Friday, July 29, 2016

Noumea and local Isles
7/7/16 – 17/7/16
( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Port Moselle Marina Noumea: almost a champagne destination. The port of Noumea nestles in a bay, whose entry via Passe Petit – small pass – is wide enough to admit cruise liners, the French Navy, some commercial traffic and more cruising yachts that we have ever seen. Here, large motor cruisers are in the minority and sail rules the waves. A view from Google would show marinas crammed to overfilling and a host of boats moored or anchored alongside the shipping channel, cheek by jowl, stern by bow, with nary a space to allow transit between. Who owns all of these boats may remain a mystery to us, because, where it really matters, out at the islands, cays and reefs within the lagoon protected by the barrier reef and floating on turquoise and aquamarine, sublime solitude can be had with the city of Noumea still in sight. We had to pinch ourselves when we realised this to be true.
Sunset Port Moselle Marina

Sadly, too many cruising yachts arriving in Australia report a stifling level of officialdom connected with the formal and sometimes draconian entry processes, and we carried a pinch of unease about how we would find the French gendarmerie in Noumea, and we were ready to appeal to the new links between France, South Australia, and Submarines, should the wheels of bureaucracy have needed some greasing. We could refer to at least having sailed past the Adelaide Submarine Corporation, if we needed to resort to name dropping, and maybe that back home we knew people in high places – take the folk who live up on Cut Hill out of Victor Harbor for starters. Anyway, our concerns proved to be utterly baseless, with the Customs and Immigration formalities extending to one form and two smiles and the Quarantine Officer not choosing to come below and inspect our fridge, our pantry, or our wine collection, in spite of our earnest entreaties. Being pillars of society and having honesty and probity as our core values, we came clean, and showed our comestible contraband; in effect three cheeses slices, a couple of bananas and an open packet of Vita Wheats. The affable Bio-Security gent suggested we make a cheese sandwich and finish of the bananas on our way to the bin with the rest and….by the way….welcome to Noumea! And, the cost of this process, zero, zilch, zippo and nought – although it is double on Sunday!

There has to be a catch, we figured. So, we had already sailed past postcard coral isles abeam of the ship channel: the markets where a kaleidoscopic array of tropical fruit, legumes (vegetables) and poissin (fish) were just alongside the marina; Noumea itself, a cosmopolitan delight of 100,000pax was a five minute walk away; whilst between all of this was a bistro that served, as we were assured very cold cold beer, and here we were being welcomed like lost cousins from Whyte Yarcowie, by the Officials of the Republic, and by the charming staff of the marina, and all the time shorts and loose shirts were de rigueur whilst at home the hardest edge of winter was grating like carborundum. Yes there had to be a catch, because there were squillions of winter-weary folk back home who would love to be doing as we were about to – and lots of them fly further away to places in Asia to find their April sun in Cuba. Maybe we were about to find out what the catch was.
Celebrating our arrival with local beers and dinner at the
Le bout du monde Bar Brasserie (which means The tip of the world )

My French is at the embryonic stage, but I can confidently manage three offerings: bonjour, au revoir, and Veuve Clequot Cookie on the other hand with Year 10 French, and experience in backpacking through the Republic in the ‘eighties, was sworn in as our emissary. Soon, with herself still to arrive from a much longed-for post - voyage launder, I made my way to the Bistro Bar, used one of my language trilogy, but was stuck at this point because it was a large beer that had my focus, not champagne, and I had no intention of leaving just yet. The svelte young thing behind the beer taps took my solitary word in her stride and in a voice as sweet and heady as Drambuie – is that French because if it is that makes four – asked me I think, “so what’ll it be”, and I struck hard on a linguistic reef. Now I was seeking the mercy rule or the merci rule – that might be five – and with pointing, gesticulating and salivating I hinted at the ice clad taps, indicated large, and made praying gestures. It worked! Then…to decide which of the offerings I might try, my flummoxed visage had her glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the management before she started a process of pouring a little of each for me to try. Viola! (six?). Bon apetit! (eight and on a roll). With the Admiralty now having arrived we settled on two beers of bird-bath dimensions – hers a Whisky beer [throwback to earlier period of decadence] and mine a lemon beer [delicious] - and it was time for our bill. I showed her my wallet with its Australian money and she nodded. I took out a $10 note – I had forgotten I was not in Indonesia - and she frowned. This was not a good sign. Then she gestured something like “one more” and I fumbled for a $1 gold coin. Still she was not appeased… until I realised… more $10 note was it, and once produced she smiled, very sweetly, and sashayed away. $20 for two beers! A couple of rounds would add up to a second mortgage. So that was the catch. Get used to New Caledonia being expensive, and you’ll be fine. Lucky Cookie and I had been to see her Uncle Dan (Murphy, on the Irish side), back in Scarborough and our seven day passage was due more to the burden of the cellar in our bilge, rather than to a paucity of wind.  We wondered at this point what a brace of Submarines must be costing us back home, and whether a sweet young thing with a voice like liqueur had clinched the deal.
Enjoying a beer with Marcel

