Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ile des Pins

On Wednesday, we left Noumea's Port Moselle Marina and headed back to the southern part of the lagoon. It was good to leave the city behind and get back to anchorages. Cheaper too! We motor-sailed the 30 or so miles bay to Baie de Prony and what is described in one of the guide books as "one of the smallest but prettiest bays in Bonne Anse." It is called Anse Majik – or at least that's what the mooring ball said. The moorings are provided free on a first come first serve basis. When we arrived there was only one other boat there but by the time nightfall came – all five were taken. This is a narrow bay well protected from all swells and winds and surrounded by hills covered in vegetation. There are also the areas where mining has occurred that are bare and erosion is taking its toll on the very red, iron rich soil. The bird calls were constant and lovely to hear – especially at dawn and dusk. It was a change from the traffic noises in Noumea. We enjoyed the picturesque scenery and being in a quiet anchorage. On Friday, a beautiful sunny day, we hiked up a track to Pic Ndoua, the highest point in the area and home to a beautiful old lighthouse. It also has a nicely built observation area to watch whales. The humpback whales use the area for mating and raising their young and can often be spotted with the high powered viewers that are on the observation platform. They must have taken Friday off as we couldn't spot any, even though the conditions were perfect – flat seas and bright sun.

After our trip to the lighthouse and observation deck, we decided to keep walking towards another bay, Port Boise. The flora along the way was very interesting and varied – everything from pitcher plants to strange flowers and Norfolk pines. The path was well maintained though slippery in some spots with small pebbles over the hard ground. It was quite a hilly climb as well. We trekked for several hours and enjoyed our picnic lunch at a pretty viewpoint. Around two, we decided to turn back to make it back down the trail before dark. Quite an enjoyable climb and walk overall though we were tuckered out and earned our cold beverage upon return.

On Sunday, the winds were supposed to be more westerly, so we thought that would be a good time to make the 42 mile run to Ile des Pins on the other side of the lagoon. We left at 0600 in overcast weather. It had rained through the night. We had hoped to sail, but the winds were too light and we needed to cover a lot of ground. It is also a reef strewn lagoon, so we couldn't tack too far without hitting something hard! So we motor-sailed and made good time. The charts are quite good for the area and the reefs are all well marked. We arrived in Kuto Bay and found a spot amongst the dozen or so boats already on the hook. It is a nice shallow, sandy bottom, but there are coral heads to avoid. The visibility wasn't perfect for spotting things, so we took our chances and dropped the anchor in a spot that just opened up thanks to a large catamaran leaving. We are the only US boat in the anchorage that is filled with several French and German boats, an Austrian and a Kiwi boat. Conditions were predicted to be calm.

That night, the winds picked up and the swell came in together with some rain squalls. It wasn't too uncomfortable, but we hadn't experienced this for awhile having been in Port Vila, then Noumea and the protected anchorages of Prony Bay. This morning, it is a sunny but windy day. The wind is still a little too southerly for being really comfortable in this anchorage, but it is predicted to be lightening and coming more from the typical southeast which would be perfect here. We walked along the beautiful white sandy beach this morning and saw some remnants of the old prisons from the 1800's when this was an island used for French prisoners – many were political prisoners. The old stone structures were built by the prisoners themselves and the walls of many still stand.

We also managed to find a few French baguettes at the small store. Tomorrow, we may attempt to climb the highest point of the island if it is clear. The view is supposed to be worth the effort. It is pretty here and we plan on spending a few weeks exploring the Ile des Pins.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

This is the South Pacific????

After a lovely first night in a deserted anchorage off a sandy beach, we headed the 30 miles to the capital of Noumea to clear into New Caledonia. High rises loomed in the distance as we approached and the harbour was filled with moored boats. This was a big city. The VHF radio started to buzz with voices – all speaking very fast French. High school french lessons had been a long time ago! But we made our way into the Port Moselle Marina for clearance and a berth for a few nights. It was great to pull in and see many boats we knew – in fact we moored right next to Simon and Barbara on Tuarangi who we met in Vanuatu!

