DESTINATION: NOUMEA NEW CALEDONIA

By: NORMAN HOLTZHAUSEN, Photography by: NORMAN HOLTZHAUSEN

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  • Trade-A-Boat

New Caledonia is the closest of the South Pacific’s major islands to New Zealand, yet its heart is closer to France giving it a delightful, exciting and sometimes maddening Gallic charm

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The main island of the New Caledonia group is called Grand Terre and is almost completely ringed by a barrier reef, creating the largest lagoon in the world. The reef itself is the second longest coral reef on the globe, beaten only by its close neighbour the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

However, whereas the Great Barrier Reef is an hour-and-a-half boat ride from the nearest ports of Cairns or Port Douglas, the coral off New Caledonia is much more accessible. In fact a boat is not even needed since significant coral is accessible by snorkellers swimming off the main tourist beaches.

We had reason to visit Noumea, the capital and largest city of New Caledonia, to test a new model boat which was commissioned by a local fishing operator. Tough job, I know, but sometimes we boat reviewers have to take one for the team.

We were told that February is not the ideal time to visit the country, temperatures are in the low 30s and it rains almost every day. The lack of trade winds at that time of year though meant that sea conditions were settled and hence it proved the best time of year for exploring the profusion of sea life.

ISLAND MINING

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The main industry in New Caledonia is mining, particularly nickel and cobalt but also some iron ore. This has unfortunately resulted in severe environmental degradation in places, mainly due to the soft soil covering the island that quickly erodes during the torrential rain that regularly falls in the tropics. Thus runoff of the red topsoil occurs everywhere a road is cut or the vegetation cleared and the scars on the hillside are clearly visible all around the mines.

Luckily a decade or so ago new environmental regulations were introduced and pollution from the three smelting plants has been dramatically reduced. The result is very little air pollution now and greatly reduced runoff, with a greater focus on the environment. On the whole the air is clear, the skies a deep blue and the sea is a transparent aquamarine colour.

Since we went to the country to test new boats we were fortunate to have the use of a vessel the whole time we were there. Although much is accessible directly from the beach the really stunning places are best reached by boat. Fortunately there are several tourist operators in the country who can arrange a diving or fishing trip to suit your requirements, plus there are water taxis, jetski hire and several ferry options for individual access.

I was particularly keen to scuba dive the reef and contacted local operator Gabriel Parodi who operates Dive NC (say that out loud and the pun becomes clear). He put together a custom dive trip for me to two different locations, each with different objectives.

ZODIAC PLATFORM

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A customised 6m Zodiac is the dive vessel and his gear is top-quality and well-maintained. Our first dive was to around 15m and the objective the smaller reef fish and other marine life. I was blown away by the sheer profusion of fish of every shape, size and colour and the pristine nature of the coral.

For the second dive we went slightly closer to Amadee Island, distinctive due to the 56m-tall lighthouse that adorns it. The island is a popular destination for diving and other water sports, and contains a restaurant and other day facilities. This dive found us sharks, a turtle, as well as a massive Maori wrasse and schools of brightly coloured reef fish. Overall a fantastic experience and well worth organising.

FISHING CHOICES

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If fishing is your thing there are several options, including gamefishing outside the barrier reef, bottom fishing inside and bone fishing in the coral flats. Noumea itself is not the most popular fishing location and better fishing is to be had at Koumac, on the northern tip of the island. However a couple of operators are active in the area and there are several options.

Unlike Australia, most trips cannot be organised at short notice, so it is essential to do your homework beforehand and book your trip before you get to Noumea. Fishing in this region is mostly done using lures and jigs, especially the gamefishing, and bottom fishing with bait is not popular.

You don’t need to catch your own fish though as the fascinating Port Moselle fish market operates on the waterfront from 5am until about 11am every day of the week except Mondays. On weekends this is the place to meet, with music and entertainment and all manner of fresh produce for sale apart from the fish. Other markets have sprung up nearby and local crafts and trinkets can also be purchased.

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If you prefer your food prepared and packaged there are supermarkets scattered around the town and most products have English as well as French labels. The usual foods and brands are available, and wine and beer can be bought at the supermarket. Be aware though that alcohol is not sold after midday on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The other surprise was that fresh milk is virtually unobtainable and you have to look for the long-life boxed versions on the shelf. On the other hand they have a fabulous range of French cheeses, preserved meats (charcuterie), pâtés, preserves and of course, too many varieties of fresh bread to name.

Apart from Noumea itself the main tourist destination is the Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins). This island lies 84km south of Noumea and can be reached by plane or ferry. The ferries only run four days of the week, so if you are based in Noumea you need to prearrange your trip out. The Isle of Pines is the destination of choice for cruise ships and to avoid congestion at popular attractions it is a good idea to check their schedules and plan your trip when there are none in attendance.

PARLEZ-VOUS ANGLAIS?

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One of the difficulties I found planning the trip was the paucity of English language information. The country is officially a territory of France, although moving towards full independence, and the French have a maddening tendency to assume everyone speaks their language.

This can be at times delightful and charming and a bit of careful thought and/or reading it out loud can often decipher what the signs and labels mean. For example, a pedestrian crossing outside a school is an ‘enfants traverse’. While most people are able to speak at least some English, officialdom is generally in French only and most local websites do not offer English versions. I used a mobile app called iTranslate on my smartphone when I was stumped.

At the end of our trip it was really hard to get on the plane and fly home. I found the snorkelling and scuba diving to be the best I’ve ever experienced, far superior to the over-commercialised Great Barrier Reef. Driving around the main island was interesting and there are numerous tourist attractions that do not involve water.

Overall the costs were not excessive, with café and restaurant food prices similar to that of any city back home. The Gallic charm, despite its frustrations, works its way under your skin and I found myself peppering my conversation with French words for weeks afterwards.

I have already booked a return trip for July, although the locals tell me that is the ‘cold’ season – daytime temperatures average 200C and it gets as low as 180C at night! The sea temperature remains constant at 23 degrees and diving can still be done without needing a wetsuit. The perfect midwinter break – I can hardly wait. 

Check out the full feature in issue #497 of Trade-A-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest boating news, reviews and travel inspiration. 

 


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