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A false start and going around in circles in my quest to find humpback whales in New Caledonia

I’ve already spent longer in Noumea than I had originally planned because as usual nothing ever goes to plan when you are travelling, especially to a new country with ambitious plans for kayaking. I didn’t really have a lot of time to do very much research about New Caledonia and Noumea before I arrived, but anyway it couldn’t have adequately prepared me for the oddity of the place because there are so many conflicting aspects to the deep divisions between its indigenous past and contemporary French control and influence. On the surface Noumea has all the extravagant opulence of a Mediterranean millionaire’s playground with luxury villas and apartments planted in an alien landscape, private helicopters on show, and marinas brimming with pleasure boats without a native-looking utilitarian boat in sight. There is such an strange air of incongruity as you walk around the manicured streets lined with designer shops, culinary delights and mouth-watering French patisseries, and smartly dressed white Caucasians are strolling the palm-fringed promenades or fully kitted out jogging or cycling. It seems like such a relic of a bygone colonial era, but the French administration here has made a point of making sure that it is still a contemporary asset for people of European descent to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle on what was once an idyllic paradise until France decided to claim it in 1853. In the early 1850s, the French were looking for a strategic military location, as well as an alternative penal settlement to French Guyana in South America, whose unhealthy climate resulted in a high convict mortality rate. In 1853 Napoleon III ordered the annexation of New Caledonia and the French flag was raised at Balade on 24th September 1853. Britain did not react; however, an article in the Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald criticised Britain’s slackness for not beating the French to colonise New Caledonia, a strategic point on the trade route between Australia and China and the west coast of America.

I don’t want to dwell on the cultural, social and environmental aspects of New Caledonia in my blog yet because I just want to focus on the main reasons that I came here in the first place, which was to be reunited with humpback whales again after more than ten years, and to kayak in the world’s largest natural lagoon, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 because of its exceptional marine biodiversity. Unfortunately the unique terrestrial and marine habitats of New Caledonia have been seriously degraded by the extraction of Nickel because New Caledonia is now the third largest producer of Nickel in the world. There has been an ongoing demonstration by the drivers of the mining heavy goods vehicles in Noumea since I arrived because they are demanding that nickel be exported to China as well as Australia, New Zealand and Japan so that they can have more work, make more money and sacrifice more of their ancestral land, because they appear to be mostly indigenous Kanaks. Many of the roads and roundabouts have been blockaded either by the huge trucks or by mounds of earth dumped in the road or tyres. I will be posting a blog about that with photos later, but first it’s time to get back to nature for a break from all the depressing aspects of our desecration of this once beautiful planet, and hopefully I can use my kayak to distance myself from it for a while, although unfortunately I will probably be going near areas that have been moonscaped by the opencast extraction of nickel.

I couldn’t wait to load my kayak up and get on my way at long last after planning this trip for the last few months. But I hadn’t done a big kayaking trip like this for quite a few years so my mobilisation was inevitably going to be a bit rusty. I had thought about catching the bus with my kayak and gear up to the stunning north-east coast around Poindimie first because I had read that the whales sometimes pass that way, but I had to optimise my chances of whale encounters, and they are only usually here until the middle of September so it would be best if I head south to the southern lagoon and the Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines) first.

I managed to get my kayak, and all of my gear and food down to the stinky beach in the marina, just down a hill from Jeremy's apartment with his help. Unfortunately he had to get back to work and couldn't stay for the ceremonial inflation of my kayak with accompanying fanfare. But shortly after an inquisitive man on a stand up paddle board came ashore to investigate and talk to me, just when I needed someone to take a photo of me at the beginning of my trip. He was very friendly and invited me to visit him on his yacht. He arrived here in his yacht 15 years ago and has been here ever since. He gave me some advice that I should have paid more heed to and that is that it's always better to be travelling north because of the south-east trade wind. I'm wearing my cracking good new Ray Troll Ocean Planet t-shirt that my old veteran travelling buddy, Richard Tamblin bought for me in my former base in Southeast Alaska, Petersburg, and I should hasten to add from Lee's Clothing, the finest outfitters in town. I also have a North Face olive green with me that I bought there and has accompanied me on every one of my trips since.

I managed to get my kayak, and all of my gear and food down to the stinky beach in the marina, just down a hill from Jeremy’s apartment with his help. Unfortunately he had to get back to work and couldn’t stay for the ceremonial inflation of my kayak with accompanying fanfare. But shortly after an inquisitive man on a stand up paddle board came ashore to investigate and talk to me, just when I needed someone to take a photo of me at the beginning of my trip. He was very friendly and invited me to visit him on his yacht. He arrived here in his yacht 15 years ago and has been here ever since. He gave me some advice that I should have paid more heed to and that is that it’s always better to be travelling north because of the south-east trade wind. I’m wearing my cracking good new Ray Troll Ocean Planet t-shirt that my old veteran travelling buddy, Richard Tamblin bought for me in my former base in Southeast Alaska, Petersburg, and I should hasten to add from Lee’s Clothing, the finest outfitters in town. I also have a North Face olive green with me that I bought there and has accompanied me on every one of my trips since.

