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TripNut Travel Reporter

Spectacular Raiatea

An Island with A Dark Past

Author : Kate Schneider

Posted On : Sep 25, 2013


It truly seems like paradise.

But it’s the legend behind this idyllic island that is truly mesmerising, and rather chilling. Because when you step foot on Raiatea, you’re actually arriving at a place where human sacrifices were made. Exact numbers are not known, but according to legend, they were frequent.

Located 192 kilometres northwest of Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, Raiatea is far less travelled than its world-famous stunner of a neighbour Bora Bora. But it’s perfect for those who like to venture off the beaten track. And they will be rewarded with a truly fascinating history.

Known as “Sacred Island”, the word Raiatea actually means “far away heaven” and is home to some of Tahiti’s most significant archaeological sites.

The huge volcanic island, which stretches for 167 square kilometres, was established before 1000AD and regarded as the centre of the eastern islands in ancient times.

That’s because it was the island from which all of eastern Polynesia was colonised; according to legend, Raiatea’s first king, Hiro, built a huge canoe to reach the other Polynesian islands.

In the following years, priests and navigators flocked from all over French Polynesia regularly to give offerings to the gods and hold ceremonies. Glancing around, evidence of the sacred nature of the site abounds.

One of the gods, Oro (the god of war) was said to demand human sacrifices. So that’s what the locals did, particularly in the 18th century; indeed, archaeologists have recently uncovered what they believe to be human bones beneath its grand altar. As well as sacred rocks and other structures, Tikis are also found at Raiatea, in order to house the spirit of a person who has died.

According to my guide Suzannah, the island will eventually sink, becoming an atoll. In fact, it’s currently sinking at a rate of 7-11 millimetres a year.

Not everyone is happy about the presence of the Tiki, however, as it’s believed that both good and evil spirits can set up home inside them. Nervously, I approached one of the Tikis, asking our guide Suzannah: “If I take a photo of the Tiki will I be cursed?”

Volcanic in nature, the island was one of many in the area that sprang up in the middle of nowhere, and is eerily devoid of most species of wildlife. The only animals that exist on the island were brought by humans who populated the islands, such as horses, dogs and rats. There are also crabs, and bird species — and a lot of marine life such as fish (with 500 species).

And visitors who climb up Mount Temehani could get a glimpse of the Tiare Apetahi, a flower that grows nowhere else on Earth. But remember, it’s against the law to pick them.

She assured me that wouldn’t be the case. Nevertheless, I felt a shiver creep up my spine as I imagined what had gone on right where I was standing, all those years ago.

Today it’s home to more than 12,000 inhabitants. King Tamatoa VI was the last monarch, reigning from 1884-1888.