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Aug 18, 2018

The Fresh Prince of Polynesia

In this era, the most competitive time in the history of surfing on tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel Bourez hauls the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. Can he beat the Hawaiians?

WRITTEN BY

Jon Coen

This story was originally published in print, in the Spring 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

It’s one thing to have a mountain, wave, or trail right in your back yard. But it’s another entirely to grow up at a world-class sporting venue. Picture a preschool T Rice learning to link turns at Jackson Hole, or a Sam Hill riding the hills of Western Australia with training wheels, or even 21-year old surf phenom, John John Florence getting pushed into waves at Pipe, the measuring stick by which all other surf spots are graded, which happens to be steps from his backyard.

Now imagine growing up on Tahiti, a spec of land in the middle of the ocean, formed by a series of geologically violent volcanic eruptions, and comprising of craggy cliffs lurching out of the blue South Pacific.

On this lush island is a place where massive Southern Hemisphere swells travel thousands of miles to come pulsing through a deep trench and crash with life-threatening explosions on a reef as rough as a cheese grater.

Teahupoo, as it is called, is essentially the watery playground on Tahiti where Michel Bourez grew up.

The channel at Teahupoo in Bourez’s Tahiti, brings the crowd closer
than any other event in the world. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Bourez, a seven-year veteran of the ASP World Tour and considered one of the strongest surfers on the planet, not only because of his physical strength, but the force with which he surfs, has lived his entire life in Tahiti, the hub of French Polynesia.

Franck Seguin

Hailing from Rurutu, his quiet pride and prowess in the water is the modern embodiment of the very Polynesians who had migrated through Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to settle Tahiti. He’s known in the surfing world as “The Spartan,” for his resemblance to the chiseled warriors of the film “300, Rise of an Empire” and for his potent carves known to decimate wave sections. His Firewire surfboards — the most technically constructed boards on tour, shaped by Australian board building legend, Nev Hyman — have to be reinforced to hold up through his turns.

Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins”

No one complains about growing up in Tahiti. Bourez’s father, a math and physics teacher, was a multi-sport athlete most accomplished as an outrigger canoe racer. An early version of the outrigger was likely the craft that the first peoples of Southeast Asia migrated to Tahiti in. It’s been an Olympic sport for nearly 100 years.

Compare this spectator at Teahupoo to a sweaty middle aged man at a football match in Manchester. Surfing has the best fans. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Make no mistake, Michel was a great canoe racer, but he was an all around waterman and also a talented surfer. And when it came down to it, he preferred paddling for waves to simply paddling. “My father didn’t like that decision,” remembers Bourez. “He didn’t realize there was any future in it. But once I dedicated myself and he saw the path, he supported me 100 percent.”

Surfing is a huge part of Tahitian culture. Like Hawaiians, Tahitian family days are spent at the beach.

“Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins. It’s just got a great vibe and brings happiness to the family,” explains Bourez. “For me, it was about the freedom. You’re in the ocean and there are so many things you can do on a wave. You’re out there with your friends and you’re using you’re entire body. And no one can tell you how to surf.”

Vetea David was the first Tahitian to make the ASP World Tour, qualifying in the late 1980s. Like Bourez, two decades later, he was known as a power surfer. Bourez was too young to have known David in his prime, but as he got older, he learned about and respected the doors David had opened.

He also has a great amount of respect for Raimana Van Bastolaer, Tahiti’s fearless ambassador to the heaviest wavemaker on the planet. At the age of 18, Raimana took him to Hawaii for the first time.

The Spartan, poised like the Tahitian warrior. Photo: Franck Seguin

“Raimana is a Tahitian legend,” says Bourez, “We still hang, surf and talk all the time. But he was so good to me. I was so stoked to travel and he hooked me up with my first sponsors. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Bourez explains all this from Coolangatta, Australia where he’s preparing to surf the first event of the 2014 season. Idyllic in its own way, it’s an altered scene from the traditions of Tahiti. And the peeling, performance-oriented wave is far different from the man-eating reefs of his island home. No one has nightmares about this place like they do about Teahupoo.

For a soft-spoken kid, Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. He earned a wildcard slot to the Quiksilver Pro France in 2007, went out, and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated his sport more than any other athlete in history.

In 2008, Bourez was selected as one of just a handful of surfers to take part in Red Bull Rising, a training camp for young athletes featuring Australian surf coach Andy King and a “management” role that took care of the athletes’ travel needs for a year on the World Qualifying Series.

“I was really keen to do it. Andy King knows exactly what he’s talking about. And to have that structure – to not have to worry about the flight, rental car, and accommodations was huge,” Bourez said. “I was able to really focus on each event.”

With a fantastic start to the 2014 season, Bourez is looking to rise above the field. PHOTO: franck seguin

“He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now”

He was 22 and attacked the next season. He surfed consistently and in late November of that year, he won the Reef Hawaiian Pro in heavy barrels, the first jewel of the Vans Triple Crown, securing himself a coveted position on surfing’s biggest stage – the ASP World Tour.

“Michel is a self made athlete,” explains Raimana. “He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now. He had some good support around him at the right time, the right place. His family and friends, were always behind him.”

But the ASP World Tour was no joke. In fact, Bourez has hung through possibly the most competitive time in the history of surfing.

In 2011, the ASP dropped the number of elite surfers on tour from 44 to 32, making it insanely more difficult to stay onboard.

Franck Seguin

Yet Bourez still managed to make the finals of the Oakley Pro in Bali last year and win the Reef Hawaiian Pro again (not an official World Tour stop, but a Prime-rated qualifying event with the best in the world).

Then there’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez – Australians, Californians, Brazilians, and most notably, a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii.

Florence is considered by many to be a future World Champ, maybe of multiple titles. But Bourez insists there is no inner-Polynesian rivalry between he and the Hawaiians.

