Smiles and Sweat in New Caledonia
Cycle touring on the islands of the South Pacific
Bonjour! Bonjour! Booonjooooour!
A chorus of cheerful voices greet us as we cycle into the idyllic village of Diahoue on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. All the locals drop what they are doing to clap and wave as we cycle through their village. Their beaming smiles are rivaled only by the red blaze of the hibiscus blooms that punctuate the deep green of the tropical vegetation along the road.
The road is lined by lush gardens full of an assortment of bright tropical flowers. The traditional round thatched huts, or Case, are surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns which are dotted with fallen coconuts from the lanky palms which lazily sway in the warm afternoon breeze. Many precariously overhang the road and I always make it a point to pedal faster as I pass below the dangerously pregnant bunches of green coconuts. Banana plantations, neat rows of taro, yams and sweet potato cover the fields. We pass local bus stops are covered with murals that depict Kanaka nationalist leaders, Che Guvera and Bob Marley.
Every now and again we pass small roughly constructed roadside stalls laden with all kinds of local craft and farm produce; bright yellow hands of sweet bananas, passionfruit, green coconuts, orange papayas, bunches of exotic orchids, delicate fronds of coral, patterned shells, colourful potted plants, traditional wooden carvings and intricate soap stone sculptures. No two stalls had the same produce and the local craft varied in style, quality and price. If you didn’t want to miss out on any treasures you had to stop at as many as possible. Despite their extra weight, I couldn’t resist a few of the stone sculptures. My bike panniers were beginning to get dangerously heavy.
These stalls perfectly reflect the laid back islander lifestyle of the people of New Caledonia. The stalls are never manned; prices are simply scratched on the skin of a banana or scribbled on the base of a sculpture. Take what you want and drop the money in the tin provided. The moneybox didn’t even have a lid!
The locals are amazingly friendly. Everyone smiles, waves and greets you. We said more “Bonjours” on any given day in New Caledonia than we ever had in our entire lives. The other day when I cycled into a seaside campground after a hard day in the saddle, a large group of people enthusiastically called and gestured for me to join them. Since I can’t speak any French I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. It looked like some sort of beachside restaurant shack, so I went over and sat down with them. Immediately a huge plate of barbecued meat and fresh salad was put in front of me and an icy can of Number One beer was thrust into my hand. “Great service,” I thought to myself and got down to stuffing my face. After lunch I located someone who could speak English and realised that I wasn’t at a restaurant afterall but in the middle of a bunch of local cowboys and their families on holiday.
We spent the next couple of days laughing, listening to American country music, drinking, eating and playing Boules in a coconut grove. The locals taught me how to play and I have got to say, they take their Boules very seriously. The only time the laughter stopped and voices were dropped to respectful whispers was when a game was in progress. Our hosts constantly checked on us to make sure we were being looked after. This was just one of the amazing acts of spontaneous generosity and friendliness that we experienced during our tour. The people of New Caledonia left memories as warm as sunshine.
On the outskirts of Diahoue, we pulled up our gear-laden bike at the local magasin or general store. In the northern part of the Grande Terrain, the main island, the stores are quite literally few and far between. In a day’s riding we would come across at least three and tended to stop at each one to stock up on food and drink. This enabled us to carry less weight in our panniers, making the cycling a little less strenuous. The stores stocked everything you could expect from a general store; biscuits, bread, tinned fish, fresh vegetables, pasta, milk, the works. The only thing I found hard to get was some lubricant for my bicycle chain. We did eventually find some eventually.
During our trip we relied almost entirely on the magasins and rarely carried more than one day’s worth of supplies with us. One thing to keep in mind is that most of the islanders are devout Christians and no one works on Sundays. Stock up on Saturdays as all restaurants, stores and shops stay shut. This applies right across the country, from the cosmopolitan capital Noumea to the lazy outer islands. We learnt this the hard way and had to go an entire day without food!
These stops gave us a good opportunity to check our bicycles and equipment: chains, tires, breaks and pannies. Luckily we didn’t have any mechanical problems, in fact we did not even get a single puncture in nearly 600 kilometres of cycling!
We picked up some supplies and cycled a little way out of the village to find a good spot for lunch and afternoon siesta. About a kilometer down the road we found the perfect combination: cool shade and soft grass. At this stage in the day, food and rest are the only things I could think of. My backside was saddle sore, my legs hurt and my stomach was growling.
