The smallest of the inhabited islands in the Austral archipelago, Rimatara surprises with the charm and beauty of its landscapes and the authenticity of encounters with its local population.
Rimatara at a glance
Arriving by air, seeing Rimatara appear slowly on the horizon is an enchanting sight and the prelude to a complete change of scenery. A brilliant green oval of land, the island is picked-out by an intensely blue ocean, an astonishing color that is sometimes called Majorelle blue, after the French artist Jacques Majorelle who used a few secret ingredients to make his overseas blues ever richer and more striking. A color said to be relaxing and to soothe the soul. These are certainly feelings that this small island in the Australs stirs up, even at first sight. These color nuances subtly tell the visitor that he has arrived « elsewhere », in a Polynesia where the light, color, landscape, climate and culture are quite different from the other archipelagos. The Australs form French Polynesia’s southern limit, lying between 600 and 1,200km South of Tahiti, the five inhabited islands are scattered along a curved arc around 1,200 km long, the distance between the island the furthest West, Rimatara, and Rapa the easternmost of the chain. Here we are on the frontier. Maybe not quite the edge of the world, but the edge of French Polynesia. Looking out from the southern coasts of these islands, there is nothing but a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, until we arrive on the Antarctic’s icy shores, 6,000 km below. Between the two coasts, nothing, not even the tiniest rock. This is the colossal South Pacific basin. These waters, that also wash the shores of the distant but technically neighboring frozen continent, are home to majestic humpback whales, who make an annual journey northward and can be sighted from Rimatara’s shores between June and October. They come to escape the Antarctic winter, basking in the warmer waters. The long journey is also made, and more often, by an icy wind that gives the archipelago it’s notably even surprisingly cooler climate, though the islands only just dally with the Tropic of Capricorn.
A little Austral gem
Rimatara is the smallest inhabited island in the Australs, with a surface area of just 8.6km², it is also the lowest of them, its highest point, the Mt. Uahu, standing just 84m tall. How did such a tiny gem come to exist in this gigantic ocean? Much like all our islands, Rimatara is the remains – albeit much eroded- of a powerful volcano that grew on the ocean floor, 4,500m below the surface, after numerous eruptions, it managed to get its head above water. Such volcanic islands, found in this part of the Pacific, are the result of hotspots, that is zones of weakness within the earth’s crust that allow molten rock from deep within the mantle to reach the surface. They vigorously erupt through the oceanic crust, forming gigantic mounds of lava. However, these hotspots stay fixed in place while the earth’s crust moves, in this case northwestwards, at an average speed of 11cm per year. Thus, over geological timescales, the volcano moves away from the lava source. Finally, it stops erupting, leaving the inactive volcanic cone. The aerial portion of the island starts to undergo erosion by water and air. Such was Rimatara’s fate. Its alluring interior with its small valleys and plateaus is what remains of the ancient volcano.
You find the red soils, so characteristic of weathered volcanic rock. And if this high island is « tiny », it is because it is the oldest in the island chain, initially formed by a volcano that was active around 20 million years ago, and then for 15 million years, once the volcano became inactive, erosion has had time to play its part. However, there was also another chapter in its history, one that shaped its destiny. Localized movements in the ocean crust rapidly re-uplifted the island by several meters. A phenomenon that explains why you find big blocks of coral limestone, called mato, dotted around the coast, some around fifteen meters in height. They are fragments of the coral reef that was lifted out of the water. This geological anomaly creates much of the island’s charm, the shore, particularly the South and Southwestern part of the island is dotted with fine whitesand beaches, interspersed by rocky creeks with calm and limpid waters. This typical coastline that is found at its most attractive around Mutuaura and Anapoto. The most well-known site being the Bay of Virgins, or Virgins’ Bath, near Mutuaura. Other surprises are also to be discovered and explored, like the large beach in Mutuaura bordered by Motu Rama and Motu Uta. Nature has taken time to weave its magic, creating a beautiful and useful work of art.
Inhabited by Polynesians for a thousand years
Like the other islands in the archipelago, Rimatara was discovered by Polynesians a millennium earlier. Specialists in the field consider that the Australs were the last of the five archipelagos in our territory to have been colonized. While there were frequent exchanges between them, each archipelago developed a distinct identity during what is known as the pre-European era (that is before the first meaningful contact between the two civilizations, towards the end of the 18th century). More strikingly in the Australs, where the islands are separated by several hundreds of kilometers of ocean, each island has its own cultural particularities. Thus, the language spoken on Rimatara, Reo Rimatara, differs somewhat from the other languages spoken on other islands in the archipelago, though they all belong to the same large group Reo Tuha’a Pae, the language spoken within the archipelago. During this pre-European era, it has been established that Rimatara and neighboring Rurutu did not exist in total isolation, but rather there were frequent overwater exchanges between them and the Gambier Islands, the Society Islands and the Cook Islands. In particular, the Western Austral Islands share many cultural and environmental similarities with the Southern Cook Islands. The island of Mangaia, in this “separate” archipelago that was long under British colonial rule lies just 530km from Rimatara and is also an uplifted circular atoll that grows taro and noni. These shared features demonstrate clearly the continuity and coherence of the Polynesian culture in the region, upon which political boundaries were artificially imposed by the European colonial powers in the 19th century. As for the Europeans, they did not even land on Rimatara before 1811, almost half a century after they had first arrived on the island of Tahiti. They hardly actually visited the place at first, the seas in the Austral being known for the treacherous sailing conditions.
