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We arrived in Opua just before darkness fell on Thursday the 8th October. The Quarantine Dock was empty except for one other vessel, and the evening breeze blowing gently down from the surrounding hills was perfumed by a honey-sweet scent of mimosa from trees covered in pale yellow clouds of blossoms.
Although we had intended to stay in New Caledonia for another week or two, Steve and Dorothy made an abrupt decision to leave Ile des Pins when a weather system coming from the direction of Vanuatu threatened to put us into a squash zone between it and a system coming up from the southern Tasman Sea. In the event, we slipped between the two and arrived here the day before a boat making the passage between Tonga and New Zealand was disabled in 75 knot winds and 10 meter seas and abandoned when the skipper and his passenger were rescued.
After two days spent motoring over calm seas the passage had been bumpy. For a while it seemed as if the catamaran were trying to take flight, like a bottom-heavy Canada Goose, as we rose up and over 5 meter seas and then plowed down again into vertiginous troughs. My cabin, at the front of the port hull, received the full force of the wind and waves; a heavy ‘whump’ would lead into a sloshing, churning, gurgling cacophony underlain by the deep hum of the engine and vibration transferred down from the sails, followed by a loud rumble – and an occasional crash which shook the whole vessel – as each wave passed along and between the twin hulls.
Oddly, in spite of the considerable vertical movement of that part of the boat, I didn’t even need a lee cloth, which says something about the sea-kindliness of this particular vessel and the consideration shown by Steve, who did everything in his power to make the ride as comfortable for us as possible. It may also have had something to do with my bunk, which is sprung Nordic-style, with narrow, bowed wooden slats. The result was like sleeping in a children’s bouncy castle: a huge wave would smack the hull, the mattress would sink slightly then propel me upwards, and I would reach my apogee just as the greatest force passed through the vessel. Only once, for 24 hours, did the cabin become so noisy and the vessel’s movement so violent that it was more comfortable to doze in the salon bunk.
Nevertheless, it had been as civilized an experience as is possible considering we were beating into the wind for 8 days non-stop. I hadn’t expected to escape seasickness entirely, and didn’t, but the whimpering ghosts of previous passages have been laid to rest – a kind of victory!
We’re leaving Opua today to sail to Kerikeri and then up the river there, to moor near The Stone Store. Photos will have to wait, as will the description of Ile des Pins!
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.