French Polynesia

Kauehi – First Stop on the Aranui 5

In the last post from our recent trip to French Polynesia with Adventures Abroad I described life aboard the Aranui 5, the passenger/freighter which would be our home for the next twelve days. Now after warm up visits to Tahiti and Moorea we are ready to head out to sea and I can’t wait. Our first stop will be the tiny village of Tearavero on the atoll of Kauehi in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Please join us as we set out on another amazing adventure.

Leaving Moorea

We departed the beautiful island of Moorea headed for Papeete where the Aranui 5 was berthed not far from the ferry terminal. We could have walked, but there was a bus ready to take us the short distance to a tent where we went through the procedures necessary to board. The previous evening our guide Martin Charlton had arranged for us to get Covid tests which were a requirement for entry to the ship. The results had been forwarded in advance and everybody was negative. I’m not sure if these tests are still required or not.

Once through the tent we walked the very short distance to the gangway where we boarded and were given our ID tags and room key. The ID tags were scanned every time we left the boat and on our return. That way the crew always knew who was ashore and made sure that everyone who had left was back on board before the Aranui 5 departed.

Tahitian Dancers

After a mandatory safety drill we were treated to a display of Tahitian dancing before departing Papeete around dusk. There was a palpable feeling of excitement that permeated the entire boat, this being the first sailing to leave with actual passengers in a long time. I can tell you I was psyched, especially after finding out how nice our accommodations were as I described in the last post.

The Tuamotu Archipelago is a collection of 80 island atolls stretched across an area as big as Western Europe, but with only 16,000 inhabitants between them all. It is the largest collection of atolls on earth. Ordinarily the first stop for the Aranui 5 would be on Fakarava the second largest atoll in the archipelago and that’s what the AA itinerary had listed. However, on this cruise the much smaller atoll of Kauehi was where we were headed. If you look closely you can see Kauehi just to the right of Fakarava. It is 450 kms. (280 miles) from Tahiti.

Map of Tuamotu Archipelago with Kauehi
Map of Tuamotu Archipelago

The Tuamotus were among the last places to be inhabited by mankind, maybe as late as 1150 when people from the Society Islands group arrived and began populating some of the atolls. The first European to reach the Tuamotus was Ferdinand Magellin in 1521 during the first circumnavigation of the world. Nobody else arrived for another 75 years. Bougainville and Cook arrived a year apart in 1768 and 1769. In terms of the specific history of Kauehi, the first recorded visit was by the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835 reaching it from the Galapagos Islands where its most famous passenger, Charles Darwin had inadvertently stumbled upon the various finch species that eventually led to his Theory of Evolution.

Our overnight crossing to Kauehi was the only one on the trip that I would consider anything but smooth. There was a huge swell that was hitting the Aranui 5 amidship causing her to wallow quite noticeably from side to side. Luckily Alison and I don’t get seasick so it was no big deal. Our lack of sleep was caused by excitement and not billowing waters.

We were both up at the crack of dawn and I watched as we passed by the airstrip for Fakarava and then rounded the tip of the atoll and headed straight for Kauehi which we first saw on the horizon around 11:00 AM.

Fakarava Airstrip near Kauehi
Fakarava Airstrip

Here’s the thing about atolls that I honestly didn’t know until it was explained to us by one the guides on the Aranui 5. We all know that atolls are circular coral reefs that contain a protected inner lagoon that is often teeming with sea life. What I didn’t know is that the reefs originally formed around the edges of emerging volcanoes that have subsequently, over eons, eroded away to nothing. Thus they are far older structures than islands like Tahiti and Moorea which have the coral reefs, but also still have the volcanic remnants. One day, in a couple of million years they too will have nothing left but the reef and thus become atolls. That’s my natural history lesson of the day.

This is the view as we approached the very narrow opening into Kauehi, the only navigable passage into the atoll. By now the seas were almost dead calm.

Kauehi Approach
Approaching Kauehi

This is the view looking sideways as we passed into the Kauehi lagoon. There wasn’t exactly a lot of leeway either side.

Crossing into Kauehi
Crossing Through the Atoll Entrance

Kauehi is approximately 24 kms. (15 miles) from the entrance to the far side and 18 kms. (11 miles) wide. It has only about 200 permanent residents who apparently survive economically by processing copra which is the inner kernel of the nut from the coconut palm. The copra is then used to make coconut oil which has many commercial uses.

As far as I could tell all of the residents live in the tiny village of Teavarero which the Aranui 5 could not approach directly, but had to lay at anchor a fair distance off shore.

Approaching Tearavero, Kauehi
Approaching Tearavero

The crew then went to work unloading the passenger barge and the cargo barges in a display that was to become familiar over the coming days. This photo shows two of the barges, one returning and one departing.

Aranui 5 at Anchor off Kauehi

For the people of Kauehi this visit was a big deal, just like remote Canadian Arctic villages that might only see a supply ship once a year. There was a welcoming committee waiting playing music with leis in hand for the visitors.

Welcoming Committee, Teavarero, Kauehi
Welcoming Committee, Teavarero

As you can see the people on Kauehi are a very handsome lot with almost all of them being of pure Polynesian extraction.

