Leaving New Caledonia and M/V New Guinea Chief - passenger no. 1
Day 3,291 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).
“Don’t fly to close to the sun”
New Caledonia’s two highest mountains are Mont Panie and Mont Humboldt. And here’s how I failed getting on top of either of them. My goodness New Caledonia – you didn’t make it easy for me, did you?
Last week’s entry: The best laid plans of mice and men (New Caledonia)
New Caledonia has by far been the most expensive destination within the Saga. The Saga has taken us to more expensive places but the stays were much shorter. Twenty days in the French territory ran about USD 130/day which is considerably more than the projects USD 20/day budget. Accommodation would have been almost half of the cost. I did splurge on some good food now and again, I visited four museums, I rented a car twice, and topped up my simcard with data four times. I could have done it cheaper. But I didn’t feel like it. And within a budget spanning across NINE YEARS, it doesn’t matter much anyway. Three expensive weeks hardly make a dent in such an economy. USD 20/day over nine years is approximately USD 65,700.
According to this map you can park near the mine and bypass the mine to reach the peak of Mont Humboldt. It didn't work for me.
With last week’s failed attempt to summit New Caledonia’s highest mountain, Mont Panie at 1,629m (5,213ft), I was left with a desire to summit the second highest, Mont Humboldt at 1,618m (5,178ft). At nearly the same elevation the challenge would be similar and I had read that the vegetation was similar too. Besides, while Mont Panie was a six-hour drive from Noumea, Mont Humboldt was only a 90-minute drive (I thought). Information about hiking in New Caledonia really appears scarce to me. Perhaps much more is available if you are proficient in French but I also made my online searches in French without much luck. I couldn’t hike Mont Panie because it had been turned into a protected area with focus on birds, unique vegetation, and the sacredness of indigenous beliefs. Regarding Mont Humboldt I found some information on a French page that described how nickel mining had closed the entry to the hike. I also found some information that explained you could still hike the mountain on weekends but because the mining company had closed the road you now needed to hike an additional 22km (14mi) to reach the trail head. All of this was based on hiking the mountain from the south. There might have been an accessible route from the north near Petit Borindi, which you could possibly reach by boat or maybe even drive to by following a road going 270 degrees around the base of the mountain. Yeah? No concrete information and all of it somewhat outdated. I decided to give it a go and see what would happen.
Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Learning the Kanak's origin story was interesting. Apparently the first humans walked out of hollow trees.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t rent a vehicle for the weekend which in terms of the mining activity might have been my best bet. Also, the weather forecast wasn’t looking great for the weekend and I definitely did not want to be caught up in altitude in a situation I cannot manage on my own. So, the weekend was spent on museums. Most museums in Noumea appear to be closed on Mondays but the city museum was open. I was able to rent the vehicle Monday but not early enough to reach Mont Humboldt the same day. I ended up renting it from Monday to Wednesday hoping to get an early start Tuesday and return it Wednesday. Sunday, I took a bus to Tjibaou Cultural Centre which pays tribute to the indigenous Kanak people and probably tells the story of a reconciliation process between the French and the Kanaks. It’s hard to say. I didn’t get the full experience as nearly everything was in French and I couldn’t be bothered to spend ten times as long on every billboard as I would have if it was in English. It therefore mostly became a visual tour for me. The centre is set in beautiful surroundings and there was a lot of contemporary Kanak art on display. The café was closed, the vending machines didn’t work, and the authentic cultural village was closed on the day because it was turned into a film set. So, I was in and out in only two hours.
How skillful navigators populated the Pacific more than 3,000 years ago.
The Maritime Museum easily became my favorite museum. Within the Pacific a good maritime museum will tell you the story of how the islands were populated, the original culture, how Europeans (always Europeans) arrived much later and took control, and how things developed since. Noumea has a great Maritime Museum which doesn’t hide the cruelty of Europeans but also highlights the bravery of explorers and settlers. And everything was in both French and English so I had a field day! It was especially interesting to learn about how much of European exploration in the region was driven by the desire to discover a fabled southern continent which didn’t exists.
October 10th 2022, Noumea, New Caledonia. NINE YEARS OF STAYING MENTALLY STRONG!
Monday October 10th came which marked nine years since I left home to reach every country completely without flying. Nine years! NINE!! My goodness – this better be the last year. I headed down to Moselle Bay to take a photo of myself to mark the day on social media. Within the post I highlighted how the Saga aims to promote every country positively, promote humanitarian work, show the kindness of strangers, chases a near impossible goal, promotes never giving up, how no bribes have been paid out, that it’s conducted on a USD 20/day budget (average), and how the Saga demonstrates dedication and grit. The content was very well received online.
