by Sally Hammond
A lot of people think there is an country in the Pacific called Noumea. 'We're honeymooning in Noumea,' they say when really they mean the Isle of Pines, an islet off the southern tip of the country of New Caledonia, (now popularly abbreviated to Caledonia) or one of the many other romantic isles in this scattered archipelago. The indigenous inhabitants call the place Kanaky. To the French of course, it is Nouvelle Caledonie. No wonder we're confused.
Even those visitors who come specifically to Noumea, the capital, with a population of 76,000 scarcely travel further than Tontouta airport, about 45 kilometres north.
Yet the cigar-shaped 400-plus kilometre-long 50 kilometre-wide main island of Grande Terre, which of course translates to the fairly plain name of 'big land', has much to offer. Limit yourself to Noumea and its beaches, French restaurants and top-end hotels, though, and you miss much of what makes New Caledonia tick.
For instance nickel is the number one industry here, and New Caledonia has carved extensively into its mountains, making it the world's third-largest producer (only Canada and Russia gouge out more). These mines add a serrated edge to some ridges, and in many parts they are not at all pretty. I would be lying to say that all environmentalists, in New Caledonia or in other countries, are a hundred percent delighted with what is going on there - but (and here's the point) it is seen as a key element in redressing the economy.
The best way to see Grande Terre (or as New Caledonians refer to anything outside of Noumea, 'la brousse', the outback) is by road. Hire a car, position yourself carefully on the right-hand side of the road and head north from Noumea, through the suburbs of painted wooden bungalows, past the airport turnoff and suddenly you are in postcard-land. There are those strange rock formations at Bourail that you've seen in photographs and the ubiquitous stands of white trunked naiouli trees, a sort of paperbark, that turns up distilled into something like tea-tree oil in tiny bottles in the shops in Noumea.
Here you feel you are on the cusp of tropical and temperate zones. One minute it's all gum trees and grassland and you imagine yourself back in Australia (after all New Caledonia does lie parallel between Townsville and Rockhampton), next heavy rainforest, crashing waterfalls and brilliant flowers and birds. Then suddenly you round a curve and the postcard-purple hills behind still waters trick your senses into believing you are in Scotland. No wonder Captain Cook named this place New Caledonia as he passed by in 1774.
If you have a sense of adventure you must cross the island through a range that reaches heights of over 1600 metres and check out the one road in New Caledonia where the 'drive on the right' rule does not apply. The single-lane Thio to Canala road, carved into a mountainside, only allows you to travel north on the odd hours and south on the even ones. This winding red clay road just wide enough for one car has no guard-rails and in places drops abruptly a couple of hundred metres to a tiny river shining like a vein of nickel in the gorge.
On this side of the island the palms still lean romantically over the beach but the sands are black, due to ancient volcanic action. Even here the French accent is apparent. Signs are in French, a small Kanak boy wanders past with a baguette under his arm, and the town's supermarket sells French pate and goat's cheese.
In the evening you may surprise a group of people playing petanque, and at the markets bundles of crusty French bread keep company with taro and tiny spiky pineapples. For you must never forget that this is a self-governing French TOM - Territoire Outre Mer (meaning overseas) and its culture straddles Melanesian and European while somehow keeping its balance.
In 1853 Napoleon III ordered the annexation of the archipelago of New Caledonia and it became a penal colony, and the early history is no less brutal than much of Australia's. The backdrop of incredible island beauty for many of the penal settlements only heightened the gruesome conditions. Heads rolled, literally, after the guillotine was shipped out, but it was not until 1897 that France finally ceased transporting criminal and political prisoners.
The Accord de Noumea in 1998 sealed an agreement between the French colonists and the indigenous Kanaks, and the general feeling is that there is more equality, and harmony now because of it.
To make it to the far end of the island, you need to allow a day or so - time to wander along the east coast through Hienghene, and see the famous black limestone Linderalique cliffs rising sixty metres out of jade-green waters, There are all ranges of hotels and restaurants, here including a Club Med.
For divers the options in New Caledonia are endless. Grande Terre claims a barrier reef second only to the Great Barrier Reef, that encompasses the island creating the world's largest lagoon and depths average 25 metres on the west and 40 metres on the east coast.
Grande Terre is not the tourist vision of New Caledonia. But it gives a broader picture of this complex land - a grander one, you could say.
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