Round the World – The Pacific, Part 5

Round the World – The Pacific, Part 5

The hotel front desk had managed to arrange a rental car for the day. What I hadn’t realised was that the rental car rep would be knocking on my door before 8am to drive me to their location! I stumbled out of bed and threw some clothes on for the short ride to the Toyota rental car location, which was a couple of folding tables sitting outside near a few parked cars. The paperwork was slow but straightforward and I was soon in possession of a slightly tired silver Toyota 4×4. After a quick hot chocolate back at the hotel, sweetened with “Daddy” brand sugar, it was time to head out for a day of exploring.

First destination for the day was the Notre Dame de Lourde church near the island’s northern end. This small church was built by Catholic missionaries who arrived on the island in 1858. A cast iron statue of St Mary sits atop the building enjoying beautiful views over the bay. Apparently the roof of the church, statue and all, was blown off the walls and into the bay in a cyclone some decades back. It was eventually located by divers and hauled back to its rightful location which must have been quite a feat.

The parking area at the base of the hill which the church sits on was deserted, with the exception of a single New Zealand lady in her 60s called Deb. She was waiting for her guide, who had promised to come back and pick her up, although she was starting to worry that he might not be true to his word. She was passing the time by learning some French, and was happy to break the monotony of her wait with a chat. After a little while we bid her adieu and headed up the winding concrete steps to the church.

On returning to the car park, having explored the church and soaked in the beautiful views, I was surprised to see Deb still waiting. About 20 local gentlemen had also turned up in a variety of vehicle, armed with machetes. This would have been concerning, but they were all smiling and happy; questioning revealed that they were gathering vines and other materials for construction of a traditional hut.

After stopping to check out the nearby renowned swimming spot at Jinek Bay we made our way around to Lifou pier. It was a slightly cloudy day with rain showers passing through, and there were not many people around. Views from the pier were pleasant, but there wasn’t anything else to do or see and it was soon time to move on.

Just a few minutes up the road was another impressive church, the Church of St Francis Xavier. This beautiful church is built on the site of the very first Catholic mission on the island, of the same name, established in 1858 by the Marist Fathers Montrouzier and Palazy. Sadly the building was locked so it wasn’t possible to look inside, but the external architecture was impressive enough in itself. Nearby were a beautifully maintained cemetery, as well as a home with traditional local hut built outside, both of which were most picturesque.

From the church we drove north along route 4 to the very northern tip of the island, and the Jokin cliffs. At the foot of these cliffs are a number of caves, which have been used as burial places for the Jokin tribe’s leaders through the ages. Once again Google Maps failed us, and the promised two restaurants at the cliffs were nowhere to be seen. After enjoying the views of both the cliffs, and the architecture of local homes and church, we headed south to the “House of Vanilla”.

Not far out of Jokin we came across two local girls hitch-hiking south. They spoke only French so we had a bit of a language barrier, but managed to figure out where they wanted to be dropped off. Along the way we passed through several torrential downpours and they seemed relieved not to be walking through them!

Hitchhikers dropped off, we continued to the “Maison de la Vanille”. It was closed for lunch, but the adjacent “Animaux sauvage” establishment was open. This combination cafe and wildlife park was run by a jovial local lady who ushered us in and proudly showed us around her collection of wild animals. The collection was made up of some snakes, wild and domestic pigs, a couple of coconut crabs, some fruit bats, and a few ducks. What was unique about this tour, unlike any other zoo I’d been to, was that our smiling tour guide enthusiastically described the best way to cook and eat each animal that she presented. The tour was finished off in the little cafe lean-to out the front of the animal section, with complimentary vanilla water and vanilla coffee.

It was a good thing that the animal park had been open, because the House of Vanilla itself was a bit of a disappointment. A large, mostly empty building, it had a few shelves stocked with vanilla-derived products. My only purchase was a Magnum ice-cream. Having exhausted the main tourist stops in the island’s north we drove back to the south, stopping at the hotel for leftover pizza, before continuing to the famously beautiful Luengoni Beach.

