Cruise: Grande Terre, New Caledonia

For five nights, we had grown accustomed to a frenetic lullaby of fast-flowing water sloshing against hulls. Now, with Nouméa's Bastille Day fireworks finale over, we bobbed gently at anchor and the boat and its inhabitants descended into blissful silence. Occasional noises emanating from ashore were exotic reminders that we were in a new land, but not exciting enough to disturb our slumber.

The following morning, we motored the one mile from Baie de L'Orphelinat to Port Moselle Marina, arriving just before 10:00. We were unable to raise the marina over VHF, so we borrowed one of the few empty berths and then Merri and I presented ourselves to the marina office. The staff were helpful and friendly and Merri had fun re-activating her rusty French (although all the staff spoke English). After relocating Arriba to its assigned berth, we returned to the marina office to undertake arrival formalities. The office is authorized to handle customs arrivals (though not departures). Immigration, however, requires a visit to the Immigration Office. We were urged to go right away since closing time was in half an hour (at 11:30 am). Strictly speaking, only the skipper has permission to go ashore and present the crew’s passports, while everyone else is required to await on board. Nevertheless, I took Merri, who speaks much better French than me. Immigration was straightforward: completing a one-page form with crew details then submitting passports for inspection and stamping.

Nouméa is the only official port of entry for New Caledonia (Nouvelle Caledonie). Try to plan your arrival between Monday and Friday. If you are unable to clear immigration by 11:30 am on Friday, you’ll have to wait until the office opens at 08:00 on Monday and won’t have permission to enter the country in the meantime.

Forewarned with the prospect of spending a weekend quarantine-bound in Nouméa, it might be preferable to slow down and alter course for Grand Lagon Sud (Great Southern Lagoon) off of the southern coast of Grande Terre. If anyone asks, you would be merely en route to Nouméa.

I’m using the original French words for place names, most of which are similar to their English equivalents: baie (bay), île (island), îlot (islet), cap (cape), mont (mount), etc.

Arriba at Port Moselle Marina.

By the time we had returned to the marina, a biosecurity officer from customs had already inspected Arriba. Some left-over fresh fruit and eggs were confiscated but, other than that, all of our ships' stores survived, including our precious Australian honey (although honey from other countries except NZ is confiscated). We were now all free to enter New Caledonia.

Nouméa is the country’s capital and largest city and well worth visiting for a couple of days. It is also the largest francophone city in Oceania and a good place to practice your French. Everyone was keen to go ashore. We all went in different directions to explore the city on foot but eventually everyone ended up in the marina restaurant, Le Bout Du Monde (The End of the Earth).

Roaming is very expensive in New Caledonia. Instead, swap out your SIM from home and purchase a Tourism Card SIM card. Any authorized outlet of OPT, the national telco, can install the SIM card for you and activate your local number. Once activated, you can purchase recharge cards, known as OPT Liberty Cards, from a variety of outlets, including shops, service stations, and post offices. More details can be found here.

On Saturday morning, we went shopping for the first time in New Caledonia and discovered how expensive many everyday items are. For example, a one-liter bottle of tonic water that might set you back A$2.50 (US$1.67) in Australia (or half as much for the generic brand), costs more than twice as much. Almost everything is imported from overseas. Fortunately wine and cheese from France are reasonably priced. We purchased both in great quantities, although only after proving our identity by showing our passports.

We also visited Musée de la Ville de Nouméa, a charming little museum offering a good overview of New Caledonia's history that is well worth the modest entrance fee and an hour of your time.

On Sunday, we strolled through the Nouméa Market, which is conveniently located alongside the Port Moselle marina and a great place to stock up on fresh produce. The more touristy stalls were less to our liking, though. After lunch, we walked to the Aquarium des Lagons, a small but interesting museum that highlights the incredible marine diversity of New Caledonia. It is adjacent to the shores of Anse Vata (Cove) a popular spot for windsurfing and kitesurfing.

On Monday, we checked out of the marina at 10:00, refueled, and motored out onto a calm bay and sunny skies. To the south, there were the telltale ripples of wind so we raised our mainsail in anticipation. Sure enough, once past the aptly-named Rocher à la Voile (Sail Rock), a 9-knot wind filled our sail. We motor-sailed regardless as Arriba’s batteries needed re-charging after three days in the marina without the benefit of shore power (due to me not yet owning a European-style power plug).

