Lifou to Ouvea (the Loyalty Islands)
9/8/2016 – 12/8/2016(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.)
The physical and cultural allure of les Iles Loyaute dates from when James Cook first visited them over 240 years ago. As places of great beauty they have few peers, and culturally they possess a uniqueness, colour and subtlety that has always added to the fascination of visiting there. There are three main islands in the Loyalties, and each has their own distinctive language, Negone on Mare, Drehu on Lifou and Iaai on Ouvea, the result being that locals from one of the isles may not understand the tongue of another just a half day sail away. These days French is a common thread for all. We decided to make for Lifou and Ouvea, given the quality of their sou-east friendly anchorages, their stunning vistas and the recommendations of fellow cruisers. We arrived at Lifou, delighted that we had resolved the “clearing out” of New Caledonia formalities and that when we had experienced the delights of these magnificent places we could finally set our sights on Port Vila in Vanuatu, less than two day’s sail to the NNE. Yes, Vanuatu. Finally: but maybe not exactly as we planned to arrive there, but more of this later.
|Local kids enjoying the aquamarine waters at the Drueulu anchorage|
We were sharing the Drueulu anchorage with Paul and Juan on Bumpy Dog who had left Baie de Prony in advance of us and gave us a hearty wave as we settled back on anchor. Although a little sleep deprived, we were nonetheless keen to get ashore and Paul came over to let us know that, following local custom, they were soon heading ashore to find the Village Chief, and present a couple of small gifts in seeking permission to access the village and its delightful surrounds. We have fond memories of interacting with local villages in places such as India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia and in PNG’s Louisiade Archipelago, over many years of travel, both on sea and on land, and back in Noumea we had commented that although we passed locals in city streets, shared buses and were together in markets and the like, apart from a brace of smiles and bonjours, our connections with true locals had been limited. Now at Drueulu village, we hoped to interact a little more closely with the real locals of the Loyalties.
|The precinct of the Chief...a blend of tradition and modern architecture|
Once ashore though, our first thoughts were not so much “where is the Chief?”, but “where are the people”. No swarms of runny nosed kids, no mixed grill of doubtful hounds, no curious adults, no chickens and piglets, no one wanting to trade, barter or cajole, and no one seemingly interested at all in our arrival in their bay; in fact it was hard to find anyone, much less the Chief. Undeterred, we pressed along the shoreline road abeam of neat and modest houses that reflected both a respect for tradition and a taste for modernity, until eventually we happened upon what appeared to be a ceremonial enclave, a spiritual centre, a traditional beehive dwelling, a carefully tended cemetery and an impressive and modern bungalow that we rightly concluded belonged to the Chief. Unfortunately, the Chief was not at home and we presented our tokens to his mystified son, who via Paul’s superior French gave implied approval for us to anchor, swim and to frolic in local waters, and explained that the Chief was not at home because he was at a wedding. We found that we have arrived, in wedding season, where village nuptials were apparently enjoyed by all, to the point where a schedule of approaching ceremonies and who was taking the plunge, was posted prominently on the door of the local shop.
Drueulu’s retail precinct extended to two shops that we could see, both of which were noted for early morning sales of baguettes, and for the fact that after 11am they were likely to be found closed. Retailers do gentleman’s hours here! Along the main road we passed a couple of cars and found that, if we liked, there was a local bus to Lifou’s main town We, across on the other side of the island, that could be accessed by standing on the side of the road by 7am, and returning to Drueulu by 11am. No, there was no afternoon option, because accessing markets and doing business all seems to happen before 11 when it appears to be time to find some shade and take in a noon-time siesta. With our beach permission now invoked, we felt it culturally appropriate to return to Calista, unearth our beach shelter and return to the foreshore to gaze upon the swaying palms, and perchance to swim and to doze as the sun made its way to the western horizon over Baie du Santal.
|Another tough day in paradise|
There is something about waking up in strange places, and on this voyage we have woken up to some incredible vistas that bedevil you for a moment if you head out into the cockpit from the deepest of sleeps. It can catch one out for a second or two while the mind moves from stand-by to function and you work out just where you are. On our first night in Drueulu, with us both yearning for our pillows following an uneasy night passage, I awoke in the early hours to the undeniable cacophony of a party in full swing ashore, with discordant singing, loud and garrulous voices and no hint of it all winding down. Maybe it was the post-wedding festivities, but whatever it was it kept me from returning to sleep for about 14 seconds, with a wry smile my face.
