Banner
E-mail Print PDF

Chan Cham Perou

New Caledonia  —    White sails brought us on its banks and we were awed by its colors. We travelled it, opened ourselves to its perfumes, its beauties, but were left perplexed as we found ourselves before the complexity of the ethnic population, cultures and economic interests of this land of discovery and diversity.

We only had one hope: to go back to get answers to our questions and to pierce the mysteries of this country in evolution, marked by a painful colonial past. It was curiosity rather than a dream that brought us back to this Pacific archipelago, which stretches over almost 19,000 sq km and was formed by a group of islands surrounded by the largest and most beautiful lagoon in the world, recently added by UNESCO to its World Heritage list.

We first took interest in the mineral that covers its mountains and is responsible for its bright red color: nickel. Its use is a major economic challenge, but it also reflects a threat for the biodiversity of the treasures of this main island, called Grande Terre.

We discovered the way of life of the Kanak people, mixed with the Caldoches, explored the savannah, the tropical forest, the superb Loyalty Islands and, of course, the Isle of Pines.

Free men

Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia travelled from Indonesia in pirogue between 3,000 and 1,500 B.C. to populate Melanesia. They were called Kanak, which means “free men” and were the first people to populate this land, which is located at the opposite point on the globe from France.

In 1774, the British explorer James Cook “discovered” a long stip of land covered by a mountain range that was protected by the second-longest double-barrier coral reef in the world. This land reminded him of Caledonis, in his native Scottish highlands, and he gave it the name of “New Caledonia”.

Later on, Napoleon III, looking for a territory to implement a penitentiary colony, took possession of the archipelago. The penitentiary colony constituted the main source of the population of New Caledonia. Either voluntarily or under contract, immigrants came later, ready to take their chances in agriculture or farming. Kanaks then saw their land taken away from them, without compensation, and were pushed back to the flanks of the mountains and placed in reserves.

The history of the French presence in New Caledonia is marked by bloody episodes, revolts and insurrections. It was not until after World War II that the Kanaks’ civil rights were recognized after they developed an independence movement, which cost extreme violence and tensions.

In 1988, New Caledonia was recognized as a French territorial collectivity and allowed greater autonomy to the local population. The Kanak people were given a “statut particulier”, allowed to get organized and to take part in the political life with the guarantee of shared sovereignty. The country will hold a referendum on independence between 2014 and 2018, and all who have been residing on the Island for at least twenty years will be allowed to participate.

Other inhabitants

The specific geography, a favorable climate and isolation all contributed to the development of a rich flora with an impressive endemism: 80% of the 3,400 species recorded only grow on this archipelago.

Most animals living in New Caledonia are not exclusive to the region even though the majority of the birds are endangered species. The only animal to be feared is the Laticauda, a water snake known to be shy and therefore not very aggressive, which is good news since its venom is ten times more powerful than that of the cobra.

If marine flora is of interest to you, you are definitely in the right place! The ocean around the island houses abundant and spectacular fauna.

Good attitudes and “manous”

Our whole stay was marked by warmth. And we were particularly attentive to the way in which we interacted with the people, whether they were Caldoches or Kanaks. One must know that on Kanak territory, every piece of land belongs to a tribe and that courtesy requires that you first introduce yourself to the chief of the tribe, provide the reason for your visit and, most of all, present a “coutume” before traveling on their land.

The “coutume” is a gesture or a gift that shows your humility, respect towards others, respect for rules and your desire for dialogue. It is usually tobacco or money wrapped in a tissue called “manou”. It is advised to buy a few in a store in preparation to meet with the Kanaks.

In the Tendo Tribe

We had planned to meet natives and as soon as we heard about the welcome of the Kanak tribes on the eastern coast, we got a list of a few tribes that are more or less remote from the Hienghene Tourism Office.

We booked a stay at Marie-Reine and Albert, 25 km from Hienghene, on the way to the mountain range. After 50 minutes on a road/trail we saw huts. Before anything else, we knew we had to introduce ourselves and present the “coutume”. Marie-Reine invited us in her home, a traditional hut where we found two sleeping areas (straw-filled mattress on the floor) and an attached area with a small stove, a wood fire and a dining area. Sanitary installations are non-existent. The nearby forest had to do!
The evening meal was served and our hosts refused to share it with us – despite our insistence. They kept us company while we enjoyed the deer stew, the tarot, yam and manioc. They will eat later on.

We learned about their life, family and customs. But we had to be very attentive since they speak in very low, very soft voices.

They have always lived with their tribe, producing their own food.

On their land in the mountain, there are banana, pineapple, mango, papaya and orange trees, litchis and jackfruits. They grow yam, manioc and the mild tarot on irrigated terraces according to an ancient tradition. Albert is the specialist in the region for this ancestral method of agriculture.

