Category Archives: South Pacific

Noumea – New Caledonia

“… a sparkling jewel in the Pacific Ocean.”

Rollin' down the river to Noumea
Rollin’ down the river to Noumea

If Moorea was an unspoiled, and largely undeveloped, paradise then Noumea is a gem which has been polished to a sparkling jewel in the Pacific Ocean. My goodness what a fabulous place this is and I can see why it is known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’. It is more like the South of France in appearance with its palm trees and beautiful bays but infinitely nicer (fewer traffic jams and very polite locals).

Promenades and palm trees
Promenades and palm trees

However, before I start thinking in terms of it being a future holiday destination and mentally awarding it 5 stars on Trip Advisor, I need to give myself a very stern reminder that the only way to get here is to fly from Australia or Japan. In common with the South of France, it is also ridiculously expensive.

Queen Victoria safely in port
Queen Victoria safely in port

We arrived at the spectacular archipelago just as dawn was breaking but had a long transit along the river to Noumea, the capital city of the French special collectivity of New Caledonia.

Part of the welcome committee - the drummers and one of the warriors
Part of the welcome committee – the drummers and one of the warriors
Warrior with attitude!
Warrior with attitude!

Did I know that the barrier reef off these islands is second only to Australia’s Barrier Reef? Absolutely not. The islands of New Caledonia have a sub-tropical climate and at its coldest, Noumea’s average daily maximum temperature is still 28C. Today was much warmer. Our welcome was nothing short of ‘hot’ with a display of drumming and war dances from grass-skirted warriors enthusiastically performing on the quayside before the ship could properly dock. Once clearance was given, people were keen to go ashore and, for me, the chosen tour of the island was via one of the brightly coloured, open-carriage little trains – locally known as ‘The Choo-choo’. It was absolutely perfect as the day just got hotter and hotter.

My 'wheels' for the sight-seeing trip
My ‘wheels’ for the sight-seeing trip

We did the sights and saw bay after bay of beautiful aquamarine water. Some were breezy and perfect for kite surfing, whilst others provided calm waters for safe family bathing. People in New Caledonia are passionate about sailing, which is obvious from the number of yachts and huge variety of crafts filling the marinas and at anchor in the bays. Each family owns at least one and they are used for visits to the other islands, visiting friends and just enjoying life. Generally speaking, Noumea has an up-market population and buying a house with a sea view here costs over US $1m for something basic. Very few are basic.

“Education is incredibly important…”

Different races live happily side by side and some have intermingled. The Melanesians, who were here first, have been joined by Polynesians, Europeans, Indians, Vietnamese and Chinese. The Indians and Vietnamese came to mine the nickel which was discovered here and two huge nickel mines feature on the island’s landscape. The Chinese came and developed their China Town. It never ceases to amaze me that almost everywhere I go in the world, I can be sure of Dim Sum and Sweet and Sour! Of course amongst the early settlers were white missionaries who brought both Catholic and Protestant religions to the islanders. Today 55% of the population is Roman Catholic, 35% Protestant and 10% Muslim (the latter being courtesy of prisoners who were shipped here from Morocco when Noumea was a penal colony).

But religion ‘bends’ a little more here. We saw a fabulous looking fish restaurant which is owned and run by nuns! Apparently you can go and have a delicious lunch and sing an Ave Maria with them at the same time.

Horse racing is very popular
Horse racing is very popular

Education is incredibly important and schooling begins at 3 years old. When children go into Primary School, at the age of 6, the school day is from 07:00 until 16:00. When they are in High School or University, the day stretches from 07:00 until 18:00 or 19:00. The children all wear bright blue shirts as their school uniform. Skirts and trousers seemed to be grey or blue. It doesn’t matter which school you go to, the uniform is the same across the island and, just like children everywhere in the world, passing visitors were an excuse to forget the lesson, rush to the windows and wave furiously.

French ‘chic’ is much in evidence amongst the European population. Everything is put together with style and elegance and the shops cater for lovers of French designer goods and matching prices. The native population is also ‘très jolie’ with vibrant colours and flowing garments. Bars and restaurants offer local brews and delicacies but our morning treat, on board The Choo-choo, was a delicious pastry and some local ice cold cider, enjoyed whilst gazing out onto the world’s largest lagoon. Not quite your average Friday morning!

