May be I’m naive, maybe I didn’t do enough research, may be I’m just romantically hopeful, but I really believed that on a South Pacific island I would find sparkling white sand and turquoise sea. Well, I’ve been here for over a week now and despite a thorough search I have not found my idyll. Sure, there are beaches and I have swum in clean, clear sea, but these have been few and far between and many attempts have been thwarted by sharp rocks, coarse sea grass or muddy mangrove swamps. I now realise that the pictures I saw of paradise, which drew me to New Caledonia, were taken on the outlying Loyalty Islands, not from the main island, Grand Terre, that we are visiting … Ahh, the cheap ploys of the tourist board!
So, the plan of finding a perfect hide away for a couple of weeks to rest and recover from our 4 months in India has not come to pass. Instead we are circumnavigating the island in a dinky little hire car. It is 450 kms long and 50 kms wide and many of the roads are windy and narrow as they cling to the rocky coastline and negotiate the string of mountains which run through the middle from top to bottom. It’s slow going with a meagre few horse power under the bonnet and side roads that tempt us off the main route in search of the elusive beach. It’s been hair raising too. Parts of the main roads and most of the smaller side roads are unpaved and more suited to the American style 4x4s the locals drive, not our low slung little run about. So we bounce along dodging the holes and ruts and trying not to think about the huge insurance excess. We’ve had to cross the mountains several times too and these passes are narrow with alarming sheer drops. There’s a timetable on one section to limit traffic to travel in one direction at a time. This seemed a sensible idea, but in true laid back New Caledonian style no-one takes a blind bit of notice! We reached this part of the island on a rainy day so it was a white knuckle ride as we squeezed past other cars on the greasy, muddy, rock strewn track, trying not to get freaked by the 5 wrecks we saw along the way. Cars which had strayed too close to the crumbling edge and we’re now lying in a tangle of undergrowth and bent metal – a stark reminder that this road required respect and reliable spatial awareness!
Along the way we are staying in simple self contained huts which allow us to do some basic self catering. The food prices here are phenomenal so eating out every night is not an option. We shop in the supermarkets which have all the basics but nothing that excites my culinary spirit. Being a tropical island I imagined baskets full of cheap exotic fruits and fresh juicy vegetables. Another naive assumption. Very little is grown on the island apart from avocados, grapefruit and papayas which are more wild than cultivated so are not plentiful in the shops or markets, but occasionally we come by them at a road side stall where someone is selling some of their surplus. Most things are imported which means when it comes to fruit and veg it is either unripe or limp and always expensive. However, because this is an overseas territory of France the boulangeries are excellent and provide us with our daily baguette and to this we add good french cheese and salami from the deli – this is our staple diet.
Tonight however we are eating a traditional Melanesian meal. This morning we walked the 100 metres up the road from our current short-term home to chez Mathilde. We were greeted by a squat, br
own skinned woman. Her crinkly grey hair was styled in two rather wild bunches on either side of her head and her belly pushed at the voluminous dress which though mainly blue, was discoloured in a scattered line down the front from food and grease stains. When she spoke I glimpsed just one long brown tooth and she giggled often in a rather shy, coquettish way bringing a chubby hand up to cover her mouth. Despite her unconventional looks and somewhat questionable hygiene we have been told that she cooks a fine meal, so we are in her hands. She’ll cook what she has available which today I think will be fresh river crevettes, coconut rice and papaya salad. After several nights of uninspiring food I am happy to have a culinary adventure with Mathilde.
We shall collect the dishes from her and walk back down the quiet road to our little cabin and eat on the terrace which hangs over a rocky river at the base of the steeply sided hill. I’m sitting here now writing this accompanied by the gentle percussion of raindrops hitting the leaves of ferns, papaya trees and the numerous other species of vegetation that abound, before landing with a tinkling plop in the river.
The beaches and snorkelling opportunities may have been disappointing, but the lush, mountainous rain forests have been outstanding. OK, so the price we pay for this is a few hours of clouds and rain on most days, but when it’s clear the light is exceptional. It’s incredibly crisp and crystal bright which draws the colours out. The sky is a glorious deep blue and the different shades of green which cover the landscape are rich and glossy, like a photograph where the colours have been too deeply saturated.
So I let my dream of a seaside paradise disperse for the time being and bring my self back to the beauty of my present reality which frankly is pretty awesome.