Our alarm jangled us into a form of action at an early hour, and in the crisp air of the new day we tumbled into the duck and made for shore to join Paul and Juan at the main crossroad in town, that is in every respect; including the public notice-board about tsunami dangers, well short of Piccadilly Circus. Wondering if we had being led astray about the bus, we waited for some minutes before a dishevelled group of young men lurched unsteadily towards us and when in range offered a volley of staccato “bonjours”, with unstable voices and eyes that struggled in the morning light. Here was the party, now mobile, but like a function without a venue. We returned our hearty best wishes, wondering if in spite of our desire to engage with some locals, this group of Rastafarian revellers was a good place to start. One unsteady young man doing a military two–step minus the music, came at us brandishing something from the depths of his coat that turned out to be a half consumed bottle of Bordeaux. “Would ya like a drink” I’m sure he said in fractured Gallic as the clock ticked past 7.15am and as I tried to explain that in spite of a fondness for red wine I had just cleaned my teeth. His mate, not to be outdone and no doubt recognising the calibre of the newcomers in town, stepped forward to the presentation line and with a commendable flourish revealed the ace in the pack, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, which, with an unsteady grip, he offered around with pride. ‘It was now 7.16 and we were on a street corner on a remote island; not later at night on the chesterfield lounge, with smoking jacket and cigar. Sadly, in spite of our earnest best wishes and expressed bonhomie, we declined the offer of the scotch and to be conscripted into the party. Just then a car pulled up and a gentleman of obviously some standing in the community, wound down his window to enquire if we were ok. Despite our reassurances, a clipped word from the elder saw the young men immediately disengage, and wander off down the street, just as a white and nondescript van pulled up to the curb, This was the bus to We!
|Roadside bus stop with Paul & Juan minus the partygoers!|
We feel sorry for those who visit foreign lands, stay in the cosseted enclaves of their hotels and rarely get out to engage with real locals on their home turf. Some of our most memorable times away from home have emerged from random moments in distant places. This is not to say that things always pan out in a way that you’d hope; take for example the time that we secured seats for a jeep ride through the lofty Himalayas from Darjeeling to Gantok in the misty highlands of Sikkim, and the vehicle that seated six eventually had eleven on board, plus bags of produce, live chickens, sacks of potatoes, and bundles of sticks perched on the roof, before we pulled over to take a twelfth on board, a guy who proceeded to sit on the driver’s lap and operate some of the levers, plus steer whilst the driver accelerated on voice command!! With crumbling verges and a precipitous drop to a ribbon river of raging melt-water far below, and with us evading sundry vehicles, like dodge-‘em cars at the sideshows, I felt it time to raise a concern about occupational health and safety with the driver, who looked at me blankly and uncomprehending. When in Sikkim! In Drueulu, an eternity away from the great Himalayas all was well, and with lusty bonjours the payment of a modest fare, and meeting the puzzled stares from brown limbed tykes perched on matronly laps, we were away on our way to We.
