We are writing to you from the island of Lifou, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia. After spending a very enjoyable month in the Isle of Pines, we returned to Noumea to re-provision for an exploration of the Loyalty Islands. This 2014 season in New Caledonia, the weather has been uncharacteristically mild. During earlier visits, over our 14 years of cruising, we have been able to remain in the Isle of Pines for no more than a week, as the weather would change and we would have to return north to Grande Terre.
Our two Australian friends, Ian and Ellen, sailed with us from New Zealand in mid-May, and are staying aboard until our return to Kiwiland in six months. Ian keeps us in fresh fish by landing a beautiful, small Albacore tuna, from time to time, with which he and Ellen prepare Sushi.
Our overnight sail from Grande Terre to Lifou was fast and comfortable, with following winds and seas, and no hazards to avoid as we were sailing in the ocean, unlike our passages to and from the Isle of Pines during which we have had to wind our way through coral reefs and islets. At about 4 PM, we departed from our anchorage in a bay named Port Boise on the southeast corner of Grande Terre, just west of Havannah Pass. We timed our passage through the pass for slack tidal currents, and altered course to the north in a southerly breeze of 12 to 18 knots. Perfect conditions for flying our jib and reacher wing-on-wing, “reading both pages”, as the old sailors in the Chesapeake Bay are wont to say.
Our departure was timed for an arrival into Santal Bay on the east coast of Lifou in the daylight hours of the following morning. Our friends Lisa and Frank, aboard their catamaran named MANGO MOON, were waiting for us in the anchorage, and hailed us on the VHF to give us tips for where the coral heads are located, and where to find the sandy bottom to safely set our anchor. Ian donned his swimmers, mask, fins and snorkel, and dived overboard to have a look around. He found a large patch of sand where we dropped our anchor in 12 metres and dug it in deeply. The village ashore is named Drueulu.
We invited Lisa and Frank aboard ADAGIO for 11 o’clock coffee and cake, and I wrote a full page of notes from their tips and tricks for enjoying the island. They are avid divers and showed us on the chart the spot, north of our anchorage, where they snorkeled with a Manta Ray. Several excellent snorkeling spots are at the north end of Santal Bay, near the villages of Chepenehe and Eacho. Xepenehe has a “dinghy pen”, a natural opening in the coral rock, “where we can leave our hard dinghy when we all want to go ashore together. Lisa referred us to the people from whom they had rented a car for a day to tour the island. She also recommended several “must-see” places on Lifou, including the small factory where all of the vanilla bean farmers in the Loyalty Islands bring their vanilla to be processed.
I landed Ellen and Ian ashore from ALLEGRO, on a lovely sand beach, with fossil coral platforms on either side. They wandered around a sleepy village where they watched children arriving at school, visited two curious, tiny, grocery shops, and reported back that they had found a meeting hall/market hall, whose walls were covered in beautiful paintings and empty sea turtle shells. The small homes are made of concrete to resist cyclones and each is paired with a traditional circular hut with thatched roof. A large grotto cave is high on a cliff above the church. The Kanak people who live in these islands, follow many of their ancient traditions. Their seasons and festivals revolve around the planting and harvesting of yams. They also enjoy the benefits of free medical care and education provided by the French. Foods are imported from France, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. The local gardeners sell beautiful, fresh produce at the weekly farmers’ market. As in France, every village of any size has a bakery that provides the locals with baguettes.
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.
We re-anchored ADAGIO off the beach at the village of Easo, sheltered from the forecast easterly and northeasterly winds. We plan to rent a car to tour the island, getting to know the people, and do some more great snorkeling.