OK so where do I start! Loading kayaks over many years has always been very challenging, and never gets any easier. But this time it was for a new kayak, that in theory should be much easier than all of my previous folding kayaks because it is all open and accessible BUT as I hadn't loaded it before or done a trial run I had no idea how it would all fit in, if at all! I enjoy the challenge of fitting things into impossible spaces, which I have had to do with many kayaks, and a whole variety of dry bags, rucsacs, suitcases and camera bags over the years. I have sometimes been referred to as "the Bagman" because I have accumulated so many bags for every occasion. When I had everything assembled in front of the kayak like this I knew that once again I had to do some serious conjuring and stuffing rabbits, and puppies, and doves and bunches of flowers into a hat.....or the kayaking equivalent of.

OK so where do I start! Loading kayaks over many years has always been very challenging, and never gets any easier. But this time it was for a new kayak, that in theory should be much easier than all of my previous folding kayaks because it is all open and accessible BUT as I hadn’t loaded it before or done a trial run I had no idea how it would all fit in, if at all! I enjoy the challenge of fitting things into impossible spaces, which I have had to do with many kayaks, and a whole variety of dry bags, rucsacs, suitcases and camera bags over the years. I have sometimes been referred to as “the Bagman” because I have accumulated so many bags for every occasion. When I had everything assembled in front of the kayak like this I knew that once again I had to do some serious conjuring and stuffing rabbits, and puppies, and doves and bunches of flowers into a hat…..or the kayaking equivalent of.

Shortly after Vincent, the friendly Frenchman, left I had another inquisitive visitor who comes from the other half of the cultural divide - a young Kanak guy called Chris. At first I didn't want to be distracted from the task in hand because it was already late afternoon, but how could I resist some jollity and have my first interaction with a cool Kanak dude! ..... and how cool and engaging he was too! Come on Duncan.....let's get serious with the loading. I can foresee another dodgy landing in the encroaching darkness on a perilous rocky shoreline.

Shortly after Vincent, the friendly Frenchman, left I had another inquisitive visitor who comes from the other half of the cultural divide – a young Kanak guy called Chris. At first I didn’t want to be distracted from the task in hand because it was already late afternoon, but how could I resist some jollity and have my first interaction with a cool Kanak dude! ….. and how cool and engaging he was too! Come on Duncan…..let’s get serious with the loading. I can foresee another dodgy landing in the encroaching darkness on a perilous rocky shoreline.

Ready to go at last.... getting on for 4pm! I'm standing proudly in the foul-smelling polluted effluent and mud of the marina, smugly proclaiming that I managed to get it all in, even if I there was only enough room left for a midget to paddle the kayak.

Ready to go at last…. getting on for 4pm! I’m standing proudly in the foul-smelling polluted effluent and mud of the marina, smugly proclaiming that I managed to get it all in, even if I there was only enough room left for a midget to paddle the kayak.

I had just about enough room at the back of the kayak to sit with my knees bent without my paddle hitting my knees. As always it felt great to be underway at long last even if it was getting late. I made for a small opening under a bridge on the outer perimeter of the marina. A small shoal of fish suddenly flew out of the water like a phalanx of silver spears to remind me that I was leaving an urban material world and returning to a mercurial liquid world where light and water dance together with a cornucopia of amazing creatures beyond my usual realm of daily experience. But the moment of contemplation was quickly interrupted by the abrasive sound of the hull of my kayak grating across  jagged coral; I wasn’t looking where I was going, or I should say, I wasn’t looking down and had forgotten to turn my mental depth alarm on because it’s going to have to be operating all the time here with such a maze of submerged reefs lurking beneath with intent to slash and puncture my vulnerable inflatable kayak. Fortunately I managed to extricate myself from my traditional disastrous start with my Innova Helios 2 kayak intact and fully inflated, but it was a timely wake-up call that I cannot afford to be day-dreaming in the shallow waters of the lagoon. I had cut my teeth on kayaking around coral reefs when I kayaked up the intimidating east coast of Madagascar, where the surf that breaks around the reefs is frightening, and the maze of gaps that have to be navigated to get to shore suck you in like meat grinders. There was certainly no margin for error or time for daydreaming there!

