At the heart of the Austral archipelago exists a small island with preserved nature and varied and exceptional landscapes. A charming and welcoming island that is sure to enchant its visitors as soon as they set foot upon its shores.
Situated at less than 600 km/373 miles to the southeast of Tahiti, Rurutu is the northernmost island in the Austral archipelago. Here visitors will find incredibly diverse landscapes and a unique geology. The sheer cliffs along the coastline represent a safe harbor for numerous species of birds, and are interrupted here and there by beautiful sandy beaches and enchanting little creeks that make for the perfect romantic getaway. It is believed that Rurutu became populated by Polynesians sometime around 1000 A.D during the migration and settlement of the islands in Oriental Polynesia (including all the islands we know today as French Polynesia). Nevertheless it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that a more constant contact with the Europeans was established. On August 25th 1900, the island was annexed by the French colonial government and became part of the islands of modern-day French Polynesia. Today Rurutu’s 2000 inhabitants live in the three main villages—Moerai, Avera and Auti— that are situated along the coastline. Apart from the main road that runs across the island, the island is covered with paths and tracks that are great for hiking by foot or with a horse. You can make your way through wild and luxurious vegetation—observing numerous endemic species—to discover amazing lookout points and other sites.
The Cave-Dweller’s Island
Rurutu grew out of the ocean over the ages as a result of persistent underwater volcanic activity or so-called “hot spots.” A first hot spot created an island and as the island drifted with the continental plate and passed over the next hot spot, millions of years later, it was literally lifted dozens of meters. This cataclysmic shift beneath the surface of the ocean led to the transformation of Rurutu’s fringing reef and coastal sea cliffs which are riddled with caves. Over time the forces of erosion have remodeled the basaltic and calcareous coastline creating a sight that is nothing short of spectacular. It is well worth it to take the time to visit Rurutu’s caves, because they are full of incredible concretions of peculiar shapes and forms. In ancient times people lived in these caves. The exact number of caves is not known—dozens, if not hundreds of caves exist here—, but some lie out of reach and have yet to be discovered. According to legend one of the caves holds a treasure. It is said that when the missionaries arrived in 1821 the island’s king hid numerous sacred familial objects in a cave by the Matonaa cliffs, and that a single guardian knew the way to the cave. The secret of the location of the cave was handed down from father to son until the last guardian named Otare took the secret to his grave. The hunt for the treasure continues!
He managed to hit the second mountain with several spears that he linked together and therefore named it Taatioe, meaning “attached together.” A single spear hit the third mountain, and when he went to fetch his spear he found a little bird sitting on it. As he took the spear, the bird took flight, and so he decided to name the mountain Manureva, meaning “the bird that takes flight.” As he thought he was done with this process of naming the mountains, he simply named the last mountain he came across that day for Erai or “the end.” But as the night fell, the demi-god needed light and he called the mountain where he found light Taurama, “the torch.” So goes the legend about the five most famous mountains on the island of Rurutu. You can visit the mountains hiking by foot or on horseback. At the southernmost point of the island lies the former volcano of Naairoa which has, over time, partially covered the ancient cliffs. The lava rock flows drop down into the lagoon making for beautiful valleys and bays that hide white sandy beaches. The Toataratara beach is probably the most stunning of them all.
The Me festivities in May each year have the aim of raising funds for the Evangelical church. The congregation meets three Sundays in a row, once in each village. From 6am to midnight, or sometimes even to the next morning, they pray, sing and have a feast. After an entire night dedicated to the himene tarava—religious polyphonic songs—which touch even the most atheistic of souls—the women close the ceremony with a series of dances with handheld fans dedicated to Jesus. Then it is time for the open house ceremony. The custom of the open house parade is unique to Rurutu, and was introduced by a priest at the beginning of the 20th century. It takes place twice a year, in January and May. The local inhabitants open the doors of their homes—which have been freshly painted for the occasion—and everyone is welcome, be they passers-by just visiting Rurutu, or other inhabitants of the island. As visitors enter, they are sprinkled with talcum and perfume, eliciting laughter and smiles. No one is allowed to leave without having tasted the various dishes of ma’a (food in Tahitian) that has been generously placed on a table by the door. It seems that everyone on this authentic island is generous and welcoming!
Rurutu is also known for its varied agriculture which is cultivated on a large part of the island’s fertile land: cabbage, salad and potatoes grow here, as well as more traditional Polynesian plants, such as manioc and taro. Pleasing not only to the eyes, but also to the palate, you can find coffee plantations as well as banana, orange and coconut trees. The numerous pandanus plantations supply the local artisans —called mama—who can often be seen working with great dexterity creating the renowned Polynesian pandanus baskets, mats and more. Adding to the geological richness and the island’s fascinating landscapes, Rurutu is the perfect place to see the humpback whales. Before heading back to the ice-cold waters of the Antarctic, the whales come to reproduce in the Pacific Ocean’s crystalline and temperate waters. From July to October you can observe the whales from any of the especially designated lookout points that can be found along Rurutu’s coastline. Or maybe you decide you’d rather take an even closer look, and go swimming alongside these impressive animals?
