Part 6: THE GAMBIER: MANGAREVA
After visiting flat atolls of the Tuamotus and then a day out at sea, the appearance on the horizon of the Gambier group, with its high islands, emerges as a sharp vertical contract to the previous days’ horizontal vistas. This remote chain of mostly volcanic isles, located 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti, is one of French Polynesia’s five archipelagoes that comprise a sprawling watery realm the size of Western Europe, and I’ve never been here before.
From afar, as Aranui 5 approaches, we spy 1,446-foot-high Mount Duff, named after the London Missionary Society’s ship the Duff, bearing the first Europeans known to have encountered the Gambier Islands back in 1797. Once again, passengers of the cargo/ cruiser are disgorged from our mother ship through a hatchway and assisted by brawny, stalwart seamen into waiting barges that whisk us away. I am excited to experience Mangareva, where I’ve wanted to go after reading American painter Rogert Lee Eskridge’s 1931 book Mangareva, The Forgotten Islands. Embarking on yet another adventure, I rise and jauntily imitate John Wayne in a Western movie, imploring “pilgrims” to “saddle up”: “Let’s paddle up and move ’em out, Polynesians!”
Arriving at Rikitea’s substantial concrete pier, we are met by a beguiling “pier group” of Mangarevan female dancers clad in grass skirts and leafy, flowery crowns, plus male musicians. Before they perform, the hoofers greet us by draping leis around our necks. For some reason, instead of a floral lei, a lovely longhaired lass of perhaps 12 gives me a necklace made out of shells, stones, plastic and the black pearls Mangareva is famous for. Later, shipmates tell me how “lucky” I am because long after their flowery wreaths have wilted, I’ll still be able to wear my necklace.
True, but I’m even luckier to be able to behold the Mangarevans’ welcome dances, as a troupe performs their age-old choreography of greeting strangers to their far land beneath the tropical sun. The barefoot, grass-skirted Polynesian ballerinas are accompanied by a band of musicians seated beneath a canopy, strumming stringed instruments, pounding the sharkskins. In two or three lines the dancers’ footwork and movements are distinctive, as these whirling dervishes repeatedly gyrate backwards, casting shadows on the concrete dock.
This warm, overwhelming welcoming will turn out to be the most effusive and sumptuous one we sojourners are offered during our almost two week voyage. I can’t help but wonder how different this greeting was from that accorded the LMS pilgrims aboard the Duff, 225 years ago? I wish that I could go back to the past to experience Mangareva before the missionaries entered the scene to proselytize the “pagan” Polynesians. But, alas, the closest thing I have to a time machine is Aranui 5…
Ringing the quay, which motorboats are moored to, are Mangarevan women selling black pearls, displayed as necklaces, earrings, and rings, or sold by the handful. A zip lock bag full of perles noir sells for 5000 Central Pacific Francs, or about $50. Historically, Mangareva had been a pearl diving and oyster shell Mecca, and today cultured black pearls are cultivated at many pearl farms there.
Aranui 5’s most adventurous guide, the athletic Joerg, announces he’s leading a trek up Mount Duff, and the hardier passengers set forth. We hike through Rikitea, which is the Gambier’s biggest village on its largest island, Mangareva. Rikitea is the archipelago’s administrative center and at first the road is flat and paved. But soon we proceed uphill on an unpaved ribbon of road, leaving “civilization” behind, walking through the forest primeval. As it’s a breezy day without rain and the path is shady, we’re comfortable while trekking on this long and winding road flanked by thick evergreen foliage, with Mt. Duff looming above us. But as we only have half a day at Mangareva, there isn’t time for me to wander to the end of the road (wherever, whenever that might be), so after an hour-plus of walking I turn back in order to visit some of Rikitea’s other sites.
Cathedral of St. Michael, Mangareva
Constructed out of coral limestone, the 157-foot-long, 59-foot-wide Cathedral of St. Michael is one of the largest in French Polynesia, and can hold more than 1,000 worshippers (the Gambier Islands have only about 1,500 inhabitants). Up a phalanx of stone steps, the entranceway is flanked by twin towers or steeples. St. Michael’s interior is ornately decorated, with an altar adorned by mother of pearl. Roughly in the middle of the church a wooden stairway leads up to a pulpit, from whence a priest can hold forth with his South Seas sermons.
According to Eskridge in his Mangareva, The Forgotten Islands, in the 19th century St. Michael was built by forced labor under the ironfisted theocratic reign of Pere Laval, who Eskridge calls “The Mad Priest.” The cathedral was originally constructed as part of a complex of religious structures that the strongman missionary ordered erected, even as Mangareva’s “pagan” temples and “heathen” statues were torn down. Eskridge claims the dishonorable Honore Laval’s fanatical “Christianization” campaign reportedly cost the lives of thousands of enslaved Indigenous Islanders, who perished for the greater glory of “god” and, but of course, for tyrannical Laval himself.
The Mad Priest collaborated with Mangareva’s final monarch, King Maputeoa, who died in 1857. The last of what Eskridge dubbed “the cannibal kings” is entombed walking distance of St. Michael at the Chapel of St. Pierre, Atititoa. The Cimetière de Rikitea is odd – the more contemporaneous the graves are, the more elaborate the headstones, with photos emblazoned on the tombstones, commemorating the deceased along with engravings depicting them as a boxer, soccer player and so on, thus ensuring their athletic immortality. This final resting place of royals and sportsmen is certainly one of the most unique graveyards I’ve ever been to and reminds me of the small Swiss cemetery at Zermatt, largely dedicated to mountaineers who died trying to climb the Matterhorn.
But that, as they say, is another story. And speaking of stories, I’m quite surprised I did not come across a single mention or sign of Pere Laval and the misery he wrought, nor of the many religious ruins scattered around Mangareva, probably overrun by the jungle now. This would almost be like going to Berlin today without any reference to the Nazi past. (There didn’t seem to be a solitary reference to author/painter Rogert Lee Eskridge either.)
I walk back to the pier, where grass-skirt wearing Mangareva maidens serve Native cuisine beneath a canopy. Plastic seats have been set up for passengers to enjoy the snacks and a band serenading us with Polynesian tunes. After the long walk, I’ve worked up an appetite and am in the mood for my favorite indigenous delicacy, po’e. All too soon we must board the barges, cross the lagoon and head back to our passenger/ freighter anchored beyond the reef. I’m sorry to leave Mangareva, my favorite landfall so far, but Aranui 5 awaits us, as does Pitcairn Island tomorrow – but first we must pass another test…
When you go:
TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222 Vanessa@tiuraitours.com
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377 email@example.com.
Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: www.beacongrand.com (866)377-9412.\
Written by: Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.
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