Crusty baguettes with soft French Brie and tuna are washed down with icy mouthfuls of Oro apple juice. The odd vehicle toots its horn and the driver waves out to us as it drives off down the road. We wave back. Everybody waves in New Caledonia. We had to wave so many times that after a while I wish I had brought a prosthetic arm along so that I could be permanently waving without any effort.
After lunch we lazily unfold our map and flatten it on the grass. We’ve cycled 50 odd kilometres since the morning and are looking at another 30 kilometres to make it to the next camping ground. Luckily there are no more mountain passes to cross as the last one damned near killed us. A sympathetic local in a Hi-lux stopped when he saw us pushing our bikes up the amazingly steep slopes of the pass. Bathed in sweat and baking in the tropical sun, I wasn’t going to refuse the helping hand. The grueling climbs through the central spine of mountains called Massif Du Panie had left quite an impression on us. Even their name was somewhat ominous, to me it looked like “Massive Pain”.
Since we had now crossed the range from the west coast to the eastern side the road had flattened out considerably. So far, apart from a few gentle gradients we had not encountered anything serious – and we were hoping things were going to stay like that. We didn’t have a good topographical map so were we actually relying on hope! God only knows what surprise our free tourist shop map held for us.
After a blissful hour’s sleep we packed up and reluctantly straddled our cycles once again. Tired legs creaked, saddle sore bums hurt and a sleep-numbed brain tried not to think of the kilometres ahead. Getting going after a break is the hardest thing to do. Once you have got through the pain barrier things get better and you can begin to enjoy the ride once again.
The roads in New Caledonia are a cyclist’s dream: great surfaces, fantastic scenery and hardly any traffic. Since the nation is a French colony, the infrastructure is of near European standard. The population of New Caledonia is about 200,000. Over half of the population live in and around the capital Noumea, located in the south of the Grande Terraine. The rest are scattered around the length of the 400-kilometer long main island and on dozens of outer islands. The little traffic that does pass always gave us a wide birth, a cheerful toot and a friendly wave. What more could a cyclist ask for? Except for the central mountainous section, the roads didn’t have any significant gradients. The outer islands are almost entirely flat and cycling there was a breeze.
The road for the rest of the day hugged the coast along the base of the Massif Du Panie, the highest of which was Mount Paine (1628 meters). The steep mountain slopes rose up like huge green tidal waves to our right and the rugged palm lined Pacific coast stretched along our left. Coconut palms and dense tropical vegetation cover every bit of available space. The region we were passing through is a designated national park and there are a few walking trails. One of the trails climbs the steep slopes to the summit of Mount Paine. I’ve heard the view, across the ocean to one side and rugged mountainous interior on the other, is spectacular. We decided against climbing the peak as we had enough physical activity on our plate already.
The dense green riot of tropical vegetation was only broken occasionally by a gushing mountain stream or the white scar of a roaring waterfall. Cascade De Tao is the largest waterfall and can be seen clearly from the road.
We pass only a couple of clusters of cases and see only a few people for the rest of the day. Dense tropical jungle, the scent of the ocean and a nice flat road surface made this section an absolute pleasure to cycle.
At about 4 o’clock we cycled into Ouenghip, a tiny village consisting of a couple of huts and a lush green campsite set in a coconut grove by the beach. We pay the 800 South Pacific Franc fee and get down to locating the perfect campsite; one that’s out of range of the coconut palms and that has a view of the ocean. We have the entire place to ourselves.
Swaying coconut palms might sound beautiful and idyllic, but they can also be deadly. A coconut weighing four or five kilograms falling from 10 meters or so can easily gather enough momentum to put the Terminator away for good, so its best to be careful. The locals tell you not to worry about falling coconuts, as the three black dots on the nuts are their eyes. The nuts can see where they are falling and never hit anyone. Tradition is all well and good but there are times when the laws of physics seem just a little bit smarter. We pitch our tent well out of the trajectory of the nearest palm.
With the tent pitched and sun beginning to set, we get down to cooking a hearty pasta meal. Got to load up on the old carbohydrates for the next day’s riding. All conversation ceases as we gratefully wolf down the mound of noodles and vegetable sauce. After dinner we head down to the beach with steaming cups of sweet tea.
As the sun begins to sink into the warm tropical brine we once again unfold our map on the beach and weigh down the four corners with shells. In the fading light of the warm tropical evening we plan the next leg of our South Pacific adventure.