Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do!

Us at the 5 Isles
Swimming flatworm


Blue Ribbon eel
White Tip reef shark cruising

Lobster hunters
Hiking Bay de Prony
Blue Rodeo with
big sister "Kailani"

Hey, where are you going?
Red coral
Cowrie Shell
Boats in the distance
Hiking to jade mine
Amadee lighthouse







After leaving the Loyalty Islands we sailed to the southeast side of Grand Terre (New Caledonia’s main island) where we hop scotched our way slowly back to the city of Noumea.  It was a bittersweet time knowing that in just a couple of weeks we’d have to part company with our wonderful friends on the yachts “Evergreen” and “Fruit de Mer”.  Soon, we would return to New Zealand and the others would head west to Australia.    We wanted to make the most of our time together but also be close enough to Noumea to be able to checkout of the country quickly if a good weather window for our passages presented itself. 

Heading southwest toward New Caledonia’s Southern Lagoon, we stopped at several interesting places along the way, one of which was a bay with a nickel mine featuring the longest conveyor belt in the world (over a mile) which is used to move ore from the mine to the shore for transport by ship.  Our next stop was picturesque Isle Nemou in Port Bouquet.  “Fruit de Mer”, who had been traveling with us, continued on toward Baie de Prony but we stopped off the uninhabited island to sample the snorkeling on the nearby reefs. The reef had really nice coral and lots of fish which was quite a pleasant surprise.  We also spotted several few large lobsters hiding in rocky crevices.  Since it had been some time since any of us had seen an abundance of large lobsters, we hatched a plan to try to catch some before continuing down the coast the next day.  So, the next morning before pulling up anchor we went lobster hunting.  Within about 30 minutes, we managed to get 5 large ones, enough for a wonderful lobster dinner aboard “Evergreen” that evening and several other lunches and diners as well. 

Next stop was in peaceful Baie de Prony where we rendezvoused with friends Sandy and Rankin on “Gypsy Heart”, who we hadn’t seen since Vanuatu and Harley, Jen and Sophia on “Kailani”, who have a beautiful 63’ version of our boat.  Mark and I hiked to a small waterfall one day.  Further south, we spent one night at Isle Ua in the 5 Isles before getting chased out by wind the following day.  This group of islands is really beautiful.  They look like the perfect, deserted islands straight out of the Corona beer commercials we see at home. There is such a contrast between Grande Terre, with it’s dark red soil and pine trees and these outlying islands in the southern lagoon inside the barrier reef. A stop at Isle Ouen, provided the opportunity for our group of 6 to hike up a mountain toward the site on an old jade mine.  Even though we didn’t find the mine, we were treated to amazing views of the lagoon and it’s widely scatted islets.

Our last stop before heading back to Noumea to prepare for our passages was Isle Amadee, famous for it’s beautiful lighthouse.  It was a really pretty spot (but very touristy) and reportedly had some great diving.  Try as we might, we couldn’t find anything to get too excited about. We dinghied around for nearly an hour peering into the water with our masks trying to find something dive-worthy and finally gave up. Eventually, we ended up back at the anchorage and decided that, after going to the trouble to gear up, we would dive anyway.  We did see some larger tame fish and a few assorted critters but, for the most part, came away disappointed that our last dive together was such a bust. 

Our time in New Caledonia was coming to an end.  Our daily analysis of weather forecasts revealed that good windows for passages to both Australia and New Zealand were opening so we all scrambled to prepare and officially clear out of the country.  Too soon, the time for goodbyes and casting-off dock lines came.  It was really hard to say goodbye to Gerrit, Annemieka, Jon and Heather.  It was especially difficult saying so long to the “Evergreen” crew because we had sailed with them for two seasons and shared some incredible diving and land adventures.  They will be sorely missed.  There wasn’t a dry eye as we parted.   

We’ll, so it goes. That is the life of a cruiser...meeting incredible people, forming strong friendships and then having to say goodbye.  We take comfort though in knowing that, with these special friends, it is not goodbye but just “see you later” until we meet again and share more wonderful times either in the US or some exotic part of the world.  Safe travels and have fun in Oz you guys.