Sadly, when they did arrive the encounter resulted in terrible epidemics, the local populations having no immunity to the new illnesses that their visitors from the other side of the globe brought with them, never having been exposed to them previously. It was a phenomenon that effected all the islands and Rimatara was no exception to this dreadful rule. According to the Protestant missionary John Williams’ account, the island had just 200-300 inhabitants around 1823. The population size prior to the arrival of Europeans has been estimated at around 1,000 – 1,200 people, the island has almost recovered its initial population size today. Weakened and doubtlessly feeling abandoned by their gods and despairing in the face of their inability to manage the situation using the resources of their traditional society, the inhabitants converted to Protestantism and set to learning European ways. The population crash resulted in a profound change in the lifestyle. Once evenly dispersed across the island, the population became concentrated into villages, built-up around the new churches, a situation that was strongly encouraged by the missionaries, who could then keep an eye on their flock more easily.
This is how the current geographic distribution came to be, with Amaru in the Northeast (289 inhabitants), Mutuaura or Motua’ura in the South (315 inhabitants) and Anapoto in the Northwest (268). In terms of politics, a large number of the islands that make up French Polynesia today had already been placed under the French Protectorate by the mid-19th century, but it would be the end of the century before the gaze of colonial powers focused on these forgotten islands, Rimatara and Rurutu. The English were ready to pounce, having just claimed sovereignty over the nearby Cook Islands … but despite the English missionaries’ desire to see the island fall under the Protection of the British Crown, it was Governor Gallet who came to Rurutu and Rimatara, to take possession of these two islands in the name of France. Thus, in 1901, Rimatara became the last island to be officially annexed by France when the island’s queen, Tamaeva V, accepted the « protection » proffered, cutting off her regal status, and ending the reign of a dynasty that had begun in the early 19th century. She was nevertheless allowed to reign « symbolically » until her death in 1923, the last queen of the French Overseas Settlements in Oceania.
A developing tourism
Today Rimatara has a population of 870 inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated islands in French Polynesia. Though it must be said that natural resources abound. The vast surrounding ocean makes all kinds of fishing possible, coastal or lagoon, with a variety of pelagic fish and species of deep fish. The land in the middle of the island is fertile. Taro is grown in abundance as well as fruits and vegetables. Noni and coprah are also very much present. Rimatara is actually an agricultural « giant », competing with islands like Tubuai and Rurutu, that have much larger surfaces of workable land. Crafts are also well developed here, in particular pandanus weaving. The work of the local carftswomen is widely reputed. Their work is often to be found on sale at different craft fairs on Tahiti. On island, you will also find a great selection of handicrafts! Rimatara was the last of the islands of French Polynesia to have an airport built and open to air traffic in 2006, after several years of long and difficult work.
It was a major event for the island’s population, making it much easier to get around. Particularly so, because the island’s coast does not lend itself to maritime transport. There are only two small docks. Merchandise and the odd brave passenger are disembarked by small whalers or barges that shuttle heavy loads between the cargo boat and the shore. When the weather or sea-conditions turn bad the whole operation becomes extremely perilous or even impossible. The arrival of an airlink has also allowed tourism to develop, based on the island’s human and natural wealth. One of the natural highlights is the famous ‘ura, an endemic lorikeet that is quite dazzling and easy to observe. Less well known is that whale-watching is in fact quite easy from the shores and coastal heights. The island’s main attraction, aside from its scenery, flora and fauna is surely its authenticity, for which there is no meaningless phrase or slogan. The visitor is immersed in this very specific Polynesian island life, following the rhythm of nature and its wonders, disconnected from futile things. On this little island, the person comes first. A pleasant and much needed opportunity to get back to basics.
Weaving : the link between tradition and invention, between past and future
It is just 9 in the morning and the humid heat has already engulfed the island. Best to avoid the hot season’s already blazing sun. Comfortably settled in the shade on the terrace of their small fare in Amaru, Raumearii, Léa et Rhycenda are working surrounded by rolls of pandanus, bags, hats in the making. You must make up for lost time! The last few weeks it has been raining and the raw materials for weaving are starting to run low. Impossible to rapidly and properly dry these precious leaves in such weather. The pae’ore or raufara (Pandanus tectorius var. laevis by its scientific name) is abundant on Rimatara. It is found growing by along the coastal and cross island roads, often in the shade of purau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and coconuts as the leaves become tough when exposed to direct sunlight, making them harder to work with. This variety of pandanus is unusual in that the leaves are not spiny. It is the result of a long and meticulous artificial breeding, to refine a variety suitable for use by the people of Rimatara, who are the largest producers of pae’ore in the archipelago.