Ninety minutes later we were anchored north of Île Uéré, a horse-shoe shaped bay offering protection from all directions. There were two other yachts in the bay, but neither were occupied. Liam and I enjoyed a dip, swimming to the shore and back.

Recent years have seen increased shark attacks around Nouméa and in 2023 swimming restrictions were introduced. Sharks are naturally curious animals and are likely to approach a nearby vessel. Therefore, after anchoring, it is a good idea to wait for a few minutes before jumping into the water. And if you have a SharkShield on board, then use it!

After lunch, we continued to the head of the Baie de Magenta to explore possible anchorages for a future visit to the Tjibaou Cultural Center by boat. The latter is located on the shore but the waters are too shallow for convenient access. Then it was across Baie de Boulari to Îlot Charbon where we anchored for the night in 4m of water.

Tuesday brought clouds and rain. At 08:30, Liam and I were dropped off ashore to hike up to 750m tall Mont Dore (top photo). We got within approximately 250m of the summit when a deluge of rain almost washed off us the mountain. I can’t recall when I’ve ever descended a more slippery or dangerous trail. I fell several times, fortunately landing on my backside every time and not hitting anything harder than mud. As a result, I now have a permanent reminder of Mont Dore in the mud that stained my hiking clothes, which is as indelible as the darkest squid ink.

Approaching the summit of Mont Dore.

Wednesday was another overcast day but brought little rain. We motored to Port Ouémo, an eastern suburb of Nouméa. A short breakwater is all that remains of the “port”. We anchored in 6.7m (22°16.308'S 166°28.688'E) and went ashore in the dinghy to be immediately greeted by Pascal, a friendly local who insisted on giving us a lift to the museum. Since there were five of us, he also enlisted his wife to drive a second car. Pascal is one of thousands of the European French, or “caldoche”, who have settled in New Caledonia. An ocean-lover and sailor, he could not pass on the opportunity to lend a helping hand to some visiting yachties.

Pascal and wife.

The Tjibaou Cultural Center is a stunning building set in a beautiful location. The gardens, with its outdoor exhibits and excellent multi-lingual descriptions, were a highlight. Very few indoor exhibits included English descriptions though, which detracted from the experience for those with limited French. Back on board, we returned to Baie de L'Orphelinat, this time anchoring within 100m of the shoreline (Avenue du Général de Gaulle).

After dinner, we met Matthieu, also known as “Doctor Sails”, to collect our repaired gennaker that we’d dropped off a few days earlier. If you need a sail repair in Nouméa, Matthieu is your man!

Picking up our repaired gennaker.

Liquid victuals.

We awoke to warm sunny weather. Liam and I refurled the gennaker while the others went ashore to reprovision, at the Carrefour supermarket conveniently located directly ashore. Our plan had been to sail to the southern end of Grand Terre and beyond, but with southerlies forecast for two days we decided to head north instead. We put to sea at 09:36 and sailed for the islet of Îlot Rond (also Île Ronde), 13 nautical miles NW of Nouméa.

Departing Nouméa.

Îlot Rond and all of the other islands that we visited during this stage of the trip are inside the New Caledonian barrier reef that surrounds Grande Terre. With a length of 1,500 km (930 miles), it is the third largest coral reef in the world and it encloses a lagoon with an area of 24,000 km
2 (9,300 square miles).

Sailing under mainsail alone with an 8-knot breeze, we glided across the flat waters of the lagoon at 5 knots – a perfect trolling speed. En route we caught a Spanish mackerel, a good-eating finfish that we enjoyed sashimi-style with fresh baguettes and cheese. By 14:03, we were anchored just north of Îlot Rond (22°11.379'S 166°14.313'E) in 4.6m of water. I spotted a sea turtle in the shallows and went for a short swim in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get close enough to film it, while the others stayed on the beach. Mindful of the “Risque requin” (Shark caution) signs and the somewhat poor water visibility, I did not linger.
Arriba anchored off Îlot Rond.

Ninety minutes later, we continued on our way, reaching Baie de Uitoé at 17:20, where we anchored for the night. Liam discovered a reference to a hot spring on the western side of Île Hugon, so the following day we decided to check it out, navigating the narrow shallow Hugon Channel. On the final approach we narrowly avoided running over a large coral bommie, only averted by a quick turn to starboard. I backtracked 50m and we anchored over sand in 2.7m. I can’t stress enough the importance of having spotters on the bow in unfamiliar coral waters.

