Bienvenue à la Nouvelle Calédonie.
Welcome to New Caledonia.
I've been telling anyone that will listen, and even those that won't, that I've enrolled in Te Kura - New Zealand's Correspondence School - as an adult student in an attempt to learn French. Duolingo and a couple of podcasts had been working okay, but I couldn't quite figure out when or if “le cochon mange la pomme” / "the pig eats the apple" would come in handy.
TE KURA FACTS
It costs $114 for administration costs for adults, but is free for school aged students and is free if you would like to learn Te Reo Maori even as an adult. It's all delivered in a super user friendly way (have a look here) and the teachers are based in Auckland and are always only an email away.
I had been so inspired with my French learning I spontaneously booked a trip to New Caledonia for 7 nights. I was taking myself on school camp!
I booked the flights thanks to Air New Zealand having a sale without looking too much into it at all. A small faux pas on my behalf as it turns out these islands in the pacific are owned by France and are crazy expensive. We’re talking $30NZD for entrees! It makes sense when you realise almost everything needs to be imported but I'm not sure if I'll ever recover from the shock of lindt chocolate being 900f a block... That's nearly $16 NZD! Do you know how fast I could eat that $16? Actually, no, please don’t answer that. Since traveling to Europe again I’ve realised that not only were everything in the supermarkets in New Caledonia imported… But they were all imported from Europe! It would make way more sense to me to import from Australia or New Zealand? But hey, I don’t run a country so I don’t know….
Having only just been to Bali earlier this year I was astounded at the prices of accommodation. I guess it is similar to New Zealand, but I just wasn’t expecting the prices for an island getaway. I was sitting in my room in Sydney frantically searching for accommodation that wouldn't leave me declaring bankruptcy when luckily I found a super sweet spot in an AirBnB only 1km up from the Anse Vata beach. I tend to only get entire places for myself these days, but needs must and I could not have asked for better hosts, seriously! Anyone who puts up with my terrible français, my long explanations of how my day was (including ten minute reenactments) and helping me plan and organise my stay are the real MVPs in my opinion.
I love reading blogs and watching vlogs so I tried to research for my week adventure as best I could.... But it felt like no one had travelled there let alone on their own. I found tripadvisor helpful but not very. It looked like I was going on my own and going in blind! C'est parti!
Once I got over the initial shock of cars looking like they were driving themselves, I had safely arrived in Nouméa. I used the shuttle company Arc en Ciel to travel the 50kms from the La Tontouta International Airport to Anse Vata. (It cost 3100f ($47NZD) but it is cheaper if you book online. However I decided it was worth paying an extra 1000f ($15NZD) to pay in cash and explain exactly where I needed to go. This turned out to be super handy, because Daniel - my driver - dropped me to the bank to pick up a key from my host and then drove me to my accommodation. He also gave me his number and offered to “show me the sights, free of charge!” during my week. I didn’t call Daniel again.)
It's easy to remember to look at the left hand side of the car to mouth “merci!” instead of “thanks!” to the driver as you cross a pedestrian crossing but it’s not very easy to remember to not feel like a dick. When you’re in a country where you can’t speak the language, suddenly everything feels foreign and you’re 5 years old again. You’re blessed with their curiosity and cursed with their stupidity. It takes a lot of courage to move out of your comfort zone and attempt to speak another language with shop owners, your AirBnB hosts and sassy taxi boat drivers. It’s something I completely underestimated and ultimately surprised myself with.
I have a tendency to just not eat when I’m in a country where I can’t speak the language. I have a phobia of saying words wrong and offending people and generally those fears overcome my motivation to practise and learn… and eat out. It’s taken a year or so to really come to terms with the embarrassment of speaking French and I have my friends from Quebec to really thank for this breakthrough. Supermarkets have always been my favourite place to put my French practice into practice and my local Simply Market Supermarche in Nouméa was an excellent school. I made friends with the checkout operators, asked questions to the staff, asked if it was possible for my produce to be packaged sans sac and read labels - slowly - in French. At the end of my third day there I remember feeling so unmotivated and bummed out that my French was still so terrible, but the progress at the supermarket made it all worth it.
