Thursday, 30 January 2014

The art of Island Bopping

What is that?

Long, thin, oblique; the island was a lone speech mark amid the wordless Pacific Ocean. I zoomed in until Googlemaps gave up it's identity - 'New Caledonia'. The name didn't ring any bells but since Wikipaedia didn't mention genocide, cannibalism or ebola, I booked a flight. Its anonymity to me just seemed like a good reason to do so.

The almost ticked out clock of my Aussie VISA meant I needed a border run, but this too was an excuse for an adventure - the spontaneous, half-baked kind. I had in mind an island, and the south Pacific bares 7500 to choose from. I scribbled 'no bicycle, pack light, travel by foot' into my journal and then canvassed the bespeckled ocean on googlemaps for inspiration.

New Caledonia is an archipelago and autonomous French overseas territory, and the main island, uninspiringly entitled Grand Terre, is 1200 km from Australian shores, or about half way to Figi. It lies like a giant frozen throwing knife launched from New Zealand and aimed at Papua New Guinea, and after those two, Grand Terre is the third largest island in the Pacific.

Hiking is not how the mainstream wile away hours on a palm-fringed Pacific islands, but I wasn’t planning on indulging in contented comas on surf-soaked white sand beaches, diving amongst coral reefs, or retiring to a resort to wash down the day's hedonism with lobster and kava. I was going just to walk, hoping later to emerge blister-footed, laden with stories and contentedly beat.



On my way

Comfort costs kilograms, and I didn't need it. To pack as light as possible I had help from Claire who turned out to be the most extreme weight reducing device known to humanity. She rummaged through my pack, frequently holding aloft an item of kit and demanding I justify its place. 'Shoelace?!' came one admonishment. In the end I left with no tent, just a tarp of unproven waterproofness and an unused bivvy bag (to an island in the midst of cyclone-season), a stove, one change of clothes and little else. The burden I carried now mostly psychological.

5.30 am is the time penny pinchers fly to their destinations. The night before my flight I waved goodbye to Claire from the airport concourse hoping to find a quiet corner in the terminal to spend the night, unaware then my adventure was about to start early. 'Sorry mate' began the patrolling security guard, 'airport closes at 12, looks like you’re out the street.' Begrudging his fatalism, his 'looks like', I skulked out into the warm night. As I stumbled around, crooked under the weight of the pack, I wondered how I would hike across an entire island when traversing the departures terminal was amounting to an Iron Man feat of endurance. With the alfresco air as stagnant as swamp water my body’s main concern was not sleep but rather some kind of experiment into finding out exactly how much it was capable of sweating.

A form arrived from the neat air hostess and my pen quivered under indecision among the tick boxes. Where will you be staying in New Caledonia? Hotel? Rental home? Family or friend? There was no option for a bivy bag in the dirt, so I went with friend. The lady sat next to me smiled sympathetically when in reply to her quick-fire nasal gabble I committed conversational suicide with the few French words I could remember, a soon to be well-tested, contrite quartet : 'Je ne comprend pas'.

