Some would consider him a fool and others, an adventurer. Jean-Pierre Marquant is both and then some… Challenges feed his soul. In his book, Le Coureur d’atolls (The Atoll Runner), he writes of his adventures in French Polynesia at the beginning of the 1990s when he took off on a discovery of atolls and islands off the beaten path.
Toau Atoll and Otugi Pass
The southeastern coast of Toau atoll appears through the port side amid the light of a graying dawn. We are going to sail along the coast towards the north until we find a good pass, one that spews out the raging current. It is in this very pass that our navigator and risk-taking diver friend Laurent Bourgnon disappeared during a deep sea dive on Wednesday, June 24 2015. I had dedicated my book Le Coureur d’atolls to him shortly before his disappearance. He knew about the dangers of passes such as this one and that the outgoing current could carry off a diver for hundreds of meters. He was never found. Laurent, for those who did not know him, was several times a winner of the Route du Rhum. He was first in the Solitaire du Figaro (1988), winner of the Québec-Saint Malo (1992), the Route du Café (1993), the Transat Jacques Vabre (1997) and he held the record for solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1994 (7 days, 2 hours and 34 mins).
Three lost atolls…
One day, Jean, the captain of a small schooner, says he is taking off for three islands located far north of Bora Bora. The isle of Bellinghausen only receives goods and services twice a year.
Forty-eight hours later, we climbed up the wobbly plank that led to a deck loaded with goods. My vahiné Hina—a stunning Polynesian who was first runner-up for Miss Raiatea—and her brother Ropati (Robert), had never been there either.
With camping gear and quite a bit of personal provisions—since you don’t get fed on board these small coastal vessels, I load my funboard with the hope that if we came across some wind, I would be the first to slice a line through these fabulous lagoons. The sea gusts whip our delighted faces. Bora Bora slowly grows larger.
Despite its dilapidated state, I instantly love the ambience of this schooner with its funnel sealed with a cover that rises with each evacuation of smoke. The sound is soft, almost silky. Dolphins smoothly accompany us to the exit of Urepiti pass at Tahaa island right next to the late Joe Dessin’s stunning property. I had met him a few days before his sudden death in Papeete and had invited him along on a unique adventure in the heart of Rangiroa in the Tuamotus. Very stressed due to a difficult divorce and the pressure surrounding his career as an artist, he seemed very happy to go with me and one hour before his death (a heart attack), we had finalized all the details of our expedition. Fate had unfortunately decided otherwise. I regretted that this trip could not have happened sooner as it would most surely have helped him go farther on his life’s path.
Jean-Pierre Marquant is a man who loves life and takes it at 100mph. Come to your own conclusions—during full summer of 1966, he crossed Death Valley in California in what park rangers claimed was a two and a half hour survival trek. He traversed from Calvi to Cannes in 1967 during a powerful storm. That same year, he went from Tahiti to Bora Bora on a monoski (300km/186 miles in 8 hours in the Guiness Book of World Records); in December 1977, he set the world record for skateboarding the fastest on one foot (108km/67mph).
He also roamed the islands of French Polynesia during the 1990s. He narrates this experience in his book, Le Coureur d’atolls, from which we provide a few excerpts here.
Vahitahi: the island of clams
Our arrival in the early morning light as it bathes the shores of Vahitahi atoll doesn’t seem to draw big crowds like in the good old days. Not even a crab on the quay! This was in enormous contrast to the people of the island of Hao. Here, people couldn’t care less about the provision ship. I express my surprise to the captain. “This is normal,” he told me. “Here, people stay to themselves and are not very welcoming.” The island’s reputation as a dangerous place to disembark reinforces this notion.
When aligning the vessel with a strip of concrete that ends about 50 meters from the reef, the pilot has to weave in and out of a narrow channel that has a huge block of coral smack in the center. Waves are breaking and smashing through the passage. Our helmsman glanced indifferently at the reef. All of a sudden, he gunned the motor. We were off for better or for worse. I love those moments when anything can happen. We surfed a swell that dry-docked us on the reef. There was no one there for us to greet!
