…as close to perfection as I have seen in a very long time
It’s early morning on the cruise ship. We’ve had two days at sea from Sydney, and people are starting to climb the walls. Our destination: Île des pins, part of New Caledonia, a small tropical territory that happens to have the highest biodiversity per square kilometre on the planet. My cameras are charged and my snorkel and mask are in the bag. To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement.
This port of call is a tender, meaning that the ship drops anchor offshore and guests are ferried to land in a lifeboat. There will be a bit of a crush for the first few shuttles, so we hang back on the ship, sip a coffee and watch the blue waters around us for dolphins.
When visiting these destinations for the first time, I always worry that the guests will be disappointed. Expectations run high, with everyone undoubtedly having spent the last few months poring over spectacular photographs from the French tourism bureau. What if the beach is small? What if the reef is polluted or bleached? What if the people are unfriendly?
As it turns out, I have no reason to worry. Île des pins is as close to perfection as any place I have seen in a very long time.
New Caledonia is a French territory, though the local Kanaks have negotiated an independence vote within the next few years. The Kanaks are a Melanesian people, culturally distinct from the Polynesian cultures of Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand. There are at least twenty indigenous languages here, with French functioning as the lingua franca.
Kanak villagers greet us on shore with a warm “bonjour” and offer each of us a handmade crown of palm fronds and flowers. We make our way past the souvenir tents along the waterfront, and make a beeline to the beach. Palm trees line the white shores, and behind them are the curious pines that give the island its name. In fact these robust giants are Araucaria, not pines, and the young ones look for all the world like the wee Norfolk Island pines you buy in the big box stores at home.
This part of the island juts out onto a peninsula, and we have the luxury of two long, white beaches, one on either side of the point. The local boys have recommended the far beach for snorkelling, near a sacred rock, and so onward we walk. It’s not tough to find the rock; it’s actually a small island covered in virgin forest. Everyone appears to respect the rock’s off-limits status, a designation made by the local chief. This rock is likely taboo for traditional or spiritual reasons but the chiefs here also use the designation to manage fisheries and other resources. (“Tabu” is a Tongan word meaning set apart or forbidden, introduced into our language by Captain Cook.)
Into the water I venture at last, and suddenly I am in another world. The sounds of the terrestrial sphere fade away and I hear nothing but waves and my own breathing. I am alone. It’s a vulnerable place to be, when you think about it, floating near-naked in the great Pacific. I’m not a great swimmer, but at this moment I am Poseidon surveying his domain. Everywhere, as far as my eye can see, there are fish: shimmering, twisting, schooling, darting among the coral.
I hang there in the water, letting these creatures get used to me. Damsels dart upward, letting me know in no uncertain terms that I’m too close to their turf. Down the way, an anemone waves lazily in the current, a hefty pair of clownfish nestled deep in its tentacles. Moon wrasses motor by, their curious flapping locomotion giving them the appearance of having somewhere very important to go. I, on the other hand, have no pressing engagements. Slowly I paddle forward, scanning around me, on the lookout for a green turtle, or perhaps a reef shark. Everywhere are butterfly fish, tiny yellow and gold jewels busily picking at the coral and at each other.
An undulating shape suddenly enters my field of view and I freeze: it’s a banded sea snake. They’re among the most venomous creatures known to science. I have been featuring them in my talks, calmly reassuring my audience that they pose absolutely no threat; they’re not at all interested in us. Now I need to walk my talk, or rather snorkel it, and stay calm. I focus my camera and watch it poke among the corals. Its grace in the water is poetic; its flattened paddle-tail propels it forward with the gentlest flick. It cruises by within a metre of me, and continues onward.
Not a stone’s throw away, dozens of visitors splash and chase each other in the shallows, completely unaware. This moment was mine alone—an encounter with the New Caledonian wilderness—and I will never forget it.
I glance back toward the beach. More visitors are arriving—cruise ship guests, and now a few members of the crew, free for a few blissful hours with their friends onshore. Here and there is a Kanak family, grandmothers watching the young ones, and a local free-range pup darts through the crowd looking for someone to play catch with.
We’re tempted to stretch out on the soft sand, but the birds are calling and the deep green hillside awaits. We gather our things and walk on, into the New Caledonian forest.