Makatea and its soaring cliffs

The Rich History of Makatea

Maktea is a beautiful atoll surrounded by spectacular cliffs, rising to a plateau of 80 meters above sea level. It is a breathtaking view, once you get over close proximity of your home to the surge and shallow reef.  We spent the morning on board watching the surge and swing of the boat.  We wanted to make sure Sugar Shack was safe before leaving her alone.  Originally, we thought the surge was close in Teti’aroa, but it is much closer here.

Surge over reef at Makatea

Surge over reef at Makatea

History of Makatea

Makatea is one of four islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago (along with NukutavakeTikei, and Tepoto Nord) that do not take the form of a typical atoll.   At 113 meters above sea level it is the tallest atoll in the world.  Despite its height, it is only 4.7 miles long with a maximum width of 4.3 miles.

Forward Thinking Leadership

Julien Mai, Le Maire (mayor) is a very forward thinking, well-educated leader.  He has grand plans for the island to make it an ecotourist destination while at the same time creating a self-sustaining environment for its people.  There are about 130 people who live on the island.  14 children attend the one school all in one class.  They start school at age 2.5 years and continue until they are 11.  Then, they go to “collect” in Rangiroa for 4-5 years to continue what we call middle school in the U.S.  If they can afford it, they will then go to Tahiti to finish with high school.

Julien has installed part 1 of a two-part solar project to power the village.  Originally it took over 20 drums of expensive diesel to power the village each month.  However, Julien installed 150 solar panels and 75 batteries that now use only 2 drums per month.  Plans to complete the solar project will be complete once the population reaches 300 people.  At that time, they will expand to 300 solar panels and 150 batteries.

Solar installation at Makaea

Solar installation at Makaea

Mākatea is almost the only Paumotuan island with potable water. Its native name derived from the drinking water being brought out of its dark caves by the local people. “Mā,” pure, clear; used here to mean water, “Atea,” light of day and “K” for euphony.  The interesting thing is that the word “makatea” is actually a type of island.  The locals do not feel that this is a name reflective of the island and are hoping to change it to “Papatea” which means “white rock.”

Makatea and its soaring cliffs

Makatea and its soaring cliffs

Phosphate Mining

Makatea is one of three important Pacific raised coral islands that had large phosphate deposits (along with Nauru and Banaba).  Phosphate mining drew hundreds of people to Makatea in the years before the French Centre d’Experimentation du Pacifique (CEP) started nuclear experiments. During the large mining years from 1906 to 1966, the mining operation brought more than 3,000 workers and families.  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 hundreds if not thousands of hand-dug holes across the upper plateau of Makatea. Each cylindrical hole is about 2.4 metres in diameter and 15-23 metres in depth. An unsuspecting visitor could easily fall into a hole and die while walking in the thick undergrowth that hides these holes.

Holes dug by phosphate mining

Holes dug by phosphate mining

Le Maire, Julien Mai recently brought in a specialist to evaluate the phosphate levels on Makatea.  The inspector said that good mining is considered to have 20% phosphate levels.  Makatea has phosphate levels of 48%.  The mayor is trying to get a new phosphate mining project approved.   An estimated 6 million tons of phosphate rock is available for mining.  It would take 350 people 35 years to excavate the rock.  This time, they are negotiating a repatriation of the island and a fee to the French Government.  The rock near the steps is an example of phosphate rock.

Phosphate rock near steps

Phosphate rock near steps

Please tune in to our next blog post to follow the rest of our adventures on Makatea.

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