Once I had broken free of the marina it was a race against time to get to my first camp, and my first head on battle with the southeasterly trade wind. It wasn’t too bad, maybe 15-20 knots, but it was probably just warming me up for some epic paddles that lie ahead, just as I always used to have to grapple with the prevailing southeasterly wind in Southeast Alaska that intensified in autumn when I was returning to my base in Petersburg after my summer trips, and I just wanted to get back. I couldn’t be too selective for my landing site because I didn’t have much light left and I could only find a fairly rocky beach to land on, and get my feet broken in too, as I cringed and winced trying to negotiate the sharp slippery rocks whilst carrying my stuff ashore. I’m going to have to be so alert all the time, but I had many years of experience in Southeast Alaska where the rocky, slippery beaches weren’t exactly welcoming. As I stepped onto the pulverised coral beach some sea raptors flew overhead followed by some squawking herons that sounded more like ravens than herons. I’m sorry if I disturbed or agitated them but it’s always nice to have some kind of greeting of wildness from the local inhabitants.

This was my first campsite after leaving Noumea so late in the day, as always seems to happen at the beginning of my kayaking trips. The rocky beach wasn't the easiest to negotiate with my kayak and all my gear but I was grateful that some suitable trees awaited my hammock; and how rapturous it was to be sleeping in my beloved Hennessy Hammock again after a break of a few years. I first used one on my Madagascar trip in 2003, and couldn't imagine finding anything more suitable or more comfortable for my journeys. The newer models have the option of a full-length zip opening along the side, but I can't see the point of that because the best feature for me is the velcro closing entry slit at the bottom, which enables you to get in so quickly and keep the marauding biting insects hot on your tail out!

This was my first campsite after leaving Noumea so late in the day, as always seems to happen at the beginning of my kayaking trips. The rocky beach wasn’t the easiest to negotiate with my kayak and all my gear but I was grateful that some suitable trees awaited my hammock; and how rapturous it was to be sleeping in my beloved Hennessy Hammock again after a break of a few years. I first used one on my Madagascar trip in 2003, and couldn’t imagine finding anything more suitable or more comfortable for my journeys. The newer models have the option of a full-length zip opening along the side, but I can’t see the point of that because the best feature for me is the velcro closing entry slit at the bottom, which enables you to get in so quickly and keep the marauding biting insects hot on your tail out!

Finding a suitable campsite is a ritual that I have always enjoyed, and as with campfires something that engenders primal instincts. Sometimes it's very difficult, especially with a hammock that requires two suitably positioned trees. When I first landed on this island I expected it to be hard to find anywhere but to my surprise I came across a small opening in the dense shrubby vegetation that opened out on to this almost manicured patch of grass with probably the only two suitable trees on the entire island positioned perfectly for my hammock. It almost appeared to be the designated camping area for the island. I always make a point of thanking the trees, or wherever I've camped for the night, for providing me with a home for the night when I leave. It seems like another primal instinct to follow.

Finding a suitable campsite is a ritual that I have always enjoyed, and as with campfires something that engenders primal instincts. Sometimes it’s very difficult, especially with a hammock that requires two suitably positioned trees. When I first landed on this island I expected it to be hard to find anywhere but to my surprise I came across a small opening in the dense shrubby vegetation that opened out on to this almost manicured patch of grass with probably the only two suitable trees on the entire island positioned perfectly for my hammock. It almost appeared to be the designated camping area for the island. I always make a point of thanking the trees, or wherever I’ve camped for the night, for providing me with a home for the night when I leave. It seems like another primal instinct to follow.

The island was obviously used by quite a few day-trippers from the mainland judging from a few campfires at the sheltered end of the island. One even had a corrugated iron windbreak but I was too weary to try to find any dry firewood after it had been raining. It was just my luck that the weather had deteriorated for the first time since my arrival as soon as I left Noumea. So it was a light continental dinner again of baguette, cheese, tomato and jam. I forgot to mention that of course the French connection covers many edible delights and that includes one of my favourite things – jam! I had a wide choice of jam to choose from in the supermarket and I couldn’t resist one of my favourites – rhubarb! Although I had discovered such a perfect clearing in the vegetation with two trees to hang my hammock from I had a chilly, damp night because my hammock was leaking drops of water right onto my head, and usually into my eye.

This fellow was right on my doorstep on the beach when I got up after a cold, wet and windy night in my hammock. Apparently it's an amphibious tricot rayé or banded sea krait – one of New Caledonia’s 12 species of sea snakes – which is often sighted on the water’s surface or on land. Well adapted to the sea, it has a flattened, paddlelike tail and airtight nostrils and can stay underwater for up to an hour. Its poison is particularly potent. Although often curious, it is not aggressive unless deliberately provoked or when protecting its nest. It is numerous on the islets around Noumea. Well I only discovered that later after I was in very close attendance to it and talking to it because it seemed to be a bit groggy like myself, and it seemed like a good idea to cajole it back to the sea for some refreshment. I might not have been so attentive had I known that its poison is particularly potent, but it obviously realised that I wasn't being deliberately provocative, and we both yawned in harmony.

