A Walk around Kuto Peninsula

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Our favorite walk on the Isle des Pins is at Kuto Peninsula, which follows the shoreline through a forest of Araucaria columnaris pines and pandanus trees, which grow on a base of fossilized coral, many of which are rooted on the tops of ledges jutting out over the water.

During his second voyage in 1774, Captain Cook visited New Caledonia. Jacques Brosse, in his book, Great Voyages of Exploration, 1983, wrote:

“To the south of New Caledonia, he discovered a small island remarkable for its high conifers, which were so crowded together that from a distance they looked like basalt columns. The species belonged to the genus Araucaria, then unknown. These Auracaria columnaris, which measured as high as 70 meters, looked like giant pines, and Cook therefore called the place the Isle of Pines.”

Cook and his carpenter thought these newly discovered trees would be ideal for ships’ masts. On his way to New Zealand, Cook discovered the uninhabited island which he named Norfolk Isle, and on which he discovered the Auracaria tree now called the Norfolk Island pine.

Wikipedia provides the following information:

“Members of Araucaria are found in Chile, Argentina, southern Brazil, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Australia, and New Guinea. ………. These columnar trees are living fossils, dating back to early in the Mesozoic age. ……… By far the greatest diversity exists in New Caledonia, due to the island’s long isolation and stability.[4]

“It is believed that the long necks of sauropod dinosaurs may have evolved specifically to browse the foliage of the typically very tall Araucaria trees. The global distribution of vast forests of Araucaria during the Jurassic makes it likely that they were the major high energy food source for adult sauropods.[10]“

During our walk, it became obvious that the columnaris pines grow quite well on fossilized coral, and on the windward side of the island. The edible seeds of the trees are similar to our familiar “pine nuts”, and plant themselves plentifully beneath their tall parent trees. Some seedlings were sprouting from holes in fossilized coral heads. Trees felled by the wind quickly decompose and provide soil for the seedlings.

Impressions of many types of coral were clearly visible underfoot. Several small, sandy bays had been carved into the shoreline by the waves, and were filled with white pumice stones which had floated ashore from an ocean volcano many miles away. Patches of living coral colored the water offshore.

The trail ended at the backyard of our friends Cleo and Albert, which is full of convict ruins, and overlooking beautiful Kanumera Bay.

A Drive around Ile des Pins with Cleo

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Generous to us as usual, Cleo carried us in her little white car from her home to Vao for the farmers’ market, and to two of the grocery stores (épiceries) on the island. I was able to re-provision really well, since the supply ship had recently visited the island, and the two weddings on the island were over. The past two weeks had been slim pickings for grocery and produce shoppers like us. Several of the women on the island are excellent gardeners, and sell at the open-air marché: billows of Italian parsley and Cilantro (which the locals call Chinese parsley), just-picked lettuces, interestingly-shaped and delicious tomatoes, tiny carrots still wearing their feathery tops, beautiful white radishes which we grate and serve sprinkled with cream, Bok choy for our Hong Kong fried rice dish, fresh basil to serve with the tomatoes, crisp and curly freshly-picked green beans (haricots verts) and more.

Other women sell: gorgeous papayas, green bananas (so they don’t all ripen on the same day), fresh local escargots if we want them, smoked corn on the cob (which we haven’t tried yet), fresh baguettes (better than what the bakery sells), sometimes fresh fish (which we have not tried for fear of Ciguatera poisoning), occasionally large, black crabs, and several items of produce which we have not yet identified.

At the two épiceries I bought a locally-grown large frozen chicken, a package of our favorite Toulouse sausages, a pack of frozen large pork chops and bell peppers, apples and pears just off the supply ship. We can also buy large purple grapes imported from Australia and lovely French cheeses and sliced ham for our lunchtime sandwiches on the baguettes.

We traveled with Cleo to the airport, where she received six boxes from Noumea containing fabrics for Albert to paint, calendars for 2015, copies of books she has published and more. Ian and Ellen were a great help to Cleo in loading the heavy boxes into the car, and then off loading them at Cleo’s house, and into Albert’s Cinema building.

On the way to and from the airport, we drove through the “plateau” of the island, where the minier soils (Peridotites and Serpentines) support an assortment of plants which are close to 100% endemic, including numerous orchids which we could see. Isolated from other lands, geologically and ecologically, large areas of New Caledonia have these ultrabasic soils, which are nearly completely lacking in phosphorus, potassium and calcium, elements considered as indispensable to plant life. In addition the miniers soils are also rich in nickel, manganese, magnesium and other metals considered toxic to plants.