Back in the Marina at the “new arrivals” finger, a mixed grill of yachts had pulled in each with a story to tell. A New Zealand couple had been beaten up in passage and with shredded sails they had limped in to repair a little more than their canvas, but most had a more positive experience and were, like us, just pleased to be in Noumea and with some rest, reprovisioning and some slumber, looking forward to heading out to explore the nautical delights of this enchanting country. Diddys had arrived a day before us, with Marcel, his son Phillipe, brother-in-law Justin and crewman Brian, which we thought was fine considering we applied the “brakes” and had under-sailed Calista for more than the last 24 hours at sea. By heading north out of Scarborough they had placed themselves in heavier conditions, and in the wash-up we were pleased with the softer path that we had chosen. There is a commonality of experience amongst cruising yachtspersons, and as a result getting to know some fine folk from other places, was an easy and enriching thing to do.

New Caledonia with its spectacular forested uplands, is dominated by the main island, Grand Terre, the third largest in the Pacific, which lies like a 300km by say 40km sausage roll, wrapped in an emerald lagoon, laying SE – NW abeam of the Coral Sea. To its east lie the sublimely beautiful Loyalty Islands, Ouvea, Lifou and Mare whilst closer, and to the SE is found the Isle of Pines, an ever popular destination for cruise liners. Those who arrive here on a liner avoid the expense of on-shore accommodation, but get only a lick of what is turning out to be a very delicious ice-cream, or more commonly sorbet, as is the style here.

We arrived flying what we were assured in Adelaide was the “New Caledonia flag”, but this turns out to be the “independence” Flag of NC, and by flying it and not the French Tricolour, we have committed a diplomatic faux pas (nine?), and if the amphibians find out we might be shown the Passe Petit.and be asked to recant or leave. We are still flying the NC Flag, and note that in a year or so the locals will get a form of Brexit vote, although we fear that in spite of some aspects of French rule being overbearing and the understandable desire of some locals to paddle their own canoe, as it were, we would hate to see the French sail away and New Cal become yet another failing state in our region.
Our neighbour from California.. been cruising round the world for 18 years!

There are similarities in relation to French rule in New Caledonia and British rule in Australia, not the least of which could be listed the awful treatment of the native Kanak population and the use of this pacific outpost as a dumping ground for the hardest of France’s convicts in the 1800’s.. It was the great mariner James Cook who “discovered” New Caledonia, and named it thus, after its physical similarities with the Caledonia district in Scotland. The French eventually beat the tardy British to erecting their flag here, although what British rule might have led to is anyone’s guess. Part of current-day Australia: who knows?

For us the real attraction of New Caledonia was likely to be its remarkable coast-hugging lagoon strip, dotted with enough tropical islands to whet the appetite of any marine visitors. New Caledonia has the world’s second biggest barrier reef, and the lagoon that it encompasses was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008, which saw the locals brimming with pride. By comparison with Australia’s Barrier Reef, the outer reef in New Caledonia is only a short boat ride from the mainland and hence the vast lagoon system is an easily accessed playground for all, including those of us who have recently arrived to sip on its delights. The UN listing has presented a challenge for the country though, because whilst committed to the preservation of this unique marine treasure, the country also earns most of its cash from its abundant nickel deposits, with the processes of extraction and processing being totally at odds with the preservation of pristine coral. There have been mining “mishaps” that have sullied rivers and the precious lagoon to the ire of all bar the miners. The clash of economic and environmental imperatives has caused great angst here. Sadly, we know who is likely to prevail.

