Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Week at Sea

I’m back on the ocean wave. Revelling. And at the end of week one I can report that everything is shipshape, sharp, and as good as ever.

Had an easy flight to Auckland, a grand day at Avondale races (highlighted by Doug’s turning out a fine winner by the throttling name of Bigproudandready), another lounging about the country estate of my pal Rickster, and then heigh ho for Auckland wharves and the good old Gazellebank. A little rustier, a little shabbier, and manned by and carrying a whole different team of folk…
But I’ve struck lucky again. Captain Chris (my favourite kind of bear!) and chief engineer Andy, and all I’ve met so far who sail with them (English, French, Russian, Flipino, Indian) are a splendid team. And our dozen passengers, all experienced travellers (4 Brits, 2 German, 2 Dutch, 2 Canadian, 1 French and stateless me), are, likewise, a very convivial bunch. I foresee a very, very lively trip!

Yesterday we arrived at our first port, Noumea. Last year, on a rather dull day, I wandered sort of sadly around the town which I first visited 47 years ago, feeling its shabbiness (that word again), and the layer of ‘internationalism’ that seemed to have infiltrated the charming French-colonial-cum-Polynesian mix that had appealed to me so much in 1962. But this year my impressions got a thorough revision.
To start with we arrived in blazing sunshine. Shabby (and in Pacific climates everything goes shabby in record time) looks so much better in sunshine. Secondly, I was more adventurous. I donned my walking shoes, and determinedly set out to find the unspoiled beaches where Jacques, the New Caledonian Police Commissioner’s son, and I had teenaged together nearly half a century ago.
Four hours, 2 litres of water, and 37 degrees of heat later, I’d done it, and I felt altogether more positive about Noumea. In fact, I liked it a heap. The beaches of the Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata are still stunningly beautiful. The tacky highish-rise ‘developments’ which line them are not, and the almost as tacky rows of bars, cafés and the like … well, I guess they’re no worse than some parts of the South of France and Great Yarmouth …–but turn your back on those and look at the beach, where the kanak bears and bearesses and their adorable babies (when did I last call a baby ‘adorable’?) gambol and sport in the water, amongst a smattering of the less plastic kind of tourist ... and, oh yes!
I’m so glad I revisited, for the vast modern mall, the advertising panels for new apartment towers, and the looming, forbidding presence of the usual big orange crane tell us that it won’t be like this forever. Sad.

Noumea has, of course, moved with the tourist times. They say the town has only 100,000 inhabitants. In which case I think every family must own at least one pleasure craft. The sea simply bulges with them.

Money just glistens from the ocean wave … yet the central town has no appearance of richness. Still, it must be there, for prices are high. I dined out in the evening with Gareth and Charlotte from Dartmoor, fellow passengers, at one of the few restaurants (full, as I understand from other passengers, all its equivalents were) that wasn’t of the seaside steak-n-chips variety. I was impressed by the reasonably priced wine ($20NZ) and ordered accordingly. Imagine my horror when the bill arrived, and I discovered that French Sancerre is, in New Caledonia, not $20NZ a bottle but a glass! Lesson: read your menu carefully!

It was a splendid day, a happy day, a fun day .. even the dentist Charlotte had to visit en catastrophe was fun. Loic is the only (excellent) dentist I’ve ever met who has his name strewn across his surgery door in a shower of … sequins!!!
But my most memorable moment of the day and the visit came on my walk. Dripping and burning in the midday heat, I arrived at a little point, overlooking the blue, clear ocean with its darting angelfish and silver reflections. In the sea, an enormous kanak bear-man with a broken forearm, encased in plaster, was flailing around, his arm held carefully out of the water and his crutch floating beside him like a discarded leg. Under a scraggy bush, smiling beige mama sat in the shade, and around the very serious monument celebrating the bicentenary of La Perouse, what I assume were their three little ones were playing a carefree hide-and-seek, so much in their own wee world they didn’t even see me click my shutter...
So this is my souvenir of a grand day in Nouméa.

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