essay: New Caledonia, June 2014

14.6.2014  Noumea

Bonjour from le Purbleburnk. Have just finished our first week using the most efficient bus system around this very spread out capital, and tomorrow we get a car to go on tour for a week.  It’s very French here, the weather is balmy, the kanaks are friendly and the food is good.  Last night we shared a bougna – chicken, banana and root veges (yam, taro, sweet potato) – drizzled c coconut milk and slow-baked inside a package of banana leaves. Nice. The French bakeries here make for great lunches.  About half the population is French, half Kanak (Melanesian), with a smattering of Vietnamese, other Pacific Islands etc; they all seem to get on very well and as usual the mixed race people are often very good looking. My improving French has been useful, though many hotel staff and other tourist people have some English.

New Caledonia is 400k x 50k on a nw/se axis, a great spine of steep rugged mountains with a coastal strip; the French call it le Caillou, the pebble. The whole country is surrounded by a reef enclosing the World Heritage lagoon. Noumea is spread over a hilly, irregular southeastern peninsula, with lots of lovely bays.  We are near the southern tip, with a nice 3rd floor room overlooking and just across the road from palm-fringed Anse Vata beach.  This and Baie de Citrons are side by side (facing different directions so that on the beach one can always be out of the wind), and they are the two main tourist strips, with the usual big hotels lined up.

So we have spent a week bussing (Rochi is very good at le beuze) to the fine museums (the French do museums very well) cultural centre, zool. gardens and a fabulous aquarium here at Anse Vata where you get up close to some wonderful marine beasties, including the very last word in camouflage – a flounder-like fish that is the exact colour and consistency of sand and can only be seen when it moves.  One museum detailed the fairly brutal history of the colony, and nickel mining (backbone of the economy with 30% of the world’s nickel), others have lots of kanak and pacific island artefacts.  My favourite was the new maritime history museum; it had a terrifying digital recreation/animation of the loss of the La Perouse expedition circa 1780.  Two very big multidecked sailing ships with hundreds of crew, scientists etc, the pride of France on a scientific expedition to rival Capt Cook, set out from Sydney and were never seen again.  The wrecks weren’t discovered for nearly 200 years – had gone down on a reef off the Solomons to the north of here in a big storm. Admiral La Perouse was the leader and was lost with all his people as both big ships were smashed to pieces.  We had a great French meal at the Astrolabe, named after one of his ships, though I accept this trivial detail is perhaps in bad taste.

Thats about it for now.  I lost all of this the first time due to the vagaries of the internet here and bloody French keyboards – quite different.

Cheers and love from R&R


20.6.14  New Caledonia, west coast

So here we are in a nice hotel at Kone, nearing the end of the second part of our stay, a week touring in a very little Renault.  The first day’s driving was no cakewalk.  Imagine driving in quite busy traffic on the right side in a manual car with reverse controls; just avoiding a head-on collision took a lot of concentration, and my hands seemed to go everywhere but the right place, with some difficulty finding the gear stick.  I still tend to turn on the wipers when I want the indicator, but generally my driving has improved; even Rochi says so, but she remains anxious about my driving into one of the very deep culverts, or hitting a parked car. With a left-hand drive theres a tendency to go too close to the right margin.  The French and kanaks have been very tolerant, with not many toots – maybe they see a hire car and keep their distance, but generally they drive fast and combatively.

The first day with the car we drove up mighty Mt Kogis for a rainforest walk, not far from Noumea.  Finding the road to Mt Kogis was a major problem, as the signposting is very poor here and the roadmap not very good either.  We eventually got there after driving maybe 3x the distance, and lots of anxiety, threats and curses.  Using the right hand gears up a series of steep hairpin bends on a narrow little track was hard on le petit Renault, so setting off on our grand tour next day was relatively easy; just had to follow route 1 north from Noumea – it goes right around NC.  Mt Kogis was a liitle challenging – all slippery stones and roots, but we walked some of the way with a large French family who sang much of the time – very ‘Sound of Music’.

After our first day’s driving we worked out that getting up one side of le Grande Terre and down the other would be too hard.  Too many km each day and not enough places to stay the night, so we’ve been most of the way up the west coast and are heading back to Noumea.  It’s also school holidays so many hotels are ‘complet’, full.  The provincial towns and centres are like small places everywhere else, except for being French and kanak, so I’ve been able to remember a lot of my long lost French, and Rochi chimes in with an anglo/italian/french mix and lots of laughter. The big feature of the drive has been the majestic range of mountains beside us all the way – great massifs and pointy crags covered in rainforest.  The other feature was the huge number of road fatality floral memorials; Highway One is a narrow little road, almost all single lane, with lots of trucks, buses, 4wd’s, big tradie pickups, all driving fast and overtaking in tight spots, and us puttering along in the Renault Elf.  A lot of mosquito swamps so we have been using lots of Rid and trying to keep them out of our rooms at night; there are lots of signs warning against dengue.  Driving into Kone (pronounced Ko-nai) at lunchtime today we found a kanak reggae band pumping it out at the main junction; contracted to play all day in the hols I guess.  We’d also found another fine little museum in the backblocks of Vo; this one on the history of coffee, and selling an excellent brew; funny as I’d just been complaining that once out of Noumea there didn’t seem to be coffee stops anywhere.

There are good supermarkets everywhere, or provincial trade stores, and lots of bakeries, so we usually eat a fine ham baguette then an escargot for lunch; the bread is wonderful here.  NC is quite expensive – definitely no Asian holiday – but doing our own breakfasts, small lunches and takeaways half the nights makes it OK on the wallet.  The clever little pre-loaded Citibank no-fee debit card has been great for getting cash, Lec.

Weather deteriorated so instead of staying out on tour (not much to do when it rains) we headed back to Noumea for the last 3 nights.  A day trip today Thursday about 50k into the mountains to the Parc Provinciale de la Riviere Bleue.  Tricky driving again with a narrow steep windy little road but the big national park was worth it.  I slipped on a wet track and inadvertently gave Rochi a solid backhander; this didn’t impress, and she has a sore jaw but fortunately not a fat lip.

Thats about it for NC; have been able to receive ( in Noumea) but not send emails, so it’s ‘un peu bizarre’ but I’ll be sending these ‘post cards’ when we get back to Oz.  Love from R&R





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