Back Again: New Caledonia
I’m on a catamaran anchored in Baie de L’Orphelinat, Noumea, New Caledonia. It’s early morning, the sun is shining, the sea is sparkling, and outside a flock of small white terns is harassing a school of bait-fish also being pursued by a school of bigger fish from below.
It’s been almost exactly two years since my last post.
In early November 2010 The Boat was hauled in Broome and trucked to Perth for repairs and maintenance, where The Captain and I joined her.
In early January 2011 cracks in our relationship widened into rifts after I decided to leave Perth several months earlier than planned to join my 90 year-old father, who had been diagnosed with cancer and given 3-6 months to live only days after losing my mother on New Year’s Day. When I left for London en route to the United States on February 1st, it was with the knowledge that our voyages together had come to an end.
The subsequent months have been extraordinarily busy and sometimes difficult, too often sad but just as often unexpectedly happy. A dear old friend maintains that life is a series of ambushes; it never occurred to me, however, that I might receive – and accept – an invitation to join friends as crew on their 52-foot catamaran for the passage from New Caledonia to New Zealand or that I might be resurrecting this blog from the other side of the world.
The long journey from London to Sydney on the 7th October began chaotically because I was booked on a flight code-shared between British Airways and Qantas; neither company wanted to let me check in online or at the airport. This was patently ridiculous, so I went to the empty Qantas Business Class counter, where the staff looked bored and in need of stimulation. The muddle was resolved with a resigned smile but without explanation other than, “This often happens’.
The flight to Singapore was as pleasant as 12 hours spent confined in a small container with hundreds of other people can be. At Singapore airport, where passengers were sent off to play in the Duty Free shops while the plane re-fuelled, I found a chaise longue with a view of our plane through potted tree ferns and slatted metal louvers, and after taking a few photos stared blankly at the goings-on as dusk turned the smoggy air outside to indigo. The flight from Singapore to Sydney took only 7 hours, and although we got in at 6:15am Julian met me in the airport parking lot.
Julian and Brom own and run a B & B in Sydney called ‘Tara Guest House’, where the smooth Egyptian cotton bed sheets are an enticement to indolence instead of sightseeing and the lavish breakfasts encourage gluttony. He is a character out of Somerset Maugham – a Eurasian trader and businessman, with a finely tuned sense of the aesthetic – and she is an accomplished designer and cook. The art on the walls is good and their conversation even better.
Ignoring the siren call of the bed sheets, I spent the next 2 days walking. The B & B is located in New Town – the slightly scruffy University District. Small coffee shops, antique shops, ice cream parlours, bookstores, vintage and second-hand clothing stores, art galleries, shops selling Goth regalia, interesting corsets and padded handcuffs, Mexican art and Japanese kimonos, nautical memorabilia and plain old tat jostle for the attention of passers-by. Much of the non-contemporary architecture in Sydney is either solid Victorian or Art Deco, and private houses are adorned with the same lacy wrought-iron work that so delighted me in Brisbane. Above the entrance of many old government buildings a carved head of Queen Victoria glares grumpily from the centre of a decorative stone plaque, looking exactly like a hunting trophy.
Sydney Harbour is exhilarating and I understand why it’s called the most beautiful harbour in the world. It’s also very busy: stout, brightly coloured ferries bustle in and out and sailboats wheel and turn like gulls on the bright blue water. Street musicians sang and played violin, guitar, didgeridoo, and harmonica along the foreshore. Groups of schoolchildren picnicked, tourists took photos of the scenery and each other in front of the scenery, couples strolled arm-in-arm or sprawled on towels on the grass. Long banners advertised the newest exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, where a red bi-plane was caught in a stainless steel cage in the front courtyard. It was a surprise to see that what looks like a plain white surface in photographs of the Sydney Opera House is instead composed of intricately patterned white and ivory tiles that reflect the sun in an ever-changing dazzlement of light and shadow.
I explored galleries and museums, took photographs, bought a few trifles, wandered through the nearby Botanical Gardens, ate Sydney rock oysters and drank white wine under an umbrella at the quay-side oyster bar while gazing over the glittering water toward the soaring arc of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There were no deadlines to meet, no one to answer to; I was close enough to being care-free for happiness.
