Soft, verdant landscapes, perfect for walking, a lagoon that descends into a palette of infinite blues, and a historic past that is nearly tangible through exceptional period architecture – this is the Gambier, islands that are the fruit of a unique and fascinating alchemy. Visit this archipelago and it’s people who never hesitate to unveil the treasures of their lands.
Situated more than 1,600 km southeast of Tahiti along the Tuamotu ridge, the Gambier archipelago is the most distant and least populated island group In French Polynesia; there are just under 1,000 inhabitants. Composed of several high islands enclosed within the same coral reef, Mangareva is the largest island in the archipelago and houses more than 80% of the population. The village of Rikitea acts as the capital. Mangareva means “the mountain where the reva grows,” the reva being a plant that is as beautiful as it is poisonous. Yet the name can also be translated as “the floating mountain.” This is really what Mangareva looks like if one is coming from the Tuamotu atolls where the land scarcely rises above the ocean. The climate is cooled by trade winds and the heat rarely has the chance to settle in. With flourishing flora and fauna, the Gambier is blessed with natural riches but they have one more: pearls. Farming the oysters of the lagoon and creating pearls is how most of the archipelago earn their living.
In Mangareva, it’s a pleasure to stroll along the little coral road that encircles the island. Sometimes the route becomes little more than a simple trail of coral gravel. The road leads to different monuments that house the symbols of the singular history of the Gambier. The archipelago was populated around 1200 BC during a wave of Polynesian immigrants who left the Marquesas Islands. After this, the island had little contact with the outside world until 1834 when the Catholic missionaries, Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Picpus, arrived. This date marked the birth of the first catholic mission in Polynesia. Honore Laval, the head of the mission, is responsible for the construction of a multitude of religious edifices built between 1836 and 1871. The biggest and oldest monument in French Polynesia, the colossal Saint Michel’s Cathedral in Rikitea (1841), can welcome around 1,200 worshippers, which today is about the entire population of the Gambier! The interior is filled with beautiful works of mother of pearl encrusted wood carvings.
The list of walks seems never ending: view points and cross-mountain trails help make a visit to this island become beyond fantastic if you take the time to follow them. To discover other islands in the Gambier, a boat tour is the ideal solution. This archipelago has the particularity to be entirely within the same lagoon and all the islands are very close to one another. The island of Aukena is a jewel. Thick and luminous jungle encloses interesting sites such as an ancient bread oven, a lime making oven for white wash, the ruins of the father’s college, a look out tower and more. The beaches are a slice of paradise with their long stretches of fine sand that are fringed with luxuriant tropical vegetation. A few kilometers from here, is the island of Akamaru where time seems to have blatantly stopped.
Very few people have had the privilege to search and discover these magic islands. The countryside and traditions have been kept uncommonly preserved by the sheer isolation of the archipelago. In the Gambier visitors are never treated like passing tourists and the locals make every effort to make sure new comers feel welcomed. To the contrary, one is welcomed into the small, dynamic community to share and make exchanges. By becoming immediately integrated into village life, one is plunged into an atmosphere of serenity and quickly gets to know about all that makes the Gambier turn: pearl farmers, fishermen, bakers, priests and even young artists who are learning the art of carving the native mother of pearl. Yet the discoveries of the visitors are nothing compared to all the little details and habits that govern the way of life of this tiny, distant archipelago. The gulf is big but settling in comes naturally.
Right near today’s mayor’s office, one finds the Saint Anne Chapel with its obsolete charm, and then, at the waters edge is “the king’s land” that today is occupied by the primary school. The rest of the historic structures, such as some little stone look out towers with conical roofs, make up an architectural collection that looks entirely out of place on a Polynesian island. In the hills of Mangareva the little cemetery is dominated by the imposing tomb of King Maputeoa. All the monuments in the Gambier are painted in blue and white, the colors of this king. Other than the numerous sites to visit, there are many various walks and hikes on Mangareva. The climb to Mt Auorotini (also called Mt Duff), to an elevation of 441 meters, is simply splendid. From the peak is an un-forgettable 360 degree view that plunges down and across to the bays of Mangareva and the surrounding islands. The translucent blue tones of the lagoon down to the bottom of the ocean create nuances of color that seem surreal. The trail of the 12 apostles begins at the ruins of the Rouru convent (which in its day housed over 80 disciples) and leads to a magnificent white sand beach.
A majestic avenue of coconut palms leads to a little church, called Our Lady of Peace that was built in 1841. It’s noticeable that the two towers are different heights. Father Laval built the church this way on purpose to remind him of the Chartres cathedral not far from his home village in France. For reasons of generosity or aesthetics, the Virgin Mary in this church wears a magnificent strand of pearls. The climb to the cross, which is a pilgrimage for the Mangarevans, is not to be missed. The view over Magareva and Aukena is enchanting with its silhouettes and harmonious contours sitting over the lagoon which descends into blues that could make the greatest impressionists tremble . . . The immense lagoon of the archipelago is also a place to discover incredible underwater fauna, which is as rich as it is well preserved. Find true happiness with a swim with a mask and snorkel. But this sort of happiness is what you’ll take with you after visiting this dream-like archipelago.