Speaking of food… Gluten free / sans gluten is tough in New Caledonia, however the supermarkets do have a limited selection of gluten free products, and I discovered Le Mitron 2 - a pâtisserie on Route de l’Anse Vata - had gluten free bread for 486f ($7.50NZD) per loaf. It reminded me of the shape, size and taste of the KB’s Bakery gluten free bread I used to get couriered to my house when I first became gluten free in 2008. Make whatever assumptions from that statement as you will… Just know I only bought it once! We’ve come a long way since those cardboard breads in 2008, but, in some ways, New Caledonia really is like a step back in time.
Jean-Marie Tjbibaou Cultural Centre
Catching the local Karuia bus from Anse Vata to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre was an adventure. Armed with a piece of paper that said “71 or 72 to city” and “40 to culture centre” (a bi-product of not having any data on my phone due to no NZ or Australian company being able to roam here and a sim card being around $80NZD!) I made my way down to the main road to find the bus stop. If you hadn’t obsessively googled “bus stops in New Caledonia” before stepping out of your house like I had then you would be very surprised to find a bus stop is in fact just a tall white pillar on the side of the road. There is occasionally a timetable sellotaped to the pillar, but I did wonder why they even bothered seeing as island time was very definitely a thing. The bus will arrive whenever the bus driver feels like it. So, I eventually made it in to the centre-ville after embarrassing myself only once (seriously why the heck do inserting tickets into bus machines have to be so complicated and make me look so awkward?!) and miraculously my instincts took me to the bus exchange. There were a lot of locals loitering and I was glad that I turned the corner to instantly find the number 40.
It does hit home just how important having a cultural centre like this is for honouring the culture of the Kanak people. I’m glad Jean-Marie fought so hard for this to happen. I strongly recommend paying the 210f ($3.20NZD) bus fare and the 1000f ($15NZD) entry fee to visit the Tibao Cultural Centre, but first I suggest you shower in insect repellent and when you’re there and make sure you take the time to walk through the grounds. It really is beautiful learning about the ways the native plants are used in Kanak culture.
A bit of a gloomy day, but well worth the visit. The architecture of these buildings has been inspired by the Kanak Culture created by Italian architect Renzo Piano. After the centre opened in 1998 Jean-Marie's wife said, "we, the Kanaks, see it as a culmination of a long struggle for the recognition of our identity; on the French Government's part it is a powerful gesture of restitution."
I wish I could remember what these were used for but it would've been something badass
Finding my way back to my accommodation was a lot more effort compared to my earlier bus success. It would appear as though the morning was in fact a fluke and now I was left stranded in the filthy centre of town, being catcalled by old men, stared at by groups of teenagers sitting in the gutters and feeling (now excuse my French) quite f*cked because I could only say the numbers up to 49 and I needed to catch the number 71 or 71 bus home.
Centre-ville of Nouméa
After fueling up on a small pottle of hot chips for 500f ($7.50NZD) I decided my legs were feeling up to the challenge of walking up Ouen Toro. I don’t regret it at all. It’s one of those cliché moments where the journey is better than the destination because in this case it truly is. The views on the walk up and around the mountain are breathtaking. You quickly realise how small you are in the grand scheme of the ocean. I did get a little lost though - that’s how we do things in Jess Brien land - and I wasn’t sure what path to take up so I decided to follow a lady who looked like she walks up Ouen Toro in her sleep. Turns out she was just walking to her car that was parked about half way. I ended up following the road built for cars up to the top.
The top car park is full of tourists who took the naff tourist train up and Nouméa’s boyracers. Tripadvisor will tell you they are disgusting rats on society but they were fine. They’re just living their lives in a home that’s being overrun by cruise ship tourists. That being said though, once the tacky tourist train left and it was just me and them up there I didn’t stick around for long.
Started from the bottom now we're here
Ile Aux Canards
On day 3 I clocked in with 8 mosquito bites and an incredible desire to swim with a turtle. They say it’s almost impossible at Ile Aux Canards, but with it being the closest island to Anse Vata (only 5 minutes in a taxi boat!) I thought I’d check it out. If you walk all the way along the board walk and past the first yellow taxi boat company you will come across a less touristy looking company around the side of a building. The guys here had good banter and were the epitome of cool, calm and collected. Catching a taxi boat here is simple, you choose what time you want to depart and when you would like to come back, and off you go. I say “simple” but my heart was pumping as I said “Um, bonjour. Désolé ma français est très mauvais. Est-ce que c'est possible une ticket pour Ile Aux Canards?” and they laughed and said “ouais sure what time?” So, yeah… Simple.
