In the winter of 1998, a snow-less Broken River ski trip was abandoned, leaving several holiday-hungry punters contemplating how they could best spend their ski trip refund. At one stage, eight of us were consulting guidebooks and maps and having trip meetings to discuss the myriad of alternatives.
It wasn’t long before Andrew Sweet, Jon Parker and I got desperate for a decision and a holiday, and chose two weeks of cycle touring in New Caledonia. Within a few weeks we were on Air Calan bound for Tontouta International Airport.
We arrived around 4pm and headed off for our first session of cycling on the right hand side of the road. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got my first flat tyre after less than one kilometre! (A bad omen? luckily not- it was my only flat tyre all trip!} By the time we changed the tube it was time to find a camping spot for the night.
With the help of Andy’s French we were soon dining at the Relais des Ailes restaurant, with our tents pitched in the grassy area out the back.
In New Caledonia the sun’s schedule varies little, rising around 6am and setting around 6pm. The temperature in September is in the mid twenties so we woke up with the birds and had a dip in the restaurateur’s swimming pool to cool off. New Caledonia’s main island, Grande Terre, is only 400 km long and 50 km wide with a central mountain range. We’d been advised to cycle up the southwest (dry) coast, then back down the north east (wet and lush) coast. So off we set, bound for la Foa, where we ate baguettes and camembert on the historic Passerelle Marguerite suspension bridge.
The next three days were spent cycling up the south-west coast. The locals (mainly native Kanaks) were very friendly and always quick to smile, clap and cheer us on as we cycled by. Sometimes we wondered if they thought we were the tail-enders in the “Tour de Nouvelle Caledonie” cycle race, which was currently being staged.
By our sixth night we had cycled right up the south-west coast and over the ranges to the northeast coast. We stayed at the picturesque Amos camping ground, right by the beach. The palm trees swayed in the easterly trade winds. Occasionally we’d hear a thump as a coconut hit the ground, and hoped one wouldn’t knock us out during the night.
For the next four days we enjoyed the impressive scenery of the northeast coast. There were lush forests, streams, waterfalls, rugged rock formations, plantations of tropical fruit and coffee, and white sandy beaches.
The population was sparse, with virtually no Europeans, but many small Kanak clans. The clans live in simple open-air houses made of traditional straw or concrete.
One night we were invited to stay with “Daniel” and his family. They lived in a clan of about 50 extended family members and had a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, growing crops and fishing. We feasted on taro, banana cooked in coconut, and rice, as well as our own pasta dinner. All these carbos helped to prepare us for the two and a half hour ascent the next morning. We grunted over several passes and saw mining operations between Poro and Koh. Even the decapitated mountains with their terraced red dirt looked impressive.
On day 12 we knocked off the remaining passes of the central mountain range enjoying a fantastic down-hill run (with Jon chasing trucks) and arrived back on the south-west coast. Hurrying on, we used a mixture of hitching and cycling to get to Noumea by dark. There we spent two relaxing days checking out the beaches, aquarium, culture centre and restaurants. It was a nice way to end our two-week trip.
For those contemplating such a trip, I’d say go for it! There is virtually no traffic, good sealed roads, friendly local people, and a huge variety of scenery. Expect to spend around $2,000 per person for a two-week trip. New Caledonia is not cheap, but free-camping and cook-ing your own meals certainly helps the finances. The Lonely Planet guide together with our French interpreter “Monsieur Andy” were life savers! Thanks, Andy!