The terrible destruction of Notre Dame had me rummaging through photos of my last trip to Paris. I had stayed near the Cathedral on Ile Saint Louis in an apartment with my friends Lucy and Courtenay. I arrived first and had a night alone before they got there. I was jet lagged and woke up wide awake at 4 am. I decided to go for a run. (Very unlike me. Only time I have ever done this).
I ran through the dark streets with only the garbage men and street sweepers for company. I must have been mad. I crossed the Seine, awkwardly managing the cobblestones, down an empty street with a massive edifice looming over me. I suddenly realised I was next to Notre Dame. I ran to the front of the Cathedral and craned my head up to see the towers, dark silhouettes against the lightening sky. There was nobody there.
I had the entire square, the whole Place de la Cathédrale to myself. The building had an eerie presence. It seemed to be waiting. I could just make out the contorted faces of the gargoyles in the first traces of dawn light. There was a sense of foreboding. It seemed very very big and I felt very very small. I sensed the weight of history there. All the souls who had worshiped there, the marriages, burials, coronations. I sensed the great cast of French history, all glaring down at me. Little, tiny, insignificant me, staring back up at its great facade, eyes wide, mouth open, frozen. For a moment, it seemed as though a portal had opened and the past was right there, so close I could reach out and touch the robes of the King, or Napoleon’s horse, or hear the soft chanting of the monks.
Footsteps behind me stirred me from my dream. It was a nun. She turned her head to look at me as she passed. She went to a small door on the left hand front of the cathedral and opened it with a key. She paused and said as if to make sure, “La cathédrale n’est pas ouverte”. (The Cathedral isn’t open) She then disappeared into the building and closed the ancient door behind her with a clang.
A shiver went through me and I ran as fast as I could back to the apartment.
In the bright light of mid morning I went back to the Cathedral. There were masses of tourists, the square was buzzing with activity. The menacing heaviness had been replaced with cheerful brightness. I went into the Cathedral and sat for a long time sketching. My fear from the early morning had disappeared.
Lucy, Courtenay and I later came back and did the tourist thing. We took happy photos in front of the world famous tourist attraction.
I had forgotten my solitary experience at the cathedral until today when I saw footage of the fire. Had I seen a ghost? Had I felt a time warp, a flexing of the here-and-now to a time before? Or did I simply glimpse my own mortality?
Perhaps I just imagined it all?
Lucy and I doing the tourist thing in the light of day.
It’s winter and its cold and often blowy. I’m not getting on my bike much. But I’ve promised myself that every time I go and get the mail, I’ll do it by bike. It’s a quick 6 km circuit down to the post office and back and the hills are made easy with my e-bike (no, it’s not cheating!) I ride past horses I know by name – there’s John the big grey – past the dead Norfolk island pine where there are often black cockatoos perched looking out on the view. I ride past a block of Tempranillo grape vines, stunning red in autumn but bare now. I wave at the neighbour as he drives past. “I wonder when he’s going to burn his pile” I think. His bonfire stack is looking pretty impressive now. I take a low gear detour down a sandy track, yuccas on one side, shiraz grapes on the other. At Olivers’ Road I get off the bike and take a photo of some metal paddock sculptures, careful not to electrocute myself on the live stock fence remembering how my son learned that lesson he’ll never forget when he tried to pat the horse which is today grazing in the distance and artfully framed by the paddock sculpture.
I brave the hills of Oliver’s Road. The steep gradient isn’t an issue with the e-bike, but the lack of verge and the speed of the trucks carting sand from the quarry makes this section of the ride a bit hairy. I pull over on the way down Chalk Hill and snap the vista of bare grape vines, rolling hills and clouds as fluffy as pillow stuffing.
I’m soon in Field Street and nip to the post box to grab the mail. Then I’m back on the bike onto the cycle track skirting the back of the township. I didn’t bring any money today so I can’t stop for a coffee. I ride past the ancient bare pear tree and big fig on the track. These are covered in fruit in summer as they have their roots in the water of Pedlar’s Creek. If you get here before the birds and the other locals who know about these trees you’ll snaffle a bountiful harvest.
