Ile Ouen, New Caledonia
5 November 2000
New Caledonia - the end of the line for the 2000 cruising train, at least for Gryphon. Far enough south
to be out of the worst of the cyclone belt, but not so far south that it gets cold like New Zealand. The weather here is just on the edge of tropical; summers are said to be warm but not humid. By staying here we
avoid the 900 mile trip to Australia now, and the 900 mile return trip in April or May. In exchange, we have to endure the possibility of summer "cyclones" - storms with wind greater than 35 knots.
Noumea has several each summer, but rarely with winds over 50 knots. The marina uses a web of heavy chains and thick lines to secure all the boats during cyclones and we're confident of the safety factor.
Re-reading the previous log entry (from a couple weeks ago), I noticed I said something
about calm seas and no wind. Silly me. Only a few hours later the wind filled in from the southwest(!) and we had 25-30 on the nose for the duration. Fortunately, it was only for about
70 miles and it was during daylight hours so we had a rambunctious sail the last day until we reached Havannah Channel, the pass through the encircling reef near the southern tip of New
Caledonia. Once inside the protection of the reef, the seas were flatter and we were able to find a calm, protected anchorage for the night before continuing to Noumea to clear in the next day.
New Caledonia is interesting geologically speaking. It's a "continental island" which seemed like an oxymoron to me at first. Then I learned that this island, along with the north and south
islands of New Zealand were once part of the huge continental mass of Gondwanaland (the conglomeration of South America, Africa,
India, and Australia) and split off from Australia some 100 million years ago (give or take) eventually drifting to their current positions. So this is not an island of volcanic
origin like those of Hawaii, Vanuatu, or Tonga, but is instead a chunk of the same continental land mass that was once Australia.
But in another sense, this island is behaving just
like its more numerous volcanic cousins - it's slowly sinking. And, as we all remember from last year's cruising in the Society Islands of
French Polynesia, that means that an encircling reef is building up around the island forming a massive protected lagoon. In another couple dozen million years or so this place will be the
largest atoll in the world! In the mean time, it's still pretty cool.
Culturally this place is a mix as well - French and Melanesian (or Kanaky). Four-star resort
hotels use thatched-roof buildings; baguettes compete with the ubiquitous kava. All is not equal however and a class distinction is evident. Europeans drive fine cars, dress well, and
hold professional or skilled labor jobs. Melanesians ride the crowded, noisy buses, wear simple clothes, and perform menial tasks. Of course I'm generalizing strongly, but appearances
count for something and this is what has been apparent so far.
In the not-so-distant past there have been violent confrontations between the Kanakies who
had been seeking independence, and the Europeans who were set on maintaining the status quo. Concessions by the French government to provide greater investment in infrastructure
and education outside the primarily European enclave of Noumea have eased tensions in the past few years. It does seem now that considerable money has been spent to promote the
Kanaky heritage and to provide places for the study of the indigenous cultures. Also, the economic difficulties encountered by Vanuatu after their independence has encouraged the
Kanaky leadership to seek compromises under the protection of the French financial umbrella.
Tensions are not particularly strong today, and we've seen no signs of violence here. However
the French military (both Army and Navy) maintain a high profile throughout the greater Noumea district which would certainly discourage civil disobedience.
For the past two weeks Noumea has been the focus of dozens of different
Pacific cultures as performers from twenty or more countries converged here for the 8th Pacific Arts Festival. Our exposure to the Festival was primarily at presentations of traditional
singing and dancing. We saw dancers from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), French Polynesia, Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Niue, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia.
Fascinating to see the continuity of the Polynesian dances from all across the Pacific, and the extreme dis-continuity of the Melanesian dances just between New Caledonia and Vanuatu - a mere 300 miles apart!
The best performances that we witnessed - in terms of entertainment anyway - were done by
the New Zealand Maoris and the New Caledonian Kanaks. Elaborate tattooing of the Maoris and body painting of the Kanaks added to the frightful drama of what were undoubtedly traditional war dances. It is
certainly not fair to judge the dances solely on entertainment value since the very simple Vanuatu presentations - in one case four women walking slowly around three others playing
small drums - are probably just as meaningful in their culture as the elaborately choreographed dances are in their respective environments.
In addition to the dancing and singing, there were movie presentations, native arts (including tattooing by New Zealand and French Polynesia), carvings of wood, shell, and
bone, and tapa cloths. In a more modern vein there were displays of stamps and even Internet access to cultural websites.
New Caledonia also holds another fascination for us since Jeff's father was here during World War II. I'm hoping to find out more about the US Army's presence here through the local
historical society and library and perhaps discover where he was stationed. We've already found a couple of the same buildings that he had photographed fifty years ago relatively
unchanged and we're collecting recent photos for comparison. Satisfying to think that I am walking the same streets as he did so long ago.
And last, but by no means least, Gryphon has a new crewmember! His name is 'Carib' (as in Caribbean); he's nine-months old and originally from Curacao. He sailed with
his adoptive Aussie parents from there to here, where they were daunted by the prospect of importing the little guy into their homeland. So instead Carib is off again on another
sailing adventure with us. He's quite comfortable on boats since that's the only home he's known, and he's already made himself at home on Gryphon.
At the moment we're about 20 miles from Noumea and we'll be sailing and exploring by boat for the next week or so. The islands and reefs at the south end of New Caledonia offer a
plethora of snug anchorages and interesting places for diving and snorkeling. Plus we figure it's a good idea to stay away from marinas for a little while until Carib understands that this boat is his new home.
Copyright 2000, Jeff Williams, All Rights Reserved