The best laid plans of mice and men (New Caledonia)
Day 3,284 since October 10th 2013: 199 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
There is always something…
No matter how a project is planned, accidents or misfortune can still happen with it. And the recipe to get back on track appears to be found in a keep on keeping on attitude
Last week’s entry: Four countries from home – transit in New Caledonia
Last week I left you with the knowledge that I had rented a car and was heading out of Noumea. I also shared with you that Swire Shipping, as the charterers of the good ship Arkadia, had asked the owners to allow me onboard for the short passage between New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Well, well, well. I guess we are all set for this weeks Friday Blog which is very much in the spirit of adapt and improvise. As I drove out of Noumea I wondered how far the perfect two-lane road would carry me? Before setting foot in New Caledonia, I had already done a search on the highest mountain and found that it was Mont Panie in the North Province far from Noumea. When I met Swire Shipping’s agent, I asked how I would get about getting there? Ms. Weiting said that there were busses but that the easiest way would be to rent a car. I had read whatever scarce information was available about the hike and I had studied several maps. I had a plan.
Two lanes each way.
One lane. Still good road.
The 400km (250mi) drive would take me six hours to cover. As I moved forward and observed the modern infrastructure, I could also see the highly mountainous landscape rising up around me. My head was full of heavy thoughts. The Saga is stressful and there is much to balance. It has been going on for far too long. The challenges ahead remain great. The grind of pushing forward in an uphill battle gets to me. Week’s become months and months become years. Within Hong Kong I was hopelessly out of control due to the pandemic and shutdown of borders. And in Hong Kong I often found refuge in challenging myself with hiking and trail running within the mountains. It is good for me on many levels. Fresh air, beautiful scenery, natural light, physical activity, measured accomplishment etc. What and where to hike in New Caledonia? Well, the highest peak is a nice milestone and therefore a good place to begin. And I was on my way.
One lane and lots of rain.
As I approached Hienghene it began pouring down. No matter. I was planning on hiking the following day and it was likely to be dry in the morning. Hienghene is the most populous settlement near Mont Panie. It is surrounded by eye-catching rock formations and tropical beauty. Hienghene is a tiny place with about 2,400 beating hearts living spread out across the area. It took seconds to drive through the densest part which had a small super market, a guest lodge, a tourist centre, a small marina, a work shop, and not much else. I pulled over on top of a small hill top along the ocean side to admire the view. Postcard picturesque! Even under a grey sky and with the rain drizzling down. As I stood there a man approached me. I had seen him walking up the road towards where I was parked. He did not speak English so we had to manage with whichever French I could muster within the moment. He wanted a ride and I thought: “why not?”. So, the two of us continued along the coastal road until the road stopped at the mouth of a river which cut inland. Interesting? A small free of costs ferry acted as a substitute for a bridge. It was powered by an outboard motor and kept in place by a wire which was drawn from our side of the road to where the road continued across the water. I love stuff like that.
How cool is this! I love that I drove a rental up on that thing four times! :) The operator was also really nice.
We made it across and it wasn’t long before the man told me to stop, thanked me, and got out of the car and headed toward a small house. In the region about 94% are made up by Kanaks which are the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia. I just had my first encounter. Noumea had been so modern that it was hard to spot the original local culture. Around Hienghene it was a lot easier. Around Noumea I mostly saw the French Tricolour but within the North Province it had mostly been the New Caledonian flag. New Caledonia has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years and James Cook became the first to add it to European charts 1774. I have no skin in the game. There are tensions in New Caledonia and what can I say? Paris is 17,000km (10,500mi) away. I definitely see the value New Caledonia possesses. I was in the region to hike and clear my mind. Not to get involved in politics. It wasn’t long before I rolled up to where the trailhead was supposed to be. But there was no trailhead? I wanted to scout it out before the big hike the following day. Good thing I did because I now bitterly came to the realization that something was wrong. Upon more research I found out that the trail had been shut down in resent years as the entire mountain now serves as a protected zone. Birds and cultural value being the primary reason and rare tress and…aarrgghh…I’m all for protecting nature, but I had just driven for six hours and built-up expectations about a hike which I really felt I needed. I was disappointed to say the least.
