CHAPTER 26: August 7th-September 2nd, 2004
The Land of the Kanaks, New Caledonia
Tijibaou Cultural Center, Noumea
Saturday, August 7th, 2004: Departure from Vanuatu… Heading for New Caledonia
We left Port Villa, Vanuatu this morning under sunny skies and light winds. What more could we ask for? For one thing, the right amount of wind from the right direction and for two, flat calm seas. For the first time since entering the South Pacific we are going south (almost due south), instead of West–and of course the winds, are from the direction we are heading — the South instead of their “typical” South East direction --, that is “on the nose,” in nautical terms, and the waves are about 4-5 ft. also from the bow. So again we are under motor and moving slower than we’d like. At least we have some of our sails up, and the winds are not too strong, so we are, at least, making some forward progress. (We’ve been known to motor sail making a knot or less of forward progress an hour, which means essentially putting out a whole bunch of motor and muscle power to go no where!)
We “only” have a 300 mile trip, which SHOULD be only 2 ½ days going at our usual snailboat speed (but we have mentally planned on 3 days) to get to our next destination, Noumea, the capitol of New Caledonia. It is a French possession (like Tahiti, i.e. the Society Islands that we visited last year), called Nouvelle Calédonie by the French, and called Kanaky (“Land of the Kanaks”) by the indigenous inhabitants.
We may stop (sneak in, without “officially clearing”) for an overnight anchorage at one of the Loyalty Islands (part of the New Caledonia territory) to break up the trip and rest for 24 hours before proceeding. We have to go between 2 of the islands (about 100 miles from our destination–or 2/3’s the way there). The main reason for stopping, besides getting a good night's sleep, is the entrance to the main island of New Caledonia is a somewhat dangerous pass into a barrier reef which we need to time to go in shortly after sunrise and at slack tide. There are treacherous reefs (notorious for being “ship eaters”) on both sides of the pass and a 4-knot current (the current of which will throw you onto the reefs)... so the timing is critical. Anyway that's what's ahead of us. Once we enter the pass, then we still have a 7-hour trip to Noumea, the only point of entry (for immigration and customs). Since we need to reach Noumea during daylight, that means we need to time our arrival at the pass at daybreak. Hence our need for excellent timing for our arrival time — something difficult to do in a sailboat, where slight wind shifts or increases or decreases, will immensely change your “planned” speed and route.
Sunday Night, August 8th: 2nd Night at Sea
So far our passage continues to be benign (knock on wood). Knowing it would be difficult for our boat to go into the wind for our southerly passage, we timed our departure for a weather window of almost no wind, and for a change the weather reports “predicted” were actually accurate. The light winds of yesterday have continued to be light today and at times almost non-existent. The best thing is right now the seas are actually almost flat which is great. Hopefully they will keep that way for the next 2 days. Compared to our usual rock n’ rolling trips across Pacific waters, this is pure luxury, especially when it comes to a good night’s sleep.
Monday Night, August 9th: 3rd and Hopefully Last Night at Sea
The glassy seas and light wind continued today. We have not seen seas like this since we were on the equator last year. If it weren’t for the sound of the engine, it would almost feel as if we were not on the open ocean at all. I can actually walk around down below without holding on. If we HAVE to motor, this is the way to go!! But on the downside, this is the most we have ever run our engine non-stop (going on 3 days now). I’m on watch and the stars are beautiful on a clear night. We haven’t had one squall (again knock on wood!!), probably because we are getting further south and the temperature is getting cooler. It is actually cold enough that I have been wearing a jacket that I had to dig out for the last 2 nights.
Earlier this afternoon, our plan was (as mentioned above) to stop at one of the anchorages in the Loyalty Islands (on Mare Island) for a day. We wanted to be able to time our arrival (as discussed above) to arrive at the pass at sunrise. However when we pulled into the anchorage (that was supposed to be a safe and secure one), we found ourselves surrounded by coral heads and the wind was shifting around (what little we had) which would of made us on a lee shore. We weren't satisfied that it was safe, and since the seas were so flat and calm, we decided just to keep going. At the speed we were going, we would get to the pass to early, but it is a lot easier to slow down our boat rather than trying to go faster.
So tonight on my shift, we have slowed down the revs on the engine and should make it to the pass by 5 AM. We can then do circles around until dawn so we can see what we are doing.