“When I go to Hawaii, I hang with the Hawaiians. They have the same way of life as Tahitians – pure Island style. It’s the same culture, so it makes it easy for me to do my job. I don’t have to deal with localism. I always feel welcome,” Bourez states.

And it works the other way too. “We always welcome the Hawaiians to Tahiti too. It’s a give and take.”

But on the tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel is left to haul the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. TheHawaiians include a veteran, Freddy Patacchia, 31, who has made a strong return to the forefront in the last year, 26-year-old Sebastian Zietz, of Kauai, who won the Vans Hawaiian Triple Crown in 2012 and turned heads his first year on tour, and another noted power surfer from Maui, 25-year-old Dusty Payne.

The Channel at Teahupoo has caused him all kinds of stress in the past. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.” PHOTO: steve dickinson

For Bourez’s part, he said, “I just do my thing. I have to just rep myself, my family, and my friends.” There’s a hint of conflict in his voice. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.”

Bourez finished the 2012 ASP Tour ranked No. 15 in the world and bettered that in 2013 by finishing in the No. 12 spot in one of the most historic seasons ever.

Meanwhile, he and his longtime girlfriend, Vaimiti Laurens, have had a son. Vaimiti is an elementary school teacher and travels with him when competitions coincide with the extended breaks that Tahitians get from school every five weeks.

Bourez is truly enjoying fatherhood. “Vaimiti’s brother surfs. All of our friends and neighbors surf. We live right on the beach. Sometimes my son spends all day in the water,” Bourez says. “We just try to have fun when we’re all together, But I don’t need to push him to surf.”

Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. he earned a wildcard slot at the Quiksilver pro France in 2007 and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated this sport more than any other athlete in history.

At the beginning of March, the World Tour opened with the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Coolangatta, Australia. This year, the ASP is a whole new game. The main governing body of professional surfing was taken over by ZoSea Media. ZoSea is an entertainment holdings company headed up by Paul Speaker, former president of Time Inc. Studios and board member at Quiksilver with Terry Hardy, Kelly Slater’s manager. The goal has been to better present surfing (a traditionally fringe sport) to a larger audience. Traditionally, the event sponsors have produced the webcast and owned the rights to their events. This year, the sponsors will simply pay to have their name on the event, but the ASP will own the media rights. ZoSea has worked out media deals with Youtube, Facebook, and ESPN. It’s a bit controversial, as surfers and fans are unsure of where the sport is going. But Bourez remains positive.

“It will be a little different for us. I’m sure there will be a few changes to the way they’re driving the ASP. But the ASP realizes where they should be and everyone feels like it’s going in the right direction.”

Backed by longtime sponsors Red Bull and Hurley, the start to Bourez’s 2014 campaign couldn’t have gone any better. He came out of the gate in average conditions at Snapper Rocks in Australia, and laid down the lethal frontside gouges he’s known for, one after another – bam, bam, bam. And he took the round one win over Owen Wright, the very talented Australian who had just returned from a devastating back injury, and California’s Kolohe Andino, son of pro surfer Dino Andino, thus raised in the very bosom of the surf world with top caliber sponsors and coaching.

In round two, he faced Patacchia, who referred to Bourez as his “island brother.” Even after throwing down multiple versions of his trademark power turn, Bourez fell short of Patacchia’s backhand attack. But it was one of the better heats of the day and signified a bright start to the season.

Photo: Franck Seguin

Through his career, Bourez has set attainable goals each year and achieved them, but he has yet to scalp one of those elite Tour victories. One thing that’s puzzling is the lack of a good result at Teahupoo, where he is the only surfer who gets to sleep in his own bed.

In 2011, when the swells reached superhuman size and power, he missed the quarterfinals by less than two points. He has yet to really put his mark on that event, even with the entire pro surfing world and half the population of Tahiti watching the action on everything from luxury yachts to wooden canoes. Between the wave and proximity of the crowd, it’s a very intense arena.

“Maybe the pressure of having an event in Tahiti gets to me. I know that wave better than anyone. But the vibe of the whole surf world and all the boats in the channel is so different than any other comp,” Bourez said.

There’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez including a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii. Florence is considered by many to be a future world champ, maybe of multiple titles.

Younger surfers in general seem to be at a disadvantage at some of the best waves on the planet. In the last ten years, Parkinson, Fanning and Slater have won a combined 51 tour events and every single title. Fanning and Parko are both 32 years old. Slater is a full decade older. As good as the young bucks surf, statistics show that the surfers who have competed at these waves for ten or fifteen years understand the intricacies involved in getting the best scoring waves.  

Before the Tour morphed in the last five years, surfers had more time to go to a venue and develop intimate knowledge of the wave and skill. Slater knows Cloudbreak like a lover. Fanning made it his life mission to rip Teahupoo. Bourez would like to go learn other waves as he gets into his 30s.

Then there’s the fact even being the most powerful surfer in the world isn’t quite enough. John John Florence has a power game similar to Bourez but is also one of the best barrel riders with a complete aerial repertoire.

“The only thing is missing with Michel is his air skills. Once his has this, he will dominate the tour, no questions,” said Raimana.

The real factor going for him is that determination, the focus, just like his tattooed Tahitian warrior ancestors. That’s something “The Spartan” already possesses.

“He surfs or works for himself and his family first and foremost. The only pressure he has, he puts on himself. He doesn’t need to prove anything to us Tahitians, French, or foreigners,” explains Raimana. “We’ll always back him up no matter what. We love the person, the surfer he is. Whoever is supporting him will be blessed by his work. We love Michel.”

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

_mg_6537
The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

_mg_7103
These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

_mg_6297
Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

img_1668
Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

_mg_6562
The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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