Here is a portrait of two nations taken at Shelly Beach on the coast north of Sydney. A local surfer takes advantage of the excellent conditions for some late afternoon pleasure while a Chinese coal ship waits its turn off shore to fill up at nearby Newcastle. The ship will take on fuel to power China’s earnest obsession to be the world’s most efficient factory, while choking its hard working citizens with the unchecked air pollution that is the side effect. Few of its workers would be able to imagine an afternoon as clean and pleasant as the one being enjoyed in the foreground.
Angry ocean- theme music for a rediscovered past.
The sea is a wild and threatening soundtrack to our lives tonight, as each of us finds space in a corner of our two wheeled hut. Just outside there is a continual hiss punctuated by muffled thuds as the storm angered South Pacific crashes into the coast only perhaps 10 metres below the perch of our clifftop campsite.
While the sea is constant, there is another sound sporadic and variable: swinging from timid to urgent and sometimes to bombastic. It is the rain on our old caravan’s aluminium roof. This is the coast north of Sydney which was smashed and deranged by the storms of a week ago while we were catching the tail of them further south on the New South Wales coast.
This weather has followed like a bad thought since we left Melbourne more than a month earlier. We move to try to escape it and it follows us, becoming benign at the places we have left. The beach below our campground now is normally a popular board riding spot, but for days it has been abandoned, except for determined dog walkers. The waves are mighty, relentless and seem dangerous enough to flick a human like a match stick.
We came here thinking we would arrive as the stormy weather had blown itself out, but strange things are happening to our climate and another semi cyclonic low pressure weather system formed further north, this one smashing and flooding Brisbane before moving south to the northern New South Wales coast, where last week end we had planned to visit Jill’s brother and his family. This should not be happening in May.
Just like we copped the tail of last week’s storm we moved north only to cop the tail of this one, so we have decided to sit it out, at this place called Toowoon Bay, between Sydney and Newcastle.
Where we are parked is just south of a town with the prosaic name, The Entrance. It could just as easily have been called The Exit because it performs depending on the tide, both bodily functions for a large body of water called Tuggerah Lakes. But people who bestow place names like to be up beat, so I’ll bet The Exit was never considered, probably a bit too glass half empty.
These lakes do look tempting for us to explore in our kayaks, but the boats stay locked by cables to a steel strut behind our van, the inclement weather disinclined to clemency. We have decided to wait here because the Weather Bureau is forecasting clemency next week with a string of sunny days.
There is another reason to stay here. Jill refers to our trip as “henna nomading,” a refusal to accept she is really a grey nomad under hair dye. Not long before we set off on our henna nomad trip a month ago, I got a phone call from a piece of my past I thought was gone forever. My earliest childhood friend, who I had know since we were three, phoned me after more than half a lifetime of silence. It proved as good a reason as any not to remove our home phone number from the directory, despite nuisance calls with Indian accents.
I had lost all track of David after last visiting him when he was living in a shed behind an old farmhouse west of Sydney 35 years earlier. He managed to track me down after developing an interest in genealogy. Finding online some of the articles and columns I had written before I retired from journalism, he read one I had written a decade earlier on our Melbourne suburb, then via the directory he found our number.
”You might not remember me,” he said as an opening remark. How could I forget him, he and his family, whose backyard ran behind ours were one of the most formative influences on my young life.
For one thing his parents had been brave enough to be communists in early 1950s Sydney and then been brave enough to break away to become what the party loyalists termed ”members in poor standing,” after one of their friends visited Stalin’s Soviet Union and reported back to them the real conditions of the Soviet people. This friend then went into hiding.
Even after their split from the party, David’s parents maintained by the standards of the age, fairly radical beliefs. Despite abandoning party communism, they were still socialists, a concept I did not understand, but more importantly they were atheists, something I understood as David not having to waste, as I did, a good part of his weekend at dreary Sunday School.
In their spare time his parents also performed a mime act, at pubs and other live venues, doing a comedy take on popular songs. They were joined by a male friend but David’s blonde and highly theatrical mother with her home made costumes, wearing even a mini skirt before they were fashionable, was the central figure. They were sometimes known as ‘The Lost Chords’ and other times as simply ‘The Act.’ I think his mother was the first woman I ever had a crush on.
