Mangareva, French Polynesia: Home of the seemingly impossible 'floating mountain'

The sea and sky are one, a thick blanket of brume and gloom spreading in all directions. Leaning over the rail of my ship, the National Geographic Orion, my eyes water as I strain to catch the first glimpse of our destination, a puff of land in one of the most remote island groups in French Polynesia.

A smudge on the horizon morphs into a mountain; a curled dragon adrift in a silver sea. From the water it's easy to see how the original Polynesian explorers named the island Mangareva, "the floating mountain".

I turn to face the wind, pull my hair into a makeshift ponytail and smile with delight. This may not be the blue Pacific promised by the postcards, rather, it's the raw and exciting privilege of visiting one of the far-flung corners of the globe, storm and all.

Situated more than 1600 kilometres south-east of Tahiti, Mangareva is the largest island of the Gambier group. After days cruising through the "low-isles" of the Tuamotu Archipelago the volcanic Gambier Islands are a verdant surprise. Formed from collapsed craters the islands are upholstered in dark-green, the rich vegetation hanging like pleated skirts from their steep mountainsides.

The first Zodiac comes bucketing around to the NG Orion's launch platform, its bow rising and falling like the snout of a giant sea creature. Within minutes we are ashore at the main town of Rikitea, the sound of wooden drums drawing us across the foggy lagoon to a small wharf.

Smiling faces and flower leis belie the fact that the villagers didn't known we were coming until we appeared on the horizon. Ours is a true expedition journey, where itineraries are loose and landings are at the whim of the weather. With its ice-strengthened hull, stabilisers and fleet of 14 Zodiacs, the 102-passenger NG Orion was purpose-built for expedition travel, bringing passengers to remote places where other cruise ships rarely travel.

The islanders speak French and Mangarevan, with very little English. Through charades and the help of our French-speaking dive master we manage to communicate with Marie, one of the welcoming party who has offered to lead us on a walking tour of her town.

Strolling the dusty concrete road that rings the island I'm quickly engulfed in village life. Children ride by with a smile and cheery "bonjour". Ladies dressed in brightly coloured frocks come out of tidy homes offering to share their umbrellas. Overhead 441-metre-high Duff Mountain looms above the island like a cathedral.

A lecture the previous evening by Orion's cultural specialist had introduced us to the island's convoluted history. We'd learned that Mangareva was settled as part of a wave of Polynesian migration about 1200 years ago, but by 1834 their traditional society was destroyed by the arrival of Father Honore Laval.

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Dubbed the "mad priest of Mangareva'', Laval endeavoured to replace every traditional stone marae with a church, a project that brought hardship and the loss of many lives. The unique Mangarevan system for counting, a hybrid of a decimal and a binary system, was also extinguished. It is sobering to think these isolated people were using a binary system centuries before Gottfried Leibniz "invented'' the modern binary number system.

We are introduced to Laval's handiwork at the imposing Cathedral Saint-Michael, built to hold 1200 people it is one of the most impressive churches in the south Pacific. Thankfully, Marie is equally interested in showing us how the islanders are reclaiming their traditional ways. Over the course of our stay we visit a technical school where students are learning shell carving, listen to stories about mythology and buy black pearls for a fraction of the price they are sold in Pape'ete.

On the Zodiac ride back to our ship I take a final look at the seemingly impossible floating mountain, a rare crack of sunshine illuminating its peak. At last, the divine Maui, the god who lifted the land from the sea and lassoed the sun with tresses of hair, is back in his rightful place.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/french-polynesia

FLY

Air New Zealand operates flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Auckland and then on to Pape'ete. See airnewzealand.com.au

CRUISE

Lindblad Expeditions' 20-day "Tahiti to Easter Island: Tales of the Pacific" cruise starts at $23,240. See expeditions.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

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