Is­lands of lost souls scat­tered across South Sea ar­chi­pel­ago

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - — Dou­glas Wiss­ing

“I am Louie — ‘Louis,’ the French way,” our stocky bare­foot Poly­ne­sian guide said, push­ing off on a boat tour to is­lands in the Gam­bier atoll.

His Tahi­tian as­sis­tant, Malv­ina, was wrapped in a f lo­ral pareu with a peach-colored hibis­cus be­hind her ear.

Be­cause I was familiar with the sad his­tory of the his­tor­i­cal Laval pe­riod, I was in­ter­ested in see­ing some of the now-al­most-un­in­hab­ited is­lands, where rem­nants of old Gam­bier re­mained. (The tour, ar­ranged through my lodg­ing, a pen­sion, cost about $50.)

We were soon wad­ing to­ward Tar­a­vai’s white sand beach, where an ele­giac twin-hearted arch framed the old Église Saint-Gabriel.

One of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s is­lands of lost souls, Tar­a­vai was home to 2,000 peo­ple when its is­lan­ders erected the im­pos­ing Nor­man-styled church in the mid-19th cen­tury. Now only a hand­ful of peo­ple re­main.

Though the white-steepled church is slowly molder­ing, fresh trop­i­cal flow­ers still adorn the elab­o­rately carved al­tar.

On nearly un­pop­u­lated Aka­maru, a wide, bromeliad-bor­dered prom­e­nade led to the prim Église NôtreDame-de-la-Paix.

Walk­ing through Aukena’s gloomy jun­gles to French Je­suit priest Honoré Laval’s aban­doned sem­i­nary and tow­er­ing stone kiln was plain spooky, and the nearby grind­stone and bee­hive oven poignant relics of the Poly­ne­sians who la­bored here.

Then there was desert is­land time: It was a hot, dry clam­ber up the steep slopes of Mekiro, a dot of un­in­hab­ited vol­canic rock. The climb was re­warded with a mag­nif­i­cent panorama of the reef and the Pa­cific stretch­ing to the hori­zon.

On tiny Bird Is­land, black noddy terns watched im­pe­ri­ously from their large nests, while freshly hatched white fairy tern chicks perched on bare branches, where their moth­ers had pre­car­i­ously laid eggs.

Af­ter lunch, Malv­ina cast for fish as four baby sharks cir­cled just off the beach. Watch for the mother, she said, by way of warn­ing.

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