About 1,500m long and made up of brilliant white coral sand, Luengoni Beach is favourite of locals and tourists alike. Today it was almost deserted, and we had it pretty much to ourselves. The weather was a little cool with occasional clouds blocking the sun and sending a chill through the air, but it was still warm enough to hang out for an hour or so and enjoy the crystal clear water. We drove back round the southern route past Wadra bay and across the middle of the island, getting back to the hotel just before dinner. Another walk to a local restaurant was met with similar disappointment to the night before so we ended up dining at the hotel instead, closely watched by a thieving cat who was doing the rounds of the tables looking for scraps.

Departure the next morning from Lifou island was smooth, the controller being as helpful on the way out as he had been on the way in. Once again a flight plan was required, and filing it was as straightforward as before through the French flight planning system. Airspace in the area is Class D above 1,200ft, so before reaching that altitude we were switched over to talk to Noumea Control and gain our permission to enter.

Today’s route first took us southeast to the island of Tiga for a brief landing. This tiny island has an area of just 10 square kilometers, and a population of less than 200. The airport was deserted and we quickly continued along our way, overflying the island of Mare before setting out on a longer sea crossing towards the Ile des Pins.

Flights from Lifou to Ile des Pins

Ile des Pins is renowned as the most beautiful of New Caledonia’s islands, and first glimpses of it from the air did nothing to contradict this reputation. Stunning reefs line much of the coastline, lending the water a vivid turquoise colour. With no other traffic the air traffic controller cleared us, in French, to join on a left downwind and land at our convenience. The general aviation parking area was readily apparent near the tower, with one other aircraft already tied down. I parked Planey up and secured him to the tie-down rings, a rare luxury at most non-GA airports outside of the US. Just minutes later a Dynamic WT9 came in from the west and landed, occupied by Marc and Christian. They had come to meet us for lunch! Marc obtained the airport gate entry codes from the fire service to allow re-entry, and off we went.

We were picked up by a local friend of Marc, a taxi driver, who went by the name of Uncle Sam. He drove us to the Oure Tera resort where we would be spending the next couple of nights, with a stop along the way to enjoy views of the island from the hills we were crossing. The hotel beach bar was serving lunch and I tucked into a burger and Pina Colada as we sat and chatted, mostly about Marc and Christian’s upcoming flying adventure across the Atlantic. Multiple cats and kittens milled around opportunistically grabbing any morsels of food which had been left unattended.

Marc and Christian finished off the last of their bottle of wine and made their way back to the airport for the flight home to Noumea, leaving us to enjoy a relaxed afternoon reading in sun loungers on the beach. The hotel served up a delicious dinner of fresh caught swordfish and sweet potato mash, and who should we spot at a table nearby as we ate but Deb, the kiwi solo traveler from the church on Lifou. I invited her over to join us and she filled us in on the remainder of her day after we’d met her; the driver had never come back, and she had walked off to find her way home! The girls treated themselves to the local delicacy of giant snails; being a fairly conservative eater, I politely declined.

The main activity for the day was a pirogue ride north through Upi Bay, followed by a walk through the forest to the “Piscine Naturelle”. Accompanied by Deb, a French family, and a Danish couple we waded out and climbed aboard the pirogue, a traditional Melanesian canoe, before setting off downwind in a moderate breeze along Upi Bay. This mode of transport was clearly a popular one as a dozen or more other pirogues could be seen all around us heading in the same direction, loaded with other tourists. After an hour’s gentle cruise we arrived at the northern end of the bay and waded ashore.

The next part of the trip was a short hike through the forest, which had me irrationally concerned about being killed by a falling coconut. This trail leads towards the small island which plays host to the “Piscine Naturelle”. This natural pool is sheltered from the ocean by a barrier of reefs and rock, resulting in a placid inlet of white sands and clear waters, surrounded by lush Pacific pine forest. We spent a couple of hours swimming and snorkeling, admiring the variety of tropical fish flitting around the coral.