|A community building near the market|
Central We is the administrative hub of the Loyalties, and we knew at once that considering the turn-around time of the bus, and it being the only service of the day, a visit to the thinly appointed visitor’s centre, a sweep through the local market, and a check-out of the local “supermarket”, would see it time again to re-join the locals for the trundle back to Drueulu. We had hoped to procure a hire car for a whistle-stop sweep of the island, but this was, after all, wedding season, and everything that was mechanically viable, and contraptions that were not, had been hired weeks ago; a fact confirmed by regular cavalcades of vehicles, bedecked in streamers, and almost trailing old boots and cans on strings, that blared their way through town, to the great acclaim of locals and four bemused visitors alike. We had wanted to see We’s new marina, the Marina de We, that might offer stopover potential and a refuge in foul weather, or an all-weather haven for rest and re-supply. For now, after a stroll through the local market, and the purchase of some delicious potato patties and a portion of sponge cake, we needed to access the ATM and to extend our local phone credit at a facility where, already, they were lined up to overflowing as if queuing for Grand Final tickets. It was clear that these things would have to wait for another day. The frenetic morning voyage to We on the local omnibus is as close to stress as one gets on Lifou and on our return to Dreuelu, in keeping with local custom, we felt it appropriate to seek afternoon shelter under our beach awning on the delightful foreshore, having already concluded that a re-visit to We on the morrow was both desirable and unavoidable. As the sun set on our first fine day in Lifou, we charged our glasses in our comfy cockpit, and raised one to the newlyweds, to the delights of Lifou and to a golden sun that sent shafts of filtered light above Cape Lefevre across Baie de Santal – a promontory that we had already re-named Point Porcupine – and concluded that wherever the good souls on Pacific Dawn were by now they could not be having better times than we were.
The downside to all of this of course was the clarion call of the alarm, at an unearthly hour, to summon us to re-join the good souls of Dreuelu on a bus voyage to We. This time it was just the two of us, reassembling at the appointed 0700 hour in downtown Drueulu, minus our boozy revellers (we had mused how many 7.00am’s would pass at the corner of North Terrace and The Strand, at home in Port Elliot if we were standing there waiting for an offer of a cabernet, much less a dram of Red Label!) but also minus any other locals, and the bus. We wondered what we could or should do just as a car stopped and a couple asked where we were heading. Their English was limited, but their goodwill was boundless and in 20 or so minutes, with sincere proffering of thanks by us both, there we were at the entirely slick We Marina.
|We Marina with "big Galah" in the foreground|
It is hard to get a “feel” for a marina complex from its brochures or website, much less to assess its “approaches” to answer the ultimate question – could we run in here at night in difficult conditions? The outer section of the small harbor at We provides a terminus for the fast ferry from Noumea, whilst in the inner harbour, around a breakwater chicane the little marina looked just the place to be if dirty weather was on its way. In fact the marina looked a perfect delight on this fine day, with its attractive office complex, appointments for visitors and evidently a range of repair facilities that obviously served clientele far beyond Lifou. Its attractiveness was enhanced by the short walk out to the end of the breakwater, where modern “leads” into the marina were all that a visitor by night or day would want, and a glance into the gin-clear waters abeam of the entrance showed an array of tropical fish that would put the Darling Harbor Aquarium to shame. Just then a Dive Tender eased out of the entrance with a party about to head below, not somewhere across Chateaubriand Bay, but right there, just a stone’s throw away from where we were watching. Just then from a large Aussie Cat, Big Galah, perched on the end of the main boat finger, came a call, in quintessential Australian - “g’day there, I’m Kerry, do you want to borrow a mask and snorkel? The snorkelling here is the best we’ve found”. A look at the teeming creatures, both under and around the big cat, confirmed the recreational potential of being tied up here, and only our civilian, not beach attire stopped us from taking up the offer. We had seen Sharon and Jim, the owners of Big Galah, back in Noumea, and that morning Jim had taken the first flight out of town in the hope of getting to the city and completing all “clearance” requirements for the four on board in time to catch the last flight back to Lifou. It was an endeavour studded with potential pitfalls, and everyone on board had their fingers crossed. We were happy with the clearance arrangements that we had in place via Chloe, back in Noumea.
