A most beautiful lagoon, coconut groves as far as you can see and a warm hospitality… Kaukura could be an atoll like all the others, where islanders live to the rhythm of the sun and the sea. But modernity has caught up today with the population who knows how to intelligently take advantage of its environment. Discover.
At first glance, Kaukura appears like a string of wild motu (coral islets) lined up around a lagoon extremely rich in fish of amazing colors, ranging from pastel green to deep blue. Raitahiti, the main village of this atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, that used to be made of odds and ends fare (houses) in sheet metal and plywood, today displays a very charming look. The “neglected” small paradise of ten years ago has changed: an asphalt road runs from the airport to the village, there are fences and flowers around the yards, cement houses have risen from the ground, coconut groves are well maintained and three stores and two snacks have appeared.
While the price of culture pearls has fallen over the last decade, only a few continue pearl farming activities, which used to be well established here. “It’s no longer worth it, there is only a handful of active family-owned farms on the island… All we can hope is that the price will go back up some day” explains Rosa, a pearl farmer. “Today, the money is into fish…” she says while preparing vacuum packed fish filets before shipping them to her buyers in the island of Tahiti. Kaukura is indeed one of the richest atolls in fish in French Polynesia. Jack fishes over one meter long fill up fish parks, and parrot fishes, spangled emperors, ume tarei (surgeon fishes) in impressive quantities are now bringing wealth to the islanders. Most of them are fishermen or owners of a fish park.
While the Cobia, one of the four “goélettes” regularly sailing to the island, ties up to the big orange buoy at sea, cars are coming in little by little. The barge makes many round trips to unload merchandise with a crane. “When the swells are big, it’s a balancing act. It’s not rare that merchandise goes overboard! “ explains a woman of the island. People gather on the wharf, come to recuperate their iceboxes filled with food items sent by the fetii (close family members), or cartons or furniture shipped from the island of Tahiti. Copra and old freezers filled with ice and fish will be loaded on another “goélette”, returning non-stop to Tahiti. The time is gone when living in the Tuamotu meant being happy to live on a “fish, rice and coconut” diet. Many are now growing vegetables for their own consumption or to sell their surplus. At Roland’s and Tutana’s place, everything grows: pota (spinach), lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplants, in barrels cut in half, filled with a mixture of potting soil, sand and compost, watered with brackish water. “We have everything here, even beehives!” says Tutana joyfully.
A Place Full Of Mystery
Few tourists venture on this small atoll where tourism infrastructures are less developed than those in other islands of the archipelago, which have become a diver’s paradise. Here there is no diving club, nor any official tour guide. Still Kaukura is full of land and marine marvels. Jeannot, who manages a small guesthouse, knows them all by heart. Aboard his small boat, he heads toward a place that only a few privileged visitors had the honor of visiting: a mythical hole located in the middle of the lagoon, where a school of manta rays, these mysterious “sea devils” live. Of an unknown depth, this underwater hole connects with the reef through a tunnel that nobody was ever able to explore. In the 60’s, American military men tried to get in and explore it, but unsuccessfully, they were stopped in their progression by piles of coral. According to the mythology told by the old folks, it is in this hole, named Temarite, that sharks and manta rays are said to have taken two children, Maritipa and Teahiaroa, to the abyss. Then one day, some fishermen saw, in this hole, a shark and a manta ray showing on their fish bodies, the faces of these two disappeared children.
Less Pearls, More Fish
Before the arrival of the “goélette”, a ship that carries freight between islands, families get busy around a community table where fish is processed, sold for 1,000 Fcfp (10 USD/8,5 €) a kilo of filet to the fishmongers or directly to the hotels and restaurants of Tahiti. The same way with packs of fish that decorate the stalls of the Big Island’s central market with their unusual colors. “Here if you’re willing to work, there’s money to be made…” explains Teva, a fisherman. It is indeed common to bring back over a hundred packs of fish in a day from the fish park, often located not far from the reef, in passes facing the incoming currents.