I drove back towards the ferry, made it across, drove back to where I had seen the guest lodge, got a room, had dinner, drank a beer, did more research, went to bed. The next morning, I got up and walked over to the tourism centre where I met Astrid. It was a beautiful blue sky-day. I was hoping the trailhead had been moved and that I was wrong about not being able to hike Mont Panie. Astrid (which is a Norse name) had a lovely smile and was local to Hienghene. She spoke English well and was excited to see me as they don’t have many visitors from Denmark and are trying to promote tourism. Astrid could furthermore tell me that I could definitely hike Mont Panie and proceeded to get me a map and some regional information from a few folders. For a moment I got my hopes up again but I soon realized that she wasn’t suggesting a hike to the peak of Mont Panie but rather a hike nearby on a different mountain. Oh well, it did look like a good substitute and I thanked Astrid many times before I left. The rest of the day was spent exploring the natural beauty of Hienghene and preparing for doing the hike the following day. It had become to late to do it on the day.
"The Sphinx" - do you see it?
The next morning I got up at 06:00am, had breakfast at 06:30am and checked out. I then drove to the trailhead of Les roches de la Ouaième (the Ouaième rocks). I parked, covered myself in sunscreen, locked the car, found a gps signal, started my Garmin, and up I went. It was steep and I soon had a marvellous view. Then the trail evened out a bit and there was a spectacular smell from the plants around me. The trail continued into a forest and it was magical. There were plenty of fresh water sources. And I was soon up at 745m (2,444ft) on top of a ridge with a steep drop-off! And it was spectacularly beautiful!!! Definitely a good secondary hike to substitute for the one I couldn’t have.
Les roches de la Ouaième - 745m (2,444ft).
I gained a lot of cuts thanks to leaves like this. Still a great hike!
I soldiered onwards and up on a much less used trail. According to the map Astrid gave me the summit was at 982m (3,222ft). The flora was quite something. Sometimes alien and always exotic. I made it to the summit and it was nice enough. But the ridge further down below had been far more impressive. I took in the view, ate a pear, sipped some water, and began making my way back down to the car. It had taken me about three hours to reach the peak and I had a long drive ahead of me back to Noumea. I met some nice locals on the trail who were also out for the hike. We chatted for a bit before I continued down to the trailhead and stopped my watch at 4:44:08. 12.8km (8mi). 2,323 calories. It had been worth the drive to Hienghene. It was a long six-hour drive back to Noumea and I was tired when I rolled up to the Airbnb where my host Rahissa offered me a delicious homecooked meal which she had ready. She’s good like that.
The following morning, I returned the car to the rental place and stopped on my way back to have some breakfast. I’m sure I could have ordered in French but the woman behind the counter got shy, nervous, or something, so a customer next to me who spoke English offered to translate for me. As such I ended up talking with the man while I waited for my food. He was a school bus driver and sometimes worked with tourism too. After some chitchat he told me that he knew of a fishing boat which would return to Vanuatu in about three weeks. Good to know but I was expecting to join Arkadia to Vanuatu. Later that day I was informed that the owners could not accept the risk of carrying a passenger. Shipping is complicated. Sometimes the operators of a vessel are also the owners and managers. Sometimes those are three different parties. In this case Swire Shipping was happy to support as the charterers of Arkadia. But the Owners and the Ship Manager also needed to give their consent. The owners had said no. Now what? I reached out to some influential friends in Hong Kong and luck fortuned me. A friend of a friend knew the owner of the ship well and would try to speak to him. And another friend connected me with the CEO of the Ship Managing company. Would this get me onboard?