In Port Moselle, all the talk was of the Bastille Day celebrations on the 14th of July, and from the marina we could not only have ring-side seats, but if we wanted, we could actually take part in the parade portion of the festivities, from a nearby park to the centre of town, the charming and sublimely peaceful Plaice des Cocotiers. We figured, though, that rather than wait in port for all this to unfold; we could head out of Noumea for a couple of days to see if the lagoon and some of its closer islands were as delightful as some cruisers made them to be. We admit having a tall order but we were searching for a tropical isle, one that we could walk around, sandals in one hand, that had sand of alabaster white, some trees for shade, placid waters for swimming and maybe some nice reef, complete with Nemo, to entice our snorkelling gear out of the front locker. Whilst at it, we should throw in a request for some local wildlife, and a secure anchorage where we could overnight, after watching the sun set over something like paradise. Then, because we might as well go totally for broke, could we have this idyllic isle to ourselves, and could all of this be just out from Noumea so we could get back for Bastille Day and play our part in the parade? Well…with a little help from a friend….we found it…actually them, because as we were about to find out, there were lots of islands just like this in the tropical lagoons of New Caledonia. This was hard to believe, but it was true.

With potentially so much to see, we needed help to find islands, navigate our way around them and to go to the best and safest anchoring places amongst the reefs, shoals and coral heads. We had come armed with some information from Australia, but having met a New Zealand couple at Port Moselle, they showed us the extraordinary “Rocket and Cruising Guide” to sailing in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, an interactive guide of such detail and quality that it was an imperative to purchase, and to have on board. Cookie, who thought her mastery of the satellite systems meant the end of technology for a while, found that the disks of the newly purchased guide would not “load’ properly and would not “talk” to our on-board laptop. None of this was helped by the NZ couple who airily told her “all we did was put in the disks, pop in a code and we were up and running”. Some hours later, a frustrated and incandescent sailing companion discovered that a key part of the instruction, including a vital code, had not been received by us because our e-address had been misspelt!! Now, armed with state of the art cruising information, we went in search of our islands in the sun.
Exploring the wonderful sheltered anchorages inside the lagoon

Our Noumea sojourn had been brief but we would be back in a few days, and the call of the islands was too great to ignore. On Sunday 10/7, with a 10-15 knot sou-wester gripping our canvas, we slid out of Passe Petite, and charged up the lagoon to the nor-west in search of sand between our toes. My over charged imagination on our arrival hinted at dripping rainforests, lianas, and perhaps the odd Macaw, but as we headed up the lagoon, a closer inspection via the ship’s glasses showed that yes, the mountainous spine of New Caledonia was clad in forest, but closer to the coast there was evidence of rain-shadow dryness on the narrow coastal plain that looked not unlike, but grander than the lower Flinders Ranges between Port Pirie and Port Augusta in SA, after a good season. Whilst all this unfolded to starboard, off to port, and not too far away was the line of breakers, endlessly expending their energy on the outer barrier reef, Le Grand Recife. Between, and after a couple of hours, just ahead, lay the first of our chosen islands, Ilot Ndue, and because we had coordinates for finding our way to it between its surrounding reefs, with one at the helm and one observing ahead, we were soon rattling out our anchor chain, and settling back to enjoy our first tropical isle.

Beautiful Ilot Ndue

Yes, we went ashore, walked around it, wondered at the activity of a pair of Osprey feeding their young in a nest just alongside the beach, and flopped in its enticing lagoon, as the sun commenced its inexorable slide toward the western horizon. Cookie tells me that just shy of midnight and through to the wee hours, a stiff sou-easter arose and had us dancing about on our ground tackle, compromising our comforts below. She felt obliged to set alarms for depth and drag, and lay nervously awake whilst I slept untroubled through to the calm of the morning. I subscribe to the dictum of Capt. Cotton, that links of anchor chain render little service if they remain in the anchor locker – we had plenty of chain out and was never going to move.

The Osprey hovering over her chicks

The next day, we felt, could hardly be superior in quality, and yet at Ilot Mbe Kouen, it was, with plenty to spare. The way to this little gem, between Ilot Mba, Ilot Mbo, and would you believe it Ilot Mbe, was easily found via “Rocket” our electronic navigator, and after 5nm, there it was, the classic “desert island” , yes with the turquoise water, gleaming sand, a handful of trees and an allure that was irresistible. We were ashore in record time, and with beach shelter erected to deflect the late winter sun we were at a loss whether to swim, snorkel, walk around the island or to pinch ourselves that this place really existed and that yes the city of Noumea lay just across the lagoon, only miles away. In the end after a 5minute stroll around the islet – we did it twice, the second to better our time - we did all of the above and watched in awe as a pair of raptors perched on the southern spit of the cay, and allowed Cookie to approach within metres, as though they were waiting to be photographed to feature in this blog. It was a jour extraordinaire

