In the heart of the Tuamotu Archipelago, this atoll reveals a rich environment of exceptional beauty. Here, an abundant marine life is juxtaposed against stunning landscapes that are just as seductive. This atoll is recognized on a global level with its prestigious designation as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Fakarava atoll appears like a mirage after the 280 mile flight (450 km) northeast of the bustling island of Tahiti. It is a haven of genuine tranquility posed like a leaf on the great Pacific Ocean. The lagoon radiates with beauty, its stunning shades of blue swept by trade winds and sprinkled with motu (coral islets). The countless pink and white deserted beaches lure you into a daydream. Due to its surface area of 60km (37 mi) by 25km (15.5 mi), Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus after Rangiroa. Fakarava has two passes that refresh the crystal waters of the lagoon. To the north, Garuae pass is an advantage for tourism as it is the largest pass in French Polynesia. At 1.6 km wide (1 mi), freighters and cruise ships can easily navigate through and with up to a 17m (55 ft) draft, which is more than Papeete’s pass. The southern pass once harbored the atoll’s first village, Teamanu, where Maria O Te Hau still stands, one of the oldest churches in French Polynesia and the first one built in the Tuamotus.
Feeling the spirit of a Robinson Crusoe
The coral ring comprising the atoll sits atop the summit of an underwater volcanic cone, 1,170 m (3,838ft) above the ocean floor. Fakarava, which shelters an amazing array of marine fauna and flora, is an actual sanctuary. In 1977, the tiny neighboring atoll of Taiaro was recognized as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) biosphere reserve. Over time, Fakarava was added to the biosphere reserve list as well as five nearby atolls: Aratika, Kauehi, Niau, Raraka and Toau. Each has its distinctive qualities as far as size, shape, its opening onto the sea, population and types of activities. These elements bestow a unique character onto Fakarava’s biosphere reserve group of atolls. The local people are engaged in sustainable development of the islands such as tourism and managing the natural resources they depend on, such as pearl farming and fishing.
It was erected in 1874 entirely out of coral. As a true paradise, Tumakohua, another name for this southern pass, is a prime diving spot. Divers come from all over the world to admire the extremely abundant marine life. The protected coral radiates magnificence. The enchanting dives are thrilling due to encounters with hundreds of sharks. In French Polynesia, these species are strictly protected. They are the kings of the passes who have no use for divers, whom they must consider to be funny-looking fish who make lots of bubbles! They are much more interested in the thousands of marbled loaches (grouper) that gather every June to reproduce in a glorious ballet that literally camouflages the entire underwater reef. Nature and travel channels all over the world often cover this little-known phenomenon.
The main village of Fakarava is Rotoava. Located to the north, it is home to about 850 people, which is most of the population. There are three small shops that sell necessities, a post office, a town hall, an elementary school (further schooling takes place in Tahiti or Rangiroa), pearl boutiques, a pharmacy, a few tourism activity providers and three restaurants. So far, Fakarava does not have a large hotel; but family-owned guest inns provide lodging. These small establishments do not offer all the amenities of a four star hotel, but they enable direct and friendly interactions with the locals. They have delicious local cuisine (grilled fish, poisson cru, sea food, and more). Guests sleep in charming little bungalows along the lagoon. It is very calming to feel the spirit of Robinson Crusoe while falling asleep to the rhythm of tiny waves lapping the sand just a few yards away.
Arrival in paradise
Three birds pounce frantically in and out of the sea spray looking for prey. At sea in the tropics, birds are a sign that land is near. Right then on the horizon, an island slowly appears in the salty drizzle from the waves of the reef. We can make out the shadowy silhouette of tiny coconut leaves dancing in the breeze. However, it is not really an island but an atoll since the soil is entirely comprised of coral. Still called schooners by the Polynesians—probably as a nostalgic reference to the times of sailing ships—small freighters leave from Papeete to replenish the atolls in the Tuamotus along a 1,500 km stretch (932 mi) east of Tahiti. The Maeva Nui left the agitation of the Papeete harbor five days ago loaded with freight. As we get closer to the reef, an old lighthouse shaped like an Incan temple peaks out between the coconut trees. Built in 1957 under the urging of the director of public works Madame Degage-Taui, Topaga lighthouse at 27m high (90 ft) had its own particular function. It was meant to be lit only in times of emergency, such as during medical evacuations. A large fire was lit at the top so neighboring islands could see it and send help.
