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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, August 27, 2009

North-west to Koumac

Travel date 17th August 2009
Click on any picture to see a larger version.

We left Gite du Cap about 10 am and slowly negotiated the road back to the highway. It was a little easier knowing what to expect this time.

We headed north-west up the west coast. The land was mainly flat and scrubby towards the water on the left. To the right the flat grazing lands quickly became high hills; to Australian eyes the hills were high and steep, with pronounced sharp ridges. Occasional farmhouses, set well back from the road, appeared but they were far apart. For long distances the land seemed deserted except for occasional grazing animals; mainly cattle, some horses, occasional goats and rarely sheep. There were very rare fields of crops, most of the land appeared to be used for grazing or fallow. On the whole trip we never saw a farmer or grazier working in the fields. Maybe they knew I was coming, with my notorious black thumbs - everything I plant is doomed…

We saw several “tribu” signposts, but rarely saw a hint of a Melanesian village. They must have been set well back from the road. Later in the trip the villages were much closer to the road on the east coast. Unfortunately we had made no prior arrangements to meet villagers, so that was one part of the trip that I would do differently if I visit New Caledonia again. Arrangements need to be made in advance with the village elders. All of the road signs, such as river names and villages, were in two languages: French and Melanesian.

The small towns we passed through were very small indeed. We ate lunch at this snack place, operating from a transportable building in Pouembout. I followed the lead of the other customers, choosing a table and chairs from stacks near the servery. We didn’t realise until later what a rare opportunity for an inexpensive lunch that was. In the next five days we saw only one other similar rural snack cafĂ©, in Oeugoa.

Next door was a typical Mairie, effectively the Town Hall and Civic Office. This was the main street, at peak hour. Well, I doubt it was any different any other time of day.

During the day we noticed this wind-farm on the hilltops. The propellors are smaller than the usual wind generators I have seen in the past, and only two-bladed. Later we saw another farm in the Plum district with slightly larger propellors.

Kone was slightly larger. Significant towns, such as Poembout and Kone, had excellent basic infrastructure regardless of their small populations. Each town had a school, to at least Primary (Elementary) level, a Mairie, a Gendarmerie and a supermarket or two. The size of the school populations, seen playing as we passed, indicated that there were significant feeder villages beyond the towns. Many of the towns also had a smaller Catholic Primary School similar to those in Australia. Almost every town had an Ambulance station with several vehicles in the yard. During the trip we regularly encountered ambulances with their distinctive six-pointed blue crosses, sometimes with blue lights flashing but more often just cruising along the road. Many were sedan cars with no apparent medical equipment. I suspect that they double as the local taxi services, because we saw very few taxis outside Noumea but lots of ambulances.

In Kone we took the opportunity to visit a small supermarket and buy some basics; wine, coffee, teabags, cheese, onions, light cola and butter. Later we found those little purchases to be wise. Some of the little things we take for granted in Australian motels and hotels are missing in the majority of New Caledonian rural hotels and gites. Some provide tea and coffee, but most do not; most don’t even provide a jug to boil water. Some provided a fridge, most didn’t. One tip: never, ever, buy the cheapest French wine on the shelf in New Caledonia; spend at least XPF800; it took days for my taste buds to recover from the one swallow of XPF295 soldes (Sale) merlot. On the other hand, it probably cleaned my tubes out.

After long experience, when I am travelling by car I travel “prepared” with a small electric skillet. It is a very, very useful item, able to do everything from boil water for a cuppa to cooking a full meal of Pasta Bolognaise; which we did later in the trip. I also carry a couple of plastic plates, cutlery, a stopper for wine bottles, a waiter's corkscrew and a one-cup coffee drip filter. We used those items more regularly travelling Grand Terre than I have in any other country.

When we reached Koumac we spent some time exploring and did a little more grocery shopping. Joan of Arc seems to be a very popular saint in the Pacific, this was the third church I saw dedicated to her.

We spent a little time looking for a reasonable hotel and an inexpensive restaurant. We found both to be rather optimistic goals. Eventually, I found one that looked good but could not find any staff. The cashier in the grocery store next door advised us that it was closed for renovations and gave us directions to the Monitel, which we had passed on the road in without realising it was there.
The logic behind the secret hotels of New Caledonia escapes me. Maybe there is some deep and shameful stigma to admitting you actually rent rooms by the day in this country. In this case the “Monitel” sign was a white-on-black 60cm square discreetly positioned on a side road and totally invisible from the main road. By this time we were starting to worry about sleeping in the car so we booked in. The hotel was acceptable but we still had not come to terms with the high prices in NC. There seemed to be two tiers of accommodation in the rural areas: moderately priced but really grotty or very expensive for a level we would expect in a budget Australian or American motel. I gradually learned that New Caledonian hotel prices are simply very high; so by New Caledonia standards it was OK for XPF 9,700 (AU$140, US$115). But to me it seemed rather poor value for money.

Of course, after we had booked in and went driving around town again we discovered the cheaper Hotel Clef - but that’s life. C’est la vie. We were surprised to find that our hotel was almost full, despite the price. Later, watching the people around me as I had a quiet beer I realised that the hotel probably had an account to accommodate many of the workers in the nickel mines. We ordered a pizza and ate in the room; sadly, we discovered that the French, whether Continental or in the Pacific, still have a way to go when it comes to cooking good pizza.

Later we drove around the district and discovered a modern marina with some very nice nearby houses on the coast near the town.

Nickel mining has been, and is, a major economic support for the New Caledonian economy. Unfortunately that has come with a high visual and environmental price. It is almost impossible to drive ten kilometres without seeing another hill or mountain with long strips or scars of denuded hillside. The one in the photo is typical in the Koumac district. Some are just a small strip, others denude entire hillsides, others, as I will show when we reach Poro, are a lunar landscape. Everything has a price, but I suspect that in years to come some New Caledonians will look back on this as too high a price to have paid.

Cheers, Alan

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