New Caledonia Take the High Road

New Caledonia’s main island, Grande Terre, is yearning to be explored – on two wheels (or four).

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By Ian Lloyd Neubauer

It’s the afternoon peak hour and I’m channelling my motorbike through two lanes of traffic flowing out of Nouméa, capital of the French semi-autonomous territory of New Caledonia. Suddenly I see a car ahead of me with the word ‘Gendarme’ stencilled on its side and make a feeble attempt to snake into a lane. But the rouse is uncalled for because the policeman behind the wheel moves over to give me clear passage. It’s a fitting anecdote for the easy-going French-speaking people of this South Sea utopia only three-hours flight from Australia’s East Coast. The weather is balmy, the streets are spotlessly clean and the highways are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

The one I’m riding along now – the Voie Express No 2 – flows 400 kilometres along an inland route parallel to the west coast of the main island of Grande Terre. In French it means ‘Big Land’, and big it is. There’s a 1,600-metre-high mountain range running right through its centre that I’ll be crossing from west to east and then back again tomorrow. But my destination this evening is La Foa, a farming community 115 kilometres north of Nouméa where I check into a small motel for the night.

My hosts – Jean and his son Christophe – don’t speak much English but it matters not; they’re warm and friendly people who welcome me with a hearty bowl of deer stew. Introduced in 1870, the deer population on Grande Terre has exploded to around 120,000 at the expense of native species whose grasslands the deer destroy. Jean and Christophe are among hundreds of New Caledonians who make it their business to rid the island of them. In broken English, they explain they’re going out hunting with their dog Kitty and welcome me to join them. I politely turn their offer down and call it a night.

WEST TO EAST
The next day I awake bright and early, say farewell to my hosts and zoom back out to Voie Express No 2. Five minutes later I come to an intersection that marks the second of five roads that connect the Grande Terre’s two coasts. I also see two men standing by a pair of formidable BMW motorbikes and pull over to say hello.

“This road is the most beautiful in all of New Caledonia,” says the first rider, Jean. “At the start it goes through forest but at the very top of the range there’s a barren red landscape that looks like the moon. A little further down from there you’ll come to a great big lookout where you can see for kilometres over the ocean.”

“Would you like to ride with us?” adds his partner Marc. That would be a “oui”. We spend the next hour climbing through thick spruce forests covering the western face of the range. It’s here where my motorbike, a Piaggio three-wheel scooter, shows its lack of breeding, and I find myself falling further and further behind my new French friends.

When they stop for a break at a summit, I suggest they ride ahead of me and we meet up again at the viewpoint Jean told me about. They voice concern over my ability to find it, but with the entire New Caledonian road system downloaded onto my smartphone, I convince them it won’t be a problem and promise to meet up with them shortly.

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After ten minutes riding along a heavily forested ridge I come to an unmarked left-hand turn. It ambles across a wetland plateau with long reedy grass and a colossal lake in its centre. I continue through a valley carpeted in wildflowers and then into a large bamboo forest where the road thins out into a gravely track. Within moments I realise I am inside a Kanak village – the Kanak being the indigenous minority of New Caledonia who now comprise only 40 per cent of the population.

Unlike Nouméa with its wide, clean boulevards, the village is rundown and littered with broken cars. I see a concrete car park overgrown with weeds where a group of Rastafarians are enjoying an early morning tipple. I don’t feel threatened by them but neither do I feel welcome. So instead of asking for directions I dig out my phone and open Google Maps, which tells me I’ve missed an unmarked turnoff a few kilometres up the road. You’ve got to love technology.

EAST TO WEST
After correcting my route I cross a few streams and reach the aforementioned viewpoint. The scenery is epic: I can see all the way to the coast and way across the Pacific Ocean where the barrier reef that surrounds Grande Terre ebbs and flows like a giant green snake. Jean and Mark are parked at the crest of a hill where they’ve laid out lunch. It’s no ordinary roadside snack but a gourmet picnic with crunchy baguettes, cold meats, cheeses, figs, olives, fruit, chocolate mousse for dessert and even a sneaky little glass of Bordeaux.

With our stomachs full, we begin the dizzying ascent towards the coast. It’s here that I see the lunar-like landscape Jean told me about earlier – slopes layered with mining terraces that have turned the earth rust red in colour. Grande Terre has a quarter of the world’s known reserves of nickel – an ore used in the manufacture of stainless steel. The dollars earned from its export are the reason New Caledonia is so wealthy compared to other Pacific Island nations.

When the descent comes to an end we hit a long stretch of road that clings to the coast like cellophane. We pass another Kanak village and then hit RP6, the next inland road heading back to the west coast. In contrast to the high-altitude crossing we completed in the morning, this road follows a river’s edge at the bottom of a lush green valley carpeted with palm trees. The terrain makes for fast riding and I have no trouble keeping up with Jean and Marc, and I even ride ahead of them for a while. But when we cross a perfect little wooden bridge that crosses a perfect little stream, I know we’re about to go our separate ways because there’s no way I’m not stopping for a swim. They wish me well and ride into the sunset.

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After a splash in the water I lay down on the roadside and dry off in the sun while serenaded by the river and staring at the cloudless sky. From here it’s a quick 30 kilometres to the resort town of Bourail, where I’ve booked a room at a guesthouse. When I get there I can’t find it and spend half an hour riding up and down the main road to no avail. I try using my smartphone but it gives me no joy, directing me to a random spot on the sand where there’s no guesthouse to speak of.

I have no choice but to park my scooter and knock on the door of a nearby house and ask for directions. No one answers, though I do hear a bit of a party going in the backyard. When I walk around the back, I’m approached by two men. The first one says something to me in French and when I ask if he speaks English, his friend replies in the affirmative – in an Australian accent. By sheer coincidence, he lives not far from my home in Sydney, and they invite me to join them for a drink. It turns into a round of drinks, a steak on the barbecue and a night worth remembering. And it never would’ve happened if my GPS hadn’t failed me. So next time you’re lost on the road, remember technology is good, but people are far better. Take the time to pull over and say hello. •

Photography by Ian Lloyd Neubauer

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there
Aircalin flies direct to Nouméa from Sydney six times weekly, and from Melbourne and Brisbane three times a week: 68-7/265-500; aircalin.com

Getting Around
Motorbike Rental
Nouméa Rider rents a fleet of Harley Davidsons, BMWs and Ducatis: 68-7/766-526; noumea-rider.lagoon.nc
Car Rental
Europcar rents hatchbacks, sedans and vans: 68-7/284-800; europcar.com/location/new-caledonia

When to Go
New Caledonia enjoys a subtropical climate and has no monsoon so it can be visited all year around. The warmest months are November to March.

Where to Stay
•    Le Meridien is Nouméa’s biggest and best: 68-7/265-000; starwoodhotels.com
•    Hilton Nouméa La Promenade Residences has serviced apartments with ocean views: 68-7/244-600; hilton.com

Where to Eat
•    Au P’tit Cafe specialises in French-Kanak fusion. Avenue des frères Carcopino, Noumea: 68-7/282-189; auptitcafe.nc
•    Chez Toto dishes up French provincial favourites. Latin Quarter, Noumea: 68-7/288-042

Further Information
New Caledonia Tourism Promotion: 68-7/4-4-545; en.visitnewcaledonia.com

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