The flight from Sydney airport to Noumea on the 11th October took about 3 hours, with a 50-mile taxi drive at the end of it to the hotel a block from the beach of Anse Vata, a picturesque bay about 4 miles from Noumea’s CBD. Like most everything else in Noumea the room was absurdly over-priced, but by local standards it was reasonable. After the small matter of a grubby floor and bath was resolved, it was a pleasant enough place to sleep. The occasional lunatic driver doing 70mph along the road below, or screeching around corners at 3am, wasn’t too disturbing and all minor discomforts were forgiven when I walked to the bakery a few doors away, where the best bread and croissants I’ve ever eaten were sold beginning at 5:00am.
The Perfect Croissant is small, slightly curved and smells enticingly of fresh butter; the outside is golden brown and shatters messily when you break it and the inside is light and moist and pulls apart with almost no resistance. The Perfect Croissant is to the modern giant, doughy, heavy croissant as is the gazelle to the water buffalo. The Perfect Croissant is extinct in the wild – or so I thought. ‘L’Atelier Gourmand – Boulangerie Patisserie’ also makes The Perfect Baguette, which maintains its deliciousness for several days, and The Perfect Brioche. I know at least one man who would cheerfully commit a minor crime for this kind of pastry; I gained a pound in a couple of days.
Early next morning I walked along the shore to Noumea’s main port and CBD; from Anse Vata, where a solitary fisherman stood motionless on a newly washed beach to Baie des Citrons, where a couple of sailboats slept motionless on the calm, dove-grey and rose-tinted sea. Then came Baie de L’Orphelinat, where the Noumea Yacht Club is pretty, and lush green lawns and groomed palm trees surround the sparkling Marina. Then the road I was on curved inland and uphill and quickly became a nightmare of dusty construction sites, early rush-hour traffic and exhaust fumes before dropping down next to the Marina at Baie de la Moselle, where I was able to escape to the haven of a cafe.
Under five hexagonal, blue roofed pavilions along the western quay a daily market opens at 4:30 am and by 11:00 the vendors of fruit and vegetables, meat and fish are already packing up. It’s a well-organised set-up and the fish market is especially impressive: the large central counter is circular, and hunks of tuna and colourful local fish, prawns and other shellfish lie on banks of ice behind glass panes. Lobster and crab are stacked in piles on ice-covered, open counters at the perimeter of the pavilion, open to view. Lacking a kitchen, I could only gaze wistfully at the cornucopia, but to console myself bought a papaya and a small, fragrant pineapple for next morning’s breakfast.
I’m sure the beauty of New Caledonia must lie outside Noumea, for what I’ve seen of the city’s central business district has little to recommend it. Beginning one block in from the bay most of the buildings are squat and of concrete, the paint stained with rust or dirty, and with crumbling stucco. From inside the depressing facades, shops spill their wares out onto patched and cracked, slanted and grubby sidewalks: serried ranks of backpacks hang above entrances open to the street, tubs of fluorescent-bright silk flowers, interspersed with racks of Hawaiian style shirts and sarongs sit nearby.
However, behind equally unpromising exteriors, many other shops are large, elegant and well-stocked with luxuries not intended for the tourist trade, unless tourists buy expensive contemporary furniture and kitchen supplies as well as scent and French cosmetics. So there’s obviously money around – after all New Caledonia’s mineral wealth is considerable – and many houses on the surrounding hills look to be large and expensive.
A bus ride took me to the Centre Tjibaou on another part of the island, but although the architecture – by Renzo Piano – was glorious and justly famous; soaring, airy spires of wooden slats that look as if they’ve crystallised or grown rather than being built, it’s primarily a cultural centre rather than a museum, and I’ve seen better.
The aquarium was more interesting and I spent rather a long time playing with a cuttlefish. It was imprisoned in a circular glass tank, like a solitary space traveler, and when I slowly waved my hand it swam over and extended its tentacles toward the glass in my direction.
I joined my friends on their catamaran on the 14th. The plan is to sail to Ile des Pins from Noumea after completing all the formalities necessary to check out of the country. Then we wait for a suitable weather window in which to begin the passage to New Zealand.
Internet access has been molasses-like to non-existent, so posts will be coming in great lumps, like this one.