Located 1,420 km from Tahiti, this island of the Austral group, is sometimes called Rapa Iti (Little Rapa) to distinguish it from Rapa Nui (Big Rapa), a name for Easter Island. The link between the two islands is primarily due to the population transfers between them. As the indigenous Easter Islanders had been decimated by Peruvian slave raiding, the French, when they colonised Easter Island, brought Rapa Islanders there as labourers.
A remote island
With no airfield and only the cargo ship Tuhaa Pae IV calling once a month, Rapa is virtually isolated. The closest island, Ra'ivāvae, is 500 km away or 30 hours by sea. Only 515 people live on the island (2012 census), which makes the island one of the least populated of the Austral group. The Rapa islanders have their own language and it is very different from the other Austral Islands dialects.
The climate is wet and rainfall is significant (it can even rain for weeks on end). Moreover, the island is often battered by strong southerly winds. The change of seasons is more pronounced on Rapa than elsewhere in the Austral Islands (temperatures can fall as low as 5° in winter).
Why visit Rapa?
You can go to Rapa if you have your own boat, but time in port is limited. In fact, Rapa is a restricted French military zone where stopovers are permitted only to take on fresh supplies.
Among the curiosities to be seen are several ancient ruins and forts discovered by the famous archaeologist, Thor Hyeyerdahl, who also studied Easter Island. Once the settlements of Rapa were fortified and functioned as micro-states. The best preserved of them is Morongo Uta.
The highest point on Rapa, Mount Perau (650m), is an ancient volcano whose crater has been swallowed by the ocean. The main town, Ahurei, is located on the edge of this ancient crater.
The island has remained fairly wild and more than 900 bulls roam free - a real attraction!
But the main reason to go to Rapa are the islanders themselves, whose forged communal bonds and old ways are very strong.
The happiest people on earth?
The island's remoteness makes it unique. As the islanders are self-sustaining, their society is based on mutual support and sharing. It is a very tight-knit community made up of 98 families who practise the same religion (Protestantism), share the same land (property is communal) and do the same work (they farm, fish and hunt together). The society is organised around the Tohitu (a council of 12 elders), who adjudicate the distribution of land and sit on the town council. It was the Tohitu which opposed the construction of an airport in the 1990s.
A series of researchers have visited Rapa to immerse themselves in the island’s culture and to study how the islanders live. The most recent to date is sociologist Christophe Serra-Mallol, who studies GNH (Gross National Happiness). Serra-Mallol declared the Rapa islanders to be the “happiest people on earth”.