The Dangerous Archipelago: Tuamotu Atolls, French Polynesia (Oceania): September-October 2002
TEAM: Jon Bowermaster • John Armstrong • Pete McBride • Alex Nicks • Willie Williams • Terri Nostrand PHOTOS: Peter McBride
Oceania was the last area on earth to be settled by humans, the last to be discovered by Europeans and the last to be both colonized and de-colonized. The word Polynesia means 'many islands'; the Tuamotus are one of five French Polynesian archipelagos. They are some of most remote islands in the world, tiny green oases floating in the desert of the sea.
The Tuamotus are 78 distinct coral reef atolls, stretching 930 miles north-northeast of Tahiti. From a distance the islands come and go from sight, thus the Dangerous Archipelago and Labyrinth nicknames. Before satellite navigation these reefs were the cause of numerous shipwrecks. Since first populated 1,000 years ago, they have known other names: Pakamotu - 'Cloud of Islands.' Puamotu - 'Dangerous Islands.' And finally Tuamotu, a Tahitian name meaning 'Distant Islands.'
Kayaking here provided a daily opportunity for absolute disorientation in an idyllic and wild setting, both challenging and beautiful. We visited both the inhabited and uninhabited, starting from the south and using the trade winds out of the southwest to help push us to the west. From Nukutavake, where the lagoon has entirely filled with sand and is now a coconut plantation. Past Moruroa and Fangataufa, where the French tested nuclear weapons until 1997. To Manihi, where the 50,000 resident oysters outnumber humans 50 to one. To Fakarava, the petite island where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a month in 1888 (and dubbed the local people 'God's best, at least God's sweetest work.'). To Hao, discovered by the Spanish in 1606 and Makatea, the only non-atoll in the chain, an uplifted limestone block 8 kilometers by 11. And to Raroia, where Thor Heyerdahl's 'Kon Tiki' ended its cross-Pacific sea epic in 1947.