I follow the bike track to Caffrey Street and pause here to take photos of old almond trees covered in blossom. It was the Almond Blossom Festival at Willunga last weekend even though the almond blocks have almost all gone now, replaced by vineyards. It’s a short ride now up the hill to home, past Gary’s dog which always barks ferociously and threatens to jump the fence. I used to be frightened of it but these days I yell “shut up!” pump the e-bike up to high and shoot past at speed. I’m home now, and there’s my dog, also barking with excitement that I’m back. I let her out of her yard and she does her characteristic 360s which say “see, I’m glad you’re home, I’m glad you’re home.”
Astonishingly, the net tells me there are apparently 252 bike routes in McLaren Vale, including the Official Tour Down Under route. Check out the routes here https://www.bikemap.net/en/l/2066679/. Maybe I’ll see you on my next post office run ….
“I fucking love Asia,” Anth said, drawing back deeply on a cigarette. We had just arrived in Bali and Anth had already lit up. He had the lighter and packet in hand as the airport doors slid open, ready to satisfy his addiction the minute we stepped into the tropical heat. He surveyed the chaos of taxi pick ups with drivers jostling for a spot as they waved passenger name cards, the frangipani girls handing out flower necklaces, the racket of motorbikes on the airport road. He sighed with relief, put the ciggie in his mouth, lit it, put his head back and said again to the heavens “I fucking love Asia.”
Anth had lived and worked in Malaysia and loved the ex pat life. He loved the din of market places, the exotic food, the anything goes attitude of drivers on the road, the lack of rules and regulations. He loved the monkeys stealing food from his balcony. He loved being able to afford everything; expensive drinks, as many cigarettes as he could smoke, having servants to clean up and make life easy. At work, his staff treated him with deference, and as an executive he was given special treatment. He loved feeling like a king. He told me all of this when he reminisced. It was the highlight of his career, perhaps of his life.
Now, five years on from that Bali trip, I was back in Asia but he was gone. Before I left home, I had gone to the spot at home where we had scattered his ashes. I took my mother’s antique locket, a bulky silver Victorian artefact too heavy to wear, and scraped some of his fragments into it and put it in an inner pocket of my backpack. I was going to deliver them to Angkor Wat, and give some of him back to the Asia he loved, and the Buddhism he admired.
The Cambodia trip was a bike trek charity fundraiser for brain cancer research. Anth had died from a brain tumour and I was on a mission to preserve his legacy. Somehow, doing this, I thought, would make sense of everything. Of loving him, and losing him. And I needed to put the terrible memories behind me. The flashbacks of his decline, of ambulance trips, of nights in the hospital, the surgery, at his bedside, and the most terrible, at the hospice as he lay dying. The terrible memories I couldn’t wait to drench out with new, overwhelming ones from this adventure in Cambodia that I was about to take.
I had harassed everyone I knew, and some I didn’t, for money towards the cause. It seemed the more I raised, the less pointless his death might become. But even $10,000 later, it seemed just as pointless. And if his death was pointless, so viciously random, what then of this existence of all of ours? It seemed equally pointless and I cursed the universe for giving me this insight. I looked at others going about their day-to-day business and an voice inside me would lament “Poor bastards, they don’t know. It is all temporal. An illusion. It will all be taken away. Maybe tomorrow. Life is short. And then you die.” So, in an effort to drown out this voice, I joined Team Flinders (Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide was where Anth received treatment). I trained and fundraised, trying like mad to make my realisation of the futility of existence subside.
Arriving in Siem Reap, I stepped into another world. Here people didn’t seem to care if they lived or died. There were no road rules. Tuk Tuks and motorbikes swerved between cars and buses. If one side of the road was blocked, they simply drove on the other, into oncoming traffic. Masses of phone and electrical cables hung like spaghetti drying between leaning electrical poles in a crazy mess. Foul smells rose from open sewers. In the countryside, as we rode our bikes, we passed poverty bound villages with no running water; water was stored in large earthen jars under houses, and no toilets I could see. There were cows and dogs roaming at large, occasionally getting in the way of passing motorbikes which shifted them with the beep beep of their horns. I saw truck loads of workers packed like cattle in trucks going to and from work in the fields or in factories. Fishermen, knee deep in muddy ponds, systematically pounded the mud with fish cages, looking for catch. When the sun shone clouds of dust rose from the roads and when it rained, mud was everywhere. Everything was dirty.