They even had a canoe which I envied, and my memory of it probably subliminally got me to take up rowing at my Brisbane high school, and in recent years kayaking.
His parents seemed people prepared to think for themselves, compared with mine who were conservative and highly conformist- my church mouse mother and loyal, hard working, underpaid father who helped to enrich a succession of employers, but was left with nothing to show for it.
I realised David’s parents were probably very difficult to live with, so I didn’t envy him, but they did influence me.
From his out of the blue phone call, I discovered for most of the half lifetime since we last met, he had been living on the New South Wales coast near where we were planning to visit. It was only a question of finding a dog friendly caravan park.
Of course we had both aged, both of us suffer arthritis, but his voice I would know anywhere and some of his gestures have not changed since I first moved out of his life, when at 13, my parents took me to live in Brisbane.
We met his partner Cheryl, who he teamed up with a few years after our last contact. I found we had travelled to many of the same places overseas and on many things still held similar values. We seemed to know each other so well we could finish each other ‘s sentences. He found old photographs of our childhood and we resurrected names of people long forgotten.
We even held a little dinner party in the caravan, where I pressure cooked steamed Chinese style sesame flavoured chicken and then forgot he was gluten intolerant when I added flour to the sauce. I remembered just in time before serving.
So now we are both old and wrinkly, and half a lifetime later we have caught up again. Is this what they mean by life coming full circle?
We decided to stay here another week because of the weather and wonder whether its cause might partly be due to the line of empty coal bulk carriers that line the ocean horizon as they wait for their turn in the queue to fill up at Newcastle. At night they sit on the dark water lit up like pretty floating candles, but I know their existence is much more insidious.
The black combustible stone they wait to carry contributes so much to global warming and possibly our altered weather. Australia is in the hypocritical position that it can export so much of this stuff which provides us profit, yet when it is burnt, is tallied up against the emissions from the country where it is consumed such as China, India or Japan, not the country that digs it from the ground.
It is part of our lazy self serving attitude to climate change.
It is an attitude I feel guilty about every time I pour the cheapest fuel I can find into the car that is hauling the caravan on this trip.
THE PITFALLS OF FOLLOWING THE SUN
And after two weeks of being soaked in the dismal chilly south coast we decided like many mature nomads to follow the sun and at a campground north of Sydney near Gosford we rented a site with extensive ocean views.
ANZAC Day: Air Force attacks Potato Point.
After banking so low over over our caravan we could nearly touch it, the Air Force Hercules flies south to rid Potato Point of invading marsupials (see previous blog).
That Low feeling on the East Coast
The view from the window at the head of our caravan bed is of a place named after nothing more exotic than a common grocery vegetable. It is called Potato Point, hardly the sort of name normally bestowed on a place with a long sandy beach and extensive ocean views.
At night its few street lights make up for the stars which have been absent in the days since we uncoupled our car and screwed down the van’s support struts into the soggy earth of a place called Tuross Head, a few kilometres north of the other headland.
In the daytime, even in the occasional sunny breaks, Potato Point is obscured by the ocean spray whipped up by the reason we are staying more than a week here and spending a good deal of it in the van, cooking, reading, listening to music and doing none of the kayaking that brought us to Tuross, with its two lakes and some of the best paddling in Australia.
That reason is known as an East Coast Low, a kind of mid latitude cyclone (a typhoon or hurricane in some people’s dialects). It is not as intense as a tropical cyclone, but it has already done a lot of damage around Sydney further north, and to the coast further up from it. We are getting the bottom end of the weather- persistent rain and cold wild winds.
We have been on the road three weeks and ironically the last warm day we had was the day we left Melbourne. A phone call from a friend there described mild sunny autumn. Boastfully this coast has been promoting itself as a place for Victorians to retire, according to the marketing speil, because of its warmer, more benign climate. Ha!
