Maupihaa. A Few People on A Tiny Island

Maupihaa

Maupihaa

We sail overnight with Bowie and Debora and all of their stuff from Maupiti to Maupihaa and drift not far from the atoll for the final dark hours of the night before entering through the narrow, shallow, full with coral heads pass, notorious for its dangerous strong tidal current. Thanks to Ovitalmap and Bowie’s local knowledge, we enter without problems in the lagoon- our final French Polynesian blue lagoon, before heading through the Cooks, Niue and Tonga to New Zealand.

Maupihaa

Maupihaa

We drop anchor near the long sandy beach of the main island. Mauihaa is part of the Society Island Group, even though the atoll is exactly like the Tuamotus, without a volcanic island in the center. There are two more yachts in the lagoon, but very far away from us.

Fata Morgana at anchor in Maupihaa

Fata Morgana at anchor in Maupihaa

The low flat coral island is thin and long like a green snake, about 200 meters wide and a few kilometers long. The most luxurious coconut palm forest covers the entire land surface.

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The waters in the lagoon are turquoise, calm and clear like liquid glass. Myriad of healthy corals, giant blue, purple and green clams, and all sorts of tiny tropical fish visible through the water even without a mask populate the shallows. Any seven-star resort would be envious of this place. But there is no resort here, not even one tiny hotel. There is no city, no port or airport. There are no facilities, no electricity, no internet, no stores, no schools, not even a church. Only one dirt road running parallel to the beach from one end of the island to the other, connecting six or seven small tin houses.

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Only a handful of people live permanently on the island- less than a dozen, and even they leave the place for a few months every few years to visit their families in the inhabited islands of the area- the nearest one being Maupiti one hundred nautical miles to the east. Their main activity and reason to be here is to make copra- dried coconut, which they export on the cargo ships twice a year. The same cargo ships bring them supplies and can take them on or off the island every 6-8 months.

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We are tired after a night of sailing, but only a couple of hours after we drop off our hitchhikers on their island, Bowie and his son Kevin show up in a homemade wooden boat.

– Let’s go fishing!

Bowie didn’t sleep for a minute last night, yet he is fresh as a cucumber and eager to go fishing!

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With their boat- rotten and falling apart- we head for the pass. On the opposite side of the main island, there are a couple of small coral islets covered with low shrubs home of colonies of sea birds. We pass in the shallows between two of those islets and the outer reef. Bowie and Kevin know every inch of the waters, every coral, every shallow and every deep place. They slowly navigate to a spot, where a narrow cut between the reefs makes for a perfect fish trap. There, with Ivo’s help, they attach a fishing net to the rocks from one end to the other blocking the entrance of the cut. Bowie starts walking slowly toward the net splashing the water from the other side, scaring the fish.

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Silver mullets, turquoise parrot fish and other reef fish panic and try to escape but get stuck in the net. The trap works. In just five minutes we have about twenty eatable fishes of decent size. A couple for us, a few for Bowie and his family and the rest- for the other people on the island.

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In Maupihaa the locals share their catch and almost everything else, like one big family. Well, maybe because they are only about a dozen people, which is less than some big families, and also because their way of life is very much different than the way of life in the civilized world.

Debora, collecting sea shells to make jewelry

Debora, collecting sea shells to make jewelry

Here, there is nothing except what nature provides. And so, when someone goes fishing, which means spending precious fuel, he catches enough fish for everyone on the island and distributes it to his neighbors.

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On the reefs, there are lobsters, easy to catch at low tide on a moonless night, using nothing more than a flashlight. Once under the spotlight the lobsters freeze and all you have to do is pick them up. The coconut crabs- the ultimate delicacy we have ever tried- proliferate in the coconut groves. They also come out at night and the best way to attract them is to leave a few open coconuts for them somewhere in the forest and come back to the spot after dark. All they eat is coconuts, so an open one is a great attraction, as they won’t have to work for hours to break through it. The sea birds and sea bird eggs from the small coral islets complement the locals’ sea food diet, and occasionally they eat sea turtles too (only large turtles, one every 3-4 months for everyone on the island). Besides coconuts, which provide coconut water for drinking, there are papaya and banana trees. Some of the people we met had ordered soil (besides all other supplies they need) delivered on the cargo ships stopping here twice a year, and are producing tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, pumpkins and watermelons. Some kept also chickens and pigs. There were many dogs on the island, but we didn’t dare asking if the dogs are for eating, which in such an isolated small Polynesian island wouldn’t be exceptional or surprising. In any case, the off-grid way of life in Maupihaa seems very harmonious with nature.

