At only one-hour flight from the island of Tahiti, the small Mataiva atoll is one of the underrated gems of the Tuamotu Archipelago. An exceptional journey.
Arrival by plane already creates an unforgettable moment. Set into the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean, this jewel stands out. Seen from the sky, a circle of greenery appears, surrounded by a lagoon flecked with blues, turquoises, emeralds and greens. This is a palette that even the most brilliant of painters would have trouble recreating. Welcome to Mataiva!
This is a striking vision with which to enter the unique world of the Tuamotu Archipelago, to which the island of Mataiva belongs. It is the largest of the five archipelagoes that make up French Polynesia. Right in the heart of the South Pacific, this set of islands stretches from the northwest to the southeast, 300-1600 km/186-995 mi from Papeete. With the notable exception of Makatea, all the land is comprised of atolls, making the Tuamotus one of the largest coral archipelagoes in the world. Our world map identifies 425 atolls, of which 77, almost 20%, are located in the Tuamotus. The archipelago is therefore an exceptional natural heritage site of global significance. This is a perfect example of the work created by tectonic, oceanic and corallian forces throughout millions of years.
Warm and welcoming
Even though there is no formal archaeological evidence, Polynesians probably inhabited Mataiva, much like the rest of the Tuamotus, by the end of the first millennium during the vast installation movement that occurred throughout the islands now known as French Polynesia. Here, they developed a civilization that adapted to the ecosystem through developing techniques that managed the original marine and land resources. Many centuries later, European explorers “discovered” the Tuamotus, which were to them strange and foreign lands, since navigation was dangerous in this maze of low-lying islands. The Spaniard Quiros noted the presence of the atoll in 1606. Then it took two hundred years for the Europeans to again approach with their ventures. In 1820, the navigator Von Bellinghausen arrived on a Russian oceanographic mission.
Among all the atolls in the Tuamotus, Mataiva is unique. Its lagoon is considered reticulated, since it is formed out of 70 semi-deep pools separated by a network of coral structures that are flush with the surface. This unique feature results in a mosaic appearance unmatched throughout the country and makes this a place of extraordinary beauty. Nature provides a full-scale live show that one never tires of seeing. Water circulation takes place thanks to the hoa, the name given to shallow passes that connect the lagoon to the ocean and to Pahua pass located at the western end of the atoll. Ocean waters mainly penetrate the lagoon through the hoa and exit through Pahua pass where the current is always leaving. This is unique to the atoll, since in the passes, currents are usually against the tide.
From the beginning of the 20th century until around 1950, Mataiva was not permanently inhabited. For months at a time, people would come to the island from the neighboring atolls of Tikehau and Rangiroa to fish and harvest coconut trees. It was not until the 1950s that people started to permanently establish themselves in this paradise. The first school opened, which contributed to keeping the small community together. By the end of the 1970s, the island received an airstrip, which greatly facilitated exchanges with the outside. Today, Mataiva has about 270 residents. They live in the tiny village of Pahia, on the edge of the pass that carries the same name. Administratively, the township is an associated commune tied to Rangiroa, the large neighboring atoll located about 20 nautical miles away. Dynamic, warm, and welcoming, the population is working towards developing the island, while protecting it and preserving its lifestyle.
Some of the advantages of the island include fertility of the soil and vast land surfaces, which are both rare in the atolls. Agriculture and coprah-culture are main practices, but the population, aware of the island’s unique charm, is also working towards developing tourism. There are three family owned guest-boarding inns (pensions de familles). Residents want to take advantage of the fact that Mataiva is not far from Tahiti. The entire community is vested in making this human-sized atoll and endearing locale with its extraordinary setting more renowned. Building on tourism will allow them to ignore the abundance supplied by the immense reserves of mineral phosphates that lay dormant beneath the atoll and the lagoon. However, the mining that would have to take place in order to exploit this resource would definitely condemn this atoll and the current way of life due to the inevitable ecological and social upheavals it would create. One should not dig up one’s birth land, but rather be attached to it and share it. This is the choice made by the majority of Mataiva residents, a wise decision that will allow visitors to experience this unique Eden.
In Mataiva, the pass point is rather a false passage. Located in the village of Pahua and quite shallow, it is spanned by a bridge where residents like to meet and chat. Its shallow depth barely allows the passage of small boats. Fittingly, hoa comes from the origin of the island’s name, which means “nine eyes.” These nine eyes are the nine main hoa that act as landmarks for the atoll. There are eight hoa to the south and southeast that create the gorgeous settings that part of the atoll’s major charm. There aren’t any hoa on the vast north side of Mataiva, but there is a long stretch of land that is home to a magnificent coconut plantation. This morphology illustrates a common phenomenon in the atolls of the archipelago that has a simple explanation. Hoa mainly develop on the parts of atolls most exposed to dominant swells. The latter usually come from the south in this part of the Pacific Ocean
Hoa, a voyage within a voyage
There are places that offer an exceptional voyage to visitors. A stay at Mataiva is inconceivable without exploring the hoa that are scattered throughout the southern part of the atoll. Hoa is a Polynesian term for a shallow channel that connects the lagoon and the ocean. The water flows irregularly. Sometimes these hoa are dry or simply crossed by streams of water. When powerful swells surge on the coast however, the water can flow abundantly, transforming them into true rivers of seawater. This feature differentiates the hoa from passes, which are deeper and wider. In addition to their major environmental role, they are also of great importance for the island communities for they act as a conduit. They allow boats and ships, sometimes high-tonnage vessels, to pass from the ocean to the lagoon.
On the ocean side of the island, the hoa arise in ruggedly beautiful settings, marked by clusters and large slabs of dark-colored coral that the seawater pours over. Here, the sound of the surf is omnipresent. In contrast, on the lagoon side, the landscape changes constantly with channel outlets in the lagoon forming long strips of land and white sand beaches shaded with coconut palms. The water, sometimes translucent or emerald green, gives it an unparalleled touch. These are two very different worlds that coexist within a few hundred meters of each other. This contrast encompasses all the environmental complexity of atolls. On Mataiva, these hoa are distinguishable by their extraordinary length of several hundred meters as well as their unique beauty. Leaving the lagoon by boat to sail through these seawater channels is like navigating a river which is an usual sensation for an atoll. Thick vegetation covers the banks, and from under the hull, schools of fish look for food.
Among the hoa interspersed along the south coast, which is accessible by boat and by a dirt road that goes around the atoll, the most beautiful are incontestably the Hotu, Hitirari and Te Rua o Taho. Here, different family guest inns on the island have designated picnic places to enjoy this setting where the light plays with the colors of the water. Tropical pools nestled in coral have formed in calm areas. The people of Mataiva also like to visit these areas and bathe in the invigoratingly cool water. The eastern part of the atoll is on the edge of a hoa that is located by the remains of the Papiro marae. Aside from this feast for the eyes, we must not lose sight of the key role of the hoa within the unique ecosystem of an atoll. With the influx of water from the ocean, the hoa act as lungs for the lagoon that breathes through them. A rich fauna of shellfish and fish choose to live there. The residents have installed traps and fish parks that they frequently pick up. Place of life, a place of relaxation, the hoa in Mataiva provide a remarkable discovery for visitors to the islands.