I turned then more earnestly to my Lonely Planet phrasebook; which failed to include useful sentences like 'I'm not entirely sure what I just said either' or 'I apologise for the ugly accent'. In their place were a host of purposeless one-liners. For example the 'Romance' section has clearly been devised by a womanless letch shipwrecked in the eighties and offers the French for 'What star sign are you?' Unfortunately it then leaves you hanging, and neglects to provide a translation to deal with any of the likely aftermaths such as 'Excuse me, can I borrow a towel, that girl just puked all over me' or 'Yes doctor, the pain in my testicles is excruciating. Perhaps she was a pisces'. Things get dramatically weirder though on leafing through the 'Sex' section where there sits 'Chouette alors!', which we're told translates as 'Oh Yeah!'. Presumably the old romantics at Lonely Planet are hoping you keep the book on a bedside table so that you can call an abrupt halt to copulation, turn to the relevant chapter and express sexual gratification in grammatically and phonetically correct French. That's where the pillow talk ends though as the authors clearly judge their readership to be composed of a more defensive than passionate brand of lovers and there follows 'That was weird' and 'You're disturbing me'. In the eating section is 'I can't eat it for philosophical reasons' perhaps an appropriate line if you are served the decapitated head of a professor in philosophy. The art of camping is something of a mystery to the authors since this section includes 'Can I borrow a spade?' Having set up my tent I then enjoy engaging in mock early 20th century warfare. Finally though Lonely Planet, perhaps conscious of the potential for confusion after commissioning a book by a bunch of imbeciles, states 'Lonely Planet accepts no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book'. So if you nonchalantly order a ham and cheese sandwich from a waiter in a Parisian cafe but instead get bashed with a crow bar and later regain consciousness on all fours, clad in nothing more than a leopard skin thong and studded dog collar, watching through glass a leering trail of be-suited business men, with a 'for sale' sign around your neck, remember: Don't even think about writing to the Editor.

Phrase book abandoned, I averted my attention to the likely honeymooners in the seats around me, and the unspooling infinitude of the Pacific that passed beneath. I wondered why I had made such a snap judgement about coming here and began to plunge, panic-stricken, down a dark cascade of what-ifs. Suddenly though I caught site of a lustrous ribbon of turquoise in the ocean – inside it the sea was spotted with islands and atolls; this was the world heritage listed coral reef, the largest after the Great Barrier Reef. More arresting though was what followed - a beige mesh of ridges and valleys which multiplied, greened and swelled into whopping mountains whose upper reaches were poached by hanging cloud. As I sized up the island every doubt I harboured about the possibility of adventure evaporated. Possibility sprawled. 


Nouméa

Like the landscape of New Caledonia, which consists of a central mountain range, mangrove swamps, torrid grassy plains, primary forest and shrubland - the skin tone of these mysterious New Caledonians milling around the airport was as richly various. The black indigenous Kanaks are the arrivals most far flung in time. About a third of the population are 'Caldoche' – European descendants, primarily of the French, many of whom were convicts shipped to these remote shores at the end of the 19th century. Contributing to the ethnic melange are migrants from other Pacific islands and East Asia. To meet me at the airport was Lyvia, fashionable, slender and dark skinned who claimed an ancestral pastiche involving most of the above, which in New Caledonia is in no way unique.

New Caledonia was christened as such by the British explorer James Cook who in 1774, when surveying its mountainous form, figured it was redolent of Scotland, Caledonia of course it's latin alias. Now, outside the airport terminal, in 36 degree heat aside dusty lion-coloured scrub, I had to wonder why the well-travelled Cook was so off the mark with his analogy. Britain's claim to the islands though didn’t survive, in subsequent years the French gained control.

First off Lyvia gave me a whistle-stop tour of the capital Nouméa. Sea front bars opened onto a main boulevard which nudged up against a beach. A thin spread of foreign tourists dozed and swam and rummaged about in the water. Kanak women in bright wrap-around skirts, pareos, with curlicues and floral motifs, shared the sand with younger Kanaks who preferred the Rasta tricolour and dreadlocks and who played zouk and reggaton from mobile phone. Bonjours and smiles were batted around between strangers and though once rather mawkishly known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’, Nouméa seemed absent of the surliness the French capital is perhaps unfairly known for. We then scooted over to the next bay which was crowded with moored yachts, and the bay after that, home to a tangle of kite surfers. Some of this tableau seemed reminiscent of life on the Mediterranean, Lyvia though, perhaps having divined me making the parallel, explained 'When there's a cyclone, all these boats (she pointed an arc), end up in the street' and with that I was abruptly transposed, right back into the midst of the wide, wild Pacific Ocean.

