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Kayaking New Caledonia – Noumea to Prony Bay

My blog has been down for over a year and I’m trying to catch up posting about some of my best travel experiences of the last  three years. The trip that I started blogging about in real time was my epic 250 km kayaking trip from Noumea to Yate in New Caledonia in 2015 but I wasn’t unable to sustain it for very long. At least I wrote a detailed diary, although I don’t have them with me here in Palawan so I’m relying on my photos to jog my memory, but with such epic trips as that most of the experiences are permanently etched in my memory, wether they were good or bad experiences. This post continues on from this one http://www.whale-of-a-time-blog.com/2015/08/25/a-false-start-and-going-around-in-circles-in-my-quest-to-find-humpback-whales/ after I had returned to Noumea after a false start and it starts with a bad experience. I had been staying with a young French guy called Jeremy in a tiny cramped one room apartment. It was my first time using Couchsurfing and it turned into a disaster. It was a mistake from the very start for me to be staying in such a tiny room with so much gear living cheek by jowl with someone who didn’t make me feel very comfortable staying there although it started of OK. When I returned I discovered that a plastic carrier bag with some of my things that I had left behind was missing. It took me a while to remember everything I had left in the bag but the first to spring to mind were my security money pouch belt containing at least £100 cash and my phone. When I informed him he was more disbelieving than concerned and just said that he didn’t remember seeing it. I was shocked when he seemed more concerned that I had accidentally taken his plug adapter rather than the one that I bought. They both worked the same but he said that he wasn’t able to use some of his equipment, which was obviously a total lie. He left the door open quite a lot when it was hot but no valuable items of his were taken so it’s a mystery why that plastic carrier bag with packets of noodles on top was taken.

When I left on this trip he was very impatient with me and offered no help carrying my gear the relatively short distance to my launching spot in the marina. Things went steadily downhill after I returned and I started looking for somewhere else to stay even before he asked me to leave because he said that he was having personal problems, which was already very evident to me! I found a friendly French couple on Couchsurfing and Jeremy and his friend helped me to move there. We parted on reasonably amicable terms until I became frustrated again with his lack of interest in finding out what happened to my things and let him know in no uncertain terms. If I had offered accommodation to someone and that happened in my home I would have been mortified and felt obliged to reimburse at least a portion of the money, but i would have been satisfied with a little bit more concern. When we then exchanged disgruntled messages I realised what a liar he was. He said that I never tidied the tiny kitchen area when I absolutely did it thoroughly every time I cooked anything because I could tell right away that he was an anal retentive person, and it was just the right thing to do as a guest in someone else’s home. He also said that I was antisocial just listening to music with earphones when I working on my photos, which was such a laughable lie because I ended up doing that because I got fed up trying to talk to him while he was always working on his laptop and plugged into his music! I always offered to share my food with him but he always declined and would just sit there and eat a whole packet of biscuits without offering me a single biscuit. The first time we went into a patisserie together, which leads me onto my first photos and away from this bad memory, he just ordered something and left me to pay without even asking if it was OK. He was a strange person with obvious insecurities, and it was the worst possible introduction to Couchsurfing. I’m a very hospitable person, and love accommodating and entertaining people, and I know that there must be so many nice people on Couchsurfing who do too, but I have no idea why he was doing it. I’m not sure if I will ever use Couchsurfing again, especially if I’m going on a kayaking trip with so much gear. That surprising theft started a sequence of thefts over the last 3 years, 6 in total, including camera equipment and my laptop. As I have often heard people say – it could only happen to me!

 

 

It may not have been good returning to my Couchsurfing accommodation but it was heavenly returning to the fine patisseries in Noumea! There was such a dizzying cornucopia of colourful cakes to tempt my palette but not my wallet too much because I was on a very tight budget as always, and even more so after getting robbed. French patisseries such as these are more like culinary art galleries for the eyes and taste buds – a smorgosbord of edible jewellery for the discerning taste. I usually went for something simple and more affordable like a pain au raisin or an almond croissant but they never failed to elicit a surge of saliva and sighs of satisfaction.