Unlike our experience further south at Wonboyn Lake the local oysters and other seafoods were still on the menu, which is just as well because on our first two days here we were joined by Jill’s brother and sister in law, Pete and Jeanette. Then Annick, a friend we had not seen for some time who was also touring the coast, came to join us.The current storm is the second of these low atmospheric pressure weather systems we have encountered and apparently there is another one ready to take its place when this one blows out.
This one has twice blown down the side awning we have tried to attach to the caravan, once at 2am. Maybe we will be able to put our kayaks in the water on Friday, the predicted calm day between storms.
Meanwhile if we want to amuse ourselves, it is safest to do it by car. We drove up to Bateman’s Bay, the nearest large town, in the blinding rain for some supermarket supplies. Then we drove to Moruya, the nearest medium town to try the $10 special in the local Thai Restaurant for lunch.
Finally the pull of Potato Point became irresistible. It was quiet, so quiet it made Tuross Head with its small shopping centre, club and a handfull of restaurants seem like Las Vegas. There is not even a shop at Potato Point. Indeed the human population seemed easily outnumbered by the kangaroos which had made their homes in the town finding the suburban lawns particularly palatable- offering a free marsupial mowing and garden trimming service.
If they ever want to set themselves as a business, I suggests they call themselves ‘Kanga Management’.
The Garden Cemetery of Eden
It comes with a view to die for, the cemetery of Eden. On a prize beachfront spot, the graveyard in this far south coast New South Wales town with the oldest of Old Testament names, must torture those with property development urges. And in keeping with the survival myths in that first biblical book, there is a slithering danger here too. This one risks not so much the downfall of humanity, as the downfall of anyone unlucky enough to be bitten, as a sign out front of the cemetery warns. At least any fatal snake bite casualties will not have to be taken far to their final rest. Despite the town being one of Australia’s oldest settlements, there are still plenty of plots in the graveyard.
Although we met no snakes in the cemetery there was another Eden serpent we encountered, less deadly but equally unpleasant. He was the manager of the divinely situated caravan park where we had planted our van for 10 days. It is on a piece of land between the long strip of sand called Aslings Beach and the shallow waterway Lake Curalo. We chose it partly because it advertises itself as pet friendly and so far our dog has made no complaints. There was however no warning about just how unfriendly its mangement can be to humans. The campground, known as Eden Tourist Park, attracts some nice and interesting guests. There was one couple travelling the country in a vintage Morris Minor, another on a huge three wheeled motorcycle towing a large camper trailer, but it is fairly empty at this time of year and we secured a powered site just back from the lake shore. But for some reason the camp manager wanted to plonk campers who don’t need power onto the block between us and the lake despite there being lots of empty shore sites who don’t cut off anyone’s access or view.
When a group arrived this afternoon, Jill asked them if they would mind asking the manager if they could take one of the other vacant sites. He came steaming down in his ute, launching into a tirade of abuse about her trying to tell him how to run his caravan park. Jill has recently retired after fighting a school principal who had morphed into a similar petty dictator. Now it seems the same tendencies can seep into the minds of men who rule any patch of turf even as humble as a caravan park. He will read what she thinks of his behaviour in her latest post as a prolific correpondent for Trip Advisor. Perhaps he needs to realise he is part of the hospitality industry and not running a refugee camp.
Despite the paradise normally associated with its name, if anything this Eden’s own genesis was the reverse, and it still trades on an offshoot of that reverse. Its reason for being established was hunting the whales that annually migrate along the eastern Australian coast. The smells of their bodies being boiled down in the coves and bays around the town, would have produced a fragrance very different from anything in an imagined biblical garden. Whaling collapsed in the 1930s after the hunting dramatically reduced the animal’s numbers. These days the town keeps the industry’s memories alive with what it refers to as ‘The Killer Whale Museum.’ It should more accurately be called the ‘Whale Killer Museum,’ because that’s what it is really about. The twist is that the museum’s main attraction hinges around the stories associated with one member of another species in the whale family.
