Wednesday, 19 November 2003

"Happenings" Number 10 - 2003

Homeward Bound – 2003

It is now almost 400 days since Envy commenced her South Seas odyssey, and with the cyclone season fast approaching, our thoughts are homeward turned as we prepare the ship and ourselves for our last ocean passage back across the Tasman from New Caledonia to Brisbane later this week.

Since our last contact via ‘H-8’ from Fiji’s Malolo Islands a few weeks ago, we have made two more land visits to Nadi (Nandi) and one more to Lautoka, enjoying more of the sights, culture, food and shopping experiences that add to this country’s charm, and of course, took a few hundred more photos on the digital camera to add to our book of memories. Audrey and I really enjoyed ‘the differences’ of Fiji, and would readily return and recommend it as a cruising destination.

Even though Fiji has both the most challenging navigation, with its multitude of coral reefs, sand cays and tiny islets, and the most petty crime of stealing from yachts throughout the South Pacific, we gratefully avoided all of this and safely took our leave after 43 wonderful days there, clearing from Lautoka on 16 October with the forecast of a favourable 15/20 knot breeze to commence our passage to New Caledonia.

But there was a localized stationary front just west of Fiji that was not mentioned in the forecast and so we battled strong winds and a rough sea all that first night, and indeed most of the way, and arrived in New Caledonia 6 days later after having spent the last 36 hours tacking into a strong westerly wind to cover the last 50 miles. Shades of the New Zealand to Tonga passage. But as usual Envy handled it well, whilst we got a bit more experience in heavy weather sailing!

We ducked into the first sheltered bay we came to after negotiating the dreaded Havannah Pass at the southeast corner of New Caledonia and, though strictly improper, dropped anchor and took a well-earned rest overnight, before continuing on the 40 miles to Noumea. Arriving there late in the afternoon, we anchored out in Port Moselle and ‘cleared in’ with Customs the following morning.

It all proceeded very efficiently with Quarantine and then Immigration, but a misunderstanding between the three very busy Customs teams led to us being overlooked and after waiting many hours before we initiated our concern, we had a quick visit from four senior officers who apologised profusely and cleared us in without so much as a look!

Wow!! What a great place Noumea is. We’ve neither of us have been here before and had no idea what to expect. After the lesser developed and poorer places we’d seen, New Caledonia is rich, modern, well developed, expensive, and French. Everything runs like clockwork here, though they still indulge the French colonial habit of closing for 2 hours or more in the middle of the day, and the Parisian syndrome of driving their mostly new Peugeots, Citroens, and Renaults at hair-raising speeds around the town.

The main island, Grand Terre, was discovered and named by Caption Cook in 1774, is 400km long by 50km wide, has been a French possession since 1853 and a penal settlement (as were most French colonies) from 1872 to 1913. Its successful economic background is principally due to mining with its hilly red volcanic country being rich in nickel, (the worlds third largest producer after Canada and Russia), cobalt, chromium, and iron, and together with coffee production, all add to the coffers of this nation’s economy.

Around Noumea and the mainland’s southern end, the coastline, with its several adjacent islands, is a continual jigsaw of bays, coves and headlands, running back to quite parched though scenic high hills of volcanic country, intermittently clothed in stunted green shrubbery, offering a stark vista of the contrasting monotones of red and green alone, quite striking and very unusual.

The capital, Noumea, is a modern city of over 70,000 people, principally native Melanesian Kanaks and French Europeans; the national population is 180,000 and comprises a racial mixture that additionally includes Asians, neighbouring islanders and West Indians.

After spending a few days being ‘townies’, we bolted out of expensive, bustling Noumea and sailed down to Baie de Prony for an overnight stay enroute to ‘the jewel of the Pacific’, New Caledonia’s famous Ile des Pins (the Isle of Pines).

Located 40 miles (65km) south of the main island, but still within the huge lagoon that surrounds New Cal with 1600 nm of barrier reef, the Isle of Pines is picture postcard pretty with its clear water, fine white sand, countless coral reefs and little sand cay beaches. Also discovered by Cook and named for the native pines which are indigenous to this island alone, these trees are tall and more needle shaped than Norfolk Island Pines, though they share a similar type leaf or frond.

