May to July 20187
New Caledonia was a heady mix of emotions. We seriously broke the boat on the way there so a great deal of time and money was spent in harbour repairing a multitude of issues (the big one being re-fibreglassing the bulkheads).
To be honest we had spent so much time planning to get here I hadn’t really thought through what it would be like when we arrived.
In reality New Caledonia is nothing like I expected and no sooner did this come true than our short stroll to the local marche (market) a mere 5 minutes from Port Moselle marina. This market which is open 6 days per week, but goes gangbusters on Saturdays and Sundays is phenomenal. The produce is amazingly fresh (you see chefs from local restaurants shopping here) and the range is pretty broad.
I am immediately taken back by the Asian produce, and the fact that Noumea (the capital) is far more French than I was expecting. Of course, I knew they spoke French, but the patisseries, baguettes and cheeses were EXACTLY the same as we had in France.
Jamie and I immediately purchase a baguette, fresh herbs and a few veggies and head back to the boat. OMG, baguette, butter and Vegemite (yes, I’m sure the French are cringing) was amazing. We head back to the market almost daily to top up. Coriander (with roots) Thai Basil, Vietnamese mint, Bay leaves, lemongrass, super-hot chillies and heaps of veggies. The list just goes on and on.
Our next venture to the local supermarket keeps us equally surprised and impressed, great range of cheeses and charcuterie (continental meats and sausages) and we go back almost daily for the Jambon Fumme (smoked shaved ham) and Fromage (cheeses). My French improves out of sight as I learn important food/shopping phrases.
How much is that? Combien ca coute?
Three hundred grams please Tois cent grammes s'il vous plaît
(particularly important when ordering the sliced ham)
No bag thank you Pas sac plastique merci
You get the idea - important stuff.
We spend a lot of time on foot exploring museums and the local culture and find the French and the Kanaks (indigenous) people delightful and extraordinarily helpful. We have quite a few boat issues to sort and these require highly technical discussion which would be impossible to accomplish in our limited (food based) French. Jamie does have some other phrases, but stop thief and where is the baby change table don’t seem to be very useful. Not only do we find most stores have someone who, although apologetic about their English, speak fluently, even passers-by stop to assist in translating, sometimes donating 10 or 15 minutes of their time just to help. One man even helped us find our rental car in the shopping centre car park after walking past us seeing our confused and lost looks (we found it one aisle over, not sure why couldn’t see it ourselves).
With our Dacia Sandero rental car, we explore further afield, mostly in the pursuit of parts for the boat, but also to national parks, cultural centres and lookouts.
After a week of exploring Noumea city we tentatively decide to head out to a few islands, I say tentatively as we are still actively exploring repairs to our structural cracks in the boat and we are apprehensive about cruising and potentially worsening the situation.
Noumea is in the bottom quarter of the Grand Terre (large island) of New Caledonia and inside the world’s largest lagoon. The lagoon runs parallel to the main island stretching from top to bottom. Within this lagoon would be I’m guessing a hundred or so islands many of which are simply an hour or so cruising distance. We explore many of these and despite the not so tropical weather start to see New Caledonia as more than just Noumea. The lagoon is fantastic and the variety of reefs both in and outside the barrier of the lagoon are well worth exploring. I’m looking forward to a repaired boat and travelling further afield for more snorkelling and diving. Although secretly I’ll be yearning for a fresh baguette and some smoked ham.
I woke up this morning to a sea of blue, cliché I know, but the sky and sea blended into a beautiful blue. It seems especially nice today as the first 2 weeks we have been here in New Caledonia have been spent in the marina in a haze of drizzle. Not that that has stopped us exploring the culinary and cultural delights, but we have been a little damp doing so. Today however, I wake up at Ille Mato (Mato Ilset for you non-French speakers). Ille Mato is below the southernmost tip of Grand Terre (the big island) and 26nm south from Noumea the capital. Having finally escaped the marina we were keen to explore some of the islands. Being keen divers, we wanted clear water with the promise of either snorkelling or diving. According to the local digital guide we had purchased Mato offered both.
Ille Mato is a small island with a peak at about 45m which we had climbed yesterday. Heavily overgrown with vines clinging to our feet it was not the most obvious of tracks, but the view was spectacular. There is something special about the way water changes colour over reef, coral and sand. The camera struggles to capture all the colour changes, it’s so pretty. “Wow” comes out more than once.
The Island is mostly surrounded by various reefs and coral heads giving it excellent protection from at present non-existent winds. We are still within the enormous lagoon that stretches the length of Grand Terre so the sea state is extraordinary calm. Made for a great night’s sleep. Having spent 2 nights here we are keen to keep exploring, and having had a look at the predicted weather have decided to head to Baie du Prony (Prony Bay) the very southernmost tip of the mainland and into its deep protective bay.
The wind looks like it’s going to pick up to 25kts and out here in the low-lying islands would make for a less comfortable stay on the boat. Jamie is reluctant to head in to the mainland. The bay I have selected for its protection is also the site of a large Nickel mine (green gold as the locals call it), and he has visions of us anchored outside of Port Pirie (a mining town in South Australia) - not, I repeat not a pretty picture. But, he is pragmatic about the decision, it is the best place to go given our current location and so after a lazy morning we head off. The low winds belie the incoming rain and winds and we need to run an engine to keep us going. As we near Baie du Prony Jamie’s mental image takes place it does indeed look like a mining bay with 3 large ships taking up much of the space near the entrance, in a queue of sorts to be filled. We push on, sails are now down as we are in the bay and completely becalmed, as owners of a sailing boat we always prefer to sail if we can, there is something magical about gliding through glassy waters though.
