Happy landing on the Isle of Pines

By Julie Middleton

There is only one place for cruise ships to dock at Isle of Pines, the long wharf at Kuto Bay. And if you step ashore to check out the Melanesians singing and dancing along its length and on the beach nearby, you’re likely to see New Zealander Hilary Roots.

Roots and her long-time partner, Albert Thoma, co-ordinate the island’s entertainment for the thousands of passengers who visit Kuto every year. There are about 24 one-day cruise ship visits a year - the Pacific Sky, when she visited in July, had 1600 passengers and 600 crew - and the couple liaise with members of the island’s eight tribes so that passengers are met with singing, dancing, stalls and day-trips.

What they see on those day-trips, she says, "makes the heart sing". The island’s sunny, white-sand beaches and clear fish-filled waters, surrounded by towering dark-green pines, are unspoiled.

The 2000 Kunie people, Melanesian farmers and fishers who were never alienated from their land make up 95 per cent of the population.

It’s a place where nature’s gentle rhythms, especially that of igname (yam) cultivation, set the pace and priorities of life. There is no hassle or hustle, and tourist facilities are in general unpretentious.

This sort of simplicity drew Howick-born Hilary Roots to the island in 1975. She was then 29 and had been working as a political journalist in Sydney.

Flying into Kunie over a turquoise sea, she saw islets "like upturned paua shells" and started falling in love with the 18km by 14km island. Once on the ground, it was "very beautiful. Just perfect".

On her first day at a waterfront hotel, a tall tanned man wearing a lavalava and a shell necklace approached her. Would she like a drink?

Albert Thoma was a multi-lingual Swiss-German, an interior designer by trade, who had lived on the island for five years running a dive business. He was (and still is) known as "Chichu" (Jesus) by the locals, because of the long hair and beard he then sported.

Roots’ five days on the Isle of Pines stretched to 10. She returned to Sydney, but only to ditch her job, give her city clothes away, and apply for a visa to live permanently in New Caledonia.

Until she fell for Isle of Pines and its Robinson, Roots had been a career woman. She had lived in upstate New York as an American Field Service scholar in the early 60s, studied political science at Canterbury University, and had worked in Australian radio and television. Many people thought she was crazy to swap that for an uncertain life on a remote island where she knew neither the Kunie nor French language.

"But in the back of my head," says Roots, "I could hear my father saying, ‘Never regret anything’. I thought, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity I might always wonder, what if?’ Once a door opens it doesn’t always open again."

The first French words she learned were those for "hammer" and "nails". Thoma was building his home on Kunie land at Kuto - it can’t be bought or sold by anyone, although tribes can allow others to live on it - "and I just became part of the set-up".

But she struggled with the French language. She even went back to Australia to work for a month, before realising the fight to master the language was worth it for the island and her man.

"I really came to appreciate how difficult it is to be a migrant," she says. "It wasn’t just not knowing the words, but the embarrassment, the humiliation of making mistakes."

But frustration was eventually replaced by fluency and she found her place, spending 17 years teaching English to school children.

Thoma, 70, and Roots, 58, are not married, and there have been no children. Here, Roots is known as Cleo - the name Hilary is a bit of a mouthful for Francophones.

"We are fortunate to live here," says Roots, Nature ... dominates everything ... and it does sing, it really does."

Only occasionally do cyclones interrupt, and then "you appreciate that nature is much stronger than you".

The pair live in two bungalows separated by a lush tropical garden. One has a lounge and kitchen, the other an office and bedroom. The bungalows are squat, square and built of wood, like older-style New Zealand baches, and comfortable.

Roots and Thoma don’t have television but get many magazines, books and CDs. Thoma, a keen movie buff, has built a third building to house a small cinema.

A small tourist shop, called Creations Ile des Pins, attached to their lounge, takes up much of their time. After Thoma gave up the dive business he started sewing and painting the lavalava, called pareo in Kunie, that are the mainstay of the business.

You will find Roots’ books about the island on sale at Creations Ile des Pins. One documents the history of the island, which in the 1880s was used by France as a prison for political dissidents. The other book details the island’s natural features.

In 2000, Roots set up a website, www.isle-of-pines.com to promote the island.

The contact with visitors is rewarding, says Roots, who admits that island life can sometimes lack social stimulation. New Zealand visitors are inclined to make two observations - that she’s lucky, or that life must be boring.

Ile des Pins has only scant shops and services. Roots goes to the fresh produce market on Saturdays and every three months goes to Noumea on a bulk-shopping expedition.

Although Roots and Thoma do have the internet, overall it’s a simple and relaxed lifestyle. They live mostly on what land and sea produce.

"We have almost everything we need on the island - we live in harmony with the cycles of nature."

As well as yams, these cycles produce avocados, mandarins, coconut, pawpaw and seafood. They share their patch of land with an old friend of Thoma and his family. Diplomacy and a laidback approach are important.

Although the island has nurses, a doctor and a dentist, Roots says the couple’s low-fat, low-key lifestyle means they make few trips to the chemist. Every morning Roots does yoga and most days she and Thoma swim.

They travel overseas each year and Roots visits New Zealand once every three years. She has two brothers and two sisters, scattered between Australia’s Gold Coast, Brisbane, Christchurch, and Waiheke Island. 

CASE NOTES

 The Isle of Pines is the southernmost island of Melanesia.

Getting there

From the New Caledonian capital of Noumea the island is a ferry trip of two and a half hours or 20 minutes by plane.

Books by Hilary Roots

Discover the Ile of Pines, published by Grain de Sable, Noumea;

An Astral Eden, with Pierre-Alan Pantz, published by Editions Solaris.

Further information

New Caledonia Tourism is at 0800 noumea.

 

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