At the heart of the Austral Islands, this place off the beaten paths, offers to its visitors to discover the many faces of Polynesian beauty. Between emerald green and azure blue, between plains and mountains, culture and nature, past and present, an unforgettable journey.
From the island of Tahiti, a few dozens minutes by plane are required to fly to the Austral Islands, which are, perhaps, the least known of the country’s five archipelagos, but they reserve some great surprises for you. Stretching over 850 kilometers and located on each side of the Tropic of Capricorn, between the 20th and 30th parallel, the five islands that compose it offer all the charms of Polynesia with the appeal of the high islands and the beauty of lagoons. Note that the Australs, the southern boundary of French Polynesia, are the last islands in the Pacific region before… Antarctica, which is at the edge of the world near the 70th parallel. Between the two, is the South Pacific Basin, with no land! A great distance and a long journey, that however, the humpback whales do not hesitate to travel all the way from Antarctic waters during the southern winter (July August and September) to hibernate in the archipelago’s warmer waters.
Here, in this “outpost” on the ocean, six thousand three hundred Polynesians live, representing barely 3% of the country’s population. These islanders have a distinct cultural identity and their own language, the Reo Tuha’a Pae, which is still spoken currently. They are spread over five islands: Rurutu, Rimatara, Raivavae, Rapa, and, of course, Tubuai. At first glance, Tubuai appears like a beautiful oval with shades of green, fringed by a spectacular azure band, in fact it is its lagoon, it is particularly wide, large and beautiful. The whole thing looks like it was delicately placed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as if it had appeared from nowhere. A striking vision, and an incentive to set foot on this 45 km2 piece of land.
Then after the explorers, the first missionaries, in this case the Protestants of the London Missionary Society arrived 40 years later, to this end of the world to tackle the conversion of the islanders. The “culture shock”, to use an anachronism, had dramatic consequences as it did in many other areas in the South Pacific. Among them was the appearance of diseases unknown to the islanders, but also the introduction of alcohol. While early explorers had counted, about 3,000 people on Tubuai in the late 18th century, only 300 remained a few years later. The traditional pre-European society collapsed under the weight of depopulation and the abandonment of old believes, which used to be a strong social bond. Then the island knew the same fate as its Polynesian neighbors and passed under French protectorate in 1842, before being annexed in June 1880. But with the entry into the 20th century, the population has been gradually recovering and what some thought was lost forever has been revived: traditions, histories, languages etc. Today, with 2,000 inhabitants, Tubuai is one of the most densely populated islands of the archipelago.
An exceptional environment
Tubuai, or rather Tupa’i, its real Polynesian name, was probably inhabited around the year one thousand, a time when the great Polynesian settlements were taking place in all the islands forming the present French Polynesia. Unfortunately, little data let us know more about the conditions and the exact dates of their arrival on this land so untouched by human presence. Nevertheless, the newcomers developed a complex society, very structured, very infused with religion and perfectly adapted to its environment. Dotting the island, the remains of mara’e – sacred places – and the knowledge passed down orally through generations, attest to this past today. Much later, in 1767, explorer Samuel Wallis observed for the first time the presence of the island. But the “discovery”, by Europeans, is to be credited to the famous Captain Cook. During his third Pacific voyage, he approached the island in August 1777.
It is the administrative center and therefore benefits from many facilities and services brought up by that legal status. Agriculture is the dominant activity of the island. With large flat surfaces, the topography lends itself very well to it, a rarity in our islands. A generous land, a just as generous large lagoon and a more temperate climate therefore make of Tubuai a beautiful garden of Eden to explore and to discover. Be aware however, that the climate may surprise the visitor who will have to plan to bring warm clothes, especially during the period June to September. But nonetheless be reassured, Antarctica is still very far away … And this particular climate, slightly cooler (average temperatures between 20 and 25° C throughout the year), is the most invigorating and conducive for activities such as hiking! Tourism is growing on the island, which has strong assets including an exceptional environment and also the riches of its historical sites. Pleasant hikes in the environment and the discovery of the culture are waiting for those who will head south to the Austral Islands and Tubuai!
