Overcoming shark fear in Happy New Caledonia

Juggling Cat in the HatHow do you spend your Saturday mornings? Cleaning? Sleeping in? Shopping for the week’s groceries? Or walk-dancing, happy-dancing (see below), speed-walking or windsurfing?

Of late, we’ve been spending our Saturday mornings watching our 7-year-old son windsurf with a great windsurfing school (Aloha Wind Surfing, who I’ve mentioned before). Pablo is the youngest and the smallest, and recently, perhaps the most concerned about sharks. Shark concern is not uncommon in children his age (or in adults of any age), but it has been exacerbated by an attack that occurred in Nouméa about 10 days ago, which left a 42-year-old kitesurfer with a 25 centimetre gash in his calf, alive, not kicking.

Unfortunately, the attack took place not too far away from where Pablo windsurfs at Anse Vata. His first time out after the attack, he was deeply concerned and did not feel comfortable windsurfing into deeper, darker waters (where he couldn’t see what was underneath his board). He came back crying, unable to continue. Though the instructor could see he was afraid, he wasn’t able to help him overcome his fear and frustration mounted on both sides.

This week, Pablo did not want to go back – and was adamant. His fear and trepidation was bigger than his capacity of manage “the worst that can happen – I’ll be attacked by a shark, but he’ll spit me out because I’m little and not very tasty”. Talking him down from the edge was no easy task.

When we got to his lesson, we explained to the staff at Aloha that Pablo was deeply afraid of sharks, which they had understood. As children are sensitive to raised voices and frustration, we suggested that maybe it would be best to avoid yelling. To the team’s immense credit, they suggested that maybe Pablo would like to go out in the boat today, and help the instructor. This suggestion brought a huge smile to Pablo’s face! They got him an oar, jokingly, so that he could swat any enemies, and got him laughing.

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Suffice it to say, Pablo had a great time flying around in the boat, as he called it, rushing off at top speed with the “maitre” (instructor) to help other windsurfing students. He also went out with the maitre on a 2-metre sail and came back beaming. He did it! He’d gone out and there were no sharks. He’d had so much fun – and will be so much more likely to windsurf his next class. He then helped unscrew the bits on the boards and to clean up – involved in the behind-the-scenes work involved in windsurfing. Helping his other classmates, bringing their boards in, Pablo learned more than just windsurfing that day.

Photo by Laurent Guiader

Photo by Laurent Guiader

So, hats off to Aloha and hats off to New Caledonia, where even we can join the masses and be “Happy” along with Pharrell Williams, sharks and all!

Island life

New Caledonia

Photo JH

It’s taken years, literally years, for me to get it. With a recent trip to New Zealand, thus leaving New Caledonia for the first time in 9 months – and with a recent study of the differences between island and mainland life - something clicked.

I’m guilty.

I’m guilty of projecting my mainland life onto my requests of island life. Dreams of choice, good prices, efficiency in government and administration; dreams of vision, order, healthy competition, a commitment to excellence. All those dreams frustrated on a regular basis that send me snorkeling, hiking, swimming to remember what I love most about island life.

When we arrived in New Zealand, it was “Christmas”, as our son termed it. Life was suddenly easy, possible, friendly, pleasant, wonderfully full. Gone were the complications in trying to book an excursion, or to find out what we would need for an excursion. Gone were the closed offices, the non-existent websites, the people whose job it wasn’t was. Here, suddenly, next to everything was do-able! Safety was a priority, order and cleanliness were priorities. The environment was a priority – and so were children! Oh my!

But it is unfair of me to request all this of an island of just over 200,000 people from varying backgrounds and cultures. Here, we have to wait for shipments of milk, meat, veg. Here, you can’t get everything (we don’t have 50 million sheep, nor as many dairy cattle) – and sometimes not much of anything. Here, we don’t seem to have enough trained individuals to provide all the services we see on a bigger island/country or on a mainland. Here we see monopolies, because monopolies can exist. Here we see closed offices and stores, because here they can be. The public adapts and gets used to less, and paying more for less.