The bay turned out to be full of coral and its brilliant aquamarine waters offered the best snorkeling of the trip to date. The stars of the show were the juvenile reef sharks that kept circling the back of the boat, each about 60cm long (and nothing to fear). We never did find that hot spring, though.

We continued onto Îlot Tenia, arriving at 15:32 with ample time to go ashore and walk around this pretty little island. Just before bedtime, the wind picked up and swang 180° to the northwest, now putting us on a lee shore. We reset the anchor alarm and went to bed, putting our faith in the anchor’s hold, but it was a bouncy night.
Îlot Tenia.

With the winds now blowing from the north, I was keen to make an early start (06:38). For an hour we enjoyed superb sailing at 9 knots in an 18-knot northeasterly but the dream conditions did not last. We ended up motor-sailing most of the day, dodging a few squalls and lightning in the distance. 55 nautical miles later we anchored in Baie Oué (also Baie Ué). Swimming off the back of the boat was off the agenda. Several creeks were flowing into the bay turning the water mud brown. I tried my luck fishing but only succeeded in catching one of the baby sharks circling around us, which I released.

As we exited the bay the next morning, we spotted a waterfall with a small pebbly beach underneath. Wish freshwater a premium on board, an unlimited shower is definitely not to be passed. The beach was just big enough to land the dinghy and everyone enjoyed a glorious high-pressure rinse before we lost our foothold to the incoming tide.
Waterfall near the entrance of Baie Oué.

In the seven months since leaving home, Arriba had suffered no damage beyond a couple of torn sails but our luck was about to change. Restarting Arriba’s port engine resulted in a terrible rattling sound followed by a sickening thump. The engine refused to start. Fortunately, catamarans have two engines so it was not a dire emergency. Nevertheless, I dislike having only one engine at my disposal. Turning in tight quarters becomes difficult and the extra power from a second engine makes a big difference when motoring against currents.

We called Matthieu, who recommended a mechanic, Michel Bonnet. Since it was Sunday there was little point in racing back to Nouméa, so we continued on to the Baie de Prony. There we anchored in Baie de Kaoris (22°18.145'S 166°51.430'E) where we went ashore and enjoyed a hot spring less than 100m from the water’s edge. We later backtracked to Rade de L’Oest-Sud (West-South Roadstead) for the night.

Hot spring, Baie de Kaoris.

At 15:35 on Monday we were back at Port Moselle Marina, by now very familiar with Nouméa and its surrounding waters. Michel the mechanic was juggling many jobs and we didn’t meet him until the next day. It took him the better part of Tuesday to diagnose the problem and, after many phone calls, he had tracked down a replacement part. Michel committed to having our engine fixed by the end of Thursday. With two days to occupy ourselves, there was no reason to hang around the marina. It was time for a road trip.

Lindsay lined up a rental car from a place just a few blocks from the marina and I offered to drive. We decided to drive north, with our first stop for lunch at La Foa, 110 km away. Then it was off to Fort Teremba, a further 16km and the scenic site of a former penal colony overlooking the coast. It houses a museum describing New Caledonia’s colonial past and a memorial to an insurrection by the Kanaks, the indigenous people. Our final 10km leg for the day took us to Gîte Les Nautilus, our charming accommodation for the night where we enjoyed the local speciality for dinner: venison in a red-wine stew.

Fort Teremba.

The next morning we drove to Parc provincial des Grandes Fougères (Provincial Park of the Grand Ferns), a nature park in the mountains above Farino featuring lush tropical rainforest and (you guessed it) lots of ferns. The last stretch of the road was in poor condition but the destination was worth it. We split into two groups with Liam and I doing a longer hike. One of the attractions is the Coeur de Farino (Heart of Farino), a heart-shaped rock feature and a great place for our picnic lunch of baguettes and cheese. Alas, it was time to drive back to Noumea even though we’d explored only a tiny portion of this beautiful park.

Strangler Fig tree.

Heart of Farino.

Michelle ended up needing Friday morning to reassemble the engine and it was 14:56 before we were finally underway. We crawled upwind against the unhelpful 20-knot SE winds, arriving at Baie Oué in darkness at 19:59. Delayed by sail and engine repairs, the five days we'd allowed for Grand Terre had stretched to fourteen. Tomorrow we would round the southern coast of Grand Terre and sail for Lifou, one of the Loyalty Islands. 

At least, that was the plan.


PS The story continues here.