The red and blue hull of the schooner makes its way through the channel of Garuae pass before entering Fakarava lagoon. The freighter will dock in just a few minutes. Sailors will unload the cargo and bring burlap bags onboard filled with local copra. Copra, or “the gold of the Tuamotus,” is dried coconut meat, the heartbeat of the atoll. The inhabitants spend several days in the “sector”— which refers to the areas on the atoll around the main village—where they fill bags stamped with the famous logo “Huilerie de Tahiti.” This intense labor takes place under the scorching Tuamotu sun.
A delightful encounter with a pretty smile
Another place and other scenes: at the airport, the energy is just as palpable. A plane filled with tourists just landed. As we exit the small aerodrome building, we are warmly welcomed by a sweet hot breeze that wraps around us like cotton. A feeling of well-being stays with each visitor. Some people say that a sojourn to the rhythm of the Tuamotus is therapeutic indeed. A convoy of cars bound for the family guest inns in the village leaves the airport. This is daily rush hour in Fakarava. About a dozen vehicles filled with visitors pass in front of Mahia’s house. In Fakarava, the colors of the lagoon are enough to take your breath away and the locals perfect this decor with their kindness and charm. They are never stingy when it comes to telling the history of their island either.
Every day, Mahia Varas, 82, watches all the people pass by and smiles at each one. She is rarely alone. Her family and friends come to see her daily. A giant tropical almond tree (Terminalia catappa) has towered over her land all her life. The tree is 350 years old and is one of the oldest and largest trees in the Tuamotu Archipelago. With an amused smile, Mahia says, “This tree witnessed me grow up, but I never saw it grow!” Perhaps in the Tuamotus more than anywhere else, the trees run the test of time and are part of islander life. There is not enough superficiality or modernity here to disrupt the love and connection that humans have with nature. It offers them almost everything they need. Recently, Mahia saw the construction of a traditional boat-building site next to her house. Boat builders created a large paumotu sailing canoe (paumotu is the Tahitian word for something that comes from the Tuamotu islands). This was an ambitious yet realistic community project. Mahia navigated a sailing canoe when she was a young girl in order to fetch copra from “the sector.” She was peperu – which means she was the one who steered the boat. Her sisters made up the rest of the crew. “It was a woman’s deal,” she mused. She was 17 the last time she sailed on this type of craft.
Fakarava: a biosphere reserve recognized by UNESCO.
Fakarava is one of seven atolls—and the largest as far as land mass and population—that make up the biosphere reserve that carries its name. This reserve, the pride and joy of the inhabitants, covers 2,682 km2 /1,035 sq. mi of land and sea area and has 1,500 residents of which 850 live on Fakarava. This reserve includes the neighboring atolls of Aratika, Kauehi, Niau, Raraka, Taiaro and Toau. This vast area reconciles environmental protection and the development of human activities. During pre-European times, long before the creation of this reserve, the concepts of a biosphere and preservation were already a reality, although they were not described or thought of in modern scientific terms. At the time, humans were well aware that the environment was fragile and its preservation was vital since the lagoon was a major source of food. People practiced rähui, which refers to leaving areas of the sea unexploited in order to allow time for species in the lagoon to regenerate. The village was not sedentary and it moved to the rhythm of the rähui over four different sectors.
A bit of history…
Human population of Fakarava, and more specifically the Tuamotus, dates back more than a thousand years. This settlement occurred due to great navigations aboard double-hulled canoes. The voyagers most certainly arrived from Southeast Asia. In early A.D., they began to occupy the islands of the South Pacific one by one in a west/east direction. Later, the first outsider to mention the atoll was Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen on July 17, 1820. He named it Wittgenstein Island. During the first half of the 19th century, what is now known as French Polynesia became the site of a power struggle between English and French colonizers and Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In September 1842, benefiting from both the absence of the Consul of Great Britain in Tahiti, George Pritchard, and the limited interest of the British Crown in these small, remote islands, the French admiral Dupetit-Thouars orchestrated a coup supported by his warships and managed to establish Tahiti as a French protectorate. This display of power resulted in tension between England and France. Pritchard was a pastor and missionary with a deep aversion to Catholicism, and to alleviate his rage, France named an endemic palm tree after him called the Prichardier. At least this is the legend in the Tuamotus. The French protectorate allowed Catholic missionaries the freedom to extend their influence. A missionary named Père Laval arrived in Fakarava in 1849 and converted the population to Catholicism.
