local and scientific communities. The desire to keep an international designation in French Polynesia led the Polynesian government to collaborate with the State and CRIOBE scientists (Center for Island Research and Observatory for the Environment) with a biosphere reserve extension project initially limited to Taiaro. After a lengthy consultation with local populations that lasted ten years, the group of atolls in the Fakarava commune (which includes Taiaro) was invited to apply for status in October 2006. Ever since, the group has been known under the generic name “Fakarava Biosphere Reserve.” In compliance with organizing such reserves—whose ultimate goal is to protect special fauna