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. You have probably heard of Tahiti, the biggest island. But if you are a climber, it’s the tiny island of Makatea that should grab your attention.
Makatea is an island shaped for climbing. A 16km long ring of limestone cliffs, 80m tall, lines the sea, with rock quality comparable to that of Kalymnos or Turkey, but a wild and tropical kick. If you're looking for some sun, sea and seclusion - for some incredible climbing in a unique destination - then Makatea is well worth the adventure.
How to get to Makatea?
The only way to get to Makatea is by boat, which takes a day if sailing from Tahiti. The public boat leaves every 15 days, otherwise you have to rent a sailboat. To get around once you are there, you can walk or rent a bike in the village.
Once you reach Makatea, the island's 80 inhabitants will make you feel at home, with fresh vegetables and fruits, fish and shellfish, tropical music, and bonfires. For accommodation, the mayor of the island rents out some rooms.
The story of sport climbing in Makatea
Makatea's story is incredible. The island saw few human visitors 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 have since been abandoned to rust and decay.
That's why the locals were looking for a new identity for this beautiful secluded island. In 2018, Erwan Le Lann, founder of theNGO Maewan, sailed past Makatea in his boat. One year later, he came back with 20 top climbers of the calibre of Nina Caprez and Charlotte Durif, and hundreds of bolts.
The trip 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 local schools on sustainability and environmental protection.
At present, you'll 100+ sport climbing routes in Makatea spread over 4 areas, with the potential for many more. There are routes for all 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 of Makatea, near the port, you can 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 sharp. 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.
Canyon de Moumu
On the eastern coast of Makatea, you'll find the sector Canyon de Moumu. This is the ideal place for beginners, boasting around 20 routes mostly in the 4th and 5th grade. The routes are typically around 15m long, on dark-grey rock full of holes.
Moving to the north-east of Makatea, the scenery becomes even more wild and beautiful. The area of Moumu Nord boasts some incredible lines on white vertical cliffs right on the beach, and some heavy overhangs over the water. There are more than 25 routes, mainly in the 7th grade.
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”.
Makatea's fourth sector, Acropol, is in the south-east of the island. Most of the routes here are between 5c and 6b, and you will be climbing on massive rock formations including huge holes and caves. There's also a short multi-pitch route which offers beautiful views out over the ocean.
If you plan to visit Makatea, contact the local climbing association Makatea Escalade before you get there.
The 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 them the island, and to continue the development of this rock climbing paradise in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean!
A final thing to note about Makatea…
Makatea has been isolated over the centuries, and as a result the flora and fauna are really unique. So watch your step 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!
This article was originally printed in theClimbing Travel Guide, available from theMapo Tapo shop. 50 of the world's best-off-the-beaten track destinations, 1000+ crags, and photos from professional outdoor photographers from around the world.