Raivavae, The Polynesian Ideal
Located in the Austral Archipelago, this island reveals all the charms of a preserved and authentic Polynesia. An unforgettable journey into perfection.
Raivavae lies at the heart of the Austral Archipelago, about 390 miles southeast of Tahiti. Situated around the Tropic of Capricorn, the Austral Islands stretch along an arch, putting them at a distance of 372 to 897 miles south of Tahiti. They have a cooler climate than the northern archipelagoes, such as the Society Islands. On Raivavae, the temperature can get to 59 °F in July during the Austral winter, and the sky is often overcast. The winds, especially those from the south, are more sustained and variable than in the other archipelagoes. Importantly, this climate favors a range of varied agricultural productions, most notably vegetable crops. With an accessible summit with an altitude of 1422 ft – and about thirty motu, Raivavae has had a small airport for about twelve years. Far from the usual tourist circuits in French Polynesia, Raivavae is gradually opening up to a form of ecotourism that is totally adapted to its size and population of about 1000 inhabitants. It is a little less than a two hour direct flight from Papeete, and what a contrast!
An ancient culture
Measuring 5 miles long by 1.86 miles at its widest, the island is hemmed in by a shallow lagoon that opens up to a very large pass at the north. Only half of this lagoon is circled by motu, islets of immaculate white sand covered with vegetation that contrasts with the Tuamotus atolls, since they have just a few coconut trees. A chain of steep mountains, remnants of a partly collapsed volcano, runs through the middle of the island in an “S.” Mount Hiro is its highest peak and is named after the mythical hero of ancient times. With shrubby vegetation composed of grasses and ferns, the summits stand out against the rest of the island that consists of dense forests in which inhabitants have planted fruit trees and taro plantations.
The creation of eco-tourism
Almost all of the ancient wooden objects that remained by the beginning of the 19th century are unfortunately no longer on the island. They were gathered in private collections or sent to museums, such as the British Museum in London. There, one can admire an absolute mastery of the production of objects that are just as diverse as refined: sculptures, knives, and ceremonial objects. Sculpted oars and drums (pahu) from Raivavae are world-renowned. With a good guide, there is still a possibility to visit some of the architectural remnants from this bygone era and to discover some of the legends linked to these remarkable sites. A recent initiative involving the dynamic collaboration between an island association, Te Ui Tama No Ragnivavae, and a Genevan group is worthy of note. For a few years, several groups of Swiss tourists have come to visit Raivavae to discover the island’s traditions and way of life. A flourishing artisan culture occupies many of the inhabitants of the island, notably with making shell necklaces, weaving hats, and creating tifaifai (Polynesian patchwork embroidery).
A lively history
If today, the island seems tranquil to the point of offering visitors a peaceful haven, it hasn’t always been the case. On Raivavae, small forts were discovered perched among the summits, similar to those found on Rapa, a neighboring island. These forts show that war was established as a course of action during certain periods in the pre-European era. At the beginning of the 19th century, when English or French influence had not yet made its way to the archipelago, the island dealt with clan rivalry. It took the authority of Pomare II, who came from Tahiti and who was already allied with the English, to convince the belligerents to cease their fratricidal battles.
Of course, the London Missionary Society, concerned with quickly making any traces of the ancient worship practices disappear, eradicated these original expressions after the island’s conversion to puritanical Christianity. Reliant upon the monarchy in Tahiti, the island then passed under French protectorate on the 9th of September 1842 at the request of Queen Pomare IV. France annexed the island on the 28th of June, 1880. If in some ways it proved beneficial, contact with the West also had dramatic consequences. Following the anchoring of several European ships as early as the 1820s, the unimmunized people of the Australs, including Raivavae, became ravaged by epidemics. Consequently, it is the survivors of battered societies, who in a state of shock, converted to Christianity from the depths of distress. The epidemics were interpreted as divine punishment, while at the same time, as proof of the pagan deities’ ineptitude to ensure the well-being and survival of the people.
Such an emerald jewel
The four main villages on the island, Rairua, Mahanatoa, Anatonu and Vaiuru, are linked by a 14 mile narrow ring road that can be easily traveled by bicycle. You’ll rarely come across a car along this paved lane that has a section made of coral chips. The homes, with their pastel tints, are often hidden behind lush vegetation. The island, however, is not deserted. On Sundays, its residents assemble in the churches for worship services, reflecting the strong social cohesion that animates this insular community. Christianized at the beginning of the 19th century, it was isolated for a long time, like other islands in the archipelago. Like an emerald jewel posed on the surface of the ocean, Raivavae is dominated by a chain of small summits with peaks a little more than 1312 ft. From far away, if approached from a certain angle, its silhouette is reminiscent of Bora Bora. Its motu are just as stunning. There aren’t any hotels, but a half dozen family-owned guest houses welcome tourists who are curious to discover a Polynesia still close to the one we could discover thirty years ago.