I had met Anth on an internet dating site. On his profile, under “religion” he had put “Buddhist”. Early on in our relationship I challenged him about this. “You’re not Buddhist!” I said, “You’re Catholic. You’re Italian!” “Yeah, well, I’m a Buddhist Catholic!” he retorted. Anth had the biggest collection of self-help and metaphysical books I had ever seen. He loved reading about all things spiritual, including reincarnation. He had tarot cards printed with the Arch-Angel Michael (his favourite – he named his car after him), affirmation wall hangings and Buddha statuettes. He burned incense. Both times we went to Bali Anth insisted on receiving blessings at the Hindu temple at Uluwatu. I thought it was all a bit of a fad and whenever he talked about it I inwardly rolled my eyes. He called it his “hoobly-goobly”.
However, when he was sick I came to understand the depth of this hoobly goobly. Early on in his illness he devoured books with titles such as “The Book of Awakening”, “The Power of Intention”, “Anatomy of the Spirit”, “Quantum Healing” and “Faith”. He listened to the Dalai Lama, Gregorian chants and recitations of poetry of literary masters. This learning gave him strength to accept the finality of his illness and to prepare for his journey elsewhere with great dignity.
As his illness progressed I realised that his connection to Buddhism was far deeper than I had first assumed. In the hospital, when asked if he would like some religious guidance, he said “I don’t want to talk to any pedo priest. Just put on the Dalai Lama.” He would listen to the Dalai Lama chanting over and over again, and insisted he could not sleep without it. “I feel like it is healing me. I see a white light when I listen to it,” he said. The ancient sounds soothed him. It was as if they spoke to his soul.
I didn’t scatter the ashes at Angkor Wat. With the crowds of tourists, and the immensity of the place, it was too much of a public space. But riding through the forest to the Bayon, the Khmer king’s temple, I knew this was the spot. There seemed to be a Buddha face on every wall, in every direction. I knew Anth would approve. I asked Yann, our guide, to take me to a place inside where I could scatter his ashes.
He showed me the way up the steep staircase to the central tower. We took our shoes off at the entrance and the huge ancient flagstones were cool underfoot. An old woman in white robes sat at the doorway. In the centre of the dark space was an alter with incense and offerings of flowers and money and two opened cans of Angkor beer complete with straws. Behind was a large seated stone Buddha, wrapped in orange cloth. We sat cross-legged on the mat on the floor before the alter and I put some riel into the money box. I took the silver locket out of my backpack. To my horror I realised it had opened slightly in transit and at least half of the ashes had tipped out into the backpack’s front pocket. I took what remained in the locket and emptied it into the incense burner at the foot of the Buddha. Yann said to me, “You should repeat this prayer. Then the soul will go up.” He pointed up above our heads to the small opening at the very top of the conical roof through which you could just see the sky.
I repeated the words after Yann, and then sat with my eyes closed, my hands in the prayer position. I could hear tourists behind me, coming and going, the odd shutter clicking. I thought of how many other people had sat here, before me, for almost a thousand years, making this prayer for their dead. I thought of the Khmer kings, and the great ceremonies and pageants this temple had seen. And now there was a little bit of Anth, the Buddhist catholic, resting in this inner sanctum as well.
But then I thought of the fragments of Anth in my backpack’s front pocket, along with my lip balm and some spare cash. I could hear Anth saying “Oh for fuck’s sake Jill! Fesse di mamada!” He would always resort to dialect when he really wanted to swear. “I’m coming with you. Don’t think you can get rid of me that easily,” I heard him say. “Yes I know. You fucking love Asia,” I whispered back to him.
I left the inner sanctum smiling, hugging my backpack.
So Anth came with me on the six day bike ride over 336 kilometres of Cambodia’s back roads. Together, we rode in the heat, the humidity and then the rain. We visited tumble down temples with great figs growing through the ruins. I realised I was on a pilgrimage. Most days we rode 60 km. One day it was 80km. Sweat poured from me over the rocky roads, some so bumpy my hands lost feeling with gripping for many kilometres. The bitumen was worse, with the reflected heat baking us from both directions. My back ached from an old injury. But there was no way I wasn’t going to complete the challenge. I was doing this for Anth. And he was with me, in the backpack.
