LOY­ALTY POINTS LOY­ALTY POINTS

Ven­ture be­yond Noumea to en­joy un­tram­melled Me­lane­sia, ad­vises John Borth­wick

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

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