Here we get used to receiving 5 free electric bikes for a university population of 540, to share on the weekends – but only 5 because they’re too dangerous to ride during the week (so it’s okay to risk 5 lives?). The public accepts a complete misunderstanding of International Women’s Day that turns into an event for ladies to sew, paint shells and get massages. Ripped up roads remain ripped up for a year in the middle of town and that’s normal. Children wear uniforms, learn from photocopies, are seated boy-girl-boy, and families are happy to call education modern. No bananas, no tomatoes, no wholewheat pasta, no organic markets. Who needs these things? Affordable technology, affordable books, affordable art supplies – who needs these? Reliable health care that doesn’t result in one too many operations, infection or an emergency trip to Australia? As I say, I am guilty. Guilty of projecting my mainland habits onto a small island’s limited resources.

There are simply not enough of us to create/force the demand or guarantee the supply on this tiny, idyllic island. Nor does there appear to be much of a desire to step into a world where things really could be easier. So most adapt, or travel to nearby New Zealand and Australia to seek what they are missing. Many go without, because they simply cannot afford any better.

We have enough for today. Why plan for tomorrow?

Time to go for that swim, time to dive into those pristine waters and reconnect with all that extraordinary underwater life – to remember what I love here, after and above all.

Hienghène will spoil you for beauty

Photo Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes

Photo Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes

We had torrential rains last week, which among other things, took the life of a 6-year-old boy. As families mourned, a baby was born in a fire station, as the rains flooded the roads blocking the mother’s trip to a Nouméa hospital.

Before the rain rent the island, we traveled up to Hienghène, in northeast New Caledonia 2 weekends ago. We had already postponed our trip by a week, due to rain, and decided to risk getting up there and back before the rains started again. During the 6-hour car trip (with an hour’s break), we were spoiled for beauty, crossing the mountains, surprised by even lusher, greener forests than we’ve found in other parts of the island, the unexpected lagoon views and towering black calcium formations (“The Hen” and “The Sphinx” among others).

Photo JH

Photo JH

Landing at the Koulnoue Village hotel (the old “Club Med”), we were surprised by the lack of a warm welcome (“If you want to eat here this evening, go see the people in the restaurant to reserve.”) and the general lack of information about the hotel and any activities (“See the folder in your room.”). Some of you may remember the service and warm welcome we loved in both Poum and Maré, and so will appreciate our slight surprise. As everyone had been so friendly on the drive up and in the approach to, and in, Hienghène (waves, smiles, friendly honking horns), and as we had heard so many wonderful things about Hienghène, and were admittedly tired, we just trundled off to the restaurant to reserve and to our bungalow to read the folder.

But the beauty of the place!

Photo JH

Photo JH

Admittedly the hotel is run down (more so than Hotel Malabou in Poum, we felt, and most any other place we’d been to in Caledonia), but slanting palms framing a lagoon grow on you pretty quickly. We went for a walk, watched the sunset from our lagoon-facing terrace, donned insect repellent and lined up for dinner. I do so wish hotels would serve dinner before 19.30, for the sake of children and families, but this hotel’s answer was to screen “Epic” on a big screen for the kids at 20.15. Ours was exhausted and falling asleep at the table.

We knew we were in high season when we saw how busy the hotel restaurant (a buffet) was that Saturday night. My goodness! If you didn’t rush the buffet, you ended up with chipolatas as your main (which was indeed my case, as I have a horror of rushing anything, particularly when there are large groups of people or lines). As we’ve been to other buffets here in New Caledonia, I was disappointed by the quantity and quality. But again, we were tired, and only too happy to trundle off to bed early.

Photo JH

Photo JH

The best part of our stay in Hienghène was the half-day excursion we did the next day with Babou Ocean Side. Again, my goodness! This time, for all the best reasons. We loved this excursion (which, by the way, was not in the hotel folder, but had come highly recommended by a friend. Among other excursions, Babou Ocean Side offers a half-day island and snorkeling tour. This was a boat ride to a small islet, an hour-long guided tour of the islet where we learned so much about 25 plants and trees, coffee/tea/biscuits and then an hour-long snorkeling guided tour, complete with wet suits, masks, tubas and flippers. Of all the excursions we’ve done in New Caledonia, this was by far the most educational. We really recommend it!