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Just one of the harbours of Noumea

After a lengthy wander along the promenades and through the parks, a visit to the beautiful Lemon Bay rounded off my day perfectly. Waiting for the sun to drop behind the distant hills in a water’s edge bar, with a glass of chilled Chablis, served with canapés and a flourish, was a perfect time to reflect on some of the quite outstanding experiences of this trip. And still there’s more to come! Hop on the shuttle bus back to the ship and Australia next stop.

Fiji…

“…where an invitation to dinner may once have been, “Come and be the main course””

Intensely humid Fiji
Intensely humid Fiji

When we sailed into Suva, the capital city of the Republic of Fiji, I knew I had to build on my sketchy knowledge about the country and its people, most of which I had acquired from having watched them play some very energetic rugby. Fiji is actually made up of (currently) 322 islands, only 110 of which are inhabited. The total number of islands is often an approximation as it would appear that every time there is an earthquake somewhere in the world, a new atoll springs up out of the sea to add yet another island to Fiji’s collection.

Welcome to Fiji
Welcome to Fiji

Our quayside greeting was extremely loud at about 6.30 am and I stepped onto my balcony to look down on something reminiscent of an “Oompah Band”. Then came the drummers beating out their complex rhythms whilst some pounded the floor with their large bamboo sticks and finally the grass-skirted warriors with their painted faces and bodies performed a war dance. Then I remembered a long forgotten geography lesson; these people were cannibals at one time. I think it was the white missionaries that went into the pot but based on the fact that these guys looked well fed, I felt reasonably safe. But would I ever get any half decent photographs? The minute I stepped out of the air conditioning into the open air, my camera lens misted over and resolutely refused to clear. The humidity here was incredible and like walking through fog.

The warriors were waiting for us
The warriors were waiting for us
Every large shop comes complete with warriors and a band!
Every large shop comes complete with warriors and a band!

As hundreds of passengers poured off the ship to go on various excursions, the free newspapers we were given carried a banner headline “Cyclone arrives tomorrow”. The ship’s captain had warned us that the bridge was monitoring a massive deep depression coming towards Fiji and hoped that we would be unaffected today. The locals seemed unperturbed…it’s the cyclone season in this part of the world, no problem!

“We had been warned about the Kava tradition”

"Come to share our Kava with us!"
“Come to share our Kava with us!”
This is what drinking Kava can do!
This is what drinking Kava can do!

My tour was going deep into the countryside to experience life in a Fijian village. The welcome we received was exceptional and was in no way dampened by the monsoon which arrived at the village with us. They sang their welcomes to us and the village ladies performed gentle swaying dances. We had been warned about the Kava tradition (a local drink which should in no way be confused with the sparkling Cava). There was a ceremony by the local warriors (who in their spare time play for the local rugby team!) for the preparations to share the drink. This drink, which I can best describe as looking like muddy water, is made from crushed and ground roots of the pepper plant and is, allegedly, lethal. I got the impression it had the same sort of effect as LSD and even though women are now allowed to drink it, I thought sitting this one out was the way to go. Then it was off for a walking tour of the village…that’s right, in the monsoon. The umbrella I had acquired in Buenos Aries was once again put into service but the local lady who was showing us around had the best idea – go barefoot, forget the umbrella and totally ignore the deluge. Back at the primitive village hall after a 15 minute wander, it was possible to wring water out of our clothing but it was hot and steamy anyway so no-one was going to suffer.

The village communities are amazing places. Everything is shared, everyone is provided with any help that is needed, they keep communal livestock and grow all their own fruit and vegetables. Everyone is expected to work in some way. They also sell anything not required by the village which enables them to buy salt, sugar, tea, material for clothing and, most importantly, stationery and books for their children’s schooling. Education is free but not the books. The villagers build their own houses, many of which are “work in progress”. It can take several years to acquire sufficient money for building materials and several more for the basic furniture and creature comforts. Only a few have flushing toilets! No-one is denied shelter and new homebuilders are willingly accommodated until buildings are ready. The ladies make handicrafts and jewellery to sell in the markets and the profits support the village It really is a co-operative society and the smiles said it all.

