Friday, October 04, 2019

Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines)

[Kyle]We had learned our lesson from the last time we had left Noumea to go eastbound. Going upwind is slow work, so to make the most of the daylight, we were up early enough to be the first boat out of the harbor. I think we even beat the fishermen.

The wind was not nearly as strong this time, making our upwind progress more comfortable, if not faster. We threaded our way through the reefs and this time made it even farther than Ua to another little island called Ndo, which Maryanne took to pronouncing as “Undo”.

Ndo was supposed to be pretty nice, but we found it to be a bit of a headache. The island is surrounded by reefs which drop off precipitously into depths too deep for easy anchoring. We could have done it, but not without a whole lot of extra gear that would have complicated the process geometrically. The reef has a little hook around the northern side that encloses a bight of shallower water, but it’s still not big enough to allow for proper swinging. It is also hard to find a decent-sized patch of sand down there amongst coral rubble. The forecast was for light winds from a constant direction, so we set the anchor on one side of the bight and ran the chain across to the other. Then we set anchor alarms that would warn us if we left Begonia’s initial footprint.

N'do Island - our overnight stop on the way east

We were up again at first light to continue our push to Ile des Pins. Our path took us out of the lagoon into the deep water of the open Pacific before intercepting the channel through the pass on the other side.

We had planned to anchor in a few different places at the Isle of Pines, but we had been advised it was no longer possible to do so. Civil unrest between the native Kanaks and the French government had led the Kanaks to declare the majority of their island sacred and off limits to visitors without permission from the local Chief. The only place we could anchor was Kuto Bay, which is also where the cruise ships and inter-island ferries land.

Fortunately, Kuto Bay is a picture perfect paradise with swaying palms and blindingly white talcum powder sand. Sea turtles abound and we even saw a couple of dugongs milling around. When we arrived, there were thirteen other boats already at anchor. By the end of the day, there were another four in the mix. We anchored right in front of Devana. Ian and Chris had Dave and Lyndon on board since Vanuatu, so the first chance we got, we went over to say hi.

Kuto Bay during our stay & the sacred rocks across in Kanumera Bay

They had been at Isle of Pines for a couple of days already and had lots of good tips about what to do and how to go about doing it. The main way of getting around the tribal prohibitions about access to the tabu areas is to book a tour with a guide. Part of the fee serves as the “gift” to the Chief to be allowed in. The system is a bit like sevusevu in Fiji, except that there is much more leeway in the type of gift presented. Other areas of the island, particularly the resort area around Kuto Bay, are openly accessible to tourists. In other areas, all we had to do was pop into any resort and ask them what the protocol was where we wanted to go.

First on our list was a hike to the island’s highest point, N’ga peak. The Devana crowd had done it a couple of days earlier and recommended it, with a loop back down the ridge to Meunier peak. That would pretty much take in all of the island’s high prominences in one day.

Hike up to N'ga peak and ridge

Dave gave us two pieces of great advice, which were to wear good shoes and bring hiking poles. We needed both. The trails were steep, with lots of loose scree that made staying upright a real challenge. Having two extra points of contact and closed shoes kept us from losing a lot of skin.

The viewpoint at the top was not quite at the top. We could see the southwestern side of the island, including the anchored boats in Kuto Bay, but the other side was blocked by the summit. We continued further into the center of the stand of pines at the top, where the view from the highest point of land was obscured by vegetation. Over a hundred feet up, one of those trees got to be the tallest thing for fifty miles, but from our vantage point, we couldn’t tell which one.

Remains of some of the Convict/Penal colony still exist

The trail down the back way was even steeper, but once we finally cleared the summit grove, we got to see the other, lower side of the island stretching way to the northwest. There were so many perfect little bays down there and they were all empty apart from the occasional tour boat or local pirogue.

The trail emerged at the road adjacent one of the old convict compounds from when Ile des Pins was a penal colony. It was pretty overgrown with jungle vines and flowers reclaiming their territories. We poked our way amongst the many crumbling buildings, being mindful that they probably should have been condemned for safety and placed off limits.

When we got back to Kuto, we popped into a resort to book a rental car so we could do a lap around the island. They took our reservation after looking at my American driver’s license, but we later met up with Dave, who explained that they wouldn’t actually give us the car without either an international license or a French one, neither of which either one of us has. We went back and the woman at the desk confirmed that we would not be allowed to actually drive the car. That pretty severely limited it’s utility, so we cancelled and instead booked an outrigger tour for the next day. Word had come through the grapevine that tomorrow was to be Cruise Ship Day. We wanted to be away for that.

Our tour started with a ride a few miles in the resort van to Port de Vao, where we were to board a traditional outrigger for the sail across Upi bay to the far end. We were deposited at the side of the road, where several outriggers were backed up to the beach, waiting for us. Our driver left without any real explanation of what was to happen next, so we and about a dozen others just stood there on the beach watching the various skippers pottering about at what we imagined was preparations for our departure.

Sailing along for 90 minutes on the traditional boats

A few boats farther up the beach boarded two or three people each and then unfurled their sails and pulled away from the beach. The guy nearest us ended up being the last one remaining. He didn’t even start getting ready until most of the others had already left. Then, with much effort, he very slowly bent on the sail and started to push the boat off of the beach. He looked like he needed a hand, but also looked just as much like he didn’t want it from us. He really needed a nephew or a grandson acting as deckhand.