Wednesday Evening, August 11th: Safe and (?)Sound Again… Dockside in Noumea
After my last writing above, at midnight we changed “shifts” and it was my turn to sleep. I gave Joe “report” that all was calm, 5-6 knots of wind, flat calm seas… and we should arrive at the pass in about 5 hours. Within 10 minutes after telling Joe this and me hitting the bed, the wind suddenly went up to 20 knots and the seas went up to about 5 ft... all at once, as if we had crossed an imaginary line from calm conditions to near-storm conditions. Neither of those would have been bad except the seas and the wind were coming from right on the nose... AND our transmission broke. We could not motor into the wind and seas now, so we had to tack back and forth meaning our 5 hour trip took us about 12 hours until we got safely into the pass. Our transmission was working a tiny bit, meaning we could run it at very very low rpm's (as long as there was no wind or seas to stress it.) We notified the Port authorities of our mechanical problems and got permission to stop prior to sunset at an anchorage (inside the safety of the reef) as it was another 35 miles (once inside the pass) to get to Noumea (where as mentioned above, customs/immigration, etc were located)... and going at 1-2 knots of speed, we weren't sure how long it would take us to get there.
So last night we stopped, anchored, and slept 12 hours (6:30 PM-6:30AM -- much needed sleep since the previous night we were up with the engine problems and the tacking back and forth). Then this morning we were up at sunrise to try and make it to Noumea. We lucked out. The seas (inside the barrier reef now) were flat and the wind had shifted to a sailable direction, so we were able to make the 35-mile trip in 9 hours-- still slow, but we made it. The port had dock space waiting for us, and although we are still restricted to the boat tonight (not enough time to clear in thru immigration/customs), we enjoyed a cockpit cocktail celebrating making it safely, had dinner, and are again about to collapse into bed for hopefully another 10-12 hours of sleep. A storm (rain mostly) arrived following us in today so we are grateful to be in port and not out there still fighting getting here.
Tomorrow we will do our "clearing in" so we're legal and immediately search for a recommended mechanic to fix our transmission. Joe (my "the glass is half empty" husband) fears it may mean having the boat hauled and major work/expense/time in order to fix it. The good news is there are a lot of boats here, so a lot of marine mechanics -- the bad news is it is VERY expensive here! But we'll know more once someone can investigate the problem, so no sense us worrying about it until then. Again, for now we're just both relieved to be somewhere safe and secure and tied up to shore again.
Tuesday, August 17th, 2004: Happy Birthday, Joe
Tonight we are going to the supposedly best restaurant, French, in town to celebrate Joe’s birthday. Shopping for a birthday present in mostly 3rd world countries is not easy. And here in New Caledonia, The “Paris of the South Pacific,” everything is Paris +50% in cost. This is touted as the most expensive country in the South Pacific and I can believe it.
Joe’s real present though was that the mechanic we hired to fix our transmission, finally came by today. Unfortunately nothing is easy... and it won't be a 15 minute-1 hour job as he expected. He is going to have to jack up our engine and try and put blocks under it to get it out. Once it is out, we'll find out what is wrong with it -- but more than likely parts will need to be ordered from Australia. So we'll be immobile for a while. At least it looks like we won’t have to be hauled out of the water, but it will still be expensive… the mechanic charges around $45 (US) an hour, plus we have to “hire” someone to interpret as he doesn’t speak any English!
Now that we are decreasing in latitudes, Joe and I are both "freezing..." We had some vacuum-packed fleeces and sweat shirts that we had stored since we left San Diego, that I dug out, and have donned them plus some lambs wool slippers! For most of the days since we arrived it has been overcast with an off and on wet drizzle. We are using down blankets now every night. Although I just looked at our interior thermometer, which says 72 degrees..., which is what we set our heater on to keep us warm in the wintertime at home. Guess it will take some getting used to -- after all this IS their equivalent of February!
We did bundle up one day and go to the historical museum across the street and we’ve walked up and down most of the streets of “down-town” Noumea. Since our boat is “parked” at a marina pretty much in the center of town, everything is quite convenient. As far as being the Paris of the South Pacific-- well it's a nice city, certainly the nicest and largest since we left Papeete on Tahiti. Everything is clean neat, paved streets, and somewhat modern... but none of the beautiful old world architecture of Europe... so a far reach from Paris.