Even the Tour Guides wear skirts
Even the Tour Guides wear skirts

Back in the city it still took me by surprise to see very smartly dressed gentlemen in jackets, shirts, ties…and skirts! They may be called sarongs but they are definitely skirts. So all the men wear skirts and the warriors wear grass ones. And why not? The city gents strode through the puddles whilst those of us in long trousers tip-toed around the edges, although there was a very good reason for the ship’s population being all covered. We had been warned about mosquitos which carry Dengue Fever and the fact that it is rife in Fiji. Therefore most of us had gone for maximum cover, trailing behind us the rather unattractive aroma of DEET as a result of zealous spraying of the repellant.

Once on board again, I can feel the ship swaying in spite of its moorings. Time to go and, hopefully, get ahead of the cyclone as we head out to Noumea in New Caledonia.

Moorea – this is what paradise looks like

“Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

The ancient explorers knew a thing or two when it came to finding great places to pull down their sails, drop anchor and stay for a few months.

 

 

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Early morning clouds begin to lift

Our sail into Moorea in the early morning sun had a real wow factor as the volcanic peaks were high and jagged and the coral reefs around the island provided clear turquoise lagoons. This heart shaped island has been described as a ‘picture in a frame’ because of the reefs that encircle it. This is not an island with large docks and harbours and we dropped anchor some way out. The air was like silk…soft and gentle as it touched your skin…and the day promised spectacular things.

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It really is like this.

After quite a long tender ride to the shore we went on a circular journey of the island and deep inland to capture the unique beauty of this jewel in the Polynesian Sea. There are no towns here, merely small villages, and a population of just 12,000. Our mini-coach driver kept up an amusing banter for hours, frequently stopped, leaned out of the window and picked flowers and branches off trees to provide us with nature’s remedies for every conceivable kind of ailment. I could see many of them working but had to laugh at the island’s cure for constipation….eat three mosquitoes!! There were certainly plenty of them and I have the souvenirs to prove it.

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A land crab

We were shown the most enormous land crabs and warned not to put our hands anywhere near the ground as these things were known to bite fingers off. The islanders capture them and feed them nothing but coconut for three days in a purifying process before cooking them. Although there is not much work on the island, the villagers live simple lives and food is plentiful. The sea is rich with fish and the coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, pineapples and mangoes are in plentiful supply. In fact the landscape is full of plantations, and not only do they export the fruit, but extract its juice and make liqueurs.

Once again the clouds hovered across the mountains at times but the valleys and beaches were sun-filled all day. The beaches and lagoons were certainly eye-catching and one or two 5 star hotels have appeared on the island, with bungalows on stilts built into the lagoons, each with its own steps into the water providing snorkelling and swimming literally on the doorstep. This is the cheap season because of the heat and the fact that it can rain a lot, so the hotels have offers at about US $400 per night. In the high season, when it is cooler and permanently dry, the costs can rise to US $6,000 per night…but coffee is included!

All the mountains have names and some have significant meaning for the islanders, for example the Rotui Mountain (which divides Opunohu Bay, where we are anchored, and Cook’s Bay) is regarded as sacred. For me, the one which was the most fascinating was Bali Ha’i as it alternated between showing itself in full sun, then appearing to wrap itself in cloud before finally shedding misty wreaths to allow access by the sun once more. I am sitting looking at it as I write this wondering if the clouds will lift once more as we say goodbye and sail away.

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Bali Ha’i… was calling!

“Bali Ha’i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away…Come away.”

Bali Ha’i will whisper
On the wind of the sea:
“Here am I, your special island!
Come to me, come to me!”

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you’ll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
“Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.”

Moorea is, as the tourist guides describe it, a magical island full of myths and legends. I could happily go on another exploration tomorrow, perhaps on one of the quad bikes which are rented to tourists, or on an exciting ascent of the mountains in one of the 4X4s. But there are other places left to visit and after crossing the International Date Line we are heading for Fiji.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enjoying the lagoon… and… and… “Some enchanted evening…”
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But our ship was waiting to sail…