The next morning a cruise ship had arrived to Noumea. It truly towered above the city centre and there was a lot of activity. A band was playing traditional island music, lots of shops had popped up, and there were tour buses everywhere. Unfortunately, my friends in Hong Kong could inform that I would not be joining Arkadia as the ship owners simply couldn’t risk taking me onboard. The buzzwords were: crew, claim, risk, and stock exchange. Essentially I couldn’t join Arkadia because of the potential risk of the company losing money. Companies exists to make money and nothing else so it’s a valid argument but hard to swallow. Now what? What was the name of that cruise ship and where was it going? It was called Pacific Explorer and belonged to P&O Cruises. I found their website. What? Their next port of call was in Vanuatu!! I had been told there were no cruise ships to Vanuatu!! I raced down to the ship hoping to find someone working onboard. I asked security who pointed me to a tour operator sitting at a nearby table. The tour operator was able to give me the number for the ships agent and the agent could tell me the website was wrong, Pacific Explorer would return directly to Sydney. The agent could furthermore tell me Vanuatu had not yet opened up for cruise ship arrivals. Darn it…that would have been handy.
Rahissa is my wonderful Airbnb hostess from Cameroon. She has a great view to the cruise ships when they come in. I was told that this one was the 2nd to arrive since the pandemic broke out.
Okay, back to the marina then. And back to the place I met the school bus driver who knew of the fishing boat. Maybe he frequented that place? Noumea has a great deal of marinas but I had only visited one back when I was “testing the waters”. I had been told that most yachts and sailboats never leave New Caledonian waters and I thought I was joining Arkadia so it didn't matter much. Now the marinas became a viable option again. At the marina office I spoke to a sweat receptionist who could inform that a French captain (Gilbert Stephen) with a catamaran frequently crossed between Noumea and Vanuatu. Gilbert had even helped a German get across who was cycling in the Pacific or something... I got Gilberts contact details and was told he would be back in Noumea a week later. When I asked the kind receptionist about where I might find the discussed fishing boat, she thought it might be at Marine Et Composites. Two good leads. Great stuff!
Noumea's China Town appears a bit sterile but at least they have one. And the streets near by are great if you like lots of people annoyingly asking if you want to smoke weed.
I returned to the breakfast place where I had met the school bus driver, and there I met Francois. Francois is 72 years old, and during the 70s he travelled for six years from Paris to Iran, to Pakistan, and then stayed in India a lot, which he kept as a base for further travel in the region. Needles to say I had a lot of questions for Francois. What a time to conduct such travel! No GPS, no internet, no mobile phones. Francois ended up helping me talk to the shy woman at the counter. She remembered both me and the bus driver. Unfortunately, he didn’t frequent the place very often but he did come now and again. She was happy to take my number and pass it on to him if or when he showed up. Okay, now I was off to visit Marine Et Composites in hopes that someone there would know about a fishing boat getting ready to make the voyage across to Vanuatu. Either that or some other lead. But before I got that far I received a message from Ms. Waiting (Swire’s agent) who informed that Swire had a ship arriving the following week which would cross to Santo in Vanuatu. What? How the heck did I miss that?
The good ship New Guinea Chief is owned, operated and managed by Swire. This was a case of “lost in translation”. The capital and main city of Vanuatu is Port Vila. All focus had been on making it from New Caledonia to Port Vila. Nobody thought to mention connections to Santo and I had not been searching on it not knowing that Vanuatu, with its small population of 300,000 beating hearts, would have container ships call two different ports? Not unsimilar to back in 2015 when I was struggling to find a way to reach St. Kitts & Nevis from Antigua & Barbuda. I was over, and over, and over again told that the only way was to fly between the two countries. Then I eventually discovered there was a ferry from Antigua & Barbuda to Montserrat (British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean). And another ferry from Montserrat to St. Kitts & Nevis. A FERRY!! I could simply buy a ticket and cross!!! Why had nobody mentioned that? Lost in translation. I had asked about a way to reach St. Kitts & Nevis without flying…not Montserrat. Now the focus had been on reaching Port Vila…not Santo. It does not matter to me where in Vanuatu I arrive. Once in Vanuatu I’m sure we can find our way to the nation’s capital. Swire Shipping was quick to accept me onboard if was cleared by all authorities, test negative (PCR) before joining the ship, and follow all the usual health and safety protocols including the Breakout Management Plan. Oh Swire, where would we be without you :)
At the mixed Swire / Ballande office together with Mr. Israël Tremblay, Swire’s Regional Operations Manager in New Caledonia. We had a great afternoon together and before we parted I was introduced to the hardworking office.
