A mangrove forest in the inner city

When people hear of Nouméa, the descriptor that generally follows is “the Paris of the South Pacific”. As in Nouméa being French, somewhat chic (having spent 20 years in Paris, I question chic as a description of Nouméa, but there you go) and located in the South Pacific. No one tells you that in addition to breathtaking bay views, palm trees, incredible weather, boutiques and restaurants, you’ll see a plethora of endemic flora and fauna, will witness traditions and customs that belong to an intriguing Melanesian culture or see banyan trees, fish poison trees and a mangrove forest within the city itself.

Last weekend we decided to follow up on a suggestion from a friend to visit the mangroves in Ouemo, one of the neighbourhoods in Nouméa. I had heard that we could see crabs, birds and the aerial roots of this particular species of mangroves. So off to Ouemo we went, expectations high. 15 minutes in the car later, we landed at a path across from a school that led down to the mangroves. 15 minutes. This is an experience you cannot get in Paris, I assure you.

Free and open to the public nearly every day of the year, the path leads down to the mangroves, which is a is a formation of several species of mangrove with an intricate intertwined root system and other trees adapted to the environment, all growing in a bed of mud. They serve as incredibly complex ecosystems, home to birds, crustaceans and fish and protect the land from marine erosion. I’d seen mangroves from a boat on a 2006 visit to Northern New Caledonia and on the Loyalty Islands, but to walk among them was another experience altogether. We tried to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in them at night – shudder!

Visitors explore the mangrove forest on a raised platform, you’ll be pleased to note. Perfect for a Sunday stroll alone or with family and friends, I was struck by the sounds of the birds (which I recorded – now I only have to find a way to add the audio to your reading!), the expanse of the forest and the rich collection of life living there. And the peace.

Our son, though, was on the look out for the crabs I’d told him about. I’d read you could find mud crabs in mangrove forests and a friend had told me she’d seen all kinds of crabs with her daughter just a week before.

We looked and looked and looked. We retraced our steps and tried different parts of the walk.

No luck.

We wondered if we were there too early or too late in the day. We wondered if the noise of six feet tip tapping on the wood was scaring them away. We wondered if they’d eaten enough for the day and no longer needed to come out of their holes (and holes there were, a plenty).

We eventually came to a bridge in the forest, and while sitting on a bench, we looked down, having given up. There, in the shadows we caught sight of an iridescent something or other. That moved. Horror!  We looked closer and began to notice 2 crabs here, 3 crabs there. Only these were dark with red underbellies or red eyes or red claws – we couldn’t tell which part was red. But thanks to the red underbits, we started spotting dozens of them. Sure enough, they quickly scurried away when they heard the slightest noise or felt a vibration.

To this day, we don’t know if they were mud crabs or mangrove crabs or some other kind of crab. Apparently only hermit crabs and mangrove crabs can climb trees as a defense mechanism – which makes me think these little critters (also root climbers) were mangrove crabs. But I need the advice of a true expert! Anyone?