Islands of lost souls scattered across South Sea archipelago
“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.