 

 

 

This was my regular patisserie for buying baguettes. Bread has always been an essential staple in my diet, and it’s usually the one thing that I miss the most in many countries, particulary in Asia, where the bread is usually so boring, so monotonous in flavour and texture, and without any real crust to sink your teeth into. It was great to finally find somewhere beyond the normal boundary of decent bakeries that had a variety of baguettes that I had to start nibbling as soon as I left the counter. A freshly baked baguette is a crust-lovers raison d’etre and they sustained me in a lot of my early teenage travels in Europe with a slice of cheese, tomatoes and peppers in Spain, and French jam, bananas or Nutella for dessert. In Greece the baguettes didn’t require any filling if they were covered with sesame seeds. Fresh bread isn’t the most practical thing to take on a kayaking trip but I had to find a way and the space to take 5 or 6 baguettes with me every time that I left Noumea so that I didn’t suffer from the pangs of cold turkey right away. And of course there was the usual seductive selection of French fruity jam to accompany the bread in my kayak….. and then in my mouth.

 

When I returned to Noumea the demonstration by the Kanak nickel truck drivers was still going on with a strong police presence as I described in my first post about New Caledonia. I think that there was a fatal road accident near one of their roadblocks.

 

A reminder of the proud culture of the Kanaks that has been so negatively impacted by French colonial rule.

Repainting the US war memorial in Noumea, which pays tribute to the liberation of the Pacific islands by the US.

Kite surfing is so popular in Noumea with the ideal trade wind, which was considerably less ideal for kayaking!

There’s a great variety of the staple root tubers in the market in Noumea, but they were surprisingly expensive.

As usual I had to transform my kayak into Dr Who’s tardis to get everything in and leave enough room for me to slot in.

 

I was excited to set off from the marina again but I wasn’t looking forward to battling with the trade winds, so Popeye needed an extra can of spinach to prepare for the confronation or arm-wrestling with a silverback gorilla as I described it in my first post. I camped on the same little island as I did on my first jaunt and then I was faced with a long stretch of open water to cross going past the Baie de Plum and Pirogues Bay. I left early to try to have some wind-free paddling but it wasn’t early enough and shortly after leaving the shelter of the island I locked horns with the strong wind in a struggle that lasted all day. The sea was crazy and confused with the wind and strong currents, and I had to stay focussed to keep on the right track to avoid waves breaking over me, which involved tacking to avoid having the wind and waves abeam. But I inevitably had to keep stopping periodically to bale out the kayak because one of the problems with an inflatable kayak like that is that it has a very low freeboard around the cockpit, especially as heavily loaded as it was. Whenever I had to stop because it was more like sitting in a paddling pool with water sloshing around I only had  a few seconds to bale the water out before the wind started to turn me away from heading into it and having it abeam and thus taking in more water to bale out. The biting wind, blazing sun and salt spray were taking a heavy toll on my exposed skin, especially my arms and lips. It was a seemingly interminable paddle to get to the distant headland, and a constant cycle of paddling and stopping to bale out. But I was still generally impressed with the handling and tracking of my Helios 2 kayak, and expected to have to contend with a lot of water entering in such sloppy sea conditions. I could see a white yacht flying towards me at high speed and I couldn’t help but contemplate the contrast between their slick passage gliding across the waves like an albatross, probaby with a beer in one hand, while I was slogging away with all the elegance of a slug stuttering across a sandy beach.

As the day dragged on my eyes were clutching at straws lining up objects on land trying to figure out if I was making any forward progress at all. I was getting exhausted by the elements and my expenditure of energy, hunger, my buttocks were protesting, and my back was burning from the sun and salt. When you’re kayaking between two distant points of land across open water you eventually reach a point where your destination starts to enlarge exponentially and a sense of relief starts to kick in but on this occasion that sense of relief was struggling with extreme fatigue. But I’ve been in that situation so many times before, and I always manage to find that last ounce of energy and determination to get me across the line. When I finally reached the headland I could see that there were some houses so after a rest I continued on a short distance to find a beach all to myself. It felt wonderful to be using my legs again, and my fatigue was soon supplanted by the eagerness to set up camp and curiosity to explore. I was immediately excited to see the fascinating combination and biodiversity of the vegetation at the back of the beach with the very distinctive endemic auricaria pines growing alongside palms and deciduous trees, and what looked like mangrove trees even though they were growing on the beach.

I found a perfect place to put up my hammock at one end of the beach. From there on wherever I camped there were usually inquistive birds and the accompaniment of their singing. The only other life I encountered on this beach was a banded sea krait and some skinks. As I explored what I assumed to be a pristine beach with no people or dwellings nearby I was dismayed by the amount of plastic pollution along the beach and in the vegetation. including one concentration where it looked as if there had been a drinking party and all the bottles were left behind. I counted approximately 100 plastic bottles along a 100 metre stretch of beach. It seems as if it’s virtually impossible to find anywhere free from the scourge of plastic pollution. I was more than aware of the looming problem nearly 40 years ago when I first started kayaking around Southeast Alaska and encountered a juvenile Steller sea lion with a noose of cargo netting strangling it. It was a vision from hell of an unimaginable living death.