The marina is a fair hike out of town so, flushed with our snaring a lift in the morning, an outstretched finger soon had us picked up and deposited in the centre of town. Just like that! Cookie was loving the free-wheeling arrangements of this day and mentally she was back in Europe in the early 80’s: backpack, bathers, ciggies, bottle of scotch and a change of smalls – after all what else does an Aussie girl on tour really need? These ethereal thoughts were soon dragged back to place and time at the Telco office, for phone re-charge, where at the electric ticket machine she became client 51, whilst client 14 sat at the help window, part way into a ream of forms. Jim off Big Galah might be back in town from Noumea before we got to upgrade our phone! I was no luckier outside with an ominous sign on the ATM saying that, maybe because of the weddings, it was out of money!
|Local dwellings in We|
Happily though, the urbane and fluently English spoken Telco manager sensed Cookie’s presence in the madding throng; came personally to find what she required and took over a computer to see her on her way, with renewed phone credit, both grateful and relieved. As there was another ATM further up the road we sauntered there and around a corner came on the hub that we were seeking: the aforementioned bank, a wonderfully stocked supermarket, the well regarded Snack Makanu Café, a hardware come general store, and out the front a family of enterprising locals who had a charcoal grill in full swing, producing some succulent marinated chicken satays that would have put the BBQ outside Bunnings on Port Road to shame.
With backpacks brimming with produce, we lumped our way back to the corner where we knew we were already too late for the bus, even if it had been running. We remembered a crucial piece of information that the Information Centre had to offer; that if you need a lift, just “thumb it” and locals will stop and pick you up. Sure enough, in no time at all an extended digit did the trick, and this time it was a form of local 10 seater, doubling as a freelance taxi, where for a modest fee we could get back to Dreuelu. The genial fellow at the helm asked if he could slip in some music, as we took in the countryside, and sure enough, out from the speakers came the anthem of all tropical places in the world….Bob Marley! We should have guessed!
|Our favourite "Tribal Hut" in Drueulu|
After a further stroll through Drueulu, where beehive huts and their distinctive thatched roofs had become a favourite, and a swim in the cove we returned to Calista thinking that if the weather was fine the next day it could be good to make passage on the 40-odd mile journey to what is the arguably the jewel in the crown of the Loyalties, the incredible coral atoll of Ouvea. Besides, Chloe had assured us that getting our passports onto a plane from Ouvea, when we had tired of paradise, was an easy thing to do, and that again, we just needed to go there and enjoy our holiday!
|Sunset over "Point Porcupine " ( Cape Lefevre )|
|Entering the Ouvea Lagoon|
We had hoped for an agreeable wind angle to clear Cape Lefevre and make for Passe de Coetiogon, the southern entrance to Ouvea’s glorious lagoon, but whilst we were favoured for a while, when half way there the wind moved astern of us away from our quarter, and then to a point north of east, that caused us to re-assess where we might ultimately anchor. At sea in these waters we normally monitor VHF radio channel 16, the emergency and call-up channel, but understandably, apart from a number of general calls in French, it came as a total surprise to hear our radio leap to life with the meassage….”Calista, Calista, Calista, this is Billaroo, Billaroo, Billaroo, do you receive, over” Billaroo! We could hardly believe it. We had first met Kerry and Sue off their big Queensland cat, oceans away on King Island, where they gave us a lift in their hire-car from the little port of Grassy to the main town of Currie on their way to check out local golf courses. They had mentioned, in passing, that after rounding Tasmania they were ultimately heading for Noumean waters, and now, seeing our “target” on AIS, and being just astern of us, they called us up. They asked where we were intending to anchor in Ouvea’s Lagoon, and suggested that with the 56’Yacht, Farr Flyer, also bound that way, we should all catch up on Billaroo, to share a meal and maybe a ceremonial “arrival” glass or two. Indeed! As we rounded the southern coastline of Ouvea, and set a course for the beacons that guarded the pass, the extraordinary lagoon of Ouvea came into view, and we were eager to see for ourselves the delights of this beautiful place, to find out whether it was as good as James Cook Master Mariner, and seafarers ever since, have judged it to be.