Once the population had used up one sector, then elders determined it was time to find more abundant areas. These areas were rotated. Since planted regions were left untouched, the people returned to harvest them months later once they arrived full circle. Taro, a nutritious tuber in tropical regions, was consumed all throughout French Polynesia. Fakarava taro was very reputable because it was grown in brine, which gave it a hint of salt that Polynesians at the time truly appreciated. Today, tämanu oil is produced in Fakarava. To the north, there is only one couple, Terai and Tepoe, who practice this activity. Once the nuts are shelled, they are dried then pressed to expel the therapeutic oil. This oil is used in traditional medicine for massages and to heal scabs. Its properties are well-known and it is even called the “magic oil.”
Today, Fakarava is 80 % Catholic and 20 % Mormon, which is a religion that arrived 20 years after the Catholics. Both religions share the same cemetery. Rotoava’s first church was made of coral in 1896 before being replaced in 1951 with the current beautiful Catholic Church with its red roof and bright coral whitewashed walls. The Mormon temple is located at the entrance of the village close to the port. The first village on the atoll, Tetamanu, was built to the south. In 1820, there were about 375 inhabitants. By the end of the 19th century, it became evident that another part of the island would be better suited to building a village since it offered more protection from bad weather. This area is where Rotoava currently stands. The administration buildings in Rotoava date back to this period. Their relatively modern and solid appearance shows how Fakarava was an important center for commerce in the region due to the lagoon, which allows all kinds of ships to securely moor. Now, it is mostly yachts on tours around the world on their way from the Marquesas that moor in front of the village.
At nightfall, the lights from their masts blend with the starry sky, creating a lovely show under the full moon. Fakarava has everything visitors hope to find once they set foot on the island, such as tranquility magnificent scenery. The locals are kind and welcoming. They offer activities and excursions that will be cherished for a lifetime. Further, there will be the passionate conversations between fellow voyagers. Far away from the hustle and bustle of the world, the harmonious coral ring delicately posed on the Pacific truly reflects Fakarava’s gentle nature and leaves no one untouched. The shades of deep blue that inspired Matisse and other artists will leave such an impression that you will never forget this life experience across the water between the sky and the sea.
Va'a Motu project
The Va’a Motu project aims to reintroduce traditional sailing canoes onto the Tuamotu lagoons, starting with Fakarava. This particular craft disappeared more than fifty years ago with the arrival of motor boats. This project began in Fakarava in 2011 following an encounter between Ato Lissant, a Paumotu, and Julien Girardot, a Breton. They created the Association Va’a Motu along with Vaiete Bodin and Gahina Bordes in order to raise the necessary funds. The association intends to build functional sailing canoes. It took three years to get the money together. Construction of the first canoe began April 15, 2015 in the heart of the village of Rotoava, reviving an ancient maritime tradition. Builders followed the plans of Nicolas Gruet, a naval architect in Papeete. Gruet designed this canoe based on the technical specifications written by a committee of elders who were the only ones to have known, built, and sailed during the belle époque of the sailing canoe. Alexandre Genton, foreman of the construction site and reputed sailing va’a builder (va’a ta’ie in Tahitian) and other water sports vessels, trained two young men from the atoll in modern construction techniques. An important aspect of this project is to bring professional training to local young people which creates a strong sense of community involvement. This teaching element started in Rotoava’s school. Each class regularly visits the site to ask questions and to learn the history of the sailing canoe while waiting to climb onboard with professional sailors. They will learn to sail the craft a few months from now. The canoe, which is a true evolution of the traditional Paumotu pirogue, should be ready to set sail in early July. Afterwards, an original scientific team from all over the world will use this distinctive boat to produce a 3D mapping of the colonies of coral and other delicate areas of the lagoon, such as the passes. This is going to be the first time in the world that this kind of work will have been accomplished using a traditional local sailing craft. Tourists will not be left out. They will be able to explore the lagoon in a unique way, through natural, pollution-free sailing on a craft that is 100% Polynesian. One of the main goals of this project is to successfully reconcile all these programs to create a versatile tool in harmony with the principles of a biosphere reserve. The association is already thinking ahead to build more small sailing canoes in order to create a traditional Polynesian sailing center. Currently, the Va’a Motu project has 26 financial, technical and institutional affiliates. Among them are the French Polynesian Ministry of Culture and the Aires Marines Protégées de France via Explore (Marine protected areas of France) and an endowment fund created by Roland Jourdain, a famous navigator and two-time winner of the Route du Rhum. You can visit the boat-building site, which is located in the heart of the village about a hundred yards from the port. Any local would be delighted to show you the way. You can also bring it up to the family guest innkeepers who would be thrilled to talk to you about the sailing pirogue and even take you there.