Waiting to get Leied on Kauehi
Ready to get Leied

Unlike on all of the Marquesas Islands there was no local tour planned. The place was so small you could just about see everything in town on foot in an hour or two. Most of us had snorkelling gear and the plan was to spend the afternoon exploring, swimming and hanging out with the locals, many of whom had congregated under the shade of the palm trees along the water’s edge. So that’s what we did ,starting with the exploring part.

Tearavero has one main street that follows the course of the shoreline and one intersecting street. Initially we turned left from the pier and walked about as far as we could go in that direction, which wasn’t that far. There was evidence of fishing gear as in this photo, but few boats. I didn’t know it at the time, but the black plastic netting hanging from a crossbar between two palms is used in the black pearl industry of French Polynesia which is a billion dollar business. The devices are lowered into the water and are a natural (well unnatural really) place for the larvae of oysters to attached themselves and turn into tiny seedlings called spats. Once the netting is covered in spats they are removed and sold to oyster farms throughout the Tuamotus where they grow to maturity and are grafted to produce a pearl. I’ll explain the process in more detail when we visit an oyster farm on Rangiroa at the end of the voyage. Long story short, it’s a way for the fishermen of Kauehi to augment their income in a place that doesn’t have many economic opportunities.

Fishing Paraphernalia, Kauehi
Fishing and Oyster Paraphernalia

I have no idea what this rather run down monument is meant to be. Finding out information about Kauehi is next to impossible, even the Wikipedia entry is minimal and according to guide book sites it doesn’t really exist. The fact is that Kauehi sees next to no tourists, less than 2,500 a year and they mostly arrive by sailboat. There is supposedly an airstrip, but I can find no record of any scheduled air service. Air Tahiti which is the local airline serving French Polynesia has nine destinations in the Tuamotus, but Kauehi isn’t one of them. I guess what I’m getting at is that the people here are truly isolated from the rest of the world in almost every sense of the word.

Beaten Up Monument, Kauehi
Beaten Up Monument

Turning around we headed back up main street passing the Town Hall and Post Office along the way. BTW, how the hell do they get their mail delivered?

Town Hall of Teavarero, Kauehi
Town Hall

The most impressive building on Kauehi is undoubtedly the Catholic church and that was to be the case on almost every island we visited. Named for St. Mark I was actually able to get some information on this edifice. It was built well over a 100 years ago from bricks cut out if coral. Again BTW, do they actually have a priest?

Catholic Church, Kauehi
Catholic Church of St. Mark

Let’s go inside. It’s actually quite impressive.

Church Interior

This is a close up of one of the shell chandeliers, which I expect were made on the island.

Church Shell Chandelier

Continuing on down the road we come to the most interesting man made site in Kauehi, a very interesting mural which has three distinct parts. This is the centre piece with the Virgin Mary with an unknown woman behind here and a dove representing the Holy Spirit ascending over them both.

Kauehi Mural Centre Piece

Much more interesting and topical are the two side panels.

Mural Right Side

The right side depicts the flora and fauna of Kauehi. The left side a nesting colony of sooty terns with one booby on the right side. There is also an orca which apparently is quite rare in French Polynesia.

Mural of Sooty Tern Colony, Kauehi
Mural of Sooty Tern Colony

Continuing our exploration of Kauehi we come to the one cross street which is not exactly busy.

Cross Street, Kauehi

The vegetation along this street is quite lush with the whitest plumeria I have ever seen. Also known as frangipani, this flower not only looks beautiful but has a fragrance to match it making it the perfect flower from which to construct a lei.

Whitest Plumeria Ever, Kauehi
Whitest Plumeria Ever

Scattered throughout Kauehi are piles of unprocessed coconuts which will be turned into copra in due course, but there doesn’t seem to be any rush to do it anytime soon.

Coconut Piles Everywhere

Eventually we end up at the Kauehi cemetery which is not that much different than Catholic cemeteries around the world.

Cemetery on Kauehi
Kauehi Cemetery

Time now to head back to the beach and rejoin the rest of the group. Along the way I spot this old Peugeot pickup truck. I had no idea Peugeot even made such a thing.

Old Peugeot Pickup

Also a forlorn front-end loader.

Old Front End Loader

Lastly I saw the only pig we were to see on the entire trip despite the fact that pork is the mainstay meat in French Polynesia. The porker was penned up in a ramshackle sty barely large enough for him to turn around.

Penned up Porker, Kauehi
Penned up Porker

Okay, so Tearavero is not exactly a tourist’s paradise – there’s not even a bar as far as I could see. However, the people seemed to be genuinely happy here. When we got back to the main group a number of Kauehi women were demonstrating the art of palm weaving with some help from the local children. There seemed to be an easy camaraderie between the islanders and the ship’s passengers which was to be the norm at all the islands we were to visit.

Palm Weaving on Kauehi
Palm Weaving

Alison and I went for a swim in the deliciously warm water which was a little too cloudy for snorkelling, but felt like having a milk bath. At least that is my recollection, but it sure doesn’t look like it in this photo. Gee we’re on a South Pacific island with nothing more to worry about than not having a coconut fall on your head. What could be better?

Alison on Kauehi

Actually, Kauehi was completely different than any other island we visited. It was by far the smallest and with the fewest amenities and a way of life that may be gradually disappearing as young people seek opportunities elsewhere. I am glad we saw it before this happens.

Next we spend a full day and night at sea before arriving at Nuku Hiva, the first of the Marquesas islands. I hope to see you there.


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