The adaptation of the flora to these very special conditions has resulted in the multiplication of endemic species, which fortunately are not threatened by invasive species from overseas which cannot tolerate the soils. Many of the endemic plants could not subsist without the help of mycorrhizae fungi or symbiotic bacteria which fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil or intervene in the mobilization of certain mineral elements. (Several of these phrases have been translated by me from the book, “Fleurs et plantes de Nouvelle-Calédonia,” Maurice Schmid, Les Editions du Pacific, 2000).

Also unique to the plateau region are the approximately 400 Tumulis. These are mounds of earth, about two to three meters in height and 10 to 15 meters in diameter, covered with shrubbery. Theories about their origin include nesting areas for a large, flightless bird like a New Zealand Moa. Numerous archaeologists have studied them, and there is still no resolution to the question of the origin of these quite ancient mounds.

Steve collected us and our shopping bags in ALLEGRO from the dinghy dock, after I had hailed him on our Motorola family radios.

We arrived back at ADAGIO just before the rain began, enabling us to put the final touches on pre-storm preparations. As it turned out, most of the forecast heavy rain was deflected by Grande Terre and never made it to Ile des Pins. The strong winds forecast did not arrive the following day, and we spent a pleasant day resting, reading and napping.

Steve had been helping Cleo learn about self-publishing resources. She has completed a novel and is putting the finishing touches on a collection of short stories. She has already published several printed books about the Ile des Pins. Deb has been super helpful with advice for Cleo, referring Steve to some of her publishing circle. Our New Zealand writer friend, Eva Brown, has been contributing ideas and sources.

Meanwhile Steve was helping Tony and Brigitte to get the most value from their Mac and iPad. Before long Brigitte had gifted us with a very large pumpkin/squash from her garden.

The following day, the weather was favorable for a passage from Ile des Pins to Noumea, so we enjoyed a pleasant 9-hour sail back to the Big Smoke of Noumea, in time to attend a Festival of the Lagoon near the Port Moselle marina over the weekend. We needed to re-provision with wine and other grocery items that cannot be purchased in Ile des Pins.

Annual Fair at Ile des Pins, 2014

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Over the Pentecost 3-day weekend, the people of the Ile des Pins put on a fun fair, to display their arts, farm products, dances, music, culture and environmental awareness to other New Caledonians (as well as to tourists like us).

About 40 stalls had been set up in the sports grounds near the town of Vao. Each stall was decorated with beautifully woven palm fronds, flowers, shells, fronds woven into birds, turtles, fish and more. Numerous artists displayed their works. Farmers displayed their best Yams (which is a very important part of the tribal culture) and other produce. One stall was selling large black crabs at a good price. Food stalls offered wonderful eats. Groups of children were totally engaged in artfully presented educational materials concerning sea life preservation and protection of the Southern Lagoon of New Caledonia. A stage had been erected with a sound system, and the local dance group performed their traditional dances, accompanied by local musicians playing drums and singing. We enjoyed Tahitian Salad (fresh tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk) and chocolate cake for lunch. We met many interesting locals who showed us their hand made and ornate Ukeleles, seashell jewelery, baskets and designs woven of palm fronds, hand crafted models of traditional outrigger canoes, and other wood carvings. On Sunday there was more dancing, music and even a fireworks display.

After the fair we drove to the beautiful Oure Resort at the far end of Kanumera Bay, to entertain Cleo and Albert in a round of tropical cocktails and enjoyable conversation. As we were departing the hotel, the nearly full moon overhead was encircled by a large “moonbow”. It was spectacular but impossible to photograph. Quite a sight that none of us had seen before. It was the perfect ending to a very pleasant day.

We returned our rental car to the Hotel Kou-Bugny and found our way on foot in the dark, but moon-lit night, to ALLEGRO waiting for us at the dinghy dock, to return us to ADAGIO.

Island Tour in rental car

 

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It was high time we showed Ellen around the Ile des Pins, and reacquainted ourselves with some of our favorite haunts. We collected our rental car at the lovely Kou-Bugny Hotel, on the waterfront at Kuto Bay, and drove north.

On the NE corner of IDP is the tricky-to-enter Baie d’Oro. Oro Bay also must be exited at the top of high tide, and in suitable weather. So our time inside Oro Bay has been special – listening every night to the seas crashing on the reef protecting the small anchorage.

