Cruising Solo (pt3)…New Caledonia and Tropical Islands

by Anna Buckley

IMG_5850[1]Last night the captain announced that tomorrow we’d be sailing into New Caledonia. The first of the islands would be visible at around 5.15 am. After 4 nights and 3 days at sea I was pretty keen to get a glimpse of land.

I woke at dawn, threw some clothes on and headed to the highest deck. A catamaran sailed past some strange looking pine trees, unexpected shapes…but we were headed to the Isle of Pines so it shouldn’t have been surprising that palm trees weren’t the only things growing on these tropical islands.

South East Asia, Europe, America…places I’d traveled to and very familiar with. But these small cluster of islands north-east of Australia, near neighbors in fact, were more foreign than the distant places I’d already visited. I’d been pretty slack about doing research before my trip and had absolutely no idea of what to expect. Shame on me…I really wanted to find out more.

IMG_5845[1]Along with the fitness junkies pounding the deck, a few people had risen early to see the first sight of land. Not much conversation, many of us staring bleary eyed, waiting for the shore to come more clearly into focus.

None of the restaurants were open for breakfast but the coffee station was all fired up and I definitely needed a caffeine fix at this ungodly hour of the day. I found a table and again talked to strangers. We swapped travel stories, poured more coffee and confessed to know very little of New Caledonia and what the next two days might be like.

I looked at my watch, yawned, 5.45, still some time before the buffet opened and far too early to be up. I returned to my room and went back to bed.

IMG_5852[1] I was woken by my phone buzzing. It was Dorothy asking whether I’d like to go snorkeling with her on the Island, she had a spare set of gear. Wayne had some work stuff to catch up on and didn’t know when he’d be finished.

“Love to. What time?”

“How about 11, by then the boats, would be less busy and we could easily get on and make our way to shore.”

“Yes, that would be fun. See you then.”

From my window I could see the small boats, ‘tenders’ as Dorothy had called them, ferrying passengers from the ship to a small jetty. The harbour was too shallow for the ship to dock so this shuttling was the only way to get to land. The sky was still overcast and I hoped that by 11 the clouds might have cleared.

IMG_5855[1]The trip from boat to shore was about ten minutes. We walked along the small pier and arrived at what looked like ruins. Dorothy said The Isle of Pines had been used by the French as a penal colony in mid 1800s. I could see a very high wall

“Political prisoners, sent all this way for speaking out against the regime,” she said.

Not knowing what the conditions were like inside the jail I thought, flippantly, there could have been far worse places to be exiled.

IMG_5854[1]Past the restored police quarters, two uniformed men exited, greeting us with friendly “Bonjours”.  A cluster of school children rode by, chatting excitedly, looking like a scene from ‘Madeline Goes South Pacific’ and of course more smiling “Bonjours” and tinkling of bells as we tried to avoid any awkward collisions. It was hot, steamy and, peculiarly very French.

IMG_5858[1]My senses were aroused by the sight of smoky barbecues and the scent of something delicious cooking. Lobster, being grilled on charcoal. Women in bright coloured dresses selling decadent seafood filled baguettes. I looked at Dorothy, she’d read my mind.

“After a swim?”

“Definitely,” I replied.

We continued through the little village, amidst the trees, stopping to look at a market stall selling sarongs and beach dresses. Tonight there was to be a tropical pool party and I didn’t have anything appropriately ‘loud’ to wear. Dorothy mentioned there was a bigger store on the beach front, next to a the restaurant. It was getting very hot and I was quite thirsty. It was almost 12 and we both agreed an icy cold beer would do the trick.

IMG_5863[1]We emerged from the small cluster of buildings in the jungle to find a palm lined beach, pristine white sand, achingly beautiful turquoise water and barely a soul for miles. Lunch and the dull weather was obviously keeping the crowds away. I grabbed a table right out the front of the beachside bar. Dorothy grabbed the drinks. The beers were good. We got talking to a waiter and he told us the snorkeling on the other side of the beach, in the lagoon, was brilliant for coral and fish.

It was beginning to drizzle and decided we might as well be swimming in the rain rather than sitting, fully clothed, in it and headed for the lagoon. We would come back to the beach later. Maybe eat one of those lobsters, perhaps sip a glass of French Champagne… indulge in a decadent afternoon treat?

IMG_5872[1] Back along the road and through this enchanted forest we walked.

IMG_5856[1] More white sand, a sheltered blue lagoon and a small island.

IMG_5865[1]We found a protected spot under a tree and put on our gear. The sea was refreshingly cool and below the water….a spectacular tropical aquarium filled with a colourful array of fish, clams and coral. We swam for ages, completely oblivious of time and the weather. Eventually we got back to our spot on the beach to discover our clothes and towels were completely saturated from the now monsoonal downpour blanketing the Island. It was getting late. We stuffed our wet things into our sodden bags and ran back to the pier to catch the last of the days tenders.

Back on board, after a hot shower and a change of clothes I felt a slight sense of regret that I’d started out so late and not spent more time on this gorgeous little Island. There was still so much to explore. I started to think what it would be like to return, to come back when the sun was shining, when I had a little bit more time. My mind wandered with thoughts of what Christina would do if she was stranded there.

