Before I get into this post, I want to give a thousand apologies for the delay. Starting a new job has taken up a great deal of time and I have let my blog fall to the wayside. I will be doing my best to keep it up in the new year.
Now, where were we?
Ah yes, that’s right. Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We weren’t due to arrive in Noumea, New Caledonia until 2pm that afternoon, so we were confined to another morning of endless ocean. While the open sea still held its charm, that morning was dreary and grey, turning the flat expanse of the Pacific into a dull mirror. The sun did its best to power through here and there, but ultimately the clouds won. We spent our morning wandering around the ship, getting to know any areas we had not yet seen. But by lunchtime there was nowhere on the ship that could pass the time fast enough. I spent most of the early afternoon on our room’s balcony studying marine biology- after all, what better place to study marine biology than the middle of the ocean? I made sure to keep looking up, eyes fixed on the horizon. So many times I thought I could see land, but it always turned out to be nothing more than a dark cloud. Hours passed without incident. That was until around 1pm.
At first it was so faint that I thought it was another cloud. But as I flicked on my polarized sunglasses on to cut the glare, I realized that that dark shape on the horizon was New Caledonia. Now this may sound silly, but I was overcome with emotion. Twenty one years old and I had never seen a foreign country. Until that very moment. To see the peaks of the islands rising up out of the gloomy horizon was like something out of an adventure novel to me- like some lost pirate island waiting in the mist. But it was far more real and tangible than that- it was the first time in my life seeing another country.
As fast as it had appeared, the island of New Caledonia solidified with every passing moment. The shoals and atolls were the next to appear, and began to spot the water as we approached. Unfortunately the bad weather somewhat dampened their beauty, but even in the cloudy skies the colour of the still pristine reefs endured. Signs of habitation soon appeared in the form of yachts moored around the tiny atolls. And in the distance, the main island drew ever closer. The closer we got, the more the ship seemed to tip to one side as everyone rushed to port side to see our first destination.
The waters shallowed as our ship came round a small headland. Two locals stood on its rocky outcropping, either fishing or witnessing our arrival, or both. And as we rounded that small headland, the port of Noumea lay before us. I’d seen foreign land only an hour ago, and now for the first time I was seeing a foreign city. The fact that this was a place with an entirely different set of languages and cultural norms to my home still hadn’t quite sunk in, but it was getting there.
Our ship was slowly herded into the harbour by tug boats, and we spent the entire time on our port side balcony taking in this slice of France in the Pacific. Then all of a sudden, we heard the sound of drums. As the ship turned to face its port side, and our balcony, to the city, we saw the source of the sound. On the cruise ship terminal were four Noumeans in traditional dress, dancing to the sound of the drums. And following every flourish of their grass streamers in their hands was a shout of
“Welcome to Noumea!”
And that was the moment it hit home. Here I was, in a place that truly was no longer home, but certainly not uninviting. After twenty one years it finally clicked that there was indeed a world beyond the horizon of home. That’s the best I can do to put that emotion into words.
Unfortunately, at that moment the weather took a turn for the worst as the rain set in. It seemed we would not be treated the spectacle of blue Pacific waters today, but it did little to dampen our spirits. Although it did plenty to dampen our clothes!
Our mode of transport for this rainy day was going to be quite unconventional. We had booked through the cruise line a trip on the “Tchou Tchou” train, which is one of those tiny novelty trains on wheels you often see at fair events. Except this little engine that could would be driving on the road. With cars. Cars so close that if I had my arm out the window, I may have lost it. But vehicular safety aside, it was certainly a fun and unique way to tour the city of Noumea, and our guide was great at pointing out locations and tidbits we would have missed touring alone.
Our ticket to ride took us to all the best spots in Noumea, including Lemon Bay, which I’m sure would have been a thousand times more picturesque if it was not raining. But even in the foul weather, I could imagine the beauty it would have in the sun. And as we went on, even the smallest things in Noumea delighted me- signs in French, driving on the right hand side, and the odd cohesion between French and traditional island architecture. So many things were the same as home, but just as many things were not.
Our brave train then gave a solid effort as it climbed up the slopes of a nearby hill. As we rose up away from the city below, the ocean stretched out before us, unfortunately clouded but just as commanding and vast as always. The view from the top afforded us views of the bay and the city below, as well as a sneaky peak of a military installation and a somewhat creepy military radio tower that overpowered our train’s speakers with terrifyingly loud static every time we passed it. As I stood at the top of that hill, I told my mum, and myself, that I was coming back, because I wanted to stand on this hill again and see New Caledonia in the Pacific sun. And perhaps I can give an updated review when I do that!
On our way back into town, we passed the city’s old jail, which was conveniently located across the road from where the old guillotine used to be located. Of course it couldn’t be French territory without a guillotine! But the cutting edge device had long since been removed and replaced with an exceedingly buff Jesus on a cross. Our journey took us somewhat around the back of the city as well, where the glitz and shine of the waterfront was not so apparent. It was at this point perhaps the disconnect between home and here started to really set in, and perhaps I was experiencing a little culture shock at this point as well. But at no stage did I ever feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, for even passersby on the street would wave and exclaim “Welcome to Kanaky!”, using the traditional name for New Caledonia used by the native Kanak people. It was clear this was a place with a lot of history, both good and bad.
The sun was getting low by the time we arrived back at the ship. This microtour of Noumea was all we had time for as we only had a half day stop, and there was little more we could do after dusk. But thankfully the weather had let up a little, allowing us to enjoy a final coffee on our balcony facing the city before the ship pulled out of the city that night. I was already in bed when the ship’s horn heralded our departure at around 9pm, but in my mind I bade a fond au revoir to Noumea, fitting for it’s literal translation:
Until we meet again.
(and hopefully in better weather!)