Friday, September 2, 2016

Ouvea (Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia) to
Port Vila (Vanuatu)
13/8/16 – 23/8/16
(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.)

Think 25km of long perfect white beach backed with grass and wild tropical flowers. Look further out, over an exquisite lagoon stretching out as far as the eye can see. Add a chain of tiny islets, the Pleiades. Sound unreal? Nope. Its just Ouvea. (Lonely Planet Vanuatu and New Caledonia p165)

Ouvea is a true coral atoll, formed over time beyond imagination by the industry of coral polyps whose bodies deposited calcareous remains here, which over the millennia have become the limestone spine of the island and when weathered, its brilliant white beaches. Add a sub tropical sun over the sandy shallows and for a newly arrived yacht nid-nodding at anchor, all is blue both above and below the horizon in hues too alluring to paint in words, and even via our cameras, too vast to capture.

Ouvea as seen on our digital Cruising Guide

With sou-easters dominating the wind rose upward of 90% of the time, nature got it about right when constructing Ouvea, for its reed-thin form sits like a crescent moon, east of north through west of south, and in theory one could move along the crescent, achieving complete shelter from winds south-east and either side thereof, in perfect marine content. The good news is that contrary winds from the quadrant sou-west to north are rare and even there, one can find hidey-holes in the Pleiades du Nord, on the opposite side of the vast lagoon.

For us the Cruising Guide pointed us to an anchorage option in the SE corner of the lagoon near the village of Lekiny. Here, Ouvea is breached by a flow-through lagoon, the Baie de Lekiny, where spanned by a road bridge, the water flows in and out to the Ouvea Lagoon via a sandy channel, which has formed a set of sandy spits extending some way into the main lagoon. In the “crook” formed by the main beach and the spits is found a haven offering excellent sand anchoring, providing shelter from most winds SSW to NE, and it is there that we anchored, in the hope that we might have found the best place to be. Moreover, nearby was the island’s only real resort the Paradis d’Ouvea, where we hoped to find some essentials for our ongoing plans: wi-fi access to the internet, transport to and from the Ouvea Airport for the passports and clearance plans with Chloe in Noumea, the possibility of sourcing fresh water, and, apart from this the chance to hire two and four wheeled conveyances, and naturally enough, a shady spot in paradise where a mid afternoon ice cream might be on offer, not to forget a crackling cold beer watching the sun lower its colours over the lagoon. Anchoring where we did, we could head immediately ashore and set up our beach shelter in perfect seclusion, or via a short stroll, access the facilities of the Resort, to the south, or via a similar walk along the beach to the north-east find the spit of the Baie de Lekiny, and the fine snorkelling to be had abeam of the road bridge that effectively joins “south Ouvea” to the rest of the island. Beyond this was Cookie’s realisation, that here on this beach extending as far as the eye could see was a shellaholic’s form of heaven. Add balmy, sunlit days with water temperatures nudging 24C, and where else would one want to be? How long were our visas?

Say no more!

We were not the only boats to see the sense of anchoring where we did as a little further out was Sharon and Jim off the big cat, Big Galah, and we were soon joined by Sue and Kerry off Billaroo, followed by Carmel and Jerry, plus their young crew members Greg and Toby off the 56’ Farr Flyer, whilst sometime later Bumpy Dog, with Juan and Paul, made it nigh on a flotilla. The “pot luck” night promised on Billaroo turned out to be a stellar one, underlining the value of chance meetings in places far from home, and ended with Sue and Kerry, both keen sports people, offering to host a sunset game of Finska, the Scandinavian game akin to skittles, ashore the following eve. We loved the Finska and the keenness of the contest that only ended when it was getting too dark to see. Talk about white sand fever!