After a night of quasi-sleep and real aching and stiffness in the morning, we followed Albert to his terraces on the flanks of the mountain.

Although this encounter was planned, somewhere we had the furtive feeling that something like sharing, understanding, respect and even friendship was growing between us.

From homes to hotels and camping

During our long stay, we were able to test different kinds of lodgings. Everything is available in New Caledonia, even the possibility of camping near a lagoon – which we didn’t try!

In Nouméa we rented a one-bedroom apartment, which was very well located and well equipped. The home of Samira in Magenta was just what we needed to recuperate from the trip and the jetlag. All around Grande Terre, B&Bs abound at very reasonable prices.

Near La Foa, in Pocquereux, we stayed at “La petite ferme”, where Annick and Jean-Louis welcomed us to their table under the ranchito shade and the interested eyes of their three dogs, two ostriches, five horses and a herd of cattle. The lodging was modest but the meal, entirely composed of fresh local produce, was just perfect. At night, Jean-Louis drove us in his Jeep to see a herd of deer.

In the same area, in Farino, we ate at Mammie Fogliani, THE place to dine in New Caledonia. We still salivate at the menu: cabbage and papaya salad, deer sausage, deer roast, fried manioc and a pancake with guava jam. It is served in the tropical garden over a creek by the adorable Mammie’s granddaughter.

We hadn’t planned anything after the meal except a night at the Farino refuge, nestled on the slope of a hill. We soon found out that our bungalow is the last one on top and that access by car ends 50 meters below. Hmm! Having to carry three 23-kg suitcases over a hilly 50-meter distance came as a not-so-good surprise! Well, it was a well-deserved rest!

In the northern part of the country, there is a lovely hotel hidden in the heart of a charming bay. Thirty bungalows are built under the coconut trees on the beach. It is the perfect place to just lie down on the terrace around the pool, under the umbrellas on the beach, or to rest in soft beds.

At Isle of Pines, we recommend the Nataïwatch gîte, in the Kanuméra Bay. The outdoor setting of each room really invites guests to fully enjoy the beautiful garden and the superb Kuto beach a few feet away.

Idyllic Loyalty Islands

On the Loyalty Islands, bookings can be made only a few days in advance by phone (except during special events). The locations of bungalows or huts are often spectacular, along the beach with a view of the lagoon in a tropical garden.

Speaking of huts, we found the one just for us, “Chez Jeannette” in Lifou. It was planted in a small garden with a superb view of the Chateaubriand Bay and laid open to a grand fare equipped with a kitchen/restaurant where everyone was allowed to choose for themselves whether they would have a table d’hôte or do their own cooking. Jeannette has no objections whatsoever!

One last experience

Before putting an end to our local experiences, we decided to stop at Nakamal in Bourail to enjoy a glass of kava – just to relax a little more! Apart from the tasting experience in the Fidji, it’s been a while since we tried this root juice, which is known to have anesthetic and euphoric properties.

The place is cozy and the owner, born in Vanuatu, is very gracious. Everything is set up for relaxation.

After watching the ritual, I decided to try a “sell at 100” (a small bowl sold for 100 CFP francs). I stay close to the spittoon and have a glass of water with syrup to rinse my mouth. Since the mixture doesn’t taste like much, I swallow 3 doses, and before I can feel anything, come close to vomiting and find myself 10 minutes later in a Zen state I have only rarely experienced…

A comfortable life

The cost of life in New Caledonia is rather high. The majority of the population enjoys a comfortable life compared to other South Pacific countries. Apart from Nouméa, the capital, we saw poverty, but no misery.

A dream climate

New Caledonia enjoys a tropical climate with an average temperature that is considered ideal. It is never too hot, nor too cold and the sun shines an average of 7 hours a day. There are only two seasons: a dry one and a hot and humid one, during which the rain varies according to the trade winds. The only major inconvenience is its position on the tropical cyclone trajectories.

René Van Bever

I will share this thrilling experience in New Caledonia in more detail and most of all with stunning images that were filmed during the trip in a presentation as a part of the Cine-conference of the Grand Explorateurs, from January 7 to March 8, 2015 in 22 halls in the province of Québec. For details:

www.lesgrandsexplorateurs.com

And to learn more about our family expedition : www.lagrandeparenthese.com


 

Ouareme' ferry

Werth dance in Lifou

Small market in Tendo

cagou, emblem of the country

La poule in Hienghène

Bougnat

The culture of tarot

A hut in Pouebo

Noumea harbour

Pirogues at Isle of Pines 

Beach at Bourail

Tjubaou cultural centre

Rodeo in Koumac

Yam offerings, wedding in Maré

 

Credits photos: René Van Bever

Photo of the banner: Totems in the Bay Saint-Maurice, Isle of Pines

 


  

 

Back