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Jon Bowermaster

From the Field
Expedition: Dangerous Archipelago
Kayaking French Polynesia's Tuamotu Islands

Explorer Jon Bowermaster sends dispatches from the deep South (Pacific).

Dispatch 1: Underway

September 7, 2002

[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit field dispatches.]

Papeete, Tahiti—The deck of the 70-foot [21.3-meter] Vai Aito sank lower and lower towards the waterline with each crane-load of gear dropped into its massive hold. Headed out into the remote Tuamotu chain, this big metal boat is the lifeline for these coral reef atolls that see a cargo boat—and only a cargo boat—every other month or so.

Except for fish, everything must be carried out to these spits of sand and coral smack in the center of the South Pacific. As we help load the boat, as a way to encourage its quick departure, everything from 2x4s and pvc, to a new motorcycle and decrepit car axle are hooked into a sling, topped by fully-loaded gas drums, propane tanks and bottled water. The dock is lighted by massive overhead halogens by the time the last items are put aboard—our five, plastic, 17-foot-6-inch [5.3-meter] Perception kayaks, stilled wrapped in the plastic and bubble wrap in which they left Easley, South Carolina, two months before.

This first leg of our two-month long adventure into the heart of the South Pacific will carry us 200 miles [322 kilometers] across open seas to the largest atoll in the chain, Rangiroa. From there we will move south and east to Arutua, Apataki, Niau, Toau, Fakarava and Faaite. Though differing in population and size—1,000 people live on Rangiroa, where the interior lagoon is 45 miles by 15 [72 by 24 kilometers]; Niau is a tiny atoll, two miles [3.2 kilometers] square and home to just 100—they are similar in very important ways: Narrow rings of coral reef, rising not more than 10 feet [3 meters] above sea level, they are all that is left of a once-massive volcanic mountain chain that 2 to 3 million years ago stretched for 900 miles [1,448 kilometers].

Settled first two thousand years ago by sailors who had made their way from Samoa and Tonga paddling outriggers and sailing double canoes, using just the stars to navigate. The Tuamotu's were first seen by western man when, in 1521. Magellan literally bumped into the nearly-invisible reefs of Puka Puka. Nearly 200 years passed before more Europeans arrived—Wallis, Bougainville, Cook, between 1767 and 1769, and conquering nations began to base their South Pacific explorations out of the big island of Tahiti. The Tuamotu's served as a kind of speed bump to exploration, they eventually welcomed and wrecked boats ranging from Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki, to fictional craft of writers as diverse as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Thanks to those early explorers we have better maps (as well as a couple handheld GPS), so accidentally skidding our kayaks across the coral shouldn't be a problem. Headwinds, storms, fast-moving tides are the only things working against us as we move from atoll to atoll. Our crossings between, ranging from 12 to 25 miles [19 to 40 kilometers], will be dictated by the weather. It appears the maraamu—the southwinds that are frequent during the dry season—are strong this year . . . hopefully we'll be able to keep them at our backs.

Our goals during our two-month-long exploration are straightforward: Adventure, everyday, big and small. Try and get a sense of what it must be like to live on a spit of rock and sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To meet the fishermen and their families who depend on these seas for almost everything—and whose cultures are little changed during the past couple centuries. To meet the black pearl farmers whose underwater farms have become the biggest economy out here.

In one of the various dry bags lying in the hold of the Vai Aito is a library of books I've brought with me, diverse tfellings from the early explorations of this part of the world, to the current health of the coral reef, a bird book, biographies of Cook & Magellan and the early Polynesian navigators.

It is evident when reading these last, the journals of the first visitors here, that arriving in the South Pacific was a journey into a state of mind. Today when most Westerners envision Paradise, I'm convinced they dream of scenes straight from the South Pacific. Coconut palms, sandy beaches, blue, blue, blue seas and skies. Australian Gavin Daws describes that state of mind as "a dream of islands," which he believes pushed explorers to return to the South Pacific over and over and over. I am with Daws. For me, these past few days of living out here on the horizon line, paddling everyday beyond the coral reef that surrounds Tahiti, trying to get a better understanding of the local culture and environment, the history of this still-exotic place, the mindset that allows one to live on a spit of sand in the middle of a vast ocean, that for me, certainly, this will be a journey into the self.

As the Vai Aito pulls away from the dock, though, I have to admit my immediate concern is that the kayaks are not being crushed by the pile of fuel drums that bury them just below the deck's surface . . . . .

—Jon Bowermaster

Next: Dispatch 2: Rangiroa >>

Click map to enlarge

Look for Jon Bowermaster's feature article on kayaking the Dangerous Archipelago in a future issue of Adventure. Subscribe Now and Save 62 percent off the cover price >>

Funding for this expedition was provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council. For more information on the Council, its projects, and grants, e-mail ecouncil@ngs.org.


Photograph courtesy Jon Bowermaster; Map by NG Maps
  The Team
  Photo Gallery
  • Dispatch 1
  Dispatch 2
  Dispatch 3
  Dispatch 4
  Dispatch 5
  Dispatch 6
  Dispatch 7
  Dispatch 8


Video: Papeete Market (1:13)
Watch: RealPlayer 56.6

Audio: Teacher Terri Nostrand (1:15)
"In my regular life, I'm a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. ..."
RealPlayer: 28.8 | 56.6

Download RealPlayer

Related Web Sites

Ask the Expedition Advisor
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Descending the Dragon
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Dispatches From the Birthplace of the Winds
See photos and hear dispatches from the expedition that inspired Bowermaster's new book, Birthplace of the Winds.

Video: Bowermaster on His Aleutian Odyssey
Find out what it took to take Alaska's Islands of the Four Mountains by kayak.

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