Life's a Beach

We were understandably reluctant to sail away from the wonderful Ilot Mbe Kouen, but in the new morn we did, believing that too much of a good thing might lead to three much of a good thing, and without much temptation we might eschew “civilised” life and go and live with the Osprey. Our other incentive in this whirlwind tour of familiarisation, was to experience a “mainland” anchorage, one that came recommended and one that would offer shelter from the stiff sou-easter, due later in the day. All this saw us setting waypoints for the popular Baie Maa, just an hour or so away. This bay, or baie, offers a couple of cusped beaches and with excellent holding and we tried two spots, going ashore for a shell-fossick each time. Cookie is a non-reformed “shellaholic”, whose focus in these waters is to find one of New Cal’s famous nautilus shells, and twice at Baie Maa she shrieked and rushed forward on the beach to find a partial nautilus laying on the high tide line. We enjoyed our beach walks here but would not stray far into the bush, as it seemed that from every tree the webs of Golden Orb spiders threatened ensnarement, and with the bodies of some of these creatures as large as handsome grapes, we stayed well clear of them. Predictably Cookie’s daily journal, plus her “sketch of the day”, which has been a personalised feature of our voyages for years now, predictably featured a tree adorned with arachnids.
Baie Maa ...beware the Orbs!

Morning light.. Baie Maa

John and Ann off Essex Girl (see Newcastle and Port Stephens blogs) had reported seeing dugongs whilst anchored in Baie Maa in 2015 and we hoped that we might spot some as well. There are about 1000 of these lumbering sea grazers in New Caledonian waters and they are now strictly protected. However, scan the waters as we did, their presence eluded us, although other creatures soon captured our attention, as they were directly under Calista where she lay at anchor. We were unaware that they were there until Cookie flicked overboard some crusts from her jaffle production below. There was a sudden rush and splash, made by brace of ghost-like fish with tell-tale sticking cups on the back of their heads. Remoras! Maybe they had mistaken, in their myopic way, Calista’s rounded hull for the flank of a humpback or even a dugong. To photograph these unique fish we decided to break up a crust and jettison four of five broken bits into the bay. In the end we decided that five was better than four as, obviously, one does not give a sucker an even break.

The Remoras became quite attached to us!

The eve of Bastille Day was the following day so our fabulous little excursion into the lagoon needed to end and consequently, with a final and futile look for sea-cows, we retraced our way out of Baie Maa and made for Noumea. We had considered anchoring out near the city but in the meantime headed for Baie de Citron, to the south of the city, where a strip of eateries lay alongside the local beach where swimmers had a designated area set aside, especially for triathlon training, although it was also popular amongst travelling beachgoers, more committed to tanning, appearance and sloth. We felt the need to balance recent excesses with a longer swim, but before this we sauntered into one of the aforementioned establishments, because, as they say, when in Noumea, you have a coffee at noon. It was lucky that we did, because in awaiting our cappuccinos, a glance at the broader menu and a tourist broadsheet, soon had us coming up with a start. The Bastille Day parade, fireworks and all the hoopla, was on the EVE of Bastille Day, in other words TONIGHT! In no time we had urgently called the marina for a berth, swum the Baie, returned aboard with haste and made for the Petit Passe once again.

Enjoying the Bastille Day Lantern Parade

As we eased into a berth at Port Moselle with the marina staff there to catch our lines in the rising sou-easter, Diddys was just opposite us and Marcel, now crewless, readily agreed to join us in the festivities to come. In his youth in France he fondly remembered lantern parades, and how they had an enduring connection to the overthrow of the French aristocracy, way back in July 1789. In Noumea locals gather as the latter day proletariat, and the city authorities had 5000 candle lit lanterns ready to distribute for the parade into town. As one does, we joined the masses, and amongst mums and dads, kids, teens with iPhones, older folk and the young and the free, we got our lantern and stormed into town to the Plaice des Cocotiers where fireworks and not the burning of the Bastille were the order of the day. Not sure if we should have chanted libertie, equalitie and fraternatie, but the crowd erupted again and again as the pyrotechnics lit up Noumea’s night sky. In the middle of it all I could feel heat on my leg and could smell burning and sure enough it was one of our lanterns, on fire by mistake and causing a flurry of stamping and rapid response by those around us. The night ended with some slick music and dance centred around Palaice de Cocotiers’ iconic bandstand, and the proximity of Port Moselle to the centre of it all was highlighted by the fact that it took us only minutes to be back on board with the kettle on, one lantern short, but enriched by the experience.
Great Fireworks...including our lantern!