As I rode my bike the irony did not escape me. Here we were, riding in a third world country, raising money to battle a rich person’s disease. A disease the West can afford to treat, with expensive surgery, medicines and radiotherapy. In Cambodia, 70 per cent of people do not even have access to fresh drinking water. Their worries are far more immediate than dying from cancer. In fact, I wondered, looking at the loose electrical cabling, the crazy traffic, the 8 year olds riding motorcycles without helmets, the rancid ponds next to ramshackle wooden shacks, did Cambodians worry about anything?
Here there seemed to be less regard for the sanctity of life but more regard for the eternal. Spirituality is everywhere. Almost every house had a little shrine, like a mini pagoda, on a pole in the yard. Recorded chanting would blare out from speakers in village pagodas across the fields, so loud that when we passed on our bikes we would have to put a hand over the ear closest to the noise to preserve our eardrums. Sometimes it would mark a wedding, with marquees set up on the street with flowing pink curtains dragging in the dust of the village. Buddhist monks were a frequent sight. Yann told me boys and young men often join the monastery for a few years as a normal rite of passage. I rode past a beautiful monastery and paused for a moment to take a photo. There was a young monk who was cutting grass with a scythe. He asked me “why you put phone in your pants?” “No pockets” I said. He laughed, and so did I. “You speak good English”, I said. “Where you go?” he replied. “I don’t know” I said. And we both laughed again.
The action of riding a bike over a long distance is so automatic, so repetitive, it becomes a meditation. You do not even realise you are riding, or that you are thinking. As you pass through places, thoughts and memories float past your mind’s eye, like boats on a river.
The events of Anth’s illness, death and its aftermath went through my head as I rode. I saw myself walking away from the first hospital, where he underwent the brain biopsy and waiting for the terrible news in the Catholic cathedral, sitting in a pew alone, silently weeping, uncomforted by the vaulted ceiling or stone angels. I thought of our tears, together at home on the bed, embracing when he said “I thought we would have more time together.” I thought of the terror in his eyes as he lay convulsing on the couch, the first of the grand mal seizures we knew were a sign that time was running out. I remembered his courage making the decision to go ahead with the brain surgery, knowing it could kill him but hoping for more time, and my relief and joy when that time was granted and he came out of the operation still Anth. I thought of the laughs we had making fun of the doctors and nurses and the unsuspecting occupational therapist who was too sincere for his own good. I thought of the beautiful times we had at home with our family and friends and especially our two weddings, the first in ICU before the big op, when we didn’t know if he’d make it through the next 24 hours. And I thought of the last days at the hospice as he battled for breath, still listening to the chants of his Dalai Lama.
I thought of these things as I pushed those pedals through the Cambodian countryside, in a kind of trance.
As I passed through each village, children ran to the roadside shouting out “Hello!” or “Bye Bye!” Their happy cries would wake me from the past and make me laugh. Older kids would put up their hands for a passing high five, the younger ones jumping up and down excitedly with cheeky grins, waving madly as we went by. At school dismissals large groups of kids in school uniforms would crowd the roadside, shouting and laughing at us. Sometimes, the kids with bikes rode with us a short distance, in a mini race, grinning all the way.
And slowly, like morning mist over the Mekong, the burden of my memories lifted in the sunshine.
On the last day we rode to the Wat Banan temple outside Battambang. This temple is perched on a steep hill, with a 300 step climb to the top. At the foot of the stairs a group of children met us with fans. “Hello. My name is Rina,” one beautiful girl in a striped t-shirt said. I guessed she was about 10 years old. “I will be your guide.” She started to fan me enthusiastically. I guessed I would have to pay her something at the end of the visit. I was with two fellow riders from Team Flinders and each had a child latched on to them, fanning away. “This special place,” Rina said. “Come. I show you.”
As I made my way up the staircase, Rina climbed with me step by step, fanning me all the time. With her one word commentary she pointed out the features of the place like Champei (frangipani), her friend Compei and the fact that when I paused half way up, we had exactly 156 more steps to go.
At the top, through a narrow portal surrounded by the top branches of the hillside’s trees, was the temple compound. A beautiful stillness filled the air. There was something rich and peaceful in the quietness of the place. On this hilltop, with Rina and her friends, we seemed very close to heaven. I knew this was the place to scatter what remained of Anth’s ashes in the backpack. First I again went to the inner sanctum, which this time was much smaller and less imposing. A friendly lady kept guard over the small white Buddha here. She took my riel and blessed me by tying a strand of red wool around my wrist. She got me to repeat a prayer in Khmer, which was more complicated than the one Yann taught me, and which she gave up trying to get me to replicate. “What did that mean?” I asked Rina. “It was for good luck,” she said.
