Climbing in French Polynesia

Discover the story of the atoll of Makatea and how rock climbing helped the sustainable development of this community.


Alessia Fontanari

Climbing Destinations

February 1, 2021

French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France made of 118 dispersed islands and atolls stretching over 2,000 sq. km in the South Pacific Ocean. Probably you have heard of Tahiti, the biggest island. But if you are a climber, it’s the tiny island of Makatea that should grab your attention. The island is shaped for climbing! A 16km long ring of limestone cliffs, 80m tall, right on the sea, with rock quality comparable to the one in Kalymnos or Turkey, but with a wild and tropical kick! The only way to get there is by boat, a day of sailing from Tahiti. The public boat leaves every 15 days, else you can rent a sailboat. And once you reach this paradise, the 80 inhabitants will make yourself at home, with fresh vegetables and fruits (a lot of coconuts!), fish and shellfish, tropical music, and bonfires. For accommodation, the mayor of the island rents out some rooms!

The story of this atoll is incredible. The island saw little humans for thousands of years. Then, in the early 1900s, Makatea became an open-air mine of phosphate, making it one of the most prosperous islands in French Polynesia. 3000 people moved there to work in the mine. But in 1966 the mining came to a halt. Now less than 100 people live there. The mines, the houses, the rail system, the port...all since abandoned to rust and decay.

A playful drone-shot of Solenne Piret climbing on horizontal terrain, where back in the 20th century phosphate was extracted in high quantities

A playful drone-shot of Solenne Piret climbing on horizontal terrain, where back in the 20th century phosphate was extracted in high quantities © Jeremy Bernard

That's why the locals were looking for a new identity for this beautiful secluded island. The boat of the NGO Maewan and its captain Erwan Le Lann sailed past it in 2018. One year later, they came back with 20 top climbers of the caliber of Nina Caprez and Charlotte Durif, and hundreds of bolts. They had one mission: to bring climbing and other outdoor activities to the island and help build eco-tourism as a viable resource, working with the locals. This is now a reality. Besides bolting, the team ran workshops in the local schools on sustainability and on the environmental protection of this beautiful island.

A person swimming near the Maewan boat, French Polynesia

The Maewan boat can deliver playful moments as well as social and environmental initiatives © Jeremy Bernard

Below, Solenne Piret pulling hard on the crux of a new line bolted in Makatea during the 2019 Makatea Vertical Adventure expedition. © Guillaume Broust

A climber smiling while sitting in a hole in Makatea, French Polynesia 

There are 100+ sport climbing routes over 4 areas, with the potential for many more. There are grades for any levels, with more than 30 lines of 4th and 5th grades, 18 6a-routes, 16 6b's, 6  6c's, 11 7a's, 6 7b's, 4 7c's, a couple of 8a's, and one 8b. In the north-west, near the port, you find the climbing area of Temao. The crags are right on the white beach, overlooking the ocean. Here the style is sustained: you hang on large holes and massive tufas that create columns of rock. The rock is dark, almost black, and very crispy. Most of the routes are single pitches in the 5th and 6th-grade range, but there are some multi-pitches and some harder routes up to 7c.

If you plan to visit Makatea, contact the local climbing association Makatea Escalade before you get there. The local climber, and president of the association, is Heitapu Mai. He realized the potential of the island and with some other locals had already established about 15 routes before they involved Erwan Le Lann from Maewan. He is eager to meet more local and international climbers, to show the island, and to continue the development of this rock climbing paradise in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean!

On the eastern coast, you find short easy routes in the sector Canyon on a dark-gray rock full of holes. Moving to the north-east, the scenery becomes even more wild and beautiful: the area of Moumu Nord praises some incredible lines on white vertical cliffs right on the beach, and some heavy overhangs on the water. There are more than 25 routes, mainly in the 7th-range. The athlete Nina Caprez wrote: “We found 40m of pure blank walls, with perfect pockets and cracks. Above the sea, we equipped routes on steep and perfectly shaped rock—quality far above what we could have ever expected”. The fourth sector, Acropol, is in the south-east: most routes are between 5c and 6b and you will be climbing on massive rock formations and huge holes and caves.

A sport climber rock climbing on the beach at sunset

Charlotte Durif enjoying the sunset from a different point of view © Guillaume Vallot

To get around, you can walk or rent a bike in the village. Since Makatea has been isolated throughout the centuries, the flora and fauna are really unique. So watch your steps and take some time to explore the island, the mind-blowing corals, the jungle and its animals, and the weird rock-holes where they used to extract the phosphate (be careful here, they are very deep!). There is also a via Ferrata and a lot of caves, full of stalactites and crystal-clear water!

Cover photo: Nina Caprez belayed by Solenne Piret climbing on the impressive cliff of Makatea. Colors are as impressive as the rock-quality © Jeremy Bernard

A book entitled the Climbing Travel Guide