This fellow was right on my doorstep on the beach when I got up after a cold wet and windy night in my hammock. Apparently it’s an amphibious banded sea krait – one of New Caledonia’s 12 species of sea snakes – which is often sighted on the water’s surface or on land. Well adapted to the sea, it has a flattened, paddlelike tail and airtight nostrils and can stay underwater for up to an hour. Its poison is particularly potent. Although often curious, it is not aggressive unless deliberately provoked or when protecting its nest. It is numerous on the islets around Noumea. Well I only discovered that later after I had been in very close attendance to it and talking to it because it seemed to be a bit groggy like myself, and it seemed like a good idea to cajole it back to the sea for some morning revitilisation. I might not have been so attentive had I known that its poison is particularly potent, but it obviously realised that I wasn’t being deliberately provocative, and we both yawned together in peaceful harmony.

I wasn't feeling exactly on top of the world when I kept getting dizzy the next morning after arm-wrestling with the silverback gorilla, and then I discovered that I had paid the price for being sloppy when I set up camp for the night. Something had selected the choicest offering I had in my otherwise unglamorous and cheapest selection of vegetables that I could find at the market, a slice of pumpkin complete with nibbly seeds, and chewed a gaping hole in my precious mesh dive bag to get to it. The bag was another great acquisition from that great emporium of useful items that one cannot resist, Lidls, and makes the perfect shopping and storage bag for fruit and vegetables. It attracts many an admiring comment from stallholders in the market in Puerto Princesa where I regularly shop in Palawan. It was probably the usual nocturnal marauder that skulks around at night dragging it's thick tail behind it like hairy rope: a rodent, presumably of the ubiquitous brown European variety, Rattus norvegicus, that accompanied explorers around the world to wreak their own kind of havoc on the unprepared local inhabitants, just as their hosts did. As much as I admire the global success of rats I declared war on them a long time ago, just as I did the squirrels in Southeast Alaska that used to gnaw into my expensive drybags and bombard my tent with fir cones. I still vividly remember the running battles I had with them on a small island in a marine reserve off the east coast of Madagascar, when I was trying to transfer my stuff from my kayak to an old abandoned hut. They were lurking at both ends waiting to pounce on my food, and they even had the audacity to walk along the line that suspended the mosquito netting of my hammock directly above me as if they were performing in a circus whilst thumbing their twitchy whiskered noses at me.... the little buggers! Coconuts were deployed as hand-grenades as the conflict escalated and hand-to-claw combat ensued. This was the very same mesh dive bag that I last killed anything in, and needless to say it was a rat that invaded my house in Palawan during the night. They kept brazenly appearing in the kitchen, sometimes underneath the stove while I was cooking! When I heard the rat sniffing around inside this bag I lost my temper and gave it one almighty thump, which was more than enough to switch it's lights off permanently so to speak euphemistically , because I absolutely hate killing anything, and I did feel a modicum of remorse as I flung it's limp body out into the bushes for ant fodder.

I wasn’t exactly feeling on top of the world when I kept getting dizzy the next morning after arm-wrestling with the silverback gorilla the previous afternoon, and then to lower my mood even further I discovered that I had paid the price for being sloppy when I set up camp for the night. Something had selected the choicest offering I had in my otherwise unglamorous and cheapest selection of vegetables that I could find at the market, a slice of pumpkin complete with nibbly seeds, and chewed a gaping hole in my precious blue mesh dive bag to get to it. The bag was another great acquisition from that great emporium of useful items that I cannot resist, Lidls, and makes the perfect shopping and storage bag for fruit and vegetables. It attracts many an admiring comment from stallholders in the market in Puerto Princesa where I regularly shop in Palawan. It was probably the usual nocturnal marauder that skulks around at night dragging it’s thick tail behind it like old hairy rope: a rodent, presumably of the ubiquitous brown European variety, Rattus norvegicus, that accompanied explorers around the world to wreak their own kind of havoc on the unprepared local inhabitants, just as their hosts did. As much as I admire the global success of rats I declared war on them a long time ago, just as I did the squirrels in Southeast Alaska that used to gnaw into my expensive dry bags and bombard my tent with fir cones.
I still vividly remember the running battles I had with them on a small island in a marine reserve off the east coast of Madagascar, when I was trying to transfer my stuff from my kayak to an old abandoned hut. They were lurking at both ends waiting to pounce on my food, and later on they even had the audacity to walk along the line that suspended the mosquito netting of my hammock directly above me, as if they were performing in a circus whilst thumbing their twitchy whiskered noses at me…. the little buggers! Coconuts were deployed as hand-grenades as the conflict escalated and hand-to-claw combat ensued.
This was the very same mesh dive bag that I last killed anything in, and needless to say it was a rat that invaded my house in Palawan during the night. They kept brazenly appearing in the kitchen, sometimes underneath the stove while I was cooking! When I heard the rat sniffing around inside this bag I lost my temper and gave it one almighty thump, which was more than enough to switch its lights off permanently……. so to speak euphemistically, because I absolutely hate killing anything, and I did feel a modicum of remorse as I flung it’s limp body out into the bushes for ant fodder.