Friday, October 10, 2014

In Search of the Illusive Nautilus - Loyalty Islands

Beehive Sleeping Hut

Bird Crossing

Mark's new doo?

Swimming ashore at a rocky beach

Anne & Heather with island dog

Boats at anchor

Hawkefish



Live Shell

Peak a boo with Anemone fish


Scorpion Fish




Nudibranch

Shrimp on Bubble coral


Nudibranch
A single day’s sail took us from Isle de Pin in New Caledonia’s southern lagoon to Mare the southern most island in the Loyalty Islands.  We had sailed close to them on our way from Vanuatu but couldn’t legally stop there without first formally clearing into New Caledonia in the capital city of Noumea.  We had been told that these islands still offered glimpses of simpler and more traditional island life and opportunities for great snorkeling, scuba diving and beach combing.

Over the next two weeks we would explore Mare, the main island of Lifou and the low lying island of Ouvea to the north.  Unfortunately, the cool and rainy weather that had plagued us in the Isle of Pines seemed to follow us.  We did find some amazing places to snorkel and scuba dive and, on Ouvea, miles of white sandy beach to walk along. On  shore we found little else to recommend.  The islands are rather featureless and the locals seem somewhat aloof and less friendly than those that we encountered in Fiji and Vanautu.  In fairness, it may be due to the language barrier and the fact that they rarely encounter visiting tourists other than those that arrive for the day on the weekly cruise ships that pass through.  Even though many of the locals drive cars, and most have electricity and cell phones, some still cling to old beliefs and superstitions.  For example, we were told that one beautiful area on which we hoped to do a scuba dive was considered taboo or off limits for diving.  The information passed to us was not first hand but a resident teacher from France told us that the locals believed that scuba diving would attract sharks but that snorkeling was ok.  Go figure?  While on the island of Lifou, our group of six walked from our anchorage to a small town along the island’s main paved road. Along the way, we were joined by two playful dogs that followed us most of the way.  It was obvious that they lead a pretty boring life and the fact that we showed them a little warmth and attention made us instant friends.  While walking back from town, the most disturbing and upsetting experience of our six years of cruising occurred when a careless driver struck and killed one of the poor dogs as it walked just a few feet from us.  The driver sped on without even slowing leaving us horrified and angry.  While we realize that it could have happened anywhere, we were left with an awful impression of the mentality of the locals.  Cruising has opened our eyes to many things, most of them wonderful.  Occasionally though, like with the pig killing we saw at a ceremony in Vanuatu, we witness things that remind us of the differences in cultures that we are experiencing.  While this makes the experience richer, it is occasionally rather hard to take. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ground Hog Day at Isle of Pines

Isle of Pines

Mark hiking

Rocky windward shore

Circling Black Tip reef sharks

More beautiful shoreline

White sand on Ile Brosse

Sea Snake ashore for the night

Dog Poop tree?

Bush whacking wounds

Festival dancer (Snake group)


Another festival dancer (Bird group)


Exploring the island by bicycle

Beautiful wood carvings

Sand snowman

We had a sunny and warm day of sailing/motor sailing to Ile de Pins (Isle of Pines), located in New Caledonia’s southern lagoon, but as the island appeared upon the horizon, we noticed a dark cloud hanging over it.  That should have been our first clue as to what to expect in the 16+ days we would ultimately spend here.

The island itself is quite beautiful and covered in pine trees and shrubs very similar to the vegetation we have in the Pacific Northwest.  Around it are many pristine beaches with incredibly fine white sand. They are quite spectacular.  Since Ile de Pins is a popular vacation spot for the French, we expected there to be some infrastructure in place for tourism but, to our surprise, that is not the case.  There are a few resorts and camping areas but surprisingly little in the way of restaurants and shops. The island tends to come alive once a week when the cruise ship makes an appearance.  It’s interesting to see the little food venues and resort wear stands appear out of nowhere in time for the bloated and pasty tourists to leave their buffets and come ashore.

Since we have been here, we’ve had mostly chilly, overcast conditions and frequent periods of rain ranging from a few sprinkles to heavy.  At this point, I am beginning to worry about our Vitamin D levels and have wished more than a few times I was home in the States where it is summer.

