At the southern extremity of French Polynesia’s far-flung island collective, spread across some 1.280 km (800 mi) of ocean and straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, lie the Austral Islands. There are two distinct volcanic archipelagos. The Tubuai Islands consist of Iles Maria, Rimatara, Rurutu, Tubuai and Raivavae. The Bass Islands are Rapa and Marotiri, plus various islets. Their combined land area is a mere 300 sq km (115 sq mi).
The remote Australs are largely self-sufficient and definitely not the place for those who like creature comforts. There are no resorts, and only four islands (Rurutu, Tubuai, Raivavae and Rapa) offer accommodation in small guest-houses and family pensions. These rather bare volcanic highs islands are not even the prettiest in the South Pacific, though in truth some (notably Tubuai and Raivavae) have reefs and lagoons that are the equal of any in Polynesia. But those seeking a classic resort holiday must look elsewhere, because the Australs offer something completely different.
It’s almost like stepping into a time machine and travelling backwards into the Polynesia discovered by Europeans centuries ago. The inhabitants live simply in villages where the houses and churches are often constructed in coral limestone. They catch fish, grow coffee, arrowroot, tobacco and coconuts, unworried by the cares of the modern world. Very religious, they have preserved the old rituals, celebrations, dance and polyphonic singing, giving the Australs an authenticity and traditional quality of life that can hardly fail to impress the adventurous traveler, who will be warmly welcomed to share (and respect) it. That’s the reason for coming, and there couldn’t be a better one.
Population: 6.700 (2002)
When to go: Any time – the islands enjoy a cooler climate than Tahiti, but the warmest season (November to February) is also the wettest.
How to get there: There are three flights a week from Tahiti to Rurutu, Tubuai and Raivavae.
Or spend a couple of days on the ocean – the supply ship Tuhaa Pae II sails three times a month from Tahiti (but only visits distant Rapa every six weeks).
Highlights: The aamoraa ofai ceremony on Rurutu each January and July, when youngsters from different villages prove themselves by lifting heavy stones – followed by exuberant dancing and feasting.
Old hilltop fortresses (pas) and religious gathering places (maraes) on Rapa Island.
Close-up whale watching from the cliffs of Rurutu between July and November.
Elaborate hats, mats and bags woven by islanders from pandanus and coconut leaves. Also traditional wood and stone carvings.
You should know: Canoes in the Austral Islands are the only ones in Polynesia with outriggers on the right-hand side.