The whole country has less than 200,000 people, with the indigenous Melanesian Kanaks making up about 44% of that population. Europeans (mostly French descent) make up 34% and the rest are mostly from other South Pacific or S.E. Asian countries. Almost all of the French population live in Noumea (actually 40% of the entire New Caledononian population lives in Noumea), the capitol (where we are), so it is strange for us to be surrounded for the first time in a long time by almost all “white” faces. The official language is “French,” and in our explorations so far around here, (even though this is a big tourist headquarters) there are not many people who speak English here, even in the restaurants, stores, and businesses. However some of the people speak a few words of English -- anyway a lot more English than I speak French. So we are getting by.
EVERYTHING YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT NEW CALEDONIA:
As in my previous journal chapters, when I get to a new “country” I like to write a little bit of background history/culture /statistics, etc about our host country and I will include it here for those of you who are interested. (For the rest of you… just skip down to next section!)
New Caledonia is thought to have been populated over 50,000 years ago from people from South East Asia, and then eventually with islanders from Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu (Melanesians) in 1500 BC. Most of the inhabitants formed in clan groupings from 50-5,000 people. Like most of the other countries we have visited recently, these early inhabitants, cultivated root vegetables and with no domesticated animals or 4-legged mammals, they relied on fish, fruit bats, and cannibalism for protein. Eating the flesh of the enemy was an important ritual believed to increase the victorious clan’s power.
The European explorers first arrived in the late 1500’s — first the Spanish and then our British pal (who’s been everywhere, it seems in the South Pacific), James Cook, who named the islands New Caledonia, explored the islands here for the first time in 1774. The French explorers came after Cook, followed by the whalers and the sandalwood traders — with of course the Catholic and Protestant (great adversaries) missionaries who besides seeking to convert the “savages” to believe in their God, also imposed their values on the locals, making them give up their dress (nakedness), their customs, and their languages.
In the early 1850’s, with fewer South Pacific Islands than the British, the French, under Napoleon’s rule were looking for strategic military locations as well as a new penal colony settlement. (Their infamous Devil’s Island penal colony was malaria infested). The British were too busy with their newly acquired possessions in New Zealand and Australia, so did not object when the French flag was raised in New Caledonia.
In 1864 (and continuing for the next 34 years), the first shiploads of French convicts began to arrive in Noumea. It took 4 months for the prisoners to travel by ship from France, with many dying enroute. Once arrived, the “dangerous” criminals were housed in dungeons and sentenced to hard labor. They even brought over the French guillotine. (Why they went to the trouble, time and expense to bring a prisoner half way around the world to cut off his head–something that could have just as easily been done in France, escapes me!) A lot of the prisoners were “political” — those who had committed no crimes but to disagree with those in power in France.
Besides taking of land to make prisons, the local French began to take more land from the indigenous Kanaks when nickel was discovered. The Kanak chiefs revolted and began to attack the French — but were unable to overrun and were out powered. The French established a government that forced the Kanaks into reservations into the mountain highlands, which they could leave only with police permission, and they were forced to work for colonial settlers. (Sounds like the plight of our American Indians!) Then when France stopped sending convicts to New Caledonia, they needed people to work the nickel mines (a job that the convicts used to do)… so again the Kanaks were forced to leave their clans and work for the French.
In World War II, New Caledonia underwent one of its most significant changes, with the “fall of France,” the people realized that France would not be able to protect them from the Japanese that were getting close. The American military arrived and transformed the island into its main advanced base in the South Pacific. In the space of a few months, it became the second busiest port in the world after San Francisco. Of the 6 million American soldiers engaged in the war in the Pacific, 2 million came through New Caledonia. Under the leadership of Admiral Hasley, (who headquartered in Noumea), attacks were launched against the Japanese in the Philippines and in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Kanaks for the first time were employed for their labor and given good wages. They also saw the positive interaction between black and white American soldiers — something they had never experienced.
It wasn’t until 1946, after the war, that the Kanaks received French citizenship and were finally allowed to leave their “reservations.” By that time, less than 10% of the land was left for them to live on and their population had declined immensely.
With new rights, and more involvement in the “governing”, the Kanaks wanted their land back and even the “white” settlers wanted to be free from a state administration run by foreign French officials so for the next 40 years there were violent political struggles. In 1988, a historic peace agreement to put an end to the tensions was signed, and since then, France has been pouring money into to “rebalance” the territory’s economy and to give a greater share of land and resources to the Kanaks. Electricity and telephones have been installed in remote villages, and Melanesian’s are being trained in various jobs, with the hope of full independence in the next 15-20 years.