It was all hands-on deck. Pretty soon Swire’s agent in Noumea (Agence Maritime Ballande) had reached out to the agent in Santo (Tropical Agency) who got in touch with the local authorities. I had a week earlier reached out to Vanuatu Immigration and Passport Services. It all came together nicely with everyone confirming that there would be no issues and that I was set to join the ship. Yeah – a bit of drama, a bit of adapt and improvise, a lot of support, a lot of good will, and it all seems to come together. It is always "keep on keeping on" until we see those results.
In addition to everything else I had a nice evening together with Melanie Farman who works at La Communauté du Pacifique and volunteers at the French Red Cross in New Caledonia. We were joined by Sandrine Buffeteau who served in the military for 25 years and is now the President of the French Red Cross in New Caledonia. Melanie has volunteered for a year now and Sandrine for four years (only six months before she was made President). We met at “the docks” which is a neatly organized warehouse attached to some office space which includes an Emergency Control Centre. It was all rather impressive.
Sandrine understands English quite well but had asked Melanie to help as she is fluid. I was guided around the premises while they told me about all the emergency response equipment such as tarpaulins, tents, kitchen sets, mattresses, drinking water units (fresh water generator) and much more. It was a large warehouse and they were well equipped to respond to the next emergency. Not just in New Caledonia but in the South Pacific Region if needed. I found it interesting that when people donate clothes then the Red Cross sometimes receive absolutely horrible rags. The Danish Red Cross experiences the same on the other side of the planet. Some people simply do not understand that the most vulnerable people also have dignity. If your old clothes are in terrible condition then they are not suitable for other people. Just donate the good stuff. They also have an initiative called “Aller Vers” which translates to “Move Towards”. They have a van which can reach isolated people throughout New Caledonia. The initiative is orientated towards the fight against domestic violence. Something which can be hard to talk about. So, the van arrives, sets up a makeshift second-hand shop, offers a warm drink, and has a private space where two people can speak privately if needed. Sadly, it is needed – and not only in New Caledonia but widely across the world.
Another cool initiative is another van which is decorated with a cool turtle on the side, surfing on New Caledonia’s main island using it as a surfboard. Yes – this is a children’s initiative which aims to make them aware of natural risks and life-saving actions. It’s about disaster preparation and the Red Cross shares information about floods, earthquakes, tsunami, landslides, forest fires, and cyclones. They have even developed a fun card game in which the aim is to travel the distance around New Caledonia (approximately 800km (500mi)). You draw cards with different modes of transportation which add distance to your journey. But some cards are natural disasters which slow you down. They do however not slow you down if you can lay down a card showing that you have prepared for the disaster. The initiatives mascot is Ti’pwen the turtle. Now, I haven’t even covered the basis of what the Red Cross does in New Caledonia. But you can visit them on their website if you want to know more. Sandrine parked her scooter in the warehouse and gave me a ride back to the city centre. Their engagement is impressive.
And that brings us to the end of this week’s entry. A long one for some of you and not long enough for others. Here’s what’s likely to happen: I’ll join Swire’s good ship next week and probably reach Santo around October 19th. Then I’ll make my way down to Port Vila where I may have an excuse to shave my beard. Swire has a ship leaving Port Vila around November 8th heading across to Suva in Fiji. If I can join, then I’ll be back in Suva around November 12th. Neptune Pacific Direct Line (NPDL) has a vessel heading up to Tuvalu leaving around November 27th and arriving around December 3rd. But this is complicated and requires a lot of support. Not only do we need the blessing from Tuvalu’s government but we also need permission to join NPDL’s ship. All of this is being worked on and has been worked on for several months now. Trust me: it is not easy. But if we pull it off then we will have concluded the Pacific Ocean nations before New Year. And then we will be left with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. And if you are wondering about how I feel then the answer is: mentally exhausted but grateful. Let's end this one in the words of Robert Burns: “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - ready to visit Vanuatu.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga