The Ultimate Island Roadtrip

The Ultimate Island Roadtrip
By admin


Thick bamboo boughs droop over the highway that slices through the spine of New Caledonia’s mainland, Grand Terre. The mountain in front looks like a green tablecloth, pinched in the centre and left to slope into folds. Up ahead, a dog stands in the middle of the highway and stares unflinchingly at the oncoming tyres. “No stress,” says my French guide Gilles, for the fourth time today.

It’s all par for the course in this laid-back country. The most startling noise in the sedate interior is the car horn and it is reserved for greeting locals who stand beside the road. In New Caledonia what we might consider a sign of road rage is little more than a Pacific pleasantry.

It plays out like a game. On one occasion, a local gets their wave in first and I lunge out the window to overcompensate for my tardiness. Mostly I make the first move and the wave is met with befuddlement as the walker considers whether they know me. It is magic when they realise that I am just a friendly stranger. An arm lurches skyward, a smile beams and an overhead swinging wave ensues long after I have driven by.

Due to the popularity of Noumea among tourists, much of this stunning and rugged landscape is regrettably overlooked. A self-drive holiday, however, allows your clients to experience the real New Caledonia; to connect with local Melanesian tradition and see that there is much more to the third largest island in the Pacific than its picturesque capital.

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Noumea is the place to begin the island road trip. The capital could easily be mistaken for a small city in France but for the coconut trees and hibiscus flowers that line the streets. Lunch is a two hour affair, bread is served with every meal, road names are written white on royal blue signage, just like in Paris, and petanque is played at the end of the day. Petanque began in the south of France and every afternoon at 5pm along Anse Vata beach in Noumea, old and young, men and women, French and Melanesian, converge in the battle of ball lobbing. Ricard liquor, a French tipple of aniseed, fuels the verbal jostling that is essential to the game.

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New Caledonia is French down to the ground, which means you will be driving on the right side of the road or the wrong side to you and I. But once you sort out your left from your right the roads are easy to navigate. The speed limit in Noumea is 50km per hour and outside the city it is 110km per hour. But merely half an hour outside Noumea the speed limit is rarely reached. The pace forcibly slows as the road snakes through valleys and mountains studded with banyan trees and flame trees. Around every bend is a photo begging to be taken.

On this road trip windows should be kept open to capitalise on the fresh breeze of New Caledonia. If you could bottle the scent of the island, newly chopped grass would be the fragrance. This is thanks to legions of men in fluorescent yellow and orange visibility vests who tackle the roadsides with roaring whipper snippers. The grass grows so quickly that the same patch of ground needs to be recut within a few weeks.

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The same lush climate that makes the grass grow so rapidly is also responsible for the verdant enclave of Sarramea, a town two hours drive from Noumea. Mango and banana trees line the only road through the village and a pebbly stream trickles through it. A twenty minute walk through cow paddocks and an insect filled rainforest leads to a waterfall called Treu Feillet. Nicknamed the Wine Vat, the falls create a deep circular pool that most swimmers reach by sliding down smooth rocks.

The best swimming beach en route is located on the west coast at Turtle Bay, where pine trees slope on obscure angles and tower above the sand. Two central pines cross over, creating a natural pergola. At the corner of the bay is La Roche Percee – a solitary rock shaped like a spinning top and engraved with thin notches. This stunning and eccentric vista is perfect for a swim and a picnic. To this end, visitors should make the most of roadside stalls selling roast chicken, cooked in a glass cabinet rotisserie. Petrol stations and supermarkets sell great baguettes while fruit and vegetable stalls are commonplace, mostly serviced by an honesty box. These stalls are set up by members of local tribes.

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Most roads cut through tribal areas and are marked by engraved signs of red wood. There are more than three hundred tribes on Grand Terre and all are friendly and amenable to pre-arranged visits. The animals on New Caledonia are just as welcoming. There are no deadly snakes or spiders so tourists can walk through long grass and explore without fear. It is safe to be intrepid on Grand Terre.

Water features heavily on this road trip. If I’m not driving alongside the sapphire ocean, I am passing over an olive green river or past a frothy waterfall. The most spectacular part of the drive is the traverse of the mountains that divide the west coast from the east coast. Named Col des Roussettes in French, the name translates as Flying Fox Saddle. This name is particularly apt given that the highest point is some 400 metres above sea level.

The mountains fold and layer over one another so intricately that it looks otherworldly. There are several occasions where I take my eyes off the road in order to count the peaks that form a furrowed horizon. This journey doesn’t cover a long distance but the corkscrew turns slow the drive down. My car is often the only one on the road and when I finally pass another driver I am met with a steering wheel salute. In less than two hours the cross over ends and the mountains I have just passed shadow the oceanfront drive along the east coast.

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Northbound, the first marker of the town of Hienghene is the Linderalique rocks. These are a series of black monoliths that jut out from the turquoise water. The raised limestone has tightly bound shards with green trees that grow erratically between the spikes. Hienghene is renowned for the natural fortresses, and one features on the 500 Pacific Franc banknote.

Despite this fame your clients will not have to share the view. I was the only one at every lookout. The Belvedere lookout is the best vantage point for the final two Linderalique Rocks – the Hen and the Sphinx. I expect to be unconvinced by these natural structures, but I am quickly converted. The Hen has a sharp beak while the Sphinx has a curved head and a concave patch for an eye. “If this scenery was in Thailand, we would be surrounded by tourists,” says Gilles.

The beauty of Grand Terre is that it feels undiscovered by tourists and embraced by locals. The road trip finishes back in Noumea and arriving in the capital on a Friday evening the traffic is backed up, but heading in the direction I have just come from. There is a wealth of startling scenery beyond Noumea and the locals are off to enjoy it.

Email the Travel Weekly team at traveldesk@travelweekly.com.au

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