Copra, A Traditional Activity
Copra, an activity that has been keeping people busy for over thirty years, is still harvested as a community project. As early as four in the morning, the village is filled by the knocking of the oopa’a (a kind of hook), while with dexterity and precision, the men gather the coconuts to be opened and have their meat removed and dried in the sun. Like they do for the fish, on the eve of the “goélette’s” arrival, families get busy around the copra dryers to fill jute bags to be shipped to the Huilerie de Tahiti, the only buyer that turns copra into oil used partially in the fabrication of monoï. High quality copra is now paid 130 Fcfp, (1.3 USD/ 1 €) per kilo, this is an increase of nearly 50 % in 10 years. When 6 tons of copra are produced in a year, a dryer is given to the producer by the local government. One can easily understand then why coconut groves are kept so clean, and the jungle has been domesticated. “If you leave your coconuts alone for a few days, somebody else will come and pick them up” tells us Hélène, a copra farmer. Coconut thefts on an atoll covered with coconut trees, what a paradox!
Once in the water, the ballet begins: one, two, three, seven enthralled rays, offer the most moving underwater spectacle, as they swim slowly over and over again less than one meter (3 ft) from the divers equipped only with fins, masks and snorkels. Jeannot then dives and touches one with the tip of his fingers. His 8-year old son, Kikikou, boldly grabs his hand and dares to come near and touches the legendary “children eater” with the tip of his fingers. “He’s always been terrorized and never dared before to do it. It’s fantastic, he’s not afraid anymore!” exclaims his father coming back on the boat. Another mysterious place is also the subject of a modern days legend. At the other end of the atoll, an old village named Faro on a motu, which is now deserted, as the many others found in Kaukura, features a stone named Tutonu, which in the old days was said to protect the atoll from invasions by warriors from other islands. This stone would appear on photos taken only with a few chosen ones. With the others, only the picture of the person posing next to the stone would record on film. In those people with whom the stone agreed to show itself, the old folks saw a sign of wisdom and proudly displayed the photo in their living room, decorated with shell leis. But the stone was damaged during a cyclone and is said to have since lost its mana (power).
The End Of A Day, Between The Sky And The Sea
On the way back to the village, Jeannot and Kirikou stop to indulge in their favorite pastime, sea urchins fishing. In the middle of the feo (pegs of dead coral), father and son make an efficient team: while Kirikou picks up the crustaceans with purple spikes brought by deep sea waves, Jeannot opens them and extracts their orange colored flesh, of the same bright color as the flat reef. While the warm and clear water slowly close around Jeannot’s boat, the sky adorns itself with clouds with mother of pearl glints. The stifling heat of the day yields to a welcome breeze and frenetic silhouettes are moving on the village’s volleyball’s field. Meanwhile children are unwinding around a soccer ball; their shouts go up as the sun slowly goes down. The women finish the day with a lively game of “petanque”. In the homes, they then get busy preparing dinner and the children’s bath, while watching a telenovela (soap opera), the unavoidable late afternoon TV rendezvous. Kaukura is getting ready to rest before the next day, a day similar to today, between copra and fishing. In the air, a fragrance mixed with the inebriating smell of Tiare Tahiti, drying copra and barbecued fish evokes the scents of a generous land, a taste of paradise.
Kaukura, A String Of Motu
350 km Norheast of the island of Tahiti’s, Kaukura (‘Au-‘ura) is an oval shaped atoll 50km long made up of 65 islets (motu) of unequal size, separated by hoa (sea inlets more or less rich in fishes). The above water land of a surface of 1,100 ha is found essentially on the East side of the atoll, while the West coast includes essentially reef areas, except for seven small motus. The East coast is cut in half by the narrow Faafe pass. The main village is Raitahiti, on the Southeast of the atoll. There are two ancient villages, Panau, near the West pass of the atoll, which was destroyed by the 1906 cyclone and Faro, the second village where is found the magical stone, located on the East side. The Kaukura atoll was visited by James Cook in 1773 during his second voyage. Kaukura today has 450 inhabitants.