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On the south shore of the bay is the ***** Le Méridien Ile des Pins. This is the real thing – the honeymooner’s dream resort. Not surprisingly, many of the guests are Japanese newly-weds. We stopped there for our first coffee of the day.

There are several limestone caves on the island, and the most accessible one is the Grotto of Queen Hortense. The trail to the entrance of the grotto is through an impressive rain forest of luxuriant tropical vegetation. We were engulfed by beautiful ferns and surrounded by New Caledonian Kaori trees, which are closely related to New Zealand Kauri trees, really tall tree ferns, and enormous vines. The grotto itself is wide open to the forest, with long stalagtites hanging above our heads as we entered. It was in this bat-filled cave where the Kunie Queen Hortense hid during local political upheavals in the 1800’s.

Near the grotto, we heard the unusual song of the New Caledonian Imperial Pigeon, called a Notou (Ducula goliath), the largest tree dweller pigeon on earth. The song can only be described as sounding like the fog horn on the Golden Gate Bridge. No kidding.

The Melanesian inhabitants of Ile des Pins call themselves Kunie. Vao is the only town/village on the island, where the Catholic church, farmers’ market, post office, bank, doctor’s office, Mayor’s building and épicerie (small grocery store) are located. Eight tribes are scattered around the island, each living on its own tribal land. When a child is born and grows up, the tribal chief allocates a parcel of land for a house to be built. The Big Chief lives near Vao.

The Kunie language is spoken among the islanders, who also speak French. Europeans on the island serve as teachers, police, medical professionals and air-traffic controllers. The main roads and airport were build by American servicemen during WWII.

As we toured the island, we passed some of the homes where the locals live. It is traditional to build two buildings, one for sleeping quarters and a second for cooking and living areas. Some of the buildings have been built in the traditional manner with conical thatched roofs; others have been built of cinder blocks, and still others are framed in local wooden poles from the native Kohu tree, with woven palm fronds for the walls. Often there is a covered outdoor seating and dining area. Gardens are primarily filled with colorful native plants and tropical flowers, overshadowed by enormous Poinciana trees, or in the shade of a huge Banyan tree with vertical roots plunging down from the horizontal branches.

It is popular to decorate a house with fishing net floats that have been collected from the beaches. All sizes and colors of floats make trees and homes appear to be festooned with glass Christmas ornaments. Gardens are often encircled by large clam shells, and planted in Vanilla bean orchids which climb up the trunks of trees. Papayas, oranges, limes, and mandarins grow abundantly in the casual orchards. Occasionally we would see an enormous Mango tree, covered with thousands of flowers. Every few kilometers we would spot a steer, tied in a pasture to graze, waiting to be the invited to dinner at an upcoming wedding. Farmers’ gardens where men have planted their traditional Yams, beneath banana and papaya trees, could be seen from the road.

At Baie Saint-Maurice, we visited the memorial to the first Marist missionaries who disembarked in the Ile des Pins in 1848, and WWI war memorial. Surrounding the religious statue are many wooden poles that have been carved by members of all of the Kunie tribes on the Ile des Pins. Amusing faces and sea creatures are the primary subjects of the carvings.

Near Kuto Bay, where ADAGIO was anchored, is the Gendarmerie (police station), bakery, a couple of grocery stories, and best of all the Boutique owned by our friends Cleo and Albert, where their home is located. Our friends Tony and Brigitte live there, too, and Tony has his own boutique for wood carvings. These four European friends have lived in Ile des Pins for nearly forty years, have built their own houses, gardens and businesses. Originally founders of the first SCUBA dive resort in New Caledonia, they now make and sell their art and written publications from their two gift shops located near Kuto Bay. We have known them since our first visit to Ile des Pins in year 2000. It is always wonderful to see them, catch up on all of their news and learn more about New Caledonia.This 

Lifou – underwater at Cap Mande

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All of the Loyalty Islands are ancient atolls made of fossilized coral, which have been uplifted numerous times, beginning during the Tertiary, forming a series of platforms in a stair-step arrangement, from the sea up to the center of the island. A platform in the center of the island is the original bottom of the ancient lagoon, and the high cliffs along the shoreline are the ancient fringing coral reefs. The porous fossilized coral is well drained, so there are no streams or rivers, but there is a deep fresh water aquifer beneath Lifou. The island of Ouvea has no aquifer, so the inhabitants get their fresh water from a desalination plant.

