Where time is on your side

By Julie Middleton

By JULIE MIDDLETON

Joce pulls over in the battered rental car, jumps out and plucks a leaf off a plant in the tangle of scrubby vegetation on the roadside.

"See this," he says, proffering a light green, tear-shaped leaf covered with soft fuzz. "I was badly burned on my stomach as a child, and all that was used to heal me was this. I never went to a doctor."

"This" is the leaf of the medekurua plant, a relation of the aloe. And Joce - his name is pronounced "Georges", in the French way, with a soft g - is giving us an insight into life on the New Caledonian island of Mare.

There are other subtleties on Mare, and tourism is one. Although the island, one of the four Loyalty Islands, has a stunning wild beauty and many enticing natural features - soaring and indented coral cliffs, caves, fresh and salt-pools full of marine life, spectacular sea snorkelling, and ancient relics - its tourist facilities are discreet.

This is not the sort of place where people hassle you. And there are few road signs when you really need them.

But that's a large part of Mare's charm, especially in its off-season. The middle of the year may be their winter, but the temperatures are in the low 20s - swimming weather to a New Zealander.

Mare, says Joce, wants to develop "un tourisme ethique' - tourism that allows visitors to enjoy the 650sq km island and its 7000 mostly Melanesian inhabitants (only 2 per cent are French) without compromising their culture and way of life.

The island has one, low-key hotel, the tucked-away Hotel Nengone Village. Its 15 private, well-appointed bungalows are in a coconut grove on the pristine sands of Locekol Beach.

The food is good and the snorkelling is spectacular, right from the shallows. You can poke around rockpools or hire scooters, bikes and kayaks.

Paths meander from the hotel through the coastline forest of coconut palms and pines to Shini Bay, where the sand is made up of tiny confetti-like pieces of pink and cream shell.

There is one motel, several camping grounds, and several holiday cottages scattered around the island.

Those who want an inside look at Melanesian life can inquire about staying in a hut "chez l'habitant" (with a local).

Typical Mare homes are oblong or round, identifiable by their steeply pitched, conical thatched roofs.

Stay with a local - you will probably sleep on a pandanus mattress - and you are likely to be invited to join in activities such as church-going, cricket matches and fishing trips.

The facilities on Mare can be fairly subtle. . To find the snack (food bars) you may need to ask a local or hope your guidebook is up-to-date. You might think that the snack isn't open when you arrive. It will be as soon as you walk in.

La coutume (custom) defines Mare life, and centres around the cultivation and harvesting of the yam (igname) which is sacred to Melanesians.

The people live largely on subsistence agriculture and boost their income by selling extra produce.

Just 7 per cent of the population earn a salary; they tend to be health workers, teachers or civil servants.

Melanesian culture bears a resemblance to Maori culture. Society is organised around clans, each comprising several families. Each clan - there are 27 on Mare - has a totem, generally represented by an animal or a plant; Joce belongs to an Earth clan. Man, he says, simply, belongs to the Earth. Clans in turn belong to a tribe headed by a doku (chief), of which there are eight on Mare.

La coutume demands that we are presented, early in our three-day stay, to the local doku (or rather, his sister-in-law, as the chief and his brother are away).

For this simple act we take along a couple of square metres of fabric bought at the local shop (a token from your own country is also acceptable and we wished we had brought something).

Joce, introducing us, invokes "les invisibles" - we in New Zealand would probably say the guiding spirits of our ancestors - and verbally humbles himself before them.

We exchange a few pleasantries with Madame - we have interrupted her cutting up meat for lunch on an outdoor table - and leave. Now they know we're here, we are no longer strangers.

At the side of the road, Joce points out a shrivelled coconut palm leaf standing upright against a fencepost, its fronds tied behind.

That means the area behind it is closed and you mustn't enter - a bit like a New Zealand rahui (ban). That may be because it's the season of the first yams (February and April) or because some land dispute remains unresolved.

