Roughing it in New Caledonia

By Martha McKenzie-Minifie

It sounds like a picture-perfect escape - white sandy beaches, dining at fine restaurants overseen by the food-loving French. But this trip to New Caledonia came with a twist: staying in a tent.

Apparently some other tropical islands ban camping but in New Caledonia - New Zealand's closest Pacific Island neighbour - it is positively encouraged.

I was sceptical about foregoing air-conditioned luxury in favour of pitching a tent beachside but was convinced to give it a try on the recommendation of one family who had travelled all the way from France for the privilege.

Still, there were more than a few potential snags that could easily unravel my adventure.

My embarrassingly poor grasp of the French language was the first - would I be able to get help if torrential rain struck and my tent started to leak? My past history with camping was another. The last attempt ended in some sort of obscure allergic reaction.

Add to that the fact I had no site booking, no spongy bedroll, and just the dull glow from my mobile phone screen as a poor excuse for a torch, and things could have gone horribly wrong very quickly.

Nevertheless I said "oui" and set boldly off for the idyllic Isle of Pines, a short plane ride from Noumea, armed with a borrowed tent, two litres of water, a couple of oranges, a packet of biscuits and a healthy dose of Kiwi can-do attitude.

Plus, let's be honest, if the going got too tough, I also had my trusty credit card and enough Pacific francs to buy a night on a comfy hotel bed should the need arise.

Having touched down on the Isle of Pines, it was a simple matter to find a shuttle driver to take me to Gite Nataiwatch camping ground, which comes complete with chalets and a restaurant at Kanumera Bay, about 9km from the airport.

The camping ground is an easy amble from the beach and comes well-equipped with a long dining table and bench seats all under a thatched roof, lit paths and hot showers; all for the princely sum of about $30 a night (for a site sleeping up to three people).

A shady spot beneath two of the island's famed pine trees was my chosen home for the next two nights. The shelter of the trees meant my tent didn't get too hot during the day and a cooling breeze whistled through the opened doors after sundown.

Albert Thoma, who runs a shop in Kuto Bay, on the island he's called home for almost 40 years, is generous with his recommendations.

"You must go on a pirogue, an outrigger canoe," he urges, white-haired, deeply tanned, with a rounded belly that suggests he enjoys life in his corner of paradise. "It is a wonderful trip, beautiful."

I book at the campground office for the following day and discover very quickly he's telling the truth.

The boat sails from the Baie de St Joseph to Baie d'Upi, on a gentle trip that lasts more than an hour. On landing, passengers walk along a track for about 30 minutes to a natural swimming pool at the stunningly beautiful Baie d'Oro.

It is here I realise that as well as the fresh air and budgetary advantages, the other great thing about camping in a place like this is that you're motivated to head out and explore - rather than frittering your time away by a resort pool.

As a result, the next day I'm off again - this time hiring a bike from the Gite to explore the prison ruins that are testament to the island's time as a penal colony.

The ruins are 7km away in Vao, the island's main village, known for its colourful church, and I arrive in time to see locals flooding in to attend Sunday service.

Cycling in the heat is hard work but has its rewards here. A detour down almost any side road uncovers yet another sandy corner of paradise.

Then finally, after two days of living "wild" in New Caledonia I return to the traditional tourist trappings of fluffy hotel bathrobes and clean towels.

Would I do it again? Definitely.

Although with the aches of two nights on a mattress of sand and earth, a bedroll will be on the top of the "must pack" list next time.

- Herald on Sunday

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