story by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
It was the didgeridoo that seduced me first on Fakarava. I’d just gotten off the plane—one hour from Papeete, over endless silvery ocean—and I was standing in the small open-air hut that functions as the island’s airport lounge. It was 10 a.m. and it was hot—not I’d-like-a-cool-drink hot, but I-could-be-dead-before-the-sun-goes-down hot.
Two others had disembarked with me: a dark-haired Frenchman and a muscled Austrian who could have played a perfect Hans to Schwarzenegger’s Franz. As the pumped-up Bavarian picked up his luggage, I glanced at his long thin bag and thought, “I wonder if that’s a didgeridoo”—a surprising thought not least because my knowledge of didgeridoos is, as the Aussies would say, bodgy; in other words, basically non-existent. My next thought was, “Who brings a didgeridoo to an atoll? It’s probably spearfishing equipment.”
As I lugged my bag out of the hut, I smiled genially at Hans.
“Your spears?’ I asked, pointing at his bag.
A genial smile came back.
“No,” he said, “my didgeridoo.”
Fakarava gives me my first lesson immediately: Forget what you think you know and listen. The answers are here.
If you’ve never heard of Fakarava, you are definitely in the majority: When I told people I was “going to Fakarava,” they looked taken aback, then said, “You’re going to what a what?” The atoll is one of the outliers in the Tuamotu Archipelago, itself a place most would fail to find on a map. But mention “Tahiti,” the shorthand for this part of the world, and eyes glaze as the fantasy is evoked: women, water, islands; beauty, sensuality, enticement.
Fakarava is fantastical, too. But its beauty is calmer, its sensuality rawer, its enticements purer. The reason for that, I think, is this: Unlike the more famed islands in French Polynesia—Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora—Fakarava is an atoll, one of that rare species of the oldest, most evolved islands on earth. Atolls start out as volcanic landmasses, high islands like those in the Hawaiian chain; over eons, they erode away to form a large lagoon ringed by barely-breaking-the-surface islets. Like a lot of highly evolved things, they are deceptive in their simplicity. You arrive and think, “There’s nothing here: just water, sky, a few sand spits, some coconut trees.” Stay awhile, and you begin to realize that what’s left after nearly everything has been stripped away is all that’s needed—the elementals are in place, the extraneous is gone. Atolls are Zen made manifest in nature, landscapes that link to transcendence; spend time in them and cares slip away, then wants, then needs. You become a sort of atoll yourself: devoid each day of more. Relaxation becomes so deep it feels like trance, reality so stark it’s all-encompassing. Floating in Fakarava’s lagoon at one point, thinking back to the modern, manic, man-made world I’d left behind, it seemed improbable that such a world could even exist. The water was warm, the sun brazen, the clouds full, the sky vast. I backstroked through the sea, then rolled over and looked down at the reef. A pair of butterfly fish swam by just below me in perfect symmetry. You’re down the rabbit hole, I thought, behind the wizard’s door, in Never-Never Land—whatever you want to call it, you made it in.
How does Never-Never Land become Disneyland? How does it not? Fakarava now has just one hotel, a handful of family-run pensions, fewer restaurants than your average mini-mall and an annual visitor count lower than Minsk. But it also has a lagoon that’s considered a global treasure, so pristine that it’s part of UNESCO’s biosphere reserve program. The lagoon is thirty-seven miles long, fifteen miles wide and ringed by ninety-two motus, or small islands. It has sand as fine as talc, water as clear as light, light so exquisite it led one of Fakarava’s rare visitors, Henri Matisse, to declare the place “one of the seven wonders of an artist’s heaven.” It has the largest pass in the Tuamotus, a diver’s dream of fast-moving water, undulating corals and massive pelagics. It is ripe for development.