Once upon a floating mountain

May 2016

Trees on this floating mountain (the literal meaning of “Mangareva”) have dug their roots into the very edges of the lagoon, where fertile soil covers volcanic stone and dark coral. Palm and banana fronds stand between bushy pamplemousse trees and waxy-leafed breadfruit branches that stretch beneath towering giants with long, splayed needles, the umbrella of the tropical canopy. Smoke wafts through the brisk evening air.

gambiers_red-thead-off-rikiteaAfter the first few not-so-fun days of boat projects in the Gambiers, we needed to get off the boat and spend some time on land! The Gambiers are the southeasternmost chain of islands in French Polynesia, situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The archipelago was borne of volcanic activity, unlike her nearest neighbor, the Tuamotus, which are coral atolls. The islands are tall and steep, covered with vegetation, and are encircled by a barrier reef that protects the islands from the harsh surf that careens toward them unhindered across hundreds—and in some directions thousands—of miles of open ocean.

Christian religions are an important part of life in French Polynesia, with the majority of the population identifying as Protestant or Catholic. As not religious as we are, we wanted to experience that aspect of life in Rikitea, the main town on Mangareva. Mike and Gill were keen to go as well, and the four of us caravanned ashore in Romano’s old dinghy to attend the Sunday service at St. Michael’s. Most of the townsfolk were on their way, too, with hibiscus flowers pinned in their hair and black pearls dangling around their necks. gambiers_ride-home-from-churchgambiers_st-michaels3gambiers_sunday-bestThe inner walls of the cathedral were painted a rich mustard color and the alter was ornate, adorned with hundreds of polished mother-of-pearl shells that reflected the light radiating from the sunshine outside. It was an interesting experience. The sermon was conducted in French, and the hymns were sung in Mangarevan. We had read that the singing would be lovely, but that just didn’t do it justice. The sounds echoing through the enormous church were beautiful.

Try as I might, however, I couldn’t help myself from thinking about the atrocities that had been committed to build the structure, thoughts that hung on throughout the afternoon.gambiers_st-michaels1

The last rays of sunlight shine like a beacon on the Cathedral of St. Michael, Père Honoré Laval’s most extravagant creation, a monument to his God that stands like a tombstone on the earth where the principal marae (i.e., sacred place) of the Mangarevan people once stood.

The church service we attended had been within the walls of Laval’s masterpiece, a structure so grand it even dwarfs the Cathedral on heavily populated Tahiti.

Saga of a mad missionary
Père Honoré Laval’s arrival in the Gambier Islands in 1834 was serendipitous. Legend prophesied that two magicians whose God was almighty would one day arrive on a ship. Fathers Honoré Laval and François Caret of the Congregation for the Sacred Hearts were the embodiment of the lore. He obtained the devotion of prominent members of the community and thereafter wielded his Jesuit faith tyrannically. He convinced the people to open Bibles and topple their ancient alters and scrubbed away the old ways. A draconian leader, he instituted a rigid moral code and enslaved the islanders, forcing them to construct more than 100 stone churches, convents, and mills. Laval’s entourage also brought diseases to which the indigenous people had no immunity. The people of the Gambiers were decimated.

Three decades after his arrival, there were 500 people remaining; a fraction of the original population. An estimated 8,500 people died across the half dozen islands in the lagoon, islands that lie in such close proximity we could kayak between them in a matter of hours. In 1871, Laval was forcibly removed from the island and taken to Tahiti, his reign having grown ever maniacal. He was tried for murder and declared insane.gambiers_long-walkStripped of the belief system that anchored their ancestors and burdened with the grief of three decades of death at the hands of a zealot, what else could they do but cling devoutly to a religion that somehow explained the devastation. According to the dogma of the time, their sins had surely been their scourge.

The pages of history are painted in darkness and in light, smudged, rewritten. Time has passed, pages have been turned. While scars of that horrific period in the archipelago’s history remain in the archipelago’s architecture and surely in the hearts of the Gambierens, the people are vibrant and the population has rebounded to around 2,000.

Children hoot and holler in the distance, their giggles and play sounds dancing on the wings of the light westerly breeze. A late afternoon cock-a-doodle doo escapes a rooster who keeps odd hours, as the boat twirls on her anchor with a wind shift. Even from here, I can see the splashes from their carefree arms splattering water about near the public jetty.

gambiers_mokoto_upward-boundToward the summit of Mokoto
We hiked up the winding road from Rikitea, over the saddle that slopes from Mangareva’s backbone beneath Mount Duff. Banana palms crowded among the beautiful snarl of jungle foliage, creating a dense forest that begged for monkeys to be swinging through the canopy (alas, few mammals inhabit French Polynesia and monkeys are not among them!). As the road twisted downward toward the island’s largest northern bay, we spotted a faded wooden sign with blue painting marking the trailhead for Mounts Duff and Mokoto.

