Bonjour Nouvelle-Calédonie – Hello New Caledonia
New Caledonia (french: Nouvelle-Calédonie) is located 1,500 km northeast of Australia. Also discovered by James Cook. But later then taken over by France. And initially used as a penal colony. Just like Australia was used by England.
And here one may also speak of Kanaks. Because that’s how the indigenous people of the islands call themselves. Today they represent about half of the population. By the way, the word Kanak means – human. And if the independence now works out at the 4th attempt (or at the 5th in 2022), there is already a name proposal for the new country: Kanaky – Human Land.
Grande Terre is the largest island of New Caledonia with the capital Nouméa in the south. And it’s actually big compared to the other Pacific islands. About 400 km long and 50 to 60 km wide. So nothing that you can cycle around in a day. At least not as a pensioner 😉 On its entire length it is crossed by a mountain range up to 1,600 m high. These mountains drop steeply into the sea on the east side. And on the west side you have the impression that you are in a low mountain range instead of in the Pacific area.
But as soon as you get anywhere on the coast, you know immediately again where you are. The sea has a color from blue to teal to turquoise. With a coral reef that has the UNESCO World Heritage status. And fine sandy beaches, pines and palm trees.
No mass tourism on New Caledonia
Not in autumn and winter (April-September) anyway. But even in summertime there are not (yet) as many tourists as on other pacific islands. For Europeans New Caledonia is pretty far away. And 25-30 hours of travel by plane is not everyone’s cup of tea. So the New Caledonian tourist industry website is available in French and English, of course, and in Italian, Japanese and Chinese – but not in German. But many Australians and New Zealanders, for whom the country is almost on their doorstep, prefer to travel to English-speaking islands.
Therefore, you will hardly find any larger hotels outside of Nouméa. Here you often have mountains, rainforests and some beaches to yourself. In contrast, large cruise ships sometimes dock in Nouméa. And then 2,000 to 4,000 tourists invade the city for a day. At least the center.
How did I came up with New Caledonia? Well, I was just looking for an island that wasn’t further out in the Pacific. But closer to my following route: Via Australia and Taiwan to South Korea.And from there onwards to Vladivostok.
In the evening I arrived at La Tontouta airport, 50 km northwest of Nouméa. The entry was easy. Because New Caledonia belongs to the EU. However, it is usually not paid in euros but in Pacific Francs (XPF). But that is linked to the Euro with a fixed exchange rate of about 120 XPF.
Nouméa is the administrative center, economic metropolis and the only major city in New Caledonia. I am not sure whether it is the “Paris of the South Pacific” as is sometimes said. Yes, there are elegant French restaurants, fancy cafes, boulangeries, Carrefour supermarkets and the Marché de Nouméa. And some pretty colonial buildings. In the evening (older) men meet in parks to play boules and younger people meet on the waterfront promenades for skateboarding or bike racing.
Nevertheless: While chic villas stretch along the sea and yachts anchor in the marinas, there are – especially near the city centre – quite a few unsightly commercial and office buildings and some districts of the city need some of renovation. In any case, Nouméa is not an urban beauty.
What was visible in the sky when I arrived was not yet dusk. Pretty thick gray with a few rain showers spread across the sky over New Caledonia, like in Auckland already. And it stayed that way for the next three days. At first here for me no blue sky and sunshine like on the websites and travel brochures 🙁
So a rental car was needed. First, I lived quite far away from the city. Because the big hotels there are not affordable (250+ USD per night). There are buses yes, but they don’t run that often. On the other hand, of course, I also wanted to see something from the island. And this is best done with a rented car. And finally the drone should start. But that was not possible at all at the hotel beach and the surrounding area, because the Magenta domestic airport is close by.
Hills and beaches in the city
I quickly had to get used to keeping the speed reduced to 30km/h in front of the pedestrian crossings in Nouméa. As indicated by road signs. Because often there are quite high bollards embedded in the road. And if you are too fast, you suddenly hang your head on the roof of the car.
F.O.L Hill is located in the immediate neighborhood of the city center, the Place de Cocotiers (Coconut Palm Square). From this hill you have a perfect 360 degree panoramic view of the city and the coastline. By the way, F.O.L stands for Fédération des Œuvres Laïques. “Federation of Secular Works” is what Google calls it, whatever that means. In any case, there is a rather unkempt building on this hill. That was probably a theater or cinema people told me, that was destroyed by a cyclone years ago and has never been rebuilt.
There are also pretty viewpoints just outside the city on the coast. Sometimes old cannons are standing there, probably for national defense in earlier centuries.
And then of course there are also many great beaches in the city. For picnics, sunbathing and all kinds of water sports. With promenades, cafés, ice cream shops and restaurants. The largest beach in the city is the Plage de l’Anse Vata in the south. Nevertheless, I once dared to let the drone fly there early in the morning. You can see a few pictures of it in the video below.
Another beach is the Plage de la Baie des Citrons in the west. Again with a fantastic view of the city, marina, coast and sea – at least when the weather is fine and you let your drone fly high enough 😉
The Great South of Grande Terre
For the next day I had planned a round trip through the Great South of the island. Well, I did not really thought the south that big. It should be a 210 km round trip. First of all by visiting the Tjibaou cultural center on the edge of Nouméa. Further to the abandoned village of Prony, first a penal colony, later a logging camp and finally a village for mine workers. Then to the Chutes de la Madeleine, a waterfall in the middle of the Great South and to the coastline viewpoint of Cap N’Dua. And in the evening I wanted to drive past the Barrage du lac de Yaté, a dam on the Yaté river.
