I landed one day late in December 2010 to explore the French overseas dependency of New Caledonia. It’s the third largest island in the South Pacific, after Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. Its coasts are fringed with barrier reefs, romantic lagoons, and more lost beaches than you’d care to count.
In the interior of Grand Terre — the main island — rugged mountains climb to mist-fringed heights with that “unknown” allure that draws you into the kind of wandering you look up from in surprise 6 years later.
I’d flown down from Tokyo on an Air Cailin flight packed with a handful of Japanese on holiday, and passengers connecting from Paris on what must have been a miserable 18 hour journey.
Visitors tended to stay for a night in the capital of Noumea before catching another flight to one of the outlying islands fringed in white sand. I decided to rent a car and explore the interior of Grand Terre instead. It proved to be a good decision. Outside of Noumea I never saw another foreigner.
On the day I drove north I stopped at the market in the centre of Noumea for strong coffee and pain chocolat. The French influence on this lost corner of the South Pacific extends as far as bread and pastries, and some hints of Parisian fashion. But the permissiveness I expected to find was completely absent. The unwelcome hand of meddling missionaries had long ago imposed an excessive modesty whose earthly manifestation was shapeless calico Mother Hubbard dresses. Even at the city’s best stretch of beach — L’Anse Vata — island women swam with all their clothes on. Only the tourists wore bikinis. The locals waded into the turquoise lagoon in jeans and t-shirts, sodden and clinging and steaming in the heat. I honestly expected to see someone dog paddling in a three piece suit, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.
On the outskirts of the city, the port district quickly gave way to a small scattering of suburb houses clinging to the hills. And then nothing.
The roads wound through mountainous switchbacks of jungle clad hills, followed by long flat stretches of grazing land and farms. French settlers who live outside Noumea have the same frontier self-sufficiency, ruggedness and close knit sense of community as ranchers and farmers in the outback. And the interior has that same isolated feel.
But regardless of how far you drive, it’s always possible to find a decent cup of coffee. We stopped at a cafe in the village of La Foa, where I spilled my cappuccino all over the table and on my shoes yet again. It was an unfortunate habit I’d developed on the opposite side of the equator. Perhaps it had something to do with the toilets swirling the wrong way round?
Three fast winding driving hours later we reached the ranching centre of Bourail, New Caledonia’s second largest town. I’d expected supermarkets and steel civilization, but we only managed to find a small shop to buy a loaf of bread, some water, and a hunk of cheese wrapped in crackling waxed paper.
Down a side road just outside of town, holiday caravans clustered in a cinder block heap around the beach at Poé. Two bays farther down, the shore was deserted. The air pulsed with a rhythmic boom where the open sea crashed on the reef out beyond the lagoon. That far away, it was difficult to separate the foam of the breakers from the fringe of low cloud hanging on the edge of the sky. We lazed on the shore and waded in a lukewarm sea, but the bay was shallow and the tide soon abandoned us to mud flats and brown puddles. It was time to move on.
I turned down every dirt track that led to the coast. At the top of one I found an old concrete lookout post long abandoned to bats and wandering cattle that shit on the doorstep and rubbed their backs along the corners of the walls, leaving brown tufts of wiry hair. I climbed the rusted steps to a square metal platform. A long empty beach stretched out below me in the distance, and a green river valley cut a deep cleft inland where it lost itself among steep mountain spires. I was determined to find a way down.
Near the end of the road, cliff views took in the entire Bay des Tortues — the Bay of Turtles — a small narrow beach with wave-hammered rocks sculpted into the soft twisted shapes of Salvador Dali dreams. It was a place of great beauty, but the seas were too cruel to swim in that narrow place.
I finally turned down the right dirt track and found that broad stretch of sand I’d seen from the cliff top. It was a quiet place with tidy wooden houses tucked back from the beach. Each was sheltered beneath a dark tree filled yard, with screened in porches and wooden shutters to close out the heat.
In the distance, a few people wandered across the road from their homes, single and in groups of two or three, for a quiet swim at the waning of the day. At the far end of the beach two guys tried to catch some surf on the long rolling waves that built as they crossed the lagoon. Otherwise there was no one. We had the entire broad stretch of bay to ourselves.
I slipped into swimmers by the door of my car, and kicked off my shoes at the edge of the sand. It still held the warmth of the afternoon sun, but it was a gentle warmth and not the scorching pain of midday.
The long rolling waves lifted me gently as I waded into the sea. I floated there and stared at a small tuft of cloud that hung in the blue as though it’d been pinned on a child’s cork board. No one was visible in the shuttered houses or in their neat little yards. The entire place was wrapped in that tropical turpitude that knows nothing of time. Or rather, the only time it embraced was that slow languid endlessness of summer vacation when school was still a distant memory and Fall felt like it would never come. It had always been like this, and always would.
Just the sound of the waves and that quiet disconnected late afternoon feeling as the afternoon faded away. It was everything I’d imagined the fringes of the South Pacific to be.