27 March, 2024

On the way home, New Caledonia...

Getting home from Tahiti was not as straight-forward as you would expect. When we made our bookings, there were (and still are) no direct flights. The most direct route was via Auckland with Air New Zealand, three times a week. That sounded OK until we realised the departures were at 03:00! At the time, we didn't notice that Air Tahiti Nui had 08:00 departures which would have been more civilised. Anyway, scared by the prospect of 03:00 at Papeete airport, we decided to return home via Noumea, New Caledonia, and to stop over there for more R&R over several days. This flight, on Aircalin, departed at 20:30. Planning for this flight was nerve-wracking for another reason. It crossed the International Date Line and thus had a scheduled arrival the next day at 23:50. We had to be so careful getting the bookings for a hotel in Noumea and the ground transport from the airport (40km) on the right day! In the end, we got all of these arrangements right, but didn't manage to hit our bed in Noumea until 02:00!

A spectacularly pretty blossom fallen from a tree ant Anse Vata. [6088]

The pleasant beach at Anse Vata in Noumea was a good place for an early dip before heading to Îlot Maître. [6081]

Apart from that first very late night, our New Caledonia stay was in the Doubletree Îlot Maître, on an island 30 minutes by boat from Port Moselle in Noumea. We had a stunning overwater bungalow which peered down into sparkling clear water, quite tidal. Our bungalow was stunning, but we were quite disappointed with the service offering at the hotel. Meal times were quite restrictive (a French habit, we think) and the meal choices were really poor. The main restaurant had no a-la-carte options, only a rather boring buffet every night with strange and high pricing. The beach cafe and pool bar had a-la-carte food at odd times, both with a terribly limited menu. Anyone looking for good French cooking at this hotel would be doomed to disappointment.

L'île aux Canards (Duck Isle) is a really popular day-trip destination from Noumea. In the background is Îlot Maître, our destination. [6091]

Pretty view as we boat out of Port Moselle. [6103]

Yachts like to anchor on the lee side of Îlot Maître. [6112]

The swimming pool at Îlot Maître was too small and crowded for our liking, and half of it had been closed due to storm damage. The kites are on the other side of the island. [6115]

We spent two-plus weeks in New Caledonia in 2009, so found Noumea to be vaguely familiar, and we were very comfortable just relaxing at Îlot Maître for four days. R&R is a nice activity at our age, especially since we could swim with fishes and turtles directly from our bungalow at will. Other guests did day-trips into Noumea. At low tide, it was very shallow under our bungalow, and it was possible to walk around in the water, being careful where you trod. At high tide, snorkelling was more productive. We measured the tide by counting how many steps on our access flight were wet. At night, we used a hoist to pull the steps out of the water, to keep snakes out of our room.

In Australian terms, Papeete's latitude is 17.5oS, just south of Cairns, and Noumea is 22.2oS, just north of Rockhampton. So Noumea is about 500km further south than Papeete, meaning slighly more temperate conditions, and we were pleased to find that "feels like" temperatures were not so hot as they were in most of our trip so far, and the water was blissfully refreshing at 25oC, maybe several degrees cooler.

That towel is a sure sign one of us is in the water, and that outside shower at the top of the stairs was just bliss! [1095]

The shallow and calm waters of Îlot Maître are a great place to learn snorkelling. There were grasses, turtles, and some fish, but not much coral. [6277]

Young lady happy with her first attempt at stand-up paddling. [6180]

Not quite deep enough for snorkelling, but you can't be separated from your phone! [6190]

Îlot Maître as a destination was very interesting. It's tiny, only 700m x 150m maximum, and could be walked around in less than half an hour, although, at any tide, you have to get your feet wet on the southern side. Outside the Doubletree resort itself, the interior bush is pretty dense and discourages walking. The west side, where the overwater bungalows are, is calm and protected. The east side is always windy and, as we saw, is extremely attractive to kite-surfers. There must have been hundreds there on a Sunday afternoon, and a kite-surfing school too. The Doubletree boats allow daytrippers, and part of the island is designated as "public access". There is beach all round the island, and we saw some nude sun-bathers in the quiet on the south end. They asked Mike to take their photo. Birdlife is quite prolific, and we managed some good pics, although one balck and white bird always escaped our camera.