Despite the overall poor weather, we have gotten out almost every day for some hiking or biking. Waking up each morning to the same gloomy weather and seemingly repetitive activities reminds us of the old movie with Bill Murray where he relives Ground Hog Day over and over. Unlike Fiji or Vanautu it’s been a breath of fresh air to have the freedom to walk anywhere, anytime without having to ask permission from a village chief.

 On one of the rare sunny days, we and our friends from “Evergreen” & “Fruit de Mer” attended a Catholic church festival celebrating “The Assumption” in the tiny town of Vao about 3 miles from our anchorage.  A large crowd of mostly locals, all nicely dressed, were in attendance and food stands were set up near a decorated, communal dining tent.  Our group walked about, taking-in the sights and sampled some of the fare.  Most of us settled on beef brochettes cooked over a BBQ...tasty but not perfectly cooked.  After our lunch, we walked around a bit more and waited for an afternoon dance presentation.  That proved interesting with two groups, accompanied by singers and drummers, performing in costumes different than other cultures we had experienced so far. Their use of body paint was new to us as well. 

We have been snorkeling twice now and have been quite disappointed once again with the lack of sea life and the cold temperature of the water.  Our newly purchased 5mm wetsuits are barely adequate and we find ourselves getting chilled quite quickly making it a less pleasurable experience.  However, just yesterday we hiked along the coast at low tide peering into beautiful tidal pools and found a few interesting creatures looking back.  So....who knows, rain or no rain we might brave the waters once again today to try and capture them on film.

Even though the inclement weather has dampened our spirits a bit, we’ve had some very enjoyable times here as well like the night where Annemieke and Gerrit, from “Fruit de Mer”, served our group a traditional Dutch winter meal of delicious split pea soup and pumpernickel bread.  Appetizers that night were accompanied by a body and spirit-warming Dutch, alcoholic libation that, they say, is usually consumed after hours of outdoor skating in the bitter cold. What a great meal, made even better by the company we shared.  Another high point of our time here has been reconnecting with friends Steve and Dorothy on the amazing catamaran “Adagio”.  We benefited greatly the other day from the hours they spent patiently helping us improve our skills with our i Pad and Mac computer.  As we’ve said before, one of the best things about cruising is the friendships we make.  Sharing the anchorage also with Danny and Yvonne, from “Ocean Pearl”, whom we hadn’t seen since meeting them in Vanautu last year, again reinforced our feeling about what a wonderful lifestyle this is.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First weeks in New Caledonia

Parc Riviere Bleu

Sign

Le Cagou

Insect Eating Plant

Red Soil, Pine & Norfolk Pine Trees

Gentleman Dog

c

Sunken Sailboat

Colorful Pinnacle

Divers

Nudibranch

Pinnacle

Purple Sponge

Sea Urchin



Hard To See Shrimp

Top of Pinnacle

After a fast and fairly comfortable passage from Port Vila, we arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia’s Port Moselle Marina just after sunrise on Saturday, August 2nd.  After checking in at the marina office, we were met by the quarantine lady who came down to inspect “Blue Rodeo”.  She was nice as can be and the entire process took only about five minutes. We handed over a few over-ripe pieces of fruit and a couple of veggies we had left over from Vanuatu.  As soon as she left, we immediately set about to clean the salt off Blue Rodeo and obtain a code for the local internet.   Boy, did it feel good to be on a dock again with easy access to plenty of fresh water.

We spent a week in Noumea enjoying the patisseries (New Caledonia is French, you know), proper grocery stores and especially the produce market with real vegetables we could recognize.  We even found an outdoor venue that sells rotisserie chickens.  These items may sound like no big deal to you but, when you have had very little variety on the menu for weeks on end, this is paradise.