Sunset "Finska"

So, after the social whirl,....where to start....we felt it wise to finally head ashore, set up the beach shelter, stroll along the beach, go for a swim or two and just think about it....if all of that was not too demanding. Then we ambled along the beach, sandals in one hand, to the Resort where we found that; yes, bike, car hire, wi-fi, airport transfers, and (keep this one a little quiet from other cruisers) easy access to de-sal water was readily available, with the bonus for Cookie who sees ice creams as a treat – and deservedly so -  were readily available, as Coffee Cornettos, courtesy of the delightful Lana whose smile (except when photographed!) easily deflected her struggles with English and ours with French. The beauty of fresh water access meant that post-swimming wash-offs plus the odd beach shower via the dipper kept us cool and free of saline encrustations and that with our trusty 5L water container in the duck, back on board we conserved our stored supplies. Viola!

Icecream time with Lana

Our Ouvea discoveries and exploration started with a 5km stroll along the beach to the southern hamlet of Mouli, which we found visually without peer but a little “trudgy” in the softer sand as we somewhat misjudged the time of low tide. At Mouli we found a sleepy village, a fondly regarded local church, and the odd “tribal accommodation” where appointments appeared to be decidedly modest. On Ouvea, we found, there was chasm in cost between the resort accommodation, where you could easily part with &A500 per night for a pillow and a sea view – our 360 degree sea view cost A$0!! – down to the “tribal huts” where backpacker costings prevailed. There seems to be nothing ”in between”, and maybe this accounts for Ouvea being a frontier land, still, for travellers from Australia. In down town Mouli, marred only by a poor fellow in the centre of the main road awash with grog, and spared danger due to the paucity of traffic, we resolved that Cookie’s trusted thumb was the best way to retrace our steps, to the offerings of the wonderful Lana, reflecting on our day of discovery, a la Ouvea. As usual, Cookie delivered, and so did Lana.

Looking south...

.....looking north on our walk to Mouli

Delightful old church in Mouli
Choice of Resort or...
........or Tribal?...Calista's lookin'good!

Flushed with touring success, we secured two bicycles for our own foray on the open roads of Ouvea. Lonely Planet had extolled the virtue of the island’s roads, so we reckoned that a cycle up to the main settlement of Fayaoue, on the Ouvea M1, was decidedly in order, provided we remembered on which side of the road we might encounter oncoming traffic. The concept of the cycle tour was a grand one, the scenery a delight, and the ever-changing vistas between forest, rural dwellings and meagre villages always engaging to the eye with the ever present allure of the lagoon, blue and beseeching, appearing through the palm groves like a flickering lantern, from the days of silent film. Then, just when, apart from the odd vehicle, we felt we had stepped back in time, there it was, literally in the middle of nowhere, although most of Ouvea is in the middle of nowhere, a communications centre with tower bursting beyond the palms, and wait for this,...complete with a roadside ATM!! Yes, from backyards with pigs and chickens to the hole in the wall....just like that.

Fayaoe store

Fayaoe Aquatic Centre

Our expectations of Fayaoe had overshot the mark, and again its modesty prevailed, although, again to our total surprise, on the beachfront, was a stunning Aquatics Centre, brimming with sea craft of all flavours, the result, as in Lifou, of a substantial funding of sea-borne training for the youth of the Island, maybe courtesy of the French, who are as we know are devotees of pastimes nautical. Having reached the extremity of our two-wheeled voyage, its general delights, including the purchase of a couple of fine baguettes that extended from my back-pack like antlers, had obscured something that was becoming increasingly evident to us both. Apart from being obscurely geared - although we were cruising, not racing - the seats, which were akin to perching on an anvil, were tolerable at first, but were now affording us both some considerable discomfort. Stoically, we winced our way back down the M1 to the Resort where, perched a cheek at a time on the edge of a comfy chair, one of Lana’s fine offerings ameliorated to some extent the discomfort that we both felt down through to our keels.

Tour De Ouvea

The sufferings of our nether regions caused us to declare the next morning a time of recumbence on the beach followed by a bow-legged hobble to the Lekiny Bridge where the promise of swimming with large reef fish, turtles, and maybe a reef shark or two had our cautious attention. In the channel under the bridge and its surrounds, yes there were shoals of huge fish enjoying this marine reserve, but no, the turtles and the black-tipped reef sharks kept their own company, just beyond our gaze. Eyeing off these sizeable specimens, Cookie motioned me to the surface where all she had to say was “they’d fillet well!”.  A bonus of this delightful immersion was the chance spotting of a family of anemony fish flitting in and out of their Lekiny home, just like in Nemo.