This, my friends, is the taxi boat company to use when in Anse Vata Bay
On Ile Aux Canards there’s a kiosk smack bang in the centre of the island that rents out snorkels, fins and umbrella chairs but again, the pricing nearly gave me a heart attack. I’d borrowed a snorkel from my AirBnB hosts but discovered the washed up corals on Ile Aux Canard were too much for my bare feet so I caved and spent 500f ($7.60NZD) to rent flippers for 60 minutes.
There were maybe only 6 other people visiting the island the afternoon I went and a couple of locals. I took a risk and went while it was raining in the hopes it would clear up.
If the locals hadn’t helped me I would have missed the most beautiful moment of my time in New Caledonia. I’m a baby snorkeler, I’d only tried it once before in Bali, but what I lack in knowledge I make up for in enthusiasm! My taxi boat driver showed me the best place to snorkel and what time to go out so I gave it my best shot. The corals and fish here are pure magic but somehow I’d managed to mess up the snorkel and kept inhaling half of the ocean with every breath. I still have absolutely no idea how I was doing this. Thankfully the locals running the kiosk took pity on me and let me use another snorkel (free of charge! That felt worthy of celebrating because nothing feels cheap, let alone free in New Caledonia!) because they could see how desperate I was to see a turtle. On further reflection it’s not that they could see how desperate I was it was the fact that I wouldn’t shut up about the possibility of nager avec tortue!!!!!! So off I went, flopping the flippers through the sand to eventually belly flop into the ocean. I was the only one snorkeling, I suppose you could say it was “cold”, and I swam ten or so metres…. And there she was.
When someone tells you something probably won’t happen it makes it all the more delicious when it ACTUALLY happens. Swimming with a turtle. Nom nom nom. (By the way, some people actually eat turtles. That makes me shudder. I bet they taste disgusting. Don’t eat a turtle.)
Take a picnic and BYO snorkel gear. You might not see a turtle but you will see hundreds of beautiful fish and coral. Watch out for the sharp sand and be aware that there is literally no free shade on the island. Like every experience leave only footprints and always respect the ocean. It’s bigger and stronger than you and you’re only visiting the animals in their homes.
The face you make after swimming with a turtle for the first time!
It felt like every man and his dog had been to the Maldives recently so after scrolling through photos of Îlot Maître on instagram I was pumped to see bungalows over the water a la Maldives.
I knew the tide was out but I had a mental breakdown in the morning (this is the longest I’ve been anywhere without my laptop and the pressure of the future was manifesting on my shoulders) so I was slightly delayed with my day 4 plans. I saw a post on the internet from a lady last July stating that she had seen more turtles than humans on this island, so the GoPro was charged and I was READY. The goal posts had shifted slightly and now that I had successfully swum with a turtle all that I needed to do now was capture a photo of one.
The tide was indeed very much out and the banter-filled taxi boat guys were a bit confused as to why I was going there. I knew the tide was out (I’m not a complete idiot) but the owner was so rude about it and it really was just one of those days where everything and everyone was pissing me off, so it’s no surprise that after I got off the boat I did a short 30 minute walk around the island listening to the wails and screams of a stag party from France all the way only to discover that the snorkel rental shop was closed and there wasn’t a single turtle to be found all afternoon.
Îlot Maître is fine but I knew there must be better. There isn't really anywhere nice to sit due to there being a hotel on the island that's taken all the prime real estate. You end up feeling a bit shit and left out because you're not a guest. So with that being said, it would probably be an awesome experience if you were staying there! But, anyway, it only takes about 15 minutes by taxi boat and costs 2500f return ($38NZD)
Yeah cool but where are the turtles?
