On two wheels in New Caledonia

by Guest Author, Anthony Nanson


The first time I came back from New Caledonia, in 2007, I showed my friend Peter a map of the country and he said, ‘It looks like it could be a great place to cycle in.’ Peter is crazy about cycling, has cycle-toured in many countries. When I returned to Caledonia ten years later, he customised a bike specially for my needs: tough enough to handle rough roads, good on tarmac too, and able to carry four paniers with full camping kit.

There was lots of preparation for this trip, and lots of expense – it’s about as far away as you can go from Gloucestershire – and it’s not entirely straightforward to transport a bicycle by air. So you can imagine how I felt, my first day in Nouméa, when I asked at the tourist office about the best route to cycle north out of the city and they told me, ‘There’s only one road out of Nouméa and it’s forbidden to go by bicycle, it’s a motorway, and the police will arrest you.’ Surely, there was a back road? I just wanted to get out of the city to cycle round the island. ‘No, there’s only that road and the main roads everywhere are extremely dangerous; people drive very fast. If you want to have a bike ride, there are places where you can go to do that.’

In due course I saw how it works: mountain bikes strapped on the back of a four-by-four speeding down the highway to a car park from which you can do a day’s circuit on dirt roads. That wasn’t what I had in mind. You don’t need a tent for that. And my whole purpose in coming here, as a novelist researching a book whose story concept had come like a bolt out of the blue during my previous visit, was to travel around the country, using the bicycle – and tent – as a means of engaging more porously with people and place than had been possible the last time, when I had a hire car.

On the offshore island of Lifou, cycling was fine. It’s not a big place and, though the roads are quite straight and fast, people overtook courteously, I didn’t feel in danger, and I even saw a few local men – middle-aged ones like me – using a bike as if it really were the natural mode of transport in that scale of landscape. Back on Grande Terre, the mainland, I had to put my bike in the hold of a bus to get out of Nouméa and far enough north that the main road was no longer a motorway. It was still extremely fast, though. It was built for speed – straight and broad. Cars didn’t pass very often but when they did they hurtled past at well over 100 miles an hour, especially on the west coast. The east coast road has windier bends but there too the cars will go fast when they can. Only once did I see another cyclist and that was in a town. Everyone who found out I had a bicycle was keen to tell me the story of a cyclist a couple of years back who’d been doing the circuit of Grand Terre and been killed by a drunk driver. Though there are plenty of unmade roads that branch into the countryside to the tribes and farms, most of them are dead ends, they don’t make a network, and always you have to come back to the main road that follows the coast.

It seemed a shame, and not just from the point of view of cycle-touring. Here was a small country, with a small population, abundant natural and cultural wealth, fabulous landscape, and an absolutely unique ecology. An opportunity, you might imagine, to develop in bold new ways, in tune with the environment; but, so far as roads are concerned, the impulse is to make things as fast and modern as possible, to provide the most rapid access from the rural north to the capital city in the south.

But I was just a visitor, of course. It’s up to the people of a place to decide how they want to be. And in fact I had a great time. The bicycle and tent and the dirt roads did enable me to see something of the country’s interior, and, most importantly, to meet people, especially Kanak people in the tribes, in a way I never would have done with a car. It was an excuse to stop overnight, to talk, to offer the customary gift and be invited to look around. What I saw inland was a life quite different from the life of the big road, a life that seems still in tune with the environment, that turns on the seasonal cycles of small-scale crops and the intimacy of community. The hospitality I received was humbling, the conversations often profound, for all the limitations of the schoolboy French I’d been polishing up the preceding year.

So my trip was not the flop I feared it might be that first day at the tourist office. In fact, it exceeded all my hopes in terms of meeting people and learning about their lives. I didn’t spend quite as much of my time in Caledonia on two wheels as I expected. That’s thanks largely to the extraordinarily generous hospitality I received in Nouméa also, and the many interesting people I talked to there, who gave other perspectives upon the life of this country from those I encountered in the bush.

Let me finish this piece by being honest. If you’re looking for a country to go cycle-touring in, I wouldn’t really recommend New Caledonia as ideal, but it’s a fabulous country, blessed in so many ways – and, for my particular purposes, a push bike, a tent, and the new friends that I made really proved to be the key to the kingdom.


Exploring La Rivière Bleue

If you’ve never been to the Blue River Provincial Park (La Rivière Bleue) in New Caledonia, do add it to your list! A 80-square-kilometre nature reserve, reachable from Nouméa in 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll spend the entire day taking in the natural beauty of New Caledonia in a way you can’t get by strolling along Nouméa’s bays. If you don’t have a car, rent one for the day – you won’t regret it!

As I had not been for years, and had not been properly the first time (as we didn’t know all that the park had to offer), we were very happy to go with La Riviére Bleue veterans (lovely friends of ours) this time around. We knew that you couldn’t drive through the park (as it is a nature reserve, where for example, close to 700 kagus are living in the wild), but we didn’t know that you could rent mountain bikes and kayaks, picnic or camp there (all of which you can). We didn’t know that is very well kept, clean and well-signposted – in English and French. So much to offer, so little we knew – until last week.