Clearance was easy here – we had Tatianna from Biosecurity on board and she took our fresh goods and filled out paperwork. Michael went to the office and completed customs forms that were submitted and we waited for customs to arrive. You have to wait for two hours and if they don't come, you can take your yellow flag down. We have absolutely no paperwork from the process. We will have to wait until Monday morning to go to immigration to complete that step.

There is a festival going on right next to the marina – so lots of music. We have absolutely no CFPs, the local currency (Cour de Franc Pacifique) and banks are not opened until Monday as well. They do have ATMS so we may have to resort to that!!

It seems appropriate that we arrived on September 19 (the 18th in Europe). Why? Well, Scotland had their vote to become independent from UK. New Caledonia was named by James Cook (who else?) because the terrain reminded him of the highlands of Scotland, which was called Caledonia by the Romans. Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom and New Caledonia is still part of France. France claimed the land in 1853 for a penal colony. They sent shiploads of convicts here. After their sentences were served they were encouraged to farm the land. Female orphans were sent in as brides and thus, the French populated the islands. The natives weren't so happy about this as their land was being stolen. The Kanaks, the indigenous Melanesian natives of the region, revolted in 1878 led by Chief Atai – but was quashed by the French military several months later. During WWII, the French and Kanak New Caledonians were recruited to fight for France on the French and Turkish fronts. Americans also arrived here as a base for fighting in the Pacific – bringing with them modernization for the area. They even have a small memorial to that effect in the city. The history continues not unlike most of these Pacific Islands. Colonization was contested by the indigenous people – but here, unlike most of the other countries we recently visited, the colonizers didn't want to give up the land which had heaps of minerals (nickel, iron, chrome etc.) and a place for their prisoners (who could work the mines!). So with lots of assassinations of the Kanak candidates in various elections for independence, the French still really control the country of New Caledonia and the French tricolor flag is still flown. There is a small concession to independence with a Kanak flag, anthem and a separation of some of the land. The Loyalty Islands are predominately Kanak (nothing there that the French want!) and the other areas are French.
So that's the history in brief of New Caledonia...like Scotland, not an independent country.

The good news about a French country – great croissants, breads, wines and cheeses. It is a spendy place though...you get 93 CFPs to $1 US – a croissant costs 80 CFP and a dozen eggs 465 CFP and two onions 136 CFP. Dinner out can range from 2200 and up per meal (without drinks). We went out last night to the snack vans (like in Tahiti). These are vans that serve up full meals – mostly of the Asian style – and we paid 800 CFP each for a meal and 500 CFP for some fries! Unlike Tahiti though, there were no tables and chairs near the vans for dining – so it is all "take-away."

We did lots of walking around yesterday and Michael downloaded some google maps for some of the outer islands here so we can get out of town as soon as possible. The good news is that there is internet here at the marina (not speedy), but is included with the cost of the slip.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bonjour from New Caledonia

We departed Port Vila, Vanuatu at first light on Tuesday morning after a hectic Monday. We had to check out of customs, immigration and pay our port fees before leaving. We also got our "duty free" pass from customs so we could purchase some duty free fuel and restock the liquor cabinet! The duty free prices here on liquor were pretty incredible. After picking up a few last fresh breads and paying our marina fee, we loaded the dinghy aboard and prepped the boat for offshore travel. That means tying everything in sight down and securing the bookshelves and cabinets to keep things from falling out.

We left Tuesday at 0530 and hoped for the best. The weather window was short – but so is the trip. It is only 300 miles to New Caledonia and another 60 or so once inside the lagoon to Noumea where we have to clear in. The winds were predicted to be from the east or northeast for the first day – the best direction we could hope for...but the seas were still predicted to be 2 meters after days and days of bad weather passing through the area. Wednesday was predicted to be lighter winds and more from the south and even some westerly components – but light. By Friday there was bad weather building in the New Caledonia area and so we wanted to be sure to be safely in the lagoon by then.