 

This is the most deceptive photo showing what appears to be kayaking on a beautiful sunny day. It doesn’t accurately reflect how fierce the wind was that I was battling into, and that beautiful sunshine burnt my arms and badly blistered my lips. There’s a white yacht in the distance gliding towards me at high speed – quite the opposite to me!

It was such a relef to get to land and out of that wind!

 

I was enthralled by my first real glimpse of the unique combination of coastal vegetation with auricaria pines growing alongside palms, deciduous and mangrove trees.

 

 

A perfect campsite at the end of the beach, but I was always wary of the menace of marauding gnawing rats after my carelessness on the small island that I camped on previously.

 

There was never any problem lighting fires wherever there were auricaria pines with a thick bed of their tinderbox cones.

The endemic auricaria pines have very flaky bark like birch trees.

 

Thick crusty bark on a coastal deciduous tree – an essential requirement in the salty conditions.

These skinks were the commonest reptiles around the coast.

 

I was horrified by how many plastic bottles I found on this beach – about one every metre!

 

A coconut grove is the ideal place for slinging a hammock!

My next destination was an easier paddle to the Woodin Canal that leads onto Prony Bay, or so it seemed until I realised that I had a very slow puncture in one of the air chambers so instead of having to stop periodically to bale any water out I had to stop to pump more air into the chamber to stop me taking on a lot of water if I sank! I left late afternoon to avoid the heat of the sun and when the wind had died down sufficiently. Despite the slow puncture it was much easier going than the long hard slog of the previous day. Because of my late departure I had to paddle in the darkness, which wasn’t a problem in the benign sea conditions and I was paddling closer to land. I had been reading too many shark attack stories of New Caledonia so my mind sometimes wandered and imagined a shark lurking around and following me, especially in the darkness. But it was a very enjoyable night-time paddle that brought back memories of other nocturnal paddles under the moon and canopy of stars in Southeast Alaska and the Sea of Cortez. The silhouette of a ship with lights flickering like a fairground attraction emerged from the darkness and provided a comforting sense of passing company as I visualised the crew relaxing onboard. In the darkness I could make out that I had land on either side and tried to navigate by the mainland shore to my left and any headlands according to the screenshots that I had taken from Google Earth. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to camp but it was getting late and I couldn’t be too fussy. I passed a light and kept going a short distance to ensure that I had complete solitude. I landed on a small beach and discovered a coconut grove so I wasn’t that far removed from people, but the coconut trees provided the perfect posts to sling my hammock between. I kept very quite to avoid attracting any attention and left fairly early the next morning with no worries about the wind in that sheltered strait. The fast catamaran ferry that goes to the Isle des Pins passed in the morning creating a large wave in its wake that created havoc on the beach as I frantically tried to hang on to my kayak.

From there I had a very pleasant short paddle along the Woodin Canal with the Pacific Ocean visible at the end. I couldn’t see any human habitation in any direction, just the red rusty hills with sparce greenery. I stopped to camp on Ile Ouen off Grande Terre adjacent to a large coral shelf fringed with mangroves. I was eager to start exploring the incredible marine biodiversity of New Caledonia. New Caledonia is encircled by an immense double coral barrier reef (almost 1,600 km), the second longest in the world after the Belize Barrier Reef, comprising a group of six lagoons that contain coral reef ecosystems with great species diversity and a high level of endemism, which have been declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site: Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems. The reef systems of New Caledonia are considered to be the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the longest continuous barrier reef in the world with a length of 1.600 km and its lagoon, the largest in the world with an area of 24.000 square kilometers. The density of reef structures here is the most diverse in the world. It host a great diversity of species with a high level of endemism, and is an important habitat for endangered dugongs and sea turtles.

 

Two weather-beaten information boards in Yate with some interesting translation, including a reference to the lagoons as “properties” making it more like a real estate sign.

 

In compliance with the Convention referring to the protection of the cultural and natural world heritage, the reefs, lagoons and associated ecosystems of New Caledonia appear on the world heritage list. Inscription on the list denotes the outstanding universal value of a cultural or a natural property in order to protect it for the benefit of all mankind.