Patience, dexterity and skill are key-words for Rimatara’s craftspeople.© P. Bacchet
This abundance of plant material does not make it immune to the whims of nature, once the long tough green leaves have been cut by hand using a long knife, they are set to dry for several weeks. The exact drying time varies somewhat with the weather, and before the sun made its return there had been heavy rains on the island. In the garden of our host’s fare there is work to be done, laying out the fine-looking long leaves in the full sunshine. Once dried, they are wound one on top of the other to make large rolls. One part of the production is exported, sold to craftspeople in the Society Islands as well as ‘Ori Tahiti, traditional dance groups, whose plant-based costumes are made in a large part using pandanus. Another part is destined to be used by the hundred or so local craftspeople from the island, which includes Raumearii, Rhycenda and Léa. All three of whom are showing how the dried pandanus leaves are split into thin strips using a pin, and above all lots of dexterity…The leaves are cut lengthwise into strips of varying widths, depending on the object being made. The widest strips are used to weave floormats, the finest, just a few millimeters wide are used for basket-weaving and hats. It is a long, complex and meticulous work. Watching them here, you realize how labor-intensive it is! Léa momentarily abandons the hat she’s working on to show us around the property. Here, there are large pans boiling over a gas burner. Rolls of pandanus are being « cooked »for several days in water steeped with tree bark, to color them. This 100 % natural dye is used by this art form that could be considered « organic »! Here no chemical products or heavy machinery is used, requiring financial investment or bank loans to get started and buy the raw materials, nature gives us what is needed and the rest is just the work of human hands. Of course there is knowledge and know-how passed down from generations, by carefully observing other members of the large families or associations that work together. A change of scene, but the same passion and same work, this time at Anapoto’s Centre des Jeunes Adolescent (CJA, Center for Young Adolescents). Present on a number of islands, these educational establishments (21 in total with 573 pupils) offer training in traditional skills. They are vitally important for a portion of the country’s youth, especially those in the outer islands and students struggling in schools or who have dropped out, students are welcomed there from the age of 12 onwards. They would be left to their own devices, were it not the fact that schooling is obligatory up to the age of 16 in France.
Within the CJA, the youngsters are immersed in a practical learning environment and given hands-on training in different art forms and manual work. One of the main objectives of these types of establishment is preserving the island or archipelago specific agricultural and artistic skills. Anapoto’s CJA, established in 1983, is now the only one found in the Australs, there is an agricultural department that focuses on the island’s staple crops, more specifically the taro, they also teach wood-sculpture and, of course, weaving techniques. Rimatara has without doubt an important cultural heritage in these last two fields, and is looking to preserve the uniqueness, while also allowing the artforms to evolve and grow. Pererina Tehio, headmistress of the CJA since 1992, welcomes us and shows us around, introducing us to the dozen girls and young women, the students of the weaving department. Working together in a large classroom, they work in a relaxed and happy atmosphere. There is no teacher, but knowledge is shared between the more experienced weavers and the novices. Everyone helps each other, creating a tight community, even more so as some of the students from other islands board there. Here, modernity is not excluded, it is even encouraged in the age-old art – traditional Australs and Rimatara motifs can be mixed with other influences.
One of the young students proudly shows some pictures on her i-Pad, patterns that were found on the Internet from the Philippines. Of course you must preserve the traditions, but they shouldn’t be kept like museum objects, culture and art are always evolving! This artform is undergoing a genuine renaissance. It is attracting not just the mamas, the older generation that fiercely defended the “tradition”. The youngsters are also inspired to learn the local art and then to go on and improvise, using a sustainable resource from the region. It is all the more precious because we know who made the object, where it came from and how it was made! It is a logical trend, in the context of a general backlash against the excesses of globalization with its standardized products, lacking character and sometimes ethics. A certain type of wealthy youngster in Papeete has become infatuated with these types of creations, abandoning their chic international brands of bags and accessories… To summarize, pandanus has become an ecological fashion statement ! This is why there is a need for increasing numbers of hands, or rather fingers to produce the objects that are often sold during craft fairs and exhibitions on the island of Tahiti. You can also count on visitors to the island who fall for the handiwork and buy on site. As Pererina Tehio has realized, this is a growth industry. It is clear that the craftspeople of Rimatara are holding their future at the tips of their agile fingers.
To find out more about the Austral Islands weaving, you can read this interesting book: Tressage, Objets, matière & gestes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui (Weaving, Objects, Materials and Techniques of today and yesterday, Hinanui Cauchois, Edition Au Vent des Iles (2013)