Lesson 8: The Austral Islands

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The Austral islands are well off the of usual travelers’ path. Composed of two distinct island groups, the Tubuai Islands in the northwest and the Bass Islands, including the main island of Rapa Iti in the southeast, the Australs are “high islands”–volcanic, mountainous, rugged and isolated, even from each other. The people of the comparatively temperate Australs lived quietly on the islands for about a thousand years before British explorer James Cook happened by in 1777, followed by a trickle of visitors who brought European diseases and an unfortunate contingent of slave traders; together they devastated the population. Today the about 6,000 people who live on the islands are mainly fishers and farmers.

The Australs used to be known for their their ancient arts–especially woodcarvings and pandanus weavings–but since missionaries arrived in the 19th century ancient techniques have almost completely disappeared. Today visitors might come to the Australs to visit see whales, which meet in the warm, shallow water from June to October, or to observe the unique twice-yearly festival on Rurutu during which villagers participate in the unique custom of “amoraa ofai,” a feat of strength that consitss of listing huge volcanic stones on their shoulders, some up to 300 pounds. France annexed the Australs in 1880.



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