Tuesday turned out to be one of our best sails we've had. We covered 142 miles in 24 hours! That was good and it was relatively comfortable. The seas were big and there was a constant roll – but overall the sail was fast and good and we almost made it halfway in the first 24 hours. Then about 0300 on Wednesday morning we sailed right into some rain followed by a "no wind" zone. The wind just died and the seas were still steep enough that sails would constantly collapse every time the boat rolled. 142 miles behind us and now no wind. We decided at 0700 to turn on the motor and motorsail until the wind hopefully picked up again. That didn't happen. We motorsailed the remainder of the trip into the Havanah Passage which can be tricky. There is a strong tidal current that runs through this relatively narrow passage. Timing is critical. You don't want wind against tides and incoming seas. We negotiated that and went about 15 miles up the passage and found a nice little bay to anchor for the night. We are flying our yellow Q flag and will continue the trip through the lagoon in daylight tomorrow.

We did see two sets of whales on this trip. The first was a large pod of pilot whales (we think). Relatively small whales with very rounded, large heads and dolphin like fins. The next group were actually in the lagoon right after we entered and they were quite large with the squared off heads like sperm whales. They were tail flapping, spouting and Michael thinks he even spotted one doing the "spy hop." Great welcomes to New Caledonia.

This is a very French island and we'll have to forget our newly learned Bislama "tok tok" and parle francaise.
More on the New Cal arrival when we get into the town and clear in. But its nice to be in a new country after a good and safe passage.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Beat of the Tam-Tam

We remain in Port Vila on Efate Island in Vanuatu and have been playing the waiting for a "weather window" game for at least ten days. It isn't a long trip – about 300 miles to the entrance of the Noumea lagoon in New Caledonia, but it seems we can't get the right winds for the voyage. There seems to be a long string of very unsettled weather and weird systems flying through the area. Perhaps this coming Tuesday we can make our departure. We'll know more today. We need at least a full weekday's notice to depart to clear out of the country, get our duty free fuel and get the boat prepared for offshore.

While killing time in Port Vila, we have been looking for things to keep us entertained. Michael saw a poster on a bulletin board announcing a cultural event. Unfortunately it was in French, so he didn't get all the details. We presumed it was at the French cultural center and headed there (with some friends whom we talked into joining us). The French Cultural Center was all closed up so we trekked to the Vanuatu Museum thinking that it might be there. No, not there. Then as we walked by a grocery store, we saw the poster and had Catherine with us (she speaks and reads French) and we saw that it was at the Lycee Louis Antoine de Bouganville. We asked a local person where that was and he said you need to take a bus there. We said we'd walk and he said, "No, you'll get lost." We lost Catherine at this point, but four us us hopped a bus and got taken to a school on the other side of the town.

We did just miss the "stick dance" which was too bad as that is rarely performed. But we watched some other terrific "kustom" dances from various islands around Vanuatu. The costumes on some of the dancers were incredible. They had two very large tam-tams (slit drums) that were used to keep the beat for many of the dances. In a few dances, the men wore these ankle bracelets of seeds that created this magnificent rattle sound as their feet hit the ground. If we could understand the French and Bislama announcements correctly, we think one of the dance groups of "kustom" men had only performed in Port Vila one other time in 1979. So it looked like some of the dances we saw were quite unusual to witness. It was a great afternoon and quite an unexpected treat. It seems it was "cultural day" at this secondary school. The fun part of some of the dances was that a few audience members would jump up and join in the dancing if the performance was from the island where they too were from.

We have enjoyed time getting to know Mike and Catherine on the boat "Falbala" and have enjoyed a dinner aboard their boat. "Falbala" Mike bought a new toy (a remote control helicopter with camera inside) and he and "Astarte" Michael went to a park to give it a test fly.

We also reconnected with old friends that we met in Panama in 2012 – John and Sukanya from the boat "Millenium." They arrived into Port Vila from Fiji a few days ago and it was fun seeing them again. John is from Australia and Sukanya is from Thailand. They bought our old outboard (Yoshi) which after some repairs, they are still using! We had them over for dinner and were then treated to a Thai feast aboard their vessel last night! Yum! That is still one of the best things about cruising – meeting people, going our separate ways then reconnecting to share adventures.

More new pictures are on the photo page. Some of the incredible dancing we saw. Hopefully the next post will be that we are underway for New Caledonia.

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