THE AUSTRAL ISLANDS, THE SECRET ARCHIPELAGOE
Discovered by Europeans in the 18th Century, the Australs are located 373 miles (600 km) south of Tahiti’s capital city. The archipelago is made of seven islands, five of which are inhabited – Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa – and four of which are accessible by air. 6,800 people live in the Austral islands, an off the beaten track archipelago of untouched and mysterious land where white sand clashes with the intense blue of the lagoons.
Breath-taking landscapes, from sheer mountains to valleys and high plains, these islands are famous for their farming activities. Several archaeological remains witness to a well organised, pre-European community of rich cultural and religious practices. The cliffs and caves of the Austral Islands were ancient burial grounds and now provide a platform from which visitors can watch Humpback Whales frolic in the water just offshore as they come here from August to October to give birth.
Passengers on board Aranui 5 will take a guided tour of the island’s colourful, picturesque villages and discover the handiwork of islanders who mainly live off their artwork. They will also enjoy watching fishermen, farmers and basket weavers at work and are unlikely to leave without purchasing a hat or a woven basket to remind them of their magical time in the Austral Islands.
The Austral islands guarantee a trip out of time, an immersion in Polynesia, far, very far from the beaten track.
Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Iti is the most isolated and southernmost inhabited island of the Austral archipelago. The particular shape of the island and its remoteness does not allow one to get there by plane: only ships have access. The island is home to a population of 507, described as «the happiest people in the world”. It is so isolated that the inhabitants speak reo rapa, a language that is different from the rest of the Austral Islands. Rapa registers the lowest temperature of the 5 archipelagos: a low of up to 8°C during the dry season (July-August, with records as cold as 4°C). Thanks to this climate, visitors will find a delicious flora, unique in Polynesia: including apples and pear trees, and nectarines… An orchard worthy of the Garden of Eden! As Aranui’s passengers approach Rapa, which is only accessible by sea, the Captain may announce: “Welcome to Rapa. Next stop Antarctica.” As the southernmost inhabited island, this crescent shaped island — with a fjord-like coastline deeply indented by 12 bays —is as remote as it gets in French Polynesia. Rapa-Iti —or “small Rapa”, as the island is also called —has a strong cultural connection to Easter Island, known as Rapa-Nui or big to the Polynesians. Legend tells of the settlement of Rapa-Nui by the people of Rapa-Iti. Once home to fierce warriors who lived in fortified settlements built on terraces among volcanic peaks, the islanders now live more peaceful lives by farming and fishing.
Known as the “Bora Bora of the Austral Islands”, Raivavae’s has earned this distinction of its white sand beaches, with a large emerald lagoon and 28 motus that encircle the lush green main island. The island has a number of giant stone tikis which resemble those found in the Marquesas and on Easter Island, including an unusual smiling tiki. During a circular tour of the island visitors will also discover wood sculptures, an open-air marae temple and a series of Polynesian canoes. After the tour passengers can take a speed boat excursion to relax on one of the motus and swim in the crystal-clear lagoon.
The island formation of Rurutu is not what one expects to see in the South Pacific. Its basalt and limestone cliffs are dotted with caves where the islanders once lived close to its white sand beaches and beautiful bays, whilst its volcanic interior hides a lush tropical jungle. Both combining to create stunning visuals for Aranui’s passengers.
Archaeological digs have uncovered ancient settlements, council platforms and marae temples in the village of Vitaria, showing man’s presence around 900 A.D. Rurutu is known throughout Polynesia for the exceptionally fine quality of its woven products. From August to October each year, humpback whales can be seen and heard in Rurutu, where they come south to mate and give birth.
Tubuai is the largest island of this archipelago and hosts the main public and economic services for this island group. Its reef is scattered with fine motu (islands) of coral and volcanic rock. The huge lagoon, nearly twice as large as the island itself, offers 33 sq. mi. (85 km²) of pure aquatic fun. The mild climate also makes these islands ideal for farming. Lilies are grown around the islands for export and can be spotted in the fields as far as the eye can see.
The first explorers were struck by the island’s beauty. Toward the end of the 19th Century, explorers Wallis and Cook took a liking to the lush vegetation and crystal-clear water of the island. However, the area did not look appropriate for good anchorage given the large barrier reef around the coast. This disadvantage turned into an incredible advantage in the eyes of the famous mutineers of the HMS Bounty. Led by Christian Fletcher, they built Fort George, which no longer exists, before leaving for Pitcairn.