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jeudi 29 mai 2014

The archipelago of Australes



Forgotten islands of French Polynesia


Very far in the South Pacific, scattered on the ocean, the Austral Islands are almost as far apart from each other as far from Tahiti.

In the Austral  Archipelago  a bay of Raivavae
Orientated on a Southeast-Northwest axis, the archipelago of the Australes stretches on more than 700 kilometers in the South of Tahiti, astride on the Tropic of Capricorn. If it isn’t the most distant from the Polynesian capital, it’s the most isolated, the least known and the least visited.   

The Austral Islands and the geography
Compound of five high islands, an atoll and an islet, the archipelago barely represents 140 km2 of the emerged lands. Stretched as a rosary, five main islands of the Austral Islands are framed in the northeast by Maria Islands (Nororotu) and the islets of Bass (Marotiri) at the extreme southeast. These last two groups are uninhabited. This geographical situation makes the islets of Bass the most South lands of the whole French Polynesia.

The Austral Islands, the most isolated and most southerly of Polynesia
Formed by four islets locked in the same lagoon, Maria Islands are the only atoll of the archipelago. The four islets of Bass, as for them, represent a surface of lands emerged hardly superior to four hectares…

From north to south, five inhabited islands of the Australes are: Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa. Together, they represent barely more than 6300 inhabitants (Census of 2007)

Today, only Rurutu, Tubuai and Raivavae have an airport; and there is no interisland sea link. It’s a schooner (passenger-cargo ship) and it’s alone, which supplies the archipelago and allows to go to Rapa.

Much more freshly than in Tahiti, the moderate climate of these islands made them the kitchen garden of Tahiti and Moorea.

The short history of the Archipelago of Australes
Compared with the other Polynesian archipelagoes, it’s very late that the Austral Islands would have been populated. According to sources, this populating would have been made between the XIth and the XIVth century. No thorough archaeological research was led, allowing to answer this question.     

What we know almost certainly, it’s that the first inhabitants of these islands came from Tahiti.                                                                     

Rapa, the least known of Austral Islands  

It’s James Cook, still he, who is the first European to discover an island of the archipelago. We are on August 13th, 1769 and it’s Rurutu which he baptizes Oteroah. He tries well to accost by sending a whaler, but can’t reach because of the hostility of the inhabitants there.

It’s during his third and last journey that he discovers Tubuai on August 8th, 1877. If he doesn’t accost, the islanders come to meet him. Regrettably, a wide coral reef makes the unfit island at anchor. It’s moreover this characteristic which decided the mutineers of The Bounty to take refuge here.

The last ones to be concerned on a map were Maria Islands by the American George Whashington Gardner in 1824.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
The art and the culture in the archipelago
The works of art produced by the people of the Austral Islands are often considered as the most remarkable to be found in Polynesia. Regrettably, almost all of these works are spread in the biggest western museums or in the private collections. The archipelago was literally plundered of its heritage of which there is left practically nothing more on the spot.

Indeed, if the natives made presents of numerous pieces to the sailors of passage, certain sites were purely and simply stripped, in particular by the missionaries of the London Missionary Society.

A beach of Rurutu in the Archipelago of Australes
These latter were particularly worried of removing the slightest track of the former worships. So, for example, on 62 marae listed at the beginning of the XXth century at Ravavae, no more than 23 stays, still visible today.

The most famous of the works stolen from the Austral Islands, is in British Museum of London today. It’s about a sculpture of the God A’a, discovered in Rurutu, whose reproduction is on the island.

Very famous also are the pahu (big vertical drums) which welcomed the shipsss of passage.

Very numerous objects, of all kinds and of great beauty, were so scattered. They show a particularly developed and sophisticated artistic expression.

The Austral Islands and the economy
Beyond a vital food-producting agriculture for all the inhabitants of the archipelago, it’s the agriculture which is the most important resource of these islands.

Thanks to a climate much more temperated than the rest of the Polynesia, the important vegetable producing of the Austral Islands is exported towards Tahiti, insuring the main part of the financial income of the inhabitants.

The fishing and the breeding are the main activities of the islanders. It should be noted that we find in the archipelago the only producer of goat cheeses of Polynesia.

Most of the families dedicate a large part of their time to crafts very appreciated in Tahiti, both by the Polynesians and by the tourists. The craftsmen of the Australes are particularly considered for a production of particularly rich and fine basketwork.

In spite of its very numerous attractiveness, the archipelago of the Australes is little frequented by the tourists. Two essential reasons in it: the transports and the accommodation.

The Bay of the Virgins at Rimatara, Austral Islands
The aerial connections are rare, difficult and very expensive. On the other hand, no inter-islands connection existing it’s impossible to visit the islands of the archipelago in a reasonable lapse of time. The only way to do it, is to use the services of the schooner, what implies to have time; but most of the visitors haven’t a lot of free time at their disposal.

If the quality of the welcome is there legendary, the hotel infrastructures are practically non-existent. Two only solutions are the few boarding houses and the hosting at the inhabitant’s.

If, in February, 2010, the Austral Islands were very hard struck by the cyclone Oli, the archipelago remains not less one of the most surprising and striking destinations of French Polynesia. It’s true that it’s doubtless there that the inhabitants know how to best keep their identity and lifestyles far from those who developed in Tahiti for example…

Whoever took time to make this journey, he returns marked for ever.


An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak


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



1 commentaire :

  1. C'est vrai que le monde est beau et fini; c'est l'homo sapiens sapiens qui est terminé à la pisse d'âne; c'est lui qui fout la merde!!!! et quand c'est un Mormon, vadoue beneguet ch'te dis pas...
    Kenavo et merci pour l'article mon cher Julien.
    Arthur Rimbaud de Pont-Aven.

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