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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

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

To Hienghène via Poum

View Across Hienghène Harbour

Travel date 18th August 2009
Click on any picture to see a larger version.

We left Koumac about 10 am and headed north. My plan was to cut straight across the top of the Island and omit the 100km diversion to Poum, heading for Hienghène via Ouegoa and Pouèbo. I thought the extra distance would make it too long a day’s driving.

I neglected to take account of the rather sparse use of road signs in the far North, so it wasn’t until I saw a sign indicating we were passing Malabou Beach Resort that I realised we had missed the turnoff to Ouegoa about 40km back. Not a great distance from here Cook, the Great Navigator, discovered and named New Caledonia. Obviously, I am not a descendant. It appears we were fated to see Poum, the most northern town on Grand Terre, so I drove on.

It was a small, pleasant beach-side village. This marker was next to the Mairie by the beach. We saw very few people, apart from the only inebriated person I saw on the whole trip, happily meandering all over the road as he walked away from town about a kilometre south. We missed him, both coming and going. He seemed very happy but I doubt he was aware we were passing.

The Melanesian Village also appeared deserted, but I’m sure there were people there. I was interested in visiting the village but there seemed to be no-one to ask. Many kilometres later I realised I should have asked at the Mairie.

We headed back towards the turn-off we had missed, over 50km back, after debating whether to try the alternative dirt road. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk and eventually discovered the correct turnoff at Chagrin; well named in the circumstances.

Again we had the road to ourselves en-route to Ouegoa, rarely seeing another vehicle or a person. There were occasional farm-houses, usually set well back from the road. The country gradually changed, becoming hilly and more rugged as we skirted the Northern tip of the central mountains. I had expected to see a larger town at Ouegoa but it was really just another small hamlet. We stopped at the general store for a quick look around and to look at the food on sale at the snack bar. We didn’t find it appetizing (we had had our fill of burgers by now) so we wandered on until we found this lovely little spot not far east of town.

Well, it was lovely until you noticed the rubbish; it was obviously a popular spot for the locals for picnics but no-one bothered to clean up after them. But we ignored that and enjoyed the solitude and the babbling brook.

Lunch was delicious; a length of crisp on the outside, soft on the inside French baguette with cheese, ham and onions. The French-influenced cooks of New Caledonia may not yet have learned how to make good Pizza, but they can certainly bake a baguette. This was the third time I had eaten that lunch but the first time I tested afterwards. My diabetic friends will understand why the resulting 9 mmol/l (160mg/dl) made it the last time I ate that for lunch.

Shortly after lunch the road changed and started climbing steeply, then changed to gravel as we encountered a long stretch of road-works. The view as we crested the final rise was quite spectacular; this is the section of the shallow lagoon that Cook passed through as he discovered this island in 1774, just north of Balade. The water changed colour quite distinctly showing the different depths.

His ship, the Resolution, must have had quite a shallow draught to be able to navigate these waters. To be honest, he didn’t show a lot of imagination with names for islands; he also named the New Hebrides, New Britain and New Ireland on that voyage. Of course, he also named Australia originally as New South Wales.

We slowly wandered on past coastal tribal villages, seeing more people and noticing a significant change in crops. The hills dropped steeply to the water, with only short and limited stretches of coastal plain. The crops were more coastal and tropical: bananas, coconuts, paw-paws, manioc and taro (fibrous tubers for starch). There were no defined or fenced fields but many small plantations of banana or coconuts along the road verge; or paw-paw and other crops set a short way back. There were many coconuts lying scattered on the ground but I got the impression they were not free to be collected but owned by the local tribes, so we didn’t pick them up. We started to pass more locals who invariably smiled and raised a hand in greeting as we passed. The men wore simple western clothes: shorts with T-shirts or similar, although younger men often added Rastafarian headgear or dreadlocks. The women, young or old, all wore variants on a shapeless but colourful shift, muu-muu style.

Within a short time it was like driving through a set for “South Pacific”. I'm sure I saw Bloody Mary several times, but Liat only rarely. I didn't see any Marines, but there were certainly lots in the area in WWII as we discovered later at La Foa.

We continued down the coast, past the Catholic Mission where some earlier missionaries became dinner, and the township of Pouèbo. We stopped often just to pause and look at some of the spectacular beaches and occasional small waterfalls. We noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance, gradually getting bigger until we saw this fire roaring up the hillside near Tao, about 20km north of Hienghène. It was out of control, but nobody seemed remotely interested in it.

There were villagers working in a tiny banana plantation only a short distance down the road, but they were ignoring the blaze. They know their own land so maybe they were right to do so; but it’s hard to watch an uncontrolled bushfire through Australian eyes.

Along the way we paused often. There were regular pleasant road-side parks where we could stop to look at the scenery or take a picture of the coast. Shortly after the fire we stopped for a brief picnic to look at this waterfall, which eventually descends to the creek. It’s hard to give the scale from the photo. The small coloured dots at the bottom left of the falls are people.

One of the things I had learned on Grand Terre roads was to watch the road like a hawk, for pot-holes, road-works, coconuts, children and other interesting obstacles. Which was just as well when we came around a corner after descending a hill and suddenly found that the road disappeared straight into the water. I’ve often been on ferries in Australia, but we usually get a little more warning. I was fine but my lady’s tan went a little pale for a while.

The ferry crossed a beautiful stretch of water propelled by one of these engines on each side; one for each direction. It was free and provided a leisurely and scenic break in the journey.

We spent a fruitless hour in Hienghène attempting to find reasonably priced acceptable accommodation; the gites mentioned in my six-year-old Lonely Planet guide appeared to have closed. We asked at the very modern and very new information centre and were directed by the girl there to the gite across the road. The hostess showed me a grotty room, with a couple of tired single beds and facilities shared between four other rooms for XPF4000; I didn’t bother showing it to my wife. Back at the information centre the girl was adamant that was the only accommodation in town. Maybe she was family.

As we headed out of town we stopped at the lookout on the southern headland of the harbor.

It is one of the few spots I have been in the world that could rival the scenic coastal beauty of my favourite spots on the east coast of Australia. Yes, I know I'm biased. It was getting late in the day, so the light was fading but it was still spectacular. To the west is a beautiful harbor, to the north the opposing headland and to the east some islands straight out of a Hollywood movie. We were back on the set of South Pacific looking at Bali Hai.

One odd thing occurred to me as I looked west. Despite the marina we saw back at Koumac, we had seen almost no boats at work or play in New Caledonia. This harbor was deserted, and the only boat we had seen in the water since Koumac, despite driving along at least a hundred kilometres of coastline, was a man in a dinghy near the shore at Poum. It seemed strange for an island nation. A harbour like this in Australia would have been crowded with craft of all types.

After fruitlessly searching further south for a gite we eventually gave in and opened the wallet and stayed at the Koulnoue Resort, about 15 minutes drive south of Hienghène. I have given my report on Tripadvisor. It is also in a gorgeous location, the views are from our room in the evening and the morning.

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