The listed property is a property in series, made up of a set of 6 sites. It stretches across a very vast area and encompasses all the complexity of the local environment and its associated ecosystems (mangrove and algnerium) and includes an extraordinary diversity of morphologies, physical environments, habitats and biodiversity. The total area of the property amounts to 18,000 sq. km. and represents about 60% of the total area of the coral environment and lagoons of New Caledonia.

The lagoons, reefs and associated ecosystems of New Caledonia feature these characteristics of outstanding universal value. It is the second most vast reef sysetm in the world. The fact that it includes a very rare double barrier reef, a great diversity of coral forms, extensive marine turtle neesting sites, breeding areas for emblematic and/or threatened species (dugongs, humpback whales, marine birds, and many endemic species and highly vulnerable habitats (mangrove, seagrass meadows) contributes to the outstanding universal value of the property named on this prestigious list.

 

 

The Southern Lagoon area extending over 3145 sq. km. is situated at the southern tip of the mainland of New Caledonia (Grande Terre). It contains outstanding landscapes (Upi’s Bay, Nokanhul) and forms a transition area between various tropical, sub-tropical and temperate communities and populations. That marine area contains many coral islets and is considered to be of international importance.

This area contains the biggest fish biomass in New Caledonia and harbours subtropical marine species rarely occurring elsewhere in the territory (example of the great white shark). Many emblematic and vulnerable species are represented: three species of marine turtles; the green turtle, the hawksbill turtle and the loggerhead turtle, twelve species of marine nesting birds including an outstanding density of ospreys and five species of marine mammals, including the humpback whale, which migrates to the Southern Lagoon suring the southern winter to breed.

So I was now within the boundary of the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Southern Lagoon and whatever it is designated as I could personally testify to its stark beauty and the abundance and biodiversity of marine life at my feet as I eagerly explored the tidepools whilst being very careful not to damage the coral. There were some beautiful pink/violet circular coral formations among similarly coloured staghorn coral and less attractive amorphous blobs of soft coral that could have been vomited. Among the creatures I found was an octopus, a speckled moray eel, a brightly coloured hermit crab, big blue starfish, sea cucumbers and the first of the many different species of large sea hares that I found along the coast. I remember occasionally finding them in my local tidepools when I was a boy, and they were always a prize find because of their size and strangeness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw many species of moral eels in the tide pools.

I saw many of these banded sea kraits along the coast.

One of the many kinds of marine invertebrates that I frequently saw and yet to be identified.

The prickly pear cactus is a very ubiquitous plant distributed by people, and the fruit were a welcome treat for me until I got some of its hairy spines in my lips.

 

 

 

It was such a beautiful place to camp looking down the mirror-calm strait towards the Pacific Ocean, and it’s fortunate that it was so calm and still because I suddenly spotted my kayak drifting away! I had foolishy carried it high up the beach without securing it properly after I had repaired the leak in the hull yet again. I wouldn’t have been completely marooned with the occasional boat passing through the Woodin Channel but I really didn’t want my kayaking trip to end there when the excitement and anticipation of things to come was really starting to well up in that beautiful location. As I had already experienced there were plenty of inquisitive birds visiting my camp. It was the kind of location culminating with a sunset that reminded me why I love sea kayaking so much and still don’t do it enough! It was such a beautiful evening that I felt compelled to shoot some video with commentary because photographs can never capture the full ambience of a place.

 

 

After another short fairly liesurely paddle around the next point into the entance of Prony Bay I found a camping location even more intoxicating than the last one with a huge spread of those beautiful lilac/pink circular coral formations to use as stepping stones at low tide. They were rock solid unlike the fragile staghorn coral that I was always trying to avoid stepping on because I was well aware that these were relatively pristine locations with little if any visitors, just an occasional sailboat passing by, and it was an absolute privilege for me to experience such places. I camped in the mangroves in a relatively sheltered location on the lee side of some small islands inside the entrance to Prony Bay. I couldn’t wait for the tide to go out to explore the coral and tidepools. The current was fairly swift in the channel between the mainland and the islands meaning a good supply of nutrients to support a rich habitat. It was one of those locations where I could just keep taking good photos in a continuous sequence as I gingerly stepped from one coral outcrop to another with the clouds and sky reflected in a unique photomontage of heaven and earth. There was all the usual intertidal life that I was becoming accustomed to seeing, especially sea cucumbers, with the addition of spiny sea urchins to be avoided! There was also some vividly coloured giant clams, which required patience and stealth to get the best photos of when their brightly coloured “jaws” were sufficiently agape. The contrast between the crazy convolutions of coral formations and the backdrop of auricaria pines sticking up on the offshore islands like spines on a hedgehog’s back was a vivid display of the uniqueness of the coastline of New Caledonia and the exciting kayaking journey that I was undertaking. At the end of that visual feast I was treated to a beautiful sunset with the silhouettes of those bristling auricaria pines tickling the golden clouds.