The island is quite small – you can drive around it in half an hour – but steeped in New Cal’s early history, for it was here that 3000 deportees were incarcerated following the Paris Rebellion of 1871, thus commencing its period of penal servitude, and the numerous stone buildings of the prison infrastructure and many other public works, together with the well kept cemetery, speak to the misery of hard labour that no doubt proliferated here.

Envy was anchored 200 mtr off the main sandy beach at Baie de Kuto which, together with the adjoining Baie de Kanumera, separated only by a 200 metre wide isthmus, are two of the most beautiful places we have seen. Our anchorage here afforded us a view of the old penal era colonial residences of the governor and the doctor with their privileged waterfront locations, contrasting the adjacent new public wharf and huge offshore catamaran that spews out hundreds of tourists three days per week, bound for the many modern tourist resorts which occupy the Isle of Pines.

New Caledonians boast the sand here is the finest in the world, and that claim may well be true, for it is very clean and talcum like, though perhaps not as white as the silica sand of Whitehaven Beach in Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands. Nevertheless, the clean sandy bottom could be clearly seen 4 metres below us, as could the fish and turtles that chose to keep us company.

With no public transport, we hitchhiked the 6km of good bitumen road to check out the principal village of Vao. Its lovely old cathedral features numerous carved statuettes and an ornate ceiling comprised of many different species of timber and, high on the hilltop beyond it, up to which we climbed, is a tiny chapel containing a statue of the weeping Madonna. Peopled principally with local Kanaks, this little village comprised a mixture of small western and traditional grass-roofed houses in well-kept grounds, but as in French Wallis Island, its few shops were not close together.

Other highlights of our time here included our 3km round-trip daily walk from Kuto Bay to the only bakery for excellent baguettes (French bread sticks), we enjoyed local cuisine for lunch, and one fine windy morning struggled up a very steep stony track to the islands highest peak at 262mtr, then hiked along its narrow bare ridge for several kilometres being rewarded at every step with continual magnificent views over the entire island and its fringing turquoise reefs, sandy beaches and islands.
Fortunately (for us) there’s been very little rain anywhere we’ve been these past few months, which is good for we tourists and our camera but has left village gardens quite bereft.

Each late afternoon we played Petanque (French style bowls) on the beach with our new friends and fellow CCCA members Neil and Ley, “Crystal Blues”, usually to the inquisitive observations of the Japanese tourists who strolled by. As a result of this daily idleness we now have our own set of steel Petanque balls, to hone our skills and continue our enjoyment with visiting friends on the little sandy beach back home on Karragarra Island.

We were told by Jean Paul, a French expatriate living in Noumea and fellow yachtsman whom we met at Kuto, that New Caledonia is too distant to attract many tourists from France and that most tourists are Japanese, followed by Aussies and Kiwis.

We had a marvellous sail back the 40 n miles from the Pines and spent another couple of days in Baie du Carenage, at the top end of Baie de Prony, enroute back to Noumea. It is all red soil country around there, which clings to shoes and feet and tends to stain everything red and, with rain showers about, we shied away from the walking tracks, but we did get to enjoy a visit by dinghy to the ‘hot springs’ pool in the eastern Carenage, though it wasn’t flowing. Then it was back to Noumea.

Today is Armistice Day, a public holiday in New Caledonia, and we’re hoping to find an Internet CafĂ© that’s open to send this off.

Meanwhile, Envy rides at anchor in Noumea’s windy and overcast Port Moselle harbour as we attend final preparations and maintenance prior to ‘clearing out’ and departing later this week on the 800 nautical mile (1483 km) trip back to Brisbane, which we estimate will be a 7 to 8 day passage. At the moment our weather faxes suggest fairly good conditions of 20+ knot easterly following winds, so here’s hoping for a favourable run.

Most of this season’s Pacific cruising fleet have already arrived at, or are in transit to their summer (cyclone season) stopover destinations of Fiji, Australia or New Zealand, with not many of us stragglers yet to depart, but with a bit of luck, Envy will be back safely at home soon after a simply wonderful year in Paradise.