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!

Last Weeks in Vanuatu

Anne with Amazing Coral Formation

Nudibranch

Barricuda

Another Nudibranch

Mark on Blue Hole Rope Swing

Wall Dive

The Girls at Dance Show

Maewo Island Dancers


Our Group at Dance Show

Feather Star
And Another Nudibranch

And One More Nudibranch

?

Pizza Dinner on Gypsea Heart

Vanautu Independence Day Celebration

Kastom Dancers at Celebration

More From Independence Day Celebration
Our original plan for this season was to work our way north of the Island of Espiritu Santo and visit the more primitive Banks and Torres Islands.  Doing so however, means more miles of bashing to windward when the time comes to sail southwest to New Caledonia.  Because of this, and the fact that we were unable to get first-hand reports about the merits of going there, we decided to postpone that trip until another season.  Instead, we spent more time exploring the smaller islands and bays around Santo.

Returning to Ratua Island, just south of larger Aore Island, reminded us of why it was a favorite from last year with its charming, Balinese-style resort and protected bay filled with beautiful coral formations and a surprising variety of sea creatures.  Several days of snorkeling there rewarded us with sightings of numerous eels, cuttlefish, octopi, shrimp and a splendid assortment of tropical fish.  While there, we also pitched in with efforts to remove the coral-damaging Crown of Thorns starfish.  Eric, and Ann on the yacht “Reflections”, both avid divers and frequent visitors to Vanuatu, provided us with a wood-handled metal tool to prod the starfish up and off of the coral and a large, reinforced rice bag to collect them and transport them to shore where they could be buried.  Along with Jon and Heather from “Evergreen”, we removed well over 100 and, hopefully, helped to insure that Ratua’s reef will remain healthy.

On Santo, the main town of Luganville with it gritty, wild west feel and wide concrete main street courtesy of the US military during WWII, had little to offer us other than a place to re-fuel, re-provision and access internet for a few days.  Before long, we were off to more scenic Aese Island where we snorkeled and hiked ashore examining an old ship wreck and managing to get lost in the bush while trying to hike to the windward side of the island.  Fortunately, we followed the setting sun seen through gaps in the dense trees back toward our anchorage arriving just before dark.  It was just another typical misadventure giving us memories to chuckle about in the years to come.

Stops at Oyster Island, with it’s charming resort, Hog Bay, and Port Orly gave us opportunities for more snorkeling and a scuba dive or two.

All too soon it was time to start heading south, back toward the town of Port Vila, where we would clear out of Vanuatu and sail for New Caledonia.  The big question, for us and and our traveling companions on “”Evergreen” and “Gypsea Heart”, was how to best take advantage of the topography of the Islands to ease the difficulty of the windward passage and in what weather window should we begin the trip south. 

  A typical morning on Blue Rodeo finds us drinking our morning tea or eating breakfast listening to a weather broadcast on our SSB (single side band) radio).  It is usually in conjunction with a “net” where cruisers can check in, report their position and share information with others.   It was during one of these “nets” that we heard Jan and Rich, on the sailing yacht “Slip Away”, check in to say they were going to be at Maewo Island for a few days.  We had met them on the dock in Whangarei last season and quickly become good friends.  At that time, we made plans to do some cruising and diving with them in the islands but, because of delays leaving NZ while fixing some mechanical problems, they had travelled about 3 weeks behind us since reaching Vanuatu.  While strategizing with the “Evergreen” and “Gypsea Heart” crews (also good friends of Jan and Rich) about the windward passage back to Port Vila, we quickly hatched a plan to include a stop at Maewo, just a few miles off of our intended route, and pay them a surprise visit. If we left from Port Orly early in the morning, we could make the 10 hour passage to Maewo and anchor before dark.

While underway the next afternoon, we were relaxing in the cockpit when we were startled by the sound of heavy breathing coming from aft of the stern.  We quickly looked up and spotted a killer whale just a few feet away.  He seemed to be coming close enough to check us out.  We jumped up in time to see him swim under the boat and disappear out the other side.  We kept expecting him to resurface next to us but, several minutes later, saw him broaching out of the water about a mile away.  How cool was that?

We arrived in the Maewo anchorage at dusk managing to surprise the heck out of Jan and Rich who were watching a DVD movie in their boat’s cabin.  We had all maintained radio silence for the last several hours and successfully managed to sneak up on them.  They were so excited to see us.  Unfortunately, it was getting late and we were all too tired to get together that evening so we postponed the reunion.  The next day, our group shared an fun-filled day of scuba diving, watching a group of young women put on a dance show and enjoying a paella dinner together aboard “Gypsy Heart”.

The following morning, we all departed for Batnavine Bay on the Island of Pentecost and ended up spending three nights there waiting for the winds to die down before we could do the overnight sail to Port Vila.  On the last evening, we decided to get together for a homemade pizza party and to say goodbye before going our separate ways.  “Gypsy Heart” and “Slipaway”would be heading to Santo and “Evergreen” and “Blue Rodeo” to Port Vila.

Our overnight passage to Vila was about as good as could be hoped for and we arrived in there by mid morning the next day. We had expected to be able to spend at least four days there but were surprised to learn that a good weather window for the passage to Noumea was opening in just three days.  With one of those days being a Vanuatu national holiday (Independence Day), there would no relaxing if we wanted to make the narrow window.  We quickly tied “Blue Rodeo” up to a mooring buoy and the errands began.  Mark rushing off to get fuel via jerry cans and I set to work cleaning up the boat.  We spent the next day clearing out of the country with customs and immigration and buying last minute provisioning items.  On the day before our departure, with most chores completed, we all went to the fairgrounds to watch Vanuatu’s Independence Day celebrations.  While modest compared to a big US city 4th of July, they were interesting to see with a marching band that hammed it up a bit with some fancy rock and roll dance moves as well as dancers clothed in traditional costumes.  It was easy to see the pride the Vanuatu natives felt as evidenced by the size of the crowd, many with faces painted with the national colors and their waving of flags.  It was another cultural experience that reminded us of how fortunate we have been to have the opportunity to broaden our horizons both physically and culturally.