LOYALTY POINTS LOYALTY POINTS
Venture beyond Noumea to enjoy untrammelled Melanesia, advises John Borthwick
JAMES Cook was a stickler for the venerable tradition of giving improbable, Anglophone names to South Pacific shores that bore scant resemblance to their northern hemisphere namesakes. In 1774, Cook proprietorially tagged New Caledonia and its Melanesian twin, the New Hebrides, to the mud-map of European nostalgia, then sailed on. For decades thereafter, in both archipelagos, the French and British and their franchisees — missionaries, slavers, planters and traders — rattled sabres or poked tongues at each other like Monty Pythonesque knights.
These days, New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea, is a Berlitz version of the tropics: French yachts and croissants, expat bureaucrats, subsidies and siestas. But fly 100km east and it’s another world. The Loyalty Islands (Les Isles Loyaute) of Lifou, Mare and Ouvea float like coral platforms on a vivid sea, their interiors mercifully unravaged by logging or mining, their halo reefs and beaches much as they were when Cook was still a lieutenant. The islands, incidentally, owe their title not to Cook but to the wonderfully named Jethro Daggett, master of the London ship Loyalty who saw them on a 1790 trading voyage.
At about 1200sq km, Lifou is the largest of the Loyalty group and its outline is marvellously like that of a dodo. Its pines, conically roofed ceremonial houses and balmy waters are the stuff of calendar shots. Thanks to large French subsidies, the Loyalty Islands are also home to decent roads, schools and health clinics.
Order, if it need be kept over Lifou’s MelanesianPolynesian population of 10,000 people, is maintained by blond gendarmes who, seemingly plucked straight from Paris point duty, look a little lost directing the coconut trees.
We drag ourselves from the balmy waters of Chateaubriand Bay to meet our guide, a reserved young Kanak woman named Rose. Driving us to the serene Baie du Santal (Sandalwood Bay), she pointedly reminds us of the traumatic intrusions made here by early European whalers, sandalwood cutters, convicts and colonists, not to mention particularly vile Queensland blackbirders. She seems to grimly look at me in particular. Should I protest that my ancestors were from south of the Tweed?
In fact, she just wants to make sure that, following custom, I have ready a suitable donation when we meet a local chief at the large, traditional case house in the village of Hnathalo. We organise the tribute but the meeting seems an anticlimax for all parties, the No. 2 chief (the main man is out of town, we are told) being as underwhelmed by the event as we are. Much seems lost in the translation, of which there is very little: probably Rose finds our cliches not worth repeating. Instead she leads us off to find Lifou’s most scenic spots.
From a high cliff at Jokin — a neat village of one chapel, one guesthouse and a quota of healthy-looking pigs, dogs and children — we gaze down on a stunning lagoon vista. Coral heads, reef sharks and parrot fish shimmer beneath a plane of water so translucent that a dinghy moored there doesn’t so much float as levitate.
Next, after visiting a beautiful vanilla plantation at Mucaweng, I blow it by suggesting that the house specialty — a subtle, vanilla-flavoured coffee — tastes to my To Page 2
cappuccino-ravaged Sydney palate rather like Nescafe. Rose looks at me as though I were indeed the son of a son of a blackbirder.
As serene as it is today, an early English official, Andrew Cheyne, made some unflattering observations about the island. ‘‘ The natives of Lifu [sic] are very much addicted to stealing, and treacherous and cruel in the extreme, and generally speaking great cowards. They are also much given to lying and seldom speak the truth even among themselves. The women appear to be kept under much subjection.’’
Clearly, he hadn’t anticipated our Rose. Cheering up, she takes us to large 19thcentury churches, thatched meeting houses and diving spots, while joking occasionally about early missionaries in pots. At one point we pass a bush, from behind which issue definite sounds of human passion. She tries to pass it off as ‘‘ just a goat’’.
‘‘ OK, let’s go check this noisy goat,’’ jokes one of my friends. She cautions, ‘‘ Guys, if you don’t want to end up in the pot . . .’’ ‘‘ HORSE, goat, sugar, ‘ espoon’ and numbers. On Mare Island we still say these words in English,’’ explains Jean-Pierre Yeweine as he shows us around his home island of Mare, a short flight southeast of Lifou. This residual English vocabulary is the legacy of the London Missionary Society, which gained a foothold in the Loyalty Islands in 1841 and maintained for years a haughtily Anglophone-Francophobe posture. This tugof-war for souls and tongues between colonialism’s point men— England’s LMS v French Catholics — continued until the Loyalty Islands were annexed to France in 1864.
Mare’s coral landscape is pitted and tunnelled like Gouda cheese. We drive along a coast road hemmed on one side by brilliant lagoons and on the other by hibiscus blooms, lipstick bushes and tidy villages. At a spot known as L’Aquarium Naturel, Yeweine leads us to a beautiful, 50m-wide sinkhole lagoon with a floor of white sand. Pandanus palms shade the aqua pool and the local couples who come to picnic or smooch beside it. He throws in a little bread and soon the water is alive with fish. As though awaiting a photo call a pretty turtle surfaces, poking its head up long enough for us to take a few shots before it drifts back to its hiding place.
Mare is alive with stories. Yeweine shows us a famous sea cliff that is sliced by a 5m-wide chasm called the Warrior’s Leap. According to legend, a pursued Kanak warrior cleared this formidable gap with one desperate bound, while his enemies plunged to their bloody doom in the sea 20m below.
‘‘ Dive here and you’ll see fish, not just bubbles,’’ Yeweine says as we later snorkel and sea kayak in the open lagoon off Nengone Resort. Indeed, the waters — and the restaurant menus — are full of fish, with suitably exclamatory names such as wahoo and mahi-mahi.
The Loyalty Islands are not a mass-market destination in the manner of Fiji, Bali or even Noumea. Instead they are untrammelled, upmarket Melanesia. The beaches are clean and almost empty, the accommodation ranges from village cabanas to modest resorts, and prices, while not reaching Tahitian extremes, are those of the French Pacific rather than bargain-stay Asia.
Last impressions count. I see plenty of floral aloha shirts and pareus worn by Loyalty Islanders, a dress sense that reflects their mixed Melanesian-Polynesian blood. If it looks like Tahiti with a perm, the local music might be Jamaica with the handbrake on. Oozing from radios is a languid Kanak pop mutant, a sort of swing reggae that sounds like Bob Marley puffing on a Prozac spliff. Like most matters in the Loyalty Islands, not a bad way to go troppeau . John Borthwick was a guest of New Caledonia Tourism.
Aircalin flies from Sydney to Noumea (21/ hours) with connections to the Loyalty Islands; www.aircalin.com. For accommodation options: Talpacific Holidays, 1300 137 727; www.talpacific.com.au.
Another world: Clockwise from main picture, leafy outcrop; island hut; kayaking on clear water; local girl in traditional dress Pictures: Photolibrary (main), John Borthwick (kayak)
Living in harmony: Local entertainers belt out a tune for visitors to Ouvea, one of the Loyalty Islands