The museum’s centrepiece is the skeleton of a killer whale or orca known as Old Tom, who became a nationally known legend in the early 20th century for leading a pod of killer whales that herded animals from the migrating larger whales into the bay where they could be harpooned by the human whalers. Tom would allegedly signal to the whaling station by flapping his tail when they had coralled a victim for the slaughter and the whalers would take to their boats to row out for the kill. Such was Tom ‘s supposed enthusiasm that he often used to grab the bowline of the boat to tow it at greater speed. The worn down teeth on the left of the skeleton’s head are supposed to prove this claim.
The percentage in it for the orcas was that the whalers allowed them to rip the bits off the carcass they wanted, particularly the tongue which could weigh four tonnes, which was no use to the whalers. It is claimed by the museum to be the only example in the world where orcas engaged in this kind of arrangement with humans and when Old Tom died so did Eden’s whaling industry. This story at least was the one spun by the museum when I first visited it 20 years ago, as part of a journalistic junket (officially a fact finding trip) on whale watching, the industry that has filled the gap after killing ended. There has been a subtle change in the museum’s story in the years since as they have tried to incorporate some of the history of the local indiginous people. It now reveals the local aborigines revered the orcas and apparently did engage in cooperatively hunting the large whales, with the aborigines spearing them from canoes and allowing the orcas to take their bit as part of the deal.
Part of the commentary makes the extrordinary statement that the Eden aborigines, who enthusiastically took part in the early whaling industry, were one of the few aboriginal groups who proved to be of ‘economic use’ to Europeans in Australia.
It also now points out that these aborigines, whose skills of spearing and excellent sight made them valuable, might also have been responsible for the interaction with the orcas, speculating that British whalers would be unlikely to allow a rival animal to have first bite at their catch. The site of all this carnage was a beautiful piece of water with the anachronistic name Twofold Bay. That’s because it is a big deep harbour with a peninsula in the middle that is the site for most of Eden town.
I took my kayak and had a crack at paddling across the southern part of the bay towards what is known as Boydtown, the site of one of the original whaling settlements. It was, named after the entrepreneurial scum bucket that set it up in the 1840s and is now site of a flash but discreet hotel. Ironically they also named the local national park after him too. Quarantine Bay, a quiet boat harbour was where I launched, on a day when the weather bureau forecast three metre sea swells. There was also a southerly adding some chop, so the swells were more than just a roller coaster ride. It took a bit less than an hour to get there and back, but I am not used to swells that big. On the way back, I should have had a good view of the town, but I did only half the time when I was on top of one. The rest of the time I had a view of a three metre high wall of water.
A much more sedate paddle was Wonboyn Lake about 30 kilometres to the south and not far from the Victorian border. If you are prepared to drive through the rough tracks of Nadgee Nature Reserve you can reach a beautiful beach called Greenglade in the dramatically named Disaster Bay. But it is a bit hard to access the lake unless you own a property there, because there is no public lake front except for a small launching ramp near some of the lake’s famous oyster farms.
They had just suffered a freshwater flood, so the oysters were off limits, to my disappointment. The water in the normally saline lake was dark with tannin and tasted fresh. I paddled about an hour down to the ocean entrance and although it was open and the surf roaring, the fresh water was pouring out so fast, no salt water was coming in.
I was so looking forward to an oyster feast on returning to this coast, but I am just going to be forced to wait. It seems it is not just snakes that can bugger up paradise.
Life in a Suitcase
Travelling in a caravan makes a big change from travelling out of a suitcase. It is more like travelling in suitcase- a rather large suitcase where everything must have its place. Given we are doing it with our old dog Astro, he has to have his place too and in this instance he has chosen it right next to the bed on the side where I sleep.
He is as wise as an old dog can be and even though the space is a bit of a squeeze, it makes sense because the van is small and he has to share its space with two much larger humans. The main drawback to his choice is that in the squeeze of space he can also squeeze out some fairly fruity farts. At least I let him take the blame.
It is Easter and we are at the dog friendly caravan park at Lake Tyers in far eastern Victoria. It is the first stage of the trip we have planned as the overture to retirement- several months along the Australian east coast from Melbourne where we live, past Sydney where I was born, to Brisbane where I spent adolesence and went to high school and uni, and still have friends.