My riding companions had already started their descent down the stairs. “Come,” Rina said. “I will show you the mountain.” Other than the friendly holy woman, it was just me, Rina and her little friends in the temple now. The building was partly in ruins, with great blocks of stone strewn across the hilltop. I followed Rina, hopping from block to block across the back of the temple to a spot where the trees parted and a beautiful view of rice paddies and palm trees opened out before us. I opened the front pocket of my backpack and brushed out the remaining ashes. The breeze caught them and they were carried away out over the Cambodian countryside.
The children looked at me, uncomprehending. “Here, time for a photo,” I said. They understood that and crowded around my camera with its impressive looking lens as I pulled it out of my bag. “Me, me,” one of the boys said. So I gave him the camera and he took photos of me and the other kids standing, smiling at the spot where I laid my dear Anth, the Buddhist catholic, to rest, on the wind.
When I got back on my bike at the bottom of the stairs for the final leg of our journey, something had settled in my heart. I feel it still. It is hard to explain. It is as if the heat had gone from my pain. There is a smoothness there now. Anth’s loss is still part of me but instead of jagged and sharp now it is like one of the ancient carvings on temple rocks, deep, meaningful and somehow beautiful.
Koh Rong is a island covered in jungle with white sands and green seas off the coast of Cambodia. I was on a boat headed there, part of 4 days R and R after the ride. I was sitting right at the front of the rickety wooden “Sunny Boat”, talking to two Buddhist monks who were on holidays from Phnom Penh. The breeze was cool and the air was sweet. We had all been swimming off the boat while it moored in the lee of an islet and the monks’ robes were wet. They had changed into dry robes and tied the wet ones to the railings of the deck and the orange cloth fluttered in the wind. I went to find my smartphone in the front pocket of my backpack to take a photo. It came out covered in gritty grey dust. I realised that there were still more of Anth’s ashes hiding in a recess of the bag. I smiled. Of course. The pilgrimage had not finished at Wat Banan. The universe was telling me that this spot in the Gulf of Thailand, in the company of Buddhist monks, was the final resting place. I took everything out of my backpack and piled it on the chair next to me. I opened every zip on the damned thing and leaned overboard holding it upside down and jiggled it upside down. The last fragments of ash fluttered out of the bag into the smooth green sea.
This paradise is a curious place. I rocket from distaste to delight in the space of a 5 minute walk. Bali has the world’s most luxurious resorts, with rubbish piled next door. When you speak to the Balinese about their temples and their community, there is great respect and love in their eyes. Yet next door to the beloved temple are piles of dumped masonry and plastic rubbish scattering as far as the eye can see. Footpaths are covered drains which let out foul stenches as you walk along browsing at boutiques in Seminyak’s Jalan Legian or Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road. To take your eyes off your feet is to risk a broken ankle. As I walked, I saw a man unblocking a drain, neck deep in raw sewage, outside a shop selling swathes of traditional Batik in radiant colours.
Along the urban coastal strip of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, motorbikes are everywhere. It’s a common sight to see families of three or four riding pillion, with baby strapped to mum with a sarong. Drivers overtake on narrow lanes, motorbikes ride against the traffic flow, cars park on blind corners. And the traffic is unrelenting – so many motorbikes and scooters – with the constant pitch of motors and horns throughout the night, unregulated by police who sit in booths advertising Coca Cola, or running taxi ranks outside tourist spots.
There are dogs everywhere. They roam the streets or sleep in doorways. In the rural areas chickens scratch the dust at the roadsides. Cattle are tethered in bare fields, or held by old men with sticks.
Traffic stops for chickens, goats, dogs, and celebrations. Suddenly a group of Balinese, in traditional dress, the men in white shirts, black and white sarongs, the women carrying offerings on their heads, will round a corner, bringing the traffic to a halt until the short pageant enters the temple.
The road from Denpassar to Ubud is lined with woodcarvers and stone masons. We took the drive at night; the buddahs and demons in the artisans’ yards seemed to move in the flickering shadows of roadside fires where their creators burnt the debris of the day.