So far I had glimpsed two flags fluttering around the capital, the French tricolour and the Kanak flag, which is closely tied to the controversial idea of full independence. I'm here at a sensitive juncture, after some violence and turmoil in the 1980's, 2014 marks the close of a peaceful period of growth and development and old agreements dictate a vote for independence could take place in the near future. The majority of Kanaks; historically often brutally repressed by the colonial power, seek full independence; the Caldoche and a slice of the Asian migrants though are less likely to share these politics.

I find a book in Lyvia's parent's house - Nouvelle Caledonie Sauvage : Wild New Caledonia. In it 511 pages tell of hiking routes, which was about 500 more than I had anticipated. A tiny village and former penal colony, Prony, in the far south of Grand Terre, marks the beginning of the Grand Randonnée (big hike) - an official brand of trail, scores of which crisscross Europe half a world away. This one, inaugurated some ten years ago, is a classic hike; at least here, and perhaps would be considered so outside New Caledonia if a more hearty number of the general public could actually pin the island on a map. It’s 120 km of hiking and scrambling through rolling scrub, forest and over steep mountains up to 1200 metres above the turquoise water glimpsed from the plane window. In all there’s almost 5000 metres of climbing, roughly the height of Mont Blanc.

Trail food stowed in my pack, I sat among Lyvia and her friends who collectively mused about my journey as we picked at cheeses, sliced baguettes and cold meats, a very salubrious and outwardly French affair, from the double kiss entrance and uncorked wine to the unhurried quality to our grazing. 'We are not French!' Lyvia remarked, somewhat defiantly, this lot consider themselves 'Caldoche' and make light of the old colonial power by referring to French visitors to New Caledonia as 'les zoreilles' which almost translates as 'the ears', an in-joke that refers to the way the tourists are forever pushing their ears forward in an effort to understand the local accent, though French proper is the lingua franca here, not the French-based creoles of the nation's other overseas territories. Indeed as a tourist it's hard to cope here without at least a smidgen of the language.

Over dinner my plan received a rebound of frowns. As usual each at the table had their own theory of how I will expire, heat stroke a top contender and presiding over cyclone-induced floods, being shot by hostile Kanaks for trespassing or simply getting irreconcilably lost. On past experience, my vote went to the latter.

Grand Randonnée in the South



As I searched in vain for the right change to pass the bus driver who would take me half way to Prony, a mess of arms and hands were extended out to me. Their owners, Kanak women, were offering me the money I needed for the fare. Soon the bus lurched through the outskirts of the capital where houses were half concealed by a jungle of mango, papaya and banana plants. 

The last language I used to any proficiency was Spanish and so as my brain hunts for a French word the Spanish is offered up instead. This is how my hitch-hike from the bus stop began, with an open car door and my speaking a strange soup of incongruent words from three languages 'Hola friend. Je voudrais; um; go, with la voiture, hasta Prony'. Having rightly concluded I wasn't up to conversation, my driver, a young businessman, let French rock ballads absorb our silence. I watched the crumpled landscape unfurl: green ridges and hillocks, a snake of wind turbines, giant handprints of rust-coloured earth. The spectacle was especially befitting on pondering the island's ancient origins. Unlike many of the other Pacific archipelagos, New Caledonia's beginning does not lie in recent volcanic activity, instead it's a vestige of the supercontinent Gondwana. Before spending several million years beneath the ocean, it was once attached to Australia.


Then I walked, stamped really. Bent, huffing, wet with sweat, overwhelmed and underprepared. The path, marked by the red and white symbols of the GR treks that lace Europe (even the most hapless hiker would have to work pretty hard to get lost here), ambled along the coast and then climbed, skirting two waterfalls, until the vista sparkled as sunlight bounced off a wealth of waxy leaves. Below the shrubs were brain-like nubs of lichen, the colour of glow in the dark stars. An ecologist might know this as Maquis Shrubland - it’s an arid rocky terrain covered by a density of peculiar flora and sometimes it felt as if I were padding through a botanical garden. The feeling was well-founded - almost 80% of the plants exist just here and nowhere else on earth – only Hawaii and New Zealand can boast more endemic species. Unfortunately the nickel mining that bolsters the New Caledonian economy has destroyed much of the habitat - 25% of plant species here are considered at risk and at least five are now extinct. 