But look, don’t worry, day 4 wasn’t a complete write off afterall. The Mexican place on Anse Vata Bay (Tipico Latino) fills up super fast every day and reservations are necessary, but I’d managed to weasel my way into reserving an outside table for 18h30 and by the time that came around I was ready to eat my weight and self pity in nachos. The nachos were about as good as you can imagine nachos in New Caledonia would be and cost a whopping 1990f! An Australian family were sitting at the table next to me and while the Mum and her two sons were sharing the bowl nachos (which is understandable at $30NZD a pop!) I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. It made me laugh that these kids had absolutely no filter at all. “These nachos are okay Mum but they are nowhere near as good as the ones you make at home!” “I think I would call these “snack nachos” not really “dinner nachos” ya know?” “Yeah! This is just for a snack not for a meal!” “No I don’t think I like them. Where’s the cheese?” “Mum your’s are sooo much better. This isn’t even real avocado?”
I was just happy to be eating food that I didn’t have to cook for myself. But I suddenly really missed my Mum.
Now you must know that Amédée Islet was Plan B. Originally I had every intention of getting to Îlot Signal for my special day of making my turtle dreams come true. Unfortunately, bad weather and rough seas meant that during the weekend - the only time a taxi boat was operating for Îlot Signal - leaving me on Îlot Signal would be unsafe as there is absolutely nothing on the island. It really is an authentic experience and that’s what enticed me in. But I had no desire to be stuck on the island for days living my best Survivor life. God, I really would be the absolute worst at surviving in a situation like that.
If Îlot Signal is on one end of the authentic scale then Amédée Islet is getting towards the opposite end of the spectrum. A tourist boat called Mary D operates frequently and transports cruise ship guests from Nouméa to Amédée for 12,000f. No hate if that’s what you want to do, but the $184NZD was a little out of my budget. To be fair included in that price was your boat ride to and from the island, a buffet style lunch, coconut tree climbing workshops, a traditional dance show, maybe other things but I was tuning out while reading as it all seemed a tad excessive and the leap from Plan A to Mary D was huge.
My AirBnB hosts went above and freaking beyond. Devastated that I might not end up swimming with tens of turtles they made some calls and just casually made all my wildest dreams come true. Somehow they had managed to organise a deal with a local diving school so that I would essentially hitch a ride to Amédée with them, they would give me a snorkel and flippers to entertain myself while they went out diving, and I’d join them again for lunch and get a ride back with them to the main island around 4 in the afternoon. All for 6000f ($92NZD)
My hosts dropped me at the wharf on their way to work and luckily it was going to be a beautiful sunshiney day. I finally found the little shack the diving school operated out of and introduced myself to the two men taking us out. We were joined by a party of three from France and a solo kiwi guy called Ben. It was the first time I was in a group of people in New Caledonia and wasn’t the worst French speaker! That made me realise just how much I did know. I had been so caught up in feeling overwhelmed that by day five I had stopped focusing on what I did know. This was a nice reminder. (I even translated a little from diving school man to Ben and that was probably my proudest moment!)
Look, I’m new to being a sea person. I grew up surrounded by mountains and only went swimming in the sea properly when I was 18. So maybe I’m naive or completely stupid, but I really was expecting a bigger boat to take us there. Something similar to the taxi boats I had been taking previously. Not a small boat that only expert boat riders would board. I don’t even know how to describe the kind of boat? I actually remember thinking this was the small dingy to take us to the real boat. Oh Jess. Basically, while writing this - about 6 months after my trip - I think my butt has only now become unclenched after perching on the side of the boat for the 24 kms/30 minute ride there hanging on for dear life to small rope in between my legs. I can’t believe that me, Jess with MS, managed to not fall backwards into the ocean. “Fake it til you make it” was the mantra I chanted in my head during the journey teamed with a couple of “holy f*cking shit” ‘s and “for gods sake are we there yet” ‘s for flavour.
Amédée Islet is incredible. There’s hardly anything there except a 56m high lighthouse (one of the tallest in the world!), an outhouse and a couple of shacks storing the dive school’s equipment and a kitchen fit to cook rice, vegetables and fish in as well as a cup of tea. Even though it’s a tourist trap it’s still a mostly uninhabited island in the Pacific (I think only 2 “caretakers” live on Amédée full time) and well worth a visit.
Here I am in front of the Amédée Lighthouse. Ben told me noone would believe that I was here if I didn't have at least one photo of myself in New Caledonia. Forgive my awkward stance... There were giant cobwebs all through these trees and I was finding it hard to relax
But I would be lying if I tried to paint this as a relaxing island day trip.
There are snakes on Amédée. Lots and lots of snakes. And spiders. Big ones.