Our taxi turned off the main highway (a narrow two lane road which traverses the mountain ridge) to a dusty village, Payogan, on the outskirts of Ubud in the mountains. Chickens scattered in the headlights of the car as we pulled through high gates where security guards checked the car for hidden bombs with mirrors on sticks. This was a different world; our resort was a palace of pavilions with polished marble, lush botanic gardens surrounding pools overlooking a mountain valley lined with tall palms swaying in the breeze.
“You cannot come to La Nouvelle Caledonie without seeing Île des Pins,” Isabelle said. So we took a dual propeller plane for a short flight to the 15 km long Isle of Pines, an oasis of green in the blue of the pacific 100 km from Noumea. Lush vegetation covers the place, with massive banyan trees, coconut groves and banana palms but dominated by the pine trees Araucaria columnaris from which the island takes its name. Only 1500 people live here, mainly Melanesians who belong to one of 5 tribes living in small villages of traditional huts and wooden shacks. It is unspoilt, isolated, a place of natural abundance, a garden of Eden.
We stayed at one of two resorts on the island at Kanumera Bay. Its fine white sand is like flour, its water still, clear and impossibly blue. You need only go waste deep to snorkel among corals teeming with fish. Here we saw inquisitive purple fish that would swim up to us to look at us eye to eye, long thin transparent trumpet fish, and schools of what looked like sardines churning the surface of the water. I paddleboarded across the bay and green sea turtles swam leisurely below me in the deep green water. My son spent ages on the beach learning how to open coconuts and later we watched the sun set behind the pine trees as fishermen put their nets out into the stillness of the bay.
Les Pokens is the name New Caledonians have for Australians. Isabelle says it’s not pejorative, but I’m not so sure. They arrive in hoards by cruise ship and flood the towns and beaches. Many are sunburnt a bright pink. Some are drunk. They stand out from the sporty and elegant French Caledonians like sore thumbs. When I reserved our beach lounges at the resort, the beach attendant, said “Oui, oui, they are for you, not for the Australians” with a disparaging tone, nodding towards the line of people walking down the previously deserted beach. “But we are Australian.” I said. “Yes, but you are not them” he said. A Cruise Ship had arrived. 5000 people on board, almost 5 times the entire population of the island. Soon the bay was full of snorkelers and paddleboarders and groups sunbathing on the beach. A market had sprung up on the other side of the bay, near the dock where the cruise ship tenders were arriving. I took a kayak and canoed over there, beached it on a small strip of sand under a palm tree and went to look around. There were queues of boardshort wearing Aussies snaking back from Melanesian BBQ stalls, large local women selling coconut cake and tea and coffee, cheap souvenirs, t-shirts and sarongs. Melanesian music played from boom boxes. On the way back across the bay, I kayaked behind the bay’s sacred rock away from the crowded shallows. On the far side of the rock was a group of Melanesian kids jumping off the rock overhang into the water. I paddled nearer and was quickly surrounded by laughing children in the water, trying to climb into my kayak. I had to say no sternly as they threatened to tip me into the water with my camera gear, but they swam away, smiles all over their faces.
The contrast the next day was stark. With the cruise ship gone there was nobody there. My daughter and I walked along the beach, now stormy but still impossibly blue. Coconuts bobbed in the water where they had blown off trees during the night. Nobody at the dock, just a few dogs roaming. One of them accompanied us as we walked, until we found the general store a few kilometres down the road. We passed tethered cows and a few locals burning rubbish in their gardens, most raising their hand in greeting with a Bonjour.
We hired bikes and rode to the old prison, where nature’s dominance is very much on display. There the crumbling ruins are overgrown with lianas and long grass, almost overtaken by the jungle. (The ruins are all that is left of the French penal colony, housing the Communards, deported political prisoners from the failed 1871 Paris Commune.) Then, we rode to Vao with its old church and mission buildings, and to the shores of Baie St Maurice where a monument to the Saint and his followers, the original 1848 missionaries, is surrounded by Kanak totems. (Given the earliest missionaries were cannibalized by the locals I’m not sure if the totems are there as symbols of threat or protection). Back at Kanumera Bay, I found a spot at the resort’s seafront bar and with my new friend, the stray dog from the morning at my feet, watched yet another breathtaking sunset.
