Monday, 21 May 2018

Australia, here we come!

Calliope left Noumea on Saturday 19th May at 1700. On board: Charles, Nicky, Andy (Tiny) Duff, who looked after her all winter in New Zealand and Jonathan Rahav, who's on a gap year (not his first) and came to us from another Oyster Venture. We are now about 300 NM almost due west, heading for Mackay in Australia.
Approaching Mackay anchorage stations at night
The rest of the Oyster fleet are north of us on
their route from Vanuatu; some, like Safiya, are nearly there, while others will arrive not far ahead of us. We hope to get in on Friday 25th. As ever, much depends on the wind. At the moment it's exactly where we like it and pretty constant at between 15 and 18 knots. There've been patches, though, when it's come from a more easterly direction, ie more behind us and
been more variable, so we've had to turn the engine on. Never mind, we are a functioning sailing yacht once more.

The transformation from bare to fully rigged mast was remarkably quick and efficient and a really impressive process, with a crane, a forklift truck and many helping hands lifting the mast back onto (and into) the boat on Friday afternoon. The local help from Nouvelle Caledonie, organised by Chloe the yacht agent, was great. Boom and sails back on, then some brisk sailing off Noumea to test all joints, and Nick and Becky from Doyle Rigging headed back to New Zealand. We shall see what happens about insurance claims - the important thing was to get back sailing as soon as possible. As Pippa says "Res ipsa loquitur.".

We made the most of our stay in New Caledonia, hiring a car and driving first to the Sheraton for two days' relaxation after the stress of the
Microlight over New Caledonia
crossing, then over the mountainous central ridge of the island on some seriously winding roads, some single track with passing places, to Canala. That's where son Alex worked for five months during his year abroad from Bristol University, teaching English at the secondary school. The east coast of New Caledonia is "brousse" or brush country; the landscape is
untamed and the local population share much the same reputation. Here's where the pro-independence or Kanaky movement is strongest and it's a far cry from the capital Noumea and its suburbs which feel very French. We watched a football match on the field opposite 'Alex's school', trying
Coeur de Voh
unsuccessfully to find someone who might remember being taught by him ten years ago. We were befriended by a rather drunken young man who giggled a lot as he took us in our car to a women's cooperative so that we could
acquire some souvenirs of Canala; woven flowers and mats. His advice to us was to slow down and stop rushing - all very well, but we needed to get back
Le Trou Bleu
across the mountain to Kone a fairly undistinguished town on the west coast.
The next day we flew from there in two microlight planes (pilot plus one passenger in each - but we could talk to each other) over the Trou Bleu, an astonishing deep sapphire-blue hole in the ocean, just inside the reef - 200
metres deep - and the Coeur de Voh, a heart-shaped mangrove swamp which graces the cover of Yann-Arthus Bertrand's photography book, Earth from the Air. It was an amazing experience: the planes are so insubstantial (they only weigh 350kg) that it's almost as if you were flying.

We took a quick break from New Caledonia and flew to Vanuatu to catch up with the rest of the Oysters, staying on Miss Tiggy. It was lovely to see everyone and to be able to say thank you to them for their support when we were in trouble. Much celebrating of Nicky's 60th birthday, too - great fun. Though we didn't see much of the island and were sad to have missed
Tanna and its live and terrifyingly accessible volcano, we got a feel for Vanuatu. It has a fascinating past, with a so-called 'condominion' government, meaning both a French and British bureaucracy, hence the nickname 'pandemonium government' until 1980, when it became independent.
The fruit and vegetable market in Port Vila is huge and open 24/7 - the stallholders simply lie down under their trestle tables and sleep when they are tired!

Canak culture
Back to New Caledonia and we decided we needed to explore the south of the island. We picked up a hitch-hiker who had evidently had too much of a good time in the capital: he was snoring in the back within a minute of climbing in. When we got to where he'd asked to be taken, he had to be pulled out of the car. Extraordinary that a man in his thirties seemed to have no French at all - but this is the most remote part of New Cal and perhaps he'd missed out on schooling, which is entirely in line with the French system and has only recently conceded that there should be some reference to tribal Kanak
culture in the syllabus. The weather was dismal that day, so we decided not to walk to the waterfall as planned and kept driving. The landscape was uninhabited, scrubby bushes and grasses alongside the road and earth which, if it hadn't been so wet, would have been dusty red.
Nickel plant

As we crested a hill, we both gasped with shock: below us was a huge industrial plant, with pipes and chimneys, reservoirs and high fences. It's a nickel-extraction factory; apparently 25% of the world's supply of nickel is found on New Caledonia. The extraction is brutal - basically they scrape the top of the earth off and although they replant it afterwards, they can't replace all the natural and endemic species and they have altered the natural contours of the land. We felt whoever had consented to the mining had deliberately limited it to this remote end of the island - it certainly wouldn't appeal to the tourists off the cruise ships in Noumea (although who knows? We were curious about the process, so maybe there could be a mining museum).
Pirogue sailing Ile des Pins

One more bit of exploring, this time to the Ile des Pins, about 70 miles south of the main island. Again we were unlucky with the weather and our trip in a traditional outrigger 'pirogue' fishing boat ended up with us
huddling under the spare sail.. I know, there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, and we were woefully unprepared.

We had one more item to tick off our to-do list and it was a real pleasure: to meet the family with whom Alex and his friend Tunji stayed. Yann and Sandrine are both teachers and spent a couple of years teaching in Canala before returning to the capital. We invited them onto our (mastless) boat in the marina and then went out for dinner. It was wonderful to finally meet the couple and two of their three children - we'd heard so much about them and their kindness to the boys, who hadn't any idea when they headed there how remote Canala was.

So now we are on our way. Calliope and Mr. AP (the auto pilot) are looking after us well. We have a mission: to eat everything in the fridge and freezer before we get to Australia, otherwise it will be confiscated and destroyed. Why DID I buy a whole bag of garlic in the market? Oh well,
there'll be no vampires on board! We are a 'dry' boat (apart from the rum in the fruitcake!), so looking forward to arriving in Mackay, where the Oyster fleet are planning a Great Barrier Bake Off!

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