Noumea in 1897. New Caledonia would have been home to around 50,000 beating hearts. Today it is home to around 300,000.
Then I went out to visit the Musee de la ville (city museum) which once again was mostly in French. Having seen many similar museums, I could almost guess the story the museum told by looking at all the artifacts: 125 years ago there wasn’t much, then nickel mining kicked in and changed everything. Cattle drives had their heyday and disappeared. WWI, WWII. Modern inventions and trends. Rapid population growth etc. It’s a nice museum to visit if nothing else to get inside the old colonial style building which back in 1874 served as the Town Hall. As far as museums go in Noumea, the Maritime Museum remains my favorite.
Tuesday morning at 05:00am I started the Mont Humbold adventure. After a quick breakfast I was out the door and in the car. No traffic to speak of and a comfortable temperature. I knew all along that there was a risk I wouldn’t be allowed to hike it due to mining. But I did not know for sure and stuck to my hopes. I had done extensive research on the geography and I knew I had to turn off the main road after crossing the La Tontouta river. I slowed down as soon as I crossed the bridge and took the first right which was a dirt road heading towards the mountain. So far so good. After a while my small dirt road began running parallel to a massive red dirt road on my left. There was a fence between the two roads. But after some distance there was an opening in the fence and I decided to get on the red dirt road. It was still early morning and there was little activity anywhere. But once in a while a dump truck would come towards me and we would exchange greetings by lifting our hands as we passed each other. I began to eye my chances of reaching the trailhead as I covered kilometer after kilometer up the mountain. But after 18km (11mi) I reached an active worksite. And a woman in a gigantic digger blocked my path. I got out, smiled, and explained that I was heading higher up the mountain and she let me continue. I was starting to feel really good about it now as I was only 4.7km (3mi) from the trailhead where I would park. Unfortunately, 2.5km (1.5mi) from the trailhead a white pickup truck coming against me stopped in the middle of the road and blocked my path. Two women inside it seemed more puzzled than upset that I was there in a tiny rented car. And they clearly wanted me to turn around and leave. I tried my best to persuade them but there was no getting past them. They radioed all activity on the road to stop until I had passed them on my way down. Darn it!! So close.
Somewhat irritated I could not help to feel immediate accept about the situation. I had always known this could happen but it stung being so close to where I would have parked and continued on foot. Oh well, it was a good attempt. I returned the 21km (13mi) down the wide red dirt road until I reached the main road again. Just before the main road a security guard asked me how I got in? I got out of the car, smiled, shook his hand, and explained as well as I could that I entered on a parallel dirt road. Then I was on my way back to Noumea defeated. How difficult it had been to hike New Caledonia’s two highest peaks and I had failed on both occasions. For two very different reasons I might add: one mountain was almost made sacred while the other was being dugout for profit. I started adapting to the situation on my way back when another mountain shrouded in clouds appeared on my left. I stopped the car and had a look at various maps: Mont Mou – 1,219m (3,900ft). Why not?
The trailhead I chose was in a very rural setting. A steep climb began and after only twenty minutes I already had a majestic view which I took in as I caught my breath. Then I continued upwards. It was a very beautiful hike with lots of (to me) unique vegetation. It was also a quite demanding hike and the upper landscape and vegetation had me thinking of Peter Pan (the one with Robin Williams) and Neverland. There are no snakes to worry about in New Caledonia so I felt reasonably safe. The summit was within dense vegetation and offered no view. I noticed that the trail continued down the other side of the mountain. On several maps it appeared as if the hike ended at the end of the trail another 400m (400 yards) downhill? Was it a mistake? Maybe it was a viewpoint out of the dense vegetation? I pondered for a bit if I wanted the extra elevation loss/gain. It wasn’t far – but it was a steep drop into the lush forest. I went for it. After ten minutes I had a great view of a mighty mountain range and Mont Humboldt. I could easily spot four nickel mines. The red mines stood out against the green mountain sides. I hadn’t reached the end of the trail yet. Should I keep going? Did I have any need to continue? The view was fine where I stood. I was curious and reluctantly continued a bit further without quite knowing why? Then I spotted something metallic on the mountainside. What was that? It looked like a wrecked vehicle of some sort. How did it get all the way out there? I moved closer…
The closer I got the clearer it became that it was a wrecked airplane. Wow!? How old was it? This was most definitely why the trail continued beyond the peak of Mont Mou. The airplane was not marked on any of my maps which I found odd as sometimes something as insignificant as a rock can be marked. I hung around for a while, drank some water, ate some raisons, ate a pear, took a lot of photos, and then made my way back up to the peak again, then a two hour hike back down to the car, followed by the drive back to Noumea. I have since learned that an American pilot named Comer crashed on December 5th 1942 during WWII. Details on the aircraft are as follows: SBD-3 Dauntless Bureau Number 06603 Tail 918.