The weather was perfect for the highlight of our trip – the excursion by traditional pirogue through Upi Bay to the famous natural swimming pool. A mini bus dropped us by a tidal flat where we waded to clamber aboard the little sail boat. As we glided through the glass-like waters our guide, Bernard, spoke quietly to me in French. It had taken him 3 months to make this boat. He explained how he carved out the interior of the wooden hull, and how he now makes his living by taking tourists on these trips, and by fishing. About 200 people live in his tribe, at Vao, next to the beach where he keeps his boat. The tribe still carries on the traditional ways. He has never been to Noumea and French is his second language. His mother tongue is his tribal language. The other boatmen on the water are all from his tribe. They are his cousins and his friends. In high season, in August to October, there are not enough pirogues for all of the tourists wanting trips. As we spoke we passed many green sea turtles in the sheltered bay. After an hour or so we arrived at another tidal flat. Bernard indicated this was where we got off, and with vague directions to go straight ahead, left us alone on a deserted beach on the edge of a rain forest.
After a 45 minute walk along a jungle path (avoiding the tree roots growing across the track and the large hermit crabs) we emerged into a beautiful coconut grove which in turn gave way to another waterway which we waded across. We followed the waterway to the breathtaking natural swimming pool, a rock formation allowing the high tide in, but sheltering the pool from the ocean waves. The pool is fringed by Arucaria pines and the water is the most intense blue. It is full of fish and snorkelling here is like swimming in an aquarium.
We stayed at the natural swimming pool until the tide started rising quickly and the beach began to disappear. Remembering our instructions we followed a dry inlet, the River of Sand, to Oro Bay, where we turned to follow the beach to the swanky Meridien Resort, where we were to meet our ride back to Kanumera Bay. Problem was the tide. It had risen so quickly that the beach ran out and we were forced to head inland, where we quickly became lost in the jungle. By some deserted huts, we came across an old Melanesian man whipper-snipping the undergrowth. I tried to get his attention but he studiously ignored me. We were forced to continue unaided. We followed a few tracks the wrong way until a narrow overgrown path became a vehicle track and this became a narrow dirt road which led us to the back of the Meriden. My kids argued the whole way about carrying the bag of snorkelling gear complaining about me getting them lost, that they hadn’t signed up for “Survivor”. But later, back at the resort, my daughter said “That was a great day”.
Noumea seemed like a metropolis after the undeveloped, wild and empty Île des Pins. Flying back in the dual propeller plane and seeing the white buildings sprawling along the coast through the hills it now felt like a city rather than the provincial town we saw when we first arrived. In those two weeks, I had spoken French solidly, drunk French wine, eaten French bread, cheese and pastries every day, swam at some of the most beautiful places in the pacific and spent time with dear friends. That’s my idea of a holiday. Better than France. La Nouvelle Calédonie, je t’aime.
New Caledonia has been on my to do list ever since my friend Isabelle re-located there from northern France 11 years ago. I can see why Isabelle loves it here in the South Pacific. It is a tropical version of home. There are traditional French patisseries, cafes and brasseries, and even the topography of the old town of Noumea is something like the towns of Northern France where I first met Isabelle. There’s a Cathedral on the hill surveying the city and in the streets below are boutiques and little shops typical of a French regional town. Then stepping down the hill along the coconut lined Place des Cocotiers to the port, cruise ships dominate the skyline reminiscent of the Channel ferries and container ships of France’s northern ports.
But unlike Northern France, New Caledonia has 345 days of sunshine a year. Even in “winter” (July) temperatures are between 22C and 25C with the ocean a very swimmable 23C. This means in their spare time Caledonians enjoy the great outdoors year round. Fit, sporty looking types jog along the esplanade or cycle in packs in the early morning. They bike ride in the mountains, windsurf, and sail to deserted islands for camping trips. Isabelle’s family is no exception. Her husband Sylvain is a triathlete and mountain bike champion, their eldest son a surf-lifesaver and their youngest is following in his father’s footsteps. They are all trim and tanned and very good-looking.