The week sped by quickly and we made the most of it by exploring the local area and going on a few walkabouts, one of which was to the aquarium we visited last year.  We found it thoroughly enjoyable once again and were excited to start our local snorkeling and diving adventures in the near future.  One day we, along with the  “Fruit de Mer” and “Evergreen crews, decided to rent two small cars and drive to the island’s “Riviere Bleu” national park.  We did a few walks and also took a bus into the more remote areas of the park to see some of the unique vegetation, a nearly submerged forest and the Cagou, New Caledonia’s flightless national bird.  Apparently, there are not many left except in this park due to predators, dogs, cats, humans etc.  The island is quite a bit different than anything we have seen before.  It has dark red soil that reminds of us Utah’s canyon lands with a clay like consistency that sticks to everything leaving a nice red stain, and is nearly impossible to get off your shoes!   Everywhere you look are ruts, ravines and signs of erosion.  Some of this is due to the fact that New Caledonia’s mineral-rich soil has been mined extensively with nickel being the most sought-after resource.  They have had years of strip mining here leaving ugly scars on the landscape.  The vegetation is mostly scrub brush with several different types of pine trees including the Norfolk Pine which is quite an attractive tree.  It’s really interesting to see them outdoors fully grown instead of as small houseplants back home.

After our week in town, our group of three boats sailed back to the east to Islot Casy, a small island in the Bay de Prony.  Our goal was to dive on an undersea pinnacle located about a mile from there called the Recif de l’Aiguille.  We were able to secure mooring buoys for all three boats in a quiet little anchorage with a dock.  Shortly after arrival, Jon, Heather, Mark and I hopped in the water to snorkel the small nearby reef.  What a shock!  It was butt cold and our 5mm suits were barely adequate.  What a change from Vanuatu!  Exploring the reef, we were all a bit disappointed by the lack of interesting and colorful coral and the limited variety of sea creatures.  We did manage to find a few things though to keep our spirits up.  The next morning we took our dinghies into shore to explore the island.   The day before, we had noticed a dog on the dock and assumed it was owned by someone, but later found out it was the island dog that had been left there to survive on its own near the site of an abandoned resort hotel.  He seemed to hang out near the dock anxiously greeting arriving boaters.  He accompanied us on our walks and Heather and I were a bit upset about his situation.  He was such a sweet and gentle soul and we wished we could take him home.  We noticed he was getting on in years and already had signs of cataracts.  As we walked along, it was obvious to us that he hunted for his food, which meant fishing.  With that in mind, we went back to our respective boats and each of us returned over the next few hours to bring him treats.  Heather provided him with pate and crackers for hors d'oeuvres and I gave him a can of corned beef and some chicken consomm√©.  Despite the fact that he had probably never eaten so well before, he was extremely gentle and well behaved.  He didn’t growl or attack his food.  What a gentleman.  We said our goodbyes at the end of the day as he curled up in a ball on the sand to sleep.  We were both sad to say goodbye but felt consolation in the fact that he wasn’t going to end up in some stew pot like most island dogs.

The next morning was overcast with an occasional sun break as we dinghied to the pinnacle (dive sight).  We tied up to an enormous buoy and quickly donned our gear.  Due to poor visibility in the water, we had some trouble finding the pinnacle but finally located it after first searching in the wrong direction.  The pinnacle, formed by mineral deposits seeping from a fissure in the sea floor, rises to nearly the surface from a depth of over 100 feet.  It was an interesting dive but not quite what we expected.  It’s hard to explain how it looked, there wasn’t a lot of color (partially due to the overcast skies),  mostly greens and grays.  When we turned on a flashlight, we could see an incredible amount of sediment in the water making it rather murky. The pinnacle had arms or branches jutting out in places that looked like stalagmites.  The surface had an other-worldly texture as if someone had thrown a big bucket of acid over it leaving it rough and eroded. There wasn’t a huge variety of sea life on the pinnacle but there were a plethora of mollusks embedded on the near-vertical walls.  We did manage to find a large octopus, a couple of nudibranchs and an eel.  The red soil that is so prevalent on the island was present even underwater in the form of silt from runoff and looked like it was choking out the sea life.  All in all, we didn’t love the dive but later agreed we would give it another chance on a sunny day in the future.

The next day, with winds backing to the east, we seized the opportunity to sail southeast through New Caledonia’s southern lagoon to the beautiful Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines), famous for its pine forests and white sand beaches.  More adventures lay just 40 miles ahead!