Friendly locals under the Mouli Bridge

In a couple of days only Bumpy Dog and ourselves were left in the anchorage and with both of our sights set on Port Vila, we agreed to wait until the heavier sou-easters had cleared and we might travel there, in company for a while. In the meantime we joined forces to have our passports sent to Noumea, and for them to be returned the following day, giving us, in theory, four days to leave New Caledonia although we felt it unlikely that anyone in Ouvea, cared the slightest how long we had been there or where we were headed. In the meantime, we had the chance to hire a car, for a unique opportunity to fully explore this enchanted isle.

Tour De Ouvea Peugot style!

If it pays to give way to experience, then Cookie’s experience of driving a two cylinder Citroen in Europe, aeons ago, fully qualified her to take charge as we hit the “wrong side” of the roads in Ouvea. With everything coming to Ouvea via plane and ferry we had visions of some jury-rigged contraption arriving for our deployment, and were pleasantly surprised to see a sleek and trim Peugeot there waiting for us, just purring for Cookie to take control. Soon with Her galvanised and me glancing at the scenery occasionally, we were off with palm trees disappearing in a blur. Soon I relaxed from pushing the phantom pedals in the passenger seat, and settled into my secondary role as navigator. By circuitous byways we found Fayaoue’s sad-looking sporting ground which lay just before the Airport. Paul had described this facility in unflattering terms, and whilst Heathrow International it was not there was something to be said for its engaging and tropical exterior, and its welcoming interior, in kind.

The "G"

Sometimes it is not the grand attractions that you are keen to see, and in walking into local shops, and buying a thing or two, a ‘feel’ for a place is easily and delightfully gleaned. Further up the coast, and to be honest there is nowhere else to go but further up the coast, just past the location of Hwardrilla we found a comfy cafe by the sea to enjoy a sumptuous local ham and salad baguette, with freshly squeezed local juices, before taking the short walk to the renowned Blue Hole, a sea accessed limestone chasm where sunlight played with the spectrum, turning the forested pool a deep indigo blue. From here it was not far to the significant local northern town of Saint Joseph, renowned for its commodious local church, a testament to the arrival of missionaries here back in the 1850’s. Locals here cannot be fond of Australian sailors, for driving through the village, we found nary a soul, apart from an elderly lady who advanced upon us, waving and gesticulating, and with obviously something crucial to share, but in the language gulf that separated us we smiled and drove on, none the wiser.

Café stop near the Blue Hole

Just beyond St. Joseph the road veers towards the “windward” or exposed coast of Ouvea and terminates abruptly at the most north easterly point of the island, Point Escarpee, from where, after assessing the forbidding eastern coast, with its jagged outer reefs, a place where for boating folk like us, there is nowhere to run, we turned and headed south for some attractions we had deliberately left for the return run down the coast.

Windward side of  Ouvea

If we had thought that all was perfect in this island paradise, then we were soon to see that Ouvea, like most places has its yin and its yang, its lighter and darker shades that mark its reality beyond the brochures and the dew-drop lagoon. Near the local wharf we came upon a group of young men, just “hanging around” with bottles of wine in tow, and whilst this might come across as double standards from wine lovers like us, the seeming lack of purpose and direction for these young guys was what saddened us the most.

Not included in the tourist map, but vital for visitors to see is the memorial to 19 fallen Kanaks, which occupies pride of place on the main road not far from Hwadrilla. In 1988, with independence feeling reaching boiling point on Ouvea, the local pro-independence group captured a group of Gendarmes and held them hostage in a local cave. The French military response was brutal: they stormed the area and 19 local Kanaks died in the shootout that followed. To make matters worse, at a memorial just a year later, two Kanak leaders were assassinated by local firebrands, because, in the aftermath of the killings it was believed that too much ground had been ceded to the French. The memorial is a melancholy and poignant tribute to all who lost their lives; is respectfully and poignantly tended by locals, and, on the day we visited, it was bedecked with flowers, nearly 30 years on. “Free New Caledonia” flags fly everywhere here and there is not a French flag to see. The result of a “Frexit” vote would be a given although without the substantial funding of infrastructure that France obviously provides, one wonders what would happen to the roads, water and electricity services, let alone the human services, within a few years. Not all that you see at first in paradise is as it appears to be.

