Saturday 27 April 2019
Unlike the other Tuamotos there is no airstrip or lagoon - the only
option is to use one of the 3 mooring buoys anchored in about 60m of
water on the edge of the pacific abyss. If the wind is in the wrong
direction, there would be no landing possibility.
We had a quiet overnight passage and arrived as the sun was rising,
picking up one of these buoys alarmingly close to the breakers on the
reef. We waited until a decent time and then called Mayor Julien to
confirm our arrangement for a tour of the island and lunch starting at
There were the remains of a large port facilities, but it was all broken
up and the entrance to the tiny harbour was narrow (5m) between crashing
waves. Our tender, Snowy, has a couple of leaks and this tested our
faith in the little boat, but she did fine!
As we arrived, a lad was displaying the the huge 'Napolean' fish he had
caught. A lurid blue with big teeth and a bulbous forehead, it was
definitely a prop from a sci-fi movie.
Julien appeared shortly after and so began an extraordinary few hours
on an amazing island with wonderful man.
The island has a population of 84 now, but it wasn't always like this.
From 1906 to 1966 a French company mined phosphate here and the
population was over 3500. It was dug by hand from between the rock on
the summit plateau before being taken by train and conveyor to the
waiting ships using port infrastructure we had seen. Ships of up to
250,000tonne had moored where we were tied up and filled with the
valuable phosphate. In 1966, General De Gaulle decreed that the
future of French Polynesia was nuclear. The island was given 2
weeks notice and on Sept 6th mining ceased and almost everybody left.
Only 30 islanders remained. As Julien said, on Sept 6th 1966 time
stopped for Makatea.
At the top of the hill we stopped at the old workshops. Huge lathes,
mills and other machine tools which used to be all driven by overhead
drive shaft and belts are now there gently crumbling into the jungle.
As we drove slowly to the village, he pointed out the foundations of
the old store, managers' offices, church, abattoir, bakery etc - all of
them just a few raised lumps of concrete poking out from the
vegetation. An old steam train - just like Percy the green engine -
rotted gently in the trees.
There is clearly resentment at how they were treated, but Julien told
us passionately how he wants the island to take control of its future
and build business opportunities. An Australian company is serious
about restarting mining operations on the island and if it goes ahead,
part of the agreement is to make good all the holes that were left from
the previous operation. He's also organising a 4-day eco-retreat
holiday for 350 people in June. Camping on the gorgeous east coast,
they can climb, abseil kite-surf. Julien says he has secured agreement
to redevelop the harbour to add a breakwater and landing area to allow
and all-weather landing. This is a must-have if the island is to
thrive. To mark a new beginning for the island, he wants to change
its name to 'Papatea' - land of the white stone. All through our tour
and lunch his drive to improve the island shone through and I think the
whole crew wished him every success and just hope his dreams aren't
dashed by the reality of corporate and government decision-making.
In amongst all this, he had asked his son-in-law to show us some
caves. We trooped down into the dark not knowing what to expect, and
were surprised to find ourselves stripped to our underwear swimming
around in cool freshwater through spectacular underground grottoes.
The calcified rock formations made amazing Gaudi-esque forms, and I
think we were quite awestruck.
After the tour he gave us a great lunch - the tuna was a highlight and
showed us a 1961 documentary about mining on the islands and we could
recognise so many of the places we had seen earlier, but in the
documentary the place was humming wit activity.