Next morning, and again just across the way from us Bastille Day proper was celebrated with a military parade, colour trouping, speech making and a New Zealand style haka in front of local dignitaries, featuring a collection of French Navy personnel; complete with shoes polished like mirrors, and appearing as so many pressed white flowers. All of this was broadcast in French which utterly overwhelmed my trilogy and left us thinking “well, that must have been important – wonder what it was all about?”
The Military Parade

Bastille Day ushered in what was a big weekend in Noumea. At Port Moselle we had front row seats, given that the Bistro was right next to where we were moored, and for three nights local bands knocked out some fine music and we just strolled up, bought a beer and mixed in with the festivities. By this time we had adjusted to “Noumea prices”, and the sad state of the “monopoly money” that is Australian currency, but not quite to the propensity for the French to smoke like a Lancashire mill when socialising.  The level of smoking by the French at play reminded us of what Australia was like decades ago, if you went out to a pub for a night out. Fortunately, the bands were playing outdoors and we were able to use the lingering sou-easter to stay upwind of the spirals of smoke rising upwards, not unlike those that had emanated from our red, white, blue and blackened lantern. The best of these rock shows, was that put on by the New Caledonia Free Bikers, who arrived with throaty roars leading to line-up of machines that would have thrilled any two wheeled aficionados, although we were not sure if by mingling with this crew we might be mixing it with a band of local ruffians and reprobates. Were they bikers or bikies? In no time though, it was clear if this leathered lot was once ruthless, they were now toothless – both sexes! We had a great night, carousing, smiling broadly where my trilogy, failed and inspecting their magnificent machines between sets. With the greatest of respect to Messrs Harley and Davidson, a sleek shiny and utterly imperious Indian, for us stole the show. The couple who owned it stepped regally onto this monster at the end of the night, and with an imperious wave, left in a symphony of gears and cogs that would have shamed the Royal Philharmonic. Cookie whose past includes a period as a two-wheel devotee, nearly wept.

What a Bike.. and great band too!

To top it all off Bastille Weekend ended with the immense and ghostly form of Pacific Jewel arriving in port – everyone on board must have breathed in as they slid through Passe Petite – and took up residence just abeam of downtown Noumea, and, yes, just a stroll away from Port Moselle. We started these blogs by referring to our “familiarisation” cruise to these waters on Pacific Pearl but failed to mention an aspect of the cruise that caused us to cringe. It was clear that some of those on board had boarded as passengers, but was determined to leave as cargo, due to their unending commitment to the ship’s smorgasbord; waddling in to the eatery and never seeming to leave. Seeing some of them had us musing that P&O should be re-tagged as M&O: morbid and obese. Cookie in a cheeky moment that was unkindly and undisciplined suggested that given our cruise experience and the propensities of and dimensions of some of those on big ship that “we need to get down there….might be our best chance to spot a dugong.” Leaving this aside, though, the Jewel became at once the tallest edifice in town, lording it over the city and able to be seen for miles around. We know how cruise liners fit like a hand in a velvet glove at Circular Quay in Sydney, gloriously bookended by the Sydney Harbor Bridge and The Opera House, and yet here in Noumea, stepping out from the Plaice des Cocotiers, the central park, and looking down the street to see the immense form of Pacific Jewel just there, just down the road was something else again. Naturally, we were there to see her leave, traditionally and beautifully at sunset, although we were surprised to be able to saunter down onto the wharf right where the lines were being freed from the bollards where we could have easily helped out with the bow lines and springers had they been short-handed on the dock.

Pacific Jewel towering above the city landscape.

With Pacific Jewel sailing away like a floating suburb into the fading light it was time for us to make a move out of port as well. A cursory look at our cruising guide told us that the enchanted islands that we had briefly and recently visited was but an entrée and that laying there, languid and enticing in the lagoon, stretching up some 30nm to Passe St Vincent and beyond, might be some islands and other attractions that could bring us to a greater understanding of the wonders of New Caledonia. We were now a one lantern ship, but we were ready again to leave port and head north into the great lagoon, to investigate its nautical attractions for ourselves.

Time to cast of the bowlines to explore, dream, discover !

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