The Kanak Memorial

With our snapshot of the tapestry of life on Ouvea showing many hues, and our day having been a fruitful and fulsome one, we headed for Lekiny, with just one more feature that we hoped to see. The Baie de Lekiny is fringed by some spectacular cliffs and we were puzzled that no local road clearly led to them. By dead reckoning and a little luck we emerged from a track just opposite this remarkable feature, just as the sun cleared in the west whilst storm clouds gathered in the east, giving Cookie just enough time to leap to her lenses and capture the images you see below. There must be a very good reason why these formations with their dripping stalagmites and stalactites, are not pre-eminent in tourist paraphernalia, and why a better road does not lead to where we took these images.

Back at the resort the wi-fi access was proving its worth and the weather modelling that it allowed us to access showed that by waiting a further day, hardly an imposition here(!), a safe departure from Ouvea, through to Port Vila on the island of Efate was in the offing. We could make a pre-dawn run across the lagoon by moonlight in company with Bumpy Dog, to the Passe Du Taureau through the Pleiades du Nord, where we would meet the open sea and hopefully reach Efate some 36 hours or so later.

A 0215 alarm is normally a cruel thing, but in truth we were already half awake and keen to go, once the decision had been made to put to sea. An 80% moon danced its luminescent farewell as we raised anchor, and with navigation lights showing red and green at the bow, we set a reefed main, filled our headsail and bade farewell to Ouvea, a place we would never forget. The track across the lagoon in sublime moonlight was an easy one although when we reached the passé, try as we might we could not see the port light marking the lead to the open sea. It was not working, so with waypoints, and the lit starboard beacon, we found the channel with ease as the sky lightened in the east.

Dawn light just beyond Passe Du Taureau

It was just shy of 200 miles to Port Vila and with the wind at 50-55 degrees to the port bow in a lumpy sea we took little time in setting up our Fleming Wind Vane which, with a little luck would do the bulk of the steering on our way to Vanuatu. Our original plan was to make for Vanuatu’s southern islands and from there make for the island of Tanna, where we hoped to visit the island’s famous and spectacular volcano, Mount Yasur. Logistically, though, if we went to the Loyalties, it would be too hard to beat back into the trade winds to reach Tanna, so we decided to make directly for the national capital, Port Vila, from where we should be able to take in an overnight package to Tanna and Yasur. For now all this lay over the horizon and getting Calista balanced and sailing well occupied all of our time, especially as the sou-easter, instead of holding firm, varied annoyingly in both strength and direction.

Bumpy Dog

In the conditions every movement on board was difficult, and moving from the cockpit through the cabin below was a balancing act, like an audition for Cirque de Sole. For hours on end it seemed that as we shortened sail in a rising wind, so the wind fell away and we had to adjust our sails and our wind gear all over again. Then approaching midnight the wind caused great exasperation by coming tighter on our bow, leading to some hours of hand steering through the night so that we did not concede too much ground off our line to Vila. Such is the lot of cruisers in some passages, and there is little to do but work through difficult patches, in this case avoiding getting too far west of Port Vila in the morning, if the predicted easterly rose with any strength. Somewhere during the night we lost the lights of Bumpy Dog, somewhere off our port bow, and with scudding clouds and the threat of showers, we were again alone at sea.

