A Little bit of France in the South Pacific
Trip Start Jul 02, 2003
33Trip End Jan 17, 2004
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I got here a week ago and checked into the Auberge de Jeunesse (Youth Hostel) which was in fact surprisingly civilised, very clean and organised and not very expensive - unlike the rest of the country. Spent the first day or so just checking out Noumea which is not that exciting a place but it takes a little time going from somewhere where travel is very easy and everything laid out for you such as New Zealand to a place where essentially you have a guide book and make it up as you along! Add to that the fact that everyone speaks in French all the time and it takes a day or two to adjust. Having checked out the beaches around Noumea and been for a little wander through the town it was time to explore further. Noumea could well be any small French town in many ways, theirs a Champion and Casino supermarket and I even found a Prisunic! My first excursion was to the Ile des Pins - literally the Isle of Pine Trees, a small tropical island to the South of the mainland. (By the way, the mainland is imaginatively called Grande Terre - big land). This meant getting up far too early in the morning to go to catch a ferry.
View from the Youth Hostel
Ile des Pins was indeed a small tropical paradise with white sandy beaches and turquoise bays. I headed off to the far side of the island to a bay called Bai d'Oro. A guy in the youth hostel had recommended it to me although he'd managed to befriend some german girl on the ferry who'd shared her tent with him - no such luck for me so I plumped for the cheapest option, my own bungalo at the Gite which although very comfortable was a little more than I had hoped to pay! Just behind our Gite was a little bay that was cut off from the open see by some large rocks making what a small lagoon that the locals affectionately call a piscine naturel or Natural Swimming Pool. The pool was full of all sorts of fish and there was hardly anyone around, all very relaxing. Alain, the guy running the Gite even offered me a job to stay and work there serving tables which was tempting for a little while. Having decided not to hang around on this lovely island too long, I decided to check out what was going on under the waves the following morning and headed off to the dive centre. All seemed to be going well even though the instructor only spoke French until we were about 10-15 minutes out from shore and the boat ran out of petrol. Our instructor then had to radio his mate back on shore to bring a load of petrol out. So we laid anchor and waited for about 15 minutes until the other guy showed up with about 150 litres of petrol. The fact that his mate was busy pouring petrol from a large plastic container into the petrol tank didn't stop our instructor from having a cigarette at the front of the boat - vive la France!
Once we were refueled we headed out to the reef and did a couple of dives. Lots of nice fish, lots of nice coral, a couple of sharks including a sleeping nurse shark and a very strong current for the first dive. I was hoping that the current would bring out some of the bigger fish and that I might get to see a leopard shark - well I would have done if I wasn't out front as there was one that decided to check us out and swam right behind me. After a bit more lolling around in the sun that afternoon it was time to head back to the mainland - with a bit of impromptu whale watching thrown in - there was a pod of 10-20 whales swimming pas the ferry so the captain slowed right down for about 15 minutes so we could all watch them swim by.
View of the Ile Des Pins as you come ashore
The Natural Swimming Pool
Got to be careful not to get too close to these guys when walking around the island
Departing view of Ile Des Pins
After another day wondering how I was going to see more of this country without taking out a small loan I came up with an idea. I went out and hired a car and bought myself a tent. I've only used the tent for 2 nights so far but it's already paid for itself.
I headed north to the very North East of the Island and stayed at a campsite on a little bay which is pictured on the back of the 500 Franc note. Then drove further north to see loads of beautiful waterfalls. The centre of Grande Terre is very mountainous with bits of it covered in rain forest and as far as I can tell, most of it covered in cloud - the coasts are pretty clear but the middle bit seems to be permanently covered in cloud. Then back down the west coast which has a large stretch of plain between the coast and the mountains which is mostly given over to cattle farming or just bush land. It was a very pleasant 3 days out of the capital although something just doesn't seem right about sitting under a tree eating a baguette and Vache qui Rit on a South Seas Island!
Camping at the bay in the picture on the back of a 500 Franc note
La Poule - Natural Rock formation that looks like a brooding chicken
Le Bonhomme - Natural Rock formation that looks like a fat guy
Le Sphinx - Natural Rock formation that looks like ..... yes, you guessed it ....
So now I'm back in Noumea and with a bit of luck I'll be off to Vanuatu - embracing the true French spirit, it seems there's been a few strikes with the airport staff of late!
Overall it's been a very expensive week here in New Calednonia and I don't think the mainland has as much to offer as the islands (I'll be visiting them next week with a bit of luck). It's very French - every sandwhich you ask for comes with ham unless you specifically ask them not to put it on. All the drivers are crazy but probably not quite as bad as the french in France. The youth hostel was a big surprise though as it's really well run and the guy there even has copies of the New Caledonia lonely planet that he lends out for free. I think the New Caledonia government is only really interested though in wealthy French tourists who are going to spend loads of money at the Club Med or Meridien hotels. I'm glad I've seen the place but am looking forward to getting back to a country where their first language is English and they know how to make food that doesn't contain ham!