We sail to New Caledonia and find both a sacrifice zone and a tropical paradise. Could its future be a litmus test for the rest of the world?

Opua (NZL) – Noumea (NCL)

“This passage was surely one of the best of our world trip”, Sanne smiles. She and Rik (of SY Incentive) have just climbed into our cockpit in the marina of Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. We nod in agreement, as do Sonja and Hans (of SY Ikinoo). Together we reflect on our journey from New Zealand. “900 miles in six days on a broad reach course with stable winds, what more could one ask for?”, Hans asks rhetorically. Just one week ago, we were enjoying fish & chips together in Opua, New Zealand, hoping that the favourable weather forecast would come true. It did. A high-pressure area remained firmly in place and kept depressions away from us. We’re all relieved for having been spared the rain and stormy winds that often ravage the area. Now it’s time to look forward. Yet what do we actually know about our new destination?

A New Country

After 17 months in New Zealand, where we felt like fish in the water, we adapt to discovering a new country. New Caledonia is formally part of France, but it has its own near-independent status. It consists of a number of islands, of which the main island is almost half the size of the Netherlands. To reach it, we sailed through a pass in the coral reef that surrounds the entire archipelago. The lagoon that followed, a kind of inland sea between the main island and the ring of coral, is so gigantic that it does not really provide shelter. It took another half day to reach Nouméa. Along the way we passed heavenly coral islands begging to be explored. “First we need to clear customs and immigration!”, Floris reminds Ivar.

Minuses and Pluses

Fortunately, the arrival formalities are straightforward. After our registration at the marina office, all that remains is a visit to the immigration office in town. “We should take pictures some now, while everything is still new to us,” Floris says on the way there. “Soon it will be familiar again.” “But I really don’t see anything that’s worthy of a photo”, Ivar responds. The streets, buildings, even the main square promoted in our travel guide: nothing in Nouméa invites us to take out our camera. It all feels a bit run down. People loiter in the streets and there is a lot of car traffic. Nevertheless, we find a few gems, such as a French bakery with divine almond croissants and the market with fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables. New Caledonia’s sea aquarium surprises us, too. There we see beautiful corals, heaps of colourful fish and large sea turtles. Is this a taste of what we’re going to see in the lagoon?

Life and Death

A few days later we again sail in New Caledonia’s lagoon, close-hauled this time. “I can see the lighthouse”, Ivar shouts shortly after leaving Nouméa. The tall, slender tower was delivered as a kit from France in 1865 and assembled on the island of Amédée. Since then, it has been a kind of welcome beacon for arriving ships. The water around Amédée is a protected nature reserve. Anchoring is not allowed, as anchors and chains could damage the coral. We therefore tie up to one of the many purpose-built mooring buoys and shortly afterwards plunge into the crystal-clear waters. “Finally we’re snorkelling again”, Floris exults. We admire the incredibly beautiful and versatile coral between our mooring buoy and the island and float around for over an hour. When we get back to Luci, all kinds of big fish are swimming around the hull. They approach us inquisitively, perhaps used to getting food scraps. “What a difference with that sad city”, Ivar beams.

At the next island in the lagoon, Îlot Mato, the coral is a lot less healthy. Even though we see beautiful patches here and there, we are shocked by the vast amounts of dead coral. The fish and turtles we see seem a bit orphaned around this coral graveyard. Could it be because this area is not protected and therefore overfished? In any case, the bleaching of coral caused by warming seawater plays a significant role, as we learned in the sea aquarium.

Scars in the Landscape

On land, we encounter another ecological disaster when we seek shelter from the strong wind in the large Baie de Prony. As we enter the bay, we notice stretches of bare, red earth on shore. We pass one of New Caledonia’s remaining mines, where nickel is mined day and night. “The land is literally being looted here,” Ivar sighs. We drop anchor and explore the area on foot. We can now see the scars in the landscape up close. The tell a horrific story. First, all the trees were cut down. Then, large tracts of land were excavated for mining. The tropical rain showers have washed away all the fertile soil, exposing the solid, red rock underneath. To prevent further erosion, shrubs and trees have been planted in designated areas. It is the beginning of ecosystem recovery. At the same time, we realize that decreasing the human urge for stuff and increasing our recycling efforts would be a more structural solution to prevent the destruction of nature. We wonder what the island looked like before the Europeans arrived?

Nature at its Best

To get a picture of the original landscape of New Caledonia we leave Luci and Nouméa behind and explore the island’s interior. We hike to a plateau in the mountain range that runs from the top of the bottom of the mainland, like a spine. For centuries, tribes from the west coast climbed this trail to meet east coasters on the Plateau de Dogny. The flora in the rainforest is overwhelming – our camera is working overtime to photograph unusual trees and plants. Many occur only in New Caledonia. Since the island split off from the supercontinent Gondwana 80 million years ago, evolution has created many unique species of trees and plants here. In the Parc des Grandes Fougères (the park of the big ferns) we get pain in our necks from staring at gigantic tree ferns. We also learn that parts of this natural park are not original forests, but the result of an ambitious replanting project. In other words: this is how the raped nature elsewhere on the island can look like again!

Social Tensions

Back in Nouméa we can sense social tensions. New Caledonia’s population is mainly made up of three groups: Kanaks, Polynesians, and Europeans. The latter group comprises largely a wealthy upper class and is over-represented in large companies and government institutions. The Kanak are descendants of Melanesian tribes who lived here from around 1500 BC. They represent the largest ethnicity on the island, predominantly support independence, and struggle economically. Their situation is exacerbated by the rising costs of living. That does not surprise us. We are stunned by the high prices for fruit and vegetables on the market and understand why there is a noisy demonstration right next to the marina.

Half Full or Half Empty?

When the weather forecast turns favourable for our next leg to Australia, we clear out and sail towards the pass in the reef. In almost three weeks we got an impression of a special place on earth. Fortunately, beautiful nature can still be found in the large, sparsely populated country, both in the forests around the mountain range and underwater in the lagoon. Moreover, we see opportunities for further recovery of ecosystems. At the same time, the traumas from the colonial era on ecological and social levels are clearly visible. So the glass is half full or half empty, it just depends on what you want to see. The choices we make today will determine the future. Do we opt for less stuff and more poverty alleviation, nature conservation, and ecosystem restoration? Or do we keep on allowing unbridled economic growth and wealth for a few at the expense of social justice and biodiversity? To us it looks like New Caledonia’s future could be a litmus test for the rest of the world.

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