And as if it wasn't bad enough that I kept blacking out, and then discovered that my mesh bag of vegetables had been invaded with gnawing teeth, I subsequently discovered on picking up the big kayak bag that the little bugger had also gnawed its way into that .......and why? .......this stupid bugger had actually left some baguettes inside it that sent out aromatic invitations to the rat to come inside out of the wind and rain and have a nice cosy feast sheltered from the elements that night. Oh how stupid Duncan!!! That's what can happen at the beginning of a trip when I haven't got back into the groove of being alert and tuned into the realisation that I'm back out into the real world where anything and anybody is fair game to the naturally attuned opportunist, and there is none better than a rat!

And as if it wasn’t bad enough that I kept blacking out, and then discovered that my mesh bag of vegetables had been invaded with gnawing teeth, I subsequently discovered on picking up the big kayak bag that the little bugger had also gnawed its way into that …….and why? …….this stupid bugger had actually left some baguettes inside it that sent out aromatic invitations to the rat to come inside out of the wind and rain, and have a nice cosy feast sheltered from the elements that night. Oh how stupid Duncan!!! That’s what can happen at the beginning of a trip when I haven’t got back into the groove of being alert and tuned into the realisation that I’m back out into the real world where anything and anybody is fair game to the naturally attuned opportunist, and there is none better than a rat!

To make my sloppiness by extending an open invitation to a resident rat to chew holes in my bags to have a midnight feast even more annoying was the presence of a tailor made tree for hanging all my bags from just as people before me had hung up decorative strings of coral and shells from the branches. I usually have to go through various initiations and wake up calls at the beginning of trips, especially if I haven't been out doing serious adventuring for a long time as is the case now.

To make my sloppiness by extending an open invitation to a resident rat to chew holes in my bags to have a midnight feast even more annoying was the presence of a tailor made tree for hanging all my bags from just as people before me had hung up decorative strings of coral and shells from the branches. I usually have to go through various initiations and wake up calls at the beginning of trips, especially if I haven’t been out doing any serious adventuring for a long time as is the case now.

I couldn’t understand why I kept getting dizzy every time I stood up and was getting a bit concerned that maybe I was sick, because I’d never experienced such persistent dizzy spells as that before. Then I made a fire and had a reviving cup of coffee with some cereal bars, and more baguette, jam and cheese, and not long after that the dizzy spells stopped, so I had obviously created quite a substantial energy deficit when I had been arm- wrestling with that silverback gorilla the day before. After many years of kayaking long distances in Southeast Alaska with a big heavy kayak in really heavy sea conditions into strong winds I developed very strong muscles in all the right places, and I have never really lost those, so my upper body never really aches that much and it’s just my energy that gets depleted. It was good to have my energy restored so that I could explore the island a bit. I was particularly eager to examine the diverse vegetation on the island.

I have been looking forward to seeing the unique vegetation in New Caledonia because it has such a high percentage of plants found nowhere else on earth. New Caledonia's vegetation is distinguished by the world's highest rate of endemism: 5 families, 107 genera and 3,380 species. New Caledonia is separated from the nearest mainland by more than 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) of open sea. Its isolation dates from at least the mid-Miocene, and possibly from the Oligocene, and that isolation has preserved its relict biota, fostering the evolution of wide ranges of endemic species.

I have been looking forward to seeing the unique vegetation in New Caledonia because it has such a high percentage of plants found nowhere else on earth. New Caledonia’s vegetation is distinguished by the world’s highest rate of endemism: 5 families, 107 genera and 3,380 species. New Caledonia is separated from the nearest mainland by more than 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) of open sea. Its isolation dates from at least the mid-Miocene, and possibly from the Oligocene, and that isolation has preserved its relict biota, fostering the evolution of wide ranges of endemic species.

One of the things that I have always loved the most about travelling is discovering new plant communities for the first time. It's the first thing that I notice about a new country, along with the different birds and birdsong. The plant hanging down in the middle was particularly interesting. As always I will have a lot of species identification to do.

One of the things that I have always loved the most about travelling is discovering new plant communities for the first time. It’s the first thing that I notice about a new country, along with the different birds and birdsong. The plant hanging down in the middle was particularly interesting. As always I will have a lot of species identification to do.