Dimness grew and when I spotted a refuge, rouged in light cast by a nearby campfire, I knew I had company. 'We light the fire for you!' called one of the trio sat loosely aback from the flames as I approached. The three French hikers, two guys and one girl - Aurelie, Oliver and Tibault - had met by chance days before and conspired to complete the Grand Randonnée together. Behind the refuge a river tumbled over rock and fell a metre into a now black pool I was assured was four metres deep, so in the dark, hoping distances didn't get lost in translation, I jumped. Drying around the fire it was decided: 'Tomorrow - we are four.' 

The next day we hiked upwards through more brush and pockets of forest where palms diced the sunlight into thin slots. Replies to calls of ‘ça va?’ came later and later, in thinner voices, as we individually pondered whether we were in fact OK, decided probably not, and then mustered the energy required to manufacture a 'Bien!' that could pass as genuinely upbeat. The track eventually began to bound downwards, along the plunging axis of a ridge. Land to each side tumbled and then sprawled into a wide plain, dotted with shadow from the cloud-blotched sky above. We let gravity do more of the work until at last we threw off steaming boots and staggered through the open door of another of the tidy, wooden refuges which end each day on the trail. Soon chatter was mixed with the hum of gas stoves and the slurping of packet noodles and salted deer sausage scored from Noumea. The groans that followed verged on the sexual as we each flopped our weary legs onto thin sleeping mats as if they were goose down. 



Two of my comrades, like me, were not graduates of the Grand Randonnées of Europe, nor other multi-day treks. Nimble-footed Oliver though had battled perhaps the toughest, the Grand Randonnée 20 in Corsica, and was forever dancing spiritedly down steep descents and taking grand wading steps upwards. At the days close; metres from the refuge I needed ten miles ago, he remarked

'Is like finger in zee nose, non?'
'What?'
'You don't have finger in zee nose in English? Non? It means IT'S EASY! Like finger in zee nose!'
He demonstrates.
'Oh right, I see. Yeah, that's it.' I fake a smile, ‘easy’ is not a word I would use. I think more of an elbow in my nose. A thigh in my penis.

In the burnt remnant of a forest victim to last year’s wildfires we came across a party of rangers who advised us to 'Go between the breasts!' Sure enough an hour later two prodigious bulbs swelled out of the forest, sweaty and breathless we made our way up through the metaphorical cleavage. From the col we spied a mist of approaching rain which blurred the far forest beyond our half-moon of ridges. It's January, so the deluge that quickly beat down upon us was no big surprise, and we were soon cheered by vistas over Lake Yate and the Blue River which each owned a halo of russet earth and wheeling birds of prey above. Eventually our trail hit the riverbank where there were a stand of dead Kaori pine trees whose reflections stewed in murky water. A giant, living specimen trailside was almost 3 metres in girth, and a sign stateed that it began life a millennium ago. This fact though belies a less impressive one - primary forest like this is rare now in New Caledonia, only a fraction remains and the lion's share of these fast growing Kaori trees have been long since felled for timber or wiped out in fires. 





We entered the Blue River Provincial Park which, like the shrubland before it, was home to strange and rare and plants and trees aplenty. It was the giant tree ferns that won my immediate attention, some of their trunks were over 50 feet in height and their umbrella of fronds, some of the largest leaves in the entire plant kingdom, conjured an impression of pre-history. It’s a well-deserved one - tree ferns were knocking around the Carboniferous swamps over 300 million years ago. It was these giant fronds that cast swords and daggers of sunlight onto the trail which was thick with fallen leaves, deadening my footfall. Perhaps it was this deftness that failed to startle the chicken sized white bird that strayed across my path. It's a kagu, known among as the Kanak tribes as 'the ghost of the forest' and instantly familiar to me, despite its scarcity, because an image of the bird adorns the country’s bank notes, coins and tourist brochures. I froze so not to scare it away, though I needn't have, the kagu is almost flightless, but it hissed at me as it waddled on orange legs, unhurried, into the bush.

