Round the World – The Pacific, Part 4

Round the World – The Pacific, Part 4

I was woken by my phone ringing. On the other end of the call was Marc, a local pilot and adventurer who had helped me out with the various procedures for flying to and around New Caledonia. He let me know that he was 10 minutes out and was going to pick me up and go for a coffee! I leaped out of bed and got ready, packing my bag and checking out. It wasn’t long before Marc pulled up in his little Suzuki 4×4 and we squeezed in and headed off on a high-speed tour of the area.

Marc is an obstetric surgeon at the hospital in Noumea, as well as a keen and adventurous pilot. Originally from Paris, he came to Noumea as a young man for national service and fell in love with the place. He owns two Dynamic WT9 microlight aircraft, both dubbed the “Spirit of Noumea”, and has flown them all over much of the world with his friend and copilot Christian. He also owns and flies a Robinson R44 helicopter! Not long after we met he had plans to fly one of the microlights from France across to the USA to attend the enormous Oshkosh fly-in in Wisconsin.

Views from above Noumea

After visiting some scenic spots around Noumea, most of which were obscured by low cloud and rain, we headed back down into the town where Marc very kindly helped with acquiring a local SIM card. This done, we met up with Christian so that he and Marc could shop for some matching shoes for their upcoming trans-Atlantic flight. We followed this up with coffee and French pastries, and took some time to swap flying stories and future plans.

With New Caledonia being part of France, flying there was very straightforward compared to the rest of the Pacific Islands. I had therefore decided to spend a week exploring the area by air before continuing. The first planned overnight stop was Malabou airport on the northern end of the main island. Information about this strip was hard to come by, but a note buried in the French online flight planning service suggested that the airport may be closed. This was a concern, having come across it the night before my planned flight there! Marc was able to clarify; while no longer an “official” airport it was still in decent condition and perfectly usable. A review of satellite photos backed this up.

Flights north through New Caledonia

One aspect of flying here which was not entirely straightforward was obtaining fuel. Avgas was only available at Magenta airport in Noumea, and payment could only be made by cash. Marc helped with making the arrangements and drove us back to the airport via an ATM, encountering a friend of his who let us into the airport through the flying club hangar. Having said goodbyes to Marc I taxied Planey to the fuel pump and waited for the refuelers. They soon turned up and although we had something of a language barrier, we still managed a good chat as they filled up all the wing tanks and pumped the remaining few liters on my order into the ferry tank.

Magenta tower gave clearance for engine start and taxi without delay, and I back-tracked for take-off to the south. A left turn out gave great views of Noumea during the short climb to 2,000 feet. I steered Planey north along New Caledonia’s western coastline, with occasional stops at little local airports just for the fun of it. The views were absolutely stunning; rugged mountains off the right wing, plunging down into azure waters and beautiful coral reefs on the left. A longer stop at Kone allowed for a phone call to that night’s accommodation, to ensure they’d be at the airport at the right time for pick up.

Towards the north of the main island we came across a large mine, high in the hills, and climbed to 5,000ft for a more detailed look. Nickel mining in particular is huge business in New Caledonia with the country thought to contain about 10% of the world’s total nickel reserves. The mining is mostly open-cast, and leaves awful scars on the landscape, which has led to significant local opposition.

After overflying one more mine, this one down at sea level, we approached the airstrip at Malabou. A careful inspection from above revealed that the strip did indeed seem to be in good condition, so I set up to land and brought Planey down gently from the north. On the roll out several wild horses emerged, spooked, from the bushes alongside the runway and galloped off ahead. I parked Planey up in the shadow of an abandoned hangar and covered him, in case of rain over the next couple of nights.

Emmanuel from the Malabou beach house turned up right on time in his van, and provided a lift along the remaining 45 minutes of local roads to the lodge. He chatted about his life as we drove. Another transplant from mainland France, Emmanuel started life in Paris working in the hotel business before moving to Reunion island in his youth. Eventually moving to New Caledonia he changed careers to sales for Volvo trucks before retiring, and returning to hospitality with the Beach House Lodge on family land north of Poum, his architect wife Sylvie designing the building.