Other facts and information:
Kanaks: 44% of the population--means “Brothers of the Earth”… originally the word was viewed by the indigenous people s an insult, but in the 1970’s when cultural revival was high, the indigenous people reclaimed the word and are now proud of the name.
Caldoches: 2nd largest population --are the present-day descendants of the “freed” French convicts and French settlers, who still carry on French traditions even though most whom have never been to France.
Geographically: unlike many of the other Island nations we have visited in the South Pacific made up of hundreds of tiny islands, New Caledonia is made up of the one large island, Grande Terre (where we presently are), The Isle of Pines (south of Grande Terre) and the 4 Loyalty Islands (raised atolls 60 miles east of Grande Terre). Off the West coast of Grande Terre is the world’s second largest barrier reef (2nd to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).
Everything outside of Noumea, the capitol on Grande Terre is referred to as “the outback” or “the bush” since it is all so very primitive to the sophistication of the capital city.
Economically: The country has the 2nd largest trading deficit in the South Pacific (after French Polynesia), with France providing billions to make up the difference. Other than the monies coming in from France, New Caledonia’s main moneymaker is mining. It has the world’s largest known nickel deposits and world’s 2nd largest deposits in cobalt. Tourism is second economically, with the bulk of tourists coming from Japan and France.
Sunday, August 22nd: Land Cruising
We've had sort of a Ho-hum week... not doing much, mostly waiting for the news as to what is going on with our transmission. It was removed 5 days ago but once the mechanic took it off the boat, he was supposed to come back (we thought) the next day to see what all parts he needed to order (BESIDES the transmission parts) as he found some leaky hoses and also had to break some things to get to the transmission. But we haven't seen him since -- so we assume he hasn't even started on our job. He doesn't speak a word of English -- (just French) which doesn't help. We waited for 3 days afterwards for him to return to the boat but he didn't. Finally we had someone (who speaks French/English) call him and he said he was "very busy" and he would get to our job "soon." So anyway it doesn't look like Mi Gitana will be going anywhere anytime soon. At least the good news is that this mechanic is supposedly a good one!
The main attractions here (what most tourists and cruisers come here for) are the lots of little islands and bays and the world’s 2nd largest barrier reef, which we had originally planned to visit and to get some diving in. BUT it looks like we won’t be able to do much “cruising” with our mechanical problems. Probably we would have chickened out on diving here anyway as neither of us like diving in cold weather/cold water. (Having to put on a wetsuit to keep warm to “have fun” is like trying to convince yourself you’re having a blast snow skiing in a blizzard!) So Joe and I decided to make the most of being tied to shore and we’ve been doing a bit of “land cruising.” There is a nice museum just across the street, which we managed to spend a few hours in one day to delve into more of the countries history and culture.
We also have been exploring the local bus service. Yesterday we took off to see the local aquarium. Ironic, since we had planned on doing a lot of diving this season, and we haven’t — so there we were looking through glass at fish we haven’t been able to get in the water to see ourselves! The most interesting thing though was seeing live nautilus shells (with their squid-like animal inside) swimming around. This aquarium is the only place in the world to have successfully bred these shells that are considered living fossils, unchanged for more than 100 million years. From there we walked along the tourist "resort" area on the beach (Anza Beach) where the Club Med and Le Meridian Hotels were. Both looked like they were built 30+ years ago, so although demanding 300-500$per night for a room, we were not impressed. We paused for a while to watch parachute surfers taking off from the beach and "surfing" around the windy lagoon using their parachutes to propel them through the water -- a new sport to us. Joe also got a view of a few topless women on the beach, and we also found a pizza place for lunch so Joe’s day was made!
Monday, August 23rd: More Mechanical Frustrations
The friggin' transmission mechanic (with another guy as an interpreter who we also have to pay) finally showed up yesterday, empty handed. Seems he has repaired the transmission, however the problem is with other engine things now. He broke off 2 (rusty) of the 4 engine motor mounts (basically bolts with compression "sponges" that bolt the engine to the boat and keep it from vibrating) when he had to raise the engine to get the transmission out. The only replacements he can find are $500 (can you imagine that much money for “bolts!”). Plus he also found some leaks in some hoses and pipes that need replacing and welding... so anyway those things need to be done before putting the transmission back in. To rebuild the transmission in the US probably would have been a 200-300$ job. By the time we are finished with all the extras, (including paying another man 40$/hour to "interpret") this will be a $3,000 job. But it is what it is. Between this and the windlass that broke and had to be replaced a few months ago, it has been an expensive cruising season… and both have put a real damper on our mobility and cruising plans.