By dawn the breeze that had taunted us all night finally eased from our bow and we were able to vane-sail in manageable conditions although breakfast in the cockpit was more an “eat in hope” than a formal repast. No croissants, folded napkins and frangipani flowers here, although after a long night at sea, muesli and fruit felt like food for a sultan. We hoped to see the lofty highlands of Efate by late morning, but instead we faced squalls of rain, that required us to be ever watchful on the sea state ahead, where a white line advancing would be a warning for us to douse sails and prepare to head to windward, whilst it passed.. As we closed the coast of Efate, we kept to the east of Port Vila to avoid a charted zone of turbulent currents where in any wind against tide conditions seas could be fearsome, before, a little after noon, the clouds parted sufficiently for us to see it for a time, our first glimpse of Vanuatu!

On approach to Port Vila

With the clouds swirling and the rain threatening we drew ever closer to Efate, hoping that conditions would ease and we could eventuallyget a visual fix on Pango Point with its white light tower, which we would leave to starboard as we entered Mele Bay, Port Vila’s “outer harbor”. With Calista bowling along in the softening trade wind and our little ship seeming to sense the sights of “home”, this was all too good to be left in the hands of contraptions, so we took turns at the helm as bit-by-bit the clouds lifted over Efate. It was no time to ease our concentration though as a roar off to starboard heralded a foaming dump truck that was impossible to avoid and left your scribe awash, dripping and bedraggled whilst the Admiralty, dry and snug in the comfy recess of the cockpit offered, being the sage she is,....”I told you to watch out for them!” Soon, though, the outline of Pango Point hove into view with the promise of the calm waters of the bay beyond and now it was time to make for the VHF microphone with the message...”Port Vila Customs, Port Vila Customs, Port Vila Customs,...this is the Australian yacht Calista registering our arrival in Mele bay awaiting Customs and Quarantine instructions....Over”. We had come a long way to send that transmission!

The Port Vila Customs and Quarantine area is an anchoring zone marked by a large yellow buoy and we knew that by finding the port hand beacon off Malapoa Point to the left of the inner harbour and passing it on our port side, the rest should be relatively easy. By arriving now, in early afternoon, our pre-dawn exit from Ouvea made great sense because had we left there at a ‘gentlemanly’ hour, we’d be doing all this in the dark against a perplexing array of town and harbor lights that, as the Admiralty might say, “would do your head in”. It had been worth the loss of a few hours of sleep and, besides, that sail across Ouvea Lagoon by moonlight had been one for the highlights reel.

Just when all was tranquil and I was about to make for the anchor at the bow Cookie gave a sudden start..”Take the helm! Ease back! I nearly forgot!!!!” She darted below, leaving me mystified at the wheel and I glanced below to see her bent over and rummaging deep in a stores locker, where she produced something, cocooned in one of my “lost” explorer socks, and revealed it with a cry of triumph. I had forgotten....well almost. Way, way, way back at Wirrina, Cookie had “stolen” one of my explorer socks and in it she had inserted a ruby-red and succulent bottle of Pirrimimma Winery Sparkling Shiraz, to be stored in the deepest recess of our wine locker with the edict “we are not going to drink this until we have arrived in Vanuatu, and have earned the right to do so”. Hear, hear! Now with 3244 nuautical miles, five states, and now three countries under its keel, and with a Noumean round of French Camembert, in glorious accompaniment, it was now time for the Admiralty to issue the general order.....”Chill the Skiraz!”. Hear, hear! Again.

Vanuatu...the happy isles, the celebrated land of smiles; our anchor now held firm in Efate incognita, and as we awaited the arrival of the Officials, we splashed a little salt from our faces, and in abandoning our now sub-optimal t-shirts that had overstayed their time at sea we “shirted up” and dressed with as much respect as we could muster. One is never sure how fastidious Arrival Officials will be, but with Simon from Customs and later Tom from Quarantine, soon coming on board they lived up entirely to the reputation of their country, could not have been more helpful and extended to us the warmest of welcomes to Vanuatu. What an utterly delightful way to arrive and Tom was more than happy to take part in an official re-enactment of the “Official” bit, just for us to remember and for you to enjoy.


We are here!

We made it!!!



  1. Great to read of your arrival, we've had a wonderful extended birthday weekend; thanks for the bday wishes. Jonathan & Wendy

  2. Great read and lovely photos. Was a pleasure to meet you and share the Mt Yasur experience.