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988 Nouvelle Calédonie: April-May 2018


Finally we’re back in a tropical region and in France. 

During our final segment of the flight from Auckland to Nouméa, we flew over the Southern part of the lagoon: it’s a paradise! Our Air New Zealand A320 flew very low over the Île Ducos before landing at La Tontouta Airport offering spectacular views over the mountains and the lagoon. The sapphire blue sea with numerous coral reefs and islets scattered over the surface of the lagoon is the classical idealized postcard that everyone is looking for when setting off for the tropics.

The Caledonian Lagoon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. It’s a real gem and a snorkeling/ diving paradise and probably the best protected lagoon environment in the world.
The Caledonian Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, but it’s the longest continuous barrier reef with its length of 1600 km.
The lagoon all around Grande Terre is the largest in the world with an area of 24’000 km2. This stunning ecosystem hosts the world’s most diverse reef structures, more than 2600 different fish species and has a high level of endemism, and is home to the endangered dugongs.
No doubt, the lagoon is a must for us and on top of our to do list!

Once landed, we felt the difference with Auckland: it’s really humid and hot here. 

Here comes the trick: after more than one year driving on the left hand side, we now have to drive on the right side again … quite a challenge at the beginning … but once in our Renault Clio - all goes smoothly, although we continue to get into the car from the wrong side!  

Well, well, that was the pleasant part.
After months spent in the friendly and tranquil New Zealand, we were brought back to the French reality on our first day. Our attempt to get cash from an ATM failed: both machines shattered by a sledge-hammer … we have to reset ourselves to alertness level orange!


Nouméa and the Grand Sud (1100 km and 34 days)

Nouméa was founded in 1854 as Port-de-France and is situated on a very fragmented 10 km long peninsula in the south-west of Grande Terre. Nouméa is for most people, tourists and residents, the first and only place visited in Nouvelle Calédonie (NC).
Being totally geared towards the lagoon, snorkeling in Nouméa is a must. The sea has coral literally meters from the shore line, making it very easy to see the coral and fish that inhabit there.
We started like the majority of the tourists from Anse Vata (together with the nearby Baie des Citrons, these are the heart and lung of the NC tourism). Although, one has to say, that both beaches are quite small and not very attractive!
A water taxi ride brings you in a couple of minutes (950m distance) to the Île aux Canards. The Îlot itself is very tiny (250m length) with a restaurant occupying 2/3 of it.
After 5 minutes, we made the tour of the island and we started our first snorkeling adventure in the lagoon. The best snorkeling part is indeed in the area indicated for the “randonnée palmée” in front of the restaurant’s beach … there you can spot a lot of fish including big fish and some big coral trees and occasionally turtles.
Sea snakes (like the lethal Tricot Rayé) as well as sharks (Tiger, Gray and Bull) are not uncommon in the lagoon but today we only saw a lot of fish and two sea turtles …
But on our second trip to Île aux Canards, what a fright ! … Our first big shark (blacktip reef shark)… really big and impressive … so impressive that we forgot to take a picture! We also saw octopus, starfish (red and blue) and an amazing colorful array of fish of all sizes.

After a couple of visits to the near Île aux Canards, we decided to take a longer trip (24 km and 45 minutes navigation) up to the Phare Amédée. The promotions of it promise a lot, from little paradise to coral garden. Quite a disappointment! The coral reef is in a deplorable state. Not worth the visit there if you want to go snorkeling. Thus, we have to say that Île aux Canards, lying only 950 m from the major tourist center has better and more preserved snorkeling sites.

The big difference is however the number of sea turtles that you can see … we saw probably a dozen of them within minutes, sometimes up to 3 next to one another and this, in just 1 to 2 meters depth.
Of the seven species of sea turtles, four are present in NC (Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback and Hawksbill). Sea turtles migrate long distances between their feeding grounds and hatching beaches. Due to the climate change, most hatchings (over 90%) in NC are now females. The temperature of the nest determines the sex of the turtles before they hatch.

Our second “special” encounter of the day was with a sea snake: a gold-black tricot rayé (“striped t-shirt” for non-French speakers or laticauda saintgironsi for the scientists). The snake was simply crossing the coral beach to rest exactly below our long chairs in the shadow! It’s indeed a small island but why stop exactly here? I understand, it’s like with the kangaroos in Nullarbor, everyone wants a portrait picture … so, I take the camera and then we leave it to rest with us for the remainder of the day.
The tricot rayé is semi-aquatic, in fact, they retain the wide ventral scales typical of terrestrial snakes for moving on land but also have paddle-shaped tails for swimming. They hunt in the sea and come to land to digest their prey. Of course, a bite by a tricot rayé is lethal!

The last highlight of our day on the island is the “phare” itself. The Amédée Lighthouse was the first metallic lighthouse constructed in France. In 1861, due to the many shipwrecks, Paris ordered a pre-fabricated lighthouse to be built for Nouméa and to be re-assembled locally. For two years, the lighthouse towered above Paris for testing. After that, it was dismantled and divided into 1,265 pieces. After 10 months of intense work by military personnel and local workers, it was erected on the Amédée Island.
The Amédée lighthouse towers 56 meters with a superb cast iron staircase of 247 steps which leads to the top. A climb up the staircase leads you to a 360 degrees panoramic platform with views all over the lagoon where you can easily spot turtles and fish as the waters are so clear...

The Great South (Grand Sud), comprising of the Mont-Dore and Yaté municipalities, is a quite boring hilly landscape extending SW from Nouméa. Two colors dominate the region: the green for the bush and the forest as well as the red for the mining land, the dirt roads and the erosion areas.
The Great South is home to the biggest park in New Caledonia, the Blue River Provincial Park. The park is highly promoted for the practice of sporting activities (MTB, hiking or kayaking) but you don’t travel for thousands of kilometers to do sports around an artificial lake? Well, we couldn’t find any attractive spots on our 190-km long tour in the deep South.
The Great South is also being promoted as being rich of cultural and heritage sites, such as the ancient village of Prony: a couple of old stone-houses imprisoned in the roots of huge banyan trees set in the middle of weekend bungalows. That was it …!

After the very disappointing rums in Australia, we hoped to find some good rums here.
We found a large selection of our old “friends” from Martinique and Guadeloupe, from J.M. to Neisson, from Damoiseau to Karukera … but what about Nouvelle Calédonie? This required some more investigation … nowadays there is only one rum distillery in the archipelago, not far away from our bungalow: Distillerie du Soleil in Mont Dore. Nouvelle Calédonie has not a long history of sugar cane exploitation (only 35 years) and the last sugar refinery closed in 1901.
A metropolitan French started local rum manufacturing in 2016 using a pot still of 500 liter capacity for an output of 12’000 bottles per year.
The “rhum blanc agricole” is made using a local red sugar cane and is really good and aromatic … it can bravely compete with the rhums agricoles of Martinique and Guadeloupe!
No need to prepare a ti-punch, it’s so aromatic and smooth that you can drink it pure (of course neat ...).


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