05 May, 2009

La Grande Terre

Our flight from Lifou on Air Caledonie was on time and uneventful. We left Drehu Village in more than enough time because of a lack of confidence in finding the airport again. Key intersections were unmarked, but our memory served us well and we found the airport at Wanaham without trouble, and were able to observe the preparations for one of the few flights of the day. We sat in an open air thatched roundhouse outside the terminal and were entertained by chickens and their chicks pecking around us. The rental car return desk was well and truly closed, but we found a place were Aero staff were washing cars, and they took our key happily.

We puzzled how the lead stewardess on the flight welcomed us on board in English without us saying a word! We figure she must look at the passenger manifest. We were the only non-natives on board, and she must have known in advance that we were Australian.

A minor organisational wheel fell off on our arrival at Magenta Airport, but it was very irritating at the time. Our itinerary gave directions to the Thrifty Rental Car desk, but there was no such thing, and no-one from Thrifty at the airport with our car. Thrifty’s only “sign” at the airport was a tiny locked box to leave your car keys in. Outside, we found an Arc en Ciel bus driver who spoke no English but was very helpful. (This company is responsible for our itinerary in New Caledonia.) On showing her our booking slip, she rang someone, and then promised that the Thrifty car would arrive in “cinq minutes”, which it did, well after 10 minutes anyway. The Thrifty guy was very apologetic, the car was a larger Peugeot than we had ordered, and we suspect that it was the first car he could grab in his rush to get to us. It wasn’t clean inside, and the next day we found it had a half flat tyre, so maybe it wasn’t properly prepared.

Starting at Magenta, we had to drive 310km to Poindimie on New Caledonia‘s upper north-east coast. This was our plan, a big driving day on La Grande Terre to start, then more modest distances to cover thereafter. Following the Thrifty man’s advice, we stuck to the westcoast all the way up the island to Kone, then crossed the mountains to the east along the Transversale to just north of Poindimie. His advice was good! It’s a 2-lane road all the way, but we were able to maintain good average speeds, even though this route must have added 50-100km to the total. On the east side, we were later to discover, the roads are much more twisty, and there are many more tribal villages to pass through. We found a cute snack bar at Boulouparis where we grabbed a crevette Panini and a coke for lunch.

Our hotel in Poindimie was the luxurious Tieta Tera resort, right on the beach. This hotel has been recently renovated and we were placed in a “bungalow”, surely the most modern and outstanding room we have ever stayed in. The restaurant here (at incredible cost) restored our faith in French cuisine after the fairly mundane fare at Drehu Village. That said, we also got a takeaway one night from the Koyaboa pizza shop. Two small pizzas (and two ice-cream) were excellent but set us back over 4000XPF.

The hotel appeared to be pretty busy and was a step more upmarket in both style and clientele than Drehu village. The guests were exclusively French (one Aussie couple, but we only spoke French when they were within earshot). We noted again that French children (of families who can afford holidays here) appear to be very competent swimmers.

The beach at Poindime, and indeed those along the whole east coast, do not resemble the glistening white sands that we loved on Lifou. Here, the sand is coarser and apparently contains minerals which makes it black, and to that extent, unappealing. The beaches are littered with broken coral, driftwood (a lot of it bamboo), and contain a lot of temporary shelters erected by the native population, giving them an interesting but somewhat untidy appearance. Not at Poindimie but elsewhere, the beaches may be affected by offshore reefs, and have very shallow water, although this is tide dependent. At Poindimie, we found the sea water to be warm and clean and a delight to swim in (still no surf), but saw few locals or tourists actually doing so.

Poindimie is a tiny town, and it is hard to believe it is the main hub of the northeast. It has all the usual facilities, a townhall, a gendarmerie, a school and one or two shops as well as an inevitable church or two, but that’s about it. This town has a public swimming pool, and also a couple of petrol stations - not all do.

One day, we took a drive up north as far as Tao. This distance is less than 100km, but it took us 3 hours each way. The road is characterised by neverending potholes, and is lined with numerous stalls selling fruit, shells or plants on an honesty basis, meaning you just leave money in a tin. We bought our lunch this way. The road is shrouded by jungle most of the way, but all that distance is a succession of small houses and tiny tribal villages. Traffic is exceedingly light, and people walk along the narrow roads in relative safety. By appearances, much of the native population live in traditional lifestyles. They basically seem to live off the land and the sea, and make a few francs selling whatever to the tourists passing by. It’s also obvious that many indigenous people have regular jobs, but that all seems to supplement what appears to be a healthy and happy tribal lifestyle. We wouldn’t say that the problems which blight native populations in Australia and elsewhere are absent here, but at least they are not so obvious. What are obvious are tribal sensitivities. We are constantly warned to respect local customs (which is fair enough), and not to take photos without permission on tribal land (which is irritating and inconvenient, and often there seems to be noone about). We feel this is being just a little bit precious, and basically we just chose not to visit tribal areas or to photograph their “cases”.

This is not to say there is any lack of friendliness here. We could learn a lot from this population. Any of the natives we bumped into in the streets, or on the beaches were extremely friendly, and exchanging “bonjour” or “bonsoir” with people of any persuasion wherever you meet them, is par for the course. (When driving, all pedestrians you pass on the side of the road wave to you, and you quickly fall into the habit of waving at everyone you see.)