They opened the lodge just before COVID hit, but COVID restrictions internally were fairly minor so he had been able to remain fully occupied for the majority of the time with domestic travelers, only closing for a total of three months.

The lodge was beautiful, with a handful of individual cabins scattered along the shore front and on the hill. Dinner was prepared by the excellent in-house chef and delivered up to the cabin; tonight’s meal was fresh fish from the lagoon and rivalled the fare to be found in a high end restaurant. The sound of waves from the lagoon gently breaking on the shore was the perfect background to drift off to sleep to.

It was a two night stay at the Beach House Lodge, which allowed for a very quiet and relaxing day. A late breakfast of delicious pastries and fruit was followed up with lounging around, reading, some table tennis, and a little bit of flight planning for the following day!

The tide timings had not worked well for kayaking the previous day, so I took the opportunity to take a kayak out after breakfast and have a look around the lagoon. Battling a strong wind I paddled out to the closest island, beaching the kayak and taking a quick look around. On my way back I passed a French family in kayaks, who were quickly being blown away downwind but seemed perfectly content, so I left them to it.

Emmanuel brought the bus around, together with one of his staff this time, and drove us south back to the airport at Malabou. Along the way we stopped off for a look at one of his favourite beaches; it was stunning, as with every beach we’d seen here so far! Planey was still tucked in safely next to the old hangar where we had left him and, after walking the runway to check conditions and try to move away any horses, I taxied back and we took off to the south.

The flights to the Loyalty Islands

Today’s flying would take us from the main island of New Caledonia out to the “loyalty islands”. This is a chain of smaller islands to the north east of the “mainland”. Flying around New Caledonia’s main island does not require a flight plan, but it’s mandatory to submit one for flights out to the Loyalty Islands, and this was fairly straightforward to do through France’s online flight planning portal. Before heading east, though, I directed Planey north to fly over the Beach House Lodge and view it from the air.

The east coast of New Caledonia’s main island appeared to be rather more rugged and less developed than the west. We landed in Touho for a short stretch of the legs and to phone up Air Traffic Control, checking that our flight plan had been received. They confirmed that it had, and we were all set to depart for the Loyalty Islands.

My plan had been to drop into Ouvea for a touch and go before continuing on to Lifou. However, the way the timings worked out meant that air traffic control was on duty at Ouvea, and they would only speak in French. My own French language skills are adequate for aviation as long as the person on the other end of the radio is cooperative and speaks fairly simply and clearly. The controllers on Ouvea were not in a cooperative mood. After some back and forth I decided to give up and instead headed directly for Lifou.

Air traffic control were also on duty at Lifou, but unlike Ouvea the controller was helpful and welcoming. The pilot of a departing local airline flight even tried to step in on frequency and help with translation; ATC shut this idea down as I imagine it didn’t fit with any kind of regulation or procedure. The controller and I got along fine though with him speaking simply and clearly and it wasn’t long before I was taxiing in and parking up at one end of the apron.

As I was securing Planey the security guard came over to say hello and welcome us to the island. He provided the codes for exit and entry through the gates which would be particularly useful on departure. The air traffic controllers also came by, and extended an invite to go and chat with them in the tower which I gladly accepted. They were very friendly, and explained that despite being able to speak pretty good English they were not officially certified to control in English and hence could not use it over the radio. There was only one controller in the country currently certified to speak English, they said, and he was of course in Noumea to manage the international traffic. The controllers even said thank you for the interesting shake-up in their usual routine; apparently not many foreign light aircraft come by! On a whim I made an attempt to rent a car but nothing was available and instead we took the shuttle to the hotel.

Feeling like a simple dinner that evening we selected a pizza place just a short walk outside the gates of the hotel. On arrival we were presented with an abandoned building; it seemed that Google Maps was not a reliable source of information in this part of the world. A thirty minute walk to the only other place that seemed open, another pizza joint, was met with success although they didn’t take credit cards! They kindly agreed to hold my drivers licence as collateral until I returned the next day to pay in cash, and provided an excellent pizza. The lovely lady who owned the place even arranged a ride back to the hotel in the back of another customer’s car!

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