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2018: Polynesian Desert Island Survival

Three weeks surviving on uninhabited islands in the Tuamoto Archipelago of French Polynesia.

I can't imagine any clearer, more irresistible and unforgettable life experience than marooning yourself on a desert island. Not an island with a hotel, or a boat dock, or other people. Not an island with parties, or alcohol, or music. Rather, a real desert island. No signs of humans. Just palm trees, sand, and hermit crabs.

Every traveller I ever met seemed to want this experience, but I couldn't meet anyone who'd actually done it. Some misunderstood and would tell me about their trips to the Florida Keys or Ko Phi Phi. But those places are more civilization fringed by beaches than actual island, and certainly not deserted islands. We wanted something real.

Google will tell you little about where the real stuff is. Instead, I spent much time on Google Satellite maps looking for places that were safe, reasonably accessible, permitted (or not forbidden), and within our barebones budget. I settled on the Tuamoto Archipelago in French Polynesia.

I won't reveal the specific location, or how we worked it out. But we didn't go with any guides or groups, and I had no way of knowing whether or not we could reach a truly uninhabited island until we got there.


The nuisances presented themselves immediately: tons of sharks, cuts that barely heal, gnats, equatorial sun, and, most horribly, rats. Rats are a plague on probably the overwhelming majority of tropical islands in the world. Only the smallest and most sparsely vegetated islands have much chance of being free from rats. While rats are not aggressive, they kept us up many nights, screeching, scuttling around, and chewing on our few survival supplies. It was not something I had expected.


Nevertheless, we learned and developed many critical skills, some in Tahiti, before flying to our destination. A machete, for instance, has unlimited uses, from opening coconuts to constructing shelter to filleting fish. We learned to spearfish, cook our dinner on hot white coral rocks, and identify species prone to debilitating ciguatera disease.


I can't adequately express in words the beauty of untouched tropical islands. The colors, the air, the moon, the warm water and the taste of fresh coconuts blend together in a moment, an experience, a place of perfection.

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