The absolute perfection of its scenery and the friendliness of its welcoming inhabitanats make of this atoll an execeptional destination. There, in the heart of the Tuamotu Archipelago and its unique coral islands, a new world is to be discovered.
At first, as far as you look, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. Then under the wings of the plane a succession of crowns appears, placed on the sea, a striking vision, so typical of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Quickly the largest of them sticks out from the scenery, a large elongated atoll where incomparable blue colors shine. Welcome to Makemo! This atoll is located in the center of the vast Tuamotu Archipelago, which extends over 1,300 km from east to west and includes 78 islands. This area is an exceptional human and environmental treasure. The archipelago includes a “high” island, Makatea, and 77 atolls among the some 425 identified on the surface of the planet. It is therefore one of the largest ensembles of this type in the world. These islands, including Makemo, are the remains of a huge mountain range of volcanic origin, which in ancient times, crossed the waters of the Pacific. Of the peaks and hills of this gigantic structure, whose formation dates back millions of years, nothing remains at the surface, except the coral formations that once lined the shores of the islands. Living structures making up these graceful shapes over the ocean. Located 500 km north-east of the island of Tahiti and stretching over 70 km long with a width ranging from a few kilometers to about 15 km, Makemo is the third largest atoll of the archipelago. The area of the lagoon exceeds 800 km2. For comparison, this is almost twice the size of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Two passes, a few meters to several dozens meters deep, open this inland sea to the Ocean: Arikitamiro on the northeast and Tikaraga on the west side. These communicating areas let large vessels enter in the atoll for refueling, including, even, cruise ships. At the end of the first millennium, Makemo and the entire archipelago was probably populated by Polynesians during their great settlement migrations to the islands forming the current French Polynesia. In this archipelago, they developed a civilization well adapted to this very special environment. Outstanding navigators, these early inhabitants were able to maintain trade within the Tuamotu but also with other archipelagos of French Polynesia. In 1802, the shores of Makemo were seen for the first time by a European. In 1853, the archipelago and Makemo fell under the French colonial rule. In parallel, the missionaries crisscrossed these islands to convert people to Christianity.
Of this religious presence in the nineteenth century today remain constructions with specific architectures made of coral and lime. Visitors can also discover in Makemo the finest examples this heritage such as St. Joseph’s Church built in the late nineteenth century, one of the oldest on this archipelago. But above all, religious and colonial administration strongly encouraged the development of sustainable copra cultivation, thus changing the landscape of the atoll and making the coconut tree the king tree of its scenery! Today, Makemo is home to approximately 800 people settled mainly in the village of Pouheva along the Arikitamiro pass. In the years 1990 and 2000, the atoll has benefited from the development of pearl farming, but this activity has entered a difficult phase. Suddenly, fishing and copra cultivation resumed an important role in the economy of the island. Tourism is also growing as the atoll offers an environment of exceptional beauty. The island even has a diving center to let you discover its underwater flora and fauna. A little away from the main tourist routes, Makemo is a lesser known little gem, which now wants to shine in the eyes of the world!
The Quest for Perfection
In 1926, after a long journey that brought him from the North Atlantic to the islands of Polynesia, French navigator Alain Gerbault, reached the shores of the atoll of Makemo. He was “Chasing the Sun”, the poetic and maritime purpose of his journey and the title of a famous book that inspired him for his solo adventure aboard his small sailboat the Firecrest. The adventurer fell under the spell of Makemo, which for him, was “the atoll of perfection.” A feeling that any visitor will share as being justified. And like, Alain Gerbault, you must go and chase the Sun to discover such perfection.
Symphony of Colors
We head first to the eastern tip of the island, in Tepohue for an encounter with a place with almost supernatural beauty, where sea, land and sky merge in a stunning symphony of colors and lights! Fading little by little from its deep blue color, the lagoon reveals an unparalleled palette of blues and turquoises. Complementing the spectacle, the motu and coconut trees appear as a backdrop whose green color contrast perfectly with the blue sky. The sand is adorned with gradient pink and red, unique colors due to microorganisms growing in these particularly warm and shallow waters, the Foraminifera. A wonderful creation shaped over time by the accumulation, at this end of the atoll, of coral sands and sediments continuously transported by the main swells. A scenery specific to the Tuamotus. Such magic can also be found in other atolls of the archipelago, always at the south and east tips, but in Makemo, the work shaped by nature throughout millions of years attains here perfection.