IMG_5876[1]Knock, knock. It was Dorothy, she’d left me an hibiscus flower for my hair. It was all she could find. We never did make it back to the stall selling the beach dresses. The pool party had been cancelled, the rain now a storm, but the Reggae band would be playing inside. We shared a drink with an umbrella in it and toasted a lovely day out. Pity about the weather, but we vowed to return.

That night, as the ship quietly sailed us to our next destination I dreamt of blue lagoons, white beaches and tall dark Frenchmen…Christina was playing with my mind!

IMG_5878[1] This time I slept a little longer and woke to a very different morning. Bright blue sunshine. In the distance I could see a larger Island, Lifou, with a sweeping bay between tall cliffs. A church on a distant promontory. The map showed a road to the chapel, it didn’t look too far. It wasn’t that I desired a religious experience it was just that a decent walk might make up for the ridiculous amount of food I’d been eating.

After breakfast I caught one of the first tenders.

It was really hot and I wanted to do the trek before the sun became too intense, giving me an almost legitimate excuse to avoid the exercise and settle under a palm tree instead.

IMG_5882[1] As I walked along the jetty people had stopped, looking into the water taking photos.

I was delighted by the sight of sea turtles swimming freely in the shallow turquoise water. Magical… I was almost tempted to dive straight in.

IMG_5881[1] But I had all day and decided I’d snorkel the bay later. Start at one end and finish, with the turtles, at the pier.

IMG_5883[1]A short walk up the road took me to the small village and my first view of thatched huts and more traditional tribal life.

IMG_5889[1] A ceremony welcoming us to the Island was underway.

IMG_5888[1] And the local people were beginning to set up stalls.

IMG_5890[1] All this could wait, I was on a fitness pilgrimage, and I began my thirty minute walk up the hill.

IMG_5898[1] Through a fairly steep jungle path.

IMG_5896[1] With an interesting tribal totem either greeting me or, more likely, warding me off, near the entrance to the church.

IMG_5894[1] And a more familiar one, praying for my soul, on top of the humble little place of worship.

IMG_5895[1]I looked out to see my particular place of sanctuary sitting in the bay, and meditated on air-conditioning and icy cold wine.

IMG_5897[1] It was quite a climb and I sat contemplating how the hell I’d made it here from that distant jetty, in this heat. The water looked even more enticing and I knew the only way to get to it was back down that hill. I began to doubt whether I’d be left with enough energy to swim what now looked like a very wide bay.

IMG_5900[1] After a slug of tepid water and a short rest under a jungle tree I was ready to make the easier walk downhill back to Easo Beach. Once there I was glad I’d made the effort and slightly less guilty about the calories I’d been consuming.

IMG_5901[1]The stalls were now in full swing.

IMG_5885[1]And I just couldn’t resist the smell of a spicy chicken curry and, pointing to the sign, purchased a ridiculously big plateful…

IMG_5884[1]and a well deserved tub of fresh paw paw and shaved coconut…so much for my calorie busting walk!

 The fine weather had brought out many of my fellow cruisers, the beach was crowded. The shade was much sought after and I squeezed my way between the familiar blue towels to find a cool spot. The curry was a mild coconut chicken and the fruit juicy and sweet. Sticky and hot, a swim was now most definitely needed.

The water was bliss but the visibility close to shore, pretty poor and uninspiring. I swam about 30 metres further out, away from the crowds and found lots of brightly coloured fish and a more pristine coral reef.

My heart raced as  a coral snake swam by. Surely that skinny long thing with the tiny mouth couldn’t hurt me? In a fit of mild panic I kicked my fins hard, not looking back, and put some distance between me and the killer snake and closer, or so I hoped, to the turtles I’d seen earlier.

IMG_5903[2]Eventually I reached the pier, swam through the pillars, from one side to the next, but to no avail. The turtles had gone, scared off by the hundreds of people who’d descended upon their previously quiet bay.

I could see another tender about to dock so I grabbed my things and raced back down the jetty and slumped, exhausted, into a seat. Back on the ship, a cooling shower, then an icy cold beer, poolside, was all I needed to make a suitable recovery.

IMG_5910[1]That night we regrouped around table 170, swapped stories of the days adventures and were treated to a rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ by the dining room team. We waved our white napkins above our heads, sang along and cheered when the impromptu choir finished.

Their ‘O Sole Mio’ meant ‘My Sunshine’  and I winced as I lowered my arms realising that OLD SOLO ME was just beginning to feel the burnt skin and the effect of the very sun they sang about (and the areas the block-out hadn’t reached)…perhaps the first downside of my lone adventure!

I may have to ask for help… or would that be far too adventurous?

An awkward request, who would I ask? I’d have to think about it. Maybe a good nights sleep would make things clearer…or not?

Coming next… Vanuatu and the fruit bat snack.

 

Anna Buckley Books

Love you to read my books.

The Lost Woman series follows the sexy adventures of Christina as she makes her way through a world of new media, design, fashion,  travel, and … men.

A perfect read for those of you looking for something after Fifty Shades of Grey.
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