Lush jungle meets coral sea in the Kanak heartland, as Liz Light explores New Caledonia

As soon as we cross the col - a dent in Grande Terre's mountainous spine - we enter a different world, one of pristine rivers, waterfalls, dense bush with dangling creepers and layers of shadowed ridges following each other to the sea.

Kanak tribal villages curl into flat areas between river and mountain. The houses are small and insignificant in comparison to the splendid gardens around them. Yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, pawpaw, bananas, avocado and citrus grow in abundance. Lawns are neatly trimmed and dotted with fragrant frangipani and dazzling oleander, and hibiscus hedges edge the road.

In the afternoon grannies and aunties sit on woven mats under big shade trees and mind little children. Men walk along the road, returning from plantations, swinging lethal looking machetes, waving to us as we pass.

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The rivers form mirror-still estuaries where they meet the sea and the road loops around, inland again, until the estuary is slim enough to bridge.

Pacific, New Caledonia, South Province, Grand Terre. Photo / Getty Images
Pacific, New Caledonia, South Province, Grand Terre. Photo / Getty Images

The bridges have their own charm; usually they are one lane and have loose planks so they sing like deep woody xylophones as we drive slowly over.

The reef is far beyond the coast and, on this still afternoon, the sea is silver and shimmering with soft lazy waves. Sam, my partner, and I stretch our legs at the boat ramp just before Poindimie.

On the pier four middle-aged men stand talking; hands in pockets, caps on heads, waist of trousers hooked under fat tummies. The only difference between them is their facial features and the colour of their skin. One is Kanak dark, another is French pink and two are something between.

A boat swoops in. They stop talking, stare, wave and start talking again.

It's Sunday night and two of the three eateries in Poindimie are closed.

The Rasta Snack serves beer and a few variations on chicken and rice. Two fat puppies sleep on the floor, intertwined in a yin and yang circle. Mum comes in, smiles and wags at us, half-heartedly begging for food, then she lies down and suckles her puppies.

Young men play pool to the beat of reggae and posters of Che Guevara, Bob Marley and Jean-Marie Tjibaou decorate the walls. Tjibaou, a legendary figure now, was the Kanak leader who campaigned for independence from France. He was assassinated in 1989.

Philosophically Jean-Marie is a good match for Che and Bob but he's special because he's Kanak.

Doves coo and the morning smells of flowers and sunshine. This coast faces east and full-on sun makes a vividly coloured contrast to yesterday's silvery afternoon. Heading north, at Tie, we are dazzled by bright white graves in a flower-filled cemetery and the pretty French-style church on the hill behind it.

There is a school nearby, children are singing and Sam swears he can smell pork roasting in the refectory.

I gently push the church's unlocked door. Inside is cool, and bright rainbow prisms formed as the sun passes through stained glass cut the darkness. The windows were made in 1880, in Grenoble, and the furniture was made by French convicts.

It's only 70km to Hienghene but we take most of the day. We buy baguettes at a little store and tomatoes, cucumber and fruit from un-manned honesty stalls on the roadside.

There is a perfect white coral sand beach to picnic on and later we swim in a clear sun-warmed estuary just before it joins the sea. It's a journey of skinny bridges, rusty-roofed little houses with glorious gardens and coconut tree-edged beaches.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou fishes at Hienghene, a town 420 kilometers northeast of Noumea. Photo / Getty Images
Jean-Marie Tjibaou fishes at Hienghene, a town 420 kilometers northeast of Noumea. Photo / Getty Images

Hienghene, the administrative centre for this coast, population 2600, is hardly more than an overgrown village. It's strongly and consciously Kanaka.

This was Tjibaou's hometown. His wife, four sons and their families still live here and are involved in Kanak development projects.

The Goa Ma Bwarhat cultural centre has a museum, traditional round Kanak houses with carved spirit protectors on their pointed thatched roofs and wooden totem poles around a circular meeting space. We hang around the edge of the meeting place while speeches are made and thanks given for the pile of yams, bags of rice and giant sticks of bananas that the gathered crowd has donated as food for a festival to commemorate Tjibaou's death.

Women sit on the grass on one side, men stand on the other and the ceremony ends in a prayer. The mix of traditional Kanak spirituality - its totem poles and spirit protectors - and 150 years of Christian missionaries seems comfortable.

Kanak women took to the missionary obsession for covering up with zeal and still wear loose, bright, neck-to-calf-to-elbow dresses. The unique fashion statement, with countless colour and detail variations, makes a gathering of women a celebration of colour.

On our third day, driving north up this coast, the mountains are higher and the rivers deeper. Waterfalls plummet over cliffs, tumble over rocks and then rush through jungle to shiny sea.

Cascade de Toa has one of New Caledonia's highest waterfalls so we walk to it, up river, jumping from boulder to boulder and clambering up a steep path using tree roots as handholds.

The cascade is too tall to see the top but the pool at the bottom is deep, fresh and cold.
Bridge builders were defeated by the size of the Quaieme River and the road ends abruptly at its edge. An ancient, noisy, four-car ferry putters back and forth all day.

The ferryman, a Kanak Adonis in orange overalls, levers the barge off the embankment and it slowly throbs across the gap.

I feel as if I'm in the middle of a fiord the ice age left behind, but the coral-sand island across the river mouth tells of tropics. I find myself humming the Ike and Tina Turner love song, River Deep, Mountain High. How can I not be enamoured with this place?

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Aircalin flies direct from Auickland to new Caledonia, with Economy Class return fares on special for $599.

French is spoken in New Caledonia but it's easy to get by without it. The currency is Pacific French francs. Many, but not all, ATM machines take NZ credit cards.