Shortly after landing on the island I was greeted by one of its inhabitants, one of these delightful seabirds that I have yet to identify. As with the rat that plundered my baguette and pumpkin in the dead of night, they had connected the human visitors with food, but these pretty birds waited for their opportunity with a lot more decorum than the ill-mannered rat, and certainly more than the seagulls in the seaside resort where I live in England that will snatch a sandwich from your hand before you can say "Did you remember to put some pickle on the cheese".

Shortly after landing on the island I was greeted by one of its regular inhabitants, one of these delightful seabirds that I have yet to identify and the next day it was joined by its companion. As with the rat that plundered my baguette and pumpkin in the dead of night, they had evidently connected human visitors to the island with food, but these pretty birds waited for their opportunity with a lot more decorum than the ill-mannered rat, and certainly more than the seagulls in the seaside resort where I live in England that will snatch a sandwich from your hand before you can say “Did you remember to put some pickle on the cheese”.

They are very pretty seabirds with matching striking red beaks and feet. They also have a particularly elegant but comical gait as they patter along the beach like they are performing equestrian dressage with heads aloof for an admiring audience.

They are very dainty seabirds with striking matching red beaks and feet. They also have a particularly elegant but comical gait as they patter along the beach like they are performing equestrian dressage with heads aloof for an admiring audience.

Their patience was remarkable, although it may have been running out here, and they were well rewarded with some chunks of baguette. I hope the rat was watching and could see that good manners are always rewarded, and you don't have to make enemies by chewing holes in bags to steal food.... like rats in the night.

Their patience was remarkable, although it may have been running out here, and they were well rewarded with some chunks of baguette. I hope the rat was watching and could see that good manners are always rewarded, and you don’t have to make enemies by chewing holes in bags to steal food…. like rats in the night.

This island is evidently used by occasional day-trippers from the mainland judging by the number of campfires at the end of the island where there is a good beach for landing. But that didn't bother me at all because I had the island to myself apart from the resident creatures.

By the time it was time to light a fire and cook my first outdoor dinner for a long time I had fully recovered from exhaustion, and was glowing from the euphoria of the solitude and wildness of being alone on my very own deserted island for the evening, well apart from that sneaky rat that would need to be a kangaroo rat to reach my food that night!

Eating and drinking outside is always so much more satisfying than at home, and there is nothing more satisfying than a nice hot drink on a cool, damp windy day. Cheers!! That's my new cheap 50p mug from the Philippines that I discovered had a hole in the bottom. That was my first repair job for this trip.

Eating and drinking outside is always so much more satisfying than at home, and there is nothing more satisfying than a nice hot drink on a cool, damp windy day. Cheers!! That’s my new cheap 50p mug from the Philippines that I discovered had a hole in the bottom. That was my first repair job for this trip.

Everything is ready for cooking dinner. The colourful basketwork fan is from Palawan, and makes a perfect fan for lighting fires as well as cooling me off, which hasn't been necessary in New Caledonia yet.

Everything is ready for cooking dinner. The colourful basketwork fan is from Palawan, and makes a perfect fan for lighting fires as well as cooling me off, which hasn’t been necessary in New Caledonia yet.

My essential cooking equipment that I have been using for many years and could be accurately carbon dated by the amount of carbon that has accumulated on them over the years. For my first very welcome cooked hot meal on this day that was more like a bleak, damp, chilly day in Alaska than on an island fringed by coral, I made some pumpkin soup with coriander and pasta.

My essential cooking equipment that I have been using for many years and could be accurately carbon dated by the amount of carbon that has accumulated on them over the years. For my first very welcome cooked hot meal on this day that was more like a bleak, damp, chilly day in Alaska than on an island fringed by coral, I made some pumpkin soup with coriander and pasta.

I had started entertaining the depressing thought that maybe I had made the wrong choice in coming to New Caledonia to find humpback whales instead of Tonga as I had originally planned to do, because that is probably the most popular place for people to legally swim with them. But I was concerned that camping is illegal and frowned upon there, and that it has become too commercialised for swimming with humpbacks. I chose New Caledonia because it is much bigger and potentially has a lot more to offer in the marine environment, and certainly on land. But now I was concerned that I faced an uphill battle to slog my way against the southeast trade wind every day to get to the southern lagoon to find the humpback whales, and then I was uncertain about finding any small islands to camp on during the 30 mile crossing to the Isle of Pines. Then when I was browsing my Lonely Planet ebook I discovered that they also frequent the waters around the Loyalty Islands so I could go there on the ferry instead! I felt very relieved with my new plan, which completely backed up my decision to come to New Caledonia instead. Now I could return to Noumea using my new sail with a bone in my teeth instead of arm-wrestling with a silverback gorilla again!

It was a much nicer sunnier day when I headed back to Noumea but the southeasterly trade wind was still blowing quite hard and would quite likely increase in the afternoon, as indeed it did, but I had my new Cruiser Windpaddle sail to look forward to using for the first time.