The coastline itself is spectacular, with hills and cliffs and beautiful inlets. Landslips and washaways appear to be routine. Near the village of Hienghene, there are amazing rock formations, one of which is featured on the XPF500 note. North of there is maybe the only remaining punt (ferry) across a river, the “Bac de la Ouaieme”, a tiny, noisy and geriatric device running across a wide river in a beautiful setting, powered by two fixed outboard motors, and guided by a fixed cable. The photo shows the ferry crossing this mighty river.

At Tao, we paid 400XPF to hike a small distance up to the Cascade de Tao and, all alone, have a swim in a deliciously refreshing pool at the base of the waterfall. A friendly family collects the price of admission off you - it must be great fortune to own a waterfall that you can charge people to visit.

In all of this trip, we could not find a patisserie that was open at any time we were hungry, so we survived the day on the fruit that we had bought by the roadside. Most shops (of the very few along the road) seem to close for long hours in the middle of the day, and some don’t appear to open at all after midday! Travellers in this area must plan and organise their eating in the morning. This does not suit serendipitous grazers like ourselves!

Our next driving day was south down the east coast from Poindimie, then crossing the range to the other side, stopping for a few nights at Sarramea. We saw more of the same beach-side situations with tiny tribal villages and isolated houses, and by skilled navigation (there being no signposting, and we couldn‘t see it from the road) we found another waterfall which had been mentioned in Lonely Planet, this one the Cascade de Bwa with a great and refreshing swimming hole at the base which we took advantage of (see photo). This time, the cost was 100XPF payable into an honesty box, and again, we had the pool to ourselves although a few others arrived just as we were leaving.

We were smarter this day, and had bought a baguette and some cheese before leaving Poindimie. We found a nice picnic table by the river at Houailou, and then set out for Kouaoua after which we would head across the mountains to Sarramea. This stretch of road proved to be an unexpected disaster zone, and a bitter surprise. Driving on the moon could not be more distressing and desolate. The road moves in from the coast and climbs and then drops out of a large mountain range which has been completely stripped of all vegetation by vicious open cut (nickel) mining. There is no sign of remedial work. In fact, not much work is apparent at all, with only a few diggers and trucks seen to be operating over a vast area. No wonder the Lonely Planet and other guides are silent on this area! It is appalling to see, and we read that the adjacent ocean is heavily polluted by runoff from the devegetated mountains and valleys here. Photo shows a view of part of this landscape overlooking the sea. We are sure that nickel mining is a crucial source of wealth for New Caledonia, but the devastation here is a disgrace. It reminded us of Queenstown in Tasmania. To compound the matter, the road we travelled must be one of the loneliest in the country. There is absolutely no traffic on it - there are alternative routes north and south of here, and locals must avoid RP5 due to distress. We chose this crossover solely because Sarramea lies at its western end.

Signposting on Grande Terre roads is pretty grim generally, but it caused us some worry on this stretch. In the end, the main intersections proved to be marked (often on the road surface) but the unmarked intersections, where there are alternatives of apparently equal importance, were a little nervewracking. We were ever so pleased to find that the intersection in the tribal area of Koh was marked, because a wrong turn here could have had us going out of our way, quite a way, before we would be in a position to confirm it. We missed the town of Kouaoua entirely. It must have been off on a side road.

Sarramea proved to be a tiny little village nestled deeply in a valley that the road plunged into shortly before reaching the main west coast road. It is deep in a very pretty tropical rainforest, and its few attractions are scattered widely around and proved to be hard to find. The feeling is one of Shangri La! Our travel consultants Dianne and Bel in Sydney had us stay at the Evasion Hotel in Sarramea, surely the most upmarket establishment here, featuring 10 luxurious riverside cabins and a superb French restaurant. It is so quiet here! The accommodation and locations recommended to us on Lifou and la Grande Terre has been excellent, varied and highly interesting. A beautiful swimming pool is set by the side of the river, and about 500m upstream is another cascade-swimming hole combination, the “trou Feillet la cuve“. Mike went up there one morning, and had it to himself, but the path was ultra-boggy, with the access to the swimming hole too slippery and way too muddy to attempt on one’s own.

That said, this swimming hole is apparently the must-do activity for Sarramea, and car-loads of visitors park in the nearby lot and put on their oldest shoes to make the trek. We decided not to go up again to see how they were going, because Clare had gone to the trouble of cleaning Mike’s shoes!

We drove to the nearby village of Farino. Whereas Sarramea nestles in the valley, Farino is high up on a huge climb out of the valley. From Farino, there are views right back to the west coast (see photo), and the township is characterised by a miasma of roads reaching into hills and secluded dales. We found a tiny coffee plantation. We found a very pretty and quiet camping area, Le Refuge de Farino, where one family were enjoying well maintained grounds, with their three little children playing (unsupervised, but competently) in a pleasant little river with gentle cascades and a sandy bottom. This was an idyllic location.

We suspect their solitude, or ours, would not last long. Today is Friday 1 May, and we discovered (by the incoming traffic) that today is a public holiday and so it’s a long weekend! The town of La Foa is on the main west coast road, but is very close to Sarramea and Farino so we visited it in our rounds. This is where we saw (for the first time outside of Noumea) heavy traffic, going north out of Noumea. Apparently the beaches near Bourail, north of here, have real surf, so maybe much of the traffic is headed that way. We looked at La Foa’s footbridge and famous movie theatre (film festival every June), topped up with pastries and petrol, and scarpered back to the peace and quiet of Sarramea.

Unless you like horseriding, or undertaking serious hikes, there’s not that much to do in this immediate region, but it is a very pleasant spot to chill out, and we have enjoyed our few days here. This brings our Grande Terre phase to an end, and our final mission in this 4 part luxury odyssey is l'Ile des Pins.