The windward side of Îlot Maître is crowded with kite-surfers. That beach disappears at high tide. [6133]

Osprey in flight. A birdlife interpretive sign called this bird a 'balbuzard', a very evocative name. [6201]

Kite-surfer. [6213]

Seagulls in a feeding frenzy on Îlot Maître. [6254]

This kite-surfer was very proficient at getting lots of air as he turned. [6217]

We saw plenty of these buff-banded rails wandering around on Îlot Maître. Thanks to Merlin and Picture Bird for help with identification. They eat small vertebrates, seeds, fallen fruit and other vegetable matter, as well as carrion and refuse. [6246]

An osprey pauses in the middle of a tasty fish dinner to study me. Given this was shot with a wide-angle lensed GoPro, it's amazing how close he let me get! [1134]

New Caledonia is a collectivity of overseas France which is a somehow different status to that of French Polynesia. Both "countries" use the same currency, the CFP Franc (colonies françaises du Pacifique), or XPF, which simplified our cash arrangements. The population is 270,000, two thirds of which live in Greater Noumea. Apparently the population is roughly half European, and half Melanesian, but there is a decent minority of others. Thanks to effective missionaries over the years, about 85% are Christian.

Lightroom map of our entire trip, showing the sinewave-like swathe we cut through the South Pacific Ocean.

For the bulk of this trip as covered by this blog, we were in the hands of the experts and enthusiasts onboard the NatGeo Orion. The "learning" theme on that ship was Polynesian navigation. Now we are "on our own", so to speak, it remains fascinating to learn how these South Pacific regions were first populated by homo sapiens. Firstly, the whole South Pacific region was the last in the world to be settled by humans (not counting the Antarctic). In the current theories of Pacific migration, so-called Austronesian peoples first dispersed from Taiwan during 3000-2200BC, first arriving in New Caledonia 1200BC, a testament to the time it took for them to acquire the necessary navigation skills to cross vast empty distances. Despite the relative proximity to New Zealand, there was no migration there from New Caledonia. NZ did not host human habitation for another 2400 years, and those migrants were Polynesians and came from the north-east, from the Cook Islands, not from New Caledonia to the north-west.

New Caledonia sits confortably in Melanesia, as does Fiji at the start of our trip, but the rest of our time was in Polynesia. Practically, the good thing for us is that New Caledonia is almost home. It's only a three hour flight to Sydney, and no time change. Few people on the NatGeo Orion knew where NewCal was, and many were stunned to hear, from us, that a French entity was so close to Australia, north-west of Auckland, north-east of Sydney, and closer still to Brisbane. The distinctions between Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians as peoples rests in their origins. TagVault summarises it this way: "The origins of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia can be traced back to Southeast Asia. The people of Polynesia are believed to have migrated from Southeast Asia in large ocean-going canoes, embarking on a remarkable journey across vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Their navigational skills, using the stars and other celestial cues, allowed them to settle and explore the islands of the eastern Pacific, establishing communities and cultures that thrived in their new island homes. On the other hand, the ancestors of the Melanesians have a more complex ancestry, with roots in both African and aboriginal populations. Micronesia, situated between Polynesia and Melanesia, has a diverse population influenced by both Polynesian and Melanesian cultures, creating a fusion of traditions and customs." https://tagvault.org/blog/melanesia-vs-micronesia-vs-polynesia-explained/

The sub-regions of the South Pacific. Map by comersis.comhttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kahuroa - Source: https://comersis.com/Derived work from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_Culture_Areas.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=140411094

This blog includes some photographs of individuals who could be identified, but there was no opportunity to seek permission for publication. If you recognise yourself in any image, and wish it to be removed, just let us know.

Lightroom map shows the distribution of our photos around Îlot Maître.

19 March, 2024

Tahiti, Papeete and Fa'a'a...