It was a much nicer sunnier day when I headed back to Noumea but the southeasterly trade wind was still blowing quite hard, and would quite likely increase in the afternoon, as indeed it did, but I had my new Cruiser Windpaddle sail to look forward to using for the first time.

My Cruiser Windpaddle sail had been an epic purchase because I had ordered it in the USA for my friend to bring over to England with him, but it took longer to reach him near Seattle from California than it did when he eventually sent it to me, because it had arrived too late for him to to bring it with him. I had wanted a good sail to use with a kayak for a long time, and this one seems to be a perfect but very simple design, but I hadn't practiced using it yet; and most importantly, as I was soon to discover, I hadn't mastered trying to fold the big circular hoop that supports the sail. I had downloaded an instruction video and just about managed to do it at home, but that's a lot different from trying to do it when a 25 knot wind is trying to wrestle it out of your hands and smother you with it, get tangled up with the paddle and then slip into the heaving sea scooping up a large amount of water that then gets dumped on your lap and into the kayak. Well that's exactly what happened when I was getting blown towards a jagged reef that I only just managed to avoid. It prompted a lot of panic at the time, but how I wish that there had been somebody there to film it and post it on YouTube to make "the Whaleman" look like a total Wally.

My Cruiser Windpaddle sail had been an epic purchase because I had ordered it in the USA for my friend to bring over to England with him, but it took longer to reach him near Seattle from California than it did when he eventually sent it to me, because it had arrived too late for him to to bring it with him. I had wanted a good sail to use with a kayak for a long time, and this one seems to be a perfect but very simple design, but I hadn’t practiced using it yet; and most importantly, as I was soon to discover, I hadn’t mastered trying to fold the big circular hoop that supports the sail. I had downloaded an instruction video and just about managed to do it at home, but that’s a lot different from trying to do it when a 25 knot wind is trying to wrestle it out of your hands and smother you with it, get tangled up with the paddle and then slip into the heaving sea scooping up a large amount of water that then gets dumped on your lap and into the kayak. Well that’s exactly what happened when I was getting blown towards a jagged reef that I only just managed to avoid. It prompted a lot of panic at the time, but how I wish that there had been somebody there to film it and post it on YouTube to make “the Whaleman” look like a total Wally.

After just about managing to control the crazy sail I was able to get around the snarling coral reef and stopped for a break from the wind and lunch on this relatively sheltered spit. The pine trees bending in the wind along the shoreline brought back memories of the Atlantic coast of France south of La Rochelle where my parents used to have a mobile home many years ago.

After just about managing to control the crazy sail I was able to get around the snarling coral reef and stopped for a break from the wind and lunch on this relatively sheltered spit. The pine trees bending in the wind along the shoreline brought back memories of the Atlantic coast of France south of La Rochelle where my parents used to have a mobile home many years ago.

On the other side of the spit there was a large sheltered bay fringed with mangroves.

On the other side of the spit there was a large sheltered bay fringed with mangroves.

I found this Portuguese Man-of-War washed up on the beach. It is such an odd looking thing and really prompts some rather suggestive thoughts; I'm sure I've seen something similar in a catalogue somewhere....

I found this Portuguese Man-of-War washed up on the beach. It is such an odd looking thing and really prompts some rather suggestive thoughts; I’m sure I’ve seen something similar in a catalogue somewhere….

It was quite a struggle reloading and relaunching the kayak with waves still surging up the beach. I always have to be mindful of the potential fragility of the rubberised hull, so I can’t allow it to drag along the bottom when it’s fully loaded, therefore I had to run backwards and forwards as fast as possible to load it up. It was also being swept along the beach, getting farther from my stuff on the beach, and getting turned broadside to the incoming waves and flooded with water! I seem to remember uttering something in despair about sometimes wishing that I wasn’t kayaking alone. Some things just never get any easier no matter how many times I have to endure them. When I finally got back out into the frenzy I could see that I had a lot of threatening reefs to avoid on the way back, which meant that I would have to be able to fold the sail up quickly this time to avoid the farcical, but potentially dangerous situation that I had got myself into before. But this time I was prepared after practicing a few times on the beach after watching the instructional video again, and I was confident that I could master it whenever the gauntlet would be thrown in my face by the petulant wind and waves. It was a great feeling of relief when I did manage to do it this time and negotiate the ominous reefs, although it was still hard work paddling against the wind and waves to skirt around them.

 As I neared Noumea I could see flocks of the colourful kites of kite surfers criss-crossing the evening sky that was also being painted by the sun setting directly ahead of me. 

As I neared Noumea I could see flocks of the colourful kites of kite surfers criss-crossing the evening sky that was being painted by the sun setting directly ahead of me.