Photo JH

Photo JH

Our tour guide (Thomas) was friendly, knowledgeable and responsive. We did have an unfortunate incident with a hermit crab (of which there are many on Ilot Hienga – or Yeega) – in which Thomas put one in our son’s hand. The hermit crab decided all of a sudden to pinch our son’s palm and hold on for dear life. I can tell you, it took us a while to pry the hermit crab off, during which time our son was, well, in tears. Afterwards, he built a hermit crab prison, beach side, and we’re happy to report that his hand is fully recovered!

All in all, we loved Hienghène. Would we go back? Probably for another tour with Babou Ocean Side (with whom you can also dive, learn about the mangroves, trek in one of the rivers, learn more about the Kanak tribes as well as the calcium formations). We’ll probably stay in Poindimie next and visit Hienghène from there – looking forward!

Photo JH

Photo JH

Arboviruses in season in New Caledonia: dengue, chikungunya and zika

ZikaVirusRashArm2014Newspaper reports, alerts and web articles are multiplying in number, almost as steadily as the subject of their reports. New Caledonia is seeing increasing cases of mosquito-born viruses, including dengue fever, chikungunya and the newly introduced zika virus. ‘Tis the season to empty all water-holding receptacles, don insect repellent, use fans to dissuade mosquitoes and sleep with mosquito nets when exposed to open windows, while camping, etc.

The dengue epidemic continues to rage

In New Caledonia between 1 September 2012 and 1 September 2013 , more than 11,000 cases of dengue were registered, including 5 deaths. Since 1 September 2013 , the number of cases has fallen due to the dry season. But despite a lack of rain this year, new cases have been identified, and the virus continues to circulate.

The zika virus was recently introduced

29 cases of the zika virus have recently been detected in travelers from French Polynesia where the epidemic is highest. But the first locally-transmitted cases have now been identified in and around Dumbea (2 cases). There is some concern among the medical community that we are on the verge of a new epidemic.

Other viruses threaten New Caledonia

Chikungunya recently reappeared in Noumea in 2013 from Asia, and other types of the dengue virus, not yet introduced in New Caledonia , are circulating in several other Pacific islands, including Vanuatu.

Similar symptoms, varying intensity

DengueThese diseases cause the following similar symptoms, but with varying intensity:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and/or joint pain
  • Rash of red or pink spots on the skin
  • Conjunctivitis

If you have one or more of the above symptoms, you should consult a doctor immediately for testing. The test will be free if the doctor completes the DASS- NC form. You will also need to report the area you were in during the preceding 15 days (so authorities can track and work to eradicate the mosquitoes in the area).

All transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes

These disease-carrying mosquitoes live around houses and come to rest inside them. Their range is limited to a 100 meters or so. They reproduce by laying their eggs in receptacles containing stagnant water, usually from rain or irrigation. These eggs hatch larvae and grow adult mosquitoes in less than 2 weeks. Given their habitats and reproductive cycles, preventative measures could and should be taken.

The most common breeding sites are plant trays and buckets in gardens, clogged or broken gutters, empty cans/pots and tires in landfills, etc.

The recent return of rain will certainly mean more breeding grounds for the mosquitoes.

Preventative measures

RepelMosquitoesThere is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for these viral diseases. In this case, prevention really is the best medicine. Here is what is being suggested we do:

  • Systematically and regularly eliminate breeding sites around your home and work locations, which will have a direct impact on your long-term environment.
  • Protect yourself and your children/family from mosquito bites by applying insect repellents, using electronic or other (natural) mosquito repellents.
  • Consult a doctor in the case of the above-mentioned symptoms.

WARNING: Aerial spraying of insecticides is insufficient, because it only affects flying adult mosquitoes. It does not prevent the outbreak of new larvae in the hours that follow.