Although Mount Duff is the taller of the two peaks (by only 18 meters), we’d been told that Mokoto offered more stunning views of the islands, so when the fork in the trail appeared, we went right. We trudged up a path that was well-trodden in some places and muddy or bramble-strewn in others. At the steepest section of the mountain, where tall conifers gave way to scratchy grasses, we lost the trail altogether and had to scramble unguided, like the wild goats we spotted in the distance. The final quarter mile of our ascent was along a narrow, grass-ridden spine. I’m not particularly fond of heights. I whined most of the way, but refused to stay behind, for fear of missing on an even lovelier vista ahead. I’m glad I didn’t wimp out.gambiers_mokoto_whining-all-the-wayThe 1,388-foot summit revealed the true beauty of Mangareva—a panorama of pure South Pacific splendor. For all the loveliness of seeing the Gambiers from sea level, Mokoto’s apex offered us a glimpse at the anatomy of the lagoon. The gradations of color in the bay below were enhanced by the midday sun, and the intricacy of the waterways weaving between the coral heads created a surface of sapphire that looked more like an ice-covered cove than a tropical lagoon. Small houses, home to pearl farms, stood on stilts and dotted the bay. The shape of the island, we discovered, is dynamic with numerous arms outstretched like the tentacles of an octopus. We’d never seen anything like it and were mesmerized.gambiers_mokoto_the-pearl-of-mangareva

Relaxing around Rikitea
The days that followed were a relaxing montage of leisure aboard, visits to Snack JoJo, and long walks. Snack JoJo offers the only internet on the island and is also its sole café. Unfortunately, with the exception of one delicious lunch, our meals generally consisted exclusively of Hinano beer (and occasionally previously frozen french fries). The monthly supply ship visit was long passed, and they were generally out of produce, which was surprising given that the fertile soil on Mangareva could surely grow almost anything!

gambiers_fido-the-sharksuckerWe played with the local “sharksuckers”, a large species of remora found in the Gambiers’ waters. We’d never experienced such joy in tossing organic rubbish overboard as we did in that bay! Each toss of a potato peel or meat scrap invited a pair of 3- to 4-foot long creatures to emerge in a fury to gobble up the morsel! A more odd fish you can hardly imagine! Atop their heads is a massive, ribbed suction plate. On either side of their elongated head is a bulging eye. They lack a dorsal fin. Goofy!

During one long walk, we were invited into a garden by a handsome old woman who led us proudly through her lush pasture of coffee beans and fruit trees and insisted on filling our rucksack with guyaba, limes, and pamplemousse. She demonstrated the proper way to eat guyaba, and her sun-ripened fingers plucked scarlet hermit crabs from a bucket to show us the bait her son uses for fishing. In spite of our shoddy French, we managed to express our interest in visiting one of the local pearl farms while we were on Managareva. The lovely lady pointed us down the road toward Pension Maroi, a small guesthouse operated by her cousin Michel and his wife, Marie.

The next morning, we were up early and off to visit a PEARL FARM…!

Rikitea anchorage waypoint: 23°06’.920S 134°58’.072Wgambiers_toopas-hermits

14 thoughts on “Once upon a floating mountain

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  7. The figure of 9,000, mentioned by some, when Laval arrived is regarded as being hugely exaggerated. In 1825, the population was estimated at 1500. When the missionaries arrived in 1834 they counted 2,124
    Due to the lack of flat ground for 9,000 people to have lived in such a small area there would have to have been housing on the hillside but there is no evidence of this. Also, if 8,500 people died there would have to be that many graves and there are not. An alternative to individual graves would be mass graves, but there are none.
    Increasing contact with the outside world brought contagious diseases to Mangareva savagely decimating the population. There had already been several major epidemics before 1863, including one which is said have killed half the population. The story about Laval driving the population to their deaths was spread by a French judge, Louis Jacolliot, who dabbled in the occult and had a grudge against Laval and wanted to discredit him.


    • Hi Louise,

      It sounds like some of what you’ve read differed from the information I read in preparation to write this blog. I’d enjoy learning more about the alternate perspectives you’ve brought up here. Could you direct me to books or historical websites that back up what you’ve described. I like to try to make sure my blogs are as accurate as possible.



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