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.

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