The Gambier Archipelago has all the makings of an exquisite holiday destination. A single reef surrounds a small archipelago with attractive, lush, high, green islets engulfing a gorgeous crystal clear and calm lagoon. The Gambier is also the cradle of Polynesian Catholicism and is home to an impressive cathedral. But today, the main product from the archipelago are pearls. Some of the world’s best and most colorful.
Administratively and geologically the Gambier is linked to the Tuamotu Archipelago within French Polynesia. But for many cultural reasons along with the fact that the Gambier Islands are volcanic rather than coral atolls, the islands are considered to be their own group. You even get your own passport stamp when you enter and leave the Gambier Archipelago, even if coming from Tahiti.
There is one expensive flight a week that comes from Tahiti. The return flight from Tahiti to the Gambier will be over $1000. From the airport you take a communal slow ferry; which cost 500 CFP to the island of Rikitea and the port of Mangareva.
Mangareva is where the majority of the just over 1000 residents of the Gambier Archipelago live. The sleepy little port town has a very calm lagoon for weary yachties who have just come across the Pacific from South America. Some stay for weeks, literally just chilling in the pristine lagoon.
The town itself has a few little stores, one sort of paved road, a gendarmerie (Police), and a pizza place that is only open on weekends. It also has a massive cathedral that actually can sit more people than the population of the whole entire archipelago at some 1200 people.
Originally built when the Catholic mission was set up on Rikitea in the 1800’s. In the last few years it underwent a $2 million renovation and is quite nice. I went inside although I wasn’t supposed to and it is pretty cool inside. It is certainly the most recognizable landmark in Mangareva and the whole archipelago.
I was supposed to stay at Pension Maro’I but apparently the governor of the archipelago was hosting some French dignitaries who were investigating the pearl farms. My shipmate from the Pitcairn boat, Roy, and I got bumped to the owners sisters house at the top of the hill.
This did not please us after we had already paid in accordance with the Pitcairn package but what can you do. After some careful rearranging of their house to make for two rooms, I spent the night trying to stay sane with their two children’s incessant banging on my door and the blaring TV directly outside my paper-thin wall.
It wouldn’t have been that bad but the house is literally at the top of a massive steep hill in the middle of the island so it makes for getting anywhere on either side really annoying. So we had to rely on the man of the house (who never spoke in English or French-he just listened to his headphones in silence) driving us back and forth from the original hotel for meals. That’s life. At least there were great sunset views.
We were able to make friends with a 20-year-old guy who operates one of the biggest pearl farms on Rikitea at dinner. We got him to take us on the boat to check out the operation the next morning after breakfast. It was really cool and it was the highlight of the stay to me.
Each pearl that they pull out of the oysters can potentially be worth thousands of dollars even though the prices have slumped majorly after the world economic crisis. They have a real assembly line working at these little farmhouses perched in the water over the reef. There are about 8 people working at a given time.
They chop up the process. One person lays and pulls up the screens that hold the oysters. Another washes them when they are pulled up. Then a runner brings them to the guy who essentially shucks the shell of sediment and little corals that may have developed on them.
Another guy sticks a separator in them and delivers them to the two people whose job it is to open the oyster with fine instruments and pull out the pearl and/or culture the pearl by inserting a nucleus into the oyster. It is very streamlined and fun to watch them in action. They really know what they’re doing although the whole operation did kind of resemble a sweatshop of some sort.
My time on Rikitea was a nice break after the grueling boat ride back from Pitcairn Island. Mangareva is either the first or last port that you will see coming to or going from Easter Island. With all it’s natural beauty, the archipelago has a lot of potential for a lot more tourism but for now the Gambier Archipelago is a nice place to chill out. Life is slow, people are nice and there is no rush. Maybe you can even find some pearls…
The Gambier Archipelago
April 22, 2012 by 12 Comments