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vendredi 29 novembre 2013

Makatea, a mining island

Above the Pacific Ocean

Makatea, an island of the Tuamotu, gets a unique geological formation, an exceptional industrial destiny and the only train of Polynesian history.

This amazing island upsets all the clichéd images which may be in your mind about the French Polynesia.

Makatea, an inaccessible atoll…
Imagine an atoll which would rise to 100 meters above the Pacific Ocean, posed as a nest on impassable cliffs... Imagine outdated mining facilities, intact but totally deserted, full-size museum to the glory of the industrial era… Imagine a railroad track 7 km long placed on this tiny island of the Tuamotu…

Some pictures and some music of Makatea
If you get to imagine this, then you begin to get an idea of what’s Makatea island, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia…

Makatea, a geographical anomaly
From Polynesian origin, the word “makatea” means a type of raised atoll with in its center the remains of the former volcanic island.

Originally, therefore, Makatea is an atoll like the others. This is the birth of the volcano that gave the island of Tahiti which is the origin of the Atoll Makatea uprising. Then the natural erosion did the rest.

Integral part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, Makatea is the only island in French Polynesia of this geological kind.

Covering an area of 24 km2, it measures 7.5 km from north to south and 7 km in its widest point, the southern part of the island.

A map that says a lot about an island like no other
The special nature of the coral base exposed to the air causes a number of geological peculiarities.

Firstly impassable cliffs, unique in the whole Polynesia, peak between 60 and 100 meters high anyway. The coast offers no bay, no beach that allows the approaching of boats and thus, a fortiori, to berth.

What remains of Temao port, today.
In the center of the island, a vast plain located 80 meters. One beach on the east coast to the only village of the island: Moumu. In the northern part of the plateau, the mining village of Vaitepaua completely abandoned. And finally, on the West coast at the foot of the cliff, just in front of the single pass which allows to approach the island: the small port of Temao where you can still see the remains of the loading dam for transshipment of phosphate.

Makatea: story of an atoll like no other
In 1722, after discovering Easter Island, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen becomes the first Westerner to accost Makatea.

The island is so daunting with its high cliffs and lack of coves or bays for serene moorings that he does nothing more than to note the event and the geographical position of the atoll in his logbook. He calls it “Aurora”, which means “the island of recreation”.

Phosphate open pit mine of Makatea
During the 180 years that followed, Makatea named “Papa Tea” (White Rock) by the Polynesians, will hardly disturbed by many people, despite the considerable changes that transform the whole Polynesia. Thus, neither the evangelization nor the colonization will change something in the way of life of a few dozen families who are living in this strange as inaccessible land.

The fate of the island takes off in the early years of the 20th century with the exploitation of phosphate rocks, the deposit of which was discovered in 1860 by Captain Bonnet.

Therefore, nothing will ever be the same in Makatea… at least until 1966 when the phosphate mining finally ceased on the island.

From one end to the other of the island, the road (photo: Jan Erik Johnsen)

At the last census of Polynesian population (2007), there were 61 permanent inhabitants in Makatea.

Today, the island is visited by the schooner (passenger-cargo ship), and therefore it’s just supplied, twice a month, at most…

Wealth of an island like no other
Nevertheless, Makatea holds amazing wealths.

The coast (photo Jan Erik Johnsen)
Thus, plagued by natural erosion, the base of the island is full of caves, some of which aren’t even listed. Further, below sea level, others have never been visited. All feed the legends and strengthen the mysterious character of Makatea.

It is said as well as, in bygone days, pirates and Spanish galleons have hidden treasures there. Some were used as burial places for senior figures pre-European Polynesian societies. Hung aloft, their bodies were deposited by “pirimato”, legendary beings capable of flying to the most inaccessible places. Cave Ana tau i ra’i on the cliff Temao is still tapu*

In 1959, Yves Allégret shots a film on Makatea
On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that this strange atoll has aroused the interest of several filmmakers who have located their film action. Including “The ambitious”, Yves Allégret with Andrea Parisi, Richard Basehard and Gerard O’Brien, shot in 1959 largely on the atoll of Makatea itself.

Remains only to discover the amazing industrial adventure Makatea that for 60 years has been the main economic engine of the entire French Polynesia.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

*Tapu: taboo

See also the Article Tahiti.tv, with a 5‘30”video made from exciting archive footage by following this link: http://www.tahiti.tv/makatea-lile-phosphate-permalink-1351-2373-6624.aspx. And of course our articles: “The railway station of Makatea” and  Makatea today”.

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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