I sit at the helm staring at the passing scenery, a blend of deep green lush ‘jungle’ slashed in places with deep red dirt, reminiscing of the outback. Jamie is inside pouring over the New Caledonia cruising guide (digital) that we have been using as a reference. He is intrigued about an islet we are approaching in the bay (Ille Casy), further investigations show it has a wharf, mooring buoys, and an abandoned hotel. ‘Shall we stop here for lunch?’ I hear, ‘why not’ I reply we only have 6nm to go to our proposed anchorage and its 12 noon.
Lunch is Wahoo (from Lord Howe Island) and a fresh tabouleh salad - sorry everyone we are still not eating only canned meals!! We launch the tender and pull into the beach. What a beautiful island, as we explore we find only foundation like remnants of a hotel, but a picture-perfect deserted island, and the remnants of a penal colony (a well) and the burial site of the last remaining family the Arics, who lived there after the convicts moved away. A different path to the north takes us up a clay incline to a gorgeous lookout, yes you can see the nickel mine, but the enormous bay stretches out in front of us as well, full of inlets, island and deep jungle.
I’m sure that jungle isn’t the word I’m searching for, but forest doesn’t seem to describe it either, so I’m staying with jungle. We drop the mooring buoy we had tied up to earlier and motor further up one of the fingers of the bay. At one point it starts to feel like we are on a houseboat puttering up the Murray River, completely silent except for our engine, not a soul to be seen and the glassiest water ever.
As we come around the final bend the water starts to get seriously shallow and we eventually drop anchor in 2 to 6m of water. The bays depth ranges wildly and although we dropped the anchor in 6m the boat swings back over 2m. Neither is an issue and the anchor hold well in muddy rubble. We keep the anchor alarm on anyway - its a function of the chart plotter that you can set an alarm that warns you if the boat ‘drifts’ beyond a certain distance (set by you) we generally set it to 25m.
Looking around Jamie is impressed, having expected very (very) little we are both speechless, it is seriously beautiful (insert superlative words here). Although late, we are ever so aware that tomorrow will probably be raining and allow us limited opportunity to explore, so we head off upstream. Our digital guide has told us that is is silly shallow up here and even at high tide (which it is as we set off) we might need to row. We putter along at low speed with the outboard motor lifted to its highest setting. The water is so still that the sky and clouds reflected in the water are mesmerising. I shoot a LOT of footage. Eventually we come across a small low jetty, we tie up and make our way up the path to a naturally occurring hot water spring which bubbles its way out of the ground.
There has been some major works built up around this natural phenomenon, although it has fallen into disrepair a little, there is still a hut, and wooden benches in the pool, and the surrounds of the pool have been built up so that it looks reminiscent of a stone spa (minus the jets), we dip our legs in and the warm fresh water feels amazing. We vow to come back tomorrow as it’s getting late and we are losing light (and depth probably). As we putter our way back the still water reflects even more beautifully and we are both silent the whole journey back.
We arrive back in Noumea to meet up with friends that we made a few weeks ago Ken and Megan on their Motor Trawler Yacht – Windward Passage. They have been off exploring The Loyalty Islands and are back in Noumea also. I have had a vision – a beach picnic on a remote island. I mentioned it to Megan via email a few days ago and I am delighted that she is not only keen on the idea, but has started scheming as to how this would work. We both have vague plans to head down to Isle de Pines (Isle of Pines) for a few days and agree that one of the islands down there would be perfect for the dinner.
Tasks are allocated – Ken and Megan will do dinner, location scouting and fire. Jamie and I will make a table (???) drinks, entrée and dessert! The passage down is easy and fast and we arrive there the day after Windward Passage. Megan has already found the perfect beach so we head over to anchor neat Ille Brosse and start our preparations.
The evening goes off without a hitch. Champagne, coral trout, tiramisu and a beach pit fire along with music and mood lighting make for what could only be described as the perfect day.
We explore more of Ilse de Pines with a rental car a few days later, finding amazing rock pools, caves and ruins from the French occupation. We head off back toward Bay du Prony to once again attempt to dive the Prony Needle!
Windward Passage join us there and we have a few amazing days exploring the large Bay and finally diving the needle. We anchor near the head of the main bay and make our way to the needle – which is conveniently marked by a huge isolated marker. Unusually you are allowed to tie up to the marker in order for you to dive. The water is quite murky and we enter with some trepidation. We descend following the line attached to the marker and get to 40 feet without seeing the needle. Puzzled we spend 5 minutes searching the bottom with no luck. Upon surfacing we decide to search just by snorkelling, and eventually find the needle. We dive again this time to only 20m as we are low(ish) on air and spend a remarkable 30 minutes circling the needle. It is simply amazing, Stalagmites rise up towards the surface and the multitude of fish and unusual sea life growing from this hot water vent is just unreal!
We eventually head back to Noumea to one last provisioning and say goodbye to our new lifelong friends Ken and Megan as they prepare to head back to Australia and we set of for our next adventure in Vanuatu!
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