How to get to La Rivière Bleue

You’ll drive towards Mont Dore, then Plum, then Yaté, taking the left-hand fork in the road to Rivière Bleue rather than taking the road to the Madeleine Falls and further, Prony (and the whales). Then you’ll follow the signs and feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but no, keep following the road 2.4 kilometres to a welcome hut (about 10 minutes), where you’ll pay 400 CFP per adult and 200 CFP per child to enter. Then you’ll drive about 4 kilometres further to the Pérignon Bridge, where, joy of joys! You can rent bikes for both children and adults, tandems, giraffes, buggies, electric bikes, kickbikes and kayaks from Sud Loisirs.

Before you start out, note that the park is closed on Mondays, and is open from 7am to 5pm (last entry at 2pm).

What you can do at La Rivière Bleue

  • Photo Lara Ireland-Atkins

    Photo Lara Ireland-Atkins

    Hike! There are tons of marked paths, from easy to difficult, from 20 minutes to 6 hours. Pick up a map at the welcome hut.

  • See the Giant Kaori, which is over 1,000 years old and 2.7 meters wide at its base. Oh, and it’s tall – very tall!
  • See the Sunken Forest, which is a forest of kaori trees  in the middle of a man-made lake. It’s actually kind of spooky – I am surprised a film hasn’t been made here before. Honestly.
  • Bike! This is exactly what we did – and it is definitely possible with children 7 and up (and even younger if you pull the child behind you in a carriage or on a bicycle). I really think it is one of the best ways to see the park. It will feel like quite an adventure as you bike up and down small hills on the red-earth paths. You will spend some time in the open air, tracing the edge of the lake, but as you move inwards, you will bike into the rainforest – and oh wow! That is magnificent! You will remain on the red-earth paths, but be protected from the sun and heat by a forest that feels thousands of years old. You’ll also get to see the fabulous Blue River (so called because it is very, very blue – especially at the furthest end of the park). How long does all this take? We started biking at 10:15am or so and returned at 3:30pm, with about an hour for lunch. We had 3 children with us, and stopped for short rests when everyone needed them. Definitely doable – and lots of fun!

             Tip No. 1: Reserve your bikes ahead of time with Sud Loisirs,
             so as not to be disappointed should they be closed on a quiet day.

             Tip No. 2: Start out early, so you can enjoy a full day.

Photo JH

Photo JH

  • Kayak! You can ride your bikes in to a spot where you can pick up your 2- or 3-person kayak and kayak down the river. Talk about a way to experience the natural beauty of the park! The person from whom you rent your bikes will take your dry things and loan you life jackets. He’ll meet you at another location with your bikes later in the day, so that you can return the kayaks and then ride your bikes back to the Pérignon Bridge entrance. I hear the kayak adventure during the full moon – in the sunken forest – is out of this world. Did I mention anything about a film that should be shot here?
  • Camp – in the trees even! You can either bring your tent and have your things delivered to a spot in the park (if you rent your bikes from Sud Loisirs) or rent tents that are suspended in the trees (for 3 or fewer – call Loisirs Concept at 83 90 13 or send an email to escalaventure@gmail.com for more information). Amazing!
  • Take a guided tour. I’ve also read you can take a day tour with Caledonia Tours (25 94 24 or 78 68 38 or caledoniatours@lagoon.nc) where you will learn all about the geology, botany, wildlife and history of the park. A BBQ lunch is thrown in, and you’ll have plenty of time to swim, birdwatch and walk through the rainforest (as the tour starts at 8:15am).

When is the best time to go?

The fellow at Sud Loisirs  told us that the busiest time of year is December (also when it is the hottest!). The low season is during the rainy season (April, May, June), when the park can be closed due to rain/flooding. It is always a good idea to call in advance (43 61 24) to make sure the park is open (especially during the rainy season – and I would wager, during the fire season – but then I am used to California fires).

We loved going in September, and we’ll probably go again in November, as we’d like to kayak back next time. If you are not big on crowds, avoid the weekends and school holidays if you can. But it is hard to imagine huge crowds in such a big place. There are many picnic tables and barbecues (stocked with wood) and a few clean restrooms, so it feels more than doable at nearly any time of year.

What should I take along?

  • Food (there is nowhere to buy food or eat while in the park)
  • Water (more than you think you’ll need – it can get hot out there!)
  • A first-aid kit, for minor accidents such as falls or scrapes (some of the plants can also sting)
  • Old sports shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting red and dusty
  • Sun lotion
  • A hat
  • A phone (just in case)
  • A camera
  • A sense of adventure and a good sense of humour!

I do hope you’ll make a trip to La Rivière Bleue when next you can. It was a truly magical day for us, and one that we hope to repeat very soon. If you do go, send us a note and tell us how it went!

Photo JH

Photo JH