Tontouta (New Caledonia), 04.09.2013
New Caledonia had always been a dream destination of mine. I had seen two of the five major islands, and they were indeed very, very beautiful. It was time to see the mainland, or better the main island, that promised to be quite different. Grande Terre is over 500km long from one end to the other, and you can almost drive all around it. The mountains in the middle were covered in clouds, as it was winter here. On arrival at Magenta airport I picked up a rental car and went to wash my laundry at the Moselle marina’s shopping mall.
Since I had to wait several hours for the laundry to be ready, I drove into town to a cafe on Place des Cocotiers for lunch. Over a tasty entrecôte and a glass of red wine I studied the island maps, read about the different areas and thought about where to go. The far south seemed the best route for the day. The road led along the coastline for over an hour before heading into the mountains. The colour of the earth became red and looked beautiful in combination with the palms, pines and other vegetation. Somehow there seemed to be a river to cross every couple of km, the water being of the same colour as the earth. In the middle of this natural paradise there were mining sites, a major industry in New Caledonia. All day I crossed trucks and pick ups of the mining companies. Around here, big white American and Japanese SUVs were very popular. I drove along the tarred or muddy roads for hours, all around the southern tip of the island. A waterfall with a natural swimming pool at the bottom tempted me to take a bath, but it was too cold, both outside and in the water, with temperatures at 15-20 degrees Celsius only. A stretch of the road led directly along the shore again, mostly mangrove swamps instead of sand beaches. Then the road went up into the mountains again, and after a last look over a red valley with its river flowing into a turquoise bay I drove back overland to Noumea. On the way I got into some heavy rain as I drove along an artificial lake that extended through several valleys. This road would have been fun to drive in my Mini, all curves and ups and downs. Instead the rental car, a cheap white Renault Twingo, threatened to slide away in every sharp curve.
Back in Noumea, I picked up my laundry and drove north, until Tontouta village. It was getting dark and I wanted to do as many km as possible to have time to drive around the northern part of Grande Terre over the next two days. The night in the Tontoutel, a cheap motel across the street from the airport, can be skipped (cheap and uncomfortable, the dinner was bad, but they had WiFi in the lobby and terrace). The next morning it rained heavily again, and I waited until 10:00 to take off with better weather. About an hour later I had crossed to the eastern side of the island, passing through lush mountain landscape. Here I could understand why the first European explorers had called this place New Caledonia. The island is as green and hilly as Scotland and the weather changed between sunshine and heavy rain every half hour. At a supermarket I bought food and drinks and had a great picnic lunch at a roadside resting area. I though about how comfortable it would have been to have had these in so many countries crossed in the last months. The French have a way of building and maintaining highways and countryside roads that makes driving along them very pleasant. Roads are in good shape, there are enough gas stations and clean resting areas, on panoramic spots they build parking areas to enjoy the panorama, even here, on the other end of the world.
On the eastern side of the island I found the road north to be closed by construction. Too bad, since this meant I wouldn’t have had the time to drive all around the island if I wanted to stop every now and then to see something. I had to take the same road back as I had come, get to the western main road and from there drive all the way up north. The fist couple of hours led through beautiful countryside, with a turquoise bay appearing on the horizon occasionally. But the more I drove north, the less interesting the area became. I kept driving, hoping to discover some nicer spots, but had no luck. At 17:00 the sun started to decline and I looked for a hotel. In Koumac all three hotels in town were full, so I had to move on. The LP guide showed two places further north, but by now it was dark. Finally I found a bungalow in a vacation village on Malabou beach. There were just three other guests, and the place felt a bit abandoned at this time of the year. Temperatures were freezing cold as I went to sleep.
The next morning sunshine greeted me, and I realised the bungalow was in the middle of a major resort, with a pool, beach volleyball and pétanque courts, kids playground, kayak rental, restaurants, a private island with bars, small shops and docks for boats – all closed at this time of the year. There was even a tiny airport for ultralight planes that would take you for panorama flights over the bay and the surroundings. Feeling a bit awkward in this empty place I hit the road to discover the northern end of the island. The road quickly converted into a dust track, and I hoped the small Twingo would handle it. Tough the car ultimately survived, it wasn’t fun driving on these roads with this car, and after seeing the Poum peninsula and the northern end of Benare bay, I decided to get back on the main highway. In this wild and empty area, the bays shined in bright turquoise and shades of blue. Beaches were mostly mangrove swamps. I spent several hours soaking up the wildness of the landscape. Further south nature got more beautiful again. There were several large valleys with vegetation in all shades of green and yellow, surrounded by lush mountains. I was amazed by a kind of tree that was quite frequent, I don’t know it’s name, it was T-shaped and had long, wide ranging branches, creating a huge shady area underneath it.
The time on Grande Terre came to an end in the afternoon, when I dropped the car at the airport to catch a plane to the next destination: Polynesia. New Caledonia had been a country full of surprises and different landscapes. I was curious to see the next paradise of the Pacific, just a couple of hours flight away.