Lake Tyers is near the end of one of the sunshine rays that radiates from Melbourne, across the map of our state Victoria. On that map, Melbourne at bottom centre, does look like a rising sun with all main roads spreading like beams of sunlight outwards from its core. It is the most centralised Australian state. Lake Tyers is on one of these rays about a hundred kilometres from the border with New South Wales.
It is also home to an Aboriginal community, a remnant from the 19th century when indigenous people from all over the state were herded onto reservations as farmers, squatters and pastoralists forced them off their ancestral land. These days the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust on a large peninsula on the lake’s northern side is off limits to the public.
Here the coast faces south along the stretch of sand called 90 Mile Beach, before turning abruptly north at the border. It is a wild and treacherous coast, but that doesn’t stop people swimming in its waters. A couple of days ago, we met a soaked woman walking up the beach stairs behind an equally soaked little boy. She said she had to jump in to rescue him after he found the undertow too strong and was unable to get out of the water.
Inland from the beach is the lake, a two pronged body of water formed from two creek channels flooded by the ocean, similar to the salt water lakes along the New South Wales coast. Much of the year its entrance is closed from the sea by a bank of sand and is usually only opened by the force of water from spring rain. It is a good spot for paddling and we have used our kayaks accordingly.
The first was heading upstream to a place called Mill Point, then we drove 20 minutes to a little town called Nowa Nowa at the upper reach of one of the lake arms and went downstream. There was lots of birdlife and jumping fish that seemed smart enough to avoid the people fishing from boats and all along the bank, who all reported no luck when we asked them.
Heavy rain for the last couple of days, will test how well we cope confined to the van. Hearing the rain pelting on the roof has its charms, but could strain things. I have already looked up the definition of the phenomenon called ‘cabin fever.’
Apparently the best treatment is to get out and commune with nature, even if it does mean getting wet.
VIOLENCE TOWARDS VEGETABLES!
smashed avocado. That’s what the recipe called for, not the somewhat gentler term mashed. By adding an ‘s,’ it required the vegetable to be pulverised to bits forcefully or as a dictionary definition of the word puts it; ”to break into pieces with violence and often a crashing sound.”
It is not surprising in an era where preparing digestable nutrition has been reduced from the simple pleasure of offering tastebud satisfaction, into a gladiatorial televised spectator sport.
Therefore it is also not surprising something as basic as cooking is being infiltrated by the language of combat. In this spirit and to ramp things up I suggest we upgrade the titles of some such TV programs from ‘Master Chef’ to ‘Totalitarian Dictator Chef’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ to ‘My Kitchen Beats the Living Shit Out of Yours.’
Melbourne is now in the grip of its Food and Wine Festival, while Australia is in the grip of possibly the most mutually destructive era in its political history, led by a prime minister who self describes as a “fighter.” Tony Abbott is a one-time boxer known to his enemies as Captain Combat. Falling into line with his boss, Treasurer Joe Hockey has called for a ”Grey Army” of older workers to wage war on the spectre of an ageing population. So if this government can place the nation’s political soul on a perpetual war footing, why not its cooking? A jihad aimed at the digestive juices.
Around longer than Abbott has been a US rock band The Smashing Pumpkins, but they began in the late ’80s and cannot be blamed for the current trend. An Australian food website called ‘Smash’ exists, but is devoted to promoting sausages as comfort food.
A clue to the smash vs mash conundrum does exist on the BBC television network’s food section for a recipe called, ‘Smashed sprouts mash with chestnuts.’ It instructs to mash the sprouts into a chunky texture with a potato masher. So that’s the difference, smashed means not quite mashed, but would seem a bit of a squib to say that in this pugilistic age where it is more in keeping with current absolutist values to choose an aggressive term over one that is merely descriptive.
Following this bellicose logic, perhaps in the current climate and seeking the truly exotic, there is a great publishing opportunity for a truly intriguing cookbook. How about ‘Secret Delights from the Kitchens of Islamic State?’ Food fit, if not for a king, at least for a Caliph.
Renewed in New Caledonia
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!
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
I got some nice fish photos when we were not lying on sun lounges 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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