At another stop at the side of the road Joce leaves the keys in the car, saying small islands in themselves are great crime deterrents. We gaze up a coral cliff face to a spot about 20m above our heads where there are handprints, outlined in an ochre colour.

These, he says, are the ancient marks of earlier inhabitants. They used to be at human height, but as the millennia have passed, the upward thrust of Mare's west coast has pushed them closer to the sky.

The first inhabitants of Mare were probably installed by 250AD. The first outsiders to visit were English sandalwood traders, followed by English (Protestant) missionaries, who prevailed despite later efforts by French Catholics to sway the population.

An English legacy remains in the language, Nengone, a Polynesian tongue. You often hear the words "honey" and "bee", "fork" and "cow".

History resounds in people's names, too: although a local may have the name Peter, Nengone renders the pronunciation something closer to Peet-cha, (and that's why our guide's name doesn't sound like "Joyce".)

Among the other striking delights on Mare is the Trou de Bone, a waterhole plunging 40m to a pool of rich blue fresh water. As recently as 15 years ago, people would haul water in a bucket made of a curved banana leaf ; Mare has no rivers.

But my favourite spot is the natural aquarium, a pool just off the road fed by sea water. Throw bread into the clear water and colourful, energetic fish - and turtles, if you're lucky - will gather.

Another mustn't-miss is the Tadine market, held every Tuesday and Friday, when the weekly boat from Noumea arrives.

Women, many of them wearing woolly scarves tied prettily around their heads, sit behind tables of locally grown produce including kumara, avocados, beans and bananas. The produce is largely organic. The locals, says Joce, have always largely cultivated their small-scale crops without pesticides.

Another group of women arrange themselves on mats to play dominoes. After the market ends, surplus produce becomes Bingo prizes. A card costs 100 CPF ($1.53), but the winnings could be worth five times that.

Oh, and the food. It's the best of the Pacific meets France.

At the Nengone hotel you can eat all sorts of fresh produce from land and sea, including coconut crab (NZ$5.38 per 100g), and fruit bat stew ($37 ). Rice comes with pretty much everything.

There's also kava, an import from Vanuatu to the north. Around 7 one night we go off to one of Mare's two nakamal (kava bars), this one at the village of Eni.

Kava, a tongue-numbing mild narcotic, is used as a social and ceremonial drink in many parts of the Pacific.

Nearby, under two thatched-roof, open-sided huts, small fires burn. Locals perch on benches.

It's not uncomfortable; that's what kava drinking is all about. You have a bowl, you sit and contemplate, chat if you can be bothered, and just enjoy the sensation. It perfectly illustrates a favourite phrase of the homily-fond Joce: "le temps est un allie' - time is an ally.

* Julie Middleton paid her own way to New Caledonia but was hosted for three days on Mare by Air Cal, Hacitel Nengone Village, Destination Iles Loyaute and the Mare tourist office Syndicat d'Initiative Nengone.

CASE NOTES

Mare is the second-largest of four raised coral atolls collectively called the Loyalty Islands - the other three are Ouvea, Lifou and the tiny Tiga.
They lie about 100km off the coast of New Caledonia's cigar-shaped main island, La Grande Terre.

GETTING THERE

Mare is half an hour by plane from Noumea's Magenta airport and there is a regular ferry service.

New Caledonia is serviced four times a week by Air New Zealand and Air Calin. The flight from Auckland to New Caledonia takes about two and a half hours.

ACTIVITIES

Activities on Mare include swimming, sunning and snorkelling; line and game fishing; walking; learning about Melanesian culture; coconut crab hunting; visiting the cliffs, caves, the natural aquarium and the forests.

WHEN TO GO

Mid-winter if you like peace and quiet and not too much heat; May 1 for the annual avocado festival; May to July for various religious festivals; late June or early July for the Fete du Wadrawa (yam); September for the Islands Fair, which rotates between Mare, Lifou and Ouvea; November for the potato festival; and the weekend before Christmas for the Nengone Carnival.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Nengone Village is at Cengeite: Email nengoul@canl.nc.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For general information: Iles-loyaute or email dil@iles-loyaute.com

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