The Loyalty Islands- New Caledonia

One of the problems with New Caledonia is that there is one booking in point for sailors and that is Noumea, the capital. You may enter at other places with prior permissions but the captain is required to attend the authorities in Noumea within 24hrs of landing, always an expensive trip and not often practical. To get to Noumea by boat you need to beat down to the bottom of the main island so if you want to look at exploring the Loyalties or even the N of the main island, Noumea is the last place you want to visit.

We had joined the Island Cruising Association Rally to get around this. Based out of New Zealand, the Rally takes a little over five months to travel around Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia before returning to Opua in New Zealand.  This year was a transition year with Nigel and Amanda Richards taking over the running of the rally. I can’t say I envy them in their task of herding cats. Most crews were pretty independent but there were a few that needed to be spoon fed. Nigel and Amanda did an admirable job although their patience must have been stretched on occasion being continually at the beck and call of the fleet.

The rally organised Customs and Immigration to come to Lifou to book everyone in on Tues 19th Sep. It was a pain for a few boats who decided to arrive early as they were not allowed to leave their boat other than to swim around themselves. No visiting ashore or other yachts. Plastik Plankton had the longest wait – several days –  as they had travelled directly from the southern islands of Vanuatu and they thought they would have a slower passage. We timed it reasonably well and crossed with a 36hr sail which started fast and bouncy. We had to seriously slow ourselves down to ensure we arrived in daylight. Skylark was in the groove and reached all the way across. Whilst I allowed it, it was lovely fast sailing at times into double digits. We had to wait a day to book in but as the wind was due to into the S which would have forced us to beat, arriving when we did made sense.

Booking in was a painless and well organised event and everyone (25+ boats) was done in about an hour and a half. We did have a mong moment when we were told that we weren’t allowed to bring eggs in but the nice bio security chap allowed us to bake with them so the some members of the fleet got to try a yogurt cake and lots of fairy cakes.

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Hannah was over the moon to see her motley crew of kids. It didn’t take long for her to get the kayak down and head off to meet up with the gang assembling on Kena.

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Lou went into town to get a sim card for the phone to give us internet and to get some shopping. A word of warning. There isn’t a lot for sale on the the island and there was a distinct lack of fresh produce. We also found that prices were high, much higher than even the outer isles of French Polynesia.  I helped Wally of the wonderfully named Udder Life fix his diving fins with a new strap from my Save a Dive kit. I thought it may as well be used. A reminder to myself to restock…..

As an aside, Udder Life’s original name was White Gold. As Wally is a successful milk farmer, the name makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, too many people had other ideas what White Gold stood for and after being approached one too many times to see if he could help with a couple of grams of cocaine, he changed her name!

We had a good time in the village. My first task was to go and find fresh bread. After a joyous reunion with Kathi and Wolfi, one of our very favourite couples, it didn’t take long. We followed our noses through the village to the back door of a building. The traditional bread is a huge round which is then broken/cut into segments for sale. we arrived just in time to watch it being extracted from the oven. Baguettes were cooked in another kiln and the baker smiled, showed me how to extract them and handed me the pole. I had a great time and the baker seemed happy with my work. No discount was given on the couple of loaves I bought but I did get to choose my own. I went back the next day and helped out again. Simple pleasures!

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Whilst most house plots had a modern house on it, each and everyone still had a traditional round house as well. You really have to bend to enter the small doorway. The permanent structure is a low wall that forms the base. Thick vertical poles are set in the wall to allow a wooded frame to be fitted to it to hold up the walls and roof.

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The roof is a structure of wood poles tied together overlaid with leaves. A fire is lit centrally. This dries and preserves the roof. It will last several years. The floor is covered with a thick layer of dried fronds which have a layer of matting over them. It provides a very comfortable sleeping platform. It felt like walking on a firmish sponge.

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Even if you loose the roof to a cyclone, New Caledonia being frequently hit, it does not take long to reconstruct.  The house in the photos is lived in and the local who invited us to look at his house was glad of the chance to show off his inlaid tile walkway and fireplace. Wolfi (an architect by training) got all excited at the roof design.

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Just as in Fiji, it is necessary to show respect to the local chief if you want to explore the islands. A gift of cloth is the done thing with the more modern addition of a 1000XFP note tucked in with it. Nigel collected these and did a collective presentation to the Chief he had been told was the boss. Permission was granted for the fleet to anchor in a variety of places, to fish (a big concession) and to visit some of the smaller outer isles.

Unfortunately, a few boats who fired off to explore were soon on the radio telling of aggressive locals telling them to bugger off. What transpired was the Chief could give permission to some areas but not others. A second chief was identified and placated with gifts but it seemed that there was a power struggle going on. An old chief had died, two new chiefs were fighting for precedence and we had got caught up in the middle. It was a unpleasant mess and led to a complaint to the police because of the overtly threatening behaviour of a few locals.  A bit of a shame really as it dissuaded a lot of the fleet from exploring as much as they wanted.

We enjoyed the beach, the sunsets and did a little snorkelling at the pass entrance. Alice, crew on Varaiki, and I did a little diving at one of the bommies a mile or so offshore.

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We moved up to Ouvea with an overnight sail with Plastik Plankton. We sailed in and parked ourselves off the Paradise Hotel in the SE corner of the atoll in 20’ of water. It is another beautiful atoll and we spend a few happy days just playing on the beach and hanging out with the other kid boats.

It was an easy, tranquil time and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A few of the fleet explored the atoll by car with mixed reports. Very beautiful everywhere you go but not a lot to do. I think we had the best of it simply sitting in the glorious setting we found ourselves in, exploring by foot the area around the anchorage and having fun. See what you think………..

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With time ticking we decided to head towards Iles Des Pins (the Isle of Pines) which had been identified as one the must see places in New Caledonia. After advice from PJ and Josefina on Stormy Monday, regular New Cal visitors, we headed best course to windward, SSE towards a gap in the reef surrounding the main island. We left in Plastik Plankton’s company as the sun started to set for a quiet and sheltered overnight sail.

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