Tikehau An Exceptional Atoll
Tikehau is an atoll of white and pink sand that’s ahead of its time in many ways. Come and see what happens when paradise meets the modern world.
Tikehau is stunning coral crown situated 300 km (186 miles) northeast of Tahiti. The 250 motu (islets) are scattered along the rim of a splendid fish-filled lagoon covering over 40000 hectares (98,842 acres). At the northwest of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and only 15 km (9.3 miles) from the island of Rangiroa, this blessed island is lovingly watched over by Tikehau islanders as well as its many visitors. The atoll offers an exceptional lifestyle akin to the earthly paradise eloquently described by Bougainville. With only one navigable 200m-wide (656 ft) pass (Tuheiava) and etched with a myriad of hoa (channels that cut through the bordering reef), Tikehau residents take pride in their home and work hard to preserve its beauty. Most residents live on the islet of Tuherahera, home to the main village.
The same five families still live on the atoll. Enamored of their land, they enjoy reminiscing and enthusiastically explaining the meaning behind “Ti-e-hau” to interested visitors. It means “go find peace” and is a magical name, perfect for this idyllic, charmingly exotic destination; in all Tikehau boasts 2500 hectares (6,178 acres) of land and fringed with beaches of fine white sands, sometimes tinged pink. When one sits, feet in the water or in the sand, looking out over a horizon of intense blues in unbelievable hues, the translation of Tikehau makes sense. It isn’t hard to comprehend the heartache that visitors often express feeling when their trip draws to an end. On this atoll, time seems suspended between a dream and reality, and it is easy to understand why.
Russian navigator, Otto von Kotzebue came through Tuheiava pass (to the west) in around 1816 and “discovered” the atoll. He baptized it “Krusenstern Island” in memory of the Russian Imperial Navy explorer Johann Adam von Krusenstern. But the name didn’t stick. It was soon replaced by Tikehau, or more precisely Tiehau, in the Mihiroa dialect. This Pa’umotu language, a variant of Tahitian, was perfected by the first settlers made up of five large families from the Leeward Society Islands. These migrants cleverly mingled several existing dialects. Mihiroa is interesting for its absence of the sounds “G” and “K”, which explains the notable pronunciation of “Tiehau” instead of Tikehau.
The environment at center stage
The charms of Tikehau would be ephemeral were it not for the fact that the locals know they have to be eco-citizens and invest time and energy to preserving their precious environment.
There’s nothing like a walk through the village, whether on foot or by bike, to fully appreciate how much the inhabitants care about their atoll. Here and there, on the dock or along a beach, one often meets members of the CPIA (Convention to Promote Insertion Activities – an organization funded 100% by the government), mostly young women who go to work early in the morning to clean up the neighborhood. This job is highly appreciated by tourists who can thus enjoy the atoll in its pristine state, without pollution. In fact, this respect for the environment enhances the paradisiacal atmosphere and plays a key role in the atoll’s success as an eco-tourism destination. Every person on Tikehau participates, but especially the pensions, and the local elected officials.
If you pay attention you may notice the recycling points for litter sorting here and there along the roads of the village. But the specially marked green and yellow bins and holes for organic trash are far from the full story. The local public officials have been steadily incorporating heaps of solutions for the population, to encourage respect of the environment and public health. This year, 2010, was a turning point for the people of Tikehau, with the arrival of strange masts decked with solar panels. It has been a huge year for renewable energy and some environmental problems, but some of the biggest news has been within a new project: potable drinking water. Until now access to clean, un-salty water has been a major difficulty on this little coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean, both geologically and geographically.
Projected for completion in 2012, the installation of a potable water fabrication system on private cisterns, and the setting up of a communal tank will constitute a major change for the lives of the inhabitants. Once upon a time, before the advent of modern cisterns, people used freshwater wells around the atoll. Water was transported in a’ano, (recipients made from a coconut shell held in a net of woven fibers). Luckily this period of time is now “well” behind us…! There are hardly any traces left of these wells, except in the fishermen’s village on Taiharuru motu, an area which produces more than 70% of the lagoon fish found at the market in Papeete. Tikehau, in a sense is a pilot environmental project. The islanders are commited to melding the modern with their peaceful lifestyle. In the years to come the world will be glad they have made such an effort.
Between sea and sky, a plethora of excursions
The dynamic locals offer all kinds of activities both exciting and relaxing, that make Tikehau a particularly fun-filled place to visit. Visitors invariably return home with unforgettable memories, and souvenirs to remind them of the dancing reflections of white sands on blue lagoons.
All kinds of diverse activities are offered by professional local tour guides (at nine pensions, and the Pearl Beach hotel). This dynamic group guarantees a wonderful time for visitors, that incorporate discovery with lazy beach days. Diving is one of the atoll’s star activities. From morning to night, bluish stingrays attract the eye as they float through the 28km long and 20km wide lagoon. It’s impossible to tire of watching them. Therefore it’s difficult to resist an underwater excursion. From snorkeling to diving with a tank, or taking a first-time dive, there’s plenty of opportunity to appreciate the graceful aquatic ballet that seems to attract rays, small black tipped sharks, demoiselles, and a multitude of colorful fish. Two dive centers on Tikehau help you discover the abundant underwater world of flora and fauna. Less adventuresome types will appreciate the crystal clear waters of the lagoon, which allow observation of the fish and the richness of their environment without getting wet, from the beach or in a boat.