Coconut crab

Coconut crab

As long as the population on the island remains the size of one big family, the natural resources- fish, birds, eggs, crabs, lobsters and turtles will not be affected or overexploited. Maupihaa’s inhabitants are very conscious about the problem of overexploitation in other places, so they are determined to keep their atoll healthy and their way of life simple and sustainable.

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Everywhere we go people greet us with big smiles, talk to us for a long time and want to give us something, even if we have nothing to give in return, but a bit of rice or a can of ravioli. One man gives us a bag of fruits and vegetables from his garden.

The men with the best garden in Maupihaa

The men with the best garden in Maupihaa

Every day we have a coconut crab for lunch, fish for dinner and a few sea bird eggs to try out of curiosity.

Coconut crab for lunch

Coconut crab for lunch

I am a bit concerned about taking eggs from the bird colonies on the little bird islets. But Bowie explains, that the missing eggs will soon be replaced with new ones and balance in the bird colonies shall be restored.

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We only take the spotted eggs from the small white birds Bowie calls “kabeka” which are abundant here. The boobies and frigates have already hatched and the babies all covered with white fluffy dоwn are now quite big.

Baby Frigate bird

Baby Frigate bird

They are funny to watch, sitting in their nests under the burning sun, waiting for their parents to bring them another portion of pre-digested fish.

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Baby boobie bird

Life in Maupihaa seems very idyllic. For a few days. The perfect lagoon, the perfect beach, the perfect coconut forest, abundance of fish, lobsters and crabs, coconuts, bananas and papayas. No one to tell you what to do, no pressure, no schedule. No money involved. Slow rhythm of oblivion. And nothing else.  All the things we hate and love, things we are addicted to, are missing here.

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Visiting such place- passing through for a few days- is very exciting and beautiful, and we all compare it with paradise. But remaining month after month, year after year on a few square kilometers of sand and coconut trees is a whole different situation. Would you do it?

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We borrow two bicycles from Bowie and from their neighbors and explore the island looking for Hina. Our friends Krisha Barakova and Adrian Albu aboard S/V Anka I told us to visit Maupihaa and to say hi to Hina- one of the first and most legendary inhabitants here.

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We find her at the end of the island. She is all smiles, greeting us as if we are old friends, and shows us around the house. Like the rest of the people in Maupihaa, Hina has a waterhole with fresh water for washing, where seawater filters through the sand, a rain catching system, couple of solar panels for lights and the radio. She owns the only SSB radio on the island, which the inhabitants use to call their relatives on the other islands, as well as the sailing boats. She has no fridge, and for fire she burns wood and coconut peals.

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Hina first came in Maupihaa with her family in 1993 when she was 20 years old. There were about 100 people living here at that time, families with kids, many houses. But from 1993 to 1997 cyclones destroyed everything. No one was left on the island. Everywhere was brown, nothing was left but sand.

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Hina spent two years in the army in France, but didn’t like it. She didn’t like having someone telling her what to do. In 2000 she returned in Maupihaa. For a few years, over ten if I remember correctly, Hina was the only person living on the island. Maupihaa’s one and only inhabitant. One hundred nautical miles from the nearest village. Completely alone, she was making copra, welcoming the occasional sailboat, and enjoy her freedom in a paradise she calls home.

– I have everything I need here. I miss nothing. Maupihaa is my home and when you come back, you’ll find me here.

Hina

Hina

Images from Maupihaa

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maupihaa1 Watch our 22-minute video and meet the locals in Maupihaa. Check out all the strange things we had to eat there for the first time! Coconut Crabs and Se Bird Eggs on The Menu.

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