New Caledonia

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Caledonia - a taste of France

We joined the Island Cruising Association rally in Port Villa along with several other yachts.

Rally participants gathered for the official ceremonies on Ouvea

This meant that we would be able to visit the Loyalty Islands that lie between the main island (Grande Terre) of New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Getting permission to visit these outlying islands usually required an official “check in” in Numea and then a slog back to the islands – something few yachts were willing to accomplish. The rally organiser had arranged for officials to fly to Ouvea to deal with all the boats on the rally as well as some from the New Cal Cruising Club that had been away from the country.

Before we departed port festivities included a barbeque at the Port Villa Yacht Club and an excellent dinner in a local restaurant. As we prepared for the short passage we began watching the weather and finally decided to leave in company with Jackie and Brian on Songster and a few other boats. Most boats left the safe harbour of Port Villa within 48 hours of each other.

Things weren’t too bad at first but soon we found ourselves fighting strong winds and waves along the direct course. Other boats in the rally reported up to 40 knots of wind and eventually Windflower – the rally organizers decided to change their route to a more comfortable ride to get the wind behind them. Our forward top hatch hadn’t closed properly and I was lucky to see a waterfall gushing into our forward berth. I was able to cover the bedding with a flexible window from the cockpit enclosure and catch most of the water with towels and sheets. We were wet, miserable and tired by the time we turned into the lagoon the next day. We had also altered course slightly but found ourselves perfectly able to continue on the rhum line arriving in the beautiful lagoon anchorage on Ouvea the next day.

A water well used by the local villagers

Ouvéa is a long, thin sliver of land with a 25km-long perfect white beach and an exquisite lagoon stretching as far as the eye can see. A chain of tiny islets known as the Pléiades surrounds this magnificent lagoon

This was one of the most perfect beaches we have seen – miles of pristine white sand fringed with palm trees. The perfectly clear blue water reflected the occasional fish that swam underneath the yacht. After we had been cleared in the country by the customs, immigration and health officials we were free to go ashore and explore. We hung out our wet stuff and dried up the boat as best we could.

New Caledonia visitor's centre

Most of the villagers lived in concrete houses but we saw the occasional round thatched hut in some areas.

The village nearest to our anchorage held a feast to welcome us and we were treated to a selection of island foods – deliciously cooked by the colourfully dressed local women and presented by the local chief and senior headmen

A tour of the island took us to a turtle pool (we were lucky to see the solitary turtle that lived there,) and to a church constructed from the coral on the shore. We were scheduled to visit the soap factory but for some reason it was closed that day.

Vanilla growing at the plantation

Time spent in the little vanilla farm was interesting and we stopped near a section of cliff formation of stalactites.

We were told that the chiefs of bygone eras were buried there in special ceremonial places amongst the cliffs.

Surrounded by a 1,600 km long coral reef, New Caledonia also boasts the largest lagoon in the world. The reef can be as close as a few kilometers from the coast in some places and as far as 65 km in others - with an average depth of 40 m.

Rocky island stalactites

Measuring 400km long and 50km wide, Grande Terre (Main Land) is not only New Caledonia's major island but also the third-largest island in the Pacific after Papua New Guinea and NZ. A chain of mountains sweeps down the middle of the island, and the wide plains that stretch along its west coast. On the east coast the mountains descend to the sea, their lush vegetation meeting the steep and sinuous coastline. Waterfalls rush down the mountainsides into deep pools before trickling gently into the sea.

All too soon it was time this to leave this exotic island and we opted to head across to the Grande Terre (main island). This passage was quite comfortable and we entered the reef on the east coast through the Canala pass. We were warned and we soon found the prediction was accurate; the wind whistled up the side of the island from the south at about 20 knots every day! This made our travel southwards quite a challenge – into head winds and the accompanying waves. Over the next week or so we made our way down the coast towards the bottom end of the main island. We’d head out early in the morning and anchor in a quiet bay or river mouth before the winds got up in the early afternoon. By this time we were in company with Spiro, Wandering Star, Neptune 2 and Songster, which made for some happy gatherings in the evenings.

Yachts anchored in brilliant sunshine off the beach at Ouvea

We carefully planned to enter the Havana Pass at slack tide to avoid the notorious current sweeping through but somehow must have miscalculated as we were motoring hard and making only about 2 knots. Later we were told that we should have allowed an extra couple of hours before making the entry. Next time we will hopefully know better!

The capitol of New Caledonia is Numea. We found it to be an attractive and bustling small city, The main centre reflects its French influences and is like the French Riviera transplanted to the Pacific; patisserie on almost every street, good wine, cheese and baguettes, the aromas of wonderful coffee, great restaurants, along with stylish and colourfully dressed people made it a welcome change from the less affluent islands.

Captain Cook discovered Nouméa in 1774 and Napoleon III declared Nouméa a part of France in 1853. Both the anchorages were very busy and the marinas full. We anchored in the Bay of Orphans alongside many others and quickly discovered several old friends were also in the area. Ute and George on Miami and Toya and Stephen on Cheers we caught up with Lionheart and had a great birthday BBQ party on signal island with Three Ships and some others.

One of our highlights was our visit to the Aquarium.

We saw all manner of beautiful coral, many coloured fish and there was even a shark skulking around.

Towards the end of our visit we joined up with the Port to Port Rally. This turned out to be an excellent venture as we had a terrific time in Bundaberg when we arrived there.