 

 

 

 

This was a truly remarkable location and a veritable feast for the eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

I have never before seen so many different sea cucumbers as I saw in New Caledonia. They were a good indicator of the rich marine biodiversity.

Yet another banded sea krait!

Smile for the camera please!

 

The next day I continued on into the left fork of Prony Bay, which is a very big open bay subject to the full force of the SE trade wind as I discovered being buffeted by the sloppy sea. I was making for one of the few historic  sites in New Caledonia, the near-deserted village of Prony, which was the site of a penal colony for harvesting the abundant timber in the bay for the construction of Noumea after France had claimed New Caledonia as a French territory in 1853. A year later, the Prony corvette left the Nouméa strait to explore the southern coasts. Travelling along the Woodin Canal between the Grande Terre and Ouen island, its captain Jean-Joseph de Brun, discovered a huge bay that he named after his ship. In 1863, following on from French Guiana, New Caledonia was designated as a penal colony serving the purposes of punishment and colonisation; punishing convicts far away, and thus protecting  French society whilst populating a new colony and developing it using forced labour. 248 convicts arrived in the first convoy in 1864 and up until 1897 75 convoys transported over 21,700 convicts including 525 women. In 1866, there was a rise in the cost of timber imports to New Caledonia and Captain Hippolyte Sebert was given the task of finding a new source of timber. Prony Bay was selected and logging operations began in 1867. The first workforce sent to Sebert Camp comprised 29 convicts selected for their skills in trades and crafts. By 1898 the workforce of convicts had increased to 635. When convict shipments came to an end in 1897 there were no new recruits for the workforce, and the site gradually deteriorated and was abandoned in 1911. I stopped for a break from the unrelenting wind to fuel up with some lunch and saw my first big solitary kauri tree, the primary source of timber in Prony Bay, hanging over a dry stream bed. Over the next few months I would learn much more about the alarming extent of deforestation in New Caledonia.

 

The red staining of nickel and iron oxides is evident everywhere.

The first large kauri that I saw in New Caledonia.

Looking out across Prony Bay. This conifer was dancing around in the brisk wind.

Sadly there’s no escaping the computer even on a fairly remote beach in New Caledonia.

 

It took me a while to find the location of Prony because there isn’t very much visible from the sea. I anchored my kayak in the red mud and went ashore where I surprisingly saw some Asian tourists but after that I saw very few people. The first notable feature that I came to was this banyan tree completely obscuring the foundations of the logging supervisor’s office. A bread oven and provisions depot were the first structures to be built at the Sebert Camp, followed by the Penitentiary Administration’s brick and stone buildings, prison guard quarters, accountant’s quarters and the powder magazine, which is the most intact of the ruins The eerily sedate village of Prony is an odd mixture of the ruins of the Sebert Camp and the shanty structures of the village constructed on the ruins in 1956 to house the families of miners employed in mineral extraction in the region until 1968. In 2007 the site was taken over by the Southern Province as a historic monument.

 

 

 

Banyan trees quickly claim any abandoned structure for additional support.

I did see some people who were presumably permanent residents in this quirky isolated community.

I could not help but feel a sense of eeriness in a place that was once a penal colony that relied upon forced slave labour where conditions were probably harsh and punishment brutal as this strange mannequin in a box conveys, although at first glance I thought that it was a toilet! The Prony penal settlement was originally used to detain transportees but from 1890 it became a destination for habitual offenders, after which there was an increase in escape attempts. Repeating previous abuses of authority at the infamous penal colony of French Guyana, prison guards at Prony subjected the convicts to various forms of corporal punishment so vicious that they were tantamount to torture. Their abusive behaviour was denounced and a sweeping judicial enquiry was launched in 1880 but no charges were brought.

 

Most of the timber felled was kauri (Agathis lanceolata) and gum oak (Spermoleptis tannifera). After felling the timber was shifted on sledges along timber tracks with wooden rails. A transport crew comprised 18 men. The timber was then shipped to Noumea by boat. The farthest timber forest from the village was the forest of the great kauris 15 kilometres away.

 

The powder magazine is the best preserved of the old buidlings for the obvious reason that it was so solidly built.

 

A small alter overlooking the bay was a clear indication that there are still people living in Prony.

 

 

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