Remote Rapa Iti
Bill Tuttle, January 2003
At the far southern reaches of Polynesia, hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbor, lies the very embodiment of the romantic South Pacific -- the island of Rapa. Also called Rapa Iti to distinguish it from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Rapa is the remnant of a collapsed volcano, its submerged crater forming the island's harbor. Entering this caldera aboard a ship, travelers get a first look at the island's stunning natural beauty. Basaltic spires, projections, and steep ridges, all covered in lush, tropical vegetation, surround the crater rim.
An exploration inland presents further evidence of the splendid variety of this 14-square-mile landmass. Six dramatic peaks soar above the ocean waves, skirted by a low, dense undergrowth of ferns and raspberry bushes resembling thimbleberries. Farther along, coffee trees grown wild form a sort of arboreal tunnel. Other island flowers and plants include guava, taro, casuarina, oleander, geraniums, and Easter lilies. (The number of known plant species on Rapa continues to grow. A 2002 scientific expedition to the island catalogued 11 new plants, as well as two more unseen since the 1930s.) At the top of the ridge, the view is spectacular, affording a view of the entire caldera.
Even though the island's size precludes the presence of large indigenous mammals, a large number of goats and wild cattle, food for the human population, may be found grazing on the mountainsides. The birdlife is plentiful however, with black-winged and storm petrels wheeling in the skies and nesting in the fern forests on Rapa's western edge. White fairy terns; red-tailed tropicbirds; Rapa fruit doves; black, brown, and blue-gray noddies; and wandering tattlers also compose part of the avian display.
In centuries past, humans more densely populated Rapa. In 1791 George Vancouver, the first European to land on the island, found approximately 1,500 people living on the island. Warfare among these people may have been fairly common, as Vancouver noted the existence of 28 forts, strategically situated on the ridges at an elevation of 1,500 feet. Palisade walls, masonry, and terraces surrounded each fort, and the current theory is that Rapa's inhabitants lived on the ridges and descended to the lowlands daily to tend their crops. In case of attack, they would flee to the nearest fort, which also had stored food and a water spring, for sanctuary. The ruins of these Polynesian fortresses, or pas, continue to overlook the bay.
Today, about 500 people, mostly fishers and farmers, live in small villages on the island. Rapa's small size, lack of development, and isolation combine to ensure the villagers lead a peaceful existence far from the frenzied pace of the modern world. The people of Rapa are well known for their music and dances. The latter follows in the Polynesian grain of telling stories through dance, and the music often blends traditional songs with church songs introduced by missionaries. Recordings by an island group have introduced a worldwide audience to this genre