Île des Pins – October 29 2012
From a telephone conversation overheard along the quay in Port Moselle: “Yeh, I’m havin’ trouble with the engine; she’s fuckin’ me abaht.”
We left Port Moselle on October 22nd in the late afternoon, ahead of an approaching front bringing rain and higher winds. During the previous few days Steve had been wrestling with the generator: a defective hose had burst, spraying the engine compartment with coolant and filling the cabin with a smell of burnt sugar as the engine rapidly overheated and ethylene glycol in the coolant began to smoke. It was only several technicians and repairmen later – a power surge had also damaged the electrical system – that we were able to sail for Île des Pins. In retrospect, frustrating as the problems had been, it was fortunate the defect manifested itself in Noumea rather than mid-passage.
The drive to an industrial estate to find a new pump, and to the nearest large shopping centre to provision, was interesting because the highway and main roads are in surprisingly good shape, and many of the suburbs surrounding Noumea are more attractive – and often newer – than the town centre would lead one to believe. A bit of reading revealed that only during the last 30-odd years have the wooden colonial-style houses in Noumea been replaced with graceless concrete buildings. The Carrefour, where we stocked up for the coming passage, was indistinguishable from its equivalent in Draguignan except that it was larger and better supplied with products from France, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, once within the store, except for the exotic yams and fruits on display, there was no clue to indicate we weren’t in France.
This isn’t surprising. Noumea – founded by early French colonists – is New Caledonia’s only large city and, if one includes the suburbs, it contains 90% of the non-native (or non-Kanak) population. Public services – health, schooling, justice, and administration – are managed by the French and 50% of New Caledonia’s budget is received in the form of financial transfers from France. The remaining economy is founded on nickel mining, which is done by foreign companies; training and management are largely in the hands of Europeans, and the ore is exported semi-refined. Only about 3% of the GDP is accounted for by local fishing, subsistence agriculture and a small coffee industry, and Kanaks are, for the most part, poor.
We arrived in Baie Îre, Île Ouen after dark, so it wasn’t until we raised anchor at dawn that I saw New Caledonia’s rich red soil for the first time – in gashes and eroded gullies that cut through the fuzz of bright green vegetation covering the surrounding hills. I was immediately reminded of the red, weathered, lateritic soils of Queensland, and in some respects the geology of the two areas is similar.
Unlike many of the other Pacific Islands, which are of relatively recent volcanic origin, New Caledonia was part of Zealandia, a fragment of ancient Gondwana, the southern supercontinent. Zealandia separated from Gondwana 60–85 million years ago, and the mountain range linking New Caledonia with New Zealand has been deeply submerged for over 50 million years. The predominant flora of the New Caledonia’s rain forests comes from the Antarctic flora of southern Gondwana, like that of the Australian rainforests in northern Queensland and the temperate forests of New Zealand.
Many of New Caledonia’s lateritic soils derive mainly from ultra-basic (also called ultra-mafic) rocks. These are low in silica and in calcium, potassium and phosphorus – generally considered necessary for healthy plant life – and high in iron, magnesium and phytotoxic compounds of heavy metals such as nickel, chromium and manganese.
A distinctive kind of vegetation evolves to tolerate and thrive in these conditions, and in fact New Caledonia is a botanist’s paradise: it has the highest number of endemic plant species in relation to surface area in the world, and in mountain regions where ultra-basic soils predominate, almost 100% of the flora is endemic and 80% of that is found nowhere else.
Once clear of Île Ouen we unfurled the jib and reacher to sail wing-on-wing, and for me the experience of sailing in a catamaran – or this catamaran, anyway – was a revelation: the boat just glides along as if on rails, with what I can only describe as a 2 rather than 3-dimensional movement. Occasionally there’s a slight horizontal shift which can be disconcerting, but otherwise it was bliss to be sailing without the ever-present, incipient nausea which has usually made previous voyages in mono-hulls an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Six hours later we were anchored in Kuto Bay, and we’ve been here since. It is utterly, utterly beautiful, of which more soon. We may be leaving today, so I’m quickly posting this now. Once on passage to New Zealand there’ll be no posts until we arrive. Lots more photos here.