The island rises out of the ocean at the same time as the sun. To make it through the narrow channel of this unique pass, you must wait until the sun has climbed high into the sky before putting the motor into full throttle. The pass faces east, which greatly bothers the pilot as the sun is full in his eyes. The pass is deep and the sides are so straight and abrupt they appear sliced with a laser. Finally, the turbulence subsides and we enter a stunning lagoon. Next to where we anchored, a turtle enclosure made of huge blocks of madreporic coral, keeps several large specimens prisoner. Despite the regulations that require an annual quota for each island (50 for Scilly, 25 for Mopelia and 25 for Bellinghausen), poaching is in full swing. The “fishermen” come on powerful fishing boats and at night, take the turtles and sell them to connoisseurs at exorbitant prices.
Here, turtles are eaten at noon, evening and even for breakfast, as evidenced by bits of meat floating in a huge pot. The crew dives in, no holds barred.
Since it is early morning, I prefer to just have a “taste,” then quickly disappear with Hina. She had managed to convince a mamie to lend us the only vehicle on the island, a motorcycle with giant tires that could take us all the way to the end of the sector, 7km up the road.
Time seems to stand still in this paradise and we are Adam and Eve in the midst of this perfect natural setting. I take my vahine to the farthest point of the sector. In a feast for the eyes, we come across two coconut trees posed on a sandy curve and discover the side of the island that is exposed to the deep sea. We think we have reached the ultimate degree of perfection but no…there, as alluring as a lover, the intricate merging of beaches and motu creates channels filled with birds that reach as far as the big barrier reef. Hand in hand, we walk in silence. Nature is offering us a magical place where birds appear like Chinese shadows in an idyllic setting. I had this same feeling in Tikehau, just one degree less perfect.
Back at the camp, the wind has picked up and I rig my funboard under the shocked stares of the natives. My departure on the water is another marvelous moment. I sail at 20 knots over a turquoise lake and my neurons detonate like fireworks. I think of all my windsurfer friends back in Tahiti. There, as beautiful as Tahiti is, the water seems murky compared to the purity and transparency taking place under my feet.
I take off to discover each motu. I pull at the edges of the underwater pathways dotted with multihued blocks of coral, scaring tropical fish and lazy rays as I pass over the water to step on beaches of indescribable beauty.
In the mikimiki (bushes of very hard wood), tiny fledglings allow themselves be picked up in the palm of my hand, yet not without a few pecks of the beak in the interim.
I get back on my board to explore the barrier reef at the end of the atoll. I sail marvelously free, almost timeless. It would remain engraved in my memory as one of the most beautiful windsurfing moments of my life. I scared three turtles who fortunately dove under at the last second. I would not have been able to keep enjoying myself had I broken my windsurf keel on a turtle several kilometers from shore!
Swiss Family Robinson on Tahanea
The tiny Yamaha 9.9hp motor runs like a clock, pushing our expedition forward at an average of 5 knots. The atoll floor is chockful of madrepores sticking through the surface, so I extend the throttle with a piece of bamboo found on the beach.
The fantastic weather, our skins turning brown under the mild July winter sun, birds flying above us, water so clear that we feel like we are crossing through an aquarium, and above all—the solitude—fill us with a total sense of marvelous well-being as we excitedly discover new adventures unveil from behind the helm…we arrive at a small isle ringed with a magnificent beach that keeps the imprints from our bare feet.
Ramana left to go fishing and came back with two gorgeous parrot fish that we smother in coconut milk once it finishes cooking. A pure marvel for the taste buds along with a purslane salad (Portulaca oleracea, or hogweed, red root) that Nathalie fixed for us using the only source of chlorophyll available on an atoll. The next day, we leave on a hunt for varo (sea shrimp), which is one of the most tender, delicious shellfish I have ever tasted. We fish them with a hook and bait which we insert into small holes that the tiny animals have dug. It is very dangerous to capture them because you must block the shellfish through placing your hand directly over the razor-sharp pincers. Sautéing them with a pad of butter and zest of lime is a great culinary moment for our monstrous appetites. After three nomadic weeks, we return to our starting point where the schooner was to meet us. The weather takes a turn for the worse and the wind starts howling ferociously. We take cover under a tarp that does a terrible job of protecting us from the torrential rains. A few hours later, the beautiful weather reappears and the boat is able to pick us up with all our gear…
For Jean-Pierre Marquant, an atoll, like the ocean, the mountains and the desert are powerful indicators of a person’s character.
His memoir, Le Coureur d’atolls, is a reflection over this adventure. It is only available in Tahiti at all the bookstores, at the airport and in all the Carrefour supermarkets. It is also for sale on Moorea in La Pirogue in the small village of Maharepa. It will also be offered on Amazon and eBay. As a self-published book, it is reasonably priced with more than 90 photos.