Dawn in Papeete sees a local flight taking off from the airport at Fa'a'a. [6043]

Sun setting behind Mo'orea as seen from Papeete. [6068]

After we had been 24 days on-board, the National Geographic Orion sailed into Papeete on the island of Tahiti, and it was time for us to get off. The Orion has been, as we expected, a fabulous expedition ship. It was first built with that purpose in mind in 2003 in Germany. It's early history involved cruising Australian and Oceanic waters until its owners were absorbed by Lindblad Expeditions in 2014, and the ship became National Geographic Orion, with a more global focus. In 2013 it famously went 1500km out of its way to rescue a round-the-world yachtsman in Antactica's Commonwealth Bay. And in 2016 we were on the Orion on an expedition to Antactica, South Georgia and the Falkland Island. We had almost the same cabin this trip! What made it extra special for us is that some of the great hotel crew from that earlier trip are still on board. We are thinking of Melvin and Teddy With, maybe others we did not remember?

Dawn over Mo'orea as we sail into Papeete. [5151]

Tugboat accompanied NatGeo Orion into Papeete. [5154]

Skirting the reef around Tahiti as the NatGeo Orion makes its way into Papeete. [6008]

Ferry on the way to Mo'orea sailing into a rainstorm. [6037]

We have nothing but praise for everyone on the crew. The Philippino hotel team, led by Spanish Sonia, were exemplary, and talented too, as we learned from their show night on board. The Expedition Team were fabulous - expert, passionate, helpful. We are proud that the Leader, Karla, was not only a female but an Aussie, and we will miss (not) her early morning wake up calls. Karla was with us throughout every off-boat outing, yet still managed to get the planning of the forward program done (with her assistant Joe). When does she sleep? We were mesmerised by the cultural specialists Mahati and Jenny. All the naturalists really know their stuff and bubble with enthusiasm. Rachel, one of the underwater team, delighted us with video of her outings on the voyage. The photo specialist Fiona Wardle was a delight and so knowledgible. We had two National Geographic photographers with us, Susan Seubert and Jennifer Lopez (really!) - they were so different to each other, but both incredible assets to the expedition team. Thanks to National Geographic for providing these two.

Sonia and KC during the crew performance on the Orion. [4933]

Housekeeping supervisor Melvin leading Ottawan's 'Hands Up', a highlight of the crew's show night. [4885]

Thanks to Karla for personally helping us with our rather excessive luggage to the taxi rank near the port after we disembarked for the last time in Papeete. Then we were on our own! After Karla's hectic activities program, our plan was to relax in Papeete, and we stayed at the quite new and uber-comfortable Hilton Hotel on the coast and near the airport, even using the Spa for some treatments each.

The waterfront Hilton in Papeete, actually just inside the border to the suburb of Fa'a'a. [6012]

Can't complain about the view from our room in Papeete, with Mo'orea on the horizon. [6032]

Rainbow over the Hilton Hotel, prelude to a brief afternoon storm. [1087]

Tahiti is smack in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean - it is closer to Australia (5,700km) than South America (7,900km), and it is 4400km south of Hawaii. It is almost 16,000km from Paris! The Papeete urban area, including its crowded suburb Fa'a'a have a combined population of about 130,000 people. Tahiti, has 190,000 and all of French Polynesia 280,000. So this is the populous centre of French Polynesia, and Papeete is the first real city we have seen since leaving Sydney. The roads here were never meant for traffic. Whilst the Hilton is only 2km from town, it is in a really tough location for pedestrians, a problem for keen walkers like Mike. It's on the busy Aratia Nelson Mandela, the coast road which runs to the airport. To walk anywhere but west, you have to negotiate what must be Papeete's busiest roundabout/flyover, the intersection with Bd de la Reine Pomare IV which is in noisy, smelly gridlock every morning. Pedestrian routes around the roundabout are poorly marked (but drivers always stop to let you cross). The path beside the steep main road up to Fa'a'a is almost inaccessible, and once on it, it's really just a covered drain. One driver asked me if I was OK, walking in such a crazy place! The direct route into town has no footpath for maybe 250m, but once you negotiate this dangerous track, there is an excellent harbour-side pedestrian zone, frequented by walkers, joggers and loiterers, and well separated from the busy road.

