Looking for a bit of the “back of beyond”, marooned on a desert island, with only a knife, matches and a little salt and pepper to get you by? Have we got the adventure for you!
A few weeks ago, we ventured back up to Poindimié for a long weekend. It’d been a while since we’d been up north, and we missed it – the crashing waves at night (and the niggling feeling, “Will we be swallowed up whole in our slumber?”), the fresh air, the friendly people, the break from everyday life. With the aim of doing some geocaching and discovering the Poindimié area a little more, off we flew on our next island adventure.
Casting about for something to do on our first full-day visit, our hotel (Hotel Tieti) advised against visiting the waterfalls (nearly all dried up due to a drought), but suggested a walking adventure or a tribal visit. We opted for a bit of both with Alain, of Brousse O’thentik. Though we had visited the Oua Tom tribe 18 months before, this visit was as instructive, if not more so. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the chief (and faire la coutume – offer our gifts, show respect and ask for permission to visit his lands), but Alain spent all morning with us explaining many of the Melanesian traditions and customs (and showed us the lands anyway (leaving the gifts with the chief the next day), ending with a lesson on making bougna and properly throwing a fishing net).
In the north, the tribes live very simply. Ernest (the chief), had for example, only just purchased a kitchen stove (as you can see in the photo). Retired, he and his family had lived for years with an outdoor fire to cook their food. No electricity, no warm water, no running toilet, no washing machine (and he is considered prosperous, as he is a chief and owns quite a bit of land, which he cultivates with bananas, root vegetables, coconuts, etc.), a visit puts our lives into perspective. No books, no toys, one mattress, one hut where the four family members sleep, a hose for a shower, no refrigerator, no car, but organic food (he uses natural, rather than chemical, pesticides), access to fresh fish and a strong community.
We were very impressed to learn more of Kanak law during our visit. The Kanaks have their rules and punishments in addition to the French law, and to my mind, they are much stricter. Alain gave us an example. Recently some youth stole the pastor’s 2 pigs. According to Kanak tradition, the pastor is a highly respected member of the community. Any harm to him or his property is gravely punished – the only more highly respected member of the community is the chief. Just after the 2 pigs were stolen, the 200 members of the tribe were summoned by the chief: he pressed them to identify the guilty parties (or to come forward). Eventually, 2 young men came forward. They were publicly beaten within an inch of their lives. Alain tells us they were right to come forward early, for it they had not, if they had ever been found out, they would have been banished from the tribe. To regain their place in the tribe, they would have had to replace the pigs, repay the pastor via work or other ways, request forgiveness of the pastor and the chief and the community, and make an offering to each member of the tribe. Alain explained that rather than face banishment, youth (and adults) go away to work to be able to repay their debts and rejoin the tribe – as being ostracized results in much harder lives (homeless, without work, no support, hungry, etc.).
Having learned so much with Alain, we decided to spend another day with him the next day. Brousse O’thentik provides cultural visits in the north in an “a la carte” fashion. If you want to go biking and learn how to fish for shrimp, Alain will take you. If you want to go hiking up the mountains for an incredible view of the lagoon, he’ll take you (and you’ll learn about all the plants on the way). Is canoe-ing and net fishing your deal? He’ll take you. How about doing stand-up on wooden rafts or discovering the waterfalls or discovering the countryside on a horse? Alain and his brother offer all of these visits at reasonable prices – and he is not only professional, but funny, personable and a fountain of knowledge. Does he do these visits in English? He assures me he’s been working on his English. If you speak a bit of French (even if only a little), my guess is you’ll be able to communicate and you will learn a lot from him (he has a pedagogical, hand-on approach, which accompanied by gestures, will make sudden sense in context – throwing a fishing net, climbing, doing stand-up, cleaning fish, etc.).
So what’s this adventure I’m talking about?
Well, before the adventure (and the one I have for you), I am somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t know how to:
1. Fish with a net
2. Make a meal on a desert island.
Many of you may be experts in the field, but fishing and cooking with nothing are not among my skills – well until now. We had a survival course of sorts during our one-day outing with Alain to Ilot Tibarama the next day.
We met Alain at the dock at 7:45am with protective shoes, bathing suits, sun protection, snorkeling equipment and plenty of water. He provided all the rest (breakfast, lunch supplies, a few wooden bowls, chopsticks, a net, more snorkeling equipment, table, coffee, water, lemonade, matches, salt and pepper, a knife or two) and off we went to a sliver of an island (I like to think of it as “Gilligan’s Island”), 5-10 minutes away by boat.
When we landed, we off-loaded the boat and said goodbye until 4pm that afternoon. Things stored away, off we went around the island in search of fish (which Alain taught us to look for, not on land or in water, but from the tops of trees). Parrot fish dine on coral and when eating in shallow waters, their beaks dip down and their blue tails stick out of the water – this is what we were looking for. We were also looking for schools of sardines. Unlucky at 8am, we collected coconuts and wood for later.
Back at “camp”, Alain taught us to clean some fish he had brought, in case we were unable to catch any ourselves (we did later that day, but after lunch). They had been caught 2 days before on another outing. Cleaned fish, we chopped it up for Tahitian salad, which is a raw fish salad. Table installed in the water on the beach, we chopped and seeded cucumber, chopped a carrot, sliced half of an onion, squeezed a lemon, and checked and double-checked the fish for bones.
Then, we learned how to make coconut milk. Alain cracked open the big coconut exterior (this is bigger than the coconut you are imagining – it is its exterior). You want the brown coconuts for this, not the green ones – and you’ll need to make sure that when you shake them, you can hear liquid sloshing about. Once he had the coconuts out, he cracked them in two with a machete – best to do with a very sharp knife or a hammer at home. This is the hardest part done. Then, we grated the coconut flesh into a bowl. Finally, we put the flesh into a tea towel and squeezed it over another bowl – out came the most delicious coconut milk you have ever tasted in your life! Who knew?
Having “cooked” the fish in lemon juice, we now added the carrots, onion and cucumber, and added the coconut milk last of all. Et voila! Tahitian salad!
We then set to grilling fish on the fire in papillottes (wrapped in aluminum), made with the wood and fronds we had gathered, and shortly, everything was ready. Tahitian salad, freshly grilled fish, another salad prepared by Alain, lemonade, water, and my, it was the most delicious meal made fresh we’d ever had.
The afternoon saw more fishing adventures, and this time, we learned how to catch parrot fish with a net. Having spotted schools of parrot fish, Alain went gingerly out into the water and placed a huge net around an area. When he gave the signal, my husband was to make a lot of noise splashing his hands in the water and shouting, to drive the fish into the nets. My son was to throw rocks to scare the fish into the direction of the nets, and I, wearing white, was to run up and down the beach waving my arms (apparently white – moving quickly – can be picked up by the fish and scares them as well). What a sight it was! A communal effort, and after several tries, we caught 4 fish and threw a 5th one back. We replenished the stocks and would feed another family.
With time at the end, after coffee, for some snorkeling in pristine waters, the day was one of our best yet. Our little Robinson Crusoe experience had taught us some new skills, brought us together as a family, and made us a new friend. We learned even more about Kanak traditions and customs and walked away the wiser in body, mind and spirit!
If this sounds like something you’d like to do – an all-day outing on a desert island, learning about life in New Caledonia and gaining some survival skills – or if any of the other activities mentioned above strike your fancy, do contact Alain at Brousse O’thentik (email: firstname.lastname@example.org | mobile: 97 59 69). Tell him I sent you!