A few steps from the shore, a magnificent natural “pool” was formed by nature with deliciously natural turquoise waters. A channel seems to connect it to deeper areas of the lagoon. A wonderful place where dreams and legends get together in the stories transmitted by the keepers of the history of the island. In ancient times, a Makemo “sorcerer” had the power to attract whales in this large basin, unfortunately to have them meet with a fatal end. But this sacrifice was useful because the fat and flesh of the animals represented sizeable resources to feed the community. Today, – of course – we no longer kill whales in Makemo – but because they can be observed, as these majestic marine mammals can frequently be seen inside the lagoon. During the “austral winter,” they come there to find peace and quiet.
Forces of Nature
Leaving this place, and continuing on our way, we head due east through a magnificent sea path along the reef. Here, no more motu, only a coral reef where the ocean swells come to break. The mix of the water, light and rocks with amazing colors, shape this colorful and wide area. This impressive scenery extends over sixty kilometers, in fact over the entire length of the atoll’s south coast. Again, this scenery tells us about the dominant forces of nature because this part of the coast is more exposed to the prevailing waves. Their power does not allow the accumulation of sand and rubbles that forms the motu. They have found refuge in the exact opposite side, on the north-east coast,, where they form a long strip of land, sixty kilometers long. This is where the inhabitants of the atoll live. But as any rule has an exception, two small motu appear halfway there. Surrounded by turquoise waters and crowned with coconut trees growing on bright white sand, they are the perfect representation of what a tropical paradise looks like in everybody’s mind! A paradise frequented by many: the people of Makemo on weekends or during the holidays. Many are coming there to embark for picnics and to enjoy the beauty of the place. Pouheva village is located across the other side of the lagoon, only a few minutes by boat.
And indeed, it is time to get across the lagoon and head toward the quiet village. The church tower is a landmark for more convenient navigation. Also a wide gap appears in this horizon, the Arikitamiro pass. It is one of the two lungs of the atoll that connects the ocean waters and those of the lagoon. Saliors fear the currents that are created there and the phenomenon of waves created by the movement of huge masses of water entering or leaving the atoll depending on the tide. This spectacular phenomenon gives to the water all the appearance of a mighty river. Fishermen come to sail there to fish at dusk. They skillfully weave between currents and waves while the sun, setting on the horizon, bathes the surrounding scenery in a warm orange light. But the spectacle here is under water, because the pass is the place where the tides sometimes provide clear and renewed waters from the ocean, sometimes those are the richest in marine micro-organisms in the lagoon. A perpetual motion beneficial to all underwater species who gather there, from the largest to the smallest. In this meeting place intersect and coexist schools of jackfishes, mullets and kopa and even manta rays. An underwater world full of life where man goes diving with utmost respect. They are among the most famous in the whole archipelago because of the abundance of their marine life.
Let us leave this underwater world to continue still further West. After passing the shores of the village and its dock, we pass along a series of motu. Over more than fifty kilometers, it is a succession of idyllic sceneries alternating motu and hoa, passages connecting the shallow lagoon to the ocean. Makemo can boast to have the most beautiful motu in the archipelago with vast white sandy beaches shaded by coconut trees, once again, the perfect representation of a tropical “paradise”. While the boat speeds on the lagoon’s waters, the scenery changes without the viewer ever getting bored by the mix of light playing with the shades of colors in the panorama. A stop is a must however, on one of the most beautiful, Motu Punaruku. A certain solemnity adds to the beauty of the place, because this site is the location of the old village. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was abandoned in favor of Pouheva site. Of this ancient human presence what only remains are coral and lime structures of the former chapel and of what was once a prison. Further, a grave bears a date: 1927. The place is enchanting, so why was it abandoned? In the stories of the ancients, it is mentioned that leprosy hit the place in the late nineteenth century. Marked with the stigma of the terrible disease, it was permanently abandoned by the inhabitants of the atoll. A sad story that is hard to imagine today, when one’s head is full of visions of this beautiful place. As to leprosy, in our countries, it is trapped in the history books.
Legends and Sirens
Still further west, the scenery takes on yet another, even wilder, dimension,. We are now at the end of the atoll, Tikaraga pass. South of the pass after a series of motu, appears Motu Vaigatika, one of the largest and most beautiful of the island. When we first get closer, corals emerge from the water as this is low tide. They dot the small bay, punctuating the turquoise water with their bright colors. A long strip of sand adds a flash of almost blinding light in this panorama. But motu Vaigatika is also host to one of the most singular sites on the atoll, the Komo Mokorea, the “Hole of the Sirens.” A small briny body of water, lost in the middle of a coconut grove. A freshwater pond whose presence is rather strange in this world of coral and ocean. A geological curiosity, whose secret is indeed difficult to pierce, but also a place of legend. Don’t we say that this place was frequented by Sirens in ancient times? … The legend is beautiful, ideally complementing the pleasant visions of Makemo, this land of feeling good and perfection, the goals we all pursue, and here accessible to everyone .