With lunchtime approaching we dried off and hiked along the “Riviere de Sable”, a sandy tidal divide between two small islands. This emerges onto a beach which takes one west to Le Meridien hotel, the perfect place for our little group to relax and enjoy lunch before being collected by the shuttle for the ride back to the resort.

That evening, bad news arrived. I had emailed the handling agent in American Samoa, Pritchard Airport Services, to confirm our arrival. I’d previously been in touch with them late last year to confirm that the flight would be going ahead after the Covid delays, and they’d replied that they were ready for us. This time however the response came back that they had sold the two barrels of fuel, which I had already paid them for, to somebody else. They even had the audacity to suggest that they would not refund my money, inventing some previously unmentioned storage fees.

This left me in something of a bind with fuel planning. Several alternate ideas came to mind, none of them ideal. I could take on much more fuel at Fiji, to make up for the lack of fuel in American Samoa. This would mean flying at very heavy weights up until then, however, and a heavy landing in Pago Pago. This was the least attractive idea. The second option would be to identify good quality, ethanol-free car fuel in American Samoa and refuel with that; the O-470-50 engine in Planey has been demonstrated to safely run long term on car fuel. Not a bad idea, but availability was not guaranteed. Finally, I could look for fuel in Independent Samoa, just 80 miles from American Samoa. This would have the advantage of visiting an extra country, with the downside of an extra travel day and one fewer rest day. I sent out some enquiries about avgas in Samoa, and went to bed.

After an early breakfast we made our way back out to the airport. I tried to open the gate using the codes obtained two days earlier, without success – it turns out that they’d changed the code the day before so the firemen let us in. The air traffic controller, Max, invited us up into the tower for a chat and a look around before departure. The airport was a little busier today with a locally based King Air twin turboprop practicing landings, and an Pipistrel Virus ultralight giving some people scenic rides.

Today’s flight would take us back to Noumea, in preparation for departure from New Caledonia the following day. We departed from the left downwind out to the west, crossing the beautiful waters and reefs that sit between Ile des Pins and the mainland. No flight plan is needed for this flight; just a call to Noumea Control before entering their airspace. We landed back at Magenta, the downtown airport, and parked up outside Marc’s hangar.

Marc had very kindly left his little Suzuki 4×4 at his hangar for us, so that we’d have transport around Noumea. The first task to accomplish was to visit a nearby cashpoint, before returning to the airport to refuel. The same fuelers as the previous week filled Planey up, putting a little extra in the ferry tank for good measure. I parked Planey up again outside Marc’s hangar, secured him with his covers, and headed into town.

It was a lazy afternoon exploring Noumea a little, including a visit to the Maritime Museum of New Caledonia. Originally opened in 1999, the museum tells the maritime history of New Caledonia, including the extraordinary voyages of Monsieur de La Pérouse in the 1780s. The expedition departed Brest in 1785 and was meant to last four years, but the two vessels – the Astrolabe and the Boussole – never made it back to France, being wrecked in the Pacific. Other permanent exhibitions at the museum cover the age of the great sailing ships, the history of local coastal traffic in the country, and the history of maritime immigration to New Caledonia.

The remainder of the afternoon was taken up by some excellent ice-cream, served up in a brioche roll as a sandwich, before watching the sunset from the seawall near the hotel.

That evening we met Marc, Christian, and a few others at Marc’s hangar for drinks and snacks. As with any pilot gathering, conversation revolved around flying tales and discussion of future plans. Particularly impressive was the tale of Marc and Christian’s flight around France to visit vineyards and wineries and buy “a few bottles” of wine. They ended up shipping more than 6,000 bottles back home to New Caledonia.

Marc and the others had plans later than night, but set us up with a table at a local restaurant owned by a friend of his. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed excellent French food, and Pina Coladas, as rain showers swept over the hills of Noumea before us.

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