Unforgettable excursion to Bird Island
On the horizon, small Bird Island in the middle of Tikehau’s lagoon is nothing but a paradisiacal spit of sand and coconut palms; the interesting grey coral formations make the island an even lovlier spot for a picnic. Among the many excursion on offer in Tikehau, Bird Island, known locally as motu Puarua, attracts the most tourists. Hervé, manager of Hotu Pension, showed us around this beautiful little islet where brown and black noddies, white terns and on occasion, blue footed boobies, all nest here. Our guide brings us through the undergrowth and branches in the center of the island. Birds fly everywhere and it’s impossible to get away from them. Between the Tournefortia argentea (tâhinu), coconut trees (Cocos nucifera or tumu ha’ari in Tahitian), pandanus (Pandanus taccada or fara in Tahitian), Hervé helps us find the best looking birds and tells us that the species here have adapted to this land without predators.
A quick glance up and down a tree is enough to confirm what he says. The baby birds, eggs and nests still tended by the adult birds are dispersed all over the place. The only visible predators in reality are us, the island’s visitors. At the end of our walk we are greeted with a surprise, fresh giant clams called pâhua in Tahitian. Lovely Amandine, one of our hosts, collected an impressive amount of these tasty critters while we were out walking. This energetic young woman from Tikehau serves the delicious clams before going back to the village. Her fishing technique that she lets us in on, has worked well and been a pleasure for us. With or without lemon, the pâhua are delicious!
Exploitation of the atoll’s wealth
The best way to settle in to this easygoing atoll is to meet the locals. These hardworking folks are constantly trying to better their environment so that it will continue to thrive in years to come.
There are no shortage of challenges when trying to exploit Tikehau’s natural resources. For this reason, a wood mill was built by an association of local landowners with the help of two public Polynesian organizations, the FDA (Funds for the Development of the Archipelagos), and the SDR (Service for Rural Development). Running since 2003, the mill is continually in use by a team of 4 people who are trained to cut coconut wood. These workers really have their work cut out for them, since coconut trees are ubiquitous on Tikehau. Each day there are at least 150 trunks that pass through the blades of each of the two machines in the mill. A tree trunk takes an average of 15 minutes to cut the planks that are then sent to sell in select Tahitian stores. When visiting the mill, it becomes obvious that “every part of a coconut tree is useful”, to quote the island’s mayor, Frederix Teriiatetoofa. The coconuts for eating and drinking, the wood for building, the sawdust for compost and the leaves for weaving – the coconut tree has a thousand uses, and the locals are aware of this. In order to preserve this natural resource, (coconut trees were introduced to the Tuamotus at the end of the 19th century) locals keep a close eye on deforestation. For each coconut tree that is cut down (at least 60 years old) two coconut trees are planted.
“The fruit and vegetables are grown for the five adults and four children who live and/or work on the motu,” Jacob tells us. The surplus is sold every Tuesday in Tuherahera Village and at Araka, a store on Tahiti. Eden Island wears its name well. Everything is grown organically from papayas and lemons to vanilla, pineapples and corn. And we still haven’t seen it all! We are even more astonished when Jacob shows us Tikehau’s other product: salt. “Water is pumped from the ocean and the roof activates maturation. On average we produce 500 kg [1,102 lbs] of salt per month,” He explains. We leave believing that on Tikehau, anything is possible.
Amazing Eden Island where everything grows
Coconut trees aren’t the only resource growing in the lime-heavy soil of Tikehau. An excursion to Ohina Motu, shows you how well humans can get over geological hurdles with a good dose of know-how and hard work. Jacob, a farmer, welcomes us at the dock of this little islet which has now become nicknamed “Eden Island.” He takes us to tour the organic gardens where he spends most of his time – we see Barbary figs, cherry tomatoes, raspberries and acerola cherries. A little farther on are the salad gardens containing lettuce, cauliflower, eggplant and pumpkins. Seeing all this growing in such an arid, barren landscape makes the head spin.
At the foot of the feo, the legendary pass
Motu Tuherahera has an unusual landscape of spiky rock formations. These masses of coral, called feo, are uplifted reef fragments that are amassed at Tikehau’s old village site. They are the result of past geologic activity that seems to have come from some far away and mountainous place. In fact, these abrupt shapes and their dark color are testament to Tikehau’s natural history. Called “cliffs” by some of the islanders, these black rocks stand in great contrast to the white sand that they appear to rise from. In all, the formations give the atoll a very particular silhouette. The formations also provide protection from big swells from the South and were a place of deep spiritual beliefs long before European evangelists arrived; at this time the god Tû was prayed to and feared throughout the archipelago. Charming Marie-Louise Maru tells us about the mysterious feo in the legend of “Hina’s bell,” Te Oe a hina, that was told to her by Toari Haoa: “In ancient times there lived a young girl named Hina when Tikehau didn’t have a queen. She wasn’t of royal blood but she knew about nature to the point that the islanders greatly respected her suspected she had supernatural powers. Once when she wanted to bath in a pool at the foot of the feo. She told her father who then hit one of the formations that was shaped like a bell. The sound resonated all over the atoll and told the people that they shouldn’t come near the village since Hina was bathing. By hitting the feo two times the ocean filled up the pool so that the girl could bathe. Three hits of the ‘bell’ told the people that they could come back to the village since Hina was finished with her dip.” This legend exists in many different versions and links Tikehau’s history to its feo and the earth.