Some consider him a lunatic and others take him for an adventurer. Jean-Pierre Marquant is both and then some. This is a man who loves life and lives it head on. In the heat of summer in 1966, he crossed Death Valley in California. Park rangers claimed it was two and a half hours of survival. He traversed from Calvi to Cannes in 1967 on a monoski during a horrific storm. That same year, he went from Tahiti to Bora Bora on a monoski (300km/186 miles in 8 hours), which set records. In December 1977, he set the world record for the fastest skateboarding on one foot. Challenges feed his soul. In his book, Le Coureur d’Atolls (Atoll Runner), he tells of his adventures in French Polynesia. Here, we present an excerpt of his memoir. He arrived in French Polynesia to embark on a new challenge: a tour of Rangiroa Atoll on foot. His route will include 240km/150 miles. To up the ante, he will execute this feat without food or water. Marquant has given himself one week to complete this challenge.
“Rangiroa is Ra’i roa in Paumotu, which means long sky. Why “long sky?” Probably because the deep blue appears to meld into the blue horizon of the lagoon. The endless strip of coconut trees fades into the mist of the surf.
The scene is set:
“For the sacrilegious, an atoll is probably about sea, sex and sun, much like Serge Gainsbourg; however, it is also about the ocean, the coral and coconut trees as per the Creator. The early morning with the sweet smell of adventure is finally here.”
Before setting off, Marquant gets his bearings on a 50km/31 miles trip. He then becomes conscious of Rangiroa’s immensity. It is the 3rd largest atoll in the world and the only one to be attempted on foot.
It is January 9, 1980 and Operation Survival is about to take place.
His departure was from Tiputa, one of the two villages. Miss Tahiti who would become Miss France, Thilda Fuller, encouraged this hero with a warm kiss.
“I am excited to be by myself. I adjust my backpack on my shoulders. It contains a sleeping bag, camera and a walkie-talkie. I have some lemons in my pocket in case I get injured on the coral. Lemon juice is an effective antiseptic.”
Off he goes for seven days of sun, sea, sand and live coral…
“In the shelter of a beach that is so stunning it doesn’t seem real, there is a magnificent freshwater lake hidden from the naked eye framed by a coconut grove. A mat of orange algae adds a surreal note to the strangeness of the place. Slowly, I enter the water up my eyes, allowing a feeling of wellbeing to overcome my spirit. I drink the water, which is disgusting. Suddenly, something is nibbling me all over. Tiny shrimp have approached to see if I am edible.”
Day Three: “The best time of day is undeniably early morning with low tides, calm seas, fresh air and a light sun. All these details lead to an easy start to the day. To move forward along an algal ridge at the dawn of a new day brings an unexpected sense of exhilaration.”
Every night, he joins the television crew that is following his exploits from motu to motu.
“For this night, we are planning a lobster catch. Around 11pm, we make our way to the reef. The best equipment to catch oura miti consists of a kerosene lamp, which has a 5 meter radius of light that picks up the phosphorescent eyes of the lobster, a thick work glove to grab them and a large boxed container. Two hours later, there are about thirty lobsters and a few crabs in the crates.”
Each day, the journey gets harder:
“Every time I reach a motu, another one shows up on the horizon. I tell myself to hang in there until I reach it in order to find some fresh coconuts. But once I arrive on the motu in question, I realize that I still have quite a while to go since it is located perpendicular to my direction. Discouraged, I give up. From the beginning, I have been drinking sea water, but that particular day, I greatly increase my intake. This bubbling Champagne-like water quenches my thirst. I start drinking about ¾ of a liter per day. When I return, the clinic doctor claims I am reckless because I risked obstructing my kidneys.”
Day Seven. Marquant comes across an islander who informs him that he still has two hours to go before arriving at Avatoru village, but the route ends up taking much longer…
“As rambler of the great ocean, I drift without a sail, lost between the sea and coral. I collapse onto a large flat rock in the middle of a large sea channel. The skull of a toothed whale has come here to die. After a short break, I grab my gear and take off unsteadily, like a drunk dying of thirst, insulting men and the sun to give me courage. Five hours later, traipsing along like a zombie, not believing in anything anymore, I finally see the ocean recoil onto the barrier reef. So that no one could see my emotions, I dive in without paying attention to the current. Finally, my feet touch sand. I don’t want to see or speak to anyone. It is very difficult to explain to people who come to welcome me. Exhausted but happy, I savor a cold drink on the terrace of the Kia Ora that faces the immense lagoon. I have the intoxicating impression to be the first man to do this tour. Tour of the horizon, that is!”