The Te Ana Ae’o is another noteworthy cave. When French President François Mitterrand visited Rurutu in 1990 in order to make the financing of the road that goes across the island from Moerai to Avera official, he attended a typical Polynesian show with traditional dance and singing in this cave, and the cave has carried his name ever since. Some of the caves can be visited simply by hiking along the coastline, whereas it is better to visit others —such as the ones at Mauo point—with a guide who can tell you about all the legends related to these caves. Another famous legend is the one about the mountain summits of Rurutu, which—if we are to believe the oral tradition—were named by the demi-god “Iro-i-te-pu-mana-tu” who was said to reign over Rurutu in ancient times. In order to name the mountains he threw his spears from the village of Avera. Since he failed to hit the first mountain, he called it Teapa which means “the mountain of error.”
Between Religion and Traditions
80% of the population in Rurutu is Protestant. As opposed to most of the islands in French Polynesia which were evangelized by priests of Anglo-Saxon origin, Rurutu was evangelized by Polynesian priests coming from Raiatea. As a result the observance of the Protestant faith in Rurutu goes hand in hand with the observance of ancient Polynesian traditions. The Tere is an example of an ancient tradition that is upheld each year at the beginning of the year. The inhabitants get together in a sort of exceptional convoy and do a “tour of the island” either by foot, on horseback or by car. An orator—orero in Tahitian—takes the lead declaiming ancient legends and the history of the various places they pass to the beat of the drum. At each stop the elders reminisce, the youngsters listen and learn and the strong ones compete against each other in stone-lifting competitions. Stone-lifting is an ancient Polynesian sport which involves carrying stones as heavy as 150kg/330 lbs on ones shoulders. In ancient times the sport also represented a rite of passage into adulthood or was used as a demonstration and measure of power between clans.
In ancient times this species that belongs to the Araceae family was one of the most valuable products of consumption that the tribes in Rurutu had. Stealing taro from a neighboring clan was punishable by death and could be the source of bloody tribal wars. To this day, each plot of land cultivated with taro belongs to a family and is passed on from generation to generation. In the tropics, and particularly in the Austral Islands, the seasons don’t differentiate much from one another and therefore taro can be cultivated here all year round. In Rurutu the taro root—which is simply boiled in hot water—accompanies almost every meal. While taro can be compared to the daily bread of other cultures, it is also eaten in a variety of other forms: taro that has been boiled, mashed by the help of a penu (pestle) and left to ferment is made into po’e, a sweet dessert that is often eaten with coconut milk. Another, less traditional way to enjoy taro is to make taro French fries. The young leaves of the plant are reminiscent of a local variation of spinach, called fafa.
Finally, all they have to do is wait 8-15 months for the crops to be ready! If the plots are too big for one man to handle, the cultivators make use of an old custom called pupu, which involves exchanging work-hours, and helping each other out on the bigger plots. Pupu is a great example of how taro cultivation is a part of community life, and an important aspect of the island’s heritage. Along with fishing and pig farming, taro cultivation enables Rurutu to continue to be self-sufficient with regards to food.
In order to thrive, taro need a lot of water. It is found growing primarily in the humid areas close to the island’s three main villages, or in the valley of Paparai. An ingenious system of irrigation channels have been dug out through the plots of land where taro is being grown in order to irrigate each plot properly. One of the biggest and most beautiful taro plots lies in Te Vai Avai not far from the village of Avera. Here you can admire the men from the village at work in the taro fields all day long. Taro cultivation is hard work and has traditionally been reserved for the men. After turning the soil they cover the entire surface of the plot with palm and banana leafs. The leaves—which serve as a sort of natural compost— help to conserve the humidity of the soil and also prevent unwanted weeds from growing. To plant the taro, the men use a wooden dibble to make holes in the soil, and then place the taro bulbs in them.
Numerous hikes are possible on the island whether you are a beginner or an experienced climber. You can explore Rurutu with a guide on half- or full-day excursions by foot, horse or safari-style with a 4×4. For the brave it is possible to rent a car or a bicycle and go without a guide. In either case Rurutu has many sites worth visiting such as the numerous caves with their stalagmites and stalactites, beautiful hillsides covered in luxurious vegetation, or Rurutu’s fine sandy beaches.
The Cannibal with Nimble Fingers
“Rua o’ina”(Ina’s cave) is a small cave located to the west of Mount Manureva. It is said that a cannibal woman named Ina lived here. As the story goes, when children came to cut the ru’i (assort of reed) to make torches or fishing poles out of them, Ina captured the children to eat them. One night she caught two young boys and brought them back to her den. She sung, and the boys began dancing, but their gestures made her laugh. She laughed so hard that the boys took advantage of the moment and escaped. When the boys told the villagers what had happened they all set out to try to catch her. They made a trap out of nape (a net made out of coconut fibers) and captured Ina. The king imprisoned her and after a while she died of hunger. In the depths of her cave you can find finely woven pandanus mats and other objects which continue to inspire the women of Rurutu, who are experts in the art of weaving.