|Passez-vous le Sunscreen|
by Sally Hammond
How do you do this? Travel 2.5 hours from Sydney and, in less time than you'd be in Mudgee, switch cultures, languages, and even the side of the road you drive on?
Impossible? Not if you zip off to New Caledonia for the week, or even a romantic weekend. Somehow it's the destination everyone thinks of as much further away. Maybe it's the relaxed feel of the place.
For many years, even I - a dedicated card-carrying Francophile - never realised there was a splash of France in the Pacific. And so close too. A mere croissant throw away. All right, it's 1500 kilometres, but that passes fast on the Air Calin/Qantas flight. Lunch, movie, nap - ooh, time to buckle up for the descent.
So here I am, stepping off the plane at Tontouta airport, 45 minutes north of Noumea, the capital.
Many 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. The indigenous inhabitants call the place Kanaky. To the French of course, it is Nouvelle Caledonie. No wonder we're all confused.
In Noumea itself (now should that be New-mea?) you can join the locals as they jog and stroll along waterside boulevards, stand silently watching as silver balls make their soft 'petanque' sound in a ritual evening game, maybe get in some serious shopping, or simply snorkel the day away.
At the waterfront markets, bundles of crusty French bread keep company with taro and tiny spiky pineapples. This is where, on Saturday morning, Madame Noumea, shopping bag at the ready, comes to stock up on her weekend supplies - manioc and the freshest fruit and vegetables, bright-eyed fish, patisserie, and even flowers for the table, and she pays in French Pacific Francs.
For you must never forget that this is a self-governing French TOM - Territoire Outre Mer (overseas territory) straddling Melanesian and European culture, while somehow - mostly - keeping its balance. French is the lingua franca here, and while you will possibly get along in English (at least in Noumea) it's best to pack a phrasebook.
Most visitors come specifically to Noumea, but limit yourself to this town and its beaches, the French restaurants and top-end hotels, and you miss much of what makes New Caledonia tick. The cigar-shaped 400-plus kilometre-long 50 kilometre-wide main island of Grande Terre, which translates to the fairly plain name of 'big land', has much to offer.
The best way to see the rest of the island (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 and is said to have broken away from us ages ago), 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 the nickel (which is New Caledonia's major mineral industry,) in the gorge below.
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, and a small Kanak boy wanders past with a baguette under his arm, while the town's supermarket sells French wine, pate and goat's cheese.
Recently I dipped my toe again in French waters. While New Caledonia may have had its share of bad press about high prices in the past, just think about this. At $1599 per person (conditions apply) you get all this, plus flights and seven nights accommodation. Paris simply could not compare.
And forget that 24-hour flight too. How else could you reach France so quickly and find yourself wining and dining a la Francais, the same day, almost within sight of Australia?