The following day the dank forest grew much thicker, and kinked palm fronds clawed at us from the gloomy fringes of the narrow alleyway of foliage. Trees drooled moss and our feet faught for purchase on slippery stones among a smattering of carnivorous pitcher plants. Soon we were fighting for headroom as the path segued into a barely discernible trail, floored by a weave of roots where geckos scuttled, and warded by a toppling wall of fern. Often we crossed streams home to electric blue dragonflies where rainfall trickled between old debris - car-sized boulders and hulking trunks of fallen trees - heaved into a bygone torrent on the back of a visiting cyclone. 





At 1150 metres above the Pacific the trail wound up to another clearing and collectively we gave a gasp, of all the sublime vistas the Grand Randonnée had afforded us so far, this one was the best. Great waves of resplendent green ridges, riven by deep valleys, tracked into the far distance, and later, fire-side, there was an air of achievement in reaching the highest point on the hike, our contentment challenged only when a hairy spider crept over to share our warmth.

The ultimate day is a decent crescendo spent aside a yawning valley which dropped to a string of pellucid pools in the Dumbea River. We were not alone. Being a Sunday in the hottest month of the year, scores of families plied the banks. Having spent seven days in the wilderness our collision with humanity felt a rough one: children screamed, reggaton boomed, litter was strewn, and the satisfaction of a cool dip in the river ground against the suddenness of it all. But as we slumped, beaten on the river bank, entertainment arrived when local kids began to plummet at least 15 metres from overhanging trees into the water, and then a large family clustered around us, doling out barbequed meat and baguettes. 






Grand Randonnée of the North


There's really only one quality the southern Grand Randonnée is missing, and the newly inaugurated Grand Randonnée of the north can supply it: an experience of local Kanak culture. The new four day 75 km trail journeys through the northwest of the island, a more populated and much wetter place. Back in Noumea locals half whispered about a sizable tropical depression that was moving in, as if the island was a testy relative and the storm one of their customary headaches. Perhaps it is Englishness which marks me loath to change plans for the weather, but I decided to set out anyway. Tibault, having declared hiking a new passion on the back of the previous hike, opted to come with me and kept me entertained with endearing malapropisms, suggesting for instance that if the weather turned we could 'go hijacking' which after careful questioning of my new friend revealed he meant hitch-hiking, to my immediate relief.

As we waited for a bus, palm fronds flapped maniacally in a punchy breeze and I wondered what was brewing in the Pacific and bound for New Caledonian shores. Our starting point was the village of Tchamba and we were glad to find a thatched hut which sat rather incongruously next to satellite dishes and solar panels. Instead of the refuges of the southern trek, this vernacular accommodation would serve as our shelter.

We began hiking through arable land where Kanaks waved to us from their crops of yam and groves of fruit trees. Then we passed into a dripping forest where dollops of light fell onto the cobweb-crossed path, unwon by a competing umbrella of foliage above. The rain began and built to a cloudburst. Hunched over, consumed by trawling ponchos, eyes hesitant to explore the world beyond the immediacy of the path, we missed quite an important junction. After retracing our muddy footprints, then tiny lakes of rain water, we decided to hitch-hike to Poindimie since the rivers ahead were likely to be impassable. En route we hit a tidal wave of local helpers including a Kanak man who gave us a ride, a student who offered us his phone and then Couchsurfer Thierry who supplied a bed and shower. Tibault, a tad disillusioned, then took a bus back to the capital. I decided to wait out the storm, one that had now grown big enough to put the island on Orange Alert and to earn the inappropriately tepid and rather delightful Christian name of 'June'. The online weather tracker showed the extent of the hissy fit June was having over the Pacific - she was now an intense red, shaped like a spiral galaxy, and hundreds of kilometres across. And then the power went out. 