The wind had abated slightly but I still had to keep my wits about me because I had been cruising through a minefield of jagged shallow reefs, and every time I turned too close into the wind the sail flapped and threatened to smother me and scoop up water from the sea.

The wind had abated slightly but I still had to keep my wits about me because I had been cruising through a minefield of jagged shallow reefs, and every time I turned too close into the wind the sail flapped and threatened to smother me and scoop up water from the sea.

I could see some good photo-opportunites ahead of me with all the kite surfers zipping back and forth before the setting sun.

I could see some good photo-opportunites ahead of me with all the kite surfers zipping back and forth before the setting sun but I had to be ever-mindful of protecting my camera from the water flying around.

I gestured to the nearest kite-surfer to pass in front of me for a striking photograph against the setting sun and he duly obliged, although every time I was concentrating more on taking photos than controlling the kayak I inevitably lost control and got my paddle tangled up with the sail, which was smothering me.

I gestured to the nearest kite-surfer to pass in front of me for a striking photograph against the setting sun and he duly obliged, although every time I was concentrating more on taking photos than controlling the kayak I inevitably lost control and got my paddle tangled up with the sail, which then smothered me like an airbag in a car.

I folded the sail before entering the marina and then paddled past big ostentatious boats such as a gigantic hi-tech catamaran with a tender that dwarfed my kayak, and then a motor yacht that towered above me with lots of blue lights illuminating its peak, and then in matching blue lights its name on the stern – “The Godfather”. I felt very humble in my little inflatable Czech Republic kayak – A “Gumatex Helios 2” doesn’t have quite the same gravitas as “The Godfather” but it fits my needs and who I am perfectly.    As I neared the beach near the waste pipes in the corner of the marina I was greeted by the familiar repugnant smell of humanity and all of its wasteful excesses. I was already looking forward to getting back out on the cleansing sea. After unloading my kayak I flipped it over to drain the water and was shocked to see that the fin had gone! It slides very tightly underneath bands on the hull, and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how it had somehow wiggled out because it has to be pushed all the way one way and then back to slide it into position under the straps. But evidently the kayak had tracked perfectly well without it in the difficult sea conditions, and the rudder is much more important. It could have only happened on the beach where I had difficulty loading the kayak. It’s actually a lot more convenient not having the fin sticking down on the beach, and I will just have to see how I manage without it on the next trip. I had to thoroughly wash the kayak because I didn’t want any residual smell of the polluted marina water on it. It took several trips back up and down the hill to Jeremy’s apartment to get everything back there, and I was getting quite knackered after such a long day of exertion, although without having to arm-wrestle with a silverback gorilla this time. I could hear a small orchestra rehearsing in a building that was passing again and again, and all I could see through the window on the top floor was the conductor’s head bobbing up and down and his hands waving around. He was probably unaware that he was also conducting me and helping me to get up and down that hill with the kayak and gear.

The next day I discovered that everything official closes at midday on Saturday, even the tourist information office, so I was unable to find out about the ferries to the Loyalty Islands. All that I had been able to find out on the internet before is that there is supposed to be a cargo ship called Le Havannah that also carries passengers there every Monday, and also the regular high-speed catamaran ferry, the Betico, which only has a very limited baggage allowance, and probably too small for my kayak and all my gear. I had to wait until Monday morning to find out the extremely disappointing news at the tourist information office that Le Havannah no longer carries passengers, and then when I went to the terminal for the Betico I established that as feared they only permit a maximum of 25 kilos including excess baggage plus 6 kilos for carry-on. My plans had been undone again but this time I have no choice but to head south and persevere with arm-wrestling with that persistent old silverback gorilla, but I will just have to make the effort to start paddling much earlier in the morning because the wind usually strengthens in the afternoon. I did some more research and scouring the internet for any more information about humpback whales in New Caledonia, and stumbled across another location where they usually assemble at this time of the year. It’s still down at the southern end in Prony Bay (Baie du Prony), but at least I wouldn’t have to negotiate the large open southern lagoon to try to get to the Isle of Pines, and try to find any of the very few tiny islets to camp on if the south-easterly trade wind becomes an obstacle again. Unfortunately there has been extensive nickel mining there in the past so I’m not expecting any beautiful pristine landscapes, but hopefully they will come later on when I travel up to the town of Poindimie to kayak up the northeast coast, which is supposed to be the most scenic part of New Caledonia.

So here I am now sitting on the floor in Jeremy’s very spartan apartment trying to finish this blog for my first kayaking experience here in New Caledonia so that I can get some sleep before getting up early to get my kayak, gear and provisions down to the stinky and polluted, but ostentatious marina once again and head out to do battle with that silverback gorilla one again. Who knows maybe my luck will shift with the wind, and I could be wrestling with my sail again while pigs fly past……but I don’t really care as long as I see humpback whales at the end of my journey and quest to see them for the first time in over ten years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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