15 March, 2024

A Phosphate Surprise and a freshwater swim...

The French Polynesian island of Makatea in a corner of the Tuamotu Archipelago is unlike any other we would visit on this entire trip, and we were taken quite by surprise to see it as it grew on the horizon. Our approach showed a long and 80m tall white cliff, almost a sea cliff, with very little between cliff and sea. Makatea is an uplifted coral atoll, meaning it has been pushed up out of the water by tectonic forces. Every other atoll we have seen has hardly had any height above sea level at all.

The NatGeo Orion approaches Makatea, and we can see those white cliffs. [5608]

We round the cliffs of Makatea to approach the port. [5618]

Approaching Makatea port. [5717]

At the post-industrial port on the old phosphase mining island of Makatea. [5622]

Wikipedia says "phosphate mining drew hundreds of people to Makatea in the years before the French ... started nuclear experiments. For over two decades or even longer, Makatea was a very active little island because of the ships arriving to load phosphate and to bring supplies and food to the many workers and their families that lived there. After the end of the phosphate exploitation, Makatea was almost totally left on its own with only a few families left to guard the island. The mining produced thousands of hand-dug holes across the upper plateau of Makatea. Each cylindrical hole is about 2.4min diameter and 15-23 metres depth... The once active village where the miners lived had a school, bakery, first-aid medical centre, and all the things needed to make life comfortable. All that remains today has been destroyed by time and nature. The school and other places have been levelled to the ground and grown over by vines and jungle."

That mining technique has left Makatea with a bizarre and exceeding dangerous landscape on the plateau. We discovered that as we made our way to a Belvedere, a lookout which provides spectacular views of the coast, and some distant glimpses of soaring wildlife, most white terns. And it seems that Wikipedia is a little out of date with that "all that remains today" description. By our obervations Makatea hosts a small population living in houses near the top of the plateau, and the port area, complete with industrial ruins, is kept neat and tidy. Some of us were taken up to the Belvedere in the back of a small fleet of pick-up trucks, now familiar transport to us.

The locals on Makatea welcome visitors, and are hoping to rebuild the island's reputation as a destination. [5639]

The path to Belvedere Lookout was narrow, twisty with deep phosphate mining holes on each side. Here, the barefooted wonder-girl Karla, lends assistance to an unstable expeditioner. [5685]

From the Belvedere [5647]

A white tern captured in bokeh with the distant ocean. [5649]

A booby, I think, flying overhead on Makatea. [5713]

From the Belvedere, we walked down the other size to a grotto. This steep downhill trail passed a location famed for a rare endemic bird, the Makatea Fruit Dove, but while we supposedly heard it, we didn't actually lay eyes on it. The grotto itself was a surprise one of very few in Polynesia, one of very few with potable water. In fact, the name Makatea is derived from the fresh drinking water being brought out of its dark caves by the local people, meaning something like "pure water meeting the light of day". We were able to swim in this grotto, which probably didn't add to the water's purity. It was dark, pretty steep and slippery, getting into the grotto, but someone (the NatGeo Expedition team?) had laid a few dim lights to guide us. Louise, the French Polynesian dive-master who had joined the crew when we arroved in this country, amongst others, helped us down this difficult access trail. The cool fresh water was an absolute delight to immerse youself into. It was possible to swim maybe 25m into the grotto. Our fleet of pick-up trucks returned us to the port.

Louise, normally a dive-master, helping us elderly expeditions down the climb into the grotto. [5705]

Dark and gloomy in the grotto, but the water was fresh, cool and blissful. Not sure it was wise to be allowed to swim here, for the sake of the water itself. [0967]

Makatea is not an atoll at all, but an elevated coral reef. We approached from the north-east for the best view of those tall cliffs, but went ashore on the west.

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