On Monday morning the sky dawned a clear blue, and the wind a more moderate 15 knots. Around us was a total of maybe fifty boats, including our fleet plus a group from the CNC Yacht Club in Noumea (who are officially hosting us). The officials of customs, immigration and quarantine flew in mid-morning, and the skippers assembled ashore to do paperwork under thatched palapas. It was the quarantine officials that had everyone shaking in their boots. New Caledonia has regulations against foreign fruit and vegetables, and even to a degree on meat and dairy. Evidently it is always suspenseful waiting to see what they will take away and what they will allow us to keep. Most of us had purchased Vanuatu beef (excellent and cheap) and paid for a special certificate of export that should pass muster with quarantine. But would it? Most of us also had a stash of vacuum-sealed New Zealand cheeses that we weren't entirely sure were legal. Plus, we were supposed to throw out all our fresh food –including garlic and onions -- twenty miles out, but inevitably there were things we forgot. Were we smugglers if we held on to that last head of garlic, a few onions, and that bit of broccoli?
All in all, things went pretty well. The quarantine officer who visited the boats by dinghy took a few things but left us stuff that would reasonably be eaten within the next few meals. Only fruit and vegetables were discussed. There was no mention of meat or cheese. Generally speaking I would say the whole anchorage heaved a hearty sigh of relief when all was said and done. We celebrated that evening with a potluck cocktail party on the beach where the closest things to vegetables were jars of salsa and olives.
The next day, the local village hosted all the cruisers to a midday feast. A huge buffet table was set with dozens of dishes under one of the beachside palapas (don't actually know what they are called here, but it's just a thatch canopy.) There were speeches and gifts by Gilbert, the leader of the CNC group, speeches and gifts by John, the ICA leader, and speeches of acceptance and welcome by the local chief. The gifts, for those curious, were several T-shirts, a bolt of fabric, and a wad of money from each group.
Many of the dishes had been baked in the earth ovens we have seen from the Marquesas, to Easter Island to Samoa, to Tonga, to Fiji, to Vanuatu. However, all those boring starches seemed to perk up here through the addition of some spice! Trust the French to bring flavor to the South Pacific's generally bland cuisine. In addition to the starches there was grilled fish, poisson cru, roast pig and roast goat, plus French bread and about five different slaws and salads. There was even dessert, canned fruit served in coconut crème with a stalk of sugar cane. Generally it was a pretty satisfying repast.
On Wednesday, most of the fleet mustered ashore at 9am for an island tour. Although the Loyalties are part of New Caledonia and therefore of France, the people here are the original indigenous people known as Kanaks. In the Loyalties, the Kanaks live a relatively "custom" lifestyle. Houses are the traditional round huts with tall conical roofs, and the chief's "grand case" is surrounded by a fence made of huge tree trunks. But the French presence is very obvious to outsiders in the paved roads and utility poles carrying electricity into the traditional homes.
Our tour got off to a late start when one of the busses due to transport our large group didn't show. The organizer, a young business woman named Melinda hustled up a few private vehicles to carry the balance (in one cast in plastic chairs in the back of a pickup), but we were running so late, -- especially after the drivers made the mistake of stopping at the local "supermarket" where the cruisers snarfed up snacks like we hadn't seen food in days -- that one of the major stops on the tour – the coconut oil and soap factory – was already closed, much to the disappointment of several of the cruisers. The next stop was the Blue Holes of Hanawa. The first hole was a light blue pool some 100-150' in diameter in the middle of the limestone several hundred feet in from the ocean. The hole was evidently connected to the sea as bread thrown onto its surface attracted some good sized fish. The next stop, another hole, was said to be a turtle sanctuary, but I'm not sure anyone actually saw any turtles. From there we drove to the north end of the island to a visit the handsome Catholic Church in St. Joseph. With its cool blue vaults, stations of the cross and stained glass windows, it made us nostalgic for Mexico (where my sister Jo is currently touring the lovely churches in the Puebla area.)
After the church we tried the soap factory again, but although the workers had promised Melinda to reopen after their lunch, there was no sign of them. So it was on to the vanilla plantation. This was an interesting endeavor by a family where a substantial number of vanilla vines are being trained up racks girdling the trunks of shade trees in a patch of forest. Of course, it is early spring as far as the vanilla plants are concerned so all we saw were the first flowers starting to open. Evidently the flowers here must be hand pollinated, painstaking work, because attempts to interest local bees in doing the job have so far failed. It takes eight months for the pollinated flower to produce a bean, and then the beans must be dried for three months. We were incredulous that so far at least the plantation does not ship any of their vanilla off island, but that tourists buy up most of their product. Keep in mind that most of Ouvea's tourists stay in homestay "gites" (clusters of homestay guest huts) and there is only one "resort"! (We later learned that Ouvea is visited several times a month by a cruise ship, which must help!.) The two ladies in charge of the plantation did have packets of vanilla beans to sell, small jars of ground vanilla, and a larger jar of "vanilla and coconut jam".
The most impressive site on our tour was "Les Falaises de Lekiny" or the Lekiny Cliffs. Where Mouli meets the main island via a small bridge, the lagoon pushes though into a shallow interior lagoon backed by a tall limestone cliffs pocked with caves, undercuts and stalagmites. It was a striking stretch of landscape for an otherwise flat, scrubby island.
To close out the day we stopped for some pictures from the Mouli Bridge and then ran down to the southern end of the island where we stood on the shore of the pass we had entered just days before by boat. I don't know. There was something ultimately ridiculous about sixty pale-skinned yachties disgorging from busses onto a tiny stretch of limestone beach. In fact, I suppose generally, it was an underwhelming tour. A long day in vans and busses running up and down paved roads bordered largely by bush. Melinda says the population of the atoll is around 3,000 (with another three thousand of her people living in Noumea), but there is not much sense of the inhabitants .
Actually, there was one other stop that told us rather more than anything else about Ouvea's Kanak residents. It was an elaborate memorial remembering 19 rebels who were killed by French paratroopers in 1988 after the rebels took some gendarmes hostage as part of a "muscular mobilization campaign" in the Kanak movement for independence. We are told there are several different versions of what happened that day, but clearly the French government was determined to nip in the bud any uprising. For us, it is a reminder that you can't take things on their superficial value. It is easy to think the Kanaks in the Loyalties have a good deal, with a certain degree of autonomy, social support from the French government for education, medical, and infrastructure services, and some kind of stipend that affords them cars and cell phones and imported foods. But I guess a good deal cannot entirely gloss over the fact that the Kanaks have for many decades been treated by the French as second class citizens in their own country.
Not sure exactly what our next plans in New Cal are. A few boats sailed out from Ouvea the evening after the tour. Some are leaving first thing Thursday. Others are talking about Friday. Some plan to sail to Noumea "over the top" of Grand Terre while others plan to head south via the other Loyalties and the famously beautiful Ile de Pins. I guess we'll know what we're doing when we've done it, but I suspect Don plans to spend tomorrow tinkering more on the engine!
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