Over the next twenty four hours 160 mm of rain soaked my part of the island - twice the average total rainfall for London for the entire month of January. The wind speeds were not high enough to nudge it into the 'cyclone' category but even so a visit to the coast at the storm's capstone – where there were wind-bowed palm trees and a giant swell - left an impression that it might be worthy of the title. In the wake of June I re-joined the trail which burrowed through murky mushroom-dotted forest and climbed up to ridges where it again rode humps of land and offered vistas of woodland awash with a motley of greens.

The river was too high to wade when I arrived, on each attempt I got half way out but the current was dangerously fast and I hiked back up the foul-scented muddy banks, not long ago flooded and covered in decomposing sugar cane. A refuge was my home for a day, every few hours I made a new sally to the river to check the water level (I’d left markers) and weighed up my options. One had been to build a raft – I had plenty of felled bamboo, string and a knife to my disposal, but decided that the idea was probably a bit ‘Bear Grylls’ and also that I had none of the qualities that makes Bear Grylls Bear Grylls, that is to say: know-how, courage or any amount of good sense. Eventually I found an easier channel and trudged onwards. Startled deer ran from path, I munched on wild pineapples and at last made it to a pretty village with more thatched huts, bamboo forests and bright flowers. It was my last stop. 

Coming home


The three weeks I had spent in New Caledonia did not feature resorts, the venerated white sand beaches or the heritage listed reef. Yet surveying the verdant mountains from my departing plane window, and knowing of all those unwalked forest-buried trails I was leaving behind, I felt I had been privy to a vastly underrated side of the island. Why New Caledonia doesn't then attract a similar-sized flood of tourists as other Pacific destinations, Fiji for example, which gets six times the number each year, is hard to know. On paper, New Caledonia has enticements in droves. Some may be put off because it's French speaking, others perhaps because it can be a bit pricey, but for adventure-seekers it’s a place that perhaps only in years to come will get the props it deserves.

I love aeroplanes. Every time the wheels thunder down a runway I feel an inch wonderstruck as it occurs to me that air travel really is the quintessence of mankind's inventiveness, collective genius and raw ambition. So when strolling out into Sydney airport to see an incomprehensibly pathetic number of customs officials serving a line of passengers so vast that the tableau was instantly redolent of some kind of religious pilgrimage, I abruptly experienced the complete anathema to this pride in humanity. We can safely fly millions around the globe, between every major city, every day, how then, can we fuck up routine screening so magnificently? I asked myself. The line twisted like some great malicious tapeworm throughout the enormous terminal building, occasionally bunching and circumventing knots of disillusioned ex-queuers. The inching, beleaguered passengers had been stood for so long that many had taken to shaving and personal grooming. I believe a section of kids were being home schooled. Those with elderly relatives were scoping out suitable burial sites behind the luggage carousel. The International Red Cross were surely not long from intervening in this humanitarian disaster by air dropping bedding and food packages.

So eventually I was reunited with Claire back in Cairns who had spent the last few weeks in Tasmania where she visited a number of music festivals and writes beautifully about the experience here. Unfortunately a knee injury curtailed much cycling and so we’ll be taking it nice and slow when we begin pedalling through East Timor in a week’s time. Next blog post then – probably from Bali.

Lyvia and Krystie, Thierry, Ian, Sarah and Simon – you are all lovely humans, thank you.


4 comments:

  1. Sitting in a city where schools have been closed seven days in December and January because the sheer Polar Vortexian cold is too dangerous to head out into, I must gush that this travelogue was exactly the vacation I needed. Thanks, as ever, for the free trip. Will continue my day feeling a bit warmer now.

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  2. I always read your posts on awe of your command over the English language. Another triumph to study.

    All the best with the next part of your journey. We are travelling in opposite directions toward each other, it would be very interesting to meet up if our paths do cross.

    I in Turkey at the moment heading toward Iran, India and on through south east Asia.

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  3. Wow! what a journey. Great photos and a great story. That is wow by reading your post I am want to travel now.

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