Other than the wonderful baguettes and French Croissants we seem to consume daily, we are saving money on not eating out as much (--not $3,000 worth!), as previously mentioned, food, like everything else, is very expensive. But also, I have to get rid of all my food before we get to Australia, as they supposedly take away everything in the refrigerator/freezer plus all snacks, rice/dried pastas, anything with flour (cake mixes, pancake mixes, and all my baking goods), nuts, spices etc. away. Hopefully it is not as bad as “cruiser rumor” reports as there is no way we'll be able to use everything -- plus it would wipe out my stores/supplies. But at least Australia is supposed to have most everything they have in the US.
Thursday, September 2nd, 2004: Our Exotic Get-Away
About 6 months ago, when we were still at home, we decided it might be nice somewhere along our cruising travels this season to get off the boat for a week, so we looked at doing a time-share trade. Looking through the catalogues of exotic South Pacific locations, the choices were narrowed down to one–the only place available along our route… a place in New Caledonia. I guess the first hint that it might not be all that great was that it WAS the only place available! Anyway back in February, we made a trade and booked a week in a place here for this week. On the Internet, it showed pictures of a big pool, a view of a lagoon, and advertised a private white sandy beach. (A second hint to us should have been that there were no pictures of the “white sandy beach” to view on the Internet!) It also advertised itself as being over an hour away from the Noumea Airport (so we’re thinking seclusion) and having a restaurant, bar, casino, scuba diving, golf, snorkeling. Etc. Well here we are. The location IS far from the airport, but we later found out, so is all of Noumea, far from the airport, so the “resort” is just 10 minutes from downtown, not located in a resort area, but smack in the middle of a residential area. The bar and restaurant are no longer open, and so the only way to eat is to “order out” or cook yourself (I had hoped for a VACATION from cooking in small spaces!). The “white sandy beach” is about 6’ wide and 20’ long in low tide (no beach in high tide) and is not exactly even on the hotel property.
White(??) sandy Beach
The scuba diving, golf, snorkeling, etc. listed on the internet had little symbols next to them, which I later found out indicated that these activities were 5 miles away! So anyway, here we have been for the last 5 days — we DO have a lagoon view, and we DO have a pool (however it has been so windy and cold that there are actually white caps IN the pool!). There IS a TV but all the channels are in French. We ARE OFF the boat, however Joe’s had to make 3 trips back in 5 days to follow-up on the mechanic’s job. So we are making the most of it — playing cards, reading books, and watching borrowed DVD’s on the small screen of our computer. Not exactly what we expected for our vacation from the boat at an “exotic beachfront resort,” but something I’m sure we’ll look back and laugh at the creative advertising and our naiveté!
Yesterday we did go on an outing to the “Cultural Center.” Built 1n 1998 at a 60 million dollar cost, and designed by the same architect who built the controversial Pompidou Center in Paris, it is located in a park like setting not far from town.
It was built to be a showcase tribute to the Kanak culture. We spent several hours there and although the building was quite spectacular and the grounds were beautiful, there were a lot more cultural “artifacts” and information in the cities museum than there were at this cultural center. But it was nice to get out of our “exotic resort” for the day!
The good news is our transmission is back in the boat and everything’s put back together, and seems to be running fine. The bad news is our time (1 month visa) here is almost up, so as we expected, we will have no time to explore some of the prettier sights of cruising in New Caledonia. We have interviewed a nice French girl who has sailing experience and is interested in crewing for us on our upcoming 7-9 day passage to Australia, and we have decided to take her along to help us out. (Upon arrival in Brisbane, she will fly back to New Caledonia.) She will meet us (and move aboard) on Monday, and we then plan to check out with customs and Immigration, etc. Depending on weather, the 3 of us will leave shortly there after, i.e. probably next Tuesday or Wednesday (September 7th or 8th). So I will end this far- from- interesting journal chapter now so we can get it posted on the Internet before we depart.
Keep us in your thoughts for the upcoming trip, as it will be our longest and most “challenging” for this season.