I gave the immigration officer a Once Upon A Saga sticker and he returned the favor by giving me a patch. Pretty cool!
The next day I had to get my COVID-19 PCR test done early in the morning hoping for a negative result so I could join Swire’s good ship New Guinea Chief to Vanuatu. That test cost me about USD 120. Then I returned the rental car, stopped for breakfast, took care of some shopping, received the PCR test result (negative), sent the result to Ms. Weiting (ships agent), packed my bags, made a visit to immigration, checked out of the Airbnb, met Ms. Weiting at 1pm and joined New Guinea Chief at 1:15pm.
How I spend a great deal of time within the Saga. Either like this or looking into my phone.
Once onboard my luggage was disinfected and I was handed the Covid Protocol – Requirements for New Joiners – Extracts from Outbreak Management Plan. I can keep mentioning this week after week: covid-19 remains a huge deal within shipping in the Pacific Ocean. The safety of the crew, as well as those who interact with the ship, are a high priority. As such I find myself in a very privileged situation to continue to be invited onboard as a passenger. New Guinea Chief became the fifth ship within Swire Shipping’s amazing fleet which has carried the Saga forward this year! Most of the ships (possibly all) I have joined this year call Chinese ports as a part of their route. And as everyone knows, China is still adhering to a zero-covid policy. China is also by far the worlds largest producer of containerized goods. When you hold this together it becomes apparent why a Covid Protocol remains relevant in late 2022.
I said farewell to Ms. Weiting and was soon greeted by Captain Fang who was recently promoted. New Guinea Chief is his first command as a captain which I can only imagine must be really special. The kind captain had a deck cadet guide me to my cabin which would become my home for the next seven days. According to the protocol, Shipboard Self-Distancing (SSD) must be practiced for the first seven days onboard and a mask must be worn at anytime outside of the cabin. As a passenger I essentially have no reason to leave the cabin and all meals are brought to me. I can go outside or up on the bridge as long as I self-distance. As such it just feels natural to stay within the cabin which is nice and spacious…and familiar. The four most recent Swire vessels I have joined have had near identical accommodation. And on the three most recent vessels (Papuan Chief, Highland Chief, and New Guinea Chief) I have been given the same cabin next to the captain’s cabin. It very much feels like coming home and I even have a routine where I place things in the same location.
It's so easy to get organized onboard. Sleep, food, showers, laundry...
We left Noumea late into the evening and the next morning we had arrived to Prony Bay which is home to one of New Caledonia'a largest nickel mines. New Caledonia is thought to hold 25% of the worlds nickel reserves and Swire Shipping is an active part in keeping the supply chain alive providing nickel to the world. The Goro mine at Prony Bay mainly supplies nickel to a refinery in Dalian, China. I always smile when I hear someone mention Dalian as that is where Cassie of the Savagars is from. The Savagars were the wonderful family who took me into their home in Hong Kong as the pandemic broke out. I ended up staying five months with them and have a lifetime of good memories thanks to the Savagars hospitality. They now live in Dubai where I hope to visit them some day. Back to the nickel story: Nickel is rather heavy. It is loaded into shipping containers and then onboard the ships. A 20ft container can carry roughly 25 tons and hold about 33 cbm. Because nickel weighs 8,880 kg/cbm you can’t have much more than 3 cbm inside a 20ft container, which in turn makes the container look almost empty. Apparently in 2021 Goro mine was contracted to supply Tesla with up to a third of its nickel. I knew very little about nickel until I reached New Caledonia. Now I know that nickel mining stops me from hiking Mont Humboldt. Kidding aside, I have also learned how vital nickel is to the modern world. It truly has a surprising number of applications.
We don’t know exactly how long we will stay in Prony Bay. Cargo operations are estimated to take three days. As you read this (Friday) it will be day two. All going well we will continue during the weekend and I will set foot in Vanuatu on October 19th. Then I will make my way asap to Port Vila as it has now been confirmed that I will have a reason to shave! Country no. 200 awaits.
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - almost time to shave.
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Once Upon A Saga