Related post: 150 contract dengue fever a day in New Caledonia

Maré: An island of surprises

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Of the 3 Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia, Maré is now my favourite, having visited it last December. There is of course out-of-this-world beautiful, which you’ll find in Ouvéa. There is some of the most amazing snorkeling you’ll ever find  (at the Baie de Jinek), a great vanilla plantation, wonderfully friendly people  and long, white beaches in Lifou. But Maré:

  • Has a simply astounding, savage beauty about it
  • Has a plethora of amazing fish right off the beach at the Nengone Village Hotel (and the water is deliciously warm in December)
  • Is not immediately obvious (you’ll only find signs to the “natural aquarium”, the Nengone Village hotel, and maybe the airport if you look carefully, as an example of what I mean by “not immediately obvious”)
  • Requires you to interact with the locals (it’s the only way you’ll find anything; and asking permission to visit sites is a must)
  • Is unpredictable (you never know what or who you’ll find)
  • Feels much closer to true island life than other islands (when you run out of eggs, or the cook doesn’t show up, well, you have toast; when there’s a gas shortage, you ask about the only open gas station and you drive less)
  • Is authentic, charming, real, wild
  • Has reserved, friendly people who aren’t particularly driven by money or business (our car rental company was happy to pass us onto a competing company when they couldn’t deliver the car because their childcare provider had not shown up for work; we stuck with them and were happy we did, as they are a small company and we wanted to work with them).
Photo JH

Photo JH

I’ve heard that Maré started to receive more tourists in 2013 with the Australian cruise ships. For the moment, you can’t tell. While we were there, we didn’t see a ship, nor tour buses, nor an increased infrastructure (toilets, trash cans, signs in English [or very many signs at all, for that matter]). We didn’t hear or speak English, as we’ve done at Ile des Pins and Lifou. All of this, I felt, added to Maré’s authenticity, rather than detracted from its caché.

I’ve heard that some visitors have come away thinking Maré has nothing to offer, that there is nothing to do there. This was not our experience – quite the opposite! The first thing we did when we arrived at our hotel was speak with reception about their recommendations for what we should do and see in Maré. We had of course read the guidebooks and had a list (and remembered our trip of 2006), but our experience shows that the locals usually have good (and better) ideas, especially in places off the beaten track. We were surprised that reception told us we could skip the tour the hotel offered, as we had rented a car – that we could get as much out of our visit, by driving around and asking questions (for directions, for permission to visit the sites) as we would by taking the 2-hour tour.

And  right they were!

Photo JH

Photo JH

The only difference was that rather than have everything pointed out to us, and rather than be driven to the sites we wanted to see, we had to find them, ask questions and learn from the locals and our books. Just the kind of adventure we love!

If you go to Maré, here are the things we highly recommend:

  • Feed the fish at the “natural aquarium
  • Visit the caves at Padawa (ask a local to take you or show you where they are)
  • Imagine the underground world at the Trou de Bone (again, ask a local where it is – it’s not sign-posted)
  • Marvel at the Warrior’s Leap
  • Snorkel with the fish at the beach at Nengone Village hotel
  • Walk the 3-beach trail
  • Visit one of the tribal lodgings in the north of the island (we loved Seday)
  • Swim with the turtles in the Bay of Turtles
  • Walk the beaches at Patho or take a book, read under the palms, and watch the world go by
Photo JH

Photo JH

We were there only 4 days, but we would have loved to have stayed longer. The absolute highlight of this trip was swimming with the sea turtles in Turtle Bay. Interestingly enough, you won’t find mention of this bay in the guidebooks, nor of the turtles. It was one of the locals who told us where to go at high tide (the bay just north of Baie de Tadine, at Mebuet), when they would come in. There were between 5 and 7 of them, from young to old. Several times, we were swimming with more than 1 turtle at a time. At high tide, they come in quite close to the beach.

As we absolutely love swimming with turtles, we spent 2 afternoons doing so in Maré. We watched them eat the sea grass, our son gently cleaned their shells for them, we hung out and observed them. The older ones are quite happy to have you rest quietly next to them, in respectful observance. The younger ones will take you on a tour of the bay. We were very careful to not approach them too closely, scare them, or block their paths, swimming alongside or behind them at all times.

Several locals explained to me that the Kanaks do not swim with the turtles – that only the tourists do (though the Kanaks watch them from above). For the longest time, the locals did not know there were turtles in the bay (as they do not swim in shallow water – they fish deeper waters), and were surprised to see that they are in fact there all year ’round. This is somewhat odd, as this is egg-laying season – the locals did not understand why they were coming consistently to the bay, even in the warm season. After several hours, 2 days in a row, we could say that they were eating. They also appear to be very comfortable in the bay – there are very few people (even in high season). I hope it stays this way – for the sake of the turtles.

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

One local did say that the Kanaks consider swimming with the turtles almost “taboo”. I asked if we were allowed to do so. He jokingly said no. He laughed. Culturally, I couldn’t read his response, and he could see the concern on my face – the last thing I want to do is be disrespectful! He smiled and said it was okay. This being said, I would highly recommend that you ask the locals, should you wish to swim with the turtles, if you have their permission. Another local told us of several killings on the island – in which people had gone off on sacred paths without permission or a guide (including at Shabadran) – and of one recent case in which the body of a local teacher (from France) has never been found.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Ouvéa: The island closest to paradise

Photo JH

Photo JH

Can you get more beautiful than Ile des Pins? I didn’t think so. Ile des Pins, is after all, my favourite place in the world. But after a 2-day stay in Ouvéa (admittedly very short) at Christmas, I have to admit: Ouvéa is the “island closest to paradise”.

Photo JH

Photo JH

The turquoise blue of the lagoon and its many hues is unlike anything I’ve ever seen (except in 2006 [and then was reminded of it again in 2013!] – and again, I am a great lover of the turquoise waters found at Ile des Pins.  The white-flour sand is exquisite – so very fine, so very soft (finer and softer than you’ll find on the other islands). If you take a tour of the island (offered by the hotel), you’ll see the range of blues found nowhere else in the world. If you walk to the Pont de Mouli (Mouli Bridge), just 10 minutes from the hotel, you will swim with rays, turtles and sharks. We also snorkeled with Picasso (trigger) fish and the little black and white-striped fish called “les desmoiselles”. Just remember to swim on the left-hand side of the bridge; the right-hand side is sacred and not to be ventured into.

Ouvéa is one of New Caledonia’s 3 Loyalty Islands, and probably the least visited of the 3. I say that, only due to the price of getting, staying and eating there.

  • The 40-minute round-trip flight cost 23,650 CFP (€198 or AUD 301) for one adult.
  • For the hotel (and there is just one hotel on the island: Paradis d’Ouvéa), which is on the luxury end, the nightly rate for 2 adults and 1 child (breakfast included) was 28,930 CFP (or €242 or AUD 368).
  • The lunches/dinners ranged from 6,000-7,000 CFP (or €50-59 or AUD 80-89). You can get sandwiches and things at “snacks” which are cheaper, but the hotel does not offer sandwiches to take away on picnics.
  • The Christmas eve (haute cuisine) dinner was a one-price menu of 11,933 (or €100 or AUD 152) per person, with a small discount for a child. Delicious, and offered with live entertainment of local music and a Melanesian dance performance, it was however limited for children (we could not order anything outside the set menu of foie gras, lobster, beef, etc. for our son whose tastes are much simpler).

With prices like these, Ouvéa is out of reach for large families or those on a budget.

This being said, if you live in or come to New Caledonia, and can afford a trip to Ouvéa, I highly recommend it – if only for its natural beauty. I was speechless our entire time there. How can something this extraordinary exist? Such blues, such whites, palms, coconuts, fresh air, unpolluted, pristine – and empty. So very few people shared the 25-kilometre-long beach with us. Why? Where were they?

The people (and there are only about 4,300 of them – 99% of them locals, 1% European) are friendly, and reserved. It was the first Loyalty Island, however, where I felt a division (the tourists stayed near the hotel and the locals in other parts). But I’ve heard that if you are able to spend more time and gain the trust of the locals, they are more than happy to speak with you about life on their island.

If we ever have the budget again, or can get a special deal on the flights/hotel, I’d like to drink in Ouvéa at least one more time in my lifetime. If only to confirm it wasn’t a dream.

Photo JH

Photo JH

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for New Caledonia Today – isn’t that great of them? Here’s to even more blogging in 2014!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.