Traffic - something we haven't seen for weeks! This roundabout in Papeete was a mess every morning. [6046]

The huge cemetery de L'Uranie climbs high into the hill behind Papeete in large terraces. [6048]

That said, the Hilton Hotel is an oasis from this chaos enjoying some bonus attractions like a large shallow pool, great for cooling off in (but not enough shade), a pontoon where tour boats can pick you up so you can avoid the roads, and a decent shopping centre including a food court and a Carrefours supermarket over the road directly accessible by footbridge.

Two men indulging the Polynesian passion for outrigger canoes. [6055]

Artwork in the Hilton Papeete highlights the Polynesian passion for outrigger canoes. [1081]

A Polynesian style sunset cruise boat on the way to pick up passengers is passed by an outrigger canoe with four-legged crew member. [6065]

Papeete has a lot of history associated with it, mostly famous visitors. Paul Gaugin was here for some years in the 1890's. Maybe more notable was the stopover by James Cook in HMS Endeavourto observe the Transit of Venus in 1769. Venus only crosses the sun less than once every century and its careful observation would precisely determine latitude (vital for navigation in the absence of accurate timepieces). Cook chose what is now known as Point Venus for the observation. It seems that while King George III supported the Transit observations, his secret mission for Cook was to find the Great South Land, Terra Australis Incognita afterwards, and to claim it for Britain.

One source says this is the only lighthouse in Tahiti, known as 'Teara o Tahiti', at Point Venus dating back to 1867. It is 25m tall. During WW2 it was disguised with cononut tree murals to fool a potential Japenese invasion. Still in operation, with its tower in need of TLC, it was electrified in 1973. [5203]

The black sand public beach at Point Venus is possibly the best in Papeete and is certainly popular with locals. [5209]

This magnificent building in Papeete houses the downtown market. [5214]

Only 20 years later, the crew of HMS Bounty, captained by William Bligh, mutinied after a layover in Matavai Bay, Papeete. They were here to collect breadfruit and transport it to the Carribean to feed plantation slaves. The mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, were unhappy with strict ship discipline after five months being allowed to sample the unique pleasures of Tahiti. This saga was novelised in Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall in the 1930's, the latter's house and garden being in Papeete and now preserved as a museum.

Affable guide at the James Norman Hall Museum. [5180]

Maybe this is the room where Hall wrote the Bounty trilogy? [5184]

Contemporary mural at the back of the James Norman Hall Museum in Tahiti. That's Hall, not Bligh or Christian. [5189]

Fresh from a downpour, one of three waterfalls, 'les trois cascades' at Fa'aruma'i out of Papeete. [5201]

Being more focused on R&R than sightseeing or other activities, in all, we didn't do much in Tahiti. When you look at the island map and see the road which skirts the western half, it's obvious that a circumnavigation in a rental car may have been worthwhile. In fact, someone we talked to had recommended it, but we saved this up for a possible (but unlikely?) future visit.

Tahiti has west and east mountains, and by stricking to the top left, we have hardly scratched its surface. Map credit: 'Maps on the Web'

It can be seen that we hardly ventured out of Papeete, leaving a lot of Tahiti to explore, maybe another time?

18 March, 2024

Mo'orea, one jump from Tahiti...

Now in the Windward Islands, Mo'orea is another iconic destination in the South Pacific. Frommer's travel guide described Mo'orea as "the most beautiful island in the world". Like Bora Bora, the first thing that strikes you is the startling skyline of the island. The highest point is Mont Tohive'a at 1207m. Moorea is a volcanic island (2M years ago), only 17km from Tahiti. Mo'orea, and the Society Islands generally, was first settled by migration from Samoa and Tonga around 200AD. The early settlers separated into tribes or clans divided by the various enclosed valleys of the island. Alliances developed, including with nearby Tahiti, but there were bloody conflicts too. Current population on Mo'orea is 18,000. Most access to Mo'orea is by regular ferry - it's only a 5 minute flight from Tahiti.