By the time he was ready, the other boats were all gone, each with two or three passengers. The nine of us remaining seemed to have unwittingly drawn the short straw of getting the oldest, slowest skipper on the beach. It was hard to tell, but we were all dropped in front of this boat and the others were dropped in front of theirs. They were all spaced far enough apart that it seemed we weren’t supposed to walk into other groups and invite ourselves onto their boats.

Then he waved us over as if we had been idiots for not knowing he was ready. We helped each other aboard and without a word to us, he started his outboard and motored away from the beach. Funny, everybody else had sailed off.

It didn’t take us long at all do deduce that this guy did not know how to sail. He irritatingly motored along on a beam reach with the sail flogging away uselessly. The boom was waving back and forth at head height, but no caution was ever issued about it. I guess he figured a thunk or two would do the job. Meanwhile, the other boats had tacked their way the long way up the bay and were now overtaking us. I kept thinking that if he would just pull in the mainsheet a foot or so, we could steady the boom, shut off the motor and keep up with them, but he didn’t seem to get that.

After a while, Maryanne broke the uncomfortable silence and asked him what his name was in French. When he answered, she followed up by asking if he had built the boat, how old it was, etc. She got one word answers without elaboration. She then cheekily asked if the motor was necessary, would we get to sail? He muttered something about “Not yet. No wind.”

All of the other boats overtook us under sail. Only when we were in a good, steady wind that was well aft of the beam did he finally shut down the outboard. The main-sheet was out as far as it could go and there was no way to keep the wind from pushing us along.

I had expected us to be faster, but when I snuck a look at my navigation app to see where we were, it said we were going between three and four knots. I thought our long, skinny hulls would allow us to perform better, but we were so heavily loaded that most of the time they were submerged up to just below the raised seating area. We were dragging the cleats, the anchor and much of the crossarms through the water. I really wanted our taciturn skipper to let me be the mainsheet guy, but then I reminded myself that the whole point of the trip was to see the view, not to get there quickly.

Upi Bay is very pretty. It looks a lot like the inner lagoon at Vulaga, Fiji, only with a few less rocky outcrops. I have to admit that it was nice having it free of cruising boats. As we slid along, the only boats we could see were the half dozen or so other outriggers being pushed along by their Lateen rigs. If you ignored the little gray outboards at the back of each one, it was easy to imagine seeing the same scene in the 18th century, like the etchings returned from the Voyages of Discovery.

We rounded up to the beach on the far end of the bay. As the main flogged just in front our faces, our skipper punted us backward into shallow water. When we touched, he wordlessly motioned for us to leave, as if we were idiots for not knowing that. Nice trip, but he was really not my favorite.

From the boat, we walked through the jungle for an hour before emerging at Oro Bay. There, a very nice man collected 200 francs for each of us and then pointed the way to what he called “natural swimming”. This took us partly on a trail and partly down the middle of a shallow river for another half hour before we got to the pool.

I had mistakenly thought we were going to a freshwater pond. In fact, we were just going to a deep estuary that was protected from the open sea by a porous wall of boulders. The pool was a little oasis of calm water ringed by white sand beaches and backed by the island’s ubiquitous ridiculously tall pines.

Within the pool were several coral bommies, each teeming with fish. Since the area is protected and since people swim here all of the time, the sea life was all really tame and unconcerned with us. I had one adorable Nemo of an anemone fish swim up to me and practically nibble on my fingers. Usually, they won’t come out more than a body length from their protective anemone, so that was fun. Most of the other varieties were bigger and healthier than we have seen elsewhere. I initially scoffed at the tourist marketing that it was “like swimming in an aquarium, but it really was!”

When it came time to leave, the crowd was really thinning out. We made a rectangular circuit by going out a different river to Oro Bay. By then, the tide had gone way down and Maryanne and I were able to walk just the two of us down a boulevard of fine, white sand edged by pines, as if we were in some strange, half high mountain, half tropical beach wonderland.

At the bay, we reached the Meridien Resort. They had a restaurant there that was serving many of the visitors a pre-arranged lobster lunch. We had not been aware of the option, so we had packed in sandwiches from home. That’s how we got the river to ourselves on the way out.

We were hoping to at least get a couple of beers, but they were all out. After some back and forth, Maryanne got them to sell us two dishes they called “appetizer”. We were served plates that were half coleslaw, half strange, purple chunks of seafood. The chunks weren’t fish. It seemed likely they were the island’s famous big snails. Maybe they were urchin. We couldn’t figure it out. I tried a couple of bites and decided I was satisfied with my earlier sandwich.

When we were done, we walked a short way down another path to find a different shuttle waiting to take us back to our resort. Since we were on the other side of the island from Port de Vao, they took the other road back. That pretty much covered all of the island’s roads we were going to drive anyway, so we were satisfied. In all, we decided it was a pretty good way to spend a day on the Isle of Pines.

Back at Kuto, we compared experiences with Devana over sundowners at their boat. The trade winds, which had been at Rediculous, were forecast to return to Normal during the night. That was surely going to spark a mass exodus in the morning.

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