* postcard paradise *
Once clear of the reef, we shut down the motor and sailed quietly through the night, arriving at the southwest corner of Ouvea atoll shortly after dawn. Entering the pass, uplifted limestone cliffs on our starboard side testified to ancient marine life. Navigating by color, the dark water of the deep suddenly gave way to luminescent blues glimmering over the shallow bottom.
Inside the lagoon, a wide white beach with sand as fine as powder stretched off into the distance. The German yacht Laguna lay at anchor in front of the village church and seemed suspended in calm clear space. The view was surreal and only the laughter of children playing on the beach brought us back to reality.
Going ashore to ask permission to walk around the village of Mouli, we were introduced to a quiet grey-haired man wearing a black "I Own a Harley" t-shirt. Chief Pierre lived in a typical New Caledonian cheferie surrounded by an imposing driftwood palisade. His homestead had an aluminum cook house, a traditional round thatched sleeping hut and a custom meeting house where tribal gatherings and discussions were held. We offered him a big fish we'd caught as a gift and he was delighted.
Mouli is a picturesque settlement scattered amongst coconut groves. If you look carefully though, some of the traditional beehive-shaped thatch huts along the road sprout TV antennas. Tall pines line both sides of the side street leading to the church. Every day, a bright orange truck rumbles down the main street under the whispering palm trees delivering locally-made desalinated drinking water to the village. Shallow plastic-lined wells along the shore provide saline water for washing.
At sunset, a group of high-spirited children helped us launch our dinghy. Several jumped on as we rowed away from shore, begging for a lift into deeper water. Then, as suddenly as they had leapt on, they dove into the blue lagoon and swam back towards shore, laughing and shouting, flinging water from their wet heads like young pups at play.
A long walk in the next day's noonday sun (only mad dogs and Englishmen!) past coral spires and coconut trees brought us to a bridge that connects Mouli with the main island of Ouvea. Schools of tropical fish and manta rays hid in its shade and, at the far end, half-a-dozen French tourists lay exposed on the beach, bronzing. Following the shoreline back to the anchorage, a large flock of a birds repeatedly took off as we approached, only to set back down again, a hundred feet (thirty meters) ahead and a few birds short. In the end, only ten birds remained.
On the morning shortwave radio news, reports of a major earthquake in the Kuril group of islands near Hokaido, Japan, raised a tsunami alert in the Pacific. Civil defense sirens rang in Hawaii, tsunami coordination center for the Pacific Islands, and thousands of coastal Hawaiians were evacuated. Radio Noumea did not issue a warning for New Caledonia but we hauled the anchor anyway and headed for deeper water - it was a good excuse to go whale watching and fishing.
When the alert passed, we re-entered the lagoon and anchored off the village of Fayaoue on a very hard bottom. It took a while, but we finally got the hook to hold and went ashore to pass on greetings from some cruising friends (Glenn and Erja aboard Aku Ankka) to Jean-Paul who, we soon discovered, owned a store west of the gendarmerie. J-P's store sat beside a tribal burial ground, its headstones festooned with pretty flowers, colored calicos, shell necklaces.
Jean-Paul was most hospitable, handing us bottles of ice cold orange juice and giving us, he said, the traditional welcoming gift of kumara (sweet potato). Then his wife Alice decided we needed a tin of coconut milk to go with the kumara and took it off the shelf of the store.
Getting into the spirit of things, J-P gave us a fish out of the freezer to accompany the kumara. When Alice, in turn, handed us a box of fancy Belgian chocolate cookies for dessert, we thanked both of them profusely, and left, quickly, before our new friends gave us the whole store! I invited them to lunch on board our boat.
The following day, Foster rowed into shore to fetch our guests at noontime. Alice had arrived at the anchorage in her rusty red Renault and parked in front of the heavily-guarded gendarmerie. Barbed wire surrounds the police station at Fayaoue and the front gate is always locked. We did not get a warm reception when we stopped to show them our papers.
Alice told us the gendarmerie had been "fortified" since the 1988 uprising when local Kanaks killed four gendarmes and captured another twenty-seven. In retaliation, the French had killed nineteen. Relations were still regrettably tense. To my eyes, the fortifications looked more suited to Beirut than here, with several officers and a dozen garde mobiles (riot squad police) doing their tour of duty in the sun. A sad sight in a postcard paradise.
While launching the dinghy to return to the boat, a colorful parakeet came and sat on Foster's shoulder. It made a gentle cooing sound and Alice said that it was probably one that she herself had raised. She often protected orphaned birds until they were able to fend for themselves. Once threatened with extinction, this little bird is a protected species. La perruche d'Ouvea is endemic to the north end of Ouvea and feeds on seeds, especially pawpaw.
Meanwhile, back on board, I was still racking my brain. What should I cook and serve J-P and Alice? Big lunch or little lunch? Island style or European style? Lacking inspiration and fresh vegetables, I served egg curry, rice, fish, boiled kumara and coconut milk, soup, chocolate cookies, and tea. Voila! Enough food for an island feast.
Alas, after doing our best to make a dent in all that food, I found out that Alice and Jean-Paul, like us, normally eat a simple sandwich at midday! The leftovers lasted for days.
Go to Chapter 30 - Cliffs, Caves and CoralBack to TABLE OF CONTENTS