The first time I heard the words ‘The Forgotten Islands’ was from the lips of Dowager Queen Marau of Tahiti. Her dark eyes slowly lighted up with some inner fire as she said ‘Les Iles Oubliees!’ Yes, there you find what you seek, the soul of Polynesia. Go there!
So begins the first chapter of the book I’ve started reading aboard a flight to these very islands. I read on, stopping sometimes to stare out the window at the big blue South Pacific below. Tahiti has gone from view now. Almost 2,000 kilometres of eternal ocean stretches out from here to my little-known destination.
“But what, and where, are these islands?” I asked, my curiosity mounting by quick degrees. “They are the Gambier Archipelago,” she answered. “There are eight of them, and they lie more than a thousand miles to the southeast of Tahiti. Mangareva is the most interesting, the island for you. They tell me it is very beautiful.”
The book – Manga Reva, The Forgotten Islands – was written in the 1920s by an artist called Robert Lee Eskridge. It’s a firsthand account of the American’s eight-month stay on French Polynesia’s outlying Gambier Islands, the place I’m now headed. Although written almost 100 years ago, it’s all I have to give me a sense of the islands I’m about to arrive at. Modern-day guidebooks don’t offer much, if any information on this part of the world.
The small plane begins its descent, circling the coral circumference of the biggest lagoon I’ve ever seen. As it banks left, I catch sight of Mangareva stretched out in the pristine blueness like a prostrate man enjoying a bath. It’s a superb sight, full of promise for adventure.
It’s a more temperate landscape than I was expecting – like the tropics meets Tasmania. While Tahiti and her sister islands in the north have been mythologised for centuries for their hot and uninhibited sexiness, I get the sense that the Gambier Islands are like Tahiti’s distant cousins twice removed: more prudish and pious, but still perfectly pretty.
“Welcome to our paradise!” says a local lady in a heavy French accent as I get off the shuttle boat from the airport. She lobs a massive necklace of sweet-smelling flowers around my neck and introduces herself as Bianca, my host and one half of Bianca & Benoît, the family-run pension I’m staying at on Mangareva. We pile into her pick-up and head for the pension.
The drive, if done in one hit, should take about three to four minutes from the jetty. But with Bianca slowing down and waving at every man, woman, child and chicken we pass, it takes closer to 20.
“All Mangarevan people wave for saying ‘ello,” she says. “If no wave, they are tourist or no ‘ave education.”
As we pass through the main village, Rikitea, Bianca tells me there are about 1,000 people living on the island. There’s no crime and most of the people are “always ‘appy”. In town, in the shadow of the throne-like Mount Duff, everything is much more tropical and colourful than it looked from the plane. Lively green gardens with bright hibiscus and healthy fruit trees embellish the plain brick houses. Kids play in the sun. Adults gossip in the shade of breadfruit palms. There are only a couple of cars on the road and a few scooters run about the main street.
Along the way we pass European style stone buildings and a monstrous cathedral – big enough to fit every Mangarevan and more inside. They look as out of place in this small village as coconut palms in the Pyrenees.
At the pension I find Bianca’s husband, Benoît, and a few of his fishing pals hacking into the day’s catch of 13 massive wahoo fish. The tattooed workmen doing renovations at the pension join in by slicing off hefty chunks, a kilo or more each, to take as a weekly wage bonus.
Bianca, a first-rate eater by the looks of her, also gets involved, pulling raw flesh from the bone and munching it down with an unidentified brown sauce. Soon there’s very little left of the ute-load of 50-kilogram fish. When I ask Benoît if he makes a tidy profit selling the fish to others in town he looks at me like I’ve just farted in his face.
“Not for selling,” he says. “Only for giving, for my friends and for the people.”
I note my sinful, capitalist ways and get back to eating raw wahoo and drinking beer while the sun goes down.
Sin is a topical subject on Mangareva, I learn as I read in my cute little bungalow that night. This place was once the cradle of Catholicism in Polynesia and the idyllic Truman Show vibe of today hasn’t always existed here.
The reason these far-off islands hold more than 100 stone buildings – churches, presbyteries, convents, schools, weaving workshops, bakers’ ovens and watch towers, is that they were once ruled by a nutty French missionary, Père Laval, who was hell-bent on constructing things in order to please God.
In his book, Eskridge explains that Laval made the pilgrimage to the “unheeding cannibals” of the Forgotten Islands to save souls for the church. But it soon became apparent that he was, as Eskridge put it, “trying to slip a Catholic soul into a Polynesian body with the shoehorn of fanaticism”. It was disastrous from the moment he sailed into the lagoon.
In a short time, through trickery and cunning, Laval convinced the joyful pagan population that the word of Jesus Christ was the law. Through the hard labour forced upon them to build his egomaniac empire, their spirits were wrecked and they began to die. The population, once 5,000 strong and peaceful (if we overlook that a human was occasionally on the menu, of course), fast disappeared, never to return.
