Black Pearls, Reef Sharks, & Ancient Ghosts
A cruise to Makemo atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, delivers treasures, friendships, and discoveries.
Moments later, we pulled the dinghy ashore, and Peter and I crept into the cool, quiet shadows of the palm trees, letting our eyes adjust to the dim light. Before us, in a nest of coconut husks and fallen palm fronds, stood the skeleton of a house. Its design was square and straightforward. The roof had long since rotted away. There was a whispering sound in the leaves. I whirled around, but we were alone. We crunched our way through the forest, looking for more signs of human habitation. A spider web brushed sticky tendrils across Peter’s face. He grabbed a stick and waved it around, clearing the path before us.
In a little while, we came across the remains of stone foundations rising forlornly out of the forest rubble. They appeared to be made of the same rough concrete as the house, but a closer inspection revealed unmistakable signs of South Pacific origin: the cement had been mixed with chunks of dead marine life, so that fan coral and brain coral studded the remains of the wall, fossilized reminders of the lives that once inhabited this place.
After the foundations, there were no more human traces, but the forest was filled with life. Many of the desiccated coconuts scattered at our feet had neat, round holes carved in their husks, and the palm trees arching overhead had similar cavities drilled into their trunks. Had people left these traces behind?
Another rustling at our feet, and we had our culprit. A seashell the size of my fist was stealthily trying to make its way across the ground. “Look at this!” I called to Peter, picking up the shell. Two large, black eyes poked their way outside, followed by a pair of antennae. The crab extended a hesitant claw. Its carapace was the bright, shiny red of a toy fire engine. I offered a kiss, but it darted back into its shell, not amused.
After that first one, we saw crabs everywhere. They scuttled across the forest floor and clustered together, napping, in the roots of trees. “I’ll bet that’s what’s eating all the coconuts,” Peter suggested. “These are coconut crabs. They’re the ones drilling holes in the sides of the palm trees, too.”
We continued our walk, but for a while, it seemed that what we’d seen all that remained of the people who once lived here, in their homes made of sea life and palm fronds, fishing on the reef and sharing coconuts with the crabs. Then we found the cemetery.
By then, the skies had cleared. In a little sun-dappled clearing, we found a small collection of headstones. “Tuhiva Fanau, 1907 Pohe 1927,” read one, with a little seashell necklace carefully draped across it. Someone still tended this gravesite, after 80 years.
There were perhaps half a dozen graves in all. The markers we could read told us these people had died in the early part of the 20th century, all within a generation of each other. What a different life they would’ve known, living on the edge of this little coral atoll. They were the grandparents of the people we’d met in town, the modern French citizens riding new mopeds with warm baguettes tucked under their arms.
So these were the ancients. They wouldn’t have had pain au chocolat to be sure, and I’m sure they didn’t have a clue about iPods. But paddling these waters in their outrigger canoes, they would’ve kept a sharp eye out for the very same coral heads that we’d dodged that morning. They would’ve paddled a little faster when the gray sharks got too close. And I’ll bet they even had black pearls.
Looking at the satellite dishes in the village, you might be fooled into thinking that the Tuamotus have changed forever. But hop in your boat and get a little ways outside town. The ancient coral still bares its teeth. The black night is lit only by a ghostly moon. You’re still perched on the edge of an underwater volcano, rising thousands of feet from the depths of the Pacific. In many ways, Makemo is still wild. Only now, the puff pastry is so much better.
Antonia Murphy and her husband, Peter, crossed the Pacific in 2007, and they now live in New Zealand with their two children, Silas and Miranda. She’s seeking a publisher for her book about New Zealand, Rough as Guts.