This section is probably more interesting to sailors planning to visit the Gambier, so skip to the next bit if you find your eyelids drooping.
Arriving somewhere new is always a bit disorienting. Fortunately, though, our buddies on Ticket To Ride came the day before and were able to point us in the right direction.
Whether you have cleared in or not, boats arriving from anywhere – outside or inside French Polynesia – need to check in at the Gendarmerie. So we headed towards the post office communication tower, parked near some local boats, walked right and stumbled across the Gendarmerie. Clearing in was easy: we just told the officer where we had come from, handed him our boat papers, he copied them, and we were on our way.
We continued along the road to the Mairie to pay dues for leaving rubbish. The rate is 2,500 XPF for the first week and a bargain of 1.500 XPF for subsequent weeks (we left for a couple of weeks to go to the other islands and only had to pay 1,500 when we returned). So after handing over the cash and getting a receipt, that was the official stuff taken care of.
One of the downsides of the Gambier is internet connectivity. It is truly awful. We understand that a cable was going to be led here from Easter Island, but that deal fell through. So it is satellite communications only. There’ll be no Netflix downloads here.
What it lacks in internet speed is more than compensated by other things – including shopping options. There are several grocery stores on the same road as the Gendarmerie. The first two are near the post office, and the last – and most popular because they serve food and internet – is Jojos at the far end of the road from the Mairie, past the bakery. Not bad for an island with less than 1,400 people living on it.
Beyond Jojos is a sizeable community sports hall on the left. Opposite that is the waste disposal centre, where recycling is available. Despite, or maybe because of, its remoteness – the Gambier is one of the few places with a convenient place to dispose of used engine oil. But we had some old petrol mixed with oil that we wanted to get rid of and weren’t clear on what to do with it. After Antinea arrived, Bertrand asked the woman at the Mairie because, as a native French speaker, he could ask more complex questions without reading from Google Translate and sounding like an idiot. The woman said she would take it and use it for cleaning machinery. So, the next day we carried the petrol can over to the Mairie and gifted her the can and the contents.
Opposite the bakery is Rikitea Yacht Services. They can refill butane tanks here and will sell you fuel if you need it. Internet is also available.
Before moving on to other islands, we thought it prudent to see what Rikitea had to offer. So, after reuniting with Bertrand and Pascale, we parked our dinghy near the bakery, walked past the Cathedral and turned right up a hill towards the grave of the penultimate king of Mangareva and the Gambier islands: Te Maputeoa Gregorio I.
The significance of this king is that he ruled during the transition from traditional beliefs to Catholicism. It seems he had some smarts. Sensing that his uncle, acting as regent, was likely planning to oust him, the king started showing up in churches during mass. Later he agreed to dismantle the Te Keika marae so that St Michael’s Cathedral could be built on the site.
From here, we continued up the hill to the old convent. There isn’t much left of it now, but it must have been a grand-looking place back in the 1800s.
On the way back, we stopped at the Pension Bianca and Benoit to arrange a trip to the islands by boat. That might sound a bit daft, but it is probably the best way to see the islands if you don’t have a shallow draft boat or want to learn more about the Gambiers.
Back in town, we saw a group of children with one of the longest mango-catching poles we have seen. You can’t see in the photo that there is a small child near the top of the tree – front page news for the Daily Mail.
St Michael’s Cathedral is, I understand, the largest in French Polynesia. Note the two hearts painted on the wall in the last photograph. The significance is that the missionaries – Honoré Laval and François Caret – were from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
The missionaries from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts were not the first foreign visitors. The British Captain, James Wilson of the ship Duff of the London Missionary Society, arrived here in 1797. And Wilson named the islands after the mission’s financier, James Gambier. The mission didn’t go well, but the names stuck.
On Monday morning, we joined up again with Bertrand and Pascale on our own mission – to hike up Mount Duff, hoping that the usual theme of torrential rain wouldn’t plague us this time. There are stern warnings about not hiking within two days after rainfall. Fortunately, and unusually for us, it stayed dry before and during our hike.
Bianca from the Pension we visited the day before suggested a route further up the hill past the old convent. But as we turned up the road past the Cathedral, a local woman stopped us for a chat and suggested an alternative route that proved – as we now know – to be a much better option.
Opposite the Air Tahiti store (nothing grand, it’s a small building with a large sign) is a road leading up to a trail marking the start of the hike. The trail is well-maintained. Some more tricky sections have ropes installed to haul yourself up or support yourself down.
The hike to the top of Mount Duff would, I believe, challenge the keenest of hikers. And the ascent wasn’t made any easier by some clown turning the signposts around. It was worth the effort, though – as the photos below attest:
If the signpost-turning idiot made things difficult on the way up, they made it extreme on the way down. We thought something was wrong when we started climbing up towards Rikitea rather than down.
The only positive was that this convoluted route took us through a beautiful pine forest. The negative is that instead of climbing just 441 metres, the height of Mount Duff, we walked uphill for 669 metres.
The boat turned up just 10 minutes late, and the guests from Pension Bianca & Benoît shortly after that – not bad for island time. Then, after a few minutes spent balancing the boat by shifting bodies around, we sped off on our tour of the islands.
Our first stop was Taravai, population 9. Note the hearts over the entrance leading to Saint Gabriel church.
The church doesn’t have much funding anymore, but it is still impressive for a church serving a population of 8 people.
After landing on the beach, we walked up to the top of the hill. Testament to the weather, there are several fallen crosses here and just one sturdy concrete version still standing. The views out to sea from here are stunning.
The combined population of Akamaru and Mekiro (assuming anyone lives there) is 22. The church here, Notre Dame de la Paix, is in beautiful condition, and so are the grounds. This may, in part, be because this was the landing place of Honoré Laval and François Caret in 1834.
By now, it was getting towards lunchtime, so the boat captain took us over to Tauna, a tiny island with feisty nesting noddies, for a BBQ of chicken, local (non-ciguatera-infected) fish with rice and taro. There’s no rushing off to B&Q or Home Depot for charcoal bricks here; the fire is made from wood and coconuts already on the island.
If any screenwriter wants to make a tropical version of the Hitchcock classic – Birds – he could film it here. I have never encountered birds as aggressive.
Our last stop before returning to Rikitea was Aukena. The previous census suggests 40 people live here, but I didn’t notice anyone besides us tourists. The island’s most prominent feature is the lookout tower and, of course, the view.
And that was it for our tour. After clambering aboard the boat, we raced back to Rikitea’s main dock, where the boat captain disgorged his crew of primarily French passengers.
Bertrand and I got a lift to Pension Bianca and Benoît to pay for the trip by credit card and got another ride back into town before meeting with Maria and Pascale before heading back to Jamala and Antinea.
In our next post, we will share our exploits of going out without a guide: booze, boules and volleyball with the locals, snorkelling and secluded bays, and huge comedy cucumbers.
Another great write up Allen, all looks stunning x
Thanks, Jenny – yes, it is an extraordinary place.
An area I’ve never heard of. Pictures and write up are fantastic.
The boat driver looks like a Hollywood actor!
Not many have! Ta very much and, yes, that boat driver does look like he belongs in an action movie, doesn’t he?
Great photo’s! The movie Birds always creeps me out! Beautiful churches. Keep up the great work and stay safe.
Thanks as always, Jim. Those birds in the Gambier creeped me out! Take care.