September 27, 2012

New Caledonia

We arrived in New Caledonia after a calm 2 day sail out of Tanna, Vanuatu . The Canal De La Havanna on the south end of the island is known for impressive tidal currents and we hit them as they were going out at over 4 knots creating crazy waves that stood up to greet our arrival. As we sailed around the south side of the island the currents subsided as we continued sailing through Canal Woodin. This narrow passage separates Ile Ouen from the mainland and a few hours later we arrived to our first anchorage in Baie Ngo on the west coast 15 miles south of Noumea.

We arrived on a Sunday and would not be able to clear in until the following morning and decided to drop the hook for the night. The bay we anchored in was surrounded with mountains that had been gouged by bull dozers in the search for Nickel and other metals that are abundant in the rich soil, a mining practice that we would see all too often in the next few weeks. The island is known to have has the richest concentrations of nickel in the world and with metal price at a high there is a big rush to get it mined at any cost.
New Caledonia is the third largest island in the pacific and like many of the island we have visited is surrounded with hundreds of miles of reefs. Tha main island is over 250 miles long and boasts one of the largest lagoon’s and the 3rd largest reef systems in the world.
The land had been settled by Melanesian’s over 1500 years ago. Then discovered by Capt. James Cook in 1774 and subsequently claimed by Napoleon III for France in 1853. France used the island as a penal colony for up to 20,000 prisoners between 1864 and 1894 on the Island of Pines where I am writing this story from.
In 1894 the Governor transformed the island into a voluntary immigration colony where under contract Malabar Indians, Vietnamese. And Javanese arrived to work the mines. Many of which provide the diverse ethnic diversity you see here today.

On Monday we sailed the last few miles to Port Moselle and cleared in and leased a dock for the week.  The clear in process was strait forward and after a short walk to the police station we were free to roam the country. I have to say the ladies in the marina office were some of the most helpfull people we have ever met.

After a few days of relaxing on the dock we rented a car to drive around the island in, this time driving on the “RIGHT” side of the road western style. I got to admit after driving on the left side for 6 month in NZ it took me a little bit to remember what side of the road I needed to be on….

We headed up the coast mid week thinking “How busy can it be?” Well….Pretty darn busy with all the new mining going on! The first and largest hotel we stopped at was no longer even a hotel, but converted office space for the new mine. The next few places were booked full and finally we started thinking we might be sleeping in the car. One last stop at La Nea Hotel and the manager Jean Leonelli was nice enough to get on the phone and call every available place within 50 miles and finally found a room at a mining camp 30 minutes up the road. We drove up to look at the room which turned out to be one of many bunk houses that had been built to house the workforce. It would do in a pinch but had no bathroom or shower, they were located in another building and would be shared with the rest of the crew. Daria was not thinking this was such a good idea…..
Jean the hotel manager that helped us out had mentioned he might have a cancellation but he would not know until 7, so we stopped at one of the few places to eat and wait it out over a crappy pizza and a cold beer. We borrowed a phone and were in luck the room was available so we drove back down and got a good nights rest.
The north west coast is cattle country and we drove buy acres and acres of grazing cattle. We even saw a few center pivot irrigation systems growing corn in several states of maturity. I guess in the land of endless spring you can plant corn any time of the year?

The west coast was for the most part uneventful, there were a few nice vistas and beaches to check out but that’s about it. The roads are in great shape and construction is going on every where you look, building infastrucure and housing for the 20,000 mine employee's who have money burning holes in their pockets. Along the shorline you could see the continuous reef from a few hundred yards and up to a mile off shore protecting the island, but this left vast shallow stretches of calm water right along the shore which is not all that pretty to look at but would have been great to kite surf in!

On the second day we headed for the east coast, a few hour drive over the mountains The drive was beautiful and on our way we stopped at many lookouts and marveled at the beauty of this county. New Caledonia is home to just over 200,000 people, and 80% live in Noumea and the Southern West coast. This leaves the rest of the country sparsely populated and the North-East coast is no more than a series of small villages that have at most a few hundred people each living in them.

Most villagers were Milanese Natives and lived in simple homes along the coast. Life in a village appears much simpler than the hustle and bustle of the life back in the states. Few people have cars and most people have gardens in the back yard. As we drove along you would see the machete carrying workers heading to and from the fields. The fields were very organize and well kept growing the basic dietary staples and others growing tall grass with grazing cattle.
I would imagine knowing everyone in town was a given and life would be like having one huge family. The Methodist did an amazing job building churches and converting entire islands to Christianity back in the day.

Our second night we lucked out and had the last room available at a sister hotel of La Nea thanks to Jean the manager at the first hotel making a reservation for us. The room was a thatched hut bungalow on the beach and we slept to sound of the wind blowing though the roof and crashing waves on the beach. The lunch buffet was amazing and we found our selves eating way too much of a good thing, but both walked out with an ice cream cone just the same.

We drove most of the way to the north end of the island and along the way countless water falls and breath taking views enchanted us. The coast has steep mountains rising up from the sea and had fjords cut into the shoreline that must be crossed by bridge or in one case a small ferry. The ferry ran 24/7 and was free!

One village we drove through everyone was all dressed up and heading to church on a Friday afternoon. We stopped and asked a few ladies what occasion was and they said “Mariage” in French? It’s the same word as in English and after a few times Daria understood it was a wedding. ( My French is terrible)

In the morning we hit the breakfast buffet and were on our way south for another day of site seeing down the east coast. The vegetable stands along the road side were like sirens calling Daria’s name and we stopped at several buying pineapple, oranges, berries, bananas and passion fruits.
One nice thing about driving around an island is that it is hard to get lost, just keep the ocean on your left and you will be going the right way! That’s fine as long as you can see the ocean! But somehow we did manage to get lost a few times… Reading the French roads signs was another adventure in it self….But Daria would get us back on track on off we would go.

Half way down the east coast brings you back into mining country and the road goes right through the middle of one of the biggest mines on the island. The ore appears to be deposits in thin vanes along the hills and bull dozers cut switch backs in search of new deposits. Other areas are intensely strip mined and whole mountainsides are removed leaving behind jagged scars. The ore they seem to be looking for is the color of a new penny, brightly copper colored earth that contains the precious metals. The next mine had literally miles and miles of conveyors moving the ore down from the top of the mountain side to the refinery. Strangely the two mines we drove through were not operating and there was not a soul in site? The main mining commotion seemed to be on the west coast digging up a new found deposit of ore.

The road wound its way south and we stopped for lunch at the mountain paradise of The Evasion Hotel. This hotel was tucked into a mountain valley and offered horse back riding and hiking. From there it was a short two hour drive back to the marina for a good night sleep back in our own bed on Downtime. A little over 1000 Km and three days and this adventure was over….

Our next stop is Isle Des Pine!