The next morning, I’m keen to explore. Because there are no hotels or tour companies on the island, Benoît and Bianca operate their own outings and activities for guests. With Benoît as a guide, and a few of his family members and some French tourists in tow, we head out for a full-day boat tour of the lagoon and the other Gambier Islands.
Although the expression ‘middle-of-nowhere’ might be insulting to those who call ‘nowhere’ home, it’s a phrase that keeps coming to mind when we first get out on the water among the Gambier Islands. This archipelago doesn’t even earn a dot on many world maps. Isolation is an understatement.
On board the boat, Benoît takes us to discover a good sample of all that the lagoon holds. Enveloped in the 90-kilometre reef are 10 volcanic islands and 25 sandy islets. Most of the islands are now uninhabited or only have a few families on them.
Laval’s reach extended beyond just Mangareva. But for all of his despotic ways, the man’s taste and location scouting skills are beyond reproach. Granted, saying that an archipelago in French Polynesia is beautiful is to state the proverbial obvious, but this place is a notch above all else. Eskridge, a man prone to understatement, is forever gushing about the colours and the magnificence of the lagoon.
“Blue, emerald, mauve and violet interplayed beneath the arched blue of the austral skies…
Such blue and cerulean, emerald and emeraud, never existed anywhere outside the South Seas.”
Throughout the day, Benoît ensures that we’re treated to a good mix of culture, nature, history, action, food and relaxation. We find grand churches on islands whose population probably isn’t more than 20. Being a Sunday, we come across one with a service underway. Thirty or so pairs of thongs are plonked at the arched door. Rich vocal harmonies drift out the stained-glass windows and float down a broad avenue of coconut palms and across the still lagoon. Inside, I take a pew and watch the thickset men and women sing and clap for the lord above. For longer than a moment, I forget my own aversion to Catholicism and lose myself in the warm sounds of the singers.
Further into the lagoon, Benoît takes us to Akamaru Island. The colour of the water here is worthy of every superlative in the book.
“Blue like Bora Bora, no?” says Benoît.
For him, this is just another day at the office. For me, I’ve just arrived at a place that, in an instant, makes me question why I live in a city and wonder what I can sell to live here forever. Yes, it’s blue like Bora Bora, but there’s nobody about. Not one bug-eyed French couple flicking their Gauloises ciggie butts into the water from their five-grand-a-night overwater bungalows.
Lunch, a seafood barbeque and banquet, is eaten on a long islet at the edge of the lagoon. We eat, swim, snorkel and sleep in the sand.
We spend the afternoon island hopping, walking and learning (in very broken English) the history of these places. At the end of the day, I let Benoît know it’s one of the best day trips I’ve ever done.
Nights back at the pension quickly slip into their own little routine. There’s reading on the deck of my bungalow, watching for shooting stars in the boundless Austral sky, eating with Benoît and Bianca and the rest of the family and sleeping at an early hour.
In the early mornings, I amble around the island exploring the haunted ruins of Laval’s mad ambition. The whispering ghosts, who Eskridge frequently met with in the 1920s, are always on my mind. Every noise makes me jump. A chicken scratching in the scrub near an abandoned church I’m in has me running out the door.
Each day brings something new. I hike with the French tourists to the top of Mangareva’s highest point, Mount Duff, to find a most impressive vista. We also visit an overwater pearl farm, producing world-class Mangarevan black pearls. We eat baguettes in the village and swim and snorkel in the lagoon.
The idyllic simplicity and lack of rush here is contagious. It seems unbelievable that I have this place mostly to myself. I am shocked when Bianca tells me I am the first Australian she has ever hosted in all her years at one of only a few pensions on Mangareva.
Every journey has its most memorable moment. On Mangareva, it comes in the late afternoon as the sun prepares to slump behind Mount Duff and it turns all it touches to a radiant gold. I’m out in the lagoon on a surf ski, drifting and watching the world around me while in a happy daze. Kids snorkel and spear for fish. Pearl farmers relax and laugh on the verandahs of their overwater offices after the day’s work. White birds, like long-tailed doves, glide across the reddening sky in pairs.
Back on shore, people walk to their houses after whatever it is they’ve been doing to fill their days – no doubt they wave and chat and laugh as they go. There is magic threaded through every molecule in this place. As I float there in a lagoon on the edge of the earth, I can’t help but grin like a moron. This is the soul of Polynesia. Everything is exactly as it ought to be.
Air Tahiti Nui, the international airline of French Polynesia, offers two one-stop flights a week from Australia to Papeete. From Papeete it’s a three-hour flight to Mangareva.
The Pension Bianca & Benoît offers bungalows and half or full board starting at US$100 per person.
For more information on French Polynesia and its islands, visit