His experience in Rangiroa gave him a thirst for atolls! The next one on his list was Tikehau.
Marquant was welcomed at Maurice’s for his first night in the village. An evening of movies awaited him! “The local general store serves as a grocery store, a billiards room, a pub and a movie theater. We paid 50 francs to the Chinese merchant, who without warning, stopped the projection. He turned the video back on and started the film from the beginning for me.”
After this unexpected evening, he takes off to tour the atoll. He has his first meal and first flavors: “I climbed the closest coconut tree to pick two nuts that made me feel great, followed by a plate of sea urchin with lemon. After a few sea snails cooked in their juice, I had a meal that was a real treat.”
Then later, as he approached a motu, islanders beckoned him.
“I met an entire family that had come to the motu for a busy week of fishing and copra. This is common here. This family goes out to the sector for harvesting, sometimes for an undetermined amount of time.”
“Behind the makeshift fare (hut), three kaveu (coconut crabs) are attached to a dead branch by by their feet. One of them is huge. I measured it at 48cm/19 inches long. Its steel blue shell made it even more impressive. It is said that the pressure from its pincers could break a child’s hand. The flesh reminds me of lobster that has eaten coconut meat. As to its substance found in the abdominal pouch—which is actually not very appetizing—it is considered the foie gras of the Tuamotus.
Last Day: “While bypassing the cemetery wall, a traveler saturated from sea and sun, I arrived a little dazed onto the coral road of the village. Maurice found me to be quite tanned and he sensed the nagging thirst that he could see deeply in my eyes. Another 110km/68 mi of a coral ring journey is now under my belt with great memories stashed in my head for my old age.”
The journey continues, still in the Tuamotu Islands. Marquant embarks on the Auranui. He passes by Niau, then Toau and stops in Fakarava.
“Dinner with friends awaits at Rotoava. A church bell rings out melancholically. It is the call to evening prayer in the little church planted in the sand, not far from us. A crystal clear voice rises into the air, followed by several young girls in chorus. Sometimes when the singing stops, the silence takes on a density that is almost palpable.”
“Auranui lifted its anchor for Tetamanu pass. This magnificent motu has a beautiful fare occupied by a family consisting of a father, son and four daughters who live in compete self-sufficiency. It is spotless. The lawn under the coconut trees is impeccable. All the fruit trees are filled with the promise of sweet fruit. There are no words to describe the beauty of the pass…At dinner, a concert of an array of sounds rises into a quartet, with little attention to lady-like manners. This heavenly music could be entitled, “the fifth symphony in major suction.” Agile fingers shove down thick ipo meatballs without the slightest worry about maintaining a figure. Soon, stomachs appear to be full. Dinner conversation can now ensue.”
Marquant left with his host to go fishing for varo. In order to catch this shellfish, you have to look for holes in the sand that indicate its whereabouts.
“He began to lure the varo with light punches of his fist while making rapid flicks with his thumb and index finger onto the surface of the water. This gesture produces a sound that attracts the shellfish. Soon, two razor-sharp pincers furtively make an appearance. With a quick movement, he covers it with his hand. If you plan on keeping all ten of your fingers, there can be no hesitation at all.”
Marquant dedicates an entire chapter to the singer Antoine who was in French Polynesia and who accompanied him to Rangiroa. “I became his guide to help him and Titou, his vahine, discover things they never thought possible. There were immense natural pools set into multicolored coral basins fed by the rivers of the sea. We dove into faults haunted by wildlife as abundant as it was varied. One day, too absorbed by the spectacle before him, he didn’t see a wave smash onto the reef. I had just enough time to grab him by his shorts before he got swept off into the deep sea through the narrow gully of bubbling water.”
For Marquant, “An atoll, like the ocean, mountains or desert, is a powerful indicator of a man’s character.”
Jean-Pierre Marquant’s memoir, Le coureur d’atolls, reveals his adventures and contains more than 90 photos. This self-published book is available for a reasonable price and is sold in Tahiti and Moorea in bookstores and Carrefour shopping centers.