The setting sun shines on the NatGeo Orion at anchore in Opunohu Bay on Mo'orea. [1062]

Mo'orea's most impressive Mt Tohive'a has jagged a cloud, early in the morning. [5907]

Mo'orea is triangular shaped, each side being scarcely more than 10km. As our Lightroom photo-map shows, Moorea is surrounded by a fringing reef, enclosing a shallow but narrow lagoon, with numerous entrances. Wikipedia says that "Charles Darwin found inspiration for his theory regarding the formation of coral atolls when looking down upon Mo'orea while standing on a peak on Tahiti. He described it as a "picture in a frame", referring to the barrier reef encircling the island."

The NatGeo Orion anchored in beautifulOpunohu Bay and we Zodiac'ed about 2km to the village of Papeto'ai, the birthplace and childhood home of our cultural specialist Matahir. He was visibly happy to be here. We explored the northern part of the lagoon, and were able to bus into the highlands at the centre of the island. The map shows a road right around the island, and it's plain that there will much more beauty on Moorea than our brief visit exposed.

Captained by an able seaman, a Zodiac makes its way to Papeto'ai. [5913]

One with a wind-turbine, two waterfront houses in Opunohu Bay. [5906]

Selfie, a reflection in the sunnies of a willing guest. [5917]

We made landfall on Mo'orea in the village of Papeto'ai. [5923]

A welcome reception for us at Papeto'ai. [5924]

Mahati, the NatGeo Orion's cultural specialist feeling at home here, having been born and bred in Moorea. [5777]

Once the site of a marae founded with a stone from the most sacred one in Ra'iatea, Protestant missionaries established a home here in 1808. [6005]

The bus from Papeto'ai climbed into the hills behind Tohive'a affording a spectacular view. We called in at a local school, the Lycee Agricole but the main reason for this stop was to visit the bathroom and buy ice-cream! It was hot, so hopefully the school raised some needed funds. The bus tour included a flying stop at what the guide said was the "most beautiful view of Mo'orea". It was indeed breathtaking, a great view of the reef, the lagoon and the Sofitel Hotel's overwater bungalows.

Mont Tohive'a as seen from Belvedere de Opunohu on Moorea. [5932]

View of the Agricultural School on Mo'orea. [5974]

Supposedly Mo'orea's best view with the Sofitel's over-lagoon bungalows. [5987]

Our physical activity for the day was to "swim with stingrays" near a sandbar at the northwest corner of the lagoon. This was certainly a different experience! We were ferried to the location by catamaran and were instructed to don snorkel and facemask but no flippers. The water was chest deep, so we stood on the bottom but there was a ferocious tidal flow which seemed somewhat dangerous. (Mahati told me he had to rescue someone here on a previous visit.) In the water, the guides somehow attracted the stringrays (food in their pockets?) which swam all around us, so close we were able to pat them (watch out for the barb!), but it was hard to get far enough away to take good photographs. We managed not to lose anyone either due to sweep-away or sting.

Crowded in the water where we tried to resist a tidal current and look at the stingrays. [1037]

Pair of stingrays in the shallow waters of the Mo'orea lagoon. [1034]

Just how does that guide attract the stingrays? [1043]

What's in that pocket that makes the stingrays so interested? [1025]

After all that excitement, we adjourned to a private motu for a cocktail party. There was good shade, fortunately, and the water was so inviting that no-one could resist a swim in the turquoise water. It got a little crowded in the obvious spot, so we found a secluded place around the corner where we could enjoy the peace and quiet and have a nice chat in the water with Jill Hilty, the ship's doctor from Colorado, a professor of medicine and a volunteer in third-world situations, and her buddy, another, Jill. Jill, the doctor, was very conscientious on this expedition, never losing touch with her radio, but we don't think she had that much work to do on the NatGeo Orion.

The Papeto'ai welcoming committee transformed to live entertainment at our cocktail party. [1058]

A boat parked in the pristine waters next to the motu where we enjoyed a NatGeo Orion cocktail party. [1055]

Lightroom map of Mo'orea showing where photos were taken.