Between Land and Sea
Visitors, from the top of this mountain, can contemplate all of Tubuai and its history! At 422 meters above sea level, Mount Taita’a, the island’s highest summit, offers to those who braved its slopes, a 360-degree view of the island. A panorama among the most beautiful in the country, which rewards the efforts of the climb. Looking for the best view, the hiker must squeeze through a maze of large blocks of volcanic rocks with sharp edges. These blocks are reminders of the island’s genesis, which like all the islands of French Polynesia, Tubuai is an ancient volcano. Ten to twelve million years ago, it emerged from the ocean floor before becoming extinct. Then it was shaped over time to its current appearance: a quiet island, surrounded by a large coral reef separating the ocean and the lagoon. Like an open book, this beautiful story unfolds to the hiker’s eyes. To the West, you can admire the mountain known as the “laying man”, culminating at 424 meters with Mount Hanareho. Shaped like a beautiful semicircle, it also reveals its volcanic origins, as these are the remains of a smaller volcano, which was active 9 million years before. But it’s time to get back home and hike through the little trail that follows the ridgeline between Mount Taita’a and Mount Panee, its nearest neighbor.
The “Big Green”
In several areas, the narrow trail plunges into abundant vegetation and one progress between two vegetal walls. Shrubs, mosses, lichens, and ferns of spectacular dimensions and strange shapes abound. The tropical sun has difficulty shining through this vegetation. A dive into “The Big Green”, far from the usual clichés and images of Polynesia, evokes more an Amazonian, if not a prehistoric forest. Yet the other Polynesia is not far. Taking advantage of an opening through the foliage, it reappears. Eastward you can see the vast lagoon and the motu, these islets of coral sand. One can easily imagine the sun, the white sand, the coconut trees, the clear water … Another world, another universe in such a small island … Then looking to the west, two large perfectly flat surfaces appear, a rare sight in our islands. They are not plains but marshes: Matavahi and Mihiura. They constitute one of the great peculiarities of the island, one of its riches with its specific flora.
As a result, and unlike on many Polynesian islands, the houses are not clustered but dispersed. No village then, but rather small groups of homes. This landscape is pleasant to go through and you feel immersed in it as you tour the island along the beautiful cross-country road linking Mataura and Mahu through the heart of the island. Many roads run through the plains and foothills to service these fields. Again, getting immersed in this landscape is another change of scenery, with tractors plowing the ground, to reveal black soil that one can guess is fertile, and where cultivations take the shape of rows of plants. Cows and horses graze here and there… The visitor could imagine that he had been suddenly transported to the farmlands of Europe or of North America. But banana trees planted along the fields and roads and impressive litchis quickly bring you back to tropical latitudes.
Note that the coastline of the island – a rarity – consists in a long quasi-continuous beach and therefore particularly conducive to pleasant swimming. Here on these many beaches, shaded by trees, is an impressive palette of colors. The sand here has colors that are not found anywhere else: yellow, pink, orange etc. A real enchantment. But other than aesthetic contemplation and pleasant moments of relaxation, the lagoon is also a key element in the life of the population with the natural resources it provides. The lagoon of Tubuai is particularly known for its abundance of giant clams (Tridacna maxima by its scientific name). A coveted resource but that Tupua’i makes sure to preserve.
More surprisingly, the island’s ambition is to become a center for the practice of Kite surfing, one of the newest sports which consists in being towed on a small board by a large kite. A sport, whose popularity is growing all over the world. With its vast lagoon and its steady winds, this bet may not be as foolish as it may seem. Moreover, many windsurfers and kite surfer are already coming to indulge in their passion in this most pleasant environment.
After hiking through dreamlike sights, the return is done at a lower level, back on land, but not just any land. The island is often presented as one of “storehouse” of French Polynesia. Its particular topography is marked by the presence of plains, its soil and temperate climate are very favorable factors for agriculture. A garden by the ocean, where potatoes, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, watermelon, and of course, taro are grown in abundance. The taro’s tuber, which particularly appreciates the wetlands and, of which the Austral archipelago has made its specialty. It is a plant rich in nutrients, but whose cultivation is a difficult task, as it can hardly be mechanized. Agricultural products are consumed locally, but they are also shipped by boat, 650 km further north to the Society Islands, where more than 75% of the population live and therefore provides the largest quantity of consumers. As one can imagine, the organization of such a circuit is not a simple thing, but so are the constraints of insularity. Several hundred hectares have thus been developed on the island by the Tupua’i, as the inhabitants of the island call themselves. Almost every family has its own “domain”.