I wouldn't have been even remotely surprised if my beating heart literally jumped out of my chest and into the Pacific Ocean during my day there. The spiders were the size of my hand, the snakes scared me a gauche et à droite and the continuous seagull bombings stressed me the fark out. However, the man from the dive school told me in broken English that the only thing that are dangerous and can hurt you there are the mosquitoes. Which was just bloody fabulous seeing as I'm a literal walking talking mosquito magnet machine and I was stuck on the island for the next seven hours with no way out.
Luckily Ben, the kiwi diver, was more experienced at diving than the French party of three, so they took him out on his own, which meant I was never really alone on the snake-and-spider-filled island. A small comfort.
But nothing else mattered after I saw my first turtle that morning. Initially I saw just one and then suddenly I was swimming with three majestic beauties. Three then became five and not even my fear of swimming past a sea snake could’ve got me out of that water.
Special shout out to my incredible Aunty & Uncle who gave me this GoPro so I could fulfil dreams like this!!
If you’re heading to Amédée Islet make sure you pack sunscreen, insect repellent, water, back up insect repellent and keep in mind that if the Mary D is operating on the day you’re there and you’re not part of the group the optimum beach space is covered with “Mary D guests only” sun chairs. The snakes are poisonous so don’t be a dick, but if you’re scared take comfort in the fact that their heads are about the size of your finger and they can only really bite you in between your fingers and toes. They are slow on the land but a lot faster in the water. Respect the turtles and sea life - don’t touch them even if it’ll make your turtle selfie better. I wasn’t able to go up the lighthouse the day I was there, so check when opening times are for that because I hear it’s a really incredible view of the Pacific, and finally you must always, always, ALWAYS check for spiders before going to the toilet.
Oh, and don’t leave your togs drying on the sun chair then leave the island. Oops.
What. A. Day.
And just like that, it's my final full day in Nouméa.
I woke up with eleven new itchy bites and immediately googled the Zika virus symptoms. Hysterically almost every symptom sounds like MS so it was going to be a great day of overthinking for me! Speaking of MS, everything hurt on this day and I was feeling incredibly exhausted. However, the day wasn’t a complete write off as I had been really good at eating at home so I had 6000f ($92NZD) in my pockets to blow which was a nice change to the 4000f ($61NZD) budget I had been living on for the past week. After spending 2995f ($46NZD) on a new bikini top - RIP the one I left on Amédée - and 100f ($1.50NZD) on a couple of postcards for Mum and Dad I took a trip back to Tipico Latino for lunch. This girl needed a couple of vege tacos (1420f ($21NZD) for those) and I went the brightest of reds while ordering in French to the waiter. It’s actually so bloody hard to continue to gather the strength and courage to practise! Especially when you’re sitting in a small restaurant next to really cool people. It felt like my brain was about to explode from exhaustion so there’s only one way to fix that which is - of course - icecream. Luckily I had 900f ($13NZD) to drop on a single scoop gelato (!!!!) while walking along the water at Baie des Citrons. I couldn’t tell if I felt better or worse.
The next morning I gave 3100f ($47NZD) cash to my AirBnB host and then she gave me a cheque to give to the shuttle bus driver (I told you New Caledonia was like traveling back in time!) because paying with cash is a no no as “it’s island life here Jess” and the driver will probably just take the cash for himself. Can’t blame them really. Chocolate costs a million dollars they need all they can get!
Traveling solo in New Caledonia was tough and took me miles out of my comfort zone, but it was exhilarating and breathtaking and a trip I will certainly never forget!
If you stumble across a "secret spot" between Anse Vata Bay & Baie Des Citrons to watch the sunset just know it isn't as "secret" as it looks and at least 4 tacky tourist trains will stop and ruin the magical moment you've created for yourself...
The facts & numbers
Seven nights in New Caledonia cost me a grand total of $1330.93NZD. Broken down that looks like $464 for Air New Zealand direct flights from Auckland return, $356.52 for my room in an AirBnB for the week and $510.41 on activities, transport and food.
I went at the end of June/beginning of July and the temps were usually around 25 degrees. It rained a lot when I first arrived, but cleared up towards the end.
People can speak a some English (especially if you are anywhere near a cruise ship activity) but it would be better to know at least a little French.