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jeudi 24 mars 2016

Mehetia, in the Winward Islands

The deserted island
A century ago already the island of Mehetia, last active volcano of French Polynesia, is again deserted, a victim of the new advancements of the navy.

17 ° 52 '30.07 "S latitude, 148 ° 4' 3.19" W longitude. Needless to note these details: there is little chance you will never be around here somewhere. And besides, it's forbidden...

Violent, wild and deserted Mehetia
Outside the norm, outside the shipping lanes, timeless, Mehetia is, for a century now, once again become an island outside the world, abandoned by men.

The Island of Mehetia and geography
Located about 110 km east-south-east of Tahiti, Mehetia is the youngest volcanic geological formation of the Society Archipelago.

The summit crater
In fact, the island is the tip of an underwater volcano 4,000 meters high, still active.

The only known eruption may have occurred on 5 March to December 1981, at 1600 m depth.

Mehetia is crowned by two craters, one of which is the highest point of the island. Mount Hiurai or Fareura, 435 meters, and Mount Teruato.

Mehetia: not very hospitable, visibly
Mount Teruato provides this valuable feature to offer a crater 220 meters in diameter, in perfect condition, although cluttered with screes and vegetation.

At Mehetia, no coral reef nor lagoon, beach neither. The steep slopes of the volcano plunge directly into the ocean.

Mehetia and the explorers
June 17, 1767, Samuel Wallis, the first of all, can see the Island of Mehetia. But it was only the next day he actually approaches.

On the night of June 17 to 18, tells his diary, fires show that the island is inhabited. In the morning, a few canoes led by three men stand away from the Dolphin.

Mehetia in its heyday...
Wallis sent two boats to approach the island. They return just two hours later! Officer Furneaux's report explains: "The people, he said, consists of several hundred natives whose aggressive attitude forced us to open fire, but without hitting them (...)".

Persuaded to be near the Austral continent, Wallis cast off and sailed, unknowingly, to Tahiti.

Less than a year later, April 2, 1768, Bougainville is passing off the coast of Mehetia without disembarking.

Mehetia seen by a sailor in 1849
Finally, Domingo de Boenechea, a Spanish explorer, aboard the ship Aguila was the first, who actually recognized the island. He named it San Cristobal. Mehetia was well inhabited: it then had about two hundred inhabitants.

The history of Mehetia
If no one knows when Mehetia was invested by the Mā'ohi people, we know it was long, and probably from the beginning of settlement, under the domination of Western Tuamotu.

It was settled permanently and played a key role in trade and political relations between the Tuamotu Archipelago and Society Islands.

And yet: an essential island for the yesteryear Polynesians
It was indeed an indispensable stage for the Polynesian dugouts that ensured the exchanges between the two archipelagos.

Someday, the Ari'i pa'umotu * ** who also reigned over the island, exchanged his wife with a significant Ari'i of Tahiti. When his first child was born of this relationship, the possession of Mehetia was transferred from Tuamotu to Tahiti.

The transportation revolution (sailing ships and steamships) sounded the death knell for the prosperity of Mehetia.

The only livable area of Mehetia
The last permanent residents of the island were reported in the early twentieth century. Since, the island is deserted. It is now attached to the commune of Taiarapu East, a small town of Tahiti's peninsula.

Mehetia or the origins of a name
The first known name of the island is To'ohoa, which could mean "fully erect" and be linked to particularly steep sides of the top. But the name could also be derived from hoa, refuge place of populations in case of conflict.

What is certain is that the name of To'ohoa is found on a comparable Island of New Zealand.

Mehetia: a refuge or a prison?
But the original name of the island, reached us through legends, was Meketu in pa'umotu and Me'etu in reo Tahiti ***. This name would have belonged to the princess who accompanied a large group that colonized the island after the great migrations to New Zealand.

It was during King Tu's accession to power, from the line of Pomare, the name of the island had to change, Tu getting tabu (sacred, prohibited). So, it became Me'etia for the Tahitians and Meketia for the Pa'umotu.

Mehetia today
Uninhabited for a century, Mehetia only receives rare scientific missions and few privileged visitors who have obtained permission to land there.

An island without water, so truly deserted...
Here, a seismograph is installed permanently, with a mission to monitor the hot spot of the South of Society Archipelago, last area in French Polynesia, where seismic activity is observed in the depths of the Pacific.

Mehetia Island is privately owned, and it is said that a treasure would be buried in the hold of a ship that came to break on its inhospitable coast.

Today, a bird sanctuary
Meanwhile, it’s a welcome sanctuary for several species of birds that live there safe from any predator.

* Ari'i: Head, king…
** Pa’umotu: on the Tuamotu Archipelago. The inhabitants of the Tuamotu are Paumotu.
*** Reo Tahiti: Tahitian language

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.

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