That’s how I planned it. And my first destination, the Tjibaou Cultural Center, I also quickly reached. The construction is said to be reminiscent of the traditional Kanak huts. It is all about the life and culture of the indigenous people. With conference rooms, a theater, concerts, cooking classes and other cultural events. But not only because of the season but probably also because of the weather I was the only guest that morning.
Even worse was that the road led over several bridges that were flooded by the rivers. I still dared to cross the first four bridges. But the fifth one, with an estimated 30 cm water depth, I didn’t want to drive through anymore with my little Peugeot 108. For the first time on my trip, I had to turn back without having reached my (daily) destination. Hopefully not a bad sign for my road trip home later with the Landcruiser…
Soil colors like in Australia
The ground reminded me of Australia in the south. The exact same red colour. No wonder, as both were once part of the primeval continent of Gondwana. Until that broke apart 250 million years ago and New Caledonia drifted slowly into north-easterly direction, away from Australia.
Therefore, as in Australia, there are large reserves of nickel ore. And nickel is an expensive raw material that accounts for 90% of all exports from New Caledonia. It is used in many industries because, as an alloy, it prevents rusting of metal. Think about it when you put dishes in your stainless steel sink or your dishwasher. Or stuffing your laundry into your washing machine.
A trip into the north of New Caledonia
The next day it was sunny again. And I asked myself the question: Should I try the south again? Or should I drive to the northwest, then over the mountain range to the eastcast and from there back to Nouméa? Since this day was my last day in New Caledonia, I had to decide. And I chose the north. And I started very early. After all, this tour had a distance of about 350 km.
For the first 100 kilometres I went north on the main road in the west of the island. Here it is – often with a view of the sea – flat. And this is where the farmland begins, stretching far into the north. With agriculture, cattle and horse breeding.
In La Foa I turned east into the mountains. First up to the small town of Sarraméa. With a spring and indigenous huts along the way.
From there it went right into the mountains. On a narrow, winding road with some 180 degree hairpin bends that might as well be in the Pyrenees. But that didn’t matter to the agile small car. It did more bother me.
Especially when I met some men with machetes at an intersection where I had gotten off for orientation and taking photos. They looked at the car and at me and then turned towards the fields. I guess they were farmers on their way to work, wondering about the early visitor from the city…
From Canala to Thio
Soon I reached Canala on the east coast. Even today it is also a town of miners. And tourists hardly have the place on the radar at all. But there is something special here. Part of the road between Canala and the next town Thio via the Petchécara Pass is a one-way street between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (Route à Horaires). At certain times you can enter there from Canala, at others from Thio. The times are given on signs at the respective entry points.
I had almost 2 hours until the next entrance into this part of the street at 2 p.m. I spent my time starting my drone. One or two cars passed me, the locals surely know the locations very well. But I didn’t want to risk anything with my rented car. And so I waited patiently and followed a big Toyota shortly after 2 p.m.
By the way, the road was not sealed; it would be better to avoid sharp stones with a small city car. But the miners (as they told me) set the pace. This also led me to accelerate to keep up. And that in turn caused me to hit the ground twice with the car and also caused some rockfalls.
I would have preferred to be here now with my Land Cruiser. I stopped to have a look at possible damages. And the friendly people in the mining vehicle stopped too. However, they said that the rest of the way were easy to drive. And they would have to reach the supermarket in Thio before the shop closed. And they drove away at high speed. Well, the rest of the way was actually not that bad – as long as I drove slowly. And furthermore it wasn’t really narrow here anymore.
And back to Nouméa
Soon I reached the sealed road to Thio again. And in between I turned again towards the sea to take a few pictures of the beach and the mountains. The mountains are really close to the water here.
But if you have the time and desire, you can also spend a few days in a lodge or on a campsite here. Almost on your own.
The rest of the way led back in western direction to the main road. Again through the mountains.
But this road was properly developed and well passable. In the late afternoon I reached the main road again at the small town of Bouloupari and was back in Nouméa an hour later. Not without a few photo stops in between.
Farewell to New Caledonia
I had learned something again. There are also mountains in the Pacific, too. And I would have loved to stay a little longer in New Caledonia. Because there is still a lot to see, especially in the north. And besides, I had already gotten used to “le temps kanak”, a concept of time that makes life a little easier. Something like “Fiji Time“…
But my land cruiser was already in Korea. Hopefully anyway. But because I had not yet received a disaster message from the freight forwarding agency, I assumed that it had survived its journey safely so far. And so it was time for me to leave. Here is also a short video clip from my time in New Caledonia (1m 45s).
My departure was in the late afternoon. But because another tour was not possible, I had most of the day to go to the most beautiful places in Nouméa once again on my way to the airport. And taking photos in the sunshine of places that I had only seen in the rain for the first two days.
Au Revoir – et bonne chance Nouvelle-Calédonie!
Goodbye – and good luck New Caledonia!
Cheers, Ruediger 😎