Inhabited for a millennium by Polynesians who arrived either from the Cook Islands or the Tuamotu Atolls, the island wasn’t “discovered” by Europeans until the 18th century; in 1775 to be exact, by the Spanish explorer, Thomas Gayangos. During the 1820s, the inhabitants converted to Christianity, a branch of very strict English Protestantism imported to Polynesia by the missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS). Due to this conversion, numerous sacred sites, marae, as well as statues, were destroyed. At the same time, a terrible epidemic decimated the population, taking all the old wise people, priests, and other holders of the ancestral culture. These two events contributed to the progressive erasure of collective memory. Today however, after many decades of acculturation, their descendents are rediscovering their original culture.
It is also the only island in French Polynesia where the tradition of sewn pirogues still lives on. Fishing for giant clams is an equally original practice made possible by the sizeable stock of mollusks in the lagoon. On Raivavae, coffee is still produced according to traditional methods. A much-appreciated sweetener is also concocted using the base of Ti leaves (Cordilyne terminalis) through cooking them for a very long time, then retrieving the juice. Lastly, just like in the old days, if the island no longer exports oranges and coffee, and if no one comes to seek sandalwood, then the climate that is beneficial to plants in both temperate and tropical zones permits its inhabitants to plant lush vegetable gardens and orchards. Taro, cassava, carrots, potatoes, cabbages, and lettuce are alongside coffee, oranges, coconuts, bananas, vanilla, pineapples, or avocados. This abundance favors the self-sustainability of many families. This abundance, in addition to seafood, also supplies the tables in the family-owned guest houses.
But this “protectorate” signaled the end of the island’s traditional civilization. Originally called Vavitu, Pomare changed the name of the island to Raivavae, which means “open sky.” This explains the original spelling of the name, Ra’ivavae, which today is seldom used. Ra’i means sky in Tahitian. During ancient times, the island was ruled by strict religious and secular laws, yet witness accounts report a population in top physical shape, as the population had developed multiple ways of expressing the beauty and health of its women and men. Within the framework of religious eroticism, sexuality was a highly developed practice to the point of becoming, along with the art of war, a pillar of the ancestral society of the island.
Raivavae’s mysterious ti’i
There remains on Raivavae an extraordinary ti’i (tiki) with a laughing face. Today, he stands alone. Three others were exported to Tahiti in 1933. After several attempts to transport the ti’i were shrouded in misfortune, two of them are currently at the Musée Gauguin, in Papeari. The third sunk and the army recovered it from the island’s lagoon in 2004. More than 6’5” ft tall, these monumental sculptures whose shape evokes a human form, should be able to be repatriated to their island of origin upon the request of the inhabitants. However, the scientific conditions of their conservation must be fulfilled. To this day, more than 600 structures (marae, dwellings…) have been indexed on Raivavae. For the record, 16 marae have been classified. With the approval of the population, a restoration and enhancement program must be put in place for improved visibility.
Climbing Mount Hiro
Mountains of deep green velvet and fern-covered slopes that sometimes cling to tattered clouds make up several summits—the remnants of an ancient volcano—that line up along a chain that snakes through the island. Among them to the east, Mount Hiro (1433 ft) dominates the entire island. Mount Hiro is bordered at the north by breathtakingly steep cliffs where several species of sea birds nest regularly. Skittish half-wild goats flee and leap nimbly along the rocks. Climbing the mountain doesn’t present particular challenges. One just needs to be in good physical shape and to be able to hike for two solid hours to arrive at the peak. The reward is at the end of the journey. A panorama of 360° allows for a view of the entire island.
Motu Vaiamanu : “The swimming pool motu”
A lagoon in the lagoon. Almost entirely encircled with white sand, a natural basin is carved into the Vaiamanu motu. Inhabitants call this place the swimming pool motu. The motu has spacious untouched landscapes and more than a mile of beaches lined with island vegetation where, curiously, there are only a few coconut trees. With its blues of indigo or turquoise, this place is the absolute incarnation of a post card scene that comes to mind when thinking of Polynesian islands. In the distance, the island of Raivavae etches its silhouette onto the sky to the whims of the changing light.
A living arts and crafts culture
The Austral Islands are reputed for the manual knowledge and skills of their inhabitants. There, one finds unequaled weaving crafts that the mama, true artists, create with all sorts of vegetal fibers as a base: hats, mats, baskets, and other items. But Raivavae is also renowned for its fabrication of necklaces made with tiny shells gathered on the motu. Due to the sorting all of the colors, these necklaces are the fruits of an enormous labor of patience. One can meet Clarisse Paulin at her new recently opened guest houses that feature her work. A talented artist and creator of tifaifai quilts, she has won several awards at exhibitions in Tahiti. She inherited the skills of several generations of women from the island (her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother). Clarisse experiments with fabric patterns of leaves, marine life, or lizards that she cuts and sews onto large patchwork quilts that are typically Polynesian.
There aren’t any hotels on the island of Raivavae, but there are a half-dozen welcoming family guest houses, known as pensions de famille. With utmost simplicity and kindness, hosts offer island visits and have bicycles available for tourists. Recently inaugurated by the High Commissioner, Clarisse Paulin’s guest houses are distinguished by the quality of the materials that make up her bungalows, as well as by their decor which features her tifaifai.