Because there is no runoff from the islands, the water is crystal clear and the visibility is in the dozens of meters, making for brilliantly clear, in-focus underwater photos. We piled into our catamaran dinghy ALLEGRO and visited some of the underwater caves located in the lee of the high fossilized coral cliffs south of us. Acres and acres of coral shelves spreading out from the bases of the cliffs, support every kind of hard coral you can imagine, in all colors, shapes and sizes, all in excellent condition. We watched fish we had never seen before, both above the coral shelves and in the deep blue waters surrounding the shelves.

Piroque Sailing in Baie d’Upi

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Over the years of our numerous visits to Ile des Pins, our friend Cleo has been encouraging us to sail aboard a traditional outrigger canoe in the Baie d'Upi, which is otherwise off limits to tourists. During past visits, we have not had such an extended period of fine weather as we are experiencing this year.

Cleo booked the four of us on a piroque owned, built and skippered by a local Kunie man named Momo. On a Saturday, after a quick trip to the Marché, Cleo delivered us to Saint Joseph Bay, where the local fishermen have anchored their outrigger canoes. Just ashore, there were several piroques under construction. We watched Momo as he hoisted his lateen sail and then used a long pole to position the stern of the boat so that we could board without having to wade in water more than about two feet deep.

Momo motored our vessel through a long, shallow, sandy channel to where the bay opened up to reveal a beautiful native forest-lined shoreline surrounding stunning blue water, sparkling in the sunshine. We passed native Heron sitting on its nest that had been built on top of a large rock, surrounded by the clear water. Off in the distance were dozens of large coral islets, that had been undercut by the sea to form mushroom-shapes on the tops of which native shrubbery was luxuriating. The wind filled in from astern and we glided along, with a few other piroques in the distance. The mast and boom of the piroque were made of long, flexible poles from a native tree. The lower end of the boom formed a fork which hooked onto the base of the mast so that it could rotate freely with the sail. The sail was professionally made of modern sail cloth. The sails were lashed to the spars with orange polypropylene line.

Momo steered the boat with a long pole rudder, while he played the sail with a two part tackle resting across his lap. Mount Pic N'ga was visible on the horizon, above the Columnaris pine trees. We sailed close enough to the Mushroom-shaped coral islets to see how perfectly level the seas had carved the bases, presently a few meters above the water level. It was a perfect, fine day with cumulus clouds scattered above and good lighting for our photographs.

After three hours, we returned to St. Joseph Bay, where we boarded our reserved taxi for a quick trip back to Cleo's house to collect our purchases from the Marché, including two fat crabs that Tony was storing for us, during which time one had escaped from its bag and Brigitte had to chase it across her garden.

 

Orcas at the Te Pahi Islands on Christmas Eve

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On Christmas Eve, as we were sipping our margaritas in the cockpit, we received a fine Christmas gift of a pod of Orcas swimming along the shore nearby, then right past ADAGIO. It looked as if the Orcas were catching sting rays, which is their favorite food. We had both of our SLR digital cameras at the ready by the cockpit door, one fitted with 17-85mm and the other with 70-300mm lenses. Between the two of us we managed to get a few photos of actual Orcas – not just “where the Orca used to be” or “what is that blurry splash?”.
 
These Orcas were not as large as the ones we have seen in the San Juan Islands and in British Columbia.  There was at least one baby, swimming close to its mom.  I think they were females except possibly one young male.  Theirs is a matriarchal society, and the family stays together for many years.  One of the photos shows the tail flukes in the air of a very young Orca next to its mom.  You will also see that one of the Orcas has a golden-brown patch on its dorsal fin.  
 
After the Orcas had swum away, I telephoned Ingrid Visser, New Zealand’s (and the world’s) Orca expert on her Orca sighting hotline (0800SEE ORCA).  Ingrid answered the phone and I described our sighting. She has photo identified all of the Orcas in New Zealand, and studied Orcas in Antarctica and elsewhere.  She said that she and her team of Orca researchers will try to come up to this area soon, to follow up on our sighting and to try to find the Orcas again. We will send her all of our best Orca photos so that Ingrid can send us the names of the Orcas.  
 
Ingrid’s web site is orcaresearch.org, and her work was featured in a very interesting BBC documentary last year. Having read her book “Swimming with Orca” twice it was time to send to our granddaughter to enjoy.