To welcome us on our first day Isabelle and Sylvain took us on a short tour finishing at Ouen Toro, the former Australian WWII lookout over Anse Vata Beach and the Baie de Sainte Marie beyond. As we gazed at jet skies snaking white streaks through the bluest of blue water Isabelle said to me “People ask me when I am coming back to France, I say to them “Jamais, Jamais, JAMAIS”! (Never, Never, NEVER!) France cannot offer me the life I have here!” In New Caledonia Isabelle has blossomed. She left behind her life as a primary school teacher in a wet and dreary town and now runs Escale Meublée, a letting agency for short term fully-furnished rental accommodation in Noumea. And it was thanks to Isabelle, our holiday accommodation was in a chic 6th floor apartment over looking the pleasure craft bobbing in Port Plaisance.
While it’s not France, New Caledonia is very French. As a French overseas collectivity, the tricolor is flying and while you will hear English and Melanesian languages in the street, French is very much the principal language. Noumea is home to a French naval base and naval vessels regularly patrol the lagoon. We were there for Bastille Day, which was celebrated with enthusiasm. I had half expected to see pro-independence protests at this display of French sovereignty, particularly given the independence referendum planned for 2018. But instead Melanesian and French Caledonians enjoyed the festivities together.
In Noumea there is an obvious divide between rich and poor. There are more Porsche cars per head of population here than anywhere else in the world. Expensive yachts crowd the town’s marinas and slick hilltop villas look out over the palm-lined waterfront. This is not Bali; there is a sense of organisation with good roads and public transport, you can drink the tap water and there are no sanitation issues. But parts of Noumea are dirty and graffiti tags are everywhere. We saw many vehicles driving with broken windscreens, and there are ramshackle houses and dilapidated apartment buildings. We hired e-bikes from Noumea Fun Ride at the cruise ship terminal. Noumea is hilly and the e-bikes made it easy to explore the rich and the poor areas, all the way from the Latin quarter, the length of the harbour to the tourist strip of Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata Beach.
From Anse Vata water taxis ply backwards and forwards to Duck Island, with its underwater snorkel trail. At Anse Vata there are shops and cafes and the high-end hotels. Baie des Citrons is sheltered and calm with two swimming platforms from which you can swim and snorkel. (It was here I saw my first sea-snake. While highly venomous I was told they are apparently harmless as their jaws are not wide enough to deliver a bite.) At Baie des Citrons we hired Segways for a roll along the esplanade, and spent several evenings enjoying a beer and the live music of FROG (Fred et les Ogres) at La Barca café.
Thanks to Isabelle our stay in Noumea went off the tourist map to her favourite places of her adopted home. We took a picnic to Kuendo Beach, a short drive from central Noumea on the Nouville peninsula. The tranquil waters of Kuendo are sheltered by high dry hills where we took a potholed dirt track to Fort Tereka to where canons have held vigil since 1877 over the magnificent vista of the Noumea lagoon and the Coral Sea beyond.
Then Isabelle drove us to a secret swimming spot on the Dumbea River in the hills behind Noumea. There the water is as clear as glass and freshwater fish swam around me as I trod water watching our boys leap into the river from overhanging trees. Rainforest covered the mountain towering above the river. Isabelle sat on the bank and dozed. It was paradise.
The following day we headed to le Grand Sud and le Parc provincial de la Rivière Bleue. It was a cool day, the only day too cool for swimming, so we took the park guide bus to see the Kaori trees, forest giants said to be more than 1000 years old. This wild and remote country reminded me of parts of Australia with its red soil and thick forest. In the dark of the rainforest, just past the largest Kaori dwarfing all else we saw the Cagou picking its way along the forest floor. This is New Caledonia’s emblem, a large and unfrightened flightless bird, now threatened with extinction.
On another day, following Isabelle’s insistence, we took a day drip to Amedee Island on the Mary D. The 45 minute trip from Port Moselle was calm enough for a coffee and croissant breakfast. This tiny islet, dominated by its 1865 lighthouse, marks one of the few entrances to the lagoon through the coral reef. Green sea turtles underneath the jetty enticed us into the water and we snorkeled with them and scores of fish of all colours, large and small. At the top of the lighthouse, you can see for miles back to the main Island La Grande Terre and the little islets, sandbars and coral shoals which make the reef the second largest in the world.
“You cannot come to La Nouvelle Caledonie without seeing Île des Pins,” Isabelle said. So we took her advice. You can read about this adventure in my next blog post here.