Posts tagged New Caledonia

A trip to the Isle of Pines

Idefix in Baie de Kuto

It’s funny how people usually set out to cross the Pacific Ocean and visit its islands, expecting to spend countless days relaxing on fine sandy beaches under coconut trees, getting up only to cool off with a bath in clear waters. Well, for the most part it’s not like that. Many of the islands we’ve been to didn’t have any sandy beaches, when they had beaches at all. Often the people, towns, foods, showers, etc. were more interesting to us than sitting on a beach. It’s quite easy to list all the sandy beaches I’ve been to since leaving Seattle:

  • Alameda: cold and windy, water murky and freezing, beatiful view of San Francisco
  • Hanalei: beautiful, but thieves may steal your clothes/wallet/dinghy/car while you’re swimming.
  • Waikiki: hotels, the water smells of sunscreen from the thousands of tourists
  • Ovalau (Tonga): peaceful desert island, didn’t swim, bits of trash on the beach, stayed an hour and left when the mosquitoes threatened to carry Shirley away.
  • Sisia (Tonga): another desert island in incredibly clear water, spent less than an hour on the island; nice beach but you can’t wade in without stepping on coral. Snorkeling off the boat was amazing.
  • Nuku (Tonga): cold water, swam for 5 minutes, got bit by a giant ant, very windy. Snorkeling off the boat was wonderful.
  • Baie Papaye (New Caledonia): cold water, had to pay to get to the beach, cut my foot on junk in the water.

As you can see, we didn’t go to any beaches in Fiji or on Fanning, and Niue doesn’t even have beaches, being all cliffs and rocks. However the Isle of Pines was different.

The magnificent Plage de Kuto

Our stay in the Isle of Pines revolved mostly around beautiful Kuto beach, one of the prettiest I’ve seen, with turquoise water and impossibly fine white sand, shaded by coconut trees and towering columnar pines. The water is colder than one might expect for the tropics, but I could still bathe, swim, and play with the waves for half an hour at a time before feeling like I wanted out. At anchor in the bay, sea turtles were popping up for air all around the boat (it’s sometimes unsettling how much they sound like a person gasping for air), and Shirley got a kick out of feeding the remoras that took up dwelling under the boat. They’re a slightly repulsive fish, with the strange flat area on their forehead, and their habit of attaching themselves to other creatures and feeding on leftover scraps or feces, but they swim well in a sinuous, shark-like motion, and are entertaining to watch.

Dugout pirogues in Baie de St. Joseph

We managed to tear ourselves away from the beach enough to see some of the island, hiking through the bush to Pic Nga, checking out creepy ruins of the 19th-century penal colony, and hitch-hiking to the town of Vao. We thought we’d seen about all we could when our new friends Don and Priscilla, a couple we’d met in Nouméa, sailed into Kuto on their boat Chatauqua, hired a car, and invited us to join them on a tour. Priscilla outdid herself researching sights and activities and we got to sail on beautiful Baie Upi on a traditional dugout pirogue, checked out some impressive caverns, and toured a vanilla plantation.

Idefix floats two fathoms above her shadow at Ilot Brosse.

Ilot Brosse lies a few miles from Kuto Bay and looks remarkably like a hair-brush lying on its side, with columnar pines playing the part of dark bristles. Reefs encircle the island, and we threaded Idefix past coral heads into the sandy shallows alongside the island and I took advantage of the clear water to scrub her hull under the watchful eye of a cuttlefish. There were one or two other boats, but they eventually cleared out and we had the small island to us. Makeshift barriers probably erected by the tribe kept us from wandering up from the beach, but we did get to see a handful of the local sea snakes (tricot rayé), and a beautiful sunset, complete with the famed green flash.

Eventually the weather turned to clouds and rain and I came down with a sinus infection (I’m now being treated by a retired German doctor on a boat across the dock), so it was time to make our way back to Nouméa. Before leaving Kuto we sailed by the Tabarlys on Eclipse, back from a tour of the Loyalty Islands. If only we had a little more time… but it’s time to start thinking about heading on West. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts and it seems like we have a decent weather window for the next week. Today I walked across town to the border police, customs and port captain’s offices to get or clearance, so we are committed to leaving this weekend. Hopefully the weather will be clement for crossing the Coral Sea.

Land of the Cagous

On Thursday we visited the parc forestier. Perched on a hill above Nouméa, the park showcases indigenous plants and animals. We were lucky to arrive around feeding time, and followed a volunteer around while he fed the cagous (a flightless bird and symbol of New Caledonia) and flying foxes (the only native mammal and a favorite target of hunters).

Le parc de la Rivière Bleue.

We rented a car and drove around a bit. First to the Parc de la Rivière Bleue: mountains, dry brush, red dirt everywhere, thick forest in the wet parts, a dammed river with drowned trees. We saw some giant pigeons, but no cagous. Then to Mont Koghi. A splendid view of Nouméa unfurled below us, and we hiked through cool forest to a waterfall.

New Caledonia has a strange feel. I could almost be remiss for thinking myself in France, yet there is a rough, unpolished, almost violent aspect lurking below the surface, something of the western U.S., or maybe the Australian bush, with a tinge of what Algeria might’ve been like in 1960… Behind the scenes, the island seems to be holding its collective breath until 2014, when a territorial vote will determine whether New Caledonia stays a part of France or becomes an independent Kanaky. Hence the ever present graffiti: “Kanaky 2014”.

Today we are out exploring the lagoon, and I’m sniping internet from a resort on a little island with my hi-gain wifi antenna. The winds here are very influenced by diurnal heating of the island: they stiffen to 20-25 from midday to sunset, then die down or even switch to a light land breeze at night. The temperature is in the low to mid seventies, much cooler than anywhere else we’ve been; it is still early spring here, at the edge of the southern tropics. We’re hoping it warms up before we leave for Australia, as the nights were downright cold on our way in. It’s starting to feel like this trip is coming to a close, with only one long ocean passage left. I feel a mix of sadness and relief at the thought; in any case it’s not over yet.

Nouméa from Mont des Koghis

Nouméa, le caillou

Shirley and I just arrived in Nouméa after a five-and-a-half-day sail. The first three days were relaxing, with clear skies and a gentle breeze. We passed three other boats also headed from Lautoka to Nouméa. Then the wind and seas picked up, and by the last night we were in a small gale, with 25- to 30-knot winds and big seas on the beam of our little boat. Being drenched and cold for a couple days brought me back to the first leg of this adventure, from Seattle to San Francisco, where we were soaked for almost a whole week.

I managed to find the pass into the lagoon in the dark. Unlike all the other places we’ve been, this area is very well marked and lit at night, and the lights actually correspond to what’s marked on the chart; I think I only saw two working lights in Fiji. Then I watched pine-covered hills and red cliffs appear as the day broke – and disappear again in rain squalls and fog. The scene reminded me somewhat of sailing around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with temperatures to match (I’ve been assured summer is on its way though, and it’s not usually like this – the palm trees on the beach seem to corroborate this).

As we pulled into a visitor’s slip in Port Moselle (a commodity in very high demand, and which we only get for three days), we wondered if we would see anyone we had met in Niue, Tonga, or Fiji. Lo and behold, the vessel next to us is none other than our friends Patrick and Marie on Eclipse!

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