Witnesses of the Past
In pre-European traditional society, the island was apparently of particular importance as evidenced by numerous remains of marae, sacred places acting as links between the human world and the vast world of the Polynesian gods. They were the sites of highly codified, sometimes sacred, ceremonies, but they also related to life events such as births, tattooing and rites of passages in the different stages of life. Traditional society was highly ritualized as evidenced in many places in the island and especially those of Taahuaia with the marae Hano and the marae Haarii. The latter features an impressive stone where the island’s royal families used to follow a very specific ritual. After birth, they cut the umbilical cords of newborns. Take the time to go in search of these places, which are living testimonies of the old society.
Motu "One", the Beginning
But the discovery of the island would not be complete without a visit to an amazing and a little unreal place, “Motu One” (pronounce Onay), name given to a small sandbar, crossed by water level coral, leaning against the coral reef facing Mataura. Of this fragile islet of white sand and in the fading late afternoon light, Tubuai, which is dubbed the “green” island, appears in all of its splendor. A few clouds cling to its heights and one discover all the nuances of colors created by the various vegetations. Human presence with its houses and homes is lost in this greenery. A sight as serene and relaxed as a first morning of the world
Tubuai: the impossible refuge of the Bounty mutineers
Of the Bounty mutiny in the late 18th century, probably the most famous mutiny in maritime history, we often remember only the names of the two main protagonists: the hated Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, his rebellious second lieutenant. The adventure has been widely popularized in numerous books and especially in four film adaptations. In contrast, little is known of the role played by the island of Tubuai and its inhabitants. Let’s remember that when the mutiny took place, Captain Bligh was on a mission to Tahiti on the HMS Bounty to bring back breadfruit trees, uru in Tahitian. The English, who had spotted this plant during the voyages of Captain James Cook, wanted to acclimatize them in the Caribbean and make it a cheap food for slaves. On April 28, 1789 on the way back after a stay of more than six months on the island of Tahiti, part of the crew rebelled. Bligh was abandoned on a longboat with a crew of men who were still loyal to his authority. Knowing the unenviable fate reserved by the British Admiralty to all mutineers – i.e., hanging – their leader, Fletcher Christian, decided to find a safer “hideout” for the ship and the men than the island of Tahiti. He decided on Tubuai, an isolated and less known island. He landed there the first time on May 24, 1789, but he quickly had to face the islanders’ hostility. In the battle that ensued, 12 islanders are said to have been killed by the Bounty’s guns and cannons. All they had to fight them were stones and spears! The location of this first battle, facing the pass Te Ara Moana, remains in history as the “Bloody Bay”. It is located at Mataura, near the current airport.
After returning to Tahiti, the Bounty made a second attempt to settle in Tubuai a month later, on June 23, 1789, the mutineers persisted as they were fully aware of the abundant resources of the island. They brought with them food, cattle, and also gifts to try to reconcile with the inhabitants of the island. But misunderstandings grew even faster than the mutineers could perceive the intricacy of the society of the island, with its hierarchy, its customs, and its complex and specific rules, a society far from the stereotype of the “savage” that was in fact rooted in the minds of the Europeans at the time. As a symbol of this misunderstanding and of that gap, the mutineers began the construction of a gigantic fort in what is now the coast of Taahuia. The fortress was impressive with its sides a hundred meters long, surrounded by a moat fed by the water of the lagoon and a drawbridge. The ship and its threatening guns, were elements of the defense of the whole thing. Coexistence did not last long and relations soured up to a great battle were more than 60 people on the island died, decimated again by the Englishmen’s modern weapons. Finally, on September 17, 1789, the mutineers left the island that had now become hostile to them and abandoned the fortress. Some of them then decided to sail even further east to take refuge on the tiny volcanic island of Pitcairn, at the end of the known world, beyond the reach of the vengeance of the English navy and also far away from the Tahitian “paradise”. Of this unlikely encounter between two worlds and of these events, hardly any visible traces remain today. On the beautiful white sand beach of Taahuaia, the site of what was Fort George, only the memories and stories of his battles remain in the collective memory of the island.