Renewed in New Caledonia

Isle aux Canards just across from our hotel.

Isle aux Canards, the perfect cliche of a tropical island.

Jill was faced with a dread as she slipped into the emptiness of retirement after all those gratifying years teaching- how would she face the new vacuum at the end of the Christmas holidays? She knew what she would be missing: the marathon pep-talk conferences with the equally straight faced speeches which she looked forward to giggling through so much. Then there were the new programs from management always seeming to offer stimulating ways of doing more work for less. And of course the relaxing task of getting to know the names and habits, good or bad of all those new kids- not to mention their parents.

Best she do something to distract herself while all her former colleagues were having such fun. How about a trip somewhere exciting, Paris perhaps? Maybe too far away for a week and rather expensive. Then she came up with New Caledonia, a comparatively short plane ride from Melbourne, equally French as one of the world’s few remnant colonies, and probably just as expensive. What the hell!

Anse Vata, our bay.

Anse Vata, our bay.

Thus, we found ourselves in a posh resort, unusual for us. Jill had negotiated an airfare-accommodation package that probably saved $1000 and led to a twin room apartment with balcony sea views. Partial sea views unfortunately. They were to the left and right of something that was not great viewing- the neighbouring Le Meridien Hotel and casino, a touch shabby and looking like a hospital. Perhaps it was the reason for the room bargain. 

The partial sea view from our room with native araucaria pine in forground.

The partial sea view from our room with native araucaria pine in foreground.

Our establishment, Complexe Chateau Royale, was on a popular beach known as Anse Vata, a well to do suburb of the capital Noumea, a town about the size of Victoria’s second city Geelong, that combines a touch of the French Riviera with the hilly semi tropicality of Brisbane and a smattering of third world slum in the makeshift shanties of poor native Melanesians on the outskirts. 

Rather than concern ourselves with such Miserables, we followed more sybaritic pursuits.

Our hotel's tarted up foyer.

Our hotel’s tarted up foyer.

Our hotel, which in one of its many past lives had been Club Med, boasted a rather nice pool which we used regularly, a rather expensive restaurant which we didn’t, but it provided a fairly good inclusive breakfast, offering healthy things like fruit and muesli which Jill favoured and tasty things likes bacon, eggs, pork sausages, eaten by me- leading to a couple of kilos excess baggage.

The place also had an enormous and over-the-top spa and sauna set up, known futuristically as ‘Aquatonic’ that we used once because we had free tickets. The hotel also faced what was probably the only truly French beach in town, that being the one where women did the French thing of discarding their bikini tops.

Sign of a truely French beach.

Sign of a truly French beach.

The hotel’s appearance was less visually stimulating than the beach. It seemed like it might have started as a 1960s public housing high rise, but in the last couple of years had received a stylish make over that tarted up the interior and made the exterior look like a 1960s public housing high rise with a make over.

The new old hotel.

The new old hotel exterior.

Just across the water from the hotel is the tiny Isle aux Canards (Duck Island), a cheap short water taxi ride. The really beautiful island is supposed to be Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines) which is a very expensive overnight stay unless you catch the Wednesday day return ferry which we missed. Another is Amedee Island with its lighthouse. It is not far away but would have cost us $AU200 each for a day trip.

Isle aux Canards might not have the spectacualr coral reefs of the others but it does have a good reef with a snorkelling path marked out by floating buoys, easily followed and taking about half an hour from one end to the other. In a quaint touch the entrance is reached by a green carpet over the beach.

The snorkelling trail.

The snorkelling trail.

 I got some nice fish photos when we were not lying on sun lounges watching the cruise ships arrive. 

Watching the cruise ships arrive

Watching the cruise ships arrive

The water nearby was also good for activities like kite boarding, paddle boarding, windsurfing and kayaking. On one of the windiest and roughest days we hired a double sit on top kayak. It was very cumbersome and painfully slow compared with the sea kayaks we use at home but was the only type on hire. We needed the exercise.

Our hotel room proved to have one big plus, a well equipped kitchen. This was so because most of the eateries we visited were about twice the price and half the standard of what we would get at home. The cuisine might been French influenced but owed more to bain marie than haute cuisine.

An expensive meal out.

An expensive meal out.

A cheap night out.

A cheap meal out.

The exception was a nearby beachfront burger bar run by native Melanesians where we ate twice on good burgers for less than $AU8 each. Compare that with a bain marie La Bougna (a supposedly Melanesian delicacy) buffet at another hotel that cost the two of us $130.

Fish market.

The fish market.

Therefore our hotel room’s kitchen paid off, especially after we found the town’s central market sold good fish at the price we would pay at a market in Melbourne.

The supermarkets were another experience. Obviously aimed at the army of French public servants and others paid in French salaries, they were a little piece of France. Most of the stock seemed imported from home even though it could have been brought more economically from Australia, a mere two hour flight away. The patriotic French preferred to ship it from the other side of the planet. In one supermarket they even had a section marked “Par Avion,” in other words flown in from France. The prices here were understandably avionic, but it says something about the attitude of the French that such stuff sells and perhaps it saves them from the kind of disaster Australia has just experienced with frozen Chinese berries. They shop in the national interest while we shop in the personal interest- the cheapest price.

The colony of Nouvelle Caledonie or ‘special collective,’ as the French call it, is mainly one large island about 400 kilometres long called La Grande Terre and a handful of small outer islands. It has the third highest per capita GDP in the Pacific, topping even New Zealand, mainly due to one mineral: nickel an essential ingredient in many modern products from jet aircraft turbines to mobile phones, but particularly stainless steel. To process it, there is a dirty polluting nickel smelter near in Noumea’s centre.

The polluting n ickel smelter.

The polluting nickel smelter.

 The main island has an estimated 10 per cent of the world’s reserves but is exploited at such a rate that it provides 20 per cent of the world’s supply. For this reason despite being on the other side of the world the French do their best to ensure it clings to their apron strings.

If Noumea does show a slight resemblance to, for example, Nice (see previous blog ‘Oh la la and other cliches on the French Riviera’) one of those resemblances is the dusky skinned people who share the place with the French. In Nice it is Africans, particularly north African Arabs. In Noumea it is the native Melanesians or Kanaks, known to Australians as the Kanakas who were ‘blackbirded’ as virtual slaves in the 19th century to work the Queensland sugar plantations.

Melanesian locals enjoying the beach.

Locals enjoying the beach.

Although there was an active independence movemement here a few decades ago, Kanaks now make up a bit more than 40 per cent of the population. In Noumea there appears to be an extensive Kanak middle class, occupying all sorts of jobs and businesses, much more than we have an equivalent Aboriginal middle class.

Middle class Melanesian .

Middle class Melanesian woman at supermarket.

Many of the Kanak middle class probably have an interest in staying with France which provides a substantial amount of the money to run the place. As a gesture, a large Kanak cultural centre was recently built designed by an Italian architect and its main external feature, a series of mesh sculptures made of you guessed it- stainless steel, a subtle recognition why the French want to stay.

French tourism videos might depict the locals as friendly smiling noble savages who eat baguettes, but there is another type of local not shown in the brochures. These are the native born European French speakers known colloquially as Caldoche, some the descendants of French prisoners sent in the late 19th century. They are said to resemble in culture and political attitudes rural red neck Australians or South Africa’s Afrikaner. Sounds as if someone mated Barnaby Joyce with Pauline Hanson and gave the offspring French accents. Les Caldoche, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, disparage the other French (usually public servants) on temporary assignment as: ‘Metros.’ Photos show Caldoche riding horses wearing Akbura style hats, no doubt copies branded L’Akubre.  

One native white we met was a woman on the beach who said she annually visited her son and family who had migrated to Queensland and lived south of Brisbane. Curiously she appeared to have less English that we had French.

Our tiny "Peugota' in the red interior.

Our tiny “Peugeota’ in the red interior.

With the idea of looking beyond Noumea, we hired a car, a tiny Peugeot 107 that exuded Gallic pride to all those who never open the bonnet. Those who did would find the mortifying word ‘Toyota’ stamped on the main bits of its mechanical giblets. From the airport carpark onwards I enjoyed the challenge of driving on the French side of the road (the right) but had more trouble negotiating the indicator and wiper controls in the opposite positions on the steering column.

We had hoped to automotively explore bits of the main island, but on our second day we had to abort an attempted drive around the island’s south which the hotel’s receptionist told us we could manage in about 40 minutes. 

Looking to the south

Looking to the south.

She had obviously never tried it because a fraction of the way around, the bitumen road showed no affinity to the Parisian Peripherique, which would be our ”Peugeota’s” natural habitat. Its wheels were so tiny and the road’s surface so deeply potholed by mining trucks, that in some holes I feared a wheel would disappear and the car be stranded on its underbody. It was so tough we were doing no more than 20 kph and clear the trip would take many times more than 40 minutes.

We backtracked and took a much shorter road across the island which was also pretty bad in places but this shorter route took nearly two hours to reach the only habitation, the Melanesian village of Yate on the coast. So much for advice from receptionists. Being technically part of France we expected at least one Yate cafe after the long drive, mais non. My experience of Melanesian commerce in Vanuatu was that they were not much into it and so it was in Yate.

Down to Yate.

Down to Yate

There might have been quite nice houses, a town hall, a sports stadium, some sort of factory and a school but as for shops there were two but you had to be lucky to find them. They had no advertising or even a sign to indicate what they sold. The first we found, specialised in hardware and a few vegetables. We had enough French with the help of that shopkeeper’s diagram to find the one that sold food and drink, just an unsigned room attached to a house. We bought all they had to offer- Coke and chips.

Australia and New Caledonia have had an on and off relationship. Indeed the island might even be considered a chip off the old block, that block being Australia when it was part of the Gondwana supercontinent. They divorced and went their own ways between 60 and 80 million years ago when the continent fragmented. This quirk makes La Grande Terre different to most other Pacific islands which are either volcanic or coral atolls grown out of reefs.

We became aware on our cross island trip where immediately away from the coast, the landscape became rusty iron red with sparse growing vegetation rather than the kind of rich jungle found in most other tropical islands.

That local vegetation is related to what would have been on Australia at the time we split, before eucalypts took over. Australia only has two surviving species of Araucaria for example: non flowering trees that would have co-existed with the dinosaurs. Ours are the Hoop and Bunya Pines while the most widely planted, the Norfolk Island Pine comes not surprisingly from Norfolk Island, another Gondwana fragment.

Araucaria forest on the east of the island.

Araucaria forest on the east of the island.

New Caledonia has one of the world’s most distinct ecosystems with some of the world’s oldest flowering plants, a crow that makes tools and the world’s largest concentrations of Arucarias, 13 surviving species. It is a sign of the priorities of the territory’s masters that only two species, including the horticulturally popular Araucaria columnaris known as the Cook Pine, are considered unthreatend by nickel mining and habitat loss. 

Red earth hillsides scarred by mining.

Red earth hillsides scarred by mining.

The territory’s name, Nouvelle Caledonie in French, which the literate will recognise means “New Scotland” was bestowed by the first European recorded as visiting, British explorer Captain James Cook who with his crew also discovered Australia’s east coast. Beats me how a tropical island could have reminded him of Scotland: must have been very homesick.

It is funny that Australia and New Caledonia are two of the closest neighbours but seem almost oblivious to each other’s existence. Our taxi driver to the airport had never heard of it, neither had our daughter. About the same time by air as New Zealand and about half that to Bali, you basically go as far north as Rockhampton and turn right. It is also half the distance of Fiji.

Maybe younger New Caledonians are turning more to Australia than enduring the long link to France. On our flights there and back from Melbourne, the passengers were overwhelmingly French speaking and mostly young.

Near the end of our Noumea stay I phoned our hotel reception to ask for something. The guy answered in perfect